The King and His Dancer
Far beneath Inwic Tower, where few ever venture, there lies a subterranean facility commissioned by William fifty years into his reign. Many miles below ground, the emergency rail network was built to accommodate the entire population of the Royal district of the city if need be, with the ability to transport the population between any of the five major cities outside of the capital.
More importantly, the facility was known to almost nobody save for William, Samson, and the Black Guard. The workers have long since grown old and passed away, and the only two entrances require a key held by Samson, the Prime Minister, and the King himself.
The great dark-steel gateway that stood before Samson has always unsettled him. Samson didn’t know if it was the intricate gold trim, the carving of the seal of the royal family, or the horrible creaking noise they made every time they opened. Still, he had to admit that it was an impressive piece of engineering, even for William. It stood at the end of a multi-story staircase, which itself was hidden beneath an inconspicuous trap door in the corner of the Tower’s archives.
As the doors creaked open, the wide and illuminated platform came into view. Samson couldn’t help but be impressed at the size of everything.
Even after all this time, the size of the cavern got to him, and that’s before taking into account the rest of the facility. William spent years worth of the nation's income to have them construct nothing less than a small city down here, and Samson could see that it was worth it.
Though the buildings had been neglected for decades, the Black Guard found it was perfectly suited as a base of operations. With the access the high-speed, high-capacity trains gave them to the most important and populous parts of the nation, they could respond to threats anywhere in the Obsidian Mountains rapidly.
The armory of the Black Guard held weapons of all sorts.
Exotic crossbows from the far north that could fire rapidly in succession, gunpowder weapons from the pirates of the Laythorp coast, and even more than a handful of enchanted swords, shields, and suits of armor that are much too dangerous, and useful, to display in the Royal Museum.
Samson took a moment to admire it and greet the two guards stationed outside of it and moved on to his quarters.
Samson’s home was finely decorated, and that always annoyed him. Between the gifts he regularly receives from his subordinates, the rewards William regularly bestows upon him, and the unending tide of exotic furniture and decorations nobles hoping to curry his favor provide him, one wouldn’t be blamed for thinking he was richer than the King himself, just by looking at his home.
The splendor was why he preferred to spend his nights in the Inns around the city. Samson didn’t have much time to worry about that now, though.
As his front door opened before him, Samson heard her before he saw her. His head maid, and the woman in charge of all of the staff at his manor, as well as one of the few people he knew he could trust.
She was a tall, slender woman with pale white skin and long black hair. Today, he noticed her hair was put up into a very intelligent bun, and she changed out her rectangular glasses for new, round ones.
Most people wouldn’t see such an unassuming woman and expect her to be the deadliest hand-to-hand combatant in the kingdom. Many have made such a mistake, and none have lived to regret it.
“Hilda, take me to the vault. There’s something I need from inside.”
Typically, Samson hated to demand things from his subordinates. This, however, was not a typical situation and the clock was ticking.
Recognizing the urgency in his tone, Hilda quickly led him across from the front entrance and straight to the library, then beyond into a room which held nothing in it save for a large dark-steel vault door.
Beside it was a shelf holding nothing but a knife on it.
It was a clear, winter day today, and the elder warlock would’ve given almost anything to be outside, feeling the cool air on his skin. Still, his benefactors had paid good coin for this train ticket, and it wasn’t often he got to live like a noble, even if it was just on a train for a few days.
If only his daughter could’ve been here. It was hard for Npheria to think about his daughter without crying.
While he was lost in thought, the young attendant that had been tasked with serving him during this entered his cabin without him noticing. After many minutes of being lost in reminiscence, Npheria snapped back to reality. “I’m sorry, I didn’t notice you there. Have I kept you waiting long?”
The young woman was still new to the job, and quite afraid of saying the wrong thing to someone that seemed so important.
“Not at all, sir. I can come back later if you’re busy-” before she could turn to leave, the older gentleman stopped her.
“It’s fine, it’s fine. Please, stay a while if you would.”
Npheria gestured to the foot of his bed and smiled. This woman was very beautiful to him. Her enchanting, deep cobalt eyes were the same color as the blue sapphires he received in payment for the work he had just completed. Her smooth, olive-colored skin reminded him of the people in the small village he was born in. Most of all, her long, black, wavy hair…. All of it reminded him of his daughter.
Except, of course, those pointed ears.
Arwen feared for the worst. She was thankful she landed this job, especially being only 25 years old. It paid well, it gave her a place to live, and she got to meet new people regularly. Still, it was lonely. Arwen had been working here for the past three months, so she was relatively new, and she’s heard many horror stories from the other maids that worked on the trains. It was better than being homeless though, she knew that firsthand.
As she sat on the bed, she prepared herself for the worst. The cabin she was in was typically only used by Nobles, and she had no idea the status or position this man was in. Silently, in her head, she hoped whatever this man asked of her wasn’t anything too extreme, though she knew she didn’t have much of a choice even if it was.
Npheria had learned that the young woman was from a village just beyond the mountains. At first, she was hesitant to say much, and it was clear that she was nervous. Between her stuttering and shaking, he wondered what image of him she had in her mind. Her name was Arwen, and she was a half-elf on her mother’s side. She was new to this line of work.
Eight months ago, Arwen’s village had been raided by a large company of bandits. They called themselves the Raven Company, and they demanded enough food and coins to get them through the winter. When the village chief refused, citing their shortage of supplies, the company killed him and slaughtered most fighting-age men.
Arwen had hidden under the floorboards of her home when they came for her father, and all she could do was watch. She cried while she was recounting this, and Npheria thought about saying something but stopped himself before he could.
She’s better off letting it out now, than letting it consume her.
Arwen’s village was saved, though she had no clue who her saviors were. None of the village people did, the only thing they knew was that their saviors were well-armed, incredibly powerful, and clad in an ebony and gold suit of armor. The halberds they carried were tipped with obsidian, and their leader was a short boy with silver hair.
Npheria knew exactly who the soldiers were, he’d seen the Black Guard many times while he was still in the capital. Hearing about their activities outside of the Kingdom got him thinking.
“Do not speak of the men you saw to anybody else, for your own sake” the elder Warlock said, with a stern look in his eye.
The ramifications of the Kingdom’s military taking action outside of its jurisdiction were large, and Npheria didn’t want Arwen to become a target for people seeking to silence her. She was a nice young woman, and she didn’t deserve that.
When Arwen was finished speaking, Npheria grabbed her hand and looked her in the eye. “Thank you for telling me your story, madam,” he said with a warm smile.
Arwen’s eyes widened, and her surprise at his gesture was clear. “N-not at all!” she stammered in response. “T-Thank you for listening. I… really needed to get that off of my chest.” Arwen gave her best smile back, and Npheria pulled the young woman towards him.
Npheria gave her a reassuring hug and said “The fact that you pulled through at all is incredible. You’re braver than you think.”
Before Arwen left for the night, Npheria had two things he asked of her. Mostly, Npheria wanted to know how she ended up getting work with the rail company after her village was ruined.
“Well, when I told the silver-haired boy that I no longer had any reason to stay in the village now that my father was dead, he handed me a pouch of coins and two contact cards. The first one was his, he said. The second was for the director of the capital railway station. He told me if I ever found myself in the capital, and I needed work, I could contact the manager. All I had to do was mention the name “Hafa.” So, after a few days of sorting my affairs, I sold my father’s home and headed to the capital. When I said Hafa sent me, the director gave me a job on the spot!” The smile she gave was innocent enough that he could tell she wasn’t lying.
The second thing he asked of her was a request. “Would you mind talking with me tomorrow, as well?” he asked. “Unless you would be reprimanded for it, of course!” Npheria quickly added.
“I would be happy to,” said the young woman, and as she was about to exit the room, she turned and gave a quick bow, before departing.
As Npheria watched her close the door and leave, he couldn’t help but look down at the pendant hanging off of his chest and think about the long nights he would spend telling stories to his daughter.
“Ambassador, you have a visitor! Ambassador, I do hope you’re awake right now.” So-Bin jumped off of the couch in his office and sprinted to his chair just as the doorknob started to turn.
“Come in!” he responded, knowing it was unnecessary anyway. “Who’s here?” he asked the young man that was peeking his head into the room.
“No idea, but he says he has information, and it’s important.” With that, the young secretary opened the door and let in a tall man with a light brown overcoat on.
Once the door closed behind him, So-Bin nodded towards it, and the man turned both locks before facing him again.
“You’re wearing an eye patch now? Really?” So-Bin said with a laugh as he opened his drawer and pulled out a bottle of alcohol. “I understand the need to be disguised but come on!”
As the man across from him hung up his coat and sat down, he couldn’t help but notice the large smile plastered across his face.
“So? Things went well, I’m assuming?” the ambassador asked.
“Of course they did. I told you I always get the job done. Still, to think things would go this well… I managed to surprise myself!”
So-Bin placed two short, intricately decorated glasses onto the desk and filled them halfway with a sem-clear, light-brown liquid. After pushing one across the desk, he lifted the other to his lips and took a sip.
“You know, we’ll both be getting promotions for this, correct?” The delight was clear on both of their faces.
“I only hope I don’t get your job, Ambassador” the man responded.
“Nonsense, M. You would probably do a better job than I would.” So-Bin was telling the truth, he hated his position and it was clear in every interaction. “Still, I’m going to miss this place. The Edhians sure know how to make someone feel comfortable.”
As they were drinking, So-Bin couldn’t help but admire the features of the man across from him. He had a very slim, handsome face and his piercing eyes were a beautiful light grey. Between that, and his high cheekbones it was hard for him not to stare. “Hey M, how quickly do you have to get b-” before he could finish, M cut him off. “I already told you, Ambassador, you’re not my type.” The man replied, followed by a light laugh. So-Bin sighed. “I was going to ask you to pick something up for me on your way back. I’m sure you can manage it, right?”
Just when the man known only to the ambassador as “M” was leaving, he remembered something. “You should probably lose the eyepatch, it brings too many questions with it,” he said, smiling. “And stop smiling so much, you look better when you’re grimacing like usual.”
The last few days have been nice…
The man in the train cabin she was assigned to was nothing like the others warned her about. She wondered if he wasn’t a noble at all, rather just someone well connected. Arwen didn’t have much time to wonder though, and as she wheeled in the cart with dinner for two on it, she asked him “How come you ordered for two today? Did you skip lunch?” Arwen was teasing him, but when she saw his face she regretted it immediately.
“I’m sorry if I upset you-” as her voice started to go weak, the man looked at her and laughed.
“I’m just messing with you, don’t worry I’m not mad. I ordered for two because I was hoping you would join me for dinner” he said, still laughing and holding his sides.
“You should’ve seen your face!” As he said this, a scowl appeared and the young servant’s face grew red.
“I was really worried I had upset you!”
“I figured since you were kind enough to share your story with me, I would share mine with you” Npheria stated. Seated across from each other, it was easier for him to focus on her, rather than his food.
“Only if you’d like to hear it, of course.”
Arwen nodded excitedly. “You don’t seem like any other noble the servants talk about, so I was wondering about you. I’d be happy to listen!” The excitement in her voice was clear, and so Npheria sat back, crossed his arms, and began.
“You mentioned that I’m not like any noble the others speak of. If it wasn’t obvious, it’s because I’m not a noble. I come from a small village just outside of the mountains, just as you do.”
Arwa didn’t seem too surprised at this, after all, he didn’t act like a noble.
“I met my wife there, had my child there, and spent my whole life there. I practised my magic here and there, but I made most of my money just by farming.”
“Oh? You’re a mage? That’s incredible! I’ve never met a mage before! What’s your affinity? What do you specialize in? Can you show me some magic?” The girls’ enthusiasm was incredible, and Npheria didn’t mind that at all.
“Now, now settle down. Yes, I’m a mage. My parents never told anybody because outside of the larger nations, mages have a lot of value. They didn’t want me to be kidnapped or anything like that. And my affinity? I have an affinity for curses. I can cast curses, break curses, change the nature of them, anything. I’m good at it too. I never specialized in anything in particular honestly. The best I can use on command is a magic missile, and it’s not very powerful at all. Still, I lived a simple life, and it was nice. I met my wife when she was travelling in a merchant convoy. We had a daughter, she looked a lot like you too.”
Npheria was hoping the pain in his voice wasn’t obvious and pressed on. “She had the same cobalt blue eyes as you did. She laughed a lot and she loved bedtime stories. I wasn’t rich at all, but I was happy…”
“What changed? Why are you here now if you were so happy at home?” Arwen asked without thinking, and immediately she wished she could take it back.
Seeing the mortified look on her face, Npheria reassured her.
“It’s fine, it’s just difficult to talk about it all.” After taking a short break, the elderly warlock continued.
“After a hundred or so years of peace, I thought our small little village would be safe. Apart from the occasional bandit group operating nearby, or the scant magical beast getting into one of the barns, everything was peaceful enough. We were safe enough and happy enough.”
Npheria paused to take a break.
Drudging up these memories is more painful than I imagine it would be…
“Then, one day, a few drunken men stumbled into town. We tried to be accommodating, and they were friendly enough, but eventually, they started harassing people. While most of the townsfolk were content with letting them be and putting up with it, I couldn’t sit there and let them bother these people. Of course, once I asked them to leave, they got belligerent.”
Arwen, now incredibly invested in the story, quickly asked “So you guys fought right? Did you win?”
“Of course I won, but the next morning they returned. This time, they came at the back of a group. It had turned out that those three men were a part of the kingdom’s third reconnaissance battalion. When they returned, they were led by a pompous looking man with expensive clothes who I now know to have been a minor noble.”
Npheria was sweating, but he carried on.
“Apparently the men had told their commander, the noble, that there was a person in the town who was plotting against the King. Eager to increase his reputation, he hurried to the village immediately and rounded everybody up. I offered to turn myself in, but neither the other villagers nor the chief was willing to allow that.”
Arwen could tell he was choking up at this point.
“We can stop here if you’d like.”
“No, no. I think I need to talk about this.” Npheria replied. After a minute or so had passed, the older gentleman continued.
“The captain wasn’t very happy at our refusal… He didn’t like it at all… So, he decided that in order to root out any potential threats, as well as to stop the spread of potential “rumors”, it was necessary to burn it all down.”
“We didn’t even have any time to respond… I remember them coming back after meeting with each other and- and he just closed his fist and a volley of arrows came flying into the crowd. I tried to protect my family and I thought I did but-”
Npheria was crying now, and to Arwen, it seemed like he just might start wailing at any moment.
“I looked behind me after an arrow had pierced my right arm and- and they were both motionless. I tried to shake my daughter awake but I hadn’t even noticed….”
“There was an arrow, straight through her eye. My wife was much worse off too, she was hunched over our daughter covered in arrows. I don’t know why. I don’t know why I got to live while they died right next to me. I don’t know why everyone had to pay for my mistake. And I don’t know why I couldn’t even cry.”
“All I could feel was anger, anger towards everyone that let my family die. Anger towards the villagers for not letting me turn myself in. Anger towards the soldiers that carried out this order. Anger towards the nobleman who saw our little village as a means to promotion. Anger towards the kingdom that bred such a despicable person, and allowed him to flourish.”
Npheria paused to catch his breath.
“When I came to, everybody was dead. Every single person around me had died, and I didn’t know how or why. There wasn’t even any blood on my hands… All the soldiers had horrified expressions, s if they died in agony. The nobleman, their commander, wasn’t even whole. Parts of him were decayed and rotten away. I was terrified.”
“The next night, I buried everybody. I was mad at the people I lived in the village with, but I knew that they were just trying to look out for me. I buried them all, and I brought my wife and daughter to their favorite hill overlooking the town and I buried them there. Then, once I buried them all, I gathered everything I needed, set everything on fire, and I left.”
Arwen had tears in her eyes. She didn’t expect to hear such a painful story from someone that had been so kind towards her. As she was about to burst into tears, she jumped at the man before her and hugged him, though he couldn’t make out what she was saying due to all of the crying, he could tell she meant to comfort him.
“It’s ok young madam, this was over a decade ago. I’ve had a lot of time to think, and to move forward.”
He looked down at her and he smiled.
“I’m happy again, don’t worry about me.” Still, it was clear he was shaken, and Arwen noticed that too.
“Ah, I completely forgot to eat my food. I hope you’ll join me tomorrow too young lady.”
The warmth in his voice was completely disarming, and Arwen immediately replied with “I would be happy to.”
Samson touched the stud in the right side of his ear, waited a moment, then laughed. Even the best-enchanted items only worked within a limited range, though he didn’t blame himself for trying.
I suppose I’ll have to do things the traditional way then
Samson went to retrieve the small cage in the corner of his living room. Messenger ravens were always useful, especially in emergencies, and nobody was more aware of that.
His hand still bled from when he had opened the vault earlier, but there was no time to worry about that. As he scribbled down his note, his thoughts were consumed by the urgency of the situation.
Once it was completed, he tied it to the raven’s ankle and picked up the small bird. Samson always wondered what these birds thought, especially while they were headed up the small chutes they used underground to get them outdoors quickly.
There wasn’t much time to wonder before he placed the bird down, said “Hafa,” and pulled the lever, sending a gust of steam up and launching the round platform the bird was on up the tube and straight to the outside world.
Now that his message was sent, all that was left for Samson to do was prepare.
This place was always lively at night, but that’s why Samson picked it. Nobody stands out here, especially not two men in commoner attire. As a bonus, the mead here was deceptively well made.
Still, Samson was here on business, and as he scanned the room, he couldn’t help but worry his message hadn’t arrived. He knew Hafa would never be late to something so important, especially not after being given a direct order.
Then, across the tavern, he saw him.
At the back of the room, Hafa was seated, looking uninterested in the drink he was swishing around in front of him.
“There you are, Hafa,” Samson said, pulling out a chair and taking a seat across from the young man.
“Of course, sir. I would never disobey a direct order.” Hafa gave a self-satisfied smile, and Samson knew it took everything he had in him to wake up in time for this meeting.
“Hafa, I need you to get your affairs in order. Tonight. We’re leaving tomorrow.” Hafas’ eyes widened.
“We’re going somewhere? Where! Do we get to fight people? Can I use that new weapon I got from -” Samson covered Hafa’s mouth and pushed him down into his seat.
“We’re in public, Hafa. Control your excitement, please.” Once he was confident Hafa was settled, he continued
“and yes, you can bring that new toy Franklin and his men made for you…”
When he removed his hand, Hafa had a concerningly large grin on the young man’s face.
As Samson got up to leave, he turned around and reminded Hafa “10:00 sharp, remember that. We’ll be getting some use out of that rail network for once. Bring a few people with you, too. Only people you can trust. People that won’t talk.”
Samson read the list he had carefully. Most of the people on this list were big names. Ambassadors, influential nobles, or extremely wealthy businessmen. The portraits he was given along with the list was helpful, but the risk he took in approaching even one of these people, much less all of them, was problematic.
“Still, at least I don’t have Bards’ job,” he said aloud.
“And what’s her job, commander?” Hafa strolled up, clad in the wyvern-leather black armor with gold trim that was used specifically by the special forces he commanded. Samson eyed the black leather container slung over his shoulder.
“Oh, this? It’s the new toy they made for me. It can hit a bullseye from 2000 yards!” The excitement on Hafa’s face was palpable, and he didn’t try to hide his huge smile.
Behind him, three other people approached, wearing similar armor to Hafa, but with a few less enchantments. One of them, he knew well.
“Hilda, I trust the house is in safe hands while you’re away?” Hilda smiled and waved her hand.
“There’s only one person I could trust to safeguard it while we were gone, sir.”
The other two, Samson didn’t recognize.
“Are you planning on introducing me, Hafa?”
“Of course sir. The woman with the metal arm is Kat, she’s my second-in-command.”
Samson recognized the name.
“Wait, did she take care of that thing a few months ago?”
“Yup that was me! It’s a pleasure to meet you, commander!” Kat smiled and grabbed Samson’s hand, shaking it enthusiastically.
“Happy to meet you too…”
She seems a little too enthusiastic to meet me, but it’s better than her disliking me I guess.
“The tall imposing on my left is Ekrund. He’s my bodyguard.”
The man to Hafa’s right stood at attention. “It’s an honor to meet you, commander!”
So intense… I hope he’s useful.
“At ease, soldier. I trust you’ll be useful.”
Though the huge train chugged down the train tracks at incredible speed, inside of the cabins, the only thing that could be heard was the turning of pages and the occasional lifting of a glass.
“So what’s our job here sir? You haven’t given us much of a briefing yet.”
Honestly, I forgot about that.
“Right, everybody gather around. We’ve got some things to go over.”