The King and His Dancer
Samson and Hilda travelled from their accommodations by steam-car. Though he’s been a few times with the King, Samson never spent much time exploring Tironoc himself. The “Merchant City” as it is known, though not the richest city in the nation, is the very heart of trade with the nation and its neighbors.
Situated in the eastern quarter of the Obsidian Mountains, Tironoc was situated within a particularly thin section of the mountain range, and the four mountains that sat in the corners outside of it created a natural intersection that connected the deeper cities of the Kingdom to the West with the Man-beast nation of Shai-Akkad that existed to the north, all along the forests and savannahs that dominated the landscape between the Gianda River and the Thousand Spires. Their control of a large part of the northern coast, along with the roads that connected all of their cities made them the Kingdom’s strongest trade partner and only method of accessing the ocean.
To the south, there were the frozen wastes of the Tzarina’s realms, and to the east were the eastern kingdoms, along with a handful of elven city-states. Tironoc provided all of these nations to easy access to each other, without needing to worry about traversing or circumventing the range, and thus it became the center of trade, both for the Kingdom, as well as for the entire eastern half of the continent, from the Free-Cities of the Aftland Plains to the far east, to the most remote towns at the end of the Obsidian Mountains to the west. Even the Tree-kin of the Black Forest, normally unseen and unheard of by outsiders, occasionally visited the city to trade, even managing to avoid coming to blows with their taller and fairer cousins, who lived in their tall and decorated towers.
The roads that connected this center of trade to the surrounding nations were also known by all to be under the protection of the merchant lords of Tironoc, and the only thing the lords had in more abundance than wealth was influence. Nobody desired to lose their access to the trade city, and so even though a vengeful elven arrow, be it from the woodland elves or the spire elves, may occasionally find its mark in the dead of night, there were no bandits, and everyone did their best to remain cordial with one-another.
This level of influence, and their desire to always gain more, was what Samson hated most about the city and its nigh-omnipotent merchant guild.
“Try not to look so despondent, sir. It’s unbecoming of someone with so much authority.”
Hilda tugged at the sleeve of Samson’s outfit. Though he felt stiff and unnatural in the formal clothing she had picked out for him, he had to admit that he looked like the second most powerful man in the Kingdom. Typically, he was loathe to spend so much on clothing, but considering the people they were meeting, it was a necessity. Hilda, herself unaccustomed to clothing outside of her two uniforms, was clearly doing her best to maintain her posture.
“Come on, now. We’ll be in public soon enough, do you really need to start calling me sir here?”
Though he commanded respect from normal members of the guard, Samson thought of those directly under his command as his family.
“I miss them, you know. I hope she’s not too tough on them.”
Hilda smiled, and gave a light laugh.
“Come now, sir. After what you put them through, they probably prefer the change of pace.”
The Five Fingers were Samson’s direct subordinates, named such because within the Guard, Samson was called not the King’s Dancer, but his red right hand. Bard was the first finger, followed by Hafa. Franklin, the head of the scientific division, was the third finger and, though not much of a fighter himself (though he was still far more skilled in combat than most others in the kingdom), he had earned everybody’s respect with his raw intellect. Fourth, was Tullaris, master at arms as well as an exceptional urban planner, and served a dual role as the one in charge of leading the Black Guard on the rare occasion they were sent directly into conflict, as well as being responsible for all infrastructure related to the guard. It was he who was responsible for the current state of the bastion, and where Hilda was unmatched in hand-to-hand combat throughout the kingdom, Tullaris was the deadliest man with any sword or polearm in the nation. Many in the guard have even witnessed him duel a few of the braver members with nothing but a wooden buckler. It’s important to note that, when offered one of the steel shields used by the army, he turned it down, not wanting to “kill anybody with the guts to challenge me.”
The fifth finger was Satoru. Hailing from one of the Eastern nations, Satoru was the quietest and least conspicuous of the bunch. Where everybody had their roles in the chain of command, such as Hafa being head of the intelligence division, Hilda filling an unofficial role as the Head of Interior, Tullaris being master at arms and head of infrastructure, and Bard being flexible and overseeing the others, Satoru existed outside of this structure.
Samson had found himself lost in thought, wondering about how the others were doing with their tasks.
I hope those two are getting along. I know he doesn’t do well with authority, but still..
“Sir, we’re here” Hilda said with a smile, pulling him back to his senses.
“I’ll be relying on you to keep me reasonable, you know.”
The last time Samson had spoken to anyone from the League was around ten years ago, before Hafa had been made a finger. The merchants who stylized themselves as “Lords” sought to negotiate the removal of the Guard from the city entirely. Though indignant, Hilda had managed to keep him from being openly belligerent then, and he would be relying on her once again.
The pale-skinned woman next to him smiled at him.
“Of course! Though you would think you’d have the hang of acting like royalty by now, sir.”
“Come now, don’t give me that. You were born into nobility, I’m technically not even royalty.”
Though it’s been some time since she had been referred to as such, it was true that Hilda Ilyovich von-Drackenfells was nobility. She had been born in one of the southern tribes, outside of the realms fo the Czar (at the time), but influential and powerful enough to be regarded to as a small nation. The daughter of the chieftain and his northern wife, she had been well-educated in her youth, both in academics and martial skills, and though her father had always wanted a son, he loved her all the same.
“You might as well be, though. Nobody would dare treat you otherwise, we all know that.”
It was true, and Samson hated it. The Lords of the Merchants League, specifically the five on the ruling council, were no different than the aristocracy Samson had grown so disdainful of. Still, hearing it said out loud made him uncomfortable, and as the carriage, they rode in went over a bump, he fidgeted with his collar uncomfortably, avoiding eye contact.
When the carriage door opened, Samson stepped out onto the marble sidewalk, his gaze rising to fully appreciate the Grand Bazaar in front of him. It was a bit too bright for his tastes, between the marble pillars and stairs, and the white granite water fountains on either side of the pathway. Still, the gargantuan round marketplace was a sight to behold, he had to admit that. With an open market spanning three stories, and an additional four stories of offices and facilities, the Bazaar was the administrative and economic heart of the city. The golden dome on top looked brilliant, and the place was larger than the palaces of lesser kings.
Though the Bazaar had four entrances, one for each cardinal direction, the northern path was exclusively for use by royalty and those merchants that could afford to pay for its use. Being less crowded, it offered many of the larger shops a much more convenient and much less crowded pathway to move goods in and out of the storehouses underneath the building.
As he grabbed Hilda’s hand, helping her down from the carriage as she lifted up her dress, he heard the approach of multiple heavy footsteps, along with a few lighter ones, and he didn’t have to turn around to know who had approached.
“Ah, your majesty” came from behind Samson, and he immediately recognized the guttural voice.
“You know I’m not the king, Lord Smith” Samson replied, turning to face the wall of soldiers, and the three merchants they were guarding.
Lord Marius Smith was a tall, lanky man, with snow-white skin and sunken eyes. Impeccably well-dressed, he was the most powerful of the three at the head of the League by far, wielding a monopoly on the shipment of all goods in and out of the city. Samson had meant to break up his monopoly some years ago, but Marius’ political maneuvering has proven impeccable, and he’s been delayed in his attempts.
It was also Lord Smith who negotiated the removal of the Black Guard from the city all those years ago, and Samson still held a grudge, though he would never admit that himself. If he could have his way, he would just get rid of the old ghoul, but he knew the power vacuum that would be created could very well create an even worse monster. Besides, Marius sanctioned the creation of a union for his employees, and he paid them well. As cold and ruthless as he could be, he was a fair man to work for.
Next to him was a man the complete opposite of Lord Smith. Where Smith was tall, pale, lanky, and reserved, Lord Azgal was short, glowing, stocky, and boisterous. Where Lord Smith was ruthless but upfront about his desires, Azgal used honeyed words and subterfuge to achieve his ends, not worrying about the consequences of his actions. Though Smith was fair to work for, and happy to allow his workers to unionize and have some level of autonomy (he believes the best businessmen hire men to do a job and don’t interfere while they do it), Azgal was raised in the dwarven strongholds of the great Korag-val Plains, working in the weaponsmiths guild. He had a fairly antiquated view of things, especially how workplaces should be run. Still, for the workers that could handle his authoritative and unfair method of running things, wealth and prestige awaited. Especially if you were lucky enough to produce something that impressed the occasional visitor from the dwarven guilds.
The third head of the Merchant’s League was much different from the other two. Where Lord Smith was the most practical and fair member and Lord Azgal was the richest and most cunning member, the third head of the League was the most charming and influential of the lot. Though she lacked the economic resources of the dwarven lord and did not command the loyalty of the tall, pale man to her side, her political clout was virtually unrivalled. While Lord Smith could end the machinations of those few who would move against him, Samson included, Lord Duval (full name Catherine Duval the IX) could freeze the entire city, if not half the nation, at a whim. She was the owner and proprietor of most of the more illicit businesses in the city, but they all remained legal so long as the League maintained regional control.
Of all of them, Samson only felt very strongly about Lord Azgal, and the Lord knew it as well. Some lifetimes ago, Samson had friends that worked in a few of the unions that existed before Azgal took over their company and dissolved them. Many of them had been worked to death, and Samson wouldn’t find out until decades later that it was the misguided and foolish attempt of the new Lord to send a message. Though Samson would rid the world of all three, given it would not create chaos and turmoil in the city, he had to actively stop himself from ending the life of the dwarf that stood in front of him.
“Ah, Samson” Lord Smith’s voice seemed to ease up “How very wonderful of you to show up.”
Then, with an almost suspicious inflection, he asked “How is King William these days?
The room that Samson and Hilda were lead to was wonderfully decorated. The deep red silken curtains with golden trim stood out to Hilda, though Samson was less than impressed. The room was dominated by a grand, intricately carved oak conference table, the surface of it exceptionally smoothed and treated. The level of detail was impossibly precise to be the work of human hands, and Samson guessed that it was imported from the Black Forest.
As they sat down, a group of well-dressed butlers and maids entered the room, two with silver carts on wheels, and large silver platters in each hand. As the table was set and tea was poured for everyone, Samson was taken aback by how aromatic and strong the dark liquid in his fine china glass was.
Ah, this must be from the West…
As Samson sat enjoying his tea, everyone else in the room seemed to be aware of how dangerous the situation was. Tension hung heavy in the air, almost heavy enough to cut with a hand. Though three were the powerful Lords of the Merchants League of Tironoc, they were acutely aware of three things.
One: Samson had more authority than all of them combined, and though they were rich, he commanded the power and resources of the Kingdom as a whole.
Two: Something was wrong with the King. A variety of sources had informed them of his less frequent public appearances, along with the strange presence of most of the Black Guards leadership within the tower of the King.
Three: If Samson suspected them of treacherous behavior, or anything worse, he would not hesitate to kill them, and their death was only guaranteed if they got lucky. The combined forces of the city could not stop him and whoever he had accompanied him and, should he decide to take them alive, the fate that awaited them was much more terrifying than any death could be.
As the heavily armored, elite foot soldiers of the League stood guard, each one a silent, statue-like individual, each of the three lords attempted to think of a way to ease the tension in the room. Unsurprisingly, it was Lord Azgal who spoke up first.
“So, what brings you to the city Samson? You haven’t visited us in years!” Though he was deceitful, Azgal was also exceptionally friendly. While others might have been put at ease, Samson kept his guard up.
“I’ll get right to the point,” Samson said, putting down the cup of tea in his hands gently onto the small platter in front of him. “Have any magic users not registered with an adventuring party been through the area?” How they answered was important. Though none of them owned the Adventurers Guild in the city, each of them had their spies around the city.
They knew this, too, and in each of their minds they thought of the best course of action.
I don’t have anything to hide, so I suppose I should share what I know…
The ever-pragmatic Smith reasoned there was very little real risk to himself.
He’ll probably kill me if he thinks I’m lying, and besides, I could use this meeting to my advantage…
Azgal, ever the schemer, thought of how he could use this to advance his own ends.
If I can get him to owe me a favor, I would become one of the most powerful people in the Kingdom… Maybe I could even move to the capital.
Duval could only think about how much power she would gain by being useful.
Samson knew what they were all thinking, and the one conclusion they would all come to. The influence and resources of the Black Guard were vast, and they had a lot to lose out on if they didn’t prove useful. Even the dwarf Azgal, should he assist in any significant way, had much to gain. Samson wouldn’t allow his personal feelings to get in the way of rewarding those loyal to the King.
After a brief silence, Lord Smith stood up to speak.
“I can ask my contacts if they’ve heard anything or seen anybody exceptionally suspicious recently, and deliver a report to you by this afternoon.”
Azgal stood up quickly and stated “I can as well! I’ll send a messenger when I’m prepared and I’ll have a carriage waiting. Are you staying in the King’s quarters perhaps?”
Duval, possibly prepared for her two contemporaries to attempt to out-maneuver her, stayed seated but proposed something.
“Were you two not planning on attending tonight's banquet then? Samson, why don’t you attend as the guest of honor? If we all attend, we could give him our reports together. That’s bound to be more convenient, right?”
The other two, preoccupied with how they could earn favor, had completely neglected the banquet that was taking place later tonight. In creating a favorable situation for Samson, Duval had managed to out-maneuver both of them.
Samson sat, impressed at the ease at which she took control of the situation, and pondered.
It would be a good show of strength if I were to attend…
While he tried to consider all the ramifications, both positive and negative, Hilda, who had been silent until now, spoke up.
“Catherine, could you have one of your attendants arrange for an invitation and a carriage to arrive at around 7?” As she said this, she stood up and walked over to one of the windows, looking out as she stood between the crimson curtains. In a movement so subtle, only Samson could notice it, she slipped one of her pendants between the curtain and the wall, it just being light enough that nobody else heard as it fell to the ground.
Understanding, Samson stood up and started to excuse himself.
“I’m sorry to cut this meeting so short, but I have other matters to attend to. I understand that I can hope to see you all tonight?”
Standing up in kind, the three Lords bowed respectfully.
With his right hand over his heart, Lord Smith replied “But of course, my lord. We will have everything prepared for you.”
Lord Duval spoke too.
“I’ll arrange for your transportation, you don’t have anything to worry about!”
Lord Azgal even offered something special.
“I can bring a few casks of Dwarven Ale. It’s not often I get to attend a banquet with the King’s chief representative!”
This, of course, also served to earn him more than a few points with the other attendees as well, but it was still a rare treat to look forwards to.
I hate the man, but I might be able to enjoy myself tonight…
“Hey, Ekrund, you ever get tired of being so stoic all the time?”
The two were walking down the streets of central Tironoc, following behind the new troupe of adventurers they started accompanying. Though the sun was bright out, and the roads were packed, Ekrund seemed impervious to it all, maintaining his solemn gaze straight ahead of him.
How is he not on fire? Especially in that crude plate armor…
To keep conspicuous, the two had ditched their typical, and unfathomably valuable, equipment at one of the many safe-houses the Intelligence Division of the Guard maintained around the city. Now dressed in typical adventurer gear, Ekrund wearing a set of steel plate armor and Kat clad in Leather armor reinforced with steel plates, they both felt more vulnerable than usual. Kat also hated how poorly made the armor she donned was in comparison to her normal gear.
“I’m not stoic all the time, Kat. We’re just on the job right now,” Ekrund responded, his gruff voice not betraying any particular feelings he had about the question.
Ekrund was an incredibly large man, bordering the size and strength of any Half-giant. With every step, his steel armor and the chainmail beneath it rattled about. He looked down at her, his bushy grey eyebrows furrowed.
“Are you saying that you slack off while we’re working?”
Kat, using her metal hand, reached for the hood of the dark green cloak draped over her shoulders. As she pulled it up, she did her best to return his gaze, shielding her eyes as best she could against the bright sun above.
“We’re always working. What kind of question is that?”
Ekrund gave an acknowledging grunt.
“Besides, we’re supposed to make sure we keep ourselves in peak shape. That includes mentally, old man. You know how often the captain reminds us to take breaks when we can.”
It was true, Hafa especially was averse to the idea of working his subordinates too hard. Mental fortitude was important for all members of the Black Guard, but especially for those working in the intelligence division. They couldn’t be effective if they were barely functional.
“Still, it’s hard to let my guard down with those things following us. You have to find them unsettling too, right?”
Kat gave a slight nod to her left, though she figured he knew who she was referring to. There were about five of them, always following the two from the shadows around them.
“Come now,” Ekrund replied, giving a hearty laugh, “Those are our co-workers! They’re here to keep us safe.”
The masked men went unnoticed by everyone else around them, which both impressed and unnerved the young woman.
“Still,” Ekrund continued, looking straight ahead, “it is tough to get used to. It took me a good decade before I was used to it myself.”
“It’s incredible that nobody can even see them besides us. Do you know how they do that?”
Ekrund chuckled. “Nobody knows how they do it, besides Bard and themselves.”
As the four masked figures followed from the shadows, they read the lips of their targets and understood every word of conversation. What they thought of it, nobody could possibly know.
The Jesters are a part of Bard’s personal cadre. Trained directly by her, though some of them come from the Black Guard’s regular forces, the majority are hand-picked by her from adventuring groups, mercenary bands, and a military force belonging to Bard’s own homeland. Renowned for being incredibly effective and unshakably loyal, even by the Guards standards, they were the single most effective force on the planar hemisphere, only being matched by the Lynx-people of Shai-Akkad to the north in their skills at assassination and dueling. Of course, the Lynx-people still spoke. Bard’s Jesters spoke only amongst themselves, Bard, and Samson. Even the King has never heard the voices behind their porcelain masks, nor has he seen the faces of those beneath them.
Kat looked over her shoulder. The one behind her had ducked into an alleyway, though she couldn’t figure out why for the life of her. Even with all her training, she found it hard to focus on any of them for an extended period of time.
“Hey, old man. Does it get ever get easier to-”
Before she could finish, Ekrund answered with a curt “No.”
“Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but even now I can barely focus on them for more than a minute before my vision starts to go fuzzy.”
In her short but storied career, Kat had seen all sorts of things. She’s felled petty Kings, conspired with Dragons chained in impossibly deep dungeons, and survived more than her fair share of the plots of many a royal court. Yet, ever since she joined the Guard, she’s felt almost helpless at times. Though this young woman has looked many a men in the eyes as she took their lives, whenever she was around any of the Jesters, be it in the field or while relaxing at home, all she could process was unease at the best of times, and dread at the worst. After asking around, she found they had that effect on everybody. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to speak to any of them directly. Seemingly nobody could, even those trained to be able to perceive them.
Still looking over her shoulder, she watched as the Jester she had been watching came out of the alleyway again. This time, under its white cloak, there appeared to be a bulge. As she thought about how much they managed to evoke a primal sort of terror, she spotted the bulge move around. Wondering what it could be, she had her question answered when the cloak parted at a point and a small furry head popped out. She did her best to perceive the jester and noticed she could make out movement under the cloak. It seems it was petting the young kitten.
“Well,” she thought to herself, turning back forward before she developed a headache trying to focus on them, “at least I know they’re still human.”
Up ahead of the two, the young wizard that was the head of their new party waved backwards, signalling them to come up.
“It’s best we not keep our new party waiting” Ekrund said, his deep and warm voice doing much to set Kat at ease.
It’s been thirty days so far.
Thirty days, has the young scientist spent, hidden in the depths of his laboratory, never ceasing save to eat and relieve himself, along with the occasional nap. When thinking about how things got to this point, all he felt was pain. Sometimes, he cried even. Yet he never stopped his work.
His brother, Jean, had been working to support him since their parents passed away. Though he found stable and safe work, joining the Boxmen’s union and spending his days loading and unloading the many carriages and wagons that entered and exited the city, he couldn’t make enough to cover Jaque’s education costs. One night, sitting in their dishevelled apartment, Jean had opened the door to Jaque’s room, and watched him fiddle with a small oil lamp, trying desperately to turn it on wanting nothing more than to read his new book.
It was difficult for him, knowing his younger brother was squandering his life, unable to reach his potential. So, when he received an offer to join the Inventor’s guild, directly from Lord Azgal himself, he jumped at the opportunity. Apparently the Lord was familiar with his father’s work and “didn’t want to see such potential squandered.” And so, though the hours were long and the atmosphere unforgiving, life got better.
Things were getting better, and Jaque was in medical school. Every one of his teachers hailed the child as a prodigy, and his mastery over the tools that brought life and could stave off death were renowned around the city. His older brother, too, had found recognition, being responsible for the innovation and improvement of a wide variety of medical tools and instruments. Of course, working in the Inventors guild for Azgal was cut-throat, and a few months after Jaque had graduated, he received grave news.
Jean had been found, battered and on the brink of death. Apparently, he had made too much of a name for himself, and many of his co-workers felt he needed to know his place. He had been jumped while walking home, and found lying under a bridge in a pool of his own blood. Though he lived, he suffered enough damage to his brain that he was unable to function, beyond breathing and blinking.
For what it was worth, Lord Azgal had the offenders dealt with and provided funding enough to keep the man alive. He didn’t want to lose one of his most valuable employees, of course. Still, after years of care and searching for someone who might have fixed him, he gave up on the two.
Jaque did his best to keep his brother alive for as long as he could. However, when the next year had passed, he found his funds running low and he could no longer afford to be away from his work. The hospital he worked at gave him an ultimatum: return to work now, or never return at all. As the medical bills piled up and the world seemed to collapse on him, he started taking desperate measures, attempting any and all experimental procedures that promised to save his brother. Still, none woke him from his sleep, and Jaque had almost given himself unto despair.
That was until his patron had arrived.
The eye-patched man had shown up unexpectedly at his meagre apartment complex, arriving at Jaque’s lowest point. He introduced himself as a foreign Doctor named Edwards. Apparently Jaque’s plight had been heard of to the surgeons of the west, too. Edwards explained that he had substantial financial backing, and access to the finest doctors in the world, with one of them, even being able to use magic.
As he looked at the man dressed in a white medical coat, sitting at the small wooden chair in his kitchen, he contemplated the cost of all of this. Pacing back and forth in the doorway, he noticed the doctor seemed relaxed, and he couldn’t discern for the life of him what his motives were. Still, looking at his brother on the medical bed in the living-room, he thought of all he had done for him, and how hard he had worked to provide.
Looking down at his hands, shaking and dirty with sweat and grime, he told the seated doctor that he would do anything to save his brother. Though he could never regret it, he did not realize anything would be taken so literally.
Now, a year later, he worked tirelessly for his patron. Just as the bringing and maintaining of life was a science, so too was the manipulation of death. Deep underground, within the catacombs of the city, he worked in his patron’s laboratory. Every day performing twisted and unethical experiments on the cadavers delivered to him each morning.
The main room was a pitch-black void, save for the small zone lit up by coils of steel crackling with electrical energy. Towering metal containers with glass portholes dominated the rear of the room, filled with an unknowable mixture of medical fluids and bodily ones. On the right wall sat a small board, with notes taken the past year pinned to it. Below that, was a desk with all manner of medical textbooks and scribing materials.
Directly to the right of that was where Jaque’s was now, with medical tools and steel rods in hand, going to work on the final body in his possession. A month ago, during his patron’s final visit, he had been given an explanation on how these things worked, and what he needed to do now. Clad in all white, with black medical gloves and a simple mask wrapped around his mouth, he sewed shut the corpse and set his tools to the side.
The task was complete, and now he had but one more task to complete, to guarantee the safety of his brother. Above him, he heard the rumbling of the clock-tower as it struck twelve. The man stretched his arms and cracked his neck, before moving the body onto a simple stretcher, with a wheel in each corner.
As he wheeled the stretcher through the door, entering a dimly-lit hallway lit only by torches, he thought to himself how he had gotten to this point. Would he be lambasted by the gods for his actions? Could he know that he would be safe during all of this? Would he ever see his older brother again?
Ah, his brother. He did all of this for him, and he regretted none of it. If the gods should rebuke him for meddling with forbidden science, so be it. These people were already dead, what did it matter to him?
With the opening of the door ahead of him came a cold breeze. The metal cylinders that stood against the wall containing a single viewport of reinforced glass, the things within asleep, for the time being. Guiding the stretcher to the final container, open and awaiting its payload, Jaque made a point of quickly transferring the body from the stretcher to the container. Once it was in, he slammed the door of the tube shut, and turned the heavy latch on it so that it was sure to be locked. Tomorrow, they would all wake up, and when he pulled the lever, they would no longer be his problem.
The young man double-checked his bag. The path out tomorrow was to be rocky dark, even with all the torches he set along the way. He was anxious, and as he gathered his things, he failed to account for his journal. The olive-drab duffle-bag he was packing barely containing his clothes, his camping supplies, and the few funds he had left. With his secondary bag packed full of his medical textbooks and tools, he took inventory of himself. Satisfied he had not left anything behind, he left his bags by the door that stood behind the tall tanks of fluid, and hurried off to his cot.
Tomorrow would be a long day, and for the first time in a year, there was no more work to be done.