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Taxes

Bahwai, Segh Governate, Tong Empire

The Government Office in Bahwai sat in the center of the city, across from the Governor’s Palace. It was the single, massive building which saw thousands of documents and hundreds of ministerial officials pass through it every day. The beating heart of the Tong Government not only in the city, but in the entire province. From here the province was administered and all records of its inhabitants and productions, stored, record, and sent back to the Imperial capital of Tscynyasi.

This monumental task was the sole responsibility of the lower ministers that took up the great task of sorting and filing it all.

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“400,000?” Barrister Sang asked, “With that much you’d think the Emperor would be furnishing a small personal palace in every province, or at least a really big one in somewhere remote.”

“Indeed, of course, it is the perfect time to take advantage of our growing population. A large tax bases is the foundation of many a great nation’s glorious future.” Publican Gwo-Ning replied.

Sang’s brow furrowed, “Yes, I guess. But really, I am curious what it is all going to. You know?”

“I do, in fact, or at least heard the rumors,” Gwo-Ning said, “Seems like most of it is going to the Marshal, and his Generals. Apparently they’ve been buying weapons and armor like crazy. Been furnishing some ships too, for the Navy.”

“The Marshal? What for? Are we going to invade Dhorvas again! I can hardly see us going up against the Iskrenites, they’ve been killing each other for us.” Sang asked.

“The rumor from the middle ministers in Tchonazchsui is that the Emperor has been hiring mercenaries, gonna start selling their services out as a money making scheme.” Gwo-Ning explained.

Sang shrugged, “Appropriate, I guess. Conflict, especially in the West is always going on, it could be lucrative.”

“Ol’ Jong-Yai knows what he’s doing!” Gwo-Ning exclaimed, “How else would he be emperor? But anyway, I got another couple hundred pages to go through, I best get started before Minister So-Yin finds out we’ve been slacking.”

“Indeed, I have another couple court summons to hand out before the day is done. See you next week for the card game, Ning?” Sang asked, as he began leaving.

“Aye, see you then! And bring the good dice!” Gwo-Ning shouted as his friends closed the door to the office. Gwo-Ning returned to his duties, filing the many records before him.

The Line of Dietmar

Leudbold sat uneasy on his saddle, as he peered out across the rolling field of the lands of Baron Jochim von Grünbeere. The Castle Grünbeere sat on the other side of the creek, Forellenbach. A dozen tents dotted around the castle, along with a faint few resting along the slow flowing creek, famous for its trout in the warm season. Leudbold presumed a hundred or so men, perhaps two-hundred of Sir Georg’s, no doubt; summoned to stamp out Jochim, who had raided and attacked the lands of Sir Georg’s father now deceased, while they had heeded the call of His Grace, Leudbold's own father. A nasty affair, thought Leudbold, as he turned his head and pointed with his armored gauntlet, “He already put the castle to siege, damnation. Why do they not heed my fathers demands?” He asked, addressed to his uncle Ekhart. They had ridden out with four hundred of his father and Ekhart’s men-at-arms, with some haste, due to how dangerous the situation had become since his father’s surrender to Count Jakob and King Karlus. Sir Georg’s cousin, a man by the name of Egmant of Hügelberg, had already been killed in a skirmish on these very plains, along with over a dozen other riders in his company. An ambush says one, a skirmish the other. From what little information Leudbold had heard of the ordeal itself, it was hard to decipher if either were in the right.

Ekart wore full plate armor, yet no helmet, merely the neck guard of a gorget silver. This allowed his lengthy brown hair to drape onto his steel shoulders, as his green eyes probed the surrounding fields. He looked less lanky in his armor, with his body size more natural looking encased in steel. He leaned forward with a sly grin, as he looked at his nephew, “They believe your father is weak, Your Grace.” Ekhart said, rolling his shoulders, as he tried to get comfortable in his saddle, “Let us inform the Good Lord and Sir they are mistaken.” He chuckled, as he kicked his mount forward, followed quickly behind Leudbold, who only responded with a nervous nod.

Leudbold’s facial hairs had grown since the beginning of the war with the Syrdish, with a small patchy blonde beard covering his boyish features. It helped in his image, making him look more a man than boy, even if he still felt like a boy. Even now when he commanded a small host of his father’s men, soon to be his men, he felt unwell, unfit for command. The thought unnerved him; soon he would be the Count Palatine of Straulechen; if his father was correct in his approaching death. Three years ago he might have been excited to be the Palsgrave of his father’s estate, yet now, with this war, and the fires that burnt in every corner of his realm. He felt unprepared, unready for the task that awaited him with the title. Still, even in fear, he would remain true to his father, leading his men in peace and war, as Airmanreik would want.

Leudbold turned to his left, looking for his brother Halthar, spotting him making conversation with one of the knights of his Uncle, some Sir Baldwin. Baldwin was a minor man raised into Airmanreik’s favor due to the praise given by Sir Ekhart, and as such was given a small estate near Ekhart’s humble castle home. Leudbold did not truly enjoy the company of the man, often finding him too familiar for his liking. He was also a social climber who weasled himself into an estate, Leudbold believed, an estate that would have better been given to a man whose word was trustworthy. Alas, Leudbold concluded he had little power, for now, to deal with the man.

Halthar looked content enough, thought Leudbold as he returned his observation to him for a moment. Leudbold thought of forcing himself into the conversation to halt Baldwin from playing his games with his youthful brother, but decided his attention was better spent examining the castle before him. Besides upon his brother’s, hearing of news of Heinrik’s presumed death was shattering enough to Halthar. In a crueler twist of fate he was then informed his life mission of serving the Greatest as a man of the cloth, was to be pushed aside. He and Leudbold would both find wives in a short time, Leudbold knew, always his original designs, but poor Halthar. His world was without any doubts flipped onto its head, by the Greatest, he supposed.

He dismissed the thoughts of his brothers and returned to the examination of something he had control over. The castle was perched by the creek, where it collected water from, no doubt. Most likely an underground passage had been driven from the creek, to allow the occupants fresh drinking water from a well; he would perhaps have to cut that passage if these men could not be forced to see reason, he pondered. The walls of the castle were not unimpressive, but it showed its age, with only two towers in perfect condition, the two not facing the creek of course. There was only one tower that faced the creek and it was in a sorry state. Older than the others it seemed a perfect area to attack, if the water lowered. Yet as it stood it was impossible to mount any proper assault on that area of the curtain wall. For the other parts of the curtain wall it seemed to have been reinforced with wooden battlements, draped in leather. Baron Jochim must have expected retaliation in that case, Leudbold noted, his doubts of the Baron only steadily increasing with each observation.

The Baron was a Grünbeere, a respectable lineage for a family who were merely humble Barons, with even a Great-Aunt of Leudbold’s father somewhere in their line. However, this Jochim was a maternal grandson of a man known as Sir Dietmar of Palaststadt, a descendent of the old Palsgrave’s of Palaststadt, before the ascendance of the Hönberg’s. This Dietmar had, like his forefathers, been an endless nuisance to Leudbold’s great grandfather, as his father put it when he was but a boy; “an eternal enemy of our ancestral seat here in Straulechen.” Sir Dietmar himself was finally killed by Leopold, Leudbold’s grandfather, but the man had been a siren’s call to all those who felt displeasure with the Count’s of Straulechen. It was this Jochim who was now the heir to this rebellious fever, through that of his mother’s inheritance of her own father’s fight. Airmanreik on multiple occasions nearly came to blows with the Baron, but their shared experiences in the campaigns of King Heinrik kept their relations friendly even when set on all sides to be fierce rivals.

Leudbold silently feared with his father’s coming death, Baron Jochim, like his ancestors, would continue their futile war to reclaim what was not rightfully theirs. Though perhaps it was time to stomp out the line of Dietmar and end this back and forth, with short peace every generation. Yet Leudbold set aside the possibility of putting the Baron to death; that would be a last resort if he could not bring both these men to heel. Sir Georg was devoted to Airmanreik however, his loyalty all but assured in the eyes of Leudbold. This would be simply trying to pry Baron Jochim from continuing to sit in his castle.

After the short ride, passing over the creek at its low points, marked with a single beam protruding from the water, a rider approached. In his hands he held the colors of the late Baron, Or, a bend azure, with that of the colors of the young Sir Georg, the not yet named Baron of his father’s estates. Supposedly he still held out hope one of his elder brothers had survived the battle, yet no word was sent back on the status of his brothers as of now. In Leudbol’s eyes the man would no doubt end up Baron, even if his brothers lived or not, the lands needed a Lord, and Georg would no doubt have to take that place.

The man before them was well built, with a strong defined chin. He had soft blue eyes that clashed harshly with his thick mustache of dark black, which he kept on his lip like a blanket one would use in the cold seasons. He was clearly a strong man, in his prime, with Leudbold guessing either in his late twenties or early thirties. “Your Grace,” he said, bowing his body from his steed, “Sir Georg wishes you welcome to Castle Grünbeere!” He laughed, some of Leudbold’s company laughing behind him.

Leudbold nodded to the unknown man, turning to look at the castle now right before them. He had a better image of the situation on this side of the creek, seeing the signs of small skirmishes evident from the broken arrows and debris that dotted the foot of the wall. “Do you have a name, Sir?” Leudbold asked, kicking his mount forward, the unknown man riding beside him as they rode towards the camp proper. Sir Ekhart, Sir Baldwin, and Halthar all closely behind them with a dozen or so other prominent men.

The knight smiled, his teeth a slight yellow, “I am Sir Rumold, Your Grace, of Hügelberg, brother to the recently deceased.” He said, more cheerful than Leudbold would have guessed a brother to act, still in the days of mourning, by church law.

“I am sorry for your loss, Sir.” Leudbold stated, genuine in his shared loss of his younger brother.

Rumold gestured with a shrug, “My brother was no Saint, Your Grace. Besides, we clashed for the last three years over the inheritance of a minor hall, an heiress you see was in line to inherit, and well we both wanted her hand. In the end the hall burnt down and that heiress married a Syrd.” He chuckled, his eyes clearly wandering back to days Leudbold never knew. “We did not love each other, yet I rode with my cousin to avenge his death nonetheless, as is the Iskrenist thing, no?” He asked.

“Yes, of course.” Leudbold responded, not wishing to offend or hear more of this man’s troubled relationship with his deceased brother. His mind returned to the situation here, “When did you place Grünbeere under siege?” Leudbold asked.

“Nearly two weeks ago now, Your Grace. Small fighting before we put her to siege, but His Lordship has not tried to make an attempt to break out since we besieged her properly.” He said in regards to Jochim, who still held out behind his walls. “Aye, we have had a brawl here or there,” he said gesturing to parts of the wall, “but they were spontaneous, merely men becoming uneasy, you understand.” He said with an air of casualness only found in soldiers.

Leudbold nodded, “Thank you for your information, Sir Rumold.” He added, remembering his father always suggested being kind to those under you, as it bred loyalty. This would need to be put to the test, he knew, but for now he would not question his father’s wisdom.

The riders came to a stop before what was likely the tent of Sir Georg, larger in size than any other. As expected, Sir Georg himself stepped out through the entrance of the tent, his face going from an expression of exhaustion, to instant excitement. He came forward with haste, helping Leudbold from his mount personally, before kneeling, and kissing Leudbold’s gauntlet. “Your Grace, Greatest is good, you have come at last! There is much news, urgent news-” He said, his enthusiasm surprising to Leudbold, who knew the knight as a more steady sort.

“Sir Georg, you have my sympathy for the death of your father.” Leudbold exclaimed, as he gestured for the knight to rise from his knelt position. Leudbold examined Georg, noted he looked physically weaker than the man he knew, with deep gray sockets where once his youthful eyes shined bright. He looked unkempt, his hair messy and dirtier than he would normally keep it. The position he now held must be killing him as much as Leudbold’s position was slowly killing him.

Sir Georg looked puzzled for a moment, his eyes glazed in thought, before sparking back to reality, deep with pain. “Yes… Thank you, Your Grace.” He said quietly, almost like he had been reminded of a great loss, before he quickly turned his gaze to Leudbold. “I am sorry to hear of your father’s condition and his decision,” he began, before glancing around, “I am sorry to hear of your father’s health.” He said, deciding to not bring up Airmanreik’s surrender so publicly, here, before his men.

Leudbold was relieved the man restrained himself from discussing the surrender. He turned to his back, seeing his Uncle and Brother, gesturing for them to come forward, before turning to Sir Georg, “We shall speak in private.” He commanded, stepping towards the tent of Sir Georg, followed by Sir Ekhart, Sir Baldwin, and Halthar, along with two other knights, Sir Rumold and Sir Mikeal, Mikeal being a knight Leudbold remembered from the day of their defeat.

The inside of the tent was furnished as well as one would expect a Baron’s tent to be. With multiple comfort chairs placed for lounging, two moderately sized tables, and a bookshelf, though its contents were lacking, other than a dozen or so small books. Three chests dotted two of the walls of the tent, and one large bed was pushed off to the side, presumably where Sir Georg slept. The rugs, of which there were four, were of quality, elk skins and the likes, Leudbold presumed. He took a seat near one of the two tables, where the other men accompanying him either joined him, or pulled seats over from across the tent, before sitting.

A servant brought refreshments, though no ale, as Leudbold had requested, not wishing to consume such beverages before dinner. He broke his afternoon fast with a piece of bread, with his peers following his example, as they ate small loaves of bread, peanuts, and olives. The bread was old, Leudbold noted, but the olives were delicious, most likely harvested nearby. After the short lunch of sorts, the men began their talks, whereas prior they quietly ate.

“Why did you put this place to siege, Sir Georg?” Leudbold began, “My father decreed there would be no blood dropped while this war with the Syrds still raged in the lowland.” He said, his tone authoritative, like he was taught from his instructors in rhetoric. “So why do I hear not only has blood been split, most tragically the death of Sir Rumold’s brother, but you also bring war to the lands of Grünbeere?” Leudbold asked again.

“Your Grace,” Sir Makeal began, “This dog, Jochim, killed my nephew in that butchery, under false pretext!” He exclaimed, flustered as he leaned forward, “He invited Sir Egmant and my dear nephew, only seventeen mind you, out to discuss the nearby estate of Holzbach,” he said, Rumold nodding in agreement as he continued, “you see Holzbach is the land of Lord Heiner, yet he is old and has no legitimate children, see. Sir Egmant was told by Baron Jochim he would host talks between both parties to settle the inheritance, the supposed goal of having my nephew, Konrad, married to one of his bastards, see?” He added again.

Leudbold nodded, leaning, “Sir, please continue.” He said, though exhausted from the story, he understood he had to hear the whole thing out, so as to not offend the middle aged man.

“Your Grace, this murderer, this Baron, he murdered my sisters boy in cold blood! Stabbed him through, then cut his throat to bone, Your Grace! Greatest strike that demon now!” He yelled in anger, before Sir Georg placed his hand onto his shoulder, calming the enraged man. “Rumold saw the body’s too, so he can confirm this.” He said, suddenly tired, as he sat back, his face a mix of anger and sadness.

“Sir Rumold, is this true?” Leudbold asked.

“Aye, Your Grace. Same condition for my brother and the ten or so others we found, all gentry born too. Shame is, they cut ‘em down unaware, while inside somewhere, possibly the castle itself. Worst of all, we don’t even know if Lord Heiner was among those killed, or if he was in league with Jochim.” He said, his casualness still alarming to Leudbold, who could not understand such calmness in the discussion of outright murder.

Sir Georg leaned forward, finally ready to weigh his opinion, “Your Grace, I feared, after hearing of his raids upon my father’s lands, and the murder of my cousin, he was preparing to declare himself in rebellion, against Palsgrave Airmanreik.” He said, uneasy, as he glanced around the men of the room, who all shared similar glances. They all knew Jochim was the grandson of Dietmar, and that stigma ran deep in the nobility of Straulechen, for fear of the dangerous rebellions that always devastated the region. It was an understandable fear, that even Leudbold could not help but fear. “So I came to bring Baron Jochim to you or your father, to face your justice. I had hoped he would come willingly, perhaps feigning innocence, but to my surprise he attacked us on route, with the assistance of more men than he could possibly muster on his own. We won the day, but lost twenty-two friends.” He said, making the sign of the Greatest, before pressing it towards his lips, followed by everyone in the room, even Ekhart.

Leudbold grew curious at the mention of more men, “Who rode with the Baron in this ambush?” Leudbold asked, now on the edge of anger, realizing a rebellion may have been in the making here after all.

Sir Georg turned to Mikeal who shrugged slightly, before turning to Rumold, “A dozen petty Lords, Your Grace, some of the knightly families near and around Holzbach and Grünbeere. I saw multiple colors of men who are known Dietmar supporters, colors like Baron Adhelm of Halmontier.” He stated. Adhelm was a longtime rival from the times of Leopold, one of the few men spared from Leudbold’s grandfather.

Leudbold was now furious, as he sighed, his mind racing with anger. Sir Georg was loyal, his word was good, as was Sir Mikeal. Sir Rumold was a complete unknown, but he was favored by the former, and so these men were likely true in their accusations of the character of Baron Jochim, as for that, he knew. He turned to his uncle Sir Ekhart, “Suggestions, Uncle?” Leudbold asked, pushing aside the decision for a moment.

Ekhart had been quiet in listening to the tale spun by the three knights, thinking their story may have held truths, the whole ordeal seemed messy and scattered. No clear picture could even be made, but he was most curious about Baron Adhelm, “Is Adhelm in the castle, now?” Ekhart asked, looking at the three men who led this siege.

Leudbold followed his uncle in turning his gaze to that of Sir Georg and the others.

Georg glanced to the others, the other two as well sharing glances, “Aye, the bastard sits in the keep with his claimant.” Sir Georg said with disgust, the other two agreeing with nodding heads.

“How many men sit behind those walls?” Asked Baldwin, who now leaned forward, “Could not hold more than a hundred?” He added, but more in the manner of a question towards the men who would know.

Mikeal answered, “We think there’s around a hundred of the bastards trapped in the stone prison, aye. Both of the Barons fled into the castle after we ran them off the field; they had more men, but some drowned in the creek while we ran ‘em down.” He said, Rumold chuckling at hearing of the event he partook in.

Sir Baldwin turned to Leudbold, “Your Grace, we could take the castle by force?” He stated in the tone of a question.

Leudbold glanced at Ekhart, who merely shrugged, himself, unsure of how to proceed with this news. “We’ll put the castle to siege, and summon the Barons to discuss their surrender.” He said, again in his commanding voice.

The men all nodded, the three with most to gain smiling to themselves. Yet Leudbold felt uneasy about the events transpiring around him, he could tell he was going to have to take the lives of these men, no doubt now.

Monoliths

300-Word Post

Bupokhnong, City Outskirts

Such expansive, flat clearings on which rice paddies crowded were odd sights in the midst of a jungle. Especially on a small island.

More strange yet were the massive stone heads, towers, and animals looming behind the farming villages.

Kraisong exhaled in wonder. And he had thought Sorahnpu’s stone structures impressive. But here he was in the ancient city of Bupokhnong, the graveyard of ghosts, his earlier notions proven dead wrong.

His guide beside him chuckled. “Speechless, just like all who visit our city.”

“It’s amazing,” Kraisong found himself saying almost instinctively.

The guide snorted in triumph and led Kraisong deeper into the field, towards the city where he was to receive cloth manufactured on the island for shipbuilding in Kadhabruc. A small, wisened Ikori, the guide was among several settlers who had stayed and attempted to revive Bupokhnong following Angfaran’s independence and the subsiding of the Hunger. Not all settlers founding in the graveyard of ghosts were ethnically from Bupokhnong. Yet there were enough so that rediscovering Bupokhnong’s culture was not an impossibility.

Yet there were parts of the ancient city the island’s inhabitants decided to leave to history. For one, Giorn was the ruler of this island, not the pre-Yuannic deities to whom the gargantuan statues islandwide were dedicated. Ancient shrines were converted into shrines honoring this Yuannic deity, beseeched by the inhabitants of the island for a good harvest. Even though that’s likely what the previous inhabitants of the island did in those shrines, just to a different, older deity.

And another thing was the stone monoliths. As towering as they were, as impressive as they were to Kraisong, the villagers regarded them as little more than rice silos. Some of the poorer villagers even hollowed some out to make them into homes. Kraisong’s wonder was the villagers’ indifference.

Kraisong was caught by his guide staring at one such settlement with bewilderment. “Beauty and its beholder, eh?” the Ikori chuckled.

To Fight Another Day

400-Word Post

Southern Fahuatai, Cuan Chih Dhao War Tent

Hru Suut pressed his eyes together, trying to block out the morning sun that penetrated even several layers of tent cloth. It was too early and yet the sun rose. Hru Suut hated summer.

He brought both of his arms to his face. His left hand rubbed the rheum away from his eyes. On his right side he felt a dull, shapeless stump on his face.

Hru Suut sat up on his straw “mattress” on the ground below, only the sands beneath him serving as any sort of carpet. He stood, stretching slowly, and with the same sluggish pace equipped his lamellar armor. For the past few months since the war’s revival, he had his aides help him with his armor, for his absent hand made it difficult to perform even the simplest of tasks anymore. Hru Suut grit his teeth as he strapped plate and sheet to his body, fastening them with one awkwardly reaching arm. Lately, he was able to equip his armor by himself, albeit slowly.

It didn’t matter. Today was a quiet day. This was a quiet week. The Angfarucs were likely amassing their forces to push beyond the Chou Ye Dia Ridge, a risky gambit that Hru Suut understood could lead to many lives being lost. Still, the Rachykhina had the capability to build weapons and structures to at least somewhat mitigate the unforgiving terrain of the ridge. The Cuan Chih Dhao did not.

With one careful hand, Hru Suut placed his helmet on his head, around his horns. He then reached to his chest of belongings next to his pillow (nothing more than a sanded-down log) and grabbed a prosthesis gifted unto him by the Vua Cao for his bravery: a kukri to be affixed to his right arm. Inefficient as this made some tasks, it was quite an efficient tool in other regards. Still, as Hru Suut affixed the prosthesis to his arm, he stared at it, peering into the hateful reflection gazing back at him. He hated the prosthesis. He hated his armor. He hated losing his hand. He hated fighting. He hated the Rachya.

Couldn’t the Rachya have not bothered with the Cuan Chih Dhao’s matters and let people like Hru Suut farm in peace?

But here he was: leading his brothers and sisters in a bloody, perhaps futile war against a power-hungry, despotic Rachya, a spoiled brat. A child. They would die against her? She was the one so intent on destroying the hopes of the Cuan Chih Dhao gaining sovereignty against the oppressive rule of the Phusukwaron Dynasty?

Hru Suut sighed. He opened the flap to his tent to greet his men who might not live to see another moon, laying their lives down for a dream heartless Sorahnpu would refuse to grant.

Feverish Conviction: Part I

500-Word Post

Sorahnpu, Ivory Palace, Rachya’s Chambers

Dhoyanha let out a round of harsh coughs into the air from her bed. So much sweat had run from her head that it felt as if her horns would melt right off. She pressed her head against her pillow, trying to close her eyes and rest in active submission of her rebellious body.

Her latest fever which gripped her in the present made her incapable of carrying out her duties, the regent Buyritthorn Waaranam acting, as he had done so many times ever since her ascendance as High Rachya, in her stead. A Gorrin at least three times her age, Buyritthorn was nevertheless larger, stronger, and much healthier than Dhoyanha even on her best days. And with decades of wisdom and experience behind him, there was no better suitor she could ask for.

There was no better ruler her people could ask for.

What was she, if not a simple figurehead, an adherence to a tradition now possibly obsolete with her on the throne and a claim to a successor of a dead empire? Buyritthorn perhaps would have another ten years, at least, ahead of him. Dhoyanha would be lucky if she even saw the next three. Her health was getting worse.

Her eyes widened, bloodshot and with deep, sunken bags under them signaling sleepless, feverish nights. What stopped Buyritthorn from usurping Dhoyanha’s throne? He had every tool at his disposal. Her advisors, generals, and guards saw Buyritthorn on the throne almost as often as Dhoyanha herself. They must have all been thinking the same thought. Why persist under Dhoyanha? Under a dying girl under whose watch her father’s war reignited? Her throne was cursed. Her lineage was cursed. No doubt the people of Angfaran would be eager to see it end.

Aro above, her fever itself must have been some sort of diabolical poisoning plot carried out against her. Perhaps Buyritthorn planned for Dhoyanha’s condition to worsen to the point of death, even if he had to manipulate it with his own hand, and secure his position of regency into becoming the fourth High Rachya and thusly starting a new, treasonous dynasty. Perhaps her constant sickliness was not a test from Aro but rather a display of Aro’s favor being removed from the Phusukhwaron Dynasty. If so, then Buyritthorn’s ascendance would not only be welcomed by her people but her deity as well.

But no, Dhoyanha would not fall victim to this blatant act of treachery. Dhoyanha would not stay victim to the ploys of Aro invested into such an evil man. She knew she had to stop Buyritthorn before it was too late, and she would prove Aro wrong. She shot up from her bed, in her nightgown drenched with sweat, and shakily slid one hoof after another onto the floor. She fell immediately. Yet she stood back up, using the bed as a crutch. Dhoyanha hobbled to the door, her head spinning and feeling as hot as the northern Avernai volcanoes, while the rest of her body felt as frigid as the harshest Lopexian winters.

But she had to stop Buyritthorn.

Feverish Conviction: Part II

600-Word Post

Sorahnpu, Ivory Palace, just outside the Rachya’s Chambers

Dhoyanhaburst from her chamber doors into the dimly-lit stone hallway leading to the throne room, to the utter dismay of her Kushatryi guards standing sentry at the door. The pair immediately knelt down to the floor, on which Dhoyanha convinced herself she needed a short rest. “High Rachya,” one called, eyes wide in worry. “Are you all right?”

“Get me the regent,” Dhoyanha panted madly. The first guard nodded to the second, who went to retrieve Buyritthorn.

Soon afterwards, the second guard reappeared, a very concerned Buyritthorn at his heels. Even through thick, flowing eyebrows as white as Okina Yama’s peaks were eyes of deep concern.

“High Rachya,” Buyritthorn bowed with an ancient bleat-like voice to Dhoyanha, propped up by the first guard under her command. “Are you all right?”

Dhoyanha tired of everyone asking her if she was “all right.” When had she been, ever since she was born? Ever since her father died? Ever since the war resumed? “My supplements,” she pointed with her thin, trembling arm past the still-ajar doorway into her chambers, at an empty golden bowl. “Were they poisoned?”

“High Rachya?” Buyritthorn raised his eyebrows in perplexion.

“Answer me, you traitorous worm!” Dhoyanha shouted. She would have hurled more insults if not for an untimely (timely, perhaps for everyone else) bout of coughing and wheezing.

“Of course not,” Buyritthorn answered promptly, unfazed by Dhoyanha’s words. “You are well aware by now that each and everything sent for your consumption is first tested so as to protect your health from poison or some other horrid thing.”

“But you ruled while I was bedridden, no?” Dhoyanha wheezed. “Did you not savor this time where the entire Rachykhina followed your command? Did the thought of usurping my throne ever tantalize you, I wonder?”

Buyritthorn stepped back in silence and bowed his head. He said, slowly and sincerely, “I have failed as a regent if you sincerely believe that I would but for one moment consider myself and not you the High Rachya. Far better would it be for you, me, and this island if I were to be given up to Aro herself.”

Dhoyanha too fell silent, still panting wildly from the pitiful exhaustion of leaving her room. What was she saying? “I-I apologize for my words, friend,” she said at last, softly, closing her eyes in a futile attempt to curb her tears.

“I have plenty of years of health and sickness behind me to understand what a bad fever can make even the best of us say,” Buyritthorn smiled. “Would you like to implement any reforms in the regency?”

“No, no, thank you,” Dhoyanha sighed. “I merely need a rest. If I still feel odd later, perhaps a reform might put my mind at ease, but I trust you for now.” She softly spoke to her Kushatryi guard, bowing while still propping the High Rachya up. He slowly released her from his support and let her reenter her chambers in peace.

Dhoyanha made her way to her bed again, back onto the many lavish sheets made damp with her fever. She rested her head on her pillow once again. She felt strangely better after that cathartic debacle, as embarrassing as it would have been. But Buyritthorn was not the kind of person to spread such unbecoming stories like an old woman and her gossip. And the guards were sworn to secrecy; violating this would be a death sentence, and she knew idiots who would give their lives to spread rumors were not to be hired as guards to the High Rachya.

She closed her eyes. Far better would it be for you, me, and this island if I were to be given up to Aro herself, Buyritthorn had said.

What did that mean?

The Battle of the Strait of Yachrik

700-Word Post

The Strait of Yachrik, between Bupokhnong and Mattheungsay

Thantzar braced against the djong’s railings. Instinctively, he raised his shield, as did some of his men. Others, however, weren’t quick enough to evade a maelstrom of arrows from the enemy fleet and fell onto the deck, staining the wood a deep red. The admiral spat. He had underestimated the Kerboutay.

Aboard the HRRS Tusk, Thantzar had led his contingent of light djongs to catch remaining Kerboutay holdouts just shy of Mattheungsay, using the narrow space between the beachhead and the island on which Bupokhnong sat to effectively surround any possible means of Kerboutay escape. Total victory, total surrender, total collapse. What he didn’t account for was how many vessels the Kerboutay had. How many men they had evacuated onto the ships. How many of them were armed with bows and other such ranged weapons.

“Sir, our left wing is falling apart,” a deckhand shouted above the chaos. Currently, the Kerboutay were making a charge at the less reinforced southern end of the strait. Some Kerboutay vessels had rammed into the now-defending Angfar ships, boarding when the boats crashed. Thantzar’s men were excellent sailors, but they weren’t soldiers. Even though Angfaran still held the numerical advantage, one by one, winged lotuses on the High Rachya’s naval pennants would crash down from flying defiantly in the air to join men and flotsam in the waters beneath. Thantzar would lose no more pennants to the waves.

Still, the sailor was right. The Kerboutay’s rush had broken the left side of the Angfar fleet and were almost through to a retreat. But if they were on the left side…

Thantzar stood, his plate armor gleaming against the seaspray coating every part of everything on the ship. (It was either seaspray or blood that did so.) “Move back with them!” he shouted to the crewmen on board who were still alive. He paced about the deck of the Tusk, repeating his orders.

He would bend, allowing the Kerboutay to continue moving south. Boarding was an option he could not afford. He had no soldiers onboard his djong fleet. No, they were somewhere else.

As the ships relayed around his command, the southern half harassing the Kerboutay’s side while the northern part rushed forward, forcing the Kerboutay forward, the Kerboutay ships inched closer and closer to the land. Thantzar could bend. Perhaps the High Rachya would punish him for conceding even this feign to the Kerboutay, but this was the path to victory. And he would show Sorahnpu that bending does not equate snapping. Thantzar would be like bamboo: he would bend until he could bend no further. And then, when the time was right, he would spring back up and strike his enemy where it mattered.

Noises of indiscriminate shouting of warfare and bloodlust aboard the Kerboutay ships soon turned to confusion. Then dread. Then panic. One by one, the Kerboutay ships were beginning to beach. “Pull back!” Thantzar shouted again, waving his bow in the air. “Keep in range but retreat to open seas! Don’t join them in their error!”

The Angfar djongs obliged, turning, perhaps frantically, away from the beach and towards open seas, still keeping within range of their enemy. Thantzar analyzed the beach on which the Kerboutay were stranded. He could have brought them a bit closer to his destination, but where he brought them in the end sufficed as well.

For the Kerboutay were beached just shy of the outskirts of Mattheungsay. Adjacent to a large garrison of Angfar troops with bows and boarding vehicles preparing to fight sitting geese.

========

Mattheungsay, Resolute Harbor

Thantzar skimmed the contents of a scroll in his blistered hands with squinted eyes. Satisfied, he closed the document and handed it to one of his officers, who bowed and left the scene.

He turned then to the general stationed at Mattheungsay. The two officials were standing on the wide stone monolith brazenly intruding into the sea, on which war djongs and fishing vessels were docked. Triumphant fisherman, traders, and sailors flowed like the tides in and out of their vessels, seemingly in huge, unified movements despite each Angfaruc on the docks only thinking of their task, pay, or family. Beyond the dock was the open sea, the looming island where Bupokhnong lay in hibernation barely visible from eyesight, like a shadow in broad daylight.

“So this is everything?” Thantzar asked.

The general cleared his throat while nodding. “Yep.”

The two men stood before a line of kneeling Kerboutay prisoners bound at the limbs, running down the expanse of the port. Angfar soldiers and workers carried across the harbor and deeper into the city a bit further away what they could salvage from the beached Kerboutay ships.

“That’s one fleet and hundreds less Kerboutay to worry about,” the general chuckled.

“And, at least for now, a moment where the winged lotus of Aro can fly undisturbed,” Thantzar noted.

“I always found your romanticism odd, friend,” the general frowned. “When can the lotus fly undisturbed until the war is over?”

Post by United federation of redland suppressed by Uyuti.

Hello this is the United Federation of redland we are a new power hungry nation set on becoming huge

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Homecoming

Copost with Ryeongse

The palace stirred with life, as servants and staff moved with desperation to pamper the court for the coming arrivals of their cousins to the east, those of Ryeongyse. Cha Jun sat quietly, as the court moved with utter haste to finish the last moment touches on the court, as scents were placed carefully around the hall, with new rugs and mats elaborately placed around the hall. They knew their task, and knew Cha Jun wanted a proper court in honor of his guests. It had been troublesome to ensure safe passage of the guests, and even harder to arrange a meeting. Months had passed at this point, and Cha Jun had truthfully begun to ponder if it was all for naught. Luckily, fate had fallen into his hands with Okkjeons capture, and with the path clear, he’d have his talks with the men who shared his ancestors.

Pan Young sat beside him, he’d become a familiar face of the courts, and the left hand of Cha Jun in recent campaigns and administration. His mustache was cleaningly trimmed, and his face was scented with the finest odors wealth could buy. He wore a linen robe of white, trimmed in purple silk, affiting to his standing in the court. A pair of ornate rings adorned his middle fingers, one a shade of blue, with the other, a shade of red.

To his right was his son, or rival some would say, Mok Kang-Young. He wore a simple robe of linen, a soft blue mixed with a softer green. He’d shaved his face since his adoption, and tried to become a more prominent member of the court, but struggled to actually play the game. It had endeared Cha Jun greatly, even if the soldier wasn’t cut for the soft words, and empty promises, his utter loyalty to the regime was enough.

Cha Jun had made sure to have both men readied for the arriving guests, hoping he could have some form of entourage accompany him in the talks, both men being his elders, they held an aura of some wisdom, even if both were merely ten years his elder. He needed these talks to go well, and hoped the two elders would support him in the talks if he began to falter.

He was still unsure on how the talks would proceed, but believed that a strong relationship with his southern cousins could bring profound benefits to his regime. He tugged at his collar, his throat feeling unusually tight, as he braced himself for the delegation.

“Gukwang,” Pan Young mumbled, in a slight whisper, “Fret not; this is merely talk among equals and friends.” He smirked, as he understood Cha Jun’s greater nervousness. “Do not fear, your Majesty, you have faced greater battles than that of a woman.”

Cha Jun smiled at his cousin, but still postured himself carefully, as he awaited his friends, and possible wife.

========

Munsang was glad he decided to wear his full suit of armor. It was a cold, cold winter. With steel lamellar armor reflecting the dim sunlight above with gold highlights signifying his rank, he hugged his baikhu mask closer to his face, guarding his mouth against the frigid air with a slightly warmer piece of steel with cloth padding. The winds experienced on the long trek northwards spooked his horse as well as the horses of his entourage, even causing him to fear that his tassel would blow away like a runaway scarf to the winds of the Eternals. Thankfully, that was not the case. His tassel, indicating his command over the cavalry of Ryeongse, touted its proud image atop Munsang’s helmet. Not that he depended on its image, but it was rude, after all, to greet a nation, a fellow Hyannic at that, with unimportant nobodies.

It was a surreal experience in Saeju. As Saejin guards bowed and escorted the Ryeongsean party to the palace in the center of Okkjeon, faces of monsu, as well as the occasional dsen and khemakh, weary as they were but with smiles on their faces, talked in Gogwihan-eo. They were accented differently and likely had their own dialectic words, but Munsang affirmed in his head that the two peoples’ tongues should be mutually intelligible. As mutually intelligible as fifteen hundred years of separation could ensure.

With Munsang were two heavy cavalry captains, each bringing a string of four heavy cavalrymen. Behind them, also mounted, were four Hyeongshinjo mages and six Cheonyanten guardsmen as well as a small group of diplomats, scribes, and scholars. Although the lamellar armor of the heavy cavalry, impressive as it was, showed little in the form of clothing quality, the Hyeongshinjo and the courtiers especially donned heavy swaths of richly-colored silk against the cold of Saeju, in contrast to the relatively modest clothes of the Saejin. There were uncanny similarities between Ryeongsean and Saejin clothes; after the entire history of the Kostuan Empire itself, from its rise to its demise at the hands of Namalar, Hyannic fashion had changed remarkably little, in the homelands itself as well as in the lands of the migrant Ryeongseans.

Key amongst the delegation, silently riding beside Munsang, was Amonaji Kanei. Donning sweeping layers of silk, her elaborate deep red and white hanbok suited against the icy Bantry cold, Kanei’s hair looped around close to her head on either side of it, before joining a larger braided swirl to the back. Neatly arranged hairpins glimmering with deep-blue sapphires intervallically adorned her golden head, hidden partially with an embroidered ayam winter cap. A small tassel hanging from its center flimsily twitched as the wind idly blew.

The horses idly shuffled their hooves as the company stood waiting before the gates of Okkjeon. Munsang shivered slightly. He turned to Kanei. No doubt that even with the thick and comprehensive hanbok she had on she felt the gelid air. Even so, she sat on her saddle, still and composed. Maybe it was a monsu thing, to be able to stand the cold. Maybe why compared to them, the Hyannic humans back then usually only clustered around the southern parts of the Confederacy. Nevertheless, the cold was unbearable to him. Perhaps because he found himself without adequate padding during the siege of the Kostuan remnant fortress. Perhaps because in that same cold he had lost so many brothers in arms. Munsang cleared his head. Trauma could wait. Business first. Besides, if news from Uyuti had indicated anything, Saeju had experienced its own period of trauma, thankfully now beginning to come to a close.

“This is it,” Munsang exhaled, trying to warm his face with his mask insulating the heat from his breath. He turned to Kanei once more. “Nervous, milady?”

Kanei kept silent, still attentively staring ahead at the unmoving city gate with large, glassy eyes, the same silver as her hairpins. Munsang pressed his lips together. He should not have been surprised. Kanei had said remarkably little in the months into their journey to Saeju.

The gates were massive, but well polished and maintained, imprinted upon them the names of each Gukwang that had called the city their home, along with artistic depictions of those who had built the city. Each monsu that had lifted a stone from the ground that had constructed the city into the wonder that it was today, or so the art would have you believe.

A horn bellowed out from the walls, as the riders were spotted, multiple horns across the walls returning the call, as the roar echoed from one end of the city to the other. Slowly the center gate opened, large enough for horse and man to enter without the full hassle of opening the massive gates themselves. Inside stoically stood a group of riders, the banners of multiple provinces and dynastic houses flapping in the cold breeze, as they awaited to accompany the guests to the palace proper.

One rider rode out to personally welcome the guests to the city, his uniform one of a simple Lamellar, with a belt of black, where his military honors dangled from his waist. His face was handsomely decorated by that of a simple mustache, but worn from exposure to the elements. He bowed his body as best as he could from his horse, as he turned his mare away from the party, and brought her to a stop.

“The people of the sovereign kingdom of Saeju, welcome you to his Majesty’s city of Okkjeon.” The rider spoke loudly, so all could hear, as he gestured them all into the city proper.

Munsang, Kanei, and the rest of the Ryeongsean delegation returned the rider’s bow with their own. “On behalf of the Kingdom of Ryeongse and the Won Dynasty which rules it, I as well as this delegation offer our humble and sincerest thanks for your hospitality.” This kind of speech was still new to Munsang. A part of him wished to return to that life of simplicity of being a lower-ranked soldier, receiving and executing orders without the need for pomp or such formal speeches. Still, if speaking like some sort of Byeolsan aristocrat was his duty now, then he would carry it out.

The rider smiled, nodding, before turning his horse towards the gate, “Follow closely behind, the people of Okkjeon have rallied across the city to welcome our southern kinmen, so do not separate from my party, or you may be lost among the crowds.” He finished, gesturing for the other riders to lead the way, moving the people aside as they began their march to the palace.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Saejin crowded the streets, though organized and built to handle massive crowds, the people came out in an unexpected number. They called praises to their southern kin, similar to that of how they’d welcome a foreign sovereign. Rumor had escaped the palace walls that among the delegation was perhaps the future Queen Consort of the realm, and as such the people crowded in excitement for their possible new queen. Many years had passed since the people of Okkjeon could celebrate a possible wedding, and so no expense was spared, as the people made sure to adorn the city with glamor befitting the possible wife of their Gukwang.

They screamed out warm welcomes and cheered as the delegation and riders slowly strode down the streets. Peddlers of goods presented dozens of expensive items, hoping one among the delegation would take their goods, and brandish it within the palace proper. So much was the excitement, multiple citizens tried to rush toward the delegates, all being halted quickly by the city milia, who walked beside the riders.

They wore elaborate hanboks, of varied colors, with decorative cloaks of red and white. In their hands they held banners of Okkjeon and the royal banner, newly created, representing the So-Okk dynasty. Hundreds of the guard stood along the center street, holding back the frenzied citizen body.

Munsang was stunned. Obviously, foreign hospitality was to be expected but only on the end of the audience which hosted the incoming delegation. Certainly not the common masses. Certainly not to this level of fervor. He caught words ranging from “A thousand warm welcomes to our kin to the south!” to “Who are those?”, but the overwhelming majority of voices clamored in infatuation, the best word to describe this feverish craze, with Kanei. He cast his concerned gaze at Kanei. She was as composed as ever, even if a glimmer of surprise danced about her eyes for a moment.

“Why this level of craze?!” Munsang did his best to yell his question over to his rider escort, pulling his mask down to make his voice so loud that it hurt. “And what can get them to stop?!”

The rider laughed, as he slowed his horse, to allow Munsang to ride next to one another, hoping to have an actual conversation, “The people have not welcomed a foreign delegation in decades, not to mention a possible queen.” He mumbled, gesturing to the young woman within their delegation.

As the aggregated party moved closer to the palace, even though hindered by the amassed crowds, Munsang put his hand to his chin. “How foreign do you in Saeju perceive us to be? Are we not both the children of the Homelands?”

The rider turned back to the attention of Munsang, puzzled, “The people do not view you as foreign, but merely lost, or separated. They are pleased beyond our understanding for relations in any form to be restored, alike to our shared country of old.” He said with a slight smile, before waving his attention back to the people.

Munsang let the rider focus on the people. The delegation was going to be stuck in the main street all day at this pace. The rider’s words floated around Munsang’s head. If the Myokko Hyannics were lost, then what were those who were still in the Homelands? It was true from a certain standpoint. There stood the Eternals serving as the curtain between Saeju and Ryeongse, an ugly scar and a testament to the suffering of the Hyannic people. There was also the province of Hyan under Uyutahn control, perhaps the greatest shame to Ryeongse and perhaps Saeju alike, if not even more. Although the Tong were allies to Ryeongse, in Uyutahn Hyan lingered a sense of defeat and humiliation. Munsang was unsure if the people there even spoke Gogwihan-eo anymore, a language even an exiled people like the Myokko had managed to preserve for centuries upon centuries.

Relations? That word stuck out to Munsang like a stain upon a piece of cloth. Did it really come to that, Ryeongse and Saeju not as two parts of a greater whole but two distinct nations? Even after a millennium and a half of separation, something which should have warranted little surprise at this concept of “relations” between Ryeongse and Saeju, it felt unnatural. But that begged the question: how united were the Homelands all those years ago, before Uyutahn boots marched eastwards in their campaign of conquest? Was not Wonmyokguk established as its own entity, separate from the monsu Hyannics who had already alienated this group of humans?

Perhaps Munsang’s source of confusion lay in Ryeongse’s relative isolation. Other nations out there spoke the same language and yet aligned themselves into different polities. The Hallish states, for example, all maintain a unique identity albeit united by language. All the way across the vast oceans in Tylos, the ruins of the Savoset Empire organized themselves not into one successor state but multiple, a fractured reflection of their once-mighty regime. It made no sense to Munsang to let such arbitrary divisions separate a common people and culture. But perhaps that was merely the order of the world. As little sense as it made.

Nevertheless, such relations did open the way toward something greater.

The wide city streets of Okkjeon slowly became more and more narrow, as the delegation began to reach the Royal Palace Quarter. The crowds began to fade, as the commoners slowly vanished, replaced by those of the minor nobility, or minor administrators who bowed their heads stiffly to their cousins of the south. The tone was much more elegant, along with the people, as they softly welcomed the distant travelers to the city proper.

The riders came to a quick stop, as the interior wall of the palace came before them. He gripped the horn that had adorned his waist, and blew it loudly, quickly summoning the opening of the palace gates. As the gates opened slowly, the riders unmounted their horses, dropping to their knees, before bowing in proper fashion.

The palace center adorned many pieces of art, varying from statues of noble lords, to expressive pieces of orante scenery, clearly commissioned from a more mild climate. Though the palace had an aura of uneasiness they could all feel, with a dark undertone that could be felt on the faces of those stone giants that stood within it. Many statues seemed partially unkept, while others seemed marked or damaged with stains of smoke permanently entrenched upon their very surface. Only two among the dozen marble kings imposed greatness, the two statues both standing twelve feet tall, were that of Okk Maeng Jun and his son Okk Cha Jun. Both were adorned in a layer of gold lamellar armor, while ornate jewels of a multitude of different colors draped down their shoulders. One man, the elder, lifted a geom of solid gold, pointed towards the west, while the younger, held a crown of gold pointed in the east. Both statues imposed an aura all of their own, as a contingent of the palace guard approached the party.

The guards all wore a single colored red Do upon their chests, stamped with a single pattern symbol of the unified So-Okk dynasty that had recently come into power. Every guard among, wore a blue or red decorative belt, representing their higher rank in the palace guard. Multiple men wore that of the jeonrip, some varying in color and size, while others wore a simple beonggeoji trimmed in red. Only three of the guards wore proper kabuto helms, polished to shine a deep maroon, with only two among the three, wearing menpo masks. Though they were far from organized, each monsu shared a commonality in their weapon attached to their waist, being that of a simple geom sword and a ceremonial dagger tucked under their belt.

The eldest of the guard, and clearly the most senior officer among them stepped before the esteemed guests, dropping to both knees, before bowing deeply. Soon the other guards followed their senior, letting six seconds pass, before the senior officer stood and addressed their most honored guests.

“His Majesty, the Gukwang, son of the eternal Gukwang Okk Maeng Jun, Fire in the East, Phoenix of the South, Father of the Heavens, Okk Cha Jun, welcome you to the Heavenly Kingdom of Saeju.” He addressed loudly, before saluting in military fashion, gesturing to the central palace doors. “His Majesty awaits you in his most humble hall.” He finished, as he stood in silence.

The palace doors opened moments later, clearly rehearsed for this very moment, the palace interior coming into view, with dozens of courtiers bowing their heads to the guests of their esteemed Gukwang. Horns blared in ceremonial fashion, and a multitude of drums beat, as the guests were welcomed into the hall of the eternal sovereign. The hall was long, but at the end, sat the royal family of Okkjeon.

Acknowledging the palace guards, Munsang led the Ryeongsean delegation down the hall, stopping halfway. He removed his mask, hanging it on his belt, and then got on his knees, his right leg first and then his left. As he and his armored men did so, a choreographed dance of response, the clanging of their plated greaves echoed throughout the palace hall. Putting both of his gauntlet-adorned hands in front of him, Munsang gently slid them forward, fully bowing and resting his forehead on his hands in a complete kowtow. He and the rest of the Ryeongsean delegation, including Kanei, remained in their bow as they waited for the acknowledgment of the Saejin king.

Cha Jun watched with unreadable silence, before lifting his right hand slowly, gesturing an acknowledgement, pleased by the respect shown to him as a sovereign. He smiled, examining the delegation carefully, before standing, as he gestured with both arms for them to be welcomed into his home. At this time a drum beat three times, and a horn blared from the back of the hall, a signal for the courtiers of the palace to exit the hall.

The courtiers quickly withdrew themselves in a timely manner, as servants readied mats for the delegation to rest upon, with a fresh tea kettle placed between the two parties. The formerly long hall was closed into two, as servants began to close the entrance off, pulling down another wall, shrinking the room into a more private abode. The palace guard remained, yet idley stood in silence around the four corners of the shrunken hall. Clearly still uneasy, but ready for any foul signs of aggression that could become their Gukwang.

Cha Jun sat with a firm posture, his linen and silk robes elegantly moving from his thin stature. “Please, sit, I beg you. Let us share a drink.” The young sovereign asked, gesturing if his guests would be so kind to drink with him.

Munsang knelt up from his kowtow, a look of surprise on his face. Definitely not the most orthodox procedure. But it would be even more imprudent to refuse the Saejin sovereign’s offer of hospitality. “We gratefully accept your offer,” Munsang bowed his head again before leading the Ryeongsean delegation to the mats set up by the palace courtiers. Munsang again looked at Kanei. She was following his lead just as she had done up until this point. Her face still seemed to yield nothing in the way of her thoughts or feelings.

In accordance with this change in atmosphere, Munsang felt it proper to remove his helmet, which had been glued to his head the entire time, and tuck it under his arm. The other men of the Ryeongsean delegation removed their helmets as well. Kanei had already removed her winter cap. The Ryeongsean delegation all sat on the arranged mats. Munsang and Kanei took the center spots while the other members of the entourage lined either side of the two outwards.

The young sovereign seemed pleased with the delegation, as he lifted the kettle himself, pouring each member of the delegation a small cup of tea, before doing likewise for his own family. “You must be quite surprised by my informality,” Cha Jun chuckled in an undertone, as he gestured for the delegates to each receive their tea, “but you must understand, as my guests, it is the duty as host to offer tea, especially to those of my kin.” He smiled, taking his own cup, blowing the off steam carefully, before taking a deep drink.

Munsang accepted his cup with both hands and a smile. "We are deeply honored by it, Your Majesty," he responded. The other Ryeongseans similarly accepted their teas. Munsang added with a slight chuckle, "Perhaps if the court in Byeolsan similarly offered tea to their guests at the start, we would receive more of them."

Cha Jun grinned, a slight smile lining his lips, as he thought of the foreign court that shared ancestry with his own. “I would see your court if you would have me, one day.” He added, knowing the state of his realm. He could not leave for some time, no doubt, yet the possibility of seeing new lands was a powerful dream for him.

Cha Jun straightened, as he took a sip of his own tea, wincing as it was still boiling hot. “We can now begin talks, if you would like, my friend.” He said, motioning, that he held the Gukwang’s audience. “If you would need anything, merely ask and you shall receive, if I am able.” He added, regarding food or other items.

“Of course,” Munsang replied with a bow at his head. Although the cold made him want for a nice cabbage stew to warm his insides, the tea he had for now would suffice. Besides, a feast would be in order once all matters were said and done. As such, Munsang began, “Firstly, I come bearing the earnest wishes of His Majesty the King of Ryeongse, in establishing relations with this fine kingdom. His Majesty’s request is for basic exchanges to take place, to facilitate the journeys of our nations’ travelers and travelers and for Ryeongsean and Saejin scholars to travel to the other nation to study with each’s own resources and facilities. In particular, if Your Majesty permits, a university in Yesanchom has voiced its interest in archaeological studies in Saeju, the successor of the Homelands from ancient times. From exploring possible ruins of our predecessor Wonmyokguk to collaborating with Saejin scholars on other findings, I believe this arrangement of exchange between our two nations can lead to our brightest minds reaching newer heights.”

Cha Jun leaned forward, his face uneasy to read, as his eyes revealed nothing of his thought, before sparking to life. “Yes, that could prove quite lovely, no, almost poetic.” He said with a hint of jest, as he sipped more of his tea. “Two lost brothers seeking out the history of their shared past, like one of the old songs they’d sing in the lowlands.” He said with a sly smile, as he glanced around to his confidant, before returning to Munsang. “Yes, I would find it most pleasing to agree to this exchange, and will contribute to any search for knowledge at my own expense.” He said, with a smile.

The insinuation was lost to the Ryeongsean general. “Thank you for your graciousness, Your Majesty. I am sure this will bring to both of our nations a newfound opportunity for growth and academic prosperity.” Munsang could not admit he felt completely ignorant of this proposal. He had often wondered about what relics of the past could be unearthed in the Homelands. Still, Munsang could not exactly feign complete interest either. He was much rather interested in conducting military drills with his brothers to the north rather than setting up forums of academic study.

Still, business was business. Although Munsang prided himself more as a soldier rather than an emissary, His Majesty of Ryeongse had sent him here, after all, as the leading representative of the entire kingdom to the inheritors of the Homelands.

“Secondly,” Munsang continued, “I come bearing an invitation by both Byeolsan and Tscynyasi, an offer to join our alliance and form a trilateral pact in the Northeast, against the hostilities to the west and to the south, from wherever they may come. If you should choose to accept, Your Majesty, the heads of state of each noble land can establish more details for an official designated place to ratify such an accord.”

Munsang could not be more removed from the words he was uttering. He felt no particular animosity towards the Tong, nor did he consider himself a sentimental historian, but it felt odd. His tongue relaying the words of His Majesty of Ryeongse did so with a pang of indifferent sorrow. The two descendants of the Homelands, splintered by the Eternals, joining forces with the descendant of that which conquered the Homelands. The easternmost parts of the ancient confederacy had at this point been forcibly stricken of their culture and history, not any more or less Uyutahn than its surrounding provinces.

Although it would secure the Northeast under common interests, the alliance would be poetically ironic. This tinge of tragedy would not be nearly enough to mitigate this proposal but be present enough to leave a tinge of something in at least the hearts of some in Ryeongse.

Besides, history was a discipline of the dead, decided and written by the dead. What mattered now was the living, in each state.

Cha Jun sat in silence for a long moment, his face unreadable as he processed the proposal, before a flick of his wrist brought Pan Young close to his mouth, as he whispered something. He whispered for some time, before Pan Young nodded, bowed, then left the room in a rushed manner. Upon the end of the private conversation, Cha Jun glanced at his guests, flashing a small grin, before he drank from his tea.

“I could join in a mutual alliance, yes, but I would have demands.” He began, as he placed his empty cup onto a mat on the floor. “I would have both of your states cover the expenses of my garrisons on the western border, with the Riddish, as well as help garrison my southern border, protruding past the safety of the Eternals.” He stated simply, as he poured another cup of tea from a kettle. “Meet these demands, and you can be secure in knowing, I will defend our shared interests in life and in death.” He concluded.

Munsang took a deep breath. “I will relay this information to both of our nations. As for the terms themselves, I can at least posit for Ryeongse that the kingdom would be willing not only to supplement Saeju’s western defense budget but also actively assist in securing the Eternals and Astrals, an area of interest and security for Ryeongse as well. I cannot speak for Uyuti, but I do not think such terms are an inconvenience to either nation if they serve the greater alliance bloc.” He took a sip from his tea.

“Lastly on His Majesty’s agenda concerning his delegation to the Kingdom of Saeju is the offer of marriage, with Your Majesty and thus into the So-Okk lineage,” Munsang continued, turning briefly to Kanei. Unlike before, at the precipice of the pact itself, Kanei appeared nervous, slightly biting down on her lip and trying to rein in her eyes to a specific spot. Munsang turned back to Cha Jun and continued, “We come here to officiate the agreement between the Nogyo Amonaji Clan and the So-Okk Dynasty.” Munsang procured from within his uniform a scroll tube, a deep, plain vermillion beautiful in its simple shade. He held it forward with both hands, bowing at his head. “This scroll contains the statements of both the Nogyo Amonaji Clan head and His Majesty the King of Ryeongse, for Your Majesty’s viewing and acceptance.”

Cha Jun took the scroll, skimming it, before placing it down, already knowing everything would likely be in order if these cousins to the south were truly like the Saejuan of the north. He smiled, glancing at the woman who would be his wife, then back to Munsang, “I accept this proposal.” He said, handing it off to a servant who bowed, and retreated, “That was a minister, he will have it evaluated then stamped and recorded as canonized in the records of state.” He said, before returning his eyes to Kanei, “An official wedding will need to be prepared, guests will need to be summoned, but as of now, at least in the state’s eyes we are husband and wife.” He concluded, before remembering, “Yet of course the people will demand a proper wedding in the style of the old ways.” He added.

Cha Jun’s, and everyone’s, eyes on Kanei, the Amonaji noblewoman slowly opened her mouth, composing herself with a breath forced straight, the frightful shakiness within it compressed by sheer will, “Thank you, Your Majesty,” she softly declared. “Whatever you should require of me will be done.”

Munsang took over, relieving Kanei of any more pressure, with a nod to her. He smiled at Cha Jun, “The old ways. How else can we possibly start the friendship and unity between kin once more?”

“Indeed, I will begin preparations, but as of now this business shall be considered concluded.” He said, before turning towards his bride, then Munsang, “I must call it here for now, but I shall discuss this further with you both soon. Please feel free to enjoy the comforts of my nation, while I continue my duties.” He said, before taking his leave.

Defiance

3k Expansion Post

Sorahnpu, Ivory Palace, High Rachya’s Chambers

Dhoyanha couldn’t sleep. The blissful mercy of rest evaded her, as it often did, whether she was sick with fever like weeks prior or healthy (as she could ever be) as she was now. Nevertheless, by now she had long been able to cope with such an unfortunate state of the body. She would often dedicate her time, therefore, to other things, whether continuing to run internal affairs late into the morning or retreat to her chambers to partake in some solitary activity.

Today, she was reading. Reading the chronicles of the Yuannon, of their governance and culture, recorded by Angfar scribes during and after the era of the Freehold. Dhoyanha, at her desk, low to the ground and before which she sat on a cushion, slowly slid a paper lantern closer to the tome laid out before her, like a course of Majalaran curry before her into which she was beckoned to dig in. So Dhoyanha had obliged. She was hours into the text at this point. Dhoyanha turned to the window, her hair haphazardly draped over her face with apathy. A faint glow tinged the horizon. The dawn was likely not too far away.

Dhoyanha placed her sleek finger on the current page, with her other hand curling back a particularly obstructive strand of hair behind her horn. She squinted. Savoset foolishness manifested into over-ambition, causing them to target a prize they could not win, the text read, in the Yuannic script. A script Dhoyanha as part of her Rachya education had learned under the tutelage of countless scholars. The might of the Yuannon was flung wholeheartedly at Emperor Yutu’s forces, the defense of the former’s home poured out as retribution onto the detached wishes of the latter. What did the Savoset have to win, against the potential loss to the Yuannon, that could have caused them to harness a drive greater than that of the Freehold?

So history was against her too. Yes, Dhoyanha had an ambition: the full unity of Fahuatai under her rule. The destiny of the island to be under one crown, as it had been under such a subdivision during the days of the Freehold. Her dream. Her father’s dream. Was that more than what the Kerboutay wished? For peace and independence? To choose their own destiny? If only she had been Rachya then instead of her father. If only she could have brokered some sort of compromise keeping both sides placated. And yet, here she was: inheriting the throne of a nation having lost hundreds of thousands to war. Were all these lives worth it for mere political goals? No, Dhoyanha knew. She shut the covers of the chronicle and stood, pacing melancholically to her bed. But it was too late to turn back now. To have all those lives poured out for nothing.

Even if what they died for didn’t warrant their lives, they warranted something. Anything.

Something scurried outside the window. Dhoyanha, now sitting on her bed, flung her head to that direction. A bird? No, a rat?

Silence. No, Dhoyanha supposed. If it were an animal, why stop whatever it was doing? Right when Dhoyanha had taken a look towards the window?

Dhoyanha slowly inched towards the ground, where her scepter was. She grabbed it noiselessly, picking the gold staff of the floor with silent dexterity. Placing one end at the top handle and the other at the scepter’s base, Dhoyanha squeezed both ends firmly. She slowly moved her head, incrementally shifting her peripheral gaze towards the window while her hair obscured her eyes from whatever was at the window.

Silence. Dhoyanha managed to get a view at the window. Her eyes shot wide.

At the window, creeping in as noiselessly as Dhoyanha had grabbed her scepter, was an Ikori, clad in black and brandishing a tekpi in his hand.

The Ikori lunged for Dhoyanha with a roar. Dhoyanha whipped around, pulled at her scepter’s end, rolled and ducked under the attacker’s leap, and plunged what was now an unsheathed kris sword into the Ikori’s shoulder. The attacker cried out in pain. Dhoyanha swept at the Ikori’s feet and drove the kris into the floor, pinning him.

The Kushatryi at her door immediately burst in. Brandishing trident spears, they rushed towards the High Rachya and her assailant, wedging themselves between the two.

“High Rachya,” one addressed, a hint of utter terror in his voice. The terror of failure. The failure to keep the Rachya safe. “Are you hurt?”

“I am fine,” Dhoyanha defiantly responded. “No thanks to you two.”

“Please accept our apologies,” the second Kushatryi blurted.

“No, it was not your oversight,” Dhoyanha sighed. “Not yours.” She took another look at the Ikori. He was silent, steely-eyed and gluing his lips together. “Take him to the dungeons,” she softly commanded, narrowing her own eyes, silver like the receding stars, to match the Ikori’s hateful gaze. “Prepare him for some of my questions.”

The Kushatryi understood. From his waist, one procured a cloth and wrapped it with rope around the Ikori’s head while the other bound his cloth around the Ikori’s injury as Dhoyanha slid her kris from his shoulder. His blood splattered the tiled floor and Dhoyanha’s nightgown as the assassin howled in pain. “And get someone to clean this filth,” Dhoyanha added as the Kushatryi exited the room, dragging the nonresisting Ikori out.

“Yes, High Rachya,” both responded simultaneously, before leaving altogether.

At that moment, the golden rays of the sun broke through the hills to the west.

{{==========}}

Sorahnpu, Lower Dungeons

This was only the second time Dhoyanha had ever come to the dungeons. And the first under a matter so dire to her safety as High Rachya. The first time she had come here was when she was a small child, lost in the lower catacombs after being separated from her father, who took Dhoyanha with him there. Why, she could not recall. All she remembered of that horrid day was the putrid stench, the terrifying darkness, and the wails, screams, and sinister groans of the prisoners. Her health had made things worse, as the narrow stone walls and extremely sporadic torch placement had made her feel claustrophobic; her nausea had lent its way to an excruciating headache, and when Dhoyanha’s father had found her, he found his daughter reduced to a ball, the girl in the fetal position and sobbing uncontrollably.

When Dhoyanha became old enough to wander the capital herself, she steered clear of the dungeons. She knew better than to enter for no reason.

And here was Dhoyanha’s reason, today, during a time of war. The dungeons felt even smaller now, but nothing seemed to swim or warp for her as it did all those years before. Additionally, knowledge of the dungeons, its purpose and the nature of those who were kept here, fortified her against those same noises, those same guttural screeches of agony, loneliness, and wrath.

Now that she was High Rachya, instead of just a sickly little girl whom the prisoners often took sadistic joy in tormenting behind their bars, the prisoners now carried themselves in a variety of manners, all different from before. Some prisoners bowed silently in deference to the High Rachya against whose laws they had sinned, while others ceased their noises if only to look, sometimes glare, at the passing ruler. Others still would curse at the High Rachya. “A miracle you didn’t die before your father did!” one prisoner callously taunted. “May you cough your lungs out and die like a streetside leper!” another shouted. Whenever such insults would be flung, the dungeon guards at each cell would enter with lightning-fast impulse, brandishing tonfas and proceeding to beat into submission their prisoner for the honor of the Rachya. Dhoyanha would pay the prisoners or the subsequent beatings no heed, as she kept walking to the Ikori assassin imprisoned here. Her principal destination and duty. The words would hurt no less, however. Dhoyanha bit her lip, taking her pain out on her lip.

“Perhaps Aro has truly abandoned us. The next ‘voice’ she sends can’t even speak without coughing like a dog.” Dhoyanha stopped. Her Kushatryi escorts behind her halted as well. She turned to face the prisoner who had uttered the curse. In the cell, bound to the floor with chains, was a female Gorrin, one of her horns broken off. Her face was scarred on that same side.

Dhoyanha walked up to the cell’s bars. “Must you insult Aro alongside me? I can bear curses directed at me. I cannot be so tolerant towards slander to our goddess,” she answered coldly. Her voice was devoid of all emotion, but a faint tremor in it indicated a suppressed anger.

Dhoyanha turned to the cell guards. “Let me in,” Dhoyanha spoke. The guards bowed at the head and unlocked the cell. The gate slid open with a piercing squeak against friction, dirt, and rust. The Rachya entered, her deep red gown sliding behind her, as if she glided over to the prisoner in righteous vengeance. “Mawpiang Darija,” Dhoyanha cited. “Political insurrectionist and arsonist. Arrested five years ago in Sorahnpu for the murder of six administrators.”

“I’m surprised dirt like us gets remembered by you,” Mawpiang snorted derisively. As with all the prisoners, Mawpiang was reduced to a loincloth, an additional strip of cloth around her chest like all the other female prisoners, as her only clothing, appearing animal next to Dhoyanha’s resplendent outfit.

“Is that not your victory, to be remembered in the end?” Dhoyanha smiled cruelly. “Although you would be hard-pressed to find your name uttered outside the heart of the capital, much less the island.”

“Well, to break it to you, princess, some of us want actual change as our goals,” Mawpiang spat at Dhoyanha’s hooves.

Dhoyanha looked upon Mawpiang with condescending disgust. “A relief to the island that your ‘changes’ will never occur.” She knelt before Mawpiang, matching her at eye level, close enough to peer into her soulless eyes but far away enough so that Mawpiang’s potential sudden outburst would be limited by her chains before she could physically harm the Rachya. “Even in here, you have managed to bring a greater punishment upon yourself.”

“May you perish like the disgrace you are. Aro choosing you was a mistake,” Mawpiang repeated. She spat directly into Dhoyanha's face. The Rachya leaped back, stumbling out of the cell as her Kushatryi guardsmen caught her.

“You dare—!” the cell guards simultaneously shouted in fury as they entered the cell and began to beat Mawpiang down with their tonfas. Even as Mawpiang grunted in pain, she bore a triumphant, sadistic smile on her face.

“She is unworthy to be offered up to Aro. There are some criminals whose sacrifice would be an affront to our goddess,” Dhoyanha sighed, wiping her face with a kerchief from her guard in contempt. “Immolate her after I leave. Alive and conscious.” She turned to leave, continuing down the dark hallway to her would-be assassin. Behind her chased Mawpiang’s laughter. It haunted Dhoyanha.

She soon reached the cell of the assassin. Like Mawpiang, the Ikori was stripped of his clothing, save for his bare undergarments. He was similarly chained to the floor. His slender face was covered in a crusty mixture of blood and saliva, his black fur being caked a dark maroon. Despite his feeble state, his eyes were fully aware. And hateful, as Dhoyanha entered the room and beheld the prisoner.

“You left him able to speak, yes?” Dhoyanha asked the bowing cell guards.

“Of course, High Rachya,” one of them responded curtly.

“Good.” Dhoyanha paced around the rather spacious cell, wide enough to give Dhoyanha an ample amount of space between her and the assassin. She looked upon his wound once again. The bleeding had been sealed, for the most part, but the guards had used the point to inflict upon their prisoner additional pain. From that, it seemed the Ikori would be scarred for the rest of his life. Not that he would have long to live, anyway.

Dhoyanha had just condemned a prisoner for insulting Aro through insulting her. There was to be no hope for the attempted murder of the High Rachya, therefore. But Dhoyanha had questions.

“What is your name?” Dhoyanha asked sharply.

The Ikori gave no answer.

“What is your name?” Dhoyanha repeated, more sternly. She glanced at the guards, whose puzzled look told her that the Ikori remained silent voluntarily.

At last, the Ikori croaked, “I have no name other than my dream.”

“Your dream?” Dhoyanha raised an unamused eyebrow.

“You know them well, do you not?” the Ikori chuckled. “The Cuan Chih Dhao.” The Kerboutay.

“So they resort now to espionage and murder, like petty criminals,” Dhoyanha sneered as she continued to slowly pace around the Ikori, whose head was kept solidly forward, refusing anything to the Rachya.

“I was not sent,” the Ikori coughed. “Not by anyone higher than myself.”

“Would have been convenient for the Kerboutay if you had succeeded, nevertheless.”

“I did not expect a sickly child to be able to stop me.” the Ikori closed his eyes. “I have underestimated you.”

“What a moment of revelation,” Dhoyanha mockingly smiled. “A shame you shall not have the opportunity to learn from your mistakes.”

“I suppose not, no,” the Ikori sighed. “What will it be, High Rachya? Immolation? An offering to Aro? Beheading?”

“Nothing that will come soon,” Dhoyanha answered matter-of-factly. “I still have questions for you.”

The Ikori rolled his head around, cracking the joints in his neck with a sigh of satisfaction. “Sure,” he said.

“You would answer?” Dhoyanha stopped, turning to the Ikori and approaching him, even closer than the chains provided safety for.

“Of course, anything for the High Rachya,” the Ikori jested, mocking a bow. “I find it prudent that you should know what is coming. You cannot stop it. My hope is that when everything does crumble by what’s already in motion, you would know what exactly is to occur and how powerless you truly are when you learn you cannot stop but a single thing.”

“So you did not act alone,” Dhoyanha concluded.

“No,” the Ikori laughed. “Did you think it an oversight or coincidence I was able to intrude upon your quarters with such ease? Especially with the Rachykhina under war?”

“How deep is this?” Dhoyanha pressed. She still stood facing the Ikori, too engulfed in the apparent conspiracy to resume her idle pacing.

“That is something I cannot disclose,” the Ikori pondered.

Dhoyanha sighed. It seemed the Ikori would not reveal everything. Just enough, apparently, to bring upon her despair. If only it actually worked.

“Do they all want to kill me? Is my death their ultimate goal?” Dhoyanha pressed.

“The death of the Rachykhina,” the Ikori gazed up at the ceiling as in rapture, “and the birth of Fahuatai: free of the curses of your dynasty.”

Dhoyanha bit her tongue. She pressed her lips together and turned away, closing her eyes. “My dynasty may be cursed, but Aro has entrusted me to lead Angfaran,” she simply stated. “As such, I will not fold to these schemes, and I will stop whatever it is that is in motion.”

“Don’t be so sure,” the Ikori grunted. He leaned towards Dhoyanha, still facing away from him, towards the mold-covered wall. “Because you are not the only one who knows of us. There is another force at play. Watch yourself. We are not the only people you should consider as your enemy.”

The Rachya slowly turned to face the Ikori once more. “All of this. How can I be sure that this is true? Is everything a lie?”

“You would just have to trust me,” the Ikori broke into a malicious grin.

{{==========}}

Sorahnpu, Royal Palace, Throne Room

Dhoyanha sat in silence on her golden throne, leaning forward with both elbows upon her knees and both hands pressed together resting at her mouth. Before her were congregated advisors, generals, and palace staff, separated by meters enforced by Kushatryi guardsmen.

Her spire-like crown felt heavier than usual. Her entire body felt like a weight. Nights of sleeplessness had seemed to have finally caught up to Dhoyanha. She knew she was cursed to begin with, but her curses only multiplied from what others had heaped onto her. And now, the potential of treason within the palace was her latest burden pushed upon her already weary shoulders. Dhoyanha was afraid. Not of the threat of treason or death but of her burdens and curses becoming too heavy for her to bear. What then? Of her and Angfaran?

Still, the Ikori’s information had been helpful. It seemed the Ikori had underestimated her yet again. The nights afterward, she spent skimming through records and palace logs with her close palace friends and advisors, and even these Dhoyanha felt she had to vet extremely carefully. To her relief, not only did nothing show up for them, but they showed no signs of resistance, humbly deferring to the Rachya their fate.

Through instinct, she excluded from this secretive circle her regent, Buyritthorn.

“The war with the Kerboutay has reached the palace,” Dhoyanha calmly announced. This generated a round of murmurs and clamor in the audience. She silenced the crowd by meekly clearing her throat, continuing, “If you were already unaware, I was attacked two weeks ago in an attempt on my life. Luckily, through Aro’s grace, I was able to evade death, for now.”

The crowd stayed silent this time, although likely, from their range of expressions, Dhoyanha knew they had a million things to say. Nevertheless, she added, “This killer was abetted. No one, as you know, would be able to enter my chamber windows without the awareness of the entire palace. Even if those involved in the security of that part of the palace did not intentionally bring an assassin to my room, I will still count this, whether genuine treachery or unfortunate negligence, as treason. Theeradon Mahidol. Nekk Monkoltham. Tisorn Chaiyahue. Warala Pridai. Chayond Khemanchih. Step forward.”

A small group of advisors and security officers stepped forward, some in confidence, some in indifference, some in conviction, and others in confusion. Dhoyanha addressed them with narrowed, cold eyes, “You and your men would have surely caught the intruder, should you have been attentive to your jobs to the standard required by me, the High Rachya of Angfaran.”

One spoke out, “I—”

“Save it for below,” Dhoyanha sighed. “Whether innocent or guilty of treason, the fact still remains that the Rachykhina was nearly thrown into ruin over my attempted murder. You will answer either for your ignorance or your betrayal of the nation in the dungeons.” Kushatryi guards stormed at the named officials in the blink of an eye, dragging each below. Some cried out in indignant protest while others whimpered in fear. Still, some remained silent, even as they were forced out of the throne room and into torture in the dungeons.

Dhoyanha turned to the remaining attendants of the court. “To those of you loyal to the Rachykhina, be on your wits’ end. Fortify your heart against the temptation of traitors, and find those whom you can trust. To those of you against me whom I have not been able to identify yet, know this: you fight not against me but against Aro. Are you still so confident in your cause?”

One Path Forward: Part I

Copost with Eskeland

Byeolsan, Inner District, Royal Palace, Throne Room

The twin, behemoth doors of the palace throne room groaned open, beckoning Theodor to an expansive hall, devoid of all people except sporadically standing Cheonyanten guardsmen and, in the center of the hall, before a low table to the ground and on a cushion before one side closer to the throne, was King Jangyeon. On the table was a teapot and two jade cups, atop jade saucers.

“Sit with me, please,” Jangyeon smiled, beckoning with one hand while pouring with his other a splash of green tea.”

Theodor followed by sitting on one of the cushions, “Thank you for inviting me. Now, was there something you wished to discuss with me? I assume you didn’t invite me here just to talk.”

Jangyeon chuckled softly. “What is wrong with simple talk?” He gently slid one cup and saucer to Theodor. “But no,” Jangyeon’s face grew more serious. “I want to get to the point: after consideration, for the interests of Ryeongse and for the stability of Eastern Sokos, I offer my aid in your conflict against your pretender. Nothing too large, of course. We have our own nation to worry about, and we are not allied. Nevertheless, I cannot sit by and allow a region near us to fall into instability. Much less so if it should fall under the hands of a volatile despot.”

"So this is what the small meeting is about, hmm…" Theodor took a sip of tea from the cup, "While everything is under control, I must admit some help would be more than welcome, especially from such an esteemed person like you, the faster this war is over the better it is for everyone. But I assume this isn't out of the kindness of your heart, what do you want in exchange?"

“To only offer help to my neighbors in exchange for a service is extortion, to say the least,” Jangyeon remarked, sipping his tea slowly. “I do so for the interest of Ryeongse and for Eastern Sokos. The only thing I want in exchange is your victory and Eskeland’s commitment to peace in Sokos, something I am certain that Mikhail will not honor. That is why he needs to fall. And if I can expedite this process, then why should I refrain from doing so?”

“Spoken like a true Eskelian. Then I suppose there is no reason for me to not accept. Very well Jang, I shall accept. What will you be sending over?”

Jangyeon raised an eyebrow at Theodor’s curious slang. He answered the Eskelian king’s question, mostly unfazed, “I shall be sending ten thousand men, as well as a supplementary detachment of my navy. Four thousand heavy infantry, three thousand light cavalrymen, and three thousand heavy cavalrymen. Quite large for a foreign expedition but one made possible through the proximity of the conflict, which also explains why I want to send so many. I am additionally wary of,” Jangyeon searched for the Kostuan term while letting his tea swirl in his mouth, “bleeding over of the Eskelian succession crisis. A resolved conflict is a contained conflict.”

“You are right about that, which is why I want this war over as soon as possible. Those are generous numbers, it will suffice and I must thank you for it, Ryeongsean compassion truly knows no bounds.” Theodor sighed, “Can’t say this war hasn’t taken a toll on my health, certainly not what I was expecting I would do in my twenties, but a king must do his duty to protect its citizens no matter the cost and I answered the call.”

Jangyeon nodded. “You have done well. Ryeongse is proud to have such a meritorious people under an honorable king at its border. Although these few men I can send over cannot dictate the result of the war, we can only pray chaos does not descend upon Eskeland and, by extension, this region.” He leaned over slightly, taking the pot of tea and pouring it into Theodor’s empty cup. “Now, with that heavy topic over, I suppose we can move onto lighter discussions, if you have nowhere else to be.”

“Certainly, I can spend a few more minutes, I would like to stay for longer but, well, I have something important to do, but I would like to come some other time and have a proper talk ”

The two kings spent a few more minutes of the morning discussing the political affairs of Sokos. They had a great time. Theodor soon after left heading towards the estate where he was residing for the moment. Upon his arrival he was greeted by the captain of his guard who handed him a small package delivered from Eskeland, opening it he saw the item he had sent to get made. Closing the package again he headed inside to get changed.

A few hours later, Theodor came out of the residence, dressed in his most elegant outfit, and wearing his best feathered hat, he headed out, leaving in one of the palanquins, to the royal library where he was to meet up with Heonmye, in his pocket he had the small item he had received a few hours ago.

{{==========}}

Byeolsan, Inner District, Royal Palace, East Wing Study Hall

Heonmye paced about the length of the hallway in melodramatic impatience. She pressed her lips together in worry, slightly smudging together her deep maroon lipstick. Heonmye wore a deep blue sweeping hanbok skirt, completely obscuring her feet, with gold highlights, underneath a lengthy, sky-blue jeogori coat also bearing these elaborate patterns. Her long, usually untameable hair was forcibly constrained to swirled braids about her head, an effort that took hours and the irreconcilable ire of her personal attendants. Still, with gold dragon hairpins affixed to her head, the task seemed worth it. Heonmye prided herself earlier in the mirror, wearing more professionally noble attire rather than her carefree casual outfit.

Which completely contradicted her rather unladylike impatience. Thank the gods she requested the hall be cleared when she and Theodor had planned their meeting.

Against her bosom she held tightly a rather girthy scroll, encapsulated in a gold cover. She frantically ran her fingers across the cold, metallic surface as she waited. Heonmye took a deep breath. I’ve done worse up until this point, she thought to herself. Heonmye stopped and shook her head. That helped with nothing whatsoever. Relax. Heonmye kept echoing the word in her scattered mind.

The door to the study hall opened. Heonmye held her breath, letting it go past her resolute mouth slowly as she approached the entering king of Eskeland.

Theodor closed the door behind and approached Heonmye, with a kiss to her hand he greeted her, “Hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long, oh wow, you look stunning today, that hanbok looks perfect on you, especially the colour, it highlights your features and your hair, you truly are the envy of the goddesses.”

Heonmye blushed, her cheeks nearing the red on her lips and the sunset outside in modesty. “Thank you, O Lord of the Avernai,” she jested, her eyes gesturing towards Theodor’s hat. “You look great, too, really,” Heonmye leaned forward and greeted Theodor with a more familiar kiss on the lips.

“Great as always. Actually.” Theodor went to take something out of his pocket.

“I have something to tell you.” Theodor and Heonmye fell dumbly silent, having said the same thing at the same time. Heonmye blushed and curled back a rebellious strand of hair.

“Oh of course, go ahead you first.” Theodor gestured.

Heonmye did a cheery little curtsy in acknowledgment. Her cheeks flushed an even brighter red. “Um,” she began, clearing her throat. “After careful consideration of my own feelings, my state, and my aunt’s wishes, I have decided that,” she cleared her throat again, this time to quell not her throat but her palpitating heart, “I have decided that I want to marry you. Um,” she flustered, almost dropping her scroll before a dumbstruck Theodor, “if that’s all right. I love you too much to not do so, I think. Would—would you marry me?”

Theodor was taken aback by her words, as it was unusual, if rare, for a woman to propose to a man from where he was, but he should have expected it knowing her, nonetheless it made Theodor happy, who also was going to propose to her, “Oh” He chuckled, “Of course I accept, I was going to do it too. You make me extremely happy and… I can’t imagine a life without you, I want you to be my queen. I even sent a jeweller back home to make this special ring for you to signify our engagement, it’s decorated with your favourite gem, pearls.”

Heonmye blushed even more, if that was possible, taking Theodor’s ring and running it through her finger. “I accept your proposal as well,” she giggled. “I guess if we were both going to do so, it was destined that we would be together.” She suddenly stood straight, as if an electric jolt ran through her body. “Right,” she blurted. “I forgot to give you this.” She extended with two hands the covered scroll to Theodor. “My engagement gift. Not jewelry, but I hope you can appreciate it. A collection of historic and modern Ryeongsean short stories and poems. An edition with a Kostuan translation written beside the original, with annotations made by yours truly.” Heonmye smiled triumphantly.

"This is a great gift, very unique, I can't wait to get into it. So I suppose all that is left is to tell your aunt, I hope she is fine with this." Theodor smiled.

“Yes, we should tell her that everything went well with the engagement and all that’s left for me is to leave to Eskeland with you.” Heonmye paused, her smile faltering into solemnity. “If only my aunt could come with. I suppose such is the life of the niece of the highest-ranking military advisor in the kingdom.”

"Such a lovely relationship you have with your aunt, I also have someone in my family who I love very much the same way you love your aunt, my cousin, Hildegard. She is like my second mother in a way, sad that we barely see each other these days ever since she married Obren and moved to Dhorvas, thankfully we still communicate through letters.”

“It seems duty is duty,” Heonmye somberly replied. “But I knew what is required of me should I agree to be with you. I must leave my home to join you as you return to yours.”

Theodor sighed, "Home, I'll soon be back home. Let's go, I'd like to make a stop by the estate before going to your aunt." Theodor grabbed her hand, and the two of them left the library.

{{==========}}

Outskirts of Mavgilias, at the border with Eskeland

The sprawling fortress stood resolute against the dawn trickling over the western Eskelian hills. The shadows of the forests beyond into Eskeland seemed to almost lick at the border with Ryeongse, as if reaching for help. A sea of stone and brick, the fortress, topped with black-as-night tiles, was a veritable maze of battlements, courts, and walls. Activity about the fortress was somehow even more frantic than before. After all, Ryeongse was preparing to send off the most powerful man in Eskeland back to his throne to lead his nation out of civil war—alongside his Ryeongsean queen.

Naehwa tugged at Heonmye’s outer jeogori coat, securing the layer as Heonmye chafed. “I’m an adult,” Heonmye pouted impatiently.

“You’re my daughter,” Naehwa impassively retorted. “Hold still. You did all this wrong.”

Jangyeon stood watching the aunt and niece, beside Theodor, also watching, as Theodor’s and Heonmye’s palanquin was approaching readiness. The Dsen bearers were chatting amongst themselves placidly, poking the occasional joke at politics, Theodor, and the latest spike in vegetable prices.

Jangyeon turned to the Eskelian king. “You must be quite apprehensive. And excited. Heonmye is an excellent scholar and woman. You should take this fortune with a grateful heart. To her and to whomever you believe in.”

"It has been a blessing, if I am to be honest with you, I never thought I would come out of here with a wife, but life works in mysterious ways and certainly fate has brought us together, I just hope she is able to adjust to life in a foreign country."

“If she is anything like Naehwa,” Jangyeon chuckled, “she will be fine. As long as Eskeland has a collection of scholarly works, which I doubt your nation has any lack in.”

“Your Majesty!” a fortress administrator called out. In a simple yet richly colored hanbok and idly toying in one hand with the beaded strap of his gat hat, the man was over at the palanquin, pressing his lips together in satisfaction. He bowed to the two kings. “Preparations are all in place.”

“Speaking of which,” Jangyeon added with a finger in the air, as if a small eureka moment reached him. “I will be sending a sizeable escort contingent of twenty heavy cavalrymen, fifty light cavalrymen, ten mages, and one hundred light infantry to guide the palanquin to its destination, to return once you reach Pradl. I am sure your men can receive you once the border crossing is made, but extra reinforcement hurts no one.” More seriously, he continued, “Eskeland is in a state of war, after all, and under our safety currently is the king and future queen consort of the nation. To risk your lives outside of Ryeongsean soil would be foolish.”

"Thank you, I truly appreciate it. Our journey will be long, we have to take a ship from Pradl to Nyholm and from there a carriage to Valendorf, I unfortunately received the news of the fall of Tidahamn to Mikhail's forces, retaking it is going to be a real challenge. But anyways, I need to thank you for receiving me in your country. It has been an experience I will be looking forward to repeating under better circumstances."

“I as well. Perhaps I could even pay a visit to Eskeland in its truest splendor under the peace that will last ages,” Jangyeon smiled. He bowed to Theodor at the waist in cordial professionalism. “May the gods watch over you and Heonmye, and may balance be restored in Eskeland.”

Almost as if on cue, Naehwa and Heonmye finished their conversation, the former walking back to Jangyeon, bowing to Theodor on the way, while the latter entered the palanquin, imparting one last look upon her aunt and her king. Her eyes then fell on Theodor as she beckoned him into the palanquin. To Eskeland.

One Path Forward: Part II

Copost with Ryeongse

Eskeland, Valendorf

The voyage was long, their arrival in Pradl was met by a welcoming party from the people, who not only cheered for the return of their king, but also the arrival of their new guest, but that was just the beginning, the real celebration would come after. As soon as they could, they boarded a ship for Nyholm and followed the coast to avoid any storms or strong waters, days after they arrived in the city. From there would begin the final trek of their journey, the carriage to Valendorf. Followed by members of the Königsgarde and other nobles, the royal caravan departed.

After a long week of travel, Valendorf appeared on sight, St. Somerled’s Cathedral standing above the rest. Theodor was happy to finally be back home. He looked to his side to see an ever curious Heonmye taking in the sights of the foreign land, the first time she’s ever been outside of Ryeongse, “Welcome to Halder, my birthplace and home.” Said Theodor to Heonmye.

Lost for words, Heonmye could only take in the sights: the neatly arranged houses with rooves like autumn forests, the placid river by the city’s side, the cathedral stabbing into the sky like the sword of the city, in a quest to claim the space above them for itself. “It’s beautiful,” was all Heonmye could say with an awed giggle.

The carriage stopped in front of the cathedral where a welcoming party composed by the highest members of the council and other important people awaited them. The soldiers lined up and people from all over town congregated to welcome the new guest. Theodor helped Heonmye of the carriage.

Forward came Stefan who bowed and greeted them, “Your majesty, welcome back. How was your stay in Ryeongse?”

“It was extremely pleasing, I’m looking forward to returning there once the war is over,” Theodor answered brightly.

“I am glad to hear that, but don’t forget us.” Stefan chuckled, “And is this who I think it is? The future queen of Eskeland?” Stefan greeted her with a kiss on her hand. “A pleasure to finally make your acquaintance.”

Heonmye bowed fully at the waist to greet the noble. “It is an honor to meet you. Your reputation and honor to both the av Valbergs and Theodor have not gone unheard. My name is So Heonmye of Daemyundan in Ryeongse, nice and adopted daughter of Chief Advisor So Naehwa. And yes,” she smiled, “future queen consort to Theodor and of Eskeland.”

"Thank you, although my reputation is nothing to brag about. Well then tell me, how are you finding our beautiful country?"

Heonmye glanced around again at her surroundings. The cathedral towered above the party like a mountain, amidst the forest of surrounding buildings. The streets were serene and cheery, even with the atmosphere of war still present. The Eskelian people were wary and carried fear in their hearts, but they bore their troubles with a smile. “It’s splendid,” she answered at last. “Your people are very strong, able to bear the burden of war in such a determined and peaceful way.”

Stefan chuckled, "That much is true and how-"

"Allow me to interrupt you Stefan."

"Of course your majesty."

"What about the wedding preparations I told you about? Is everything ready for next week?"

"But of course, Friedrich is taking care of the last details, everything should be in place a few hours before the wedding. The invitations have been sent out as well, many have confirmed they will come."

"Good, great, amazing job, make sure to send my thanks to the rest. This wedding must be perfect, the grandest this country has ever seen, Heonmye deserves nothing less. Stefan, it's time for us to leave, we are tired from the voyage."

"Of course your majesty, take a good rest, same to you Lady Heonmye." With a goodbye from both, Theodor and Heonmye left for the residence they would reside in until the wedding day came.

In the next coming days a festival would be held to honor the wedding. Citizens and foreigners alike would find their way in to assist the festival and witness the wedding preparations

A week later

"I must say, Eskelian clothing makes you look even more beautiful, is there anything in this world that looks bad on you? How is it, too tight?" Theodor asked, examining Heonmye before a mirror.

“Certainly not as easy to breathe through as my hanbok,” Heonmye observed with a playful smile. She spun around and peered into the mirror. The colors were bright and vibrant, with the dress more frilly in some parts than her hanbok. Her collar was bare with the dress, another departure. Heonmye felt a little embarrassed at the dress’ rather indecently low neckline. It made her miss the modesty of her ethnic clothes. Nevertheless, although the aesthetics remained largely foreign to her, the dress had character. It had charm.

Even if not, perhaps this would be the kind of dress she would be expected to wear as the queen consort of Eskeland. Although, what would be wrong with wearing the hanboks she packed once in a while?

Heonmye tried moving her arms. The dress gave her more freedom there, as her sleeves felt airy and light. Her legs, under a similarly bulky skirt, were still quite restricted. Even more so than her hanbok, this dress restricted Heonmye’s waist. It was harder to sit without being restricted upwards, with a stiff back. Turning or bending forwards was near-impossible, thus making it harder for her to bow. Perhaps this was why women curtsied in the west. They had no other choice.

"Do not worry about it, you will get used to it after a while, probably…" Theodor chuckled, "But I won't limit you to using our clothing only in court, you can wear your hanboks whenever you want. So… this is your first time in a foreign country, how does it feel? I know it must be weird."

“It’s… refreshing,” Heonmye answered, deliberating her words. “I already miss home so much, but being here is like a different world, a breath of new air. And yet many things remain the same.” She turned now to fully face Theodor. “It is this country that I seem to have to behold not as some tourist but as queen now, it seems.” She leaned forward and planted a quick kiss on Theodor’s cheek. “At least you’ll be with me as I do so.” She smiled.

"Gods I'll never get tired of you." A knock on the door distracted the two lovebirds, "Yes? Come in" Answered Theodor.

In came one of the servants "Sire, the procession is here." She said

"Ah excellent. I suppose it is time to go Heonmye, are you ready?"

Heonmye nodded. “Let’s get married,” she answered, taking a deep breath.

========

The streets were lively like never before, so much that it would make anyone forget the war, citizens were gathered from all around the country to see the procession. At the front, the musicians played their songs, with trumpets and drums, followed by the soldiers of the Königsgarde, never letting their guard down, and standard bearers, following close by, nobles, some mounted on their horses other by foot, and then in the middle was the carriage with Heonmye inside and Theodor to her side mounted on his horse, waving at the people who cheered and clapped as the couple went by, at the back more standard bearers and finally, following last, the Hakkapeliitta proudly flying the banners of the kingdom on their lances.

The procession ended at the cathedral, where a long red carpet was laid on the ground from the entrance all the way to the point where the carriage would stop, the soldiers lining up along the way. The first one to enter were the nobles, followed by the patriarch of the country, Patriarch Vidar. Then came the carriage, with Theodor dismounting his horse to help Heonmye off the carriage, then together they went inside. And finally the rest of the guests from the lowest of classes.

The cathedral was decorated like never before, banners of the different houses, duchies, and baronies draping down from the railings at the top, a long red carpet that extended all the way to the altar from the door in continuation of the previous one. Flowers of different colours were placed on the sides of the benches. At the end stood the fresco of St. Somerled, illuminated by the coming light, blessing and presiding over the wedding.

The people took their seats, others who couldn’t find where to sit, stood, the patriarch positioned himself facing the crowd on his altar, with a book in his hand. Theodor and Heonmye began their walk towards the altar, linked arm to arm until they reached it

The patriarch began the ceremony with the sermon, in triumphant Skeljaner, “My friends, we are gathered here today to celebrate one of the most important moments in the life of a man and a woman and one of the biggest moments in the history of our country, the king’s wedding. It is truly beautiful to see that even in times of war the people are able to find the time to fall in love, especially our beloved king, who on his official trip to Nyskarna, was able to find his other half. It is truly humbling, and under the watch of St. Somerled, and the gods, we are able to carry it out without any inconveniences.” The patriarch kept going at it for a while longer, citing passages from the Book of Love, the book of the goddess Kara.

Theodor leaned in and whispered to Heonmye’s ear, “How are you holding up? Do you understand what he is saying? I should have asked him to say all of this in Hallish or Halder.”

“Some words here and there,” Heonmye mouthed back discretely. “I think I get the gist, though. I should be able to distinguish the vows and the kiss.” She winked.

“Alright. Hey, see that fresco in front? That’s the image of St. Somerled. They say when it is illuminated by the light, it means he is presiding over the wedding or any other event; this goes for the other churches dedicated to saints.”

Heonmye silently observed the artwork, the somewhat foreign words of the priest flying over her head. The magnificent hues glowed brazenly from the sunlight. It seemed this saint, with his stoic gaze, approved of Theodor and Heonmye’s union.

“Now, let us finally commence the last part of this most blessed ceremony.” Said the patriarch, opening the book he had in the altar, “Under the presence of St. Somerled and with the blessing of Kara, goddess of love, I recite the following; Theodor von Rosenthal, do you accept So Heonmye to be your wife and queen, on the good and bad times, until the day of your death?”

“Yes I do.”

“And do you, So Heonmye, accept Theodor von Rosenthal as your husband and king, on the good and bad times, until the day of your death?”

Heonmye understood Theodor’s affirmation and deduced what the question could be. She took a deep breath and briefly closed her eyes. Thinking of her parents. Her aunt. “Yes,” she announced with a serene smile, in native Gogwihan-eo, nodding to universally convey her statement.

“Then by the power ordained to me by the gods and under Lady Kara’s blessed watch, I declare the couple to be wed, you may now kiss.”

This time it was Theodor who embraced his new bride and queen in his arms, bringing her face to his as the couple kissed, to the jubilation of the congregation. Heonmye reciprocated her husband’s embrace and blissfully sank into his kiss, with cheers and applause from the crowd and the ringing of the bells.

========

Not long after the end of the wedding and being congratulated by most of the guests, the newlyweds departed on the carriage, for the tourney held in their honour.

“I’m gonna participate and win it in your honour.” Said Theodor to Heonmye.

Heonmye scrunched her eyebrows. “I’d be… honored?” she replied with perplexion. From what she had read of western-style shows of chivalry, the whole procedure seemed to her nothing more than an extravagant display of pomp, with a much higher risk of mortality than it warranted. “Be safe, love.”

“Also, I forgot to mention this, but, remember the other frescoes on each side of the cathedral, those were depictions of the gods, and similar to the other story, if they illuminate, which they did, means we have their blessings.”

Heonmye smiled. Even gods she did not believe in seemed to shower down their blessings upon the newlyweds, despite this time of internal turmoil. If only Heonmye was able to discern what her own pantheon thought.

At the arena, Theodor guided Heonmye to her stand where she would be able to see the tournament without being disturbed, before proceeding to leave to ready himself up. The tournament consisted of a free for all, three rounds, and the last man standing would be crowned the winner. Anyone could choose their weapon of choice and if they wanted to ride a horse or not. Theodor opted for using a sword and mounting a horse.

The tournament lasted a good while, with Theodor surviving for much of the match and eventually delivering the final blow to his last opponent, making him the winner, he raised his sword in victory. Heonmye cheered, clapping her hands and waving her Ryeongsean silk sash in the air. Even amongst the plethora of jubilation from the vast audience, Theodor was able to spot and discern Heonmye’s voice as if hers was the only one issued.

A few hours had passed between the beginning and end of the tournament and it was evening. The last event of the day was the masquerade ball, usually an event only people of wealth could afford, but this time anyone could assist as it was state funded. It was held at the town hall. After a quick change of clothes, Theodor and Heonmye departed for the place

At their arrival, they could see the streets were lighted up, and very well decorated, the town hall as well, and a certain air of mystery and intrigue hung on the place. The people walked around dressed in the best clothing, although the difference between the lower and higher class was more than obvious, the majority wore masks of different shapes and colours, some plain and simple and others more decorated and detailed. The plaza outside the town hall was full of stalls with people selling from food to beverages, some musicians playing songs and a jester went around doing jester things, but the highlight of the event was inside the town hall, the Masked Ball.

Heonmye had brought a glossy wooden fox mask, painted snow-white with red highlights, a traditional figure of Ryeongsean mythos whose visage she had packed before she left for Eskeland. It had laid idly in her quarters, almost completely forgotten had Lynn not spotted it months before and had made the connection to these kinds of masked dances. Perfect, as Lynn had said, for such experiences.

Perhaps it was a bit conspicuous. The patterns may have presented a “risk” of who, or what, was under the mask, but Heonmye need not have worried. The wild assortment of colors, shapes, patterns, and styles the other dancers brought to the hall made Heonmye’s abnormality feel like conformity.

“Go, explore the place a bit, go meet some people, drink or eat something, I am sure you must be hungry. With the mask no one will recognise you. I will go and explore a bit too, I hope they have the mask I’ve been looking for this year, the maskmakers guild had recently a supply issue, so I do hope they solved it. We can meet back at the town hall for the ball.”

Heonmye nodded and slipped the mask on. She was tired, and it had been a long day. Perhaps she could, with the anonymity her mask provided, saunter to the corner of the room, perhaps after snatching a glass or two of wine and perhaps one too many hors d'oeuvres, and recollect quietly on the day, her future, and Ryeongsean-Eskelian relations. If she had to be honest, Theodor’s willingness to leave her be and roam the ball to explore Eskelian culture by herself was nearly frightening. Heonmye was never one to shy away from a good party, but in a room full of strangers speaking a completely different language and practicing an entirely different culture than her own? A nightmare.

So Heonmye executed the first stages of her plan. She gently swiped a wineglass from a passing server and picked up a small circular loaf of Brelognian bread with a Namarian cheese spread on top, dotted with Eskelian fish roe. Avoiding overly enthusiastic dancers, in colorful arrays of clothing with too much cloth on their shoulders and too restrictive on their legs, as well as pompously dressed nobles haughtily asking her for a dance, Heonmye eventually found herself to her destination: a window, providing a view of the city’s lights below, near the corner of the ballroom.

Heonmye grit her teeth. The wineglass’ wide circumference made drinking the sweet elixir impossible without removing her mask. Anxious, she resorted to simply sliding her appetizer into her mouth through the space her mask did provide and stood holding her wineglass for later consumption. She did intend to consume it at some point.

Annyeonghashimnikka?” The Gogwihan-eo greeting made Heonmye jump. She turned, startled to find a woman in a dress much like hers, wearing the mask of a dove.

“Yes, greetings,” Heonmye echoed back in her native tongue, matching the woman. She was stunned, lost for words as to how a Hyannic, Ryeongsean or not, wound up in this ball.

“Ah yes, forgive my intrusion, Your Highness,” the woman bowed at the waist, adhering to Hyannic tradition. “I could not help but notice your mask, your hair, and the way you carry yourself. I suspected you might be Ryeongsean, perhaps even the Ryeongsean queen our king married.”

“That’s me,” Heonmye chuckled awkwardly. “And you?”

“Ah, yes, I’m Anya Mahl,” the woman bowed again. Her pronunciation up to this point was Hyannic, undoubtedly, but her name was an odd mix of Halder and Hyannic. “I’m one of the few Shinmyokko in Eskeland, our mother country.”

“Is that so?” Heonmye raised an eyebrow in curiosity, not that Anya could see, of course. “And how do you like Eskeland?”

“It feels… like home,” Anya sighed. “I have known nothing else. My parents tell of my lineage hailing from the Homelands, the same as our Ryeong cousins, but we had apparently assimilated into Eskelian culture while still retaining our heritage and language.”

“That’s beautiful,” Heonmye smiled. “Perhaps there is wisdom in your family’s experience for me.”

Anya became as stiff as a board, her face draining of color. “Surely you cannot mean any connection between a family as humble as ours and yours, My Queen,” she blurted, bowing several more times. “Please forgive me for the intrusion.”

Heonmye held up a hand, politely asking Anya to wait and listen. “Please.” Heonmye looked Anya in her eyes, beyond the mask, and took off her own. Sweat was starting to accumulate on Heonmye’s soft face, from the exhaustion of the day and her stuffy mask. It was rather unbecoming for someone of her stature, either before or after the wedding, as the condensed sweat started meshing uncomfortably with her make-up. “I’m truly glad to know I am not alone in this country. That there are people of my ancestry living with me. That there were people like your forefathers who trod this path on which I now find myself walking. How did you come to this party, anyway?”

Anya blushed as she took off her own mask, revealing a round face with small, bright eyes supported by a thin yet resilient neck. “I have been able to work my way as one of the city’s top artisans. I was invited here by one of my patrons.”

“Then let’s meet again sometime,” Heonmye took Anya’s hands in her hand unencumbered by her wineglass, the latter cringing somewhat out of the discomfort of being touched so casually by the most powerful woman in Eskeland. “And please introduce me to your family. Do you live amongst Eskelians and Halderians or are there separate Shinmyokko villages?”

“My family lives here, with the ethnic people,” Anya answered, “but there are Shinmyokko villages here.”

Heonmye let go of Anya’s hands. “I will try to get more information to pay my cousins a visit, then. Perhaps they can help me find my footing and destiny here. The only destiny I’ve cared to entertain so far was mine with Theodor’s. And he’s the world to me. As such, I couldn’t think of anything beyond or after our marriage, after our union. Until now, I guess.” Destiny? It was not forwards that Heonmye looked but backward. To her family. Her home. Ryeongse. She longed for a connection to familiarity, instead of being thrust completely into alien lands. And here was her answer.

The music began to play its last few songs, marked by a slower tempo to account for how intoxicated the guests now were. “Ah, my apologies,” Heonmye giggled. “I think Theodor may be beginning to wonder where I am, maybe worried that some double-chinned aristocrat stole his queen away from him.”

Anya joined in the queen’s laughter. “Yes, please get going. I apologize to have kept you for so long.”

“Think nothing of it,” Heonmye smiled. She bowed, turning to leave to find Theodor amongst the ball. “Annyeonghi gyeseyo,” Heonmye farewelled, slipping on her mask once more.

Annyeonghi gaseyo,” Anya bowed fully at her waist before turning towards her own destination.

Spotting Theodor in one of the tables drinking some wine, she approached him. She touched him in the back and Theodor turned around to see who it was, “Oh phew Heonmye.” He said, trying to speak properly as he was a bit drunk from all the drinking, “Thank the gods you’re fine, I shouldn’t have left you alone, I feared you could have gotten lost or one of these pesky nobles could have done something to you. So do tell me, how did it go, I hope you didn’t stand out too much with your mask, although with the clothes you are wearing I’m sure it must have been fine.”

Heonmye peered into her wineglass, undisturbed ever since she grabbed it. She gently placed it on a nearby table. “I was fine, thank you,” she smiled. “Seems you’ve had more fun than me,” Heonmye poked at Theodor’s very noticeable attempt to appear regally sober.

“A bit yes, turns out the local branch of the maskmakers guild had moved their location, and I don’t know where, but oh well, I guess next time, I hope I find better luck in Königstad. But you don’t look like you are having much fun and that worries me, what if we go and dance for a bit? It is a bit late and the masquerade will end soon, unfortunately we missed the communal dancing but we can have our own dance now, so what do you say?” Theodor said to her, extending his hand.

Heonmye opened her mouth to speak but shut it, repressing her words. Was such happiness possible during war? Was it not a necessity? She let out an exhausted sigh, as if letting go with that exhale of her worries, responsibilities, and concerns. For now, it was time for a ball, to close the night with her beloved on the dance floor. She took Theodor’s hand.

United by Fate

Written with Eskeland and Ryeongse

Georg’s Residence, Skarhamn

Ever since the arrival of Prince Theodor to the country, the war has taken a turn in favour of the Rosenthal supporters, this also meant that with the new military knowledge he brought, the war had stalled as neither side dared to make any movements. Tidahamn, the capital of the country, had fallen to Solberg forces not too long ago, forcing the court to move to Königstad, and now they controlled most of the south. Vindheim remained as the last bastion before they could advance north; however, Theodor was not going to allow it to happen.

Georg, who was a staunch supporter of the prince, was residing in Skarhamn for the moment, in the manor of a friend, while things were being sorted out in Königstad for him. He, like many of those loyal to Theodor, worried about the state of the country and the current war, he feared that things could turn more into Mikhail’s favour if nothing was done, despite countless reasurances from Theodor that it wouldn’t happen . Georg however wouldn’t stay calm about it. He spent many days pondering over what he could do to help more and then it came to him, asking the Volgars for help. It had been a while since he had written to his daughter Ellinor and with the current war, sending or receiving letters had become very difficult.

He wrote to his daughter. He began by asking her how she was adjusting to her new life, then how she was doing with the pregnancy, and finally he addressed the problem of the war wondering if there was anything she could do to convince the Volgars to send aid. He mentioned that Theodor was unwilling to ask for foreign aid unless someone offered it to him. Once he finished writing the letter, he handed it to his courier, “Here, deliver it to my daughter Ellinor in Volgaro, she is the wife of Prince Aleksander, tell her it is from her father and that it is urgent.” He said to him, the courier nodded and went on his way.

The courier would take the northwest route because it was easier, taking a ship from Nyholm to Volgaro would take more time and that is something Georg didn’t have. His journey would take him through Syrduria. He would take the road from Ballensberg to Andolis, then the imperial highway to Karinsfyr and finally Ravnova entering Riddenheim. His departure was delayed due to the weather, but after waiting some days, the weather cleared, all that was left was to take the road to Davir. He would make a short stop in Valken to rest but after that Davir was his last stop before reaching the Volgaro-Riddenheim border.

The rough weather of the Riddenheimic countryside made it all the more difficult for him to reach his destination, especially when he was stopped by an Iskrenite priest, who questioned his religion, but eventually he was able to reach the border. In the distance he saw the encampment of an army, at first he thought it might have been a Riddenheimer army, but as he got closer he saw the banner of Volgaro flying.

In the lands of Volgaro and Riddenheim winter was in full swing and the river known as the Dolgava was frozen, locking the river trade for the season.

Across a large bridge the courier could see a network of camps and fortifications, what once was a vast woodland leading into the eastern half Volgaro now looked like wasteland from the Volgar preparations.

As he crossed the bridge he was stopped by a host of guards.

“State yer business.” One said in broken kostuan behind his mask. The other four on his flanks brandished halberts towards the rider.

“I am a courier from Eskeland, I have a message to deliver to Lady Ellinor, the wife of Prince Aleksander, it is quite urgent”. Said the courier looking rather exhausted from his long trip across half of Sokos.

Some words were exchanged between the soldiers in the Volgar tongue before the one that had spoken previously spoke again. “Come on, I’ll take yer to the marshals.”

He turned as the makeshift gate opened behind him, leading the courier to a large tent with multiple shields bearing the different coat of arms of the marshals of Volgaro.

“Dismount and go talk ta them.” He said demandingly.

“Thank you very much.” Said the courier to the soldier as he entered the tent.

Entering the tent thirteen men sat discussing around a long table, a large map lay across it with chess pieces arranged in different areas along the map.

At the head of the table sat a man in fine garb with a pipe in his mouth smoking and listening to the rest before looking up to the courier and holding his hand up for silence.

Another man from the right side of the table turned around. “And who in the blazes are you?”

The courier was taken aback by the man’s attitude, he regained his composure and bowed, “I am sorry sir, I didn't mean to bother any of you but I was told to come over here. I am a courier from Eskeland, I carry a message from Duke Georg and I am supposed to deliver it to his daughter Ellinor, the wife of Prince Aleksander.” Said the courier.

A one-eyed man on the left laughed. “So my blood-brother did get married, that is fantastic, I apologize for Marshal Höger’s outburst; he is not yet trained in manners.”

“You watch your mouth you brute!” Höger said angrily before the man at the head of the table cleared his throat demanding silence.

“The Prince and his bride have not made it back from their trip with the Reichsfrau, what is it that your lord is wanting?” The man said looking at the courier quizzically.

“This is terrible then.” Said the courier, a worried expression on his face,he did not know if to tell them or not, he decided to ask for the man’s name first, “May I ask who you are first, sir?”

Hushed whispers went about the tent before the man sighed. “I am Drovij Van Utreik, Lord Marshal and acting Regent of Volgaro.” He said, letting a cloud of smoke out of his mouth as he spoke.

“Perfect I am pretty sure it might work.” He whispered to himself, “Well alright, I do not know if any of you are up to date with the current events in Eskeland.”

“Unfortunately since tensions have flared between Riddenheim and ourselves we have not had much word from the east.” A man in clothes befitting a merchant said on the right.

“Many of these men have not been home since the summer, and until we know for certain the Riddenheimic horde will not try and take this bridge, they will stay and us along with them.” Drovij said, placing his pipe in his mouth.

“Understandable. As of current events a war has started in the country after the death of the previous king. It is between two houses, the av Solberg, led by Duke Mikhail, who claims the throne through a supposed ancient claim, and the von Rosenthal, led by the now King Theodor. The war at first did not go in favour of the regency, but after the arrival of our majesty the tides of war have turned in our favour, however we have stalled and no progress has been made so far, neither side wishing to make a move yet. My lord Duke Georg wishes to seek foreign aid in this war. King Theodor might not ask for it, but he won’t refuse if someone offers it, at least that is what my liege told me. He sent me to deliver this letter to her daughter in hopes that she might convince Prince Aleksander to meet with King Theodor.” Said the courier, explaining to the men ,as briefly as possible, what had been happening in Eskeland in the past months.

Drovij sighed, rubbing his temple. “We’ve no men to spare but just as I listened to our brothers and sisters in Kohlenbirke I will listen to you. Give me the letter and I’ll make sure it makes it into the hands of Ellinor upon her arrival, unless you would rather go to and stay in Myrali until their arrival?” He said, looking at the rest of the table. “Any objections?”

A man on the left raised his hand, he was younger than the rest of the men in the tent, looking perhaps as if he had just become a man. “My Lord I mean no disrespect but, if we continue to divide our forces in such a way would the Riddenheimic hoard not outnumber us even more?”

“If we only send a token force led by Aleksander to help, we will be honoring our alliances and the boy will get some experience under his belt.” Marshal Höger said before Drovij could answer.

“Correct Höger, now courier what will it be?” Drovij said, raising an eyebrow.

“There is no problem with that sir, I just ask that it is delivered to them as soon as they arrive.” The couriers handed the letter over to Drovij before thanking them,”Thank you for your time sires.” Bowing and leaving.

———

A week later the royal family would arrive back in the ports of Myrali, the mood in the city was somber as the streets once filled with merchants now lay empty as every fighting age man and women had been sent to the border of Riddenheim, the guards quickly met with the Reichsfrau and her entourage, one of them handing the letter to the lady Ellinor before bowing and returning to his post.

She read it, it had been a good while since she heard of her father. She had been overseas for a long while. The last letter she sent him was when she was in Serulea. She had not long ago given birth to her children, naming them between a mix of Volgar and Eskelian names. But it was the last part of the letter that worried her. It was not long ago that she was made aware of the conflict that had been raging in her home country. Her father was asking her if she could convince Aleksander to arrange a meeting with Theodor in hopes that he would send some aid.

A day later, after thinking about what she would tell her husband, Ellinor went looking for Aleksander. He was out training in the courtyard, she approached him and asked him to spare some time to discuss an important matter, he gladly did. Sitting in a closeby bench she turned to look at him, “Dear, you know of the conflict in my homeland right? My father sent me a letter asking for aid, what do you think of this?”

Aleksander read the letter carefully then looked to his wife. “Well I would have to request it from Isabella but if she agrees then yes I will meet with this Theodor.”

“That is great, please do, I know it might be too much to ask of me, but I can’t simply do nothing while my home suffers like this. I just hope that Theodor is open to the idea of accepting some aid. Good luck with Isabella.” Ellinor kissed Aleksander on the cheek and left.

An hour later Aleksander entered the Volkiban chamber to a symphony of shouts and debate from within. Isabella sat once more in her throne, beside her sat the new Reichsherr of Volgaro Sebastien De Senar.

Duke Ernst’s face was already filled with rage as he spoke to Isabella. “You left a tyrant in charge while you were gone, and these Volgar snakes agreed with his plans to weaken our unity!”

Lord Dragel spoke up. “Ernst you must calm yourself, we all agreed to the reforms not just the Volgars, if one of us is trying to promote disunity then that would be you.”

Ernst’s gaze shot over to Dragel before the Reichfrau noticed Aleksander had entered the chamber.

“Well cousin I would have thought you would be taking some time with your children before joining the rest of the Drunaran guard on the border, what brings you here?” The Reichsfrau said with a smile towards her cousin.

“Well Ellinor received a letter upon our arrival, it would seem their lands have broken into civil war since our departure and they are asking for our aid, if you would allow me to take a token force to their lands, I assure you that it will benefit our lands greatly.”

Isabella thought for a moment looking to the Volkiban for their opinion.

Most stayed quiet with the few arguments against coming from the Duke of Sudenburg.

Isabella looked back to Aleksander. “Well it seems you have your answer cousin.”

———

Yungwe exhaled against the frigid winds of the Bantry Bay. Definitely bringing more of a chill than even the coldest Black Bay or Solstice Sea waters ever could. He personally had not been to the Ryeongsean Astrals, but the temperature here, a horsepace or two from Myrali’s shores, were likely similar.

A pale dsen with long, slender horns, around which and on his head sat a fine gat, firmly secured around his chin against the breeze, Yungwe towered above the human and monsu crew of his diplomatic vessel, a quality that no doubt made some forms of diplomacy awkward but nothing that proved a serious hindrance to his career. A small part of him wished it had. His advancement was what made His Majesty select Yungwe himself to travel to distant Volgaro, after Byeolsan had previously agreed to promise aid to Eskeland’s King Theodor in his civil conflict against the pretender Mikhail.

This was different than mediating minor trade details with Uyuti or Saeju. This was something else. Something larger than Ryeongse and one other country on matters as inconsequential as commerce. Although Yungwe was less certain, His Majesty seemed to trust him enough to carry this through on his behalf. Yungwe promised he would not disappoint.

A particularly strong, chilly gust swept throughout the deck of Yungwe’s vessel, where he stood overlooking the Bantry Bay. It was snowing. Hard. And the recent gust did not help him or the crew trying their best to keep the ship moving forward against the cold. Yungwe hugged at his winter hanbok, around which he wore extra silk and fur layers. It would be nigh impossible to get a signal running at this rate. Yet he had to try.

“Sir,” he practically yelled to the captain, standing to the rear of the ship’s deck. The captain, in a dull yellow jeogori robe with fur cuffs and hems, turned to face the dsen. “Can we get signals off the mast?” Yungwe asked, cupping his hands around his mouth despite being little more than two horselengths away. “We need to dock soon lest the fleet is torn apart by the wind and waves, no?”

“We need to dock, you’re right about that,” the captain let out an exasperated sigh and cursed under his breath at the winds above. “Still, even if the men can get the signal flags up and running safely, we’re not sure how long they’d last and if the Volgars can see them before they’re torn to shreds. These simply weren’t designed for this kind of weather.”

Yungwe bit his lip. That was something he would need to suggest to the Woncheung port officials or Byeolsan: maritime signal flags that could actually last in the Bantry. “Let’s try, anyway,” Yungwe sighed. The captain nodded. He shouted orders to deckhands on standby, who scrambled up the masts of the junk vessel and hoisted flags with different colors and patterns, signaling a request to dock.

The ship was far enough to respect Volgaro’s waters but close enough to see if Myrali’s docks were to show any sort of response. As the deckhands carefully descended, thankfully with no one lost to the elements, Yungwe waited, squinting his eyes in Myrali’s direction. Although these signal flags were mostly observed, at least with these designs and conventions, in Ryeongse, hopefully the message would get across.

From several towers close to the part fires lit up illuminating the area around the docks of Myrali. So it did get across. Yungwe sighed in relief. As did the captain. “Bring her forward, boys,” the captain shouted to his weary men. With rudders and sails directed accordingly, the Ryeongsean envoy fleet approached Myrali’s ports, anchoring as they approached their piers.

Once anchored, Yungwe’s ship let down a ramp, down which Yungwe walked, shivering all the while, tagged by two Hyeongshinjo mages and infantry guards as well as the ship’s captain. The dsen approached the awaiting customs officials and bowed professionally at the waist as he did so.

An old man with a bottle in hand walked forward chuckling. “I would not expect anyone to be foolish enough to cross the Bantry’s waters this time of year for no reason?” He said in kostuan, thick with an accent.

“Not for no reason, no,” Yungwe chuckled back in Kostuan as he stood upright from his bow, standing much taller than even this Volgar. “My name is Lim Yungwe, and I represent His Majesty the King of Ryeongse.” He reached into his pockets to retrieve a letter bearing the king’s official stamp. “I have been sent by him to come before the leader of Volgaro regarding Eskeland.”

The man looked the Dsen up and down. “Oh yer one of them Tong we’ve heard so much about, got it.” He said, taking a large sip from his bottle.

Yungwe stepped slightly forward, subtly leveraging his height against the Volgar. “We hail not from that venerated empire but rather its good friend,” Yungwe responded, crossly. He had heard stories of Volgar confusion between Ryeongse and the Tong Empire. “As much as I would like to discuss with you what separates the two of us, I believe that the matter I have brought before your leaders should be discussed urgently. May we proceed?”

He took another swig. “Whatever ya say.” He motioned behind him to a host of guards in ornate armor. “They’ll see ya to the Cathedral, but I would watch yer step now wouldn’t want there to be any more misunderstandings during yer visit.”

“Understood,” Yungwe responded. He bowed again before turning to the ship’s captain. “Would you mind staying on the ship?” Yungwe asked in Gogwihan-eo.

“Sure,” the captain responded. “Don’t be too long, now.”

Yungwe nodded in affirmation, then turned once more to continue to the Cathedral with the two Hyeongshinjo mages and his Volgar escorts.

As the Dsen traveled through the city he would see the varied styles of Architecture from the different quarters of the city, but nothing compared to Saint Ulrich’s Cathedral. The light shining through the stained glass windows collared the courtyard in an array of colors as they approached its large wooden doors.

As the group walked, the guards accompanying the Dsen muttered amongst each other in the Volgar tongue. Yungwe largely ignored the murmurs, his attention purely on the sights of Myrali, particularly on the cathedral before him. The stained glass with its myriad of colors was unlike anything in Ryeongse. Yungwe marveled at the shapes, symbols, and figures the panels created as the delegation approached the cathedral’s doors.

Entering the hallowed halls sounds of monks debating about a plethora of topics. The legality of the Drovichian reforms, the validity of the foreign religions and governments, even to the validity of the blood of the saints.

As the party moved through the cathedral the monks looked towards the dsen with great interest before a rather well dressed man approached the Dsen and bowed.

“Would you happen to be from Uyuti or perhaps from the land of the fair lady Daeja of the Vladovs?” He said bowing.

“Yes, I hail from the same kingdom from which Lady Daeja has come, from Ryeongse,” Yungwe responded, matching the man’s bow. “I have been sent by His Majesty the King of Ryeongse on a diplomatic mission to your splendid nation concerning Eskeland, for it appears we share a common interest.” Noting the surrounding religious clergy, and not politicians, Yungwe continued, “I seek an audience with the Reichsfrau of Volgaro, to whom I am to relay His Majesty’s proposal.”

“Ah I see, most amongst the scholars here don’t understand the Tong and her sister nations ways but you intrigue me, specifically the Ziist religion I have heard so much about.” He said with a cheerful tone. “But I have forgotten my manners. I am Lothar Patikov of the Patikov family of this city.”

“As have I,” Yungwe bowed once more. “My name is Lim Yungwe, humble servant and representative of the will of His Majesty of Ryeongse.” As Yungwe stood from his bow, he furrowed his brows, slightly. “I am no religious scholar, but if you so wish, I can appeal to Their Majesty the King and Queen to send Ryeongsean Ziist clergy to fill your temples with our rhetoric. I would wish to contribute as well, stating what knowledge of my faith I do have, but time is not on our side. If I may be so bold, the sooner arrangements are made between Myrali and Byeolsan, the better for both of our interests in Eskeland. After all, we appear to be on the same side in this issue.”

Lothar’s face darkened for a moment before he bowed. “My apologies I did not mean to impose upon your task, I will excuse myself.” He walked away into one of the many side halls where monks were eating, drinking, and debating.

The guards continued to lead the Dsen further through the grand cathedral passing dining halls, chapels, and even what seemed to be massive libraries for study.

Eventually they would come to a large wooden door, carved upon its face was the visage of a great battle spanning the entirety of the door, even the most minor of details had been carved in the ancient wood. Two more guards that had been standing at their posts noticed the approaching group knocked on the door causing it to open up. A cacophony of voices burst out of the room as the lords and ladies of the Volkiban debated.

Yungwe turned to his escort, nodding to them to signal they stay at the entrance while Yungwe proceeded forward by but only a few steps.

As he entered the center of the debating council one of the Volgars on the left side of the chamber, a certain Chief Drovic quickly turned to him, his face red with frustration. “First you all continue to listen to that mad marshal’s drivel then you allow some sort of Tong dog within our presence! This is more of an outrage than when we allowed Maxim to marry one of their..”

“That is enough.” A large woman said coldly. “I am not certain you know your place Chief Drovic, but I will not have one of our guests slandered before they even get to speak.” She then looked at the Dsen with a kind smile.

“Welcome to Volgaro, I apologize for any unpleasantness you have experienced since you have arrived. Tensions are high as of late, forcing some to look to their base instincts instead of their civilized manners.”

Yungwe gracefully lowered to his knees, bowing fully in prostration to the council. Standing, he cleared his throat quietly and began. “Your Highness the Reichsfrau and the esteemed members of the Volkiban, my name is Lim Yungwe, sent before you by His Majesty the King of Ryeongse. On behalf of the crown governing our fair lands, I graciously accept your hospitality.” Yungwe never considered himself a particularly hot-headed individual, but he had to practically bite down on his tongue to prevent any sort of condemning retaliation to the man who voiced his outcry. Clearing his throat again, forcing himself to compose himself, Yungwe took a scroll from his robe’s pocket, unfurling it before the assembled audience. Its back was coated with a deep red silk, embroidered onto it the phoenix of Ryeongse. “If I may,” Yungwe continued, “I have been sent to deliver His Majesty’s proposal with the nation of Volgaro, Your Highness the Reichsfrau, concerning the civil conflict of the Kingdom of Eskeland.”

Isabella nodded. “Proceed then.”

Yungwe did a small bow at his head, redirected his sharp, focused eyes onto the scroll, and cleared his throat to begin reading. “In the 2,503rd year of our founder Wonjungmu, yet also remembered as the 345th year following The Fall, His Majesty King Won Jangyeon of the Kingdom of Ryeongse, Land of the Solstice Phoenix and the Thundering Geomnaeajin, has issued the following statement for deliverance unto the audience of the most high authorities of the Realm of Volgaro, the Reichsfrau and the Volkiban honourably assembled here today:

“‘I have deeply considered the request of King Theodor von Rosenthal of the Kingdom of Eskeland in his struggle against the usurper Mikhail av Solberg. Not only are houses between the two kingdoms united in harmony, but I have also found it prudent not to remain ignorant to Ryeongse’s neighbour and friend undergoing a civil war, worse still this pretender managing to secure victory and seal Eskeland’s fate in darkness. As such, I have agreed to Theodor’s request, that is, to send forth ten thousand men westward for King Theodor’s effort: four thousand heavy infantrymen, three thousand Hasanajin light cavalrymen, and three thousand Geomnaeajin heavy cavalrymen. I shall also supply logistical aid to King Theodor, including supplies, sappers, and the like.

‘However, most key among these logistical efforts, and the reason why I have decided to contact this valiant Realm, is the transport of your dispatched troops to Eskeland. From what I understand, Volgaro and King Theodor of Eskeland are closely aligned, and word of Volgar aid to Eskeland travels quickly, especially in wartime. Furthermore, should Volgar troops be sent to fight in Eskeland, I have also heard that Volgaro lacks the naval capacity to send troops to such a faraway land to fight on Theodor’s behalf. Therefore, my key proposition is this: I shall send a contingent of my Solstice Sea fleet northwards around Xinjan peninsula, through the strait of Qalan, to dock at Myrali and to take your men out of the Bantry and to dock at Mavgilias. From there, Volgar and Ryeongsean command can operate in safe, friendly territory before going into Eskeland proper. I shall also decree that Volgar troops and Eskelian loyalist forces can find haven in Ryeongse should a strategic retreat need to occur. However, I will not provide supplies of any kind to your men during the voyage from Myrali to Mavgilias, so your men shall need to bring aboard what they require: munitions, weapons, food, and other necessities.

‘As such, I would request that you, Fair Reichsfrau and the Volkiban, consider my request of cooperation for our common interest which is King Theodor of Eskeland and issue your response to the delegation sent by me standing before you now. I view that my terms are simple and come at little expense to Volgaro and shall bring you closer to your agenda with King Theodor. If you should choose to agree to these terms, please also notify me of the count of your troops. My next response shall then be the amount of ships needed to transport your men you had thus previously specified, also considering room for supplies and mounts.

‘I am delighted that our two peoples can fight together in this rare opportunity. Tales of Volgar bravery and honor on the battlefield have reached archives even here, and I would be honored to have my troops witness this up close and perhaps also manifest the valor we ourselves inherited from the Homelands. Whatever issues on which our two kingdoms may disagree, from the Tong Empire to Riddenheim, I view this as a time for harmony between our two nations amidst the strife of Eskeland.

‘This is the decree of the First King of Ryeongse, of the Won Dynasty, Won Jangyeon, in the presence of the assembled advisory body headed by Chief Consul So Naehwa and observed by the military officials of land and sea, represented by General Ro Munsang and Admiral Yul Taepyuk.’”

Yungwe closed his scroll and stood still, awaiting the response of the assembled Volgars before him. He hid his struggle to breathe, his throat feeling drier than Empyrial sands conveying the lengthy message in the frigid cold, even while sheltered under roofs and within walls.

The hall erupted into discussion, a few of the lords in attendance glancing towards the Dsen before once more Isabella raised her hand to call for silence.

“We accept, we would be fools to try and march that far south. Theodor will have Volgar warriors at his call to win his war.” She said a slight smirk forming in the corner of her mouth.

“I hope this leads to a deeper understanding between our three kingdoms.”

Yungwe fully bowed. He returned the Reichsfrau’s smile. “That is what we all strive for, no?”

———
In the months following the pact between Ryeongse and Volgaro, Prince Aleksander had been given command of a little under three thousand men, two regiments of Rusznics, one from Volga Drunara under the command of Commander Maksymilian Olczak the other from the newly formed provencal forces of Kohlenbirke under the command of Commander Sven Riegel. The other five hundred were Straki of The Order of the Saintly Flame.

As the troops continued to either train or procure supplies Aleksander stood staring out to sea, the spring winds off of the bantry calmed him as he thought of the coming battles.

“Worrying again lad?” a voice called out behind him snapping him out of his contemplative trance.

Turning to see Commander Riegel smiling before approaching. “Always loved bodies of water, but I guess that's what being a fisherman gets ya.”

Aleksander raised an eyebrow. “I had thought you were of nobility?”

“Well I am from just owning land within Kohlenbirke, but I’m little more than a burgher and like the rest of my men I was conscripted just happened to have a bit of loyalty from helping them during the war with Korbek.”’ Riegel said before standing beside Aleksander.

“This will be all of our first times out of the river valley, I know you fear that many of us will never return but at the end of it all we are either going to die in Eskeland or against the Riddenheimers when they decide to attack, so put your mind at ease lad we all know were we go when the time comes.”

Aleksander nodded before looking back out to the sea. Out of the perpetual Bantry fog emerged a small fleet of Ryeongsean ships, the sand-colored rectangular sails, supported by full-length battens, unmistakable even from this distance. Three larger cannon ships loomed behind five smaller junk escorts. Ten galley-style ships surrounded their larger counterparts. On all of their masts flew square flags, deep indigo, with bright vermillion frills. Ryeongsean phoenixes on each flew proudly against the northern winds.

“I guess that's em? I’ll round up the boys.” Riegel said bowing before running back to the temporary mustering grounds and barking orders to his men, which was mirrored by the commanders of the Straki and Drunaran Regiment.

Aleksander took a deep breath readying himself to act as not only a diplomat and warrior, but a general as well, while he had been groomed for such a position he did not expect it to be so soon.

Even with Volgar soldiers running about, making last-minute preparations to account for all departing men, supplies, rations, horses, and materiel, the Ryeongsean ships, despite arriving with moderate speed, were far off, giving the regiments plenty of time before even the fastest light galleys lowered anchors and threw down ramps upon Myrali’s ports. The larger two classes of ships nevertheless followed soon after; Ryeongsean hands scrambled about the decks even before docking to accommodate Volgar troops.

Upon the fleet’s head ship anchoring at Myrali, Captain Jeiang descended the vessel’s sturdy ramp, wide enough to comfortably goad two horses side-by-side. He was followed by a few of his deckhands as well as accompanying infantrymen and arquebusiers. Even in the warmer weather, his professional jeogori robe underneath his steel scaled armor did little against Myrali’s seemingly endless cold. Yungwe had not been exaggerating. Jeiang literally shivered at the thought of Yungwe having to see the Volgars in the wintertime.

Jeiang approached the important-looking Aleksander, singling him out from amidst his subordinates, and bowed at the waist, as did his entourage. “Greetings,” Jeiang confidently announced in Gogwihan-eo. A translator behind him, part of the entourage, relayed the captain’s words in Kostuan. “My name is Captain Gol Jeiang. I am overseeing this contingent of vessels to transport your men to Mavgilias as part of the joint agreement between our two nations to aid Eskeland.” Looking around at the Volgar’s subsiding buzz of activity, he added, “It seems you are concluding preparations. Good. His Majesty values punctual allies.”

Aleksander turned, returning the bow. “I am Prince Aleksander Von Dreni Reinhardt, it is a pleasure. My men are prepared to leave whenever we can.”

Two men approached from the mustering grounds behind him, one in his early fourties’ the other had to have been getting on in years with an eye-patch over his left eye. They each bowed when they approached.

“These are my commanders, Ser Maksymilian Olczak and Sven Riegal.” Aleksander said motioning to the men.

“Happy to make yer acquaintance.” Riegal said, nodding.

“Hopefully you prove my kinfolk wrong about those with ties to the Tong, however for now I am happy to serve alongside those my nephew found his bride with.” Olczak said giving the traditional Volgar salute.

Jeiang bowed, greeting the other men. Upon receiving the Volgar’s words relayed back in his language, he frowned slightly but shook it off. “It would be an honor for His Majesty’s kingdom to be judged holistically, not only because of who we choose to ally,” Jeiang replied with a gruff smile. “Although we exercise our merit and integrity in aiding King Theodor, it seems both of our nations are to benefit with this venture.

“Now,” Jeiang gestured towards the flagship. “Shall we board?”

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