Episodic Series, Fiction, Lyorta

Lyorta: The Saga Of Retribution: Chapter 6

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Chapter 6: The Queen’s Errant

Elven Blood I

~ 868 RE ~

~ Far Western Iest Kingdom, The Port City Of Taber Nightfall ~

A constant clattering of cups and the banging of iron fill the dimly lit hall while the small talk was plentiful. It filled the air with wonderful music and cheer, along with the chatter of a small fire living at its center. From the kitchenette, the aroma of sizzling meat and fresh herbs and vegetables wafted out. A swaying young lady in a cobalt commoner’s dress stirred a charcoal skillet while wearing a patterned dress. Thick laughter covered the local mumblings when a joke was told.

Everybody was dressed as they would in their own country. Women in simple dresses with aprons and brooches of another color, while men in kyrtill tunics and belted trousers. Except for a group of rather dirty-looking men. Not that people with soiled clothing did not come in, but the style these men wore was of a more than reputable brand. They wore imperial coats, shirts made of delicate fabrics, and armor decorated with studded metals. On their sides hung blades forged by the finest artisans without the proper honorifics. However, their condition betrayed no respect. It looked as if they had been uncared for some time, with bloodstains that set everyone who saw them with anxiety.

An older man was garbled with a mouth full of chicken and rice, “No place better than the east.” He said. The man had a strong Azurian mainland accent, not a Marionian’s as one would expect. That alone is not the odd part, but it is the thickness of it. He grabbed a large mead mug and took a full swig, swishing his half-chewed food down. “This is living,” he said, slapping the back of the man next to him. His crow’s eyes are his most distinctive feature of him; a dark mask so piercing it is unsettling.

“I agree. Finally, we made it to paradise.” The other man smiled with his patchy grin. There are more than half a dozen missing teeth and the ones that are there were mostly damaged. Around the table, three other men sat. Their plates were filled with various foods and their glasses were overflowing with ale. “I dare say this is the best time since leaving the mainland.”

A patch covered one man’s eye, and it was not pleasant. Rather like a piece of old ripped leather, to call it a patch would be far too generous. He had just slouched the scrap over to keep the dust out. It was obvious there was nothing behind that patch but a sunken hole. The part underneath got sucked in by the pressure as he breathed, so if you looked closely, you would see it bellow. “I am just glad King Grandor kept his word. I thought once we landed in port, we’d be done for.”

“We are now the Blue Hammers, lad. All you see is ours in this region of Marion. We could as well be kings.” The elder of the men laughed. His gruffness could almost be excused. The crest that was patched into his vest was one of the royal Azurian Guard, a captain, in fact. With a good wash, he might have been a handsome old man, but the grime became layers built upon layers of dirt painting over his features, making him appear much older than his age.

Bar patrons try to ignore the obnoxious hollering while they continue drinking. No one dared to disturb these men. Everybody knew about the Blue Hammers. Since the day they showed up, they have become well feared throughout the region. It wasn’t so long ago that the Blue Hammers were an unnamed group of thugs. Nowadays, they are known primarily for being cruel mercenaries.

The group of marauders chuckled at the sight of the curvy young barmaid. “She is a cutie,” said the crow-eyed man with a smile spreading across his wretched face. All the guys gawked and turned their heads in agreement. She wore her milk chocolate-colored hair in two bunny ears formed by red ribbons. The rest was long curls extending to her mid-back, and short bangs just above her forest brown eyes. As she picked up plates from table to table, her smile became sweeter and sweeter.

Having grown up in the tavern with her father, she had become an accomplished tavern maid. Her practice at serving had made her graceful. As she bobbed and weaved around the tables in the lively hall, it was almost like an art form. Every knot and imperfection was known to her as she sailed through the channels of the wooden floorboards. The waitress escaped the various stubs sticking out of the wood. Her feet dashing just next to uneven places and all around them. Despite that, she never tripped. She always knew exactly where she was going. Her crimson, white-trimmed dress swayed as she weaved around the room. The flow of her frilly apron matched the rhythm of her steps.

Licking the corner of his mouth, the eye-patched man stuck out his tongue, saying, “Wouldn’t mind tasting that.”

“She must be a clean one too,” replied the crow-eyed man. “Not like those dirty clams whoring at the ports.”

The man with the gap-filled smile smirked at the rude jab. “Hey, waiter girl! Over here!” he yelled. After seeing the men in blue cloaks, she felt a sense of terror creep over her. A twisted smile spread across his face. What could they want from her? The girl wondered to herself. Her body became paralyzed as she walks over the lengthening room. “Com’mon we won’t bite,” he joked.

A fake smile appeared on her face as she approached the table. “How may I help you tonight? Are you done with your meals yet?” She asked with a cute tone of voice.

Due to his advanced age, the captain grumbled a tad. You have fun, you guys. I need to step out for a few minutes.” Seeing the older man leave the table fills the girl with a strange uneasiness she has never experienced before. Her heart beats faster. Looking over at her father, she observes him tending to the drunkenness at the bar. Then over toward the band but they shook their heads at her.

The crow-eyed man scooted his chair out. “Come on baby, take a seat,” he laughed, patting his lap. As though they were dogs peering at a piece of meat, the other men stared at her. In her mind, she could tell if she got into their grasp, she would be with them at least for the night.

As soon as she sat down, she knew this man would grope her in front of everyone. The sword by the man’s waist catches her eye as she looks at his tattered muddy blue jacket. This violent man wasn’t someone she wanted to be in the arms of. Rather than risk escalating the situation, she decided to avoid this gesture. “I cannot, I have other tables to attend to.” She smiles as brightly as she can given the circumstances. It was the smile she inherited from her mother.

Taking a drink from his cup, he wiped his mustache with a reflexive movement. “You’ve been working hard all night. Kick back a little, we want to talk,” said the man with the eyepatch. He drank from his cup.

“If I slacked off, my father would be upset.”

“Who’s your dad? We will shut em up,” the crow-eyed man said from his chair. He licked his lips. She was disgusted by his behavior. By spreading his legs, he beckoned her to sit. At that point, she noticed his palm on his sword handle tilting it as if to warn, “If you don’t, I’ll kill you.” At least, that’s how she interpreted it.

When she realizes they won’t budge, she sits on the dangerous man’s lap. As her bottom pressed against his leg, he made a sound, a shudder, that almost made her wretch. He sniffed her hair. It was fresh. Her body shook as he grabbed her waist with both hands. The back of her neck twitches as his breath rolls across it. The smell reminded her of the sludge they dumped out of ships. He whispered, “See not so shabby.” as he put his fingers on her hips.

He put his leg against her crotch, pressing against her. He was more forceful. Her face turned red with embarrassment. Something hard is pressed into her rear. Her eyes grew wide as she looked over towards her father who was just watching as he rubbed a glass.

There are two men seated at the bar who glance over at the men groping the young lady. Before turning his head, the man drinks the rest of his ale from his jug. His long elf ears poked out from beneath the faded and kinky white hair atop his head. The handsome features of his face rounded out his appearance. Silver eyes glared at the men as he stood to his feet. The other man placed his hand on the elf’s shoulder.

In the charcoal brown that hung against his stubble-covered jawline, he looked down on his drunkard of a friend. Considering that his skin was tan, he was clearly from another country. The tan gave his brown eyes a dirty, muddy appearance. Despite his thin build, he’s muscular. Turning his head, he saw the girl getting touched on the shoulder by the crow-eyed man. His face was covered in scars. As the elf turned away from him, he pressed his fingers into his back.

“Must you, Elward?” His tired voice asked. With piercing eyes of flamed silver, Elward stared at his companion.

“These are the ones we are looking for. Come, Rhomond,” he called, turning and walking toward the men sitting at the table.

Rhomund muttered under his breath, “Sure.” Thumping on the leather holster of his dagger, he unbuttoned the strap. While standing up, he looked at the ail he had barely touched before rolling his eyes and saying, “I wasn’t planning on finishing my drink anyway.” as he let out a long sigh.

Before he got away from the bar, the owner grabbed his shoulder. His face is rosy, and his eyes are filled with concern. “Wait, that is my daughter.” Rhomund nodded his head as he took several steps just behind Elward.

A moment of silence was followed by the man as the wrong teeth said, “Got a place to be, pointer.” Elward glared at the slur as Rhomund stepped forward and placed his arm on Elward’s shoulder.

Rhomund asked with the most charming look, “Care if we join you?”

Rhomund watched the man with the eye patch point his eating knife at him and rolled his wrist in a circle a few times. His index finger resting on the tang of the blade. “Who are you?” His face was unamused, and he was staring blankly at the pair. The waitress glanced at the men with feverish eyes. In a twitching gesture, the girl pressed her nails into her tender skin as nails dug deeply into her knees.

Even though she mouthed the word “No.” to the two, Elward just kept looking at them. From his chair, the man who had messed up his teeth lifted his dirty hand to the sword he held. It was evident that the people surrounding the area bent their necks and hunched over.

“We are just two errants. Now now,” Rhomund stuttered. “My friend here… he is rather concerned about that girl on your lap.”

This only caused the man to lick the girl’s ear, while he put his hand on her breast, cupping it as he squeezed. He said, “We are friends, isn’t that right?”.

“Yes!” she said without wanting to upset him.

“See she likes me. So go get yourselves lost,” the crow-eyed man snarled at Rhomund. As the man wearing the eye patch looked over at his buddies, he now grins, snickering.

Elward clenched his fists while holding his arms to his side. “Look at the pointer,” said the guy with missing teeth. “Well, are ya gonna do something?”

“I see, you are unfamiliar with the customs here. She is a waitress. She must be more than generous to you.” The girl’s face creases with fear. “You see this girl has signed her father several times. That bartender over there.” The man pointed to the brambly older gentleman. “And who I presume is her brother?” He points to a man with a guitar on his lap.

When her lips trembled, the maid rasped her breath. “What’s it to you? You might be wise to know who you’re dealing with.” As he scrunched up his face in anger, his crow-like visage got even worse.

As Rhomond gestures, he stretches out his fingers with both of his hands. As he continued, “I suggest you do not upset him. You see my friend here has a special set of talents you may not be aware of.” His fingers closed up, holding up only his two index fingers. “Granted, I understand you perfectly. She is cute.” He waves his hand after uttering each word. “Though my friend here. He thinks you’re not respecting her.”

“Yeah, your friend. The bloody pointer should know his place,” he said, extending his knife toward Elward.

Rhomund nodded his head. “I was saying the same thing. Men must be men. Though my friend… he does not see things our way. While I am fine with you, he is not.”

The crow-eyed man pulled a sword from his side, pushing the girl off his lap as he said, “You are threatening me.” The man pointed his blade at Rhomund’s neck. Gritting his teeth, he grunted. “I will put my sword straight through you.”

“I see,” Rhomund said, touching the sword’s tip with his fingertip. “That was a mistake, my friend.” As soon as Rhomund had finished speaking he pulled the blade from the man’s hand. The man could not utter a word before Rohomund drew himself in close. In his folded arm, he placed his elbow and the blade’s edge against the crow-eyed man’s collar. With squinted eyes he whispered, “Leave, you and your friends,” he said. “Live to fight another day. Am I understood, gentleman?”

Backing up a step, the crow-eyed man returned to his original position. Rhomond spun the blade with graceful handling and presented him with its handle. He reaches for it in a jerky, unfluent motion. “You wait,” he yelped. “When my Lords hear about this, we will burn down this place.”

“Is that so?”, Elward asked as he drew a dagger from his side and slit the crow-eyed man’s throat with inhuman speed. In response, the man with the messed up teeth backs up, but Rhomund has already moved behind him. He bumps into Rhomund, turns, and reaches for his sword but can’t feel it. He is surprised as Rhomund reveals his sword was in his hands and he inserts the blade into his throat. As the one-eyed man tries to run, Elward’s dagger plants itself in the back of his head. He stopped for a moment before falling to the floor with a bang on the back of his head.

The girl gasps for breath as she looks at the bloody mess. While Rhomund wipes the blood off his coat with a stray tablecloth, she backs up screaming. “I apologize, mam,” he says. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Who are you two?” she asks, looking at them both. “Do you realize what you have done?” Everyone is running out of the pub in a frenzied state.

“This is my friend Elward… and my name is Rhomund. We are the Queen’s personal errantry.”

~ 868 RE ~

~ Iest Kingdom, Afternoon On A Merchant Road To Port Branderfel ~

“Damn it. The axle broke and we ain’t getting anywhere for a while,” said an older man wearing a straw hat. It was a warm day in the breezy canyon, as the sun beat down on the caravan of travelers. “I don’t like being in these parts.” he said. “Unsavory things lurk around in this canyon. One time, I saw wolves out here. “They had already found their pickings, though.” He said standing beside a horse-drawn carriage. A snapped wooden rod protruded from the bottom of the front wheel, which lay on the ground. The two horses pulling the carriage stand calmly.

Raven-haired youth glanced over at the wagon master. “So we’re stuck out here then?”

“That’s how it’s looking girly. I said I’d bring you to Port Branderfel and that’s what I intend to do. You have my word. It will just take a little to fix this. As a precaution, you wait behind the carriage.” He bent down and looked beneath the carriage. A man dressed in tattered and dirty clothing emerged from the back.

“If we will be here for a while, then I guess I will go pee.” he quiped as he walked over to some shrubbery.

Suddenly the man under the cart shouted, “I warned ya already ‘bout the things out here. If you get bitten, I won’t be able to get ya to help. I may haf’ta heft off your leg and I don’t want to deal with that bloody mess.”

Having looked out across the canyon, she sighed, then walked to the back of the carriage. Above them, on the step of the canyon, a few men hold sabers and pole arms in readiness to encircle the caravan. As they descend to the ground, they make themselves known to the stranded group. “Bandits. Diyano, you have cursed us.” The wagon master grumbled as he saw several pairs of boots from the ground under the cart.

The raven-haired girl turned around to see the group of men approaching. “Looks like you need a touch of help. We might be able to help. It will cost you. “Of course, this highway has a fee to travel it.” protested a man with a torn strip of cloth surrounding his mouth and nose. Having long brown hair and a sword, he appeared frightening. He was covered in frayed and torn rags, uncharacteristic of his armor. Similarly, the other men were armed.

A man gripped the girl’s arm with his brown leather gloved hand whilst wearing a shrill bag with eye holes on top of his head. “Aren’t you a cutie? Heh, old man, you want to live right. The girl is your tax.”

The girl tugged her arm free from the man’s firm grasp. “Get your hands off of me!” she added, taking two steps back.

An axe-wielding short man laughed. “She told you.”

“Yeah, but that’s all right. I like them feisty,” he laughed. “So what do you say, old man?”

A large pair of eyes swept over the girl as the wagon master glanced over at her. “I am sorry.” He whispered, closing his eyes firmly.

“What!” She cried out in terror. Trying to escape, she twisted and screamed as the bandits grabbed hold of her. They then pinned her in their grasp and started dragging her down the dusty road.

With arms spread out, the other man dived in to separate the group from the girl. “You must not let them take her.” As soon as he had finished, the man in the sackcloth stabbed his saber into his stomach. When he fell to his knees, holding his belly, its contents spilled out onto the ground, his eyes glistening. Looking up, he saw the group of bandits dragging off the screaming girl.

“My queen, I swear on my honor. Throughout the merchant roads, there are corpses everywhere. This was the first time I saw something like it, I thought it was wildlings. Originally I planned to go to Taber, but saw so many bodies I became fearful.” said a man bowed down to the young Queen Gazalia. In response, Aschiles’ advisor raised an eyebrow. His gaze wandered over to Queen Gazalia, who nodded approvingly.

Gazalia stood up and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You have done a good thing by returning my dear servant. Wisdom dictates that a person avoid what he cannot overcome. There will be no harm done to you or to your family inside these walls.” She looked at the man on his knees with her hand still on his head. “What do you have to say about this Lord Achiles?”

“Wildlings do not act in this fashion. Their brutality in battle and terror during wartime makes them a nation’s nightmare. You said you came upon a family that was hung from a tree?”

“Yes my Lord,” said the man whose head bowed.

“Wildlings skin their victims and tie their skins to the trees to intimidate. However, they do not hang their victims. They would consider it nothing but waste of good meat.” Lord Achiles muttered in a hoarse voice.

Gazalia removed her hand from the man’s head. “If not wildlings, who else would stand against me in such a manner?” she asked.

“Humans. Not petty bandits, but bandits nonetheless. My queen, they were sending you a message. They are claiming the merchant roads as their territory. Thus, they may have been backed by a powerful group, even an empire larger than themselves. Still, old tribal conflicts still haunt Iest. Surely some factions of the old empire still have not declared themselves to us. We should pay attention and put an end to this before the people see that as weakness.”

The queen slowly returns to her throne and sits down. “Please have my knights guard the roads from the Kingdom to Port Branerfel. Also, have another group of knights travel towards Matrick. Instruct them to hunt down and kill any bandit they find without mercy. Ask them to disguise themselves as commoners and hide their weapons and armor. We will show these crooks whose kingdom they are trying to rob.”

“At once my queen.” said Lord Achiles bowing before her throne.

“No one will threaten my people. Every traveler in my land must be protected by the shield of my kingdom. Achiles bring me my Lord Knights. I have an errand for those two.”

~ 868 RE ~

~ Far West Iest Kingdom, In The City Of Taber At Nightfall ~

An eerie violet glow permeated the night. As Elward looked out from atop the tavern, it revealed a city of ruins and decaying streets. As he watched the outside and waited for any sign of the gangsters approaching. With a twitch of his ears, the sound of the balcony door opening diverted his attention to the side of him. His silver eyes stare at the barmaid in front of him carrying a large horn mug and a pitcher of clear liquid. The water smelled pristine. “You ought to sleep,” he said to the girl.

When she poured water for him, she shyly added, “I thought you might be thirsty.”. With her horn, she offered him a drink. He took her container graciously. The girl blushed slightly. “It was very you to protect me. Thank you. Sorry, I screamed.”

He smirked a smidgen, “That is quite alright.”

With a sheepish look on her face, she asked, “Is it true… that you’re an elf?”

Elward shook his head. “My father was human.”

“What about your mother?”

As Elward turned to face her, he said, “My mother, people say she was an elf, but I do not know.”

“Really?” she questioned.

He nodded his head. “I do not remember her.”

“That’s a pity. I don’t think all elves are that cruel, because I think you’re really kind,” the barmaid said with a sweetness in her voice that rubbed Elward the wrong way.

Elward looked at her his eyes shining white. “Is that so?so?so? ” he smugly replied, revealing his true eyes to her. His paling face was obscured by her hands. Afterward, his eyes grew dim and his gaze returned to normal. “I would be afraid of them, and that is my advice to you.”

As soon as the girl regained her composure, she asked, “So who is that man you travel with?”

“That is the man who killed my mother.” He said coldly. “And I intend to return the favor as does he.” She was stunned by his reply. “We are under oath to work together, but if truth be known we are enemies. Alas, child enough stories it is late, and you should be sleeping.”

“Aren’t you going to sleep?” the girl asked Elward.

He shook his head before saying, “I don’t sleep.”

~The Next Morning~

“Thank you for saving my daughter,” said the bartender. At this point, the tavern hall was quiet and everyone had departed. There was no longer any fire, but the lingering smell of the night’s dinner remains. The young girl’s father sat at a large table with Rhomund and Elward. There was a sharp light streaming through the pub’s windows. “Do you believe we are safe now? Do you think they will return?”

“We hope they do,” Elward said, polishing his blade.

The bartender scratches his head. “These Blue Hammers you called them, they have become troublesome,” Romund gestured by making circles with his fingers. “To everyone.” On the table, the weapons the bandits carried were spread out. Among the armor pieces were a few garments. The ornate designs and skilled workmanship indicate military equipment. “As you may have noticed these weapons are valuable. I doubt a group of bandits would have supplies like this.”

Elward nodded firmly. “I believe these are Azurian made weapons; from Flaggard.”

Looking at the two men, the middle-aged man sighed. “Flaggard. Isn’t that on the other side of the world?”

“Never been there,” said Rhomund. “I can tell you though it is not close. Got a whole sky to travel to get to it. So why are they in the hands of these Blue Hammers? This is a port town, isn’t it? Travels to and imports from the Southern Kingdom as I understand it.”

His chin was stroked as he nodded his head in agreement. “Yes. Although recently we have seen fewer merchants and more bandits. They are everywhere I am afraid.”

“Interesting. I am not familiar with the leadership of Taber. Tell me, where is the city guards?” Rhomund asked.

“That’s the shameful part. King Kerchov has himself hid up in his manor. The city guards for some time have only guarded the royals in the northern province. The coward was the heir. His uncle died ‘bout two years ago. That’s when things fell apart here. When he claimed his place as the “lawful” Baron, he proved to be little more than a greedy man. Taxes and taxes and the loyal guards refused to follow his orders. He disbanded the old guard and hired marauders from the surrounding lands. Calls em’ common guards. So while he has real guards, he allows the common guards to do what they will. As long as it is not causing him any trouble that is. I am not even sure if he is the one who raises taxes anymore.”

“Interesting, Taber does not have a King, it has a baron.” Elward commented.

“Well, no offense to the two of ya but the Iest Kingdom has been long forgotten. Until now I believed the Iest Kingdom had forgotten us as well. If I speak with honor I do not trust the two of you.”

Elward grinned. “We are not to be trusted. Until some time ago Rhomund and I were traveling sellswords. More or less men who kill for the highest bidder. Yet we now are under the service of a different ruler. She has another vision of Iest Kingdom. One that lives up to the old glory it used to be or perhaps something more. Yet, she is but a child.”

“Elward enough, it appears we have business with this “King” of Taber,” Rhomund rose from his seat.

With stone pillars and baroque statues, the main streets of Taber are ornate. However, the façade of elegance conceals a maze of buildings. These buildings appeared to have been sprouted from wood scraps. It was as if the street networks grew out of the ground. It reminded Elward of a garbage dump. Anything like this would burn to the ground in the Fae world because it was so hideous. The thick mud of waste lined the sides of the streets and the smell was far from pleasant.

Although the two wended their way through crowded streets, Rhomund nevertheless felt at home. There was almost a feeling of him poised to collide with someone but never did. Despite using more elegant steps, Elward had to put more focus on how he maneuvered. The simple act of not colliding with another person took a great deal of effort. Several minutes later, they arrive at their destination after negotiating the tangle of streets. A large gateway with several gruff looking men in armor guarding it appeared before them.

The guard on the right immediately called out stopping the others from pointing spears at Elward. Rhomund tried to explain, but the guard did not lower his spear. Elward stared at him with a boredom look that he could muster. With his back to the wall of the gate, the older guard stepped over and spoke to the younger guard. Laying down his spear, he moved aside so that the two could walk past. Suddenly, they had arrived in what seemed to be another city. A few chariots could pass through the streets once one passes through the threshold. Many buildings are in good shape, as well as the main streets.

An expanse of white stone road leads to a palace topped by many domes. There are several spires surrounding the castle that look like spikes reaching into the sky. They appear to be sharp against the heavens. From the south, the open blue skies and the lower levels of ports can be seen. On a large bridge, Rhomund and Elward were mere silhouettes. Through the crossing, they enter the palace’s courtyard.

An enormous dome crowned this massive building. Around the side of the building, towers, walls and spires can be seen. Rhomund thought that it could house an army. Elward, meanwhile, was intrigued by the structure. His impression was that it didn’t seem to be a Marionian building. With its paintings and love of art, its design had an Azurian influence. However, Marion wasn’t keen on that. There was also a differing cultural viewpoint as well.

“He likes to keep his guests waiting.” Elward stared at the baroque pillar as they stood in a corridor with many delicately carved ivory pillars. The carvings depicted colorful pieces of local history. The three tribes, the first men arriving in Marion on gliders, the old queen who conquered the lands and the history of a man’s conquest over the dragons. The towering glass structures behind which the city loomed revealed a vista of the city. Through the city, both its past and future blend into a harmonious whole. Elward looked at the columns with amusement as he studied them. Besides him, Rhomond was walking slowly behind him pointing at a carved dragon. “Dragons,” He said in a sharp tone getting a small chuckle from Elward who then rolled his eyes as he looked away.

Upon opening the large doors to the court, a meaty guard announced, “His highness is ready to see you.”

Astonished by the throne room’s extravagance, Rhomund and Elward could not believe their eyes. The floor was made of smooth polished stone that reflected light. On either side of the throne stood two decorative columns supporting the balcony above. Throne itself was atop a platform above the rest of the room, connected to it by a staircase. Paintings on both sides of the platform depict the gods combating the primal forces. In fact, the walls were covered with gold and painted depictions as well. “This is a shrine to history.” Elward said abruptly.

“I see you noticed,” said a man standing by the throne. He walked down the stairs with his hands open, considering the gesture. He wore purple robes with golden dragons print. The white and purple striped rope tied off the black toga that covered his chest. “If I could do one thing for this world I would preserve its history.” He had the smile of a Howl celebrity. “What brings the two of you here?”

Rhomand did not seem as impressed as Elward, who stood up straight before speaking. “I have orders from the Queen to ensure the safety of her territories. Baron Kerchov, I presume.”

“Ah, yes.” Kerchov’s face became puzzled. “You are?”

“Queen Gazalia’s errants,” Elward replied in a proud tone.

“So, you are the two wandering knights. I have heard stories about you. Mighty fine warriors, duel to the death ended by a Queen’s orders. I must pay a visit to our Queen. She sounds most magnificent. And here are two legends in the flesh. So, what can I do for the two of you?”

“You can start by looking after your people. The two of us had the pleasure of meeting bandits within the city borders. They seemed to have no fear of city guards either. In fact, we killed them, and still, no guards showed up to even question us. This is a severe problem wouldn’t you agree?”

“I see… that does sound like a trifling affair. I must get my guards to be more prominent in the lives of common folk,” he said. “Allow them some freedom and they become savage as wildlings.”

A look of interest crossed Elward’s face as he looked at Rhomund. “Well, we can assist you in this. There is already a patrol of guards from the Iest Kingdom conducting road checks. We can have them establish a city watch.”

While he turned away to face his throne, Kerchov licked his lips. Rhomund looked up as he turned back to him after a few steps. “I could not bear to burden you with the problems of my city,” he paced the floor. In the midst of deep thought, Kerchov raised his hand for silence as Rhomund attempted to speak. In addition to pacing a few more times across the polished floors, he looked up and down. “I have a better plan of approach I believe. I must assist in setting up these road checks. This will give my guardsmen the proper training they need.”

“They will learn more from being within these walls with Iest Kingdom’s finest soldiers,” Rhomund said immediately after asserting his authority.

A sigh escaped Kerchov’s lips. “There is a cultural aesthetic you are failing to appreciate, my dear Rhomund. I am sure such a nobleman as Elward would agree with me, seeing as how he appreciates… what I have done here. Taber is not merely a city. It is a sanctuary of culture! We may be a mere port but isn’t a port a grand cauldron to cultivate the ideals and ideas of the people. We are kindred spirits can’t you see?”

Rhomund’s eyes grew wide from the strange remark. “You’re joking? This city is falling apart.”

Kerchov grunted, “Falling apart. It is steeping. You will see what will grow out of my kingdom.”

“Your kingdom. About that, I see you have a crown?” Elward said pointing at Kerchov’s head.

Kerchov nodded his head a few times while blinking. Observing his strained effort to avoid eye contact, Elward took note. “That is punishable and considered treason you know,” Rhomund added.

There was a short silence before Kerchov spoke, “I am King of Taber, a crown is suitable for a king.” he rubbed the back of his neck.

“Really?” Elward said. “Last I knew Taber was under the rule of a baron and not a king. Queen Gazalia will be displeased when we return with news of a descent. Perhaps we should return you to her to explain yourself in person.”

“Really there is no need for this. It’s semantics anyway. So I won’t use the name King any longer.” Kerchov raised his hand rolling his head slightly. “I am Baron Kerchov, fine by me.”

Rhomund walked up backhanding him in the face and knocking the crown off his head. “Put it on again, and you will wear it to the grave. Understood?”

Grabbing the side of his face, Kerchov stood shocked. “Of course. You clearly appreciate mercy.”

“Watch it. I could do worse still.”

Kerchov took a step back and cowered. “You would not dare. Remember it is my halls that stand in.”

“Rhomund, let him go. He’s from Javel.” Rhomund looks disgusted for a moment. After that, he stepped back. An oozing stream of blood poured from Kerchov’s nostril.

“Javel, that explains things but how did you know that?”

“His appreciation of art and history. Yet he has no leadership skills, and he is a coward.” Kerchov stared with an angry glare that folded into absolute terror. “Isn’t this true Kerchov?”

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