by Chris Rogers
Excerpted from “The Unlikely and Fanciful Boasts of Master Ranqay, the Ever Humble,” as Recorded by Urtu the Scribe
On the edge of the Great Waste, south of the ul-Napur Mountains, squats the miserable Durani outpost of Tel Najar. To visit Tel Najar is to yearn for another place. During the day, the sun heats the streets until they very nearly glow. At night, the strange predators of the Waste hunt the alleys for the unwary. Always the wind blows. Windblown sand from the Waste scours all of Tel Najar. The sand gets in one’s boots and one’s food; it settles in the most unpleasant places in one’s breeches.
Yet rising above Tel Najar’s squalid, huddled streets is the mighty domed tower called the Great Beacon. At the top of the Great Beacon is the treasured Great Map Room of Aistika, an enduring vanity of the third Raja of the United Empire. The main floor of the Map Room is covered in a beautiful map of Eretsu, fastidiously illustrated by Durani mages in rich lapis and polished jade. Around its borders sit low-backed chairs meant for the scholars who, I am guessing, took one look at the map, got up out of their chairs, and left Tel Najar for someplace better.
Above the glorious map are three large, open floors that look down from behind a tall colonnade. Each of these higher floors is lined with deep shelves full of rare illuminated maps, each one a treasure that a scribe gave years of his life to complete. On the top floor, in the Map Room, in the recently conquered offal pile that is Tel Najar, in the dry shadows, I hide.
And I am very bored.
It has been a night and a day since I managed to slip in here with only Wanderer, my Vigilant Sentinel Golem, for company. Unfortunately, golems don’t speak much, and so Wanderer and I have sat in silence… and I am bored to the point of death. Desperate, I am just about to risk reaching for a scroll labeled Flood Lines, Crop Distribution, and The Empire’s Assessments of the Lands Surrounding the Impo River when the door to the Map Room is thrown open.
I pull us further into the shadows to ensure we won’t be seen. It’s a tight fit, and Wanderer brushes up against some shelves. Hiding doesn’t come easily to a Durani War Sprite golem, but somehow we manage. From this point on, I must rely on my ears.
“We should take this offer seriously! We are poorly supplied for a continued campaign!” a gruff voice says as boots come stomping into the room. Ten, perhaps eleven men by my best guess, though the echoes make it difficult to say for certain.
“The Raga has made her will known on the subject; she will not care to hear about it again.”
“Then she needs to be made to care,” says the first voice.
There is silence from the others. The first voice jumps backs in. “Brothers, you know me. You know that I thirst for glory and battle as much as any of the rest of you.”
“We know you,” one allows.
“We are adrift; the Raga knows nothing but battle. We slouch drunkenly from one fight to the next with no real plan. The Raga is a masterful battlefield commander, yet she has no mind for the longer game. We win battle after battle, but to what end? Think about this offer, what it represents. Think about the Dominion, once again a scourge to our enemies.”
“We are a scourge to them now,” another replies. The rasp of his voice is like a blade on a whetstone. That one could ask politely for an egg to break his fast and the request would sound like a deadly curse.
“Yes, yes, of course,” the first voice answers. “But for how long? If the Dominion is drawn into civil war, the Durani will have nothing to fear from us. Raja Rudatha’s terms are generous—sensible. Joint rule in exchange for a few hostages from some of our lesser houses. Not even the Speaker of the Law would challenge your authority. Could we gain better terms on the field, even after years of pointless violence that weaken all Gudanna?”
“The Spider can’t be trusted, Lord Bana,” declares a deep, smoky woman’s voice as a new pair of boots strides into the room.
Well, maybe I will risk one little peek.
Oh, she is beautiful. Her eyes are large and curve up toward the sides of her face in that distinctive Gudanna way, smooth skin, pale yet caressed by the sun, and full lips that are ever so slightly open. It is clear she is returning from some errand of command—she is dusty, her hair is unruly, her loose pants and small hide vest are simple, functional clothing. She wears no crown, no badge, yet it is clear she is Raga, the Raga Nandanna, the ruler of a people who are not easily bent to another’s will.
The first speaker, Bana, bows curtly to the Raga and slips the letter in his hand back into his vest.
The Raga chooses a chair, sits, and gestures for the others to sit. She begins her war council with a curt question. “My Lords, we took Tel Najar over a week ago, and we remain here. Why?”
“My Princess,” says a captain I cannot see, “Our last march left us with very little food and even less water. Some of our men are ill, and we suffered casualties taking an entrenched Durani position.”
“It takes time to forage in such barren lands,” says another, holding his palms up in a gesture of futility.
And so it continues. The Raga listens to each in turn and asks probing questions about the readiness of each man’s unit. Eventually, one of the captains asks, “My Princess, might there be an advantage in Rudatha’s offer? Perhaps we could use the negotiations to stall for time—”
Seeing his opportunity, Bana excitedly pulls the parchment from his vest again and interrupts. “Exactly! My Princess, you must end this foolishness! You must see sense! We can use the negotiations as a screen for our true intent!”
The Raga straightens up in her chair, her chin thrust out. “Our true intent? And what would that be, my lords? Some scheme, some little subterfuge? Against the Spider? Put it out of your minds—I assure you my brother has already considered your feeble little schemes and planned counter-schemes, and he has anticipated your reaction to each of those counter-schemes. Few of you know him as I do. He is …” a pause, her face unreadable but dark, “… brilliant. And intrigue comes as naturally to him as battle does to you or I.”
To that, the dark, raspy voice, the one that sounds like he speaks from an open wound, says, “Then how can we hope to beat him?”
Why, what an excellent cue for my entrance.
With a quick spur I send Wanderer crashing through the rail to the floor below. The noise he makes when his stone paws collide with the floor is deafening. Wanderer is a humble golem: most of the settings that should contain jewels are empty and his face is cracked by an ugly scar. He is powerful, though, a veteran of too many battles to count and protected by a hundred hundred spells of defense. He growls, fire in his mouth, as I wheel him about dramatically, looking at the astonished faces around me. We are astride the entire world. After we land, a few pieces of stonework follow us down, smashing to pieces and causing one of the captains to leap out of the way and fall backward.
There are dangerous characters and there are Dangerous Characters in the realms of Eretsu. The ones I face now are definitely the latter. The fighting heart of the Gudanna Dominion, some of the most feared warriors and mages the world has ever known stand around me, mouths agape. Thankfully, the Raga’s devil of a sister is nowhere to be seen, but every one of the others is quickly recovering, readying weapons and spells. Over there, an albino giant clutching a spiked warhammer shaped from bone. There, the lightning-quick Garo Bataar and the legendary Avakara have loyally moved in front of the Raga as a shield.
I would gladly try myself against any one of them, of course, but all of them at once? That seems … unduly rash.
Before they can begin their attack, I leap off Wanderer and kneel with a flourish in the middle of the room. “Raga Nandanna. I, Ranqay, the Ever Humble, offer my service, my sword, and my life.”
I wait for half a moment before I hear the raspy voice growl, “That last we will have, at least!”
The voice comes from the giant—just my luck—his hammer already swinging for my head. I roll out of the way just before it smashes me. Even though it misses I can feel the dark currents of the Urugal death spell trying to suck the life from me. I am on my feet in an instant, but the hammer is just behind me in a low-cutting swing. I dare not draw; my naked blade would be seen as proof that I mean harm to the Raga Nandanna. Instead, I quickly vault over the swing. He strikes again, again, and again, sudden plumes of spell exploding in black smoke as he misses. I am off balance and ill-positioned—I will need my blade to survive his next attack, no matter the consequences—when I hear her voice.
“Enough!” she says, and the giant ends his attack instantly. He looks at her questioningly. Clearly the brute would rather crack me in half and fashion my ribs into a hat than allow me to continue using them to hold my pounding heart in my body. “Enough, my Lord Pazu. I will hear this—Ranqay.” The oaf, I mean the noble Lord Pazu, growls and shakes his hammer at me, but he steps back in deference to his Raga.
I take a quick look around the room as I catch my breath. To the man halfway up Wanderer’s flanks I say, “I would advise against that, friend. There are powerful spells of binding surrounding Wanderer; he does not care for strangers.” The man quickly jumps free. As he does so, my eye catches a small figure slipping quietly out the door. The demon child the Raga keeps as a pet? Off to sound the alarm, no doubt.
I will have to work quickly.
We lock eyes. Her beauty is no battlefield myth. “Disarm him,” she says, while watching me closely. Rough hands pull off my coat, my shirt, and my shouldered blade. I keep my eyes on her—on her open lips, on the way her vest cups her breasts. The hands find the daggers in my boots and pull off my spell-laced bracers. Still I watch her watching me, her hands on her hips, the silhouette of her thighs visible through the gossamer fabric of her pants. When the hands reach my belt, I protest.
“My Raga, if your men take my belt, my breeches will fall around my ankles. I can assure you that any weapon they are hiding is not for war.” I open my palms and flash my most winning smile.
That elicits a sudden clap of laughter from her and angry murmurs from her captains. “Very well, leave him as he is. He can keep his breeches … for now, at least.”
“My men searched this room once we had taken the city and found it empty. I would not have thought it possible for even a single man to evade my sentries, let alone some blundering Durani mounted on a golem. How did you manage it?” She is smiling.
“It was not easy,” I say, returning her smile. Tentatively, I take a few steps toward her.
Her eyes narrow. “Master Ranqay, I am Raga. You see around you the fabled warriors of the Gudanna Dominion, conquerors of an entire world. What use have I for some bedraggled Durani beggar, handsome though he may be?”
“My Raga, I pledge myself to you to do with as it pleases you. Use me as you see fit. I am quick and subtle, but hardy; I am capable of long marches with little rest. I will fight for you in the morning and be ready to fight for you in the afternoon, and fight for you yet again in the evening.” I step so close to her that our hips are nearly touching.
“Hold,” she says, placing her hand on my chest. My skin is dark against her pale hand. It is a beautiful combination, one I would like to see a great deal more of.
Lightly she traces her fingers over my chest and onto my shoulder. We are so close that her vest brushes my arm as she steps behind me. “You seem … capable enough. Yet every day warriors pledge themselves to me. What sets you apart from that herd?” Her hand trails lightly along the small of my back.
I know this game. “My Raga, these men follow you because they admire your prowess on the battlefield. You are an unparalleled Blood Knight and the true heir to your father’s kingdom. I see these things and know them to be true. Yet I also see your great beauty; your eyes are the crescent moon reflected on dark waters—”
A sudden swift kick sends me stumbling forward. I hear scattered laughter and grunts of approval from the captains. I turn, surprised. “Flattery?” she asks, her mouth held in a little moue, her brow knitted mockingly.
My smile is back, brighter than ever. “Forgive me, my Raga, an old habit.” Whether by design or accident I now find her, and all of her captains, between me and my Wanderer. I can hear horns of alarm blowing all over the city. I am running out of time.
I step toward her once more. “Perhaps if you let me show you what I am capable of?” I say as I reach her. My hand reaches to my belt, but comes away empty.
“Are you missing something, Master Ranqay?” I feel a decidedly uncomfortable pressure against my thigh. A quick look down: the Raga holds a thin needle of green so tight against my breeches that the slightest movement might slit them open.
“A Samula reed-blade, pliable enough to be woven into a belt yet tough enough to saw through bone if held correctly.”
“Few know how.”
I can see no reason for false faces now. “Sap of the Nightmilk Tree, thrice cursed by a Zikia Woodwitch. The slightest cut would kill a man or a woman before they could take a dozen steps.”
“My brother?” she asks in a cold fury.
Again, I see nothing to be gained by deception. “His agents approached me three days ago in Tel Fay.”
She slides the knife up my thigh. “You could have killed us all with your little War Sprite. Why resort to all the theatrics?”
“My orders were to leave your captains unharmed, that they might join your brother. Your death alone was required to scatter your forces.”
She steps in close and speaks into my ear, her breath hot on my neck, “With your skill, you might have easily plundered all the treasure in our camp and gone unnoticed. Why accept such a foolhardy mission?”
“I owe a great debt,” I say. “As it happens, your brother is one of the few in all of Eretsu who can help me pay it.”
“And I?” she says, and I can smell her sweat. “Am I also among the few who can pay it?”
How can she guess so much so quickly? Is it instinct? Intuition? Or some form of magic? “As it happens, my Raga … yes, you are.”
“Excellent,” she says, and steps back. She flicks the blade up idly, catches it by the hilt and with a practiced ease throws it, all in one fluid motion. It buries itself deep into Lord Bana’s belly, pushing him back into his chair. I am not sure I could have done it so well, so gracefully.
“Foolishness?” she says, raising her voice to fill the entire room. It is a sudden, booming storm of fury.
“Joint rule?” She spits on the floor. “Trust me, my lords, the Saddle Throne is only large enough to seat one. If the Spider had his way today I would have died, but all of you would have followed in due time.
“You wish to know how we can hope to defeat my brother, the traitor? How we can hope to stand against his subtle plotting and clever tricks?” Bana’s mouth opens in a gasp; his eyes have turned a milky white. Pale blisters are tracing the veins under his skin as he thrashes about. With each pulse of his heart they advance.
“By taking action! The Spider’s webs reach everywhere! But they take time to weave. His spies must travel and make reports. He is only capable of scrying small portions of the land at a time. It takes time to place his agents. We must punch through his webs! We must force him to choose his next move before he can ponder it. Think on that before you come to me again with your excuses and delays. I need knights and warriors, not diplomats and heralds.”
Bana’s body slumps to the floor, his mouth smoking.
“Master Ranqay,” she says, and I drop to one knee. This woman is more than I could have guessed, even after hearing the songs written about her. She is glorious, beautiful, vicious.
“You seem to be a man of action, and I find myself suddenly short a captain. I accept your service. Do not disappoint me.”
Illustration: Joel DuQue