“This is too quick. I don’t like this,” Gavis announces as he paces back and forth in a simple, but well appointed guest room. Gray stone walls, silver candlesticks, a four poster bed, exactly what one would expect to find within a castle of a certain size and age.
“We shouldn’t be meeting with the royalty already!” Gavis continues. “We should have at least a day to rest and prepare, for their sake and ours!”
Ammeris’s glazed eyes gaze through the room’s only window. She comes back to herself and rolls her eyes at the [Knight Commander’s] melodrama. “Calm yourself. This is merely an informal meeting with the [Queen],” she explains, exasperated, “not a true matter of state. After all, their [King] apparently isn’t here.” she waves her hand, “I’m sure we’ll have a proper ceremony in only a day or two. Our arrival was unannounced, after all.”
“That was calculated. We couldn’t risk Dominus catching word of this.” Gavis huffs in annoyance. It would have been proper to announce their visit, but with the [Marauder Warlord] watching for an opening, word of their coming could have spelled an ambush. Dominus’s armies have far more mobility than Skalag’s.
“Then explain that to them if they ask,” Ammeris scoffs, “I'm sure they will understand, especially that [General], if he is present.”
Gavis stops pacing and frowns. He leans back against the wall and glares at the [Noble] he escorted to this foreign kingdom. Ammeris is clothed in a shimmering, form-fitting dress meant to accentuate her… personality, yet preserve her modesty. Bejeweled finery adorn her neck and wrists, but there are no rings on her fingers to confuse her availability. Her lightly coiffed hair lends elegance to cap the ensemble. Over all, an outfit meant to emphasize wealth and beauty without being sexual.
“Shouldn’t the absence of the [King] matter more to you?” he questions. “The [Slave Courtesan] will not be that well received. Your proposition, less so. Even the jewels and items we’ve brought seem mediocre. Did you see that statue?”
Ammeris scowls but holds her tongue. His words sting, if only because they are true. She’d seen the immaculate metal effigy, standing as tall as a carriage. Though no one has said so, Ammeris can only presume it is of the [Queen], except enlarged to show presence. Regardless, its magnificence and artistry alone makes Skalag’s gifts pale in comparison.
“Just because the [King] will not be present doesn't mean that the other gifts will go unappreciated,” Ammeris argues, though her heart’s not in it. “And if I can convince the [Queen] to accept me as a [Concubine] for the [King], that alone will be worthwhile.”
Gavis snorts, remembering Ammeris’s careful questions about [King] Quasi’s species. Learning he is a human filled her with relief.
A knock interrupts Gavis’s musings. His body twitches and he reaches for his blade, but stops when he remembers he already removed his weapon. He sighs, pushes himself from the wall, and straightens his posture.
“Come in,” he calls.
Smoothly, the door to the room opens and the rat-kin enters. He bows. “[Noble] Ammeris, [Knight Commander] Gavis, the [Queen] will receive you now.”
“Lead the way,” Gavis declares. No matter what Ammeris says, his gut instinct is to leave, that he’s walking into an unseen trap. In truth, he may be, though a political one.
As they exit the room, Gavis takes a moment to thoroughly scrutinize their guide. He is a rat-kin, well dressed and trained, with one clear oddity: He wears no collar.
Gavis frowns. Now that he thinks about it, he doesn't remember seeing any [Slaves] since he entered the city. Not one.
“Mademoiselle and Monsieur,” the rat-kin speaks, “[General] Rathos and Scarlet have yet to arrive. Please pardon their tardiness and be assured they will arrive as they may.” Gavis raises an eyebrow at the clear insult. It is common courtesy to greet guests when all the important parties are present. That two will not be present is a statement in it of itself.
Unfortunately, such disrespect can hardly be unexpected considering their own abrupt and unexpected arrival. But, it still doesn't make sense to him. The far more common mode of opprobrium would be to delay and ignore an envoy’s entreaty. Instead...
Gavis smiles, his mood improving as he realizes that his fears are unwarranted.
‘They are rushing the meeting,’ he realizes. ‘They want to meet with us as soon as possible. They're even willing to botch the greeting to do so.’
He conceals a grin as he holds his chin. ‘Now, is it due to fear or eagerness? Questions to consider.’
It takes only a few more twists and turns before they arrive at imposing double doors within the keep. The audience chamber’s entrance, if Gavis had to guess.
The rat-kin knocks on the door and steps away. The doors slowly creak open, revealing a large dimly lit room filled with people, but without adequate light, Gavis sees little.
“Allow me to guide you inside,” David politely states and walks inside.
With a frown, Gavis follows, his feet treading across soft carpet. As he enters, an unerring feeling takes hold of him, which causes each of his steps to rise in panic as the room seems to get darker. He can feel Ammeris shuffle closer to him, her own breathing rising as the only clear thing they can see is the rat-kin’s back.
Then the rat-kin stops moving. A ding sounds, followed by braziers within the room bursting with light. The shadows retract, his vision clears, and what he sees takes his breath away.
“My [Queen].” David bows. “I have brought the delegation.”
Gavis’s breath is caught as his vision focuses on the raised throne. A monster, a woman of pure white stares down at him. A regal pose, a calculating look, and a long tail that hovers dangerously above her head, swaying left and right like a python ready to strike.
“Good,” Nighmora states with all the interest of a sloth reading the Principia Mathematica. “Leave,” she commands.
David rises and walks away without looking back. Gavis stands rock still under the alien gaze that gauges his worth. Like the weak moth before the bright flame, he can only stare at what sits on the throne. It is unsettling to stand before that which would call you prey.
The monster's tail flickers above her head, swerving and shifting seemingly to the beat of his heart. After several seconds of staring, the monster speaks.
“I am [Queen] Nighmora, wife of [King] Quasi. I was informed by my [Grand City Defender] that it is imperative to meet with you both, and my [Lady],” she tilts her head towards the armored woman standing next to her, a muscular human over seven feet tall. She is the same woman upon whom the statue is based, except she’s even larger in real life and dressed to kill, “insisted that all of my commanders must be present for the meeting.”
Swallowing hard, Gavis forces himself to look around the room, which only raises his own rising panic. Fully armored minotaurs with crystalline battleaxes stand guard at the ends of the room. Centaurs with glistening armor and raised halberds stare at him curiously. Armed gejan, equipped with custom enchanted armor, stand ready at attention.
Worst of all, his [Threat Gauge] skill sounds an alarm about each and every person in the room. He, a level 73 [Knight Commander], the third highest level [Knight] in Skalag, is outmatched by each of the more than a hundred people in this room.
“And most now are, which I believe is enough,” Nighmora’s voice booms clearly with a hint of annoyance, “now stop cowering like prey and explain why you wish to see me.”
Gravis feels his hair stand on end as all eyes focus on him. He swallows and turns to Ammeris, who, to his surprise, doesn't look as nearly as rattled as he feels. On the contrary, she looks pleased, almost eager even.
The [Noble] lady steps forward and curtsies. “I am Ammeris Othesis, a [Noble] of Skalag. It is a pleasure to meet you, [Queen] Nighmora.”
Nighmora does not react, neither to the words or the curtsy. She just stares at Ammeris with those same unemotional eyes.
Ammeris continues. “My [King], the great Henceforth of Skalag has sent me to offer several gifts in the hopes of forming a favorable trade treaty between our kingdoms.”
“Gifts?” Nighmora inclines forward, her split eyes blinking and showing a slight twitch of curiosity.
Ammeris nods. “Yes, we’ve brought exotic and expensive gems alongside the most beautiful and well-trained [Slave Courtesans] that Skalag has available. ”
The [Queen] frowns and leans back into her chair, seemingly disappointed. “So, you bring worthless trinkets and [Slaves] to a rich nation that has outlawed slavery?”
Ammeris freezes. She wasn’t expecting such a reaction, at least not one filled with such contempt, nor was she notified that Sanavil outlawed [Slaves]. It’s absurd, what with every kingdom in the south promoting and running their economies on the class.
She takes a glance at Gavis and finds the [Knight Commander] just as surprised as she is.
She swallows hard, her confidence waning at the annoyed look by the [Queen]. But, she still has one last card to play. “My [King] also allows me to requisition myself to become the [King] of Sanavil’s [Concubine].”
Nighmora doesn't speak or move. She just stares at Ammeris with a curious look. After a moment, the [Queen] shakes her head. “You are too low level to become a [Concubine].”
Ammeris steps back, surprised at such an absurd statement. “Why would my level matter? My [Noble] class, upbringing, and blood relation to the crown of Skalag should be enough!” she exclaims with a hint of umbrage.
The [Queen] doesn’t immediately react. She just stares at the insignificant puppy barking back.
After a long moment, Nighmora finally speaks. “Quasi Eludo has over fifty immediate concubines and several thousand more women that he must impregnate with children before he may join with you. Such a responsibility will take decades, by which time, your womb will be barren. If your level was higher, and thus, your vitality, then you might still be fertile when your time comes.”
The explanation leaves Ammeris dumbstruck. She’d heard of [Kings] up north having a dozen [Concubines] and had scoffed at the notion. Such a large harem would produce too many children and lead to succession infighting. Even Henceforth only has three [Concubines], though he lacks a [Queen].
Noticing Ammeris’s inner turmoil, Gavis, silent until now, steps forward and bows. “Pardon my interruption, [Queen] Nighmora, but as undesirable as our gifts are to your esteemed self, would an alliance of trade not benefit your kingdom?”
Nighmora raises a palm towards the massive woman to her right. “[Lady] Rose attempted to convince me that such trade alliances are of great benefit, but the teachings of my husband warn otherwise. Quasi says that so long as enough open competition exists between kingdoms, then a free market will eventually favor the truly strong. As of right now, Sanavil is expanding quickly and trade is flowing into my city at an exponential rate. A trade deal might stifle our expansion.”
Gavis frowns at the [Queen]’s words. The new [King] must lack an education in economics. A favorable trade deal, like one that lowers tariffs, would only strengthen Sanavil!
“[Queen] Nighmora, please think clearly about such a proposition! A deal need not be only about trade, but also of protection. Kingdoms that have an alliance with Skalag are avoided by roaming [Bandits].” Gavis shifts his right shoulder to show off the insignia of Henceforth, a golden fist grappling a large coin. “Any [Trader] or [Merchant] who carries this image are under the protection of Skalag’s army,” he explains proudly.
“So it was your kingdom,” a powerful voice echoes through the hall. An aura of power washes over the chamber as a heavily built and armored, black furred centaur wielding a halberd twice the normal size steps forward. His eyes brim with fury as he stares at the emblem on Gavis’ shoulder.
“What is it, Dragkenoss?” Nighmora asks, unfazed by the potent aura flowing from the [Royal Cataphract Herald].
Dragkenoss, realising that he is letting his anger get to him, reels in his emotions. He raises his halberd and points it at the [Knight Commander]. “That mark is the same one that the cavalry which attacked the [Priestesses] were wearing.”
The room tenses as all eyes focus on the [Knight Commander]. Anger and irritation radiates from everyone and more than one person draws for their weapon, practically spoiling to end the man's life at the next moment.
“Ahhh, if that is true, then it seems this meeting was a waste of time,” Nighmora says, her eyes blinking quickly as the tail above her head shifts dangerously. “Those [Priestesses] were under the protection of my kingdom. Attacking them was an act of war.”
“What?” Gavis exclaims in surprise. “War? This must be a misunderstanding!”
“There is no misunderstanding. My kingdom’s [Priestesses] were attacked by cavalry bearing your insignia. For that, Skalag and Sanavil are now at war.”
Ammeris’s eyes roll up as she sharply inhales. She hits the ground with a thud, unconscious. Gavis looks at her, his heart palpitating in dread at the insane declaration.
“Please, think this through,” Gavis pleads, “Skalag is allied with forty seven other kingdoms. If you wage war against Skalag, then you wage war against our whole alliance.”
Nighmora nods at his words. “Then you will provide me the names of these kingdoms so that we may properly declare war.”
“What! Thi-this is madness!” Gavis steps back in growing fear. He looks around, finding eager faces staring at him.
Panicked, he turns around to run. He takes a step towards the double door, but freezes as the doors open.
Dark, blacker than night, empty of color, the abyssal armor stomps forward. The jagged metal rejects any and all illumination but the crimson streaks of energy pulsing like veins and the infernal eyes glowing with bloody murder. Swirling in a draft of its own making, the visages of silently wailing spirits attempt to break free of a spectral red cape.
As the demon makes his entrance, crackles of darkness arc across its body, like lightning darting within a thunderhead, to sear the ground beneath its feet.
“[General] Rathos,” Nighmora calls. “Your timing is perfect. I have a mission for you.”
The monster looks up, hellish eyes shifting away from Gavis and up to the [Queen].
“What is my mission?”
The monster's mere words bring Gavis to his knees as overwhelming terror takes him. The deep, guttural voice, so awful and full of pure malice, causes the [Knight Commander] to shiver in abject weakness.
“Prepare the army. Sanavil marches to war.”