Chapter 50. Red Riding Hood
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I will be taking a break for a week to catch up on stuff accumulated over the holidays. The next chapter will be on 18-19th.





Lita’af Kamshad Hikmat

“Why do we have to do this kind of dance around the fox?” her brother muttered under his breath, as he kept his steed close to hers.

“Because she isn’t just some young Kiymetl anymore, Muramat,” Lita’af replied. “She was noticed by the Goddess herself — the Kamshad had to act.”

He ran his hand down his beard, throwing a stray lock of his white mane over his shoulder. “She had also stated her intent. Why am I supposed to chase someone who isn’t willing?”

She glanced around, trying to find the landmark she was looking for. “Because that is the will of Matriarch.”

“One has to listen to his mother…”

Lita’af didn’t respond. His petulance was expected of course. He had grown up knowing that his union with Mushaf was a deal of the past, only to find out that he might have to entertain someone else instead. But she had bigger problems at hand than the mood of one of her brothers.

Their procession was growing with every day and with every town that they passed by. Even a single Lady of the House travelling to join Emanai arms would quickly summon many eager wer and even wermages under her banners. Some wanted to showcase their bravery and skill in front of the potential patron. Others wished to fulfil their service as a lackey in the officer’s tent rather than a warrior on the field of battle.

Her Manor knew how to pick their warriors, so Lita’af didn’t fear that a weak or craven one would sneak into her retinue. Neither did she care for the actions of other Manors. If they wanted to waste their resources on some layabout that was their folly — arms walked lean into the Forest, quickly shedding whores, companion slaves, and other servants to the great frustration of many spoiled wermages.

Unfortunately, this crowd needed to eat and drink. It didn’t matter whether they were accepted by one of the Manors, travelled alongside and paid for themselves, or trailed behind while begging for scraps. Food had to come from somewhere and, while towns were eager to sell their recently-harvested grain, the procession was starting to get too large for smaller towns along the Enoch Way. Not as large as a whole arm, but arms had the discipline to fall back on.

Another tenday of travel in such a manner and settlements would start shutting gates in front of their faces. This would slow them down significantly and her mother’s demands made that unacceptable.

Lita’af had to act. She needed to organise this rabble into a walking formation, send harbingers ahead, and kick out any undesirable elements. To do that, she had to gather all wermages of import and get all of them to recognise her authority.

Not an easy task with so many independent Manors around. While her family name commanded respect, Lita’af wasn’t even a Kamshad Domina. Neither were the others — as most Dominas were too busy governing their Manors — but that didn’t necessarily make this easier for her. The numerous Ladies of the House held too much power to easily relinquish it and were too young to understand the wisdom in doing so.

This was why she was here, making visits in person rather than sending messengers to invite others over. Each one had to be handled individually and Lita’af started with the most concerning one. Anaise Hilal.

While Mushaf currently held a lot of influence — if not even more than Lita’af herself, since she brought her personal siege arusak along — Anaise could become the most divisive one. Rural wer were flocking to Kamshad and Kishava banners, but Ladies of the House were on the move because the Divinely-touched daughter of the Kiymetl was here. Some like the Enoch twins were blunt about it, the rest were either staying quiet or joined along not to be the only ones left behind.

Anaise might not have the power or experience to lead herself, but she could undoubtedly upset the current balance of power by picking someone else as their leader.

Her brother harrumphed and shifted in his saddle. Lita’af glanced ahead and couldn’t stop herself from shaking her head. There was the third group among wermages that came along: ones that wanted to show off not their bravery but their Spark. Every Manor large and small along their path was eager to send their males with the brightest Sparks, hoping to marry them into a Pillar sadaq. Yet another opportunity that was nothing but a headache for Lita’af to handle.

“Your sight is in my heart, Azhar Mesud.” Lita’af nodded to the tall figure sitting on a tree root. She wasn’t even sure which specific Manor the rabbit wermage hailed from, yet his Spark was bright enough for Mushaf to stop and look at one time, much to Muramat’s chagrin. “It is a surprise to see you here.”

“To see a wermage sitting in the mud is quite a surprise, indeed.” Her brother decided to utter his grievances.

Azhar put aside the scroll that he was reading and frowned at Muramat. “Am I supposed to get offended? Isn’t it a warrior’s toll to brave the world away from luxury? I am here to please my senses, to breathe the scent of the trees and listen to the music nearby. How I do it is my own prerogative. Your name is on my lips, Lita’af Hikmat.”

There was indeed a faint melody coming from somewhere further ahead.

“Excuse my brother — he is tired,” Lita’af interrupted the brewing catfight. “Are you familiar with where Anaise Kiymetl Hilal is staying for the night?”

“I am.” The wermage got up and fixed his khalat, a mischievous smirk on his lips. “I will guide you if you entertain one question of mine.”

She raised her eyebrow and Azhar tilted his ear. “How many performers do you think are playing?”

Muramat shifted his ears toward the melody and shook his head. “Our Manor prefers the songs made by the drums of war and horns that send us to our victories, not the decadent kitharas.”

Lita’af nodded in agreement. “My brother is correct — I am not a judge of such music. From what I’ve heard at the feasts I’ve attended: four, maybe five. They are playing quite slowly. A kitharist school, perhaps. Why do you ask this of me?”

“A passing fancy?” He smiled coquettishly at her, only to drop the smile and wave his hand. “Head in the direction of the music — it is coming from the local Kiymetl Manor. Anaise Hilal is undoubtedly staying there. Know that many things are more than they appear.”

She gave him a quick nod and sent her horse into a gallop with a sharp click of her tongue. Males had a lot of tricks to attract the female gaze. Some were bold, brash, and courageous like her brother, while others liked to appear mysterious and enigmatic. Lita’af had neither time nor desire to entertain either right now.

Their horses led them past a thicket of trees and a lonely villa opened up to her eyes. A summer retreat of the Kiymetl and her destination based on the wagons at the entrance. That was a good sign — whether or not other Kiymetl were there, Anaise was definitely nearby.

A lone performer sat on a tree, playing that melody all by himself. As if mocking her. An unusual kithara in his hands sang as a chorus of many, only to focus on a single melody from time to time as if talking back to the hums of its player. Lita’af felt the shiver crawling through her spine — the music was odd and foreign to her ears yet it stirred feelings within her soul.

This was no song for a feast — played by a performer for the pleasure of guests, without intruding into conversations. This music demanded the attention of everyone listening to it. A frightful skill in the hands of a murk.

Lita’af pressed her lips thin and turned her horse toward the tree.

“A companion slave?” Muramat murmured as he stopped near her. “What is he doing here?”

The young murk opened his silver eyes as if only now noticing their presence. “And your name is on my lips, Muramat Nishad.”

Lita’af blinked. The murk had the audacity to look down on her brother!

“Oh!?” Muramat chuckled. “This one has a bite! Is your mistress aware you are barking at her important guests?”

The murk lifted his kithara and patted the sash underneath. “Is your sister aware you are annoying the first husband of Anaise Hilal?”

Her brother choked, “This whelp…”

“This is not how a loyal husband should behave,” Lita’af admonished the murk. “One should strive to strengthen his wife’s power rather than subvert her connections out of jealousy. She might enjoy your songs, but Anaise is intelligent and can quickly see through the lies.”

He thought for a moment and nodded. “Yes, I can see how this can be seen as a petulant act of a jealous husband. But I have noticed a very interesting detail. You are here.”

Her eye twitched. “Yes, we came as guests. And you are quite an unwelcoming host.”

“Guests don’t strongarm people into marriages, usually, nor do they interrupt would-be hosts with their galloping and rude remarks. But that is not as important right now. You came here in person rather than sending a messenger — this means it is something important. But Anaise is currently occupied and asked not to be disturbed. You are welcome to stay and wait — the retreat is empty and has guest rooms — or we can arrange a meeting at a time more appropriate for both parties.”

Lita’af glanced at the setting sun. “Please inform Anaise Hilal that I wish to see her quite urgently.”

The silver eyes crinkled. “Something very important indeed.”

A gust of wind buffeted her hair, and she saw an enormous bug landing on the murk’s arm. There was a bulky pouch in its jaws.

He let the pouch fall into his hand. “Does it have anything to do with that exhausted horse messenger you received from Samat this very morning?”

She felt her ears flatten.

“You were spying on our carriage?” Muramat spoke in a low voice, his hand sitting on the hilt of a sword.

“Moi? Absolutely not! But,” the murk lifted the enormous dragonfly to his face, “what great big eyes you have? Will I be eaten by two big bad wolves tonight? Or will I see my grandma safely?”

He spoke in a strange dialect for some reason, but she could glean the implication between the murky words. The creature chirped something and took off into the air, leaving them alone with the strange murk.

“Anaise should know that her presence is needed by now,” he said as if he had sent a messenger servant.

He opened the pouch, pulled out a piece of black rock and frowned at it. “You should know that Aikerim Adal is rather cross with your mother. Kamshad Matriarch’s plan to send Anaise on a mission deep into the Forest sounds rather… ominous. Don’t you think?”

Lita’af sat straight in her saddle, pushing her brother to the back. There was no point dancing around anymore. “What are you?”

He smiled. “I’ve told you. I am the first husband of Anaise Hilal. Her Prime, if you will, and it is my duty to empower my dear wife. You seem to hold Anaise in great regard — do you think that she would marry me just because I can play some music?”

“What do you want?”

“This trip is long, but the reach of Kamshad Matriarch is even longer. I am certain that we will coincidentally find ourselves serving in one arm if not even one fist of the arm. A certain… rapport is in order.”

Lita’af blinked. “You wish to establish connections yourself?”

“Precisely. I am also certain that you will receive a high rank right from the beginning: you have served before and have Kamshad as your family name, after all. At the same time, I wish to maintain my agency throughout the campaign and it would be annoying to constantly use the name of my wife just to be heard. Now that you are no longer seeing me as a mere companion slave for your friend, it would be easier to find common ground between us.”

“If you wished not to be seen as a companion slave, your choice of activities was a rather poor one.” Lita’af tilted her head. “Unless you are trying to intentionally mislead others — then you would be seen as an actor. Not a very dignified role either.”

He stretched his arm toward empty fields. “I wished not to be seen at all. But I believe that a friend of Anaise has both the perception to see the truth and the intelligence to use it wisely. Know thyself and know your enemies — win a thousand battles, yadda yadda.”

She threw back her head and laughed out loud, amused by the events unfolding in front of her. Here Lita’af was trying to meet Anaise, yet her husband was doing the same thing in her stead without even realising it. She didn’t know where Anaise managed to obtain this murk but she had found an amusing one.

“Why do you have a piece of the Babr Mountains in your hand?” A new voice intruded into their conversation.

Lita’af glanced at a curious Azhar Mesud and quickly turned her head back to the murk tucking the rock back into a pouch.

“Personal curiosity. I am the Alchemist of Kiymetl and reagent gathering is a part of the trade. As far as I am aware, there is no law in Emanai that forbids me from having a piece of basalt. The question is — why do you think this piece came from there?”

Azhar shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve been around. That black and green shade? The mountains got their name because of the black stripes on the hills that hide green badlands deeper within. You can find some along the inland rivers but they are round. Yours has edges.”

The Alchemist shook his head. “You have quite an impressive retinue, Lita’af Hikmat.”

“Yes…” she looked at the rabbit wermage in contemplation. “I am always on the lookout for exceptional individuals. Creatures too, especially the ones that could easily cross distances that would otherwise take two if not three tendays to travel.”

“Or I had them sent to Samat and got them from there. Chirp isn’t for sale.”

She crinkled her eyes. “Something tells me that it did not, in fact, come from Samat. Everything has a price.”

“Yes. And I’ve stated the price for its potential services already. As long as the relationship is cordial between you and our sadaq — you will find it quite beneficial.”

“Really, Erf?” a feline wermage walked out, carrying something that looked like well-chewed-up pieces of armour. “We leave you alone for a while and you’ve already gotten yourself surrounded by Sparks?”

Lita’af turned to the newcomer with great interest. From what Kamshad had managed to find, she had been a wer slave for years, with Aikerim as her mistress. Only to suddenly ‘remember’ how to cast spells right when she got married to Anaise Hilal. A suspicious coincidence.

A very suspicious coincidence with a very unique scabbard on her sash. Bulky, irregularly shaped, and faintly smelling of oil. Designed for a wide yet thin and straight blade without a tip at the end. A blade that didn’t need to pierce and only cut. And Lita’af was well-aware of how well such a daimonic blade could cut.

Erf nodded sagely. “My natural attraction, no doubt.”

She chuckled. “Your ass has a natural attraction for trouble, more like.”

He coughed. “Anyway. The fierce wolf lady is the Kamshad Lady of the House, Lita’af Hikmat. The silent scowler is her brother, Muramat Nishad. And… their spy that was shadowing me for the last few days is?”

Azhar sniffed. “Azhar Hatay Mesud. If I wanted to stay hidden, you wouldn't have noticed me. I was listening to your music.”

“Ah… And the wise person with the ear for beauty is… Azhar Mesud.”


Surprisingly enough, Irje instantly drew the attention of both werewolves. I wasn’t sure if that was due to the monomolecular sword on her hip that they ogled as well, the fact that she had Spark and I did not, or that she was a girl; but it didn’t last for long.

Anaise joined us shortly after since they were training together, with me keeping guard outside. The unfortunate consequences of trying to learn new spells while keeping them secret from everyone around. Even our servants were told to keep their distance.

Lita’af quickly remembered the original purpose of her visit and dragged Anaise into one of the guest rooms.

I didn’t stop Irje from following them as well. While my previous words were rather polite, Lita’af did come with her brother in tow and I preferred to avoid another opportunistic matchmaking attempt. Besides, Irje had entered the world of wermages and she desperately needed experience in their social interactions. Watching Anaise receive her high-standing friend would help her learn a lot.

I turned over to the last guest only to pause and stare. I knew that I’d never met him before in my life but the weird familiarity of his smirk gave me pause.

Unless this face wasn’t his at all.

I sighed and shook my head. “Azhar Mesud? Really? Way to spill my secrets, Albin.”



Aikerim Kiymetl Adal

“Walk with me,” she spoke to a lithe girl near the smithy.

Yeva nodded to Isra Haleh and stepped outside.

Her tail twitched. “Any news?”

Her second ‘daimon’ nodded. “As we expected. Kamshad Matriarch made her move and pushed for a greater campaign. Something about mines.”

Aikerim nodded. “Tin mines, no doubt.” Seeing the confused tilt of the head, she clarified, “Emanai doesn’t have significant tin reserves within our land. However, there is one rich vein somewhat close to our northern borders. We have been trying to establish a land bridge for a long time.”

“Would that be their task, then?”

“Unlikely. Aggressive expansions proved to be costly failures in the past, so now Emanai gradually pushes its borders bit by bit every year, unless there is a good, defensible obstacle nearby. They are still quite far from the next river, however. What is more likely is that they will reinforce the mines themselves as this time of the year can get quite rowdy over there.”


“Raiders. Bronze is in high demand everywhere, while autumn harvests allow both Emanai arms and barbarian hordes to travel deeper into the Forest. This is the only time of the year when they can lay a siege that far away from their grazing lands.

“Do not worry. There is an established outpost that protects the mines. Even if they lay siege, I have a feeling that neither of the Kiymetl three would go hungry as long as that creature can fly back and forth with provisions.”



Yeva shrugged her shoulders. “I named him Chirp. Seemed fitting. Lita’af Hikmat is quite concerned by Erf’s hints: Kamshad Matriarch will receive a scroll from her daughter soon enough.”

Domina grinned. “Poor Roshanak Gulnaz. Surrounded by confusion yet receiving news a tenday too late. While it is her own fault, let us not push this too far — you want Erf to be useful in the arm, not irreplaceable.

“Speaking about taking things too far — Enoch Matriarch made a personal visit to my Manor,” She chuckled. “The gift was significant enough that she not only approved of Isra’s apprenticeship but made it clear that she would in no way oppose it if you… extended the relationship.”

Yeva frowned. “Me?”

“The daimon, of course. Don’t make that face — you knew perfectly well the consequences such a significant gift would cause, yet you pushed for it nevertheless.”

“I want them to taste the opportunity in the air, to see the possibilities that are available to them, to use steel in earnest.”

“So that they would come back for more like a drunk seeking another jar of wine? Zamindar Azrin did notice that the notes you provided lacked the instructions on how to make the steel itself.”

Yeva stopped and glanced at Aikerim through her blindfold. “You disapprove of my actions?”

“I do not know yet. Why don’t you explain them to me.”

“It is not my place to worry about them getting addicted to our steel — Enoch has many smiths, so they will not starve without us. They will come out of this with a clear path to greatness as long as they are willing to depend on the Kiymetl, no — on your Manor. This will forge greater bonds between both Houses while making each one stronger individually as well. An alliance that could give pause even to the triumvirate of Houses of War.”

She felt her tail shiver. “And if Enoch asks for more to maintain such an alliance?”

Yeva waved her hand. “Will they dare? Shahin instructed Isra quite well, and our smith herself was quite eager to make her mother understand just how tentative her position actually was. Yes, they can slow down our progress at this stage but they will be chopping their own leg off to do so. Kiymetl can replace Isra Haleh much quicker than Enoch can replace Kiymetl steel.”

She nodded back at the smithy where Isra was busy forging a sheet of metal into an enormous cylinder. “Or future Kiymetl products.”

Aikerim frowned. “Are you planning on selling them our textile machinery?”

“No. Carding and spinning machines will require something to keep them running and water from our aqueduct is no longer sufficient for everything. I also expect that you will eventually want to send those machines to your other estates rather than cart and ship unprocessed wool and flax all the way into the capital. What Isra is currently making is akin to a horse made out of steel. It will eat coal and drink water and, in turn, it will lift hammers, pump bellows, and spin lathes.”

“And replace even more murks.”

“Yes.” Yeva pressed her lips thin. “It will replace workers. The ones that walk treadmills all day long to power cranes, turn winches and cranks without end, and row oars under the heat of a blazing sun. The most repetitive, harsh, and cruel jobs that Emanai currently has. And it will make your Manor enormously rich in the process. Both from the sale of such engines and the increase in commerce that they would bring to Emanai. Imagine an iron horse that is as strong as a few hundred living ones and then think of how much it could carry on a cart or how fast it could move with a lighter load. I was only partially joking when I spoke about swords holding carts. Soon we will have the power to move loads that will crush wooden wheels and axles under its weight.”

Aikerim paused for a moment. “And you are showering Enoch with steel…”

“So that they will be ready to build steel carts in the future.” Yeva nodded. “It is wise to think ahead.”

Domina smiled and continued walking at a leisurely pace. “Indeed it is. A plan with a single purpose is simple and easy to predict. And those iron horses?”

“I wouldn’t worry about others stealing them from you if that is what you are asking. They need very good steel to contain so much power within. Clean, uniform cast steel rather than hammered bloom steel, full of impurities. They will need precise flat and round surfaces or steam will leak through the gaps. Our estate just managed to achieve the absolute minimum of those requirements, other Manors have none of that. Worst of all — those engines don’t always fail to work if something is off, they could explode most violently. By the time other Manors achieve decent prototypes, you will be throwing yours into a smelter as scrap.”

Yeva stopped and looked seriously at Domina. “What you really should be worried about is other Manors taking you over by force, not by skill.”

“You think that some Manor is planning to overthrow mine?”

The murk girl shook her head and beckoned her in another direction. “Not at the moment, no. You are aware that Shahin is teaching me her skills, correct?”

Aikerim nodded and Yeva continued, “Her teaching methods can be… annoying… but she knows how to get a message across. During one of our earliest talks, she explained to me the perception of success. She used me as an example to show how others often perceive it not as me getting ahead in life but as me leaving them behind, despite their status not changing in the slightest. Rather than looking at it objectively, they judge their position by the gap between us and perceive the widening gap as the loss of their status.

“You are getting ahead right now, Aikerim Adal. And I am quite sure that many Dominas are either already perceiving it in a similar manner or will do so in the future. The further you grow — the more powerful Dominas and Matriarchs you are likely to annoy with it.”

Aikerim sighed. “You didn’t need to tell me this for I am quite aware of it myself. I was taught those lessons when I was a mere child. I already use significant sums to bolster the security of my Manor, but good and loyal guards are hard to come by and I dare not hire in bulk lest I spook other Manors. The new steel was quite useful in this regard as well, since new armour makes my retinue stronger without increasing their numbers significantly. Do you wish to postpone the current project and ask Isra to work on armour instead?”

“Erf and I came up with something better.” Yeva ducked into one of the greenhouses and emerged carrying an axe and a cylinder of something black. “Try chopping it.”

The piece was light and unusual, but Aikerim stopped paying attention to that word a long time ago. Half of the things in her Manor were ‘unusual’ by now. She took the proffered tool and swung at the target making a small dent in the surface. Aikerim raised her eyebrow and swung harder. The dent was deeper this time but she failed to see anything else.

“For its weight, it is rather sturdy. Quite stubborn as well. What is this?”

Yeva rapped her knuckles on it. “It is a form of wood.”

“Wood? This!?”

She shrugged. “A very special type of wood. After talking to Anaise about how the Kiymetl tends to fight, he thought that…”

Aikerim wasn’t paying attention. Flow runes swam within her inner eye as the other two watched the two dents vanish from existence: the steel blade failed to cut the surface.

“To bend without breaking, to cleave the rock and part the river.” She whispered an old forgotten saying as the black wood twisted into a sword only to splash against her hand and wrap the skin into a wooden gauntlet. Aikerim clenched her hand into a fist and smashed it against the axe, turning it into a mangled chunk of metal. She flipped her hand around and saw the dented surface fixing itself once again. “To persevere at all costs.”

“…it is made from special wood polymers that link every part of it together like one giant chainmail. It is very hard to rip or cut it apart, but easy to deform or bend.”

“How much of this material can you make?”

Yeva glanced at the black gauntlet. “We can dress every loyal werfox in this Manor in a few tendays.”

“Erf has quite an eye for seeing future talent.” Domina shook her head. “Once I saw you as nothing but a price for keeping Erf around, but you keep surprising me time and time again. Do you wish for me to give you a second name just as I gave one to Wrena?”

Yeva stilled for a moment but shook her head. “Only if you would insist.”

She tapped the medallion on her neck. “I care not about how the rest of Emanai sees me. While I hold you in great regard, Aikerim Kiymetl Adal, I have nothing to prove to the country that took my mother from me and tried to take my sight as well. I care for its people, yes — the murks and wer that are oppressed by the current system. I respect certain wermages who have shown with their character that they deserve said respect. I am known as Yeva to my sadaq. I am loved and cared for. And I will love and care in return.”

Aikerim smiled in amusement at the very Erf-like attitude. “The choice is yours. But those names aren’t just for others to judge you by, but for your descendants to remember your deeds.”

“I would prefer that they would enjoy the fruits of my labour rather than the memory of my past glory.”

Domina glanced at the black wood on her hand. “Sometimes it is the past glory that drives you forward.”





Chapter was edited by: Xeno Morph and UnknownPlunger.