95. Fission
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All of us, myself and Gideon included, rode beside the Count on colgs of our own as we rode through the Forest of Claws. The ride down from the mountains had been a tense affair filled with extra patrol shifts and fear that we might at any moment be ridden down and killed. It was only when the great wide pines of the forest had fully enveloped us had I finally managed to relax and start sleeping soundly again. This newfound relief, however, had not absolved us of guard duty, and so it was tonight that all of us found ourselves riding alongside Count Ephren and Luis on the road.


Though, really, to call it a road would be an insult to civilization in general.


We were only just barely in the eastern reaches of the forest duchy of Fangpeak, but already it was becoming obvious to me why it had the reputation it did. The descent from the mountains had revealed simply miles upon miles of untouched forest filled with trees too large and strangely shaped to believe they were completely natural.


All around us they stood, as tall as two houses and each as wide as two colgs. Their trunks and needles were twisted and strange, appearing as pines near their peaks and unravelling into a web of barky vines each as thick as my torso. Wicked points pointing towards their centre protruded from the surface of these ‘vines’, and their roots were like bulbous cancers in the grey soil. Their needles were a dark green similar to those trees on earth, but much unlike the grey-white that most other trees in Verol sported, and their branches and boughs darkened the forest floor to an unsettling degree. Sharp chirps and a thin mist accompanied us as we plodded upon grass choked paths and the occasional broken cobblestone.


Knowing the reputation of Fangpeak, I honestly hadn’t expected any proper road at all in such a place, but the ruined remains were making it increasingly obvious that it had been widely settled at some point. There were too many ruined villages of stone and old paths for it to be coincidence. The only question was: what had happened to them all?


I started again as we passed by another collection of ruined houses looming out of the darkness just off the path to our right. They were obviously well built at some point, as despite the plant growth around them only their roofs had collapsed. I nudged Breale and nodded towards it.


“That must be the sixth village we’ve seen just today.” I said. “But I thought Fangpeak was never populated?”


“That’s what I thought too.” She frowned. “I’ve been starting to think that our precious scholars never bothered coming up here.”


“There really are too many of them, aren't there?” Auro remarked.


The three of us rode side by side behind Count Ephren and Fredrick, and soldiers riding the rest of our colgs took up the rear of our caravan. Given how dark it was, I could only make them out by the blue light of their lanterns, and even those were half shuttered to conceal us even a little bit more. In the low lying mist, such light lended an eerie aspect to their forms, as though we were but ghosts moving through a phantasmal sea. It made me shudder despite myself.


“Perhaps it was once more populated than thought.” Breale said. “We’ve passed enough villages to rival the capital duchy’s own, and history of this realm is understated compared to the rest. Maybe this even used to be the seat of power for the Lmeri?”


Silst huffed in amusement.


That’d be a twist, given that even the dragons have few stories of Fangpeak. It’s an unknown country, known almost entirely for its vaguely dangerous forests and isolation. Why, there’s probably more mentions of the Lmenli of the Deep hidden here than the country itself…


“Nor was I able to find much at all about it before we left despite Minua bordering it.” I muttered to the dragon on my lap. “I’ve seen the name more times in novels than I have in history books. Not that I read very many history books that is.”


“Saphry?” Auro asked.


“Silst says it isn’t likely.” I said to their questioning looks.


Breale frowned at Silst.


“I really wish the rest of us could hear you sometimes… I feel like we miss a lot in Sap’s translations.”


“I mean, that really is what he said…”


“And yet he was acting like he just sprouted off a lecture.” Auro said.


I shot the two a look.


“Wait, can you two tell when he’s speaking? Or… thinking, I guess?”


Breale chuckled.


“It’s not like he’s trying to hide it particularly well. He nods gently and stares at you while he does it.”


“And his tail flicks from side to side!” Auro added. “It’s cute.”


It’s that obvious?


Silst twisted his head around to stare at his tail, which coincidentally stopped wagging.


“I’ve always known you had some [cat] in you, Silst.” I chuckled.


On the inside, though, I was slightly disturbed. It didn’t mean very much, of course, since it was known that he could speak to me and they couldn’t hear the contents, but it still unnerved me that any degree of our communication was obvious. He probably wouldn’t need me to say it, but I’d have to ask him to watch himself in the future later.


“But we change topics.” Breale said. “How do we know that Fangpeak wasn’t filled with people at some point anyway? We’d struggle to find this many ruins in Minua, and supposedly it has well over double the population in a smaller space. I think there must’ve been thousands of Fangpeakers around here at some point.”


“You’re wrong, of course.”


Before any of us could respond, Fredrick slowed down to join us, Count Ephren at his side. Fredrick didn’t bother looking at his sister as he slotted himself between us.


“Fangpeak’s outlying villages face a large attrition rate.” Fredrick explained. “And they have a deeply superstitious lower caste. Villages on average are said to only be populated for a century at a time before facing some major accident or attack, after which the Fangpeakers will pack up and build their stone houses and walls somewhere else. Old settlements are seen as haunted and ruled by monsters, so they are oftentimes not resettled. Because of this wastefulness, there are more unoccupied ruins in this duchy than other more civilised places.”


Breale reached out and kicked her brother’s leg, and he shot a glare at her.


“Violence again…?”


“Why are you so pitching rude?” Breale demanded. “It boggles the mind how you’re considered the ‘diplomatic’ one!”


Fredrick sighed.


“I was simply explaining why we’ve passed over so many ruins. Most of the nobility in Verol appreciates the sharing of knowledge.”


“You started it out with ‘You’re wrong, of course’! How the hell could anyone take that well, you ass!”


“Apologies. I hadn’t realised my sister had become so sensitive. I shall soften my words as if you were a child from now on. Ah, but it’s only now that I realise how appropriate that is…”


I rolled my eyes.


They hadn’t been like this when I’d met them, had they? Sure, they’d fought, but hadn’t it gotten pretty bad in the last few weeks? They hadn’t so intentionally and blatantly insulted each other as they did so often now. But what happened to make them so angry at each other? What had I missed?


Did something happen between those two?


As if he read my mind, Silst nodded towards the twins. Noticeably, his tail was deathly still.


“Not that I’m aware of.” I whispered.


I knew that Breale had some hard feelings towards her brother, of course. She’d almost said as much when we’d talked on the trip from the capital to Minua, about how she’d been locked in her room while Fredrick had trained. But that didn’t explain Fredrick’s behaviour, or why they were lashing out at each other now of all times. Did it have something to do with this trip? Or had it started somewhere in Minua?


“Be silent.” Count Ephren said sharply. “Are the two of you truly nobles of Verol? Or even adults? Because you look now like squabbling children. Is that really the kind of reputation you want to put ahead of yourselves? That you want to be associated with Summark, and your liege?”


The twins both looked away, blushing with embarrassment. Even Fredrick wilted under the Count’s stern gaze.


“I don’t ask that you ignore your grudges, but can you at least nurse them privately?” Count Ephren sighed. “Though I’d rather not seen siblings fight at all. Verol already lies poised with cousin against cousin, there is no reason to drive further divides.”


“Of course, Lord Ephren.”


“I’ll try, sir.”


Both of them mumbled apologies, and Ephren nodded appreciatively. 


“But that’s not why I joined you back here, either.” He said. “No, I wished to speak instead of our coming to Ithin Sele. We only need to pass by Ithin Narnil and then race upon the main road and we’ll be there in about a half a week. And with the Everstar guiding us, we won’t be waylaid.”


I shifted irritatedly in my saddle. Even after everything that had happened in the village, I hadn’t been able to secure an actual visit to Ithin Narnil, only a close pass to avoid where we thought an ambush might be set. If I was lucky, we might pass through a few ruins, but that wouldn’t be enough time to check the rubble for skystell. Another bust.


Not that I couldn’t understand the Count’s hurry, of course. There were obviously loyalist forces watching the roads and passes, and waiting around for a random excavation for reasons that couldn’t be easily explained wasn’t really something anyone would do. The chances that we would be caught were greatly increased the longer we stayed in any location, so it was in our best interests to rush to the seat of Lord Cantres’s power as soon as we could.


Still, it pained me that we’d be passing so close by without a proper chance to look around. It was almost like the work was taunting me by putting a possible solution right in front of my eyes yet not allowing me to touch it. It was infuriating.


“All this makes me worry about getting back to Minua.” Auro said. “Won’t they know when we leave if we publically meet with Lord Cantres? Ah, we do intend on going back, right?”


Ephren waved his hand dismissively.


“Fangpeak will grant us an escort back to the border, no matter the result. That much is common custom. And I doubt even the capital will risk the backlash from attacking a publicly confirmed diplomatic caravan.”


“...Is that not what they’re currently trying to do?” I asked.


“An excellent observation, but not quite.” Ephren explained. “There is plausible deniability to our purpose before we arrive in Fangpeak that they could use to claim otherwise. Still, I do intend on gathering a larger Fangpeaker escort for the return trip, so it shouldn’t be an issue. We just need to worry about the negotiations.”


A knot appeared in my stomach as I thought about that. Realistically, only Count Ephren and some of his advisors would be doing the actual diplomacy part, but I would still be in the room for it so I was still worried. 


What if I insulted the Duke by accident? Or broke some unknown cultural taboo? I’d read what I could over the forest duchy, but there hadn’t been a ton of material on their norms.


“And how will the negotiation go?” Auro asked, unexpectedly excited. “What do we have to offer?”


“Offer?” Breale blinked in surprise, as if she hadn’t thought about it. “Shouldn’t Andril’s rightful claim be enough? And Saphry’s support? Surely Lord Cantres will be swayed by news of the Senate’s treachery, right?”


Auro, Fredrick, and Ephren all looked at each other for a moment.


“Duke Belvan had given me permission to promise trade rights and to exchange villages west of the River Norni. Supposedly the Lord Cantres has been struggling to control the sap and fur trades in the Daldiwud, and we think such concessions would be more than adequate. If not, Minua is prepared to offer an entire year’s monetary stockpile.” 


“...We’re bribing him to help? Are you serious?” Breale asked. “What of his duty? His honour to the imprisoned king?”


The three of them looked at each other again before Fredrick tentatively spoke up.


“Sister, I don’t mean to be rude here, but surely you're joking, right? We need to offer something in order to get his help…”


“To be honest, I’m kind of with Bre on this one.” I said. “Does Fangpeak not have an obligation we can exploit?”


I wasn’t so idealistic to expect him to pledge his help for free, of course, but what Count Ephren was talking about seemed beyond excessive. The duchy’s entire income for a year? Redrawing borders? Trade concessions?! 


Well, actually that last one didn’t seem so big, but the other two definitely did. Weren’t the nobility supposed to be held to a higher standard than merchants? 


“Legally, their obligation is to the king, no matter how much of a puppet he is right now.” Count Ephren said. “Their duty to Prince Andril could be construed as the more moral choice however, but the two likely balance out in their minds right now. It will be down to whoever can offer them the best chances of success, and in most cases the dukes will choose to stay neutral. And so we must offer them something to change their mind, convince them that they will be fine after the war is over.”


“Even I wouldn’t expect a duke to put his life on the line for nothing.” Auro said matter of factly. “We have to give them enough to make them believe that we have a legitimate chance at victory, or a credible plan to that end. Only when that is confirmed will they take moral quandaries into consideration.”


Breale and I shared a look of disillusionment.


Was this war truly to be decided so pragmatically? And even Auro thought that? I wasn’t sure we had a choice if it came purely down to practical choices by the dukes. Because surely our side wasn’t the obvious one to join.


“I’m sure a good few words would be able to change his mind.” Breale pressed. “Lord Cantres has always been an honourable man, hasn’t he? And didn’t some of us here even watch his son die at the hands of the Senate? Feanin, I think? There’s no way he’ll join the Senate’s side after that!”


“That will definitely be a bargaining chip.” Count Ephren said carefully. “But I don’t believe a duke would be so emotional as to decide purely on that.”


“What?” I cried. “What do you think he is, a [robo-], I mean a golem? They killed his son! I watched him die! How could that simply be a ‘bargaining chip’?”


How could anyone be so unemotional? I’d be declaring war if someone attacked Silst, let alone a hypothetical child!


Breale nodded aggressively..


“Exactly! You guys are misjudging this! I swear that if I just talked to the man I’d-”


“No offence, Sister, but that’s a horrible idea.” Fredrick interrupted. “We already have a plan and Count Ephren is experienced in this field, so letting you bumble about and-”


Bumble about!” Breale cried. “Bumble about! I would simply ask him to avenge his son! That is, far and away, the best card we have here. We shouldn’t be discussing what we can give him when we can be speaking as actual people and what we can do to make the kingdom a better place!”


“Sister, I don’t think you realise how naive and, well, stupid that position is.” Fredrick growled. “It’s simply selfish to-”


Breale flew up and whipped her scabbard into Fredrick’s chest, knocking both of them off and to the ground. They both scrambled to their feet, their swords drawn and pointing at each other before I could even comprehend what was happening. The colgs all stopped, driving the caravan to a halt, and I suddenly realised that the chirping that had been following us had ceased.


“Call me stupid again.” Breale said quietly.


Fredrick’s hand tensed on his handle, and for a moment I feared that he would actually swing. The rest of us waited for a few tense seconds, too surprised to interfere.


Instead, Fredrick sheathed his sword with a sigh. With a pitying look, he spread his hands to his sister.


“I apologise, Breale.” He said, way more sincerely than I would’ve thought. “I shouldn’t have said such things. I let my ego ride ahead of me at the worst of times. I will work to do better.”


Breale, however, didn’t sheath her sword. Her next words were almost too quiet for me to hear.


“Draw your sword.”


Fredrick raised an eyebrow.




“Draw your sword.”


“Breale, of course I won’t do that…”


Breale sucked in a small breath and looked at the ground, her expression unreadable.


“Fredrick, why don’t you fight me?” She asked slowly. “You insult me, and I insult back, but you never respond physically. Even when I attack you, throw you from your colg and draw a sword. Even then you won’t fight me. Why is that?”


For once, Fredrick seemed completely flabbergasted. He obviously hadn’t expected her to ask him to fight her.


“I…do you want to fight?” He asked. “We can always duel whenever we stop for camp, there’s no reason to-”


“That’s not what I meant.” Breale interrupted. “Is it because you’re scared of hurting me? You think you’re that much better? Is it your patience? Can anything break it? What do I need to do?”


With a start I realised that there were tears in Breale’s eyes.


…What was happening here? All he’d done was insult her! Why the hell had she blown up like this?


“Bre-” I began.


“Shut up.”


She glared at Fredrick again, her face streaming with tears.


“What do I need to do!” She shouted. “When will I be equal to you? How much do I need to work? Decades? A century? What will it take to make your pitching talent! How much of my life do I need to atone for being a pitching girl!


“Breale, I…”


She didn’t listen, instead dropping her sword and hopping back on her colg. Ignoring our cries, she spurred it into a forward sprint down the path and quickly disappeared into the darkness of the forest.


“Breale! Wait!” Fredrick leaped on his own colg and started after her, and I began to follow.


Before we made it ten metres, however, a sudden whoosh and a meaty thunk rang through the air and Fredrick’s colg collapsed under him. Mine stopped in bewilderment, and I found a thick shaft sticking up from his colg’s head.


I blinked at it once.


An arrow shaft?


I looked behind me in confusion, only to watch as another ten streaks of wood dashed through the air. I saw Count Ephren’s right eye sprout an arrow, as well as Auro’s arm and the neck of the nearest wagon driver. Even more appeared on the wagon behind them, some of them glowing with magic.


And just before everything went to hell,  a single inane thought went through my skull.


I didn’t even get to the damn town.