Conservation of Narrative Momentum
A few days passed. I… well, all of us felt a little dejected after Lisa had shut us down, but I couldn’t really blame her. She wasn’t any kind of Queen, Dragon or Demon anymore, and demanding that they try to save the world regardless was unfair to them. There were people much more qualified for that task now. But that put us back at square one. We didn’t have a lead yet, anything or anyone to use that spell on. We tried it on me, but it just sort of pointed at Kazumi, which we both had a good blush over, but didn’t help us any.
That’s not to say we didn’t do anything. We just needed to get more expert help in, as well as inform some authorities. Sally had gone South. She could fly faster than me (I still had a tendency to leave little craters when I landed) and she’d taken the trip plenty of times. She’d be talking to the Wydonian heads of state, passing on news of the impending threat and asking for cooperation and help with resolving it.
And, well, she also carried back my letter answering hers. Kazumi had helped me write it, encouraging me and being generally an amazing and teasing monster and a bully who enjoyed seeing me flustered. We had fun writing it, and now I was eating myself alive with anxiety now that it was out the door. Not that I’d grown that attached to Anastasia, but we’d definitely had a kind of strange attachment to each other, both being ex-regents. The tension after I’d sort of demanded the end of Monarchy as a system of government in central Wydonia had dissipated as she’d realized that this was A Good Thing, Actually, and we got along really well in subsequent interactions.
She was also a bit of a flirt, especially as she grew older and more confident. Now in her mid-to-late twenties and no longer Queen, she still carried herself with grace and poise that made her seem wise beyond her years, but at least she wasn’t forced to wear those big poofy dresses anymore. So we talked, and she’d made me blush, and Kazumi had noticed, and now we were here. At least there was an entire nation between us, so she couldn’t drop in unannounced. That distance helped with the anxiety of being flirted with, and made it a bit easier to respond in kind. Especially with Kazumi happy to help.
But she wasn’t the only person we’d reached out to. Our other contact had been a regular visitor in the first few years after our ‘adventure’, but these days she was incredibly busy with what was essentially resettlement. Her people had, years ago, been displaced, and reparations, material or otherwise, would take time. While she wasn’t technically a head of state, I’d slowly gleaned that she was, in many ways, actually more important than that. Everyone seemed to know her, and hold her in the same kind of esteem Anastasia had held as Wydonia’s Queen.
My relationship with her had always been a bit strange. She’d accompanied me, back then, and a lot of her intentions had been inscrutable. She’d been invaluable and, at the time, I’d felt often that she’d have been able to do a lot more good in my position than I ever had. But, then again, if she was a regent of some kind, if she’d ended up Queen or on some council, she wouldn’t be able to travel and work behind the scenes like she did. I was, I figured, pretty lucky she was on my side. I couldn’t think of anyone as clever. There was also, of course, the fact that we had been… fond of each other. In another life, maybe.
“One of these days,” Elena said, “you’ll have to announce your arrival beforehand.”
“I’d rather freeze than give up my freedom.” Erza, Orc envoy, artificer and a very good friend, had apparently just entered. Kazumi and I had been discussing our next few steps in the kitchen, and we turned to look at each other. “Been a while,” I whispered.
“Nigh on three years,” Kazumi answered. “Is it bad that her coming here worries me?” I made a face but didn’t answer, for fear of her overhearing us. We made our way into the living room and froze in our tracks. Erza was still, well, Erza, only… moreso. She’d taken off her winter coat, and the outfit she was wearing was official looking, if sober. It was also sleeveless.
“Nice to see you both,” Erza said, her low voice betraying her amusement. I realized I was staring and blinked a few times to shake myself out of it.
“Uh,” Kazumi said, blushing. “Y-you too.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled, trying not to stare. Erza was over seven feet tall and, apparently, buff as hell. Well, more buff. She’d always been, yknow, toned. “Um, I mean, good to see you again, Erza. I see you’re still… doing well…?”
“I am, thank you,” she said tactfully and walked over. She was one of the few people whose height even came close to mine, and I didn’t quite know what to think. Was she going to shake my hand? Hug me? That would be weird, wouldn’t it? There was still a two foot height distance between us, after all. “Liz,” she said, interrupting my train of thought. “You are overthinking something. Either let it go or let it out.”
“Yes ma’am,” I quipped, a little more demure than I maybe intended, and Kazumi almost choked next to me. “Just wondering what the… etiquette is.” I cocked my head. “Are we professional acquaintances? Political allies? There’s gotta be like, rules, right?”
“How about very old friends?” she said with a grin, exposing her small tusks, and put her hand on my upper arm. I got the feeling that she would’ve put it on my shoulder if I’d been a little closer to her, and that I would’ve been intimidated to hell and back if she had. I returned the gesture and smiled.
“Sounds good to me. You really do look good,” I said.
“I know,” Erza said, her face a mask of unreadable serenity. Kazumi made a noise, and Erza turned to her. “And you, too, Kazumi. It has been too long.” The two embraced for a moment and then also did the awkward shoulder-touch thing people do when they haven’t seen each other for a while. “As much as I’d like to catch up on things, I am here with a purpose.” She walked over to the seating area, close to the fire, and I got the feeling that, though she wouldn’t say it, she was probably freezing from having walked through the snow for who knew how long.
We joined her while Elena went to go catch John and Kazumi gave Erza a quick rundown of what had recently happened. If she had any feelings or thoughts on the matter, she wasn’t showing them, and she remained stonefaced throughout our explanation, although she would occasionally throw in an ‘I see’ or ask for clarification. When Kazumi was done, she stood up and walked over to the window in silence, her hands behind her back, and I couldn’t help but get the feeling she knew exactly how it made her shoulders look. I wondered if this, the calculated quiet, was a tactic she used with the various leaders she spoke to.
“I see,” Erza finally said after minutes of silence, so softly it was almost a whisper. “I well and truly wish I could offset this… troubling news with something a bit more positive, but I fear recent troubles in the mountains may even be related to what you’ve shared with me.”
“Uh oh,” Kazumi said. John and Elena, having joined us, also cringed
“Uh oh,” Erza confirmed. This was bad. Once upon a time, the Orc burrows in the mountains had been an entire empire. As the years passed, more and more clans chose to reside on the plains, and the great halls were left mostly empty. That was centuries ago. Then, a generation and a half ago, Erza’s people had been displaced on a massive scale by the Wydonian aristocracy, and the Orc had retreated into their ancestral burrows. Giving them back their land on the plains and hills of Wydonia itself had been something of a sticking point for me when I’d first arrived, but convincing traumatized generations to put their trust in a new government was taking some time.
“What’s going on, Erza?” I asked.
“Several… dynasties are coming up from their Deep Halls.” I cocked my head. I had once made the mistake to assume that Orc preferred one environment to another, and Erza had chided me for assuming her species was monocultural, and I’d had to have a bit of a sit down to learn things about pre-Wydonian history. It had been an educational experience. But some of the peoples that had stayed in the Deep Halls throughout history prided themselves on their traditions. “The ones that make it up alive, that is,” she added, grimly. “Those that do… what they told us made little sense.”
“How long has this been going on?” Kazumi asked, probably wondering why we hadn’t heard of this earlier. I know I was.
“A few weeks. Dynasty leaders have wanted to keep this an Orc matter, but I fear it may be related. What you’ve told me puts things into context. Tales of ancient spirits taking their halls back, cursed by old gods.” Erza crossed her arms. “I’ve heard that people living in coastal settlements are also moving further inland for fear of voices from the deep, although Orc populations are a bit less dense in those areas, so that’s mostly hearsay.”
“It’s gotta be connected, right?” I offered. “So what do we do?” I hoped, desperately, that she’d be able to give some insight. She had the ears of community leaders everywhere, after all. Someone like that had to know.
“I don’t know,” Erza said with an uncharacteristic huff. “I have the feeling this is a situation that requires direct action. If there really is a calamity happening across the known world, then waiting for dynastic lines to come together, not to mention the Wydonian government -- no offense -- would cost lives.”
“None taken,” I shrugged. I was responsible for Wydonia’s first foray into representative democracy. It was a work in progress.
“The problem is that I don’t know what that action is. If there is destruction everywhere, there will be nowhere for people to go.” She ran a finger along her jaw as she thought. “The mountain homes would be a good place to defend from an outside invasion, but even with the reclamation efforts, space is at a premium. We’d never be able to house the Human, Elf and other races. There might be room for a hundred thousand refugees, half a million if space is pushed to its limits.” Those numbers didn’t seem right.
“What kind of population does Wydonia have, anyway?” I asked.
“At last census,” John piped up, “Wydonia has over nine million registered citizens. Majority Human and Elf.”
“It has what?!”
John nodded. “The census was fairly accurate. I helped develop it.”
“There are another three quarter million unregistered monster folk,” Kazumi interjected, and then shrugged when John gave her a glare. “What? A lot of people don’t trust Wydonia, new government or not.”
“I don’t have precise numbers per species,” she continued. “The Lamia account for almost a hundred thousand across the nation, though.”
“How are there that many?” I was trying to wrap my head around numbers like that. A part of me had expected the country to have a population measured in thousands, not millions.
“I think you’re underestimating how big Wydonia is, Liz,” Erza said. “More than a thousand towns and villages. It adds up.”
I rubbed my face. “Okay. That requires a bit of… recontextualization. Why did I never see any of that? We walked across the country, for goodness sakes!”
“Liz,” Kazumi said, “sweetheart. Darling. Love. We were trying to stay hidden.”
“Regardless,” John interrupted, “even if we wanted to evacuate entire populations, there’d be nowhere for them to go.”
“Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that then,” Kazumi said. I knocked on wood, and got some weird looks for it.
I returned their stares. “What? Are you really gonna blame me for being superstitious?”
“I think they just don’t know what in the hells you just did, love,” Kazumi said.