"My master's success this past year has changed the balance of things, lady," the old man said. He sat tall in his chair, watching the passersby on the avenue in front of the cafe.
The woman across the table said, "So they have, Teorn. So they have. But not so much as he might wish, not here on the Blessed Isle. As it happens, I owe more to that pirate, this Kaizoku and his 'Solar Wind Fleet.' Perhaps I would find more profit in allying with him?" She was dressed in green silk that spoke of wealth, and bedecked in bangles of gold and silver. A keen observer would have noted the jade amulet that hung between her breasts, concealed by her dress, and deduced that she was no mere patrician.
Teorn sipped his wine before answering. "That would be foolhardy, would it not? This Kaizoku aims to bring down the Realm; he has said as much many times. Allying with him would be bringing doom on yourself. And besides he is my master's enemy. The ally of his enemy would find no friendship from -- the shadowed city."
The woman smiled. "No need to be coy. We are shielded from unfriendly eyes and ears. Let us speak plainly of our business. The Ragaran merchants are hurting badly thanks to Kaizoku, and my house's fortunes are rising. Soon enough I'll be able to force Ragara into alliance with Mnemon. But I require assistance... and I have coin to pay for it that I think the Mask will appreciate."
"Really? What matter of coin, and what sort of assistance?"
"The coin is information, and so is the assistance. I must learn more secrets of House Ragara, for leverage. Bargaining. That sort of thing. Who would more know than the ancestors of that house? And who could find unearth those secrets more easily than your master?"
Teorn said, "We might be able to help, though it may require creating more ancestors among the Ragarans. How would you repay us?"
The woman said, "Information, coin for the dead. Two coins -- one for each eye. First, looking at your master's war. You know that a Thousand-Forged Dragon was seen circling Lookshy and then vanishing Dragons know where two weeks ago, correct? I know where. A Thousand-Forged Dragon would be useful, would it not? And second... I know your master is not alone, but contends with his peers -- the Silver Prince, for example. And yet his power is concentrated in the East, and thanks to Kaizoku, his fleets can barely patrol his own shoreline. I have heard of a place, a harbor, from which the Mask may upset the plans of the Silver Prince. This is my coin."
Teorn said, "I will convey your offer to my master. You will have an answer in three days." He rose and tossed a few coins on the table. "Until then, farewell."
"Farewell, Teorn. I eagerly await your reply."
The deathknight was dressed befitting her station and her title: Ambassador to the Unfortunate. As she stood before the Council, she radiated confidence and friendliness from her ivory face, countering the funereal aspect of her black robes and elaborate headdress. Her master, the Walker in Darkness, had dispatched her once more to speak before the lords of the Scavenger Lands.
"My fellow dignitaries. My master has watched this war between Lookshy and the Mask of Winters with no small concern." Her eyes roved over the seats of the council members, pausing briefly to look Ambassador Kuzen, of the Seventh Legion. Their gazes locked, but he remained impassive. She glanced aside, to the empty seat where once the Mask's emissary had sat, and a smiled flashed across her face.
"Though he has paused for rest, who can say where he will turn next? Or on whom? And my master, too, feels unease. Though both are lords of the dead, the Mask is ambitious and intemperate. He desires dominion over all Creation, starting here!" The Ambassador to the Unfortunate pointed at the floor. "My lords, the Mask will succeed as long as you each stand apart! Already the Marukani are lost to the Confederation, consumed in Juggernaut's maw. Who will be next? Lookshy? The Varsini Protectorate? Nexus?"
She looked straight at Master Chun, of Sijan. "You know what I speak of, Master Chun. The ancient lore of the funerary masters tells the tale of Stygia, does it not? The Mask and my master met there, and did not part friends. And so he came to his realm now. Consider, my lords: What will you do if Juggernaut pulls itself to the gates of your cities, as it came to Thorns and Celeren?"
Ambassador Kuzen snapped, "What would you have us do, Ambassador?"
"Unite! The Bull of the North threatens you from that direction. To the east, the Circle of Pines has been expanding as well and threatens the Hundred Kingdoms. The Mask of Winters has devoured Marukan... and always, the Realm sits and waits for your fall, so that it may pick over the bones of your ruin. But you cannot -- you need not -- stand alone."
"The Confederation never stands alone." It was Kulin Blossom who spoke, of Great Forks, the child of Talespinner. "Even now, mercenary troops from Nexus and the Guild gather around Lookshy to aid in the defense. You know this as well as any of us, deathknight."
"It will not be enough, will it? Every soldier that falls in this war becomes a warrior in the vanguard of the Mask. You know it. I know it. The Mask glories in it. Have you heard the tales of the war machines his sorcerers dispatch onto the battlefield? The monsters that creep ahead in the night? And if the Seventh Legion's mightiest can be defeated, how will mercenaries fare? No. You need numbers. You need to take the fight to the Mask on his own ground. And my master... will help. For a price."
In the sudden quiet of the chamber, the representative from Great Forks spoke softly. "What price would the Walker in Darkness demand for his aid?"
The Ambassador said, "The lifting of the curse that holds from his halls all life and light, all joy and laughter. The lifting of the curse that your lords placed there long before he came."
"What will hold him to his word, once the curse is lifted?"
All but the slowest of the diplomats in the room noted the phrasing of the question, and the Ambassador to the Unfortunate rejoiced in her heart. She said, "My lord is as honorable as any of you, and will hold to his word. Once the curse is lifted, his armies will march on the Mask of Winters where you cannot -- through the Underworld. As surety, he offers hostages -- myself, and one other."
"Grant us leave to debate this, Ambassador. We will have answer for you by tomorrow's eve."
The Ambassador bowed assent and departed the chamber. As she crossed the threshold, she smiled to hear the fierce debate break out behind her, and to hear the voice of Ambassador Kuzen loudest in her favor. Her smile was that of a wolf espying trapped and blind prey.
The sailor drifted in the waves of the Inland Sea. His arms were a red ruin, but the sharks that swam around him devouring his comrades veered away, sensing the power of the Dragons. Sightless, he stared up at the unrelenting sun as it burned his skin. With cracked lips, he whispered constantly, a litany of hate and rage.
"Kaizoku, I will avenge myself. I will see you burn in the hells of Malfeas, rot in the Underworld. I will cast you into the Void. I will strike your name from every record and every book. Your name will be a byword for sorrow and all you strive for will become ashes. I will -" The litany broke off in sputtering as water washed over his face, choking him. Despairing of his hate for a moment, Barada, late admiral of the Merchant Fleet, floated.
For days, he was adrift, buoyed by his hate and his armor, an artifact of the Shogunate that had saved his ancestors in similar circumstances. Unlike his grandfather and others of his line, Barada's mind wandered halls of delirium and madness, and as the days wore on, all he saw became tinted with brass and the green light of a strange sun. The mad whispers of his own mind faded away, replaced with the voice of a being that was strong before the gods were made and looked upon Kaizoku and his ilk with a hate even greater than Barada's own.
"Little dragonling, listen to me."
Alone in his mind, Barada thrashed wildly, looking for the source of the voice. He saw nothing, but the voice continued.
"Hate has brought you to me. Hate of the Solar. Hate of the Chosen of the Unconquered Sun. Hate of Kaizoku..." The voice was soft and strong, like the lapping of waves after the storm, and Barada realized that it was coming from the sea itself. Another wave washed over him, and the taste was not of saltwater but of brass and blood. He croaked, "What do you want?"
The sea whispered, "Revenge."
Under the light of the green sun, the sea whispered to him of vengeance, of wrongs done to her and her siblings in ages past, of the lies of the Immaculate Order and of what must be done to make the world right again, of the bonds that must be broken and the blood that must be spilled. At long last, his heart beat in time to the waves, and the water of brass flowed through his veins. He began to sink into the sea, and before his face vanished, the sea whispered to him, "Say my name and take me as your goddess and your master."
Then he fell through the water as through air, and broke the surface of the Inland Sea, gasping. Strength and power flowed through his limbs and the voice of his master whispered in the back of his mind, a constant refrain of revenge. He glanced around, scanning the horizon, and in the distance saw a ship, tacking across the wind toward him. He smiled. This would be the beginning of a revenge millennia in the making.