The king felt a tear in his eye.
He stared at the crooked back that his city skylined from a distance, and watched as the people who he called his own trickled out in every direction. Not all of them – some would inevitably wait to sack the place for anything not hammered into solid rock, and others would find ways to make do without the kingdom’s biggest single wellspring. One or two minor places existed still in the suburbs where water flowed from some distant reservoir just beneath the land’s skin. He also knew of the fact that the mining compact near the edge of the city the suns were just now throwing into relief had tapped an incredibly deep liquid vein, though it lay well outside easy transport range.
He rode his faithful Reeden, idly petting him on the neck. The occasional bits of encouragement and happy (or at least approving) mumbling that he breathed weren’t even in the realm of conscious acknowledgement. The steed and his royal passenger focused in opposite directions, the former looking ahead down the path urged by Goeyren’s cabinet and retainers, the latter still harboring a hitch in his torso somewhere between lungs, stomach, and heart.
It was an unhappy way to journey to Henigdita, doubly so because of the way the people of the settlement had no conceivable method of supporting the flood of incoming travelers. That wouldn’t have been true even if barely a tenth of Ronnin-Sōlsig-Adur’s population had made it their destination… and now the better part of half the hasty emigrant-immigrant caravan planned to at least temporarily bed down on its outskirts.
“Your Highness, do you wish for a break?”
The newly-advanced Charca rode nearby as well. Goeyren wasn’t happy about the guard’s advancement either. Less of a matter of him thinking his new head of personal detail was incompetent or corrupt, and more of a desire that he hadn’t lost so many of his precious subjects in that… travesty of an invasion.
“No, no. Let’s carry on. Any word from the runners?”
Charca gave a short wordless yell ahead, getting the attention of a bookkeeper. The bookkeeper’s attention was ill-spared, considering that she had an entire writing desk mounted on the animal she held onto for dear life. Correspondence flapped madly across its surface, and the pins holding the documents in place seemed like they’d need the barest hint of persuasion to pop free.
The woman shouted something back that Goeyren couldn’t hear, before she went back to managing affairs. By her expression, she had mixed feelings about being entrusted behind the semi-sacred desk her liege’s various personal clerks had shared over the years, and asked to watch over the kingdom’s textual health.
“Nothing about preparations for constructing a new royal residence,” Charca replied. “That was as of two waters ago, though. The messenger chain should be updated very soon.”
Goeyren sighed, rubbing his lengthy beard. He wasn’t keen on a new royal residence himself, so much as perhaps-better-than-average living accommodations. The instant he’d let slip that thought, though, his minders screamed fit to be heard across the Cold Sea. He needed proper veneration, and respect, and luxury, as befitted his standing. As though simply possessing a house of his own wouldn’t put him in an echelon above nearly everybody with whom he traveled.
The hefty profile of a figure on foot cast its shadow halfway up his steed’s flank, and he glanced aside.
Sergeant Sandany wasn’t terribly interested in the whole management-of-royalty’s-safety deal on a political basis. On precisely those grounds, the king considered her better suited for her reluctantly accepted role than a great many of his other candidates. Most of his people, most of the time, had the sort of character on display that put them above infighting for reasons other than professional or goal-oriented aspirations. That was his experience with a great deal of the world, for that matter. They could and did lapse, though. His closest staff would do the most good, proportionally speaking, of anyone in the kingdom if they could stay away from such pettiness – or the most ill if it engulfed them.
Maybe that was one of the reasons he’d kept her around; her bluntness was refreshing like the season’s first breath of petrichor.
“Your Highness?” a figure spoke up to the side of the procession.
Goeyren turned to the short squat figure hanging back a respectful distance.
The man’s hair had the abnormal yellowish sun-tint of highland ancestry. He wore a small ribbon around his throat, the symbol Nognāt used to arm its negotiators and diplomats and various orders of plenipotentiary. His skin shone with the combined anxieties of the last several days – the last day and night must have aged him half again as advanced.
It also accounted for his evident worry about his future prospects. To be expected, when someone had the misfortune of facilitating discourse between two countries at the time that their surrogate nation’s future was jeopardized.
“My friend Xut-Lurarar, please speak freely. This is hardly the time to be governed by petty nothings or etiquette. I’m little-inclined to tolerate them, in fact – don’t worry about rousing my temper or saying the wrong thing.”
He turned around farther, looking at the pristine, intact ruin of a city.
“My woes are many, and I do not count you among them.”
The man from Nognāt gently ushered his steed ahead, drawing abreast so the king didn’t have to tax his sorely wanting neck.
“Your Highness, I can’t say that my people would find the prospect a happy one, but I’m authorized to provide you with the rudiments of a long-term loan contract. I imagine you’ll need many materials and services to reseat your government.”
Xut-Lurarar ran a finger down the side of his nose, and frowned.
“Unfortunately, it would be subject to the approval of a parade of officials, and the rate of interest probably won’t be much above daylight robbery. However… I’m confident that it will be accepted, even if in altered form. The prospect of helping Dōdielnan regain its standing also has infinitely more appeal than letting your people founder, and… certain nations encroach even more on Nognāt’s borders.”
“I have been consistently answering the needs of my people since my projection to the throne. Succession has taken second priority to subsistence. Even so, I’ve made few genuine efforts to select a consort. There have been developments, though.”
He blinked, giving a sharp look to Sandany as he sighed.
“I’ve made some promises which must be honored, but if they should prove impossible to meet, I can think of a person who would make an excellent… a peerless confidante and strong collaborator.”
Sandany’s exposed almost-hairless head snapped to the side, squinting at some unseen wraith in the direction of the suns. She hefted her strange long weapon, then resumed her march. Tireless and dedicated at her core. The sort of companion for which a bad ruler would feel jealous anxiety, lest she steal the people’s adoration, and for which a good ruler would thank the blessed dead.
He almost considered instructing his sages and scholars to deliberately botch any further exploration in banishing magic… but not quite.
“My reign’s misfortunes may besmirch this kingdom for generations to come. But I don’t think it will be the doom of the nation. Just the transition from evening to morning, and time for new minds and new hearts to build on old foundations. Maybe, if times favor us, I’ll see an heir come of two worthy parents.”
“Or a worthy parent and a king, at least.”
“I would be happy to see whatever comes of your reign, Your Highness,” Xut-Lurarar said, with diplomatic neutrality. He quietly peeled off to talk with a merchant about something related to specie or trade routes.
Goeyren didn’t at any point divert his attention to a certain grimly smiling woodworker, riding in a nearby carriage with a long leggy familiar beside her. He didn’t look for an unreasonably tall man with strange pale skin. He didn’t search for the fuzzy six-limbed sharp-toothed monster, who was actually more of a person than quite a few people he’d met.
He was half certain he’d dreamed up everything that had happened in the last several days. When he next woke – whether from a dream or just exhausting sleep – he’d sit in counsel with his best and brightest. Whatever could be done would be done, but later. Later.
The king simply focused on the stand of dry bamboo running up to the side of the procession’s path. He listened to the tightly packed culms clacking in the gentle breeze. He imagined them drying, dying, and then some day in the sky-distant future waiting as papery dusty stump-rot while travelers came back this way on this very path, coming to a restored oasis in dry country and bringing new shoots with them.
The suns’ light seemed warmer.
“Your Highness!” came a voice he didn’t recognize.
The unrecognized voice belonged to a thin woman walking up and alongside his entourage. She was armed with a thin waistcoat over thin raiments he found difficult to describe, and a box or bag swinging from one hand. Her femininity was actually more of a suggestion than a fact, since much of her garb was a silky wrapping layer obscuring every part of her skin, along with the shape of her face and whatever hair she might or might not have.
Goeyren had a pretty decent tolerance for certain kinds of discomfort, but if he’d been wearing a quarter of what she had on he’d be a highly pedigreed puddle inside of ten breaths.
“Yes?” he said. “I do not believe I know you. What is your name?”
He didn’t slow, reasonably suspicious of odd people with odd containers. His detail didn’t actually jab spears in her direction, which said a good deal about how little of a threat presence she exuded, but still.
“My name is not important, Your Highness, though I hope I might find an audience with you this evening if you’ll have me.”
Slightly intrigued, he bobbed his head. He had a thousand people waiting on his pleasure, and ten thousand tiny chaotic eddies offering all sorts of disruption. It wouldn’t destroy his itinerary to indulge a single woman a few minutes, perhaps.
“That depends on why you’d seek my company.”
She smiled a bit, judging from how the cloth around her face spread and shrank.
“I have a proposition from someone I consider my superior. A proposition of aid, in the form of several boons. Financial resources, informational resources, the like. I simply ask you hear me out.”
She gave a small bob of her own head.
“In the place I hail from, we have games involving small rectangular playing pieces that amount to numbers games. They can be quite complex, those games, and sometimes their pieces can even be pretty or useful on their own. They also help pass the time, and stimulate the mind while people discuss terms of import.”
She extended a small piece of something shiny and white with black dots. Decorated ivory, if he wasn’t mistaken.
Goeyren’s nearest guard accepted it from her, holding it far enough away that even if it shot burning toxic needles in every direction it wouldn’t kill him.
“I think that you might find a game of dominoes to be educational. Even better, it might help you find new and helpful perspectives through which to view the world, and better still it might serve as a medium for us to reach an understanding.”