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It was not a large meet, but any meet was enough to push Aresk into a rush, even when returning to the camp with an impressive kill—a moment he ordinarily savored as much as possible. Only three clans had gathered, and he had little interest in the Shadowed Wood clan. But the Cold Spray were there…
“And that means Gairan will be there,” Rortosk said in a deliberately bland tone, staring at the banners.
Aresk dropped his deer with less reverence than it deserved, just barely managing not to visibly clench his jaw in embarrassment. “What of it? I mean…I suppose.”
The old hunter grinned broadly, but clapped him on the shoulder, giving him a friendly shake for good measure. “Tell you what. Why don’t you let us finish up here? There’s not much left to do, and we’ve all seen meets before.”
“I do my fair share,” Aresk protested, straightening to his full height and squaring his shoulders.
“At this point it’s nothing but chewing the breeze with Rian and that poor fool she’s snared as an apprentice, while everybody admires our kills. I think we can manage it without you, eh?”
“Aye, go check on that father of yours,” Isnek added while the rest of the hunting party grinned agreement. “See to it he doesn’t start any feuds this time.”
Aresk didn’t bother to protest that hadn’t been an actual feud, nor entirely his father’s fault. Unable to fully repress the bounce in his step, he was already backing up toward the camp. “I don’t care what anyone says, Rortosk, sometimes you do have a soul after all.”
He wasn’t backed up so far that Rortosk’s fist failed to collide with his jaw. Aresk staggered backward, tasting blood, which he spat on the ground a moment later. Grinning at Rortosk, he pounded one fist into his opposite palm in acknowledgment of the blow, then finally turned and strode off, followed by the catcalls of the rest of the party. It wasn’t so bad, being the young pup of the group, at least once he got over his own self-consciousness. They never insulted him by taking on his share of the actual work, but as the elder hunter had pointed out, there was little enough to do at this point but unpack, and they did encourage him to live a bit when appropriate. Still, Aresk was looking forward to another youth joining the hunts just so he wasn’t the youngest anymore.
Orcs milled around the camp, both familiar faces and those of visiting sister clans. Many, residents and guests alike, were in regalia in honor of the meet; Aresk nodded politely to everyone he passed, but to those formally dressed he gave a full bow, fist over heart. The respect was earned, in his mind, both for the preservation of their traditions and for sheer perseverance; orcish regalia was not comfortable in a Tsurikura summer. Orcs were a large, solid people, bred for the colder climate of Athan’Khar; the Sifanese archipelago could be scathing at this time of year.
Camp Khashrek was the largest holding of the High Wind clan, and the very name roused bitterness in Aresk, along with the all-but-audible voice of his father growling in the back of his head. Camp, indeed. They still called it that, and it was important, even if reality gave the lie to the name. Tsurikura was not their home, but a place they were allowed to stay by the Sifanese. The clans’ holdings in this land were temporary, stopovers for the time being until they could reclaim their true lands. But a century after the apocalypse, they were not only no closer to returning to Athan’Khar or even avenging themselves against the Tiraan, and the roots they had put down here in Sifan had grown unmistakable and increasingly unlikely to be pulled up in the future.
Now, Khashrek was a town in all but name. More and more of the High Wind had drifted toward it from the outlying camps, to the point that Aresk and his father had both muttered about moving away themselves, to be closer to the wild. Even so, it wasn’t a large town, housing no more than four hundred orcs most of the time—just enough that it wasn’t quite possible to know everyone and their business. Aresk could remember a time, when he was a very small child, when the camp’s name had been at least somewhat borne out in its architecture, when even the homes with solid walls of wood were rough-hewn, insulated only with patches of clay, many having hide roofs. Now they were all permanent structures, with stone foundations and adobe walls, and it had been Aresk’s own traditionalist father who had pushed for this, albeit reluctantly. At least these were proper orcish homes of stone and plaster, accented with timber and bone, still with stretched hides shading their porches and windows but roofed in shingles or thatch. There were also some houses in the Sifanese style, whose construction had been what pushed even that traditionalist faction to act, determined to at least preserve true orcish architecture.
It wasn’t as if the Sifanese were doing it on purpose. That was almost worse; if they were trying to corrupt what was left of Kharsa culture, Aresk could at least have resented it. Orcs were allowed to visit Kiyosan for trade, and he had accompanied his father there a couple of times—enough to learn he had no taste for it, for the way the humans looked at them. The Sifanese were a famously insular people, who didn’t even like having other humans in their country, let alone orcs. They were accustomed to living by the wild dictates of the kitsune, and if the fox-goddesses said that orcs were allowed to settle on Tsurikura, well, shou ga nai. Aresk was reasonably fluent in their language and as much as he deliberately favored Kharsa even in his own head, he got a lot of use out of that phrase.
Even now, passing through Camp Khashrek, the signs were evident. Small yokai shrines in the gardens of some homes, colorful pennants acquired from human traders decorating porches. In the art painted along houses, traditional knotwork and animal spirit depictions were sometimes accompanied by elaborate geometric designs in the Sifanese style. No one was quite outlandish enough to walk around dressed in a kimono, but even among the weapons carried by fellow orcs, there were occasional naginata and katana accompanying their traditional spears and khopesh. Bit by inexorable bit, they were being absorbed by a people who didn’t even want them there.
Today, at least, the omnipresent reminders didn’t manage to sour Aresk’s mood. Without hesitation, he followed the crowd to where it was thickest: the ceremonial grounds along the west edge of Camp Khashrek, where the public amphitheater lay in the shelter of a rocky protrusion which shielded the town from the prevailing winds. The way there was crowded, not just with orcs talking or moving, but with commerce, as people from the two visiting clans had brought goods and High Wind residents had brought out their own, to make an impromptu market along the wide center street. His own hunting party would be joining them soon with their catch. It was clear, though, that the focus of the crowd and most of those present was at the ceremonial grounds. That meant something important was happening there.
That meant Gairan was likely to be there. Aresk straightened his back further, rolling his shoulders, and tried not to chafe at the delay as he had to slow with the crowd to get in. To his left, someone accidentally jostled someone else and was punched in the side of the head; he barely stepped away in time to avoid the first man staggering into him and drawing him into the scuffle. For a moment he resignedly figured there was about to be a brawl and he really would get caught up, but the clumsy orc just nodded to the one he’d bumped, pounding his fist in recognition, and received a nod in return.
The amphitheater was the only structure in Camp Khashrek surrounded by a wall, the town itself being forbidden exterior defenses by Sifanese law. Aresk had been surprised, as a boy, to learn that law was not applied selectively to orcs; Queen Takamatsu forbade fortifications except to her own lords. Each of its three entrances was flanked by two totems, proper orcish ones rather than the yokai shrines that had started going up everywhere else. Passing between the carved faces of animal spirits quieted the crowd, and there was a distinct difference between the festival atmosphere outside in the town and the more solemn one within the grounds.
Aresk stepped to the side as soon as space opened, in the broad half-ring which separated the descending tiers of the amphitheater from the wall, craning his neck to peer around. There was a meeting already in progress, a few figures standing on the stage at the lowest level, but he ignored them at first searching for—his father, as he would claim if anybody asked. But also Gairan. She had to be here somewhere, the crowd was a roughly even blend of all three tribes and she always had to be in the thick of everything…
He had to resign himself to the hopelessness of that, though, as there were far too many people standing and making their way through the various tiers to give him a clear view; all those seated with their backs to the entrances were anonymous from his angle, a lot actually invisible behind others. Aresk let out a short huff of annoyance, and then the scene below finally caught his attention.
There was a human there. Not unheard of; the Sifanese avoided the orcs, but only mostly, and they had some regular visitors who were quite friendly. The other side of their culture being so formal and orderly was that individuals who didn’t fit well in it had few opportunities to get away, and a number of them found the more plain-spoken orcs good company. This one was Punaji, though, and it was odd for one of them to come this far inland. Aresk quite liked the Punaji, for all that their boisterousness could get annoying; they made the Sifanese look like a nation of temple guardians. They were sea people, though, frequent visitors to the ports on Tsurikura’s northwestern coast where the Cold Spray made their homes, and he’d never heard of one being encountered elsewhere. This one had the distinctive black hair—also distinctively uncombed—and one of those long heavy coats they wore, which had to be brutally uncomfortable in the summer heat. Even one of their shortish, curved swords hung at his waist. More than that Aresk couldn’t tell, as the man stood with his back to him, facing Mother Raghann.
Must be important indeed, for a human to be brought into the ceremonial grounds, and welcomed to stand at the speaker’s place in the amphitheater. Aresk couldn’t help some annoyance at the presumption, though Raghann was there along with two other old orcs he recognized as Elders of the Shadowed Wood and Cold Spray clans. Clearly, the man was invited. He shuffled closer to listen, forgetting to search for Gairan and his father.
His timing was fortuitous. The human was doubtless central to whatever this meet had been called to discuss, and the discussion itself seemed not underway yet. Even in solemn quiet, the crowd of orcs filing into the amphitheater were talking softly, many giving their guest suspicious looks, and those on the stage were not yet addressing the assembled. Raghann and the human were talking, the other two Elders in conversation with people on the front row.
Then the human shifted to look around at the gathering crowd, and Aresk took an involuntary step forward, clenching his fists. That was not a Punaji. The man was far too pale, not as much as the city-dwelling Sifanese he had seen in Kiyosan, nor as dark as the suntanned travelers who came by Camp Khashrek. With that strangely tawny complexion, and that sharp, high-bridged nose, he resembled descriptions Aresk had heard of…
“Tiraan?” he grated aloud, beginning to feel his pulse rise in fury.
A hand fell heavily on his shoulder.
Aresk rounded on its owner, barely restraining the urge to lash out. Which, as it turned out, was a good thing.
“You made good time, my son,” Arkhosh said, giving him a firm shake by his grip on Aresk’s shoulder. “I hoped your party would return in time to see at least the outcome of this meeting. You haven’t missed anything of consequence.”
“Father!” Aresk barely managed to lower his voice to a pitch suitable for the reverence owed the ceremonial grounds. “Is that man Tiraan?”
Arkhosh’s eyes shifted past him to stare down at the “guest” on stage with the Elders, his face betraying nothing. Aresk knew the deep well of conviction that motivated his father, but Arkhosh was a respected man in the community, and his role as the public voice of the traditionalist faction demanded composure; he never revealed more than he meant to, at least in public.
“That boy,” Arkhosh said in the same soft tone, “is indeed of the Empire. He is an emissary from the Vidians, a speaker for the dead. And as his visit has the backing of the Queen and one of the kitsune, the Elders have agreed to hear him speak. I cast my own vote in favor of hearing him out. Tiraan or no, remember the courtesy owed a guest of the clan.”
Aresk struggled to control himself. Maybe someday he would master his father’s confident self-restraint, but sometimes—like now—he despaired of it. “We are to sit and listen to Tiraan lies?”
Arkhosh shook him again, still gently enough to be affectionate, but clearly making a point. “No one has seen a Tiraan in a hundred years, my son. This one can do little enough harm on his own, and even if his presence is as worthless as I suspect, it costs us nothing and may profit us to see and hear him. Always seek to know your enemy, as best you can. Come, I want you to sit with me at the front.” He paused, then gave Aresk another jostle. “You are a man, a hunter, and a member of the community. I expect you to control yourself, but speak if you see a need, son.”
“Yes, Father,” Aresk said, squaring his shoulders. It would not be his first time sitting at the lowest levels with his father, whose place there had been well-earned, but this invitation to participate was new, and filled him with such emotion it was all he could do to cling to his own composure as he followed Arkhosh down to the front row. With pride, yes, but also trepidation. The thought of embarrassing himself, or worse, his father… What could he say? Would he know what was right to contribute? Maybe it would be better just to remain silent. But after Arkhosh had specifically asked him to speak at need, would that disappoint him?
Aresk’s equilibrium was not helped by what he found at the bottom level. There was an open space, which Arkhosh had clearly kept for them, and right next to it sat Gairan.
She looked up, and the grin of delight that blossomed on her broad features made several of his organs evidently displace themselves. Gairan wore regalia today, he saw, and it suited her amazingly well. Aresk had always thought her pretty, but over the last several times they had met, he had begun to develop the opinion that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
He was aware that meant he was in real trouble.
“Aresk,” she said as he sat down beside her on the bench, punching his shoulder and setting his chest to an unmanly flutter that he dearly hoped was invisible. “They said you were off hunting! I was afraid I wouldn’t get to see you at this meet.”
“You should be so lucky,” he replied in as close to a casually jocular tone as he could manage. Out of respect for the bones and feathers which draped her robes, he had to content himself with jabbing her with an elbow. If he damaged her formal regalia…well, that was all he needed. “And look at you! A shaman in your own right, now!”
“Just as you’re a hunter,” she replied, baring tusks in a broad grin. In the next moment they both fell silent in the awkwardly sudden awareness that as fully recognized adults, it was about time for them each to be looking for a mate…
Sitting on Aresk’s other side, his father made a sound deep in his throat that could have meant anything. It was only Aresk’s deep, personal respect for him that restrained him from punching the older orc right on the ear.
The spirits continued to bless Aresk’s timing, and he was spared having to sit through any more discomfort. On the stage just in front of him, Mother Raghann had stepped over to the back and struck the hanging bronze bell twice with the head of her staff.
She paused for two heartbeats before striking it twice more, and then did the same a third time. By the end, every orc in the ceremonial grounds had fallen silent and either taken a seat or stood against the outer wall; out of respect for a meeting in progress, those who had not entered in time refrained from crowding through the gates.
The old woman turned back to face them, planting her staff against the ground with a soft thump that was plainly heard in the sudden silence.
“We,” she said, her voice no less strong for the faint creak it had acquired over her long years, “the Elders of the High Wind, the Shadowed Wood, and the Cold Spray clans, have called this meet to hear a request from this visitor.” She lifted her staff again to point at the human, who nodded acknowledgment at her. Not the correct thing to do at that moment, but aside from some faint shuffling in the stands, no one commented. It was not exactly fair to expect this Tiraan to be familiar with their etiquette, and his intent was clearly respectful. “This is Gabriel Arquin, from Tiraas.” Several of the respected members of the community who ranked a seat on the front had to turn around and glare upward to silence the ensuing muttering, including Arkhosh. “He is the Chosen of Vidius, and has been brought here with the blessing of our host, Queen Takamatsu, by the Ancient One Kyomi, to bring us a proposal.”
“Vidius has no Chosen,” scoffed a man Aresk did not know, who by his style of dress and skin color was of the Shadowed Wood. To be invited to sit there in the front, he must have been fairly important in his clan.
Gabriel Arquin glanced at Raghann, who just raised her chin slightly, and Arkesh couldn’t quite repress a sneer. Couldn’t the boy speak for himself?
“He does now,” Arquin said in the next moment, clearly figuring out that nobody was going to hold his hand. “I’m the first. I’m sure that must seem strange, coming out of nowhere like this, but let me just tell you it’s giving me a lot more credit than I’ve earned if you think I managed to trick a kitsune.”
All three Elders on the stage smiled at that, and there were a few chuckles of acknowledgment from the crowd.
Arquin drew in a breath, and subtly squared his shoulders—a gesture Aresk might have missed, had he not been peering at the human with a hunter’s intensity. Chosen or not, the boy was nervous. Well, so much the better. Any member of his demented, murdering nation should be, showing his face here. Arquin shifted his left hand to the hilt of his sword, and Aresk’s eyes fixed on that. Not the hand he would use to draw it, but still…
“I’ve come with a proposal,” the human said when the soft amusement faded. “I am not going to make you a promise, because I honestly don’t know if this will work. But I believe it should be tried. I have consulted with my cult and with that of Salyrene about the feasibility of this, and both believe it is…possible. It will require the participation of your clans, however. Not just for your unique, ah…perspective, but because it should be your right to determine whether this proceeds at all.”
“Enough waffling, boy,” a Cold Spray woman in the front row said. “Spit it out. What is it you want to do?”
Arquin shifted again, once more straightening his shoulders, though Aresk was still watching his sword. There was something there… His concentration was broken by the Chosen’s next words, however.
“I want to heal Athan’Khar.”
All respect for the solemnity of the ceremonial grounds was lost in the hubbub that erupted. A lot was general confusion and disbelief, but there was plenty of negatory hissing, as well as the approving stomping of feet. Gairan’s feet were among those exuberantly slammed against the ground, Aresk noted with a pang.
Raghann whipped her staff around and whacked at the bell until there was silence again. Neither she nor the other two Elders looked surprised. Of course, they had cooked this up between them; they wouldn’t have brought this human here unless they knew exactly what this was all about.
“There are indications that the land is beginning to heal naturally,” Arquin said. “The corruption is receding, and by this time the forest seems completely natural for almost a mile south of the river border. Humans don’t go there, obviously, but gnomes have reported on the state of the country. The monsters within Athan’Khar are growing less aggressive, too. It’s been forty years since any crossed the river without specific provocation.”
“What is that?” Aresk demanded suddenly, pointing. His father and Gairan both turned their heads to frown at him.
Arquin turned to him too, blinking. “What’s…what?”
“Your sword,” Aresk said, deliberately not looking at anything but the human. Maybe if he couldn’t actually see the entire crowd staring at him, the self-consciousness wouldn’t crush him bodily… “The one your hand is on. There’s light flickering at the edge of the scabbard. Are you doing magic?”
An unpleasant murmur rose from several directions.
“Oh,” Arquin said hastily, “don’t worry, that’s—”
“Remember where you are, boy,” Arkhosh rumbled. “You don’t tell us not to worry when a Tiraan is doing surreptitious arcane magic at us.”
“If I could explain?” Arquin said, frowning in annoyance. As much as Aresk wanted to take offense on behalf of his father, Arkhosh had interrupted, and this was the first time the human had shown some proper spine. In the next moment he tensed, reflexively reaching for his hunting knife, when Arquin fully drew the sword.
It was not, as he had thought, one of the scimitars the Punaji often carried. The curve of the blade was almost serpentine. Aside from its gleaming cutting edge, the blade itself was black, and lined with symbols which pulsed blue in time with its master’s voice.
“Ariel is a kind of all-purpose magical aid,” the human explained. “In this case, she is translating. I don’t actually speak either Sifanese or Kharsa; the magic lets me communicate.”
“You call your sword a she?” the Shadowed Wood man from earlier said in a dry tone. There was some gruff laughter from the stands, till Raghann raised her staff menacingly toward the bell.
“She is a talking sword,” Arquin replied flatly, returning the weapon to its sheath. “Her voice is feminine. And she is under strict instructions not to talk here because she’s rude and generally obnoxious.”
Arkhosh patted Aresk’s shoulder, leaning toward him to murmur, “Well spotted, son.”
Aresk could not help straightening his back in pride, and then further when Gairan gave him a warm smile.
“Back to the point, then,” said Takhran, the second-eldest member of the High Wind clan after Raghann. “How is it you propose to heal Athan’Khar? And why would you suddenly decide to do this?”
“The why is simply because it should be done,” Arquin said firmly. “I don’t know that anybody needs a reason beyond that. The how is the complicated part, at least potentially. As I said up front, I’m proposing to try; I can’t be sure how well this would work. Cleansing corruption is fairly straightforward according to several magical disciplines; the problem in Athan’Khar is that the corruption is sentient, and angry.”
“And wouldn’t you be?” someone shouted from the back. Nobody that distant from the position of honor near the stage should have interrupted the meeting, and indeed there was an immediate scuffle as the speaker was pounded by his neighbors. From around the amphitheater, though, several feet were stomped in agreement.
“Absolutely,” said Arquin. “That’s not in question. Justified or not, though, the twisted and enraged state of the spirits in Athan’Khar has to be incredibly painful for them, and I don’t think they should be left in that condition, not if they can be helped. Wouldn’t you want to be?”
“Why now?” Takhran asked.
“There was never a Chosen of Vidius before now,” Gairan said before Arquin could answer. The human turned to her and nodded in respect, giving the young shaman a small smile.
Aresk couldn’t quite put words to the emotion that rose in his throat, but he was not enjoying it.
“The problem, then,” Arquin continued, “is trying to heal a land that actively fights you in the process. My cult has some experience in dealing with angry spirits, and will help in any and every way possible. That won’t be enough, though. There are very few Vidians who aren’t human, relatively speaking, and even if I could get every elf, gnome, and dwarven cleric of the cult to work at this, they still wouldn’t be orcs. Not being immediately attacked by the spirits is not the same as getting them to cooperate. It’s very likely that your shaman are the only people the spirits of Athan’Khar will even listen to. There are many ways the followers of Vidius and Salyrene can facilitate this, and we will do everything we can, but it must be shaman of the clans who take the lead.”
“And your Empire?” Arkhosh demanded. “Are we to believe Tiraas will just sit passively and let Athan’Khar be restored? You suggest we should send our shaman to be exposed to Tiraan assassination in what you acknowledge might be a vain hope!”
There was both hissing and stomping in response; Raghann hefted her staff, but quiet fell again before she could strike the bell.
“First, we have to try,” Arquin answered. “If this doesn’t work, it won’t matter. But if it does, if we can raise a real prospect of restoring Athan’Khar and returning the clans to their home, it’s very likely the Empire will bend its resources to help.”
That time, Raghann had to sound the bell repeatedly to stifle the uproar, and it took more than a few seconds.
“What do you think, Aresk?” Arkhosh asked quietly, his voice disguised by the noise.
“I don’t trust a Tiraan saying things that are obviously too good to be true,” Aresk answered.
His father’s faint smile said he shared that doubt. “I mean, of him.”
Aresk hesitated, narrowing his eyes, conscious of Gairan watching him from the other side and listening. “He…speaks well, father. Straightforward. The Sifanese hide everything behind formality and the Punaji play about like children. It bothers me, the thought that of the human nations we know it’s the Tiraan who are most like orcs.”
“Don’t judge any clan by one individual, let alone a nation that size,” Arkhosh murmured, “and never judge an individual by what he says when he wants something.”
Silence finally fell again, and they had to cut the conversation short. Arquin had stood still throughout, and Aresk had to respect his composure; even the faint signs of nervousness he’d shown before had melted away. Now, he was simply waiting for quiet so he could continue.
“I gather you don’t know a lot about our history,” the human said at last.
“You presume a lot, boy,” Arkhosh replied, “if you think we care about your history.”
Feet were stomped in agreement, but this time Arquin continued without waiting for order to restore itself. “It matters, here. The last your people knew of the continent, you were rescued by the Silver Legions and then the kitsune brought you here. Am I right?”
“Yes,” Raghann said simply. “Go on.”
Arquin nodded. “If you haven’t followed word from Tiraas after that, you may not know that the Empire tore itself apart after the Enchanter’s Bane was used. That was no great triumph; every human nation reacted with horror at the atrocity of it. Every province rose up in rebellion. Tiraas itself was so beset with riots that the Emperor had to impose martial law, and even that didn’t work. By the time rebel forces had converged on the capital, his own government had collapsed due to the Sisters of Avei fighting Imperial guards for control of the city and the Thieves’ Guild assassinating every official of the civilian government they could reach. No one in the Tiraan Empire is proud of what we did to your people. Even now, it’s remembered as our greatest shame. At the time, it completely broke the Empire.”
The murmuring that rose up was more subdued than before. Aresk sat bolt upright on his bench, trying to digest that. How much of it could be true? Then again, why would the Chosen lie?
The worst part was the realization that if Arquin spoke the truth, the clans had all but condemned themselves by refusing to hear emissaries from Tiraas for the last hundred years. In withdrawing into Tsurikura to rebuild their strength, they would have wasted who knew how many opportunities to return home and try to rebuild already…if this account was right.
“And yet, there is an Empire now,” Arkhosh said with naked skepticism. “Because we have not accepted visitors from Tiraas does not mean we all live under rocks, boy. There is plenty of talk in Sifan about the looming menace of the Tiraan Empire.”
“You’re correct,” Arquin replied. “There is a Tiraan Empire, but it’s not the same one. It was put back together, piece by piece, in the years following the war. It uses as much of the same symbolism and pageantry of the original as it can, because that’s a way for the people in power to stay in power. But structurally? It almost doesn’t compare. The Emperor can’t just do whatever he wants anymore; his power is checked by the noble Houses. The Army itself is constrained by law to consist of one-third levies from House guards, which means they can put a cap on how many forces he has at his disposal. The provincial governments have a great deal more internal sovereignty. The Universal Church is far more powerful, and has a lot of sway with the public—the Archpope can give a sermon and turn a lot of people against the Silver Throne. Tiraas has no navy at all; the Empire relies on treaties with the Punaji and the Tidestrider clans to secure its coasts. And above all, everyone remembers Athan’Khar. The last Imperial dynasty was brought down by the outrage of the public, and Emperor Sharidan doesn’t dare forget that. If anything, he is more vulnerable to being ripped off his throne if he oversteps than the last dynasty were. The idea of waging war on the orcs… It’s laughable, frankly. It would enrage a big swath of the Empire’s citizens, and send most of Sharidan’s political enemies circling like vultures for a chance to take him down.
“There’s another side to that coin,” Arquin continued, raising his voice slightly above the ensuing mutters until they faded. “Sharidan’s very first action as Emperor was to form a treaty with the drow of Tar’naris.”
“No one forms treaties with drow!” exclaimed the Shadowed Wood dignitary who kept finding fault with everything the human said.
“That treaty is real,” said Takhran. “That much, even I have heard.”
“Not all drow are alike,” Arquin agreed. “Not even all Themynrites. Just because nobody can deal diplomatically with the Nathloi doesn’t mean we can’t with Narisians—and I don’t know enough about Sifanese politics to guess, but the lack of a treaty with Nathloss may just mean it hasn’t been tried. Tar’naris and the Empire get along quite well, now. One of my best friends is Narisian, and she’s easily the most rational person I know. The point is, the Narisian Treaty is one of the most popular things the Empire has done in recent years, even though it involves committing Imperial troops to help hold their Scyllithene border. Sharidan has not only proved he’s willing to offer a hand to former enemies; he’s learned there’s a big political advantage in it for him.
“I don’t work for the Imperial government,” Arquin said, once again pressing on despite muttering around him. “I can’t promise anything about what the Silver Throne will do; everything I have to say on that subject is my opinion as an informed citizen. And I certainly didn’t come here to sell the Empire to you. Having grown up in the thing, I think it’s better for its people than either anarchy or warring feudal states, and I think Sharidan Tirasian is reasonable and more inclined to be helpful than he is to be difficult. That’s about the extent of my patriotism. If you’re still too disgusted at the idea of dealing with Tiraas to even try, then…I guess there’s nothing more to talk about, there. But since the Empire did this to your people, if they can be persuaded to foot the bill for cleaning it up, well…that seems fair, to me.”
That earned him a round of exuberant stomping, though Arkhosh quickly retorted, “None of which matters if your whole idea proves to be unworkable in the first place.”
“Yes,” Arquin agreed. “I think involving the Empire would be a bad idea unless we can be certain this is doable.”
“Very well,” Arkhosh replied, “you’ve talked a lot of grand concepts. Heal Athan’Khar, make peace. What, specifically, are you proposing to do? What do you need from us, and what do you offer? The journey to Athan’Khar is a very long one to make on the basis of such limited prospects, Deathspeaker.”
“I’m offering the services of myself and my valkyrie allies to aid in contacting the spirits in whatever way is necessary,” said Arquin. More murmuring swelled up at that; the aid of soul reapers was not a small thing. “I have also secured the assistance of Salyrite scholars to deal with the magic involved. What I propose, in this specific case, is a small team; we are looking to ascertain whether this can be done, remember, not heal the whole of Athan’Khar right away. It’s barely a beginning. To that end, we will need the help of at least one orcish shaman. I would suggest maybe two or three, but you know your business better than I. And as for the trip, I am given to understand that it will only be a journey of a day or two.”
Raghann struck the bell to silence the widespread scoffing that ensued.
“Let us not dismiss anything without thought,” Arkhosh agreed, turning to stare at the crowd. “We have heard some surprising things today. I’m sure the Deathspeaker, who has been so careful not to make promises he can’t keep, would not say such things without reason. How, then,” he asked, turning back to Arquin, “do you propose to reach Athan’Khar from Tsurikura in two days?”
“With my help.”
She had not been there before; she did not appear. It was simply as if she had always been part of the scenery, and everyone only now noticed. The kitsune stood nimbly atop the bell itself, balanced on her toes; she wore a black kimono that matched the color of her ears and tail, with a plain katana and wakizashi thrust through her sash.
Immediately, every orc in the place surged to their feet and then knelt in respect, save the three Elders on the stage. Arquin, who had turned to her without evident surprise, looked rapidly back and forth at the prostrate orcs in bafflement.
“I do not do this to rush you away, honored guests,” Kyomi said with a gracious little smile, inclining her head. “You have been good neighbors and good caretakers for this piece of our realm. The clans of Athan’Khar have been offered welcome in Sifan, and it shall not be rescinded, so long as your good stewardship continues. But it is a painful thing, to be cut off from one’s history, and my sisters and I are pleased to help you in recovering it, if we may.”
She hopped lightly down to the ground, whereupon the Elders bowed deeply to her. After a confused pause, Arquin did likewise.
“So, before committing great effort to this task, I call a band of heroes to see whether it can be done. Raghann, daughter of Aghren, Elder and chief shaman of the High Wind clan, you shall lead it with your wisdom and experience. Gabriel Arquin, who has brought us this chance and presents its best hope, will of course go. As this is a quest for the future of the orcish people, the young should have a place as well. And so two more will join them, a shaman and a hunter. Of the Cold Spray clan, Gairan, daughter of Grensha.”
Aresk thought for certain his heart couldn’t pound any harder or higher in his throat than at that announcement. The kitsune’s very next words proved him wrong.
“And of the High Wind clan, Aresk, son of Arkhosh.”