“Gentlemen, I think we must consider our military objectives while occupying Mishrak ac Thull,” the tiny blonde Queen Mother of Drasnia stated. She brushed her hands across her black skirt before sitting down on her throne. Next to her sat a small table with an inkwell and parchment resting on top. “Any suggestions for our priorities or our challenges?”
The brutish King of the Chereks adjusted his bent crown atop his head. His bushy black beard hid so much of his face---forcing Jaken to look into his eyes. Intelligence filled them, and the toad demon could see his mind whir as he made calculations and devised strategies. His booming voice rumbled, “We must hold Thull Mardu. Just like last time, the capital city will be key to our success.”
Jaken glanced towards the elaborate map on its gilded easel. He looked at all the scrawled foreign names, trying to see the city that Anheg had mentioned. They swirled before his vision, making it impossible to find. He asked politely, “Forgive me, Varana-sama, but what happened last time?”
“The Battle of Thull Mardu happened, that's what,” Anheg said abruptly. His stern gaze shifted from Jaken to the silver-haired Emperor. A sly smile crossed his lips. “Tolnedra was only an observer, isn't that right, Varana-sama?”
Jaken narrowed his eyes at the King of Cherek, annoyed by his impudence. He shifted in his red plush chair, turning his back on him as he faced Varana. He wanted the answer from someone he respected---and trusted. This brute had nothing to say that he wanted to hear.
“Now, now, Anheg,” Varana chided. He smoothed out his gold mantle, the silk whispering. “It's true. My predecessor may have wanted to remain neutral, but Tolnedra is fully committed this time.”
“Of course she is---where there is profit to be made, there the Empire you will find,” Anheg retorted, cupping his face in a giant hand.
A disapproving frown crossed Varana's lips as he glanced briefly at Anheg. Fixing his attention on Jaken, the Tolnedran Emperor explained patiently, “To answer your question, Jaken, the Battle of Thull Mardu was a clash between East and West. The Kingdoms of the West rose to meet the Angaraks to keep them from invading and subjugating the Western Continent. Without the Thullish capital city, the Western forces would have never been able to withstand the tides of a combined Murgo and Malloreon force.”
“You're making it sound so simple,” the shrill voice of the emaciated King of the Nadraks interrupted. His mustard yellow doublet made his pock-marked face pallid. “Your forces only escaped because I gave you a path out if you'll recall. The Murgos and Malloreons would have simply crushed you between them just so they could butcher each other. I'll have you remember that I put my own hide at great risk. Zakath wasn't such a magnanimous man at the time. Given the chance, he would have crucified me.”
Varana held up his hand, the gesture apologetic. “I'm not diminishing anyone's contributions to our success at Thull Mardu. I'm only trying to answer Jaken's question. There's no need to be so combative.”
“It's merely a matter of setting the record straight,” Drosta said, his arms crossed. “Our new friend should know the facts, no?”
Jaken assessed the King of the Nadraks. Stains splotched his garish outfit, matching the angry scars peppering his hands and face. His bony frame barely fit into the fabric as it hung loosely about him in rumpled folds. His crown rested atop scraggly black hair, tilting askew to the left. Drosta lounged indolently on his throne and yet when Jaken stared into his eyes he saw a cautious and calculating man---a decisive and cunning man. The toad demon would have to keep his eye on this King. He wore such an elaborate mask---clearly hiding behind a veneer of gross sluggishness. It left Jaken wanting to know why---and how Drosta hoped to use it to his political advantage.
“Back to the task at hand,” Porenn said firmly. “We needed to occupy Thull Mardu so you could put your fleet into the Sea of the East, Anheg. This time there won't be any Malloreon ships---or very few Murgo rogues. Surely we don't need the entire Cherek fleet.”
“No. Not the entire fleet,” Anheg replied. He lounged on his throne, one fur-clad leg draped over a chair arm. “Only about ten will suffice. We need to blockade Rak Goska, and my war boats are the only way to do it. Murgos are terrible sailors and their ships would never match one of mine.”
“Sounds reasonable.” Porenn wrote briskly onto a piece of parchment.
“Excuse me, that sounds all well and good but aren't you forgetting a key element to our success?” The frumpy King of Sendaria interjected. His peasant brown seemed so out of place amongst the brilliant colors and lush fabrics of the other monarchs. “I'm sure your ships are wonderful, Anheg. I've sailed on them many a time. But no matter how much you plan and no matter what else happens, you can't forget this single key. We'll surely fail without it.”
“Thy reasoning escapes me,” the purple-clad King of Arendia stated. “Perhaps with further illumination, thy mind wilt be revealed to us.”
“I agree. I don't follow either, Fulrach,” Varana said, a puzzled frown crossing his face.
Jaken looked from the Tolnedran Emperor to the Sendarian King and back again. He crossed his arms, jutting his chin out in frustration. “Why don't you just say it without the guessing game, you infuriating human?”
“Alright.” Fulrach's sober gaze landed on Jaken. He nodded, his lips pursing. “I'll sum it in one word: food. Without Sendarian foodstuffs, how do you ever hope to occupy Thull Mardu? Our first and last priority must be our supply chain---and it must be protected above all else.”
“We were---,” began one twin.
“---just about to suggest the same thing. Feeding the men will be the key to the mission---and no soldier should have an empty belly,” finished the other.
Belkira and Beltira sat together on a red plush settee. They each held a tankard that they sipped from periodically as they observed the political discussion with amused but gentle expressions. Their white robes reflected the candlelight, making them dazzle. Jaken surmised by their out of the way placement that the patient pair meant to largely stay out of the debates unless they had something pertinent to add.
“Spoken like perfect shepherds,” Porenn quipped. Her pen made scratching sounds as she noted Fulrach's suggestion down. “Which brings up another important point. Clearly we won't need every single soldier the West has to hold Mishrak ac Thull. What percentage should each nation provide in military numbers? Each of us has an investment in our venture, so we should equally share the burden.”
“Do we?” Anheg protested, thrusting himself to his feet. His large size became overwhelming as his large hands gestured wildly. Above his throne hung a banner of a giant and ferocious bear. With his furs and shaggy black beard, Jaken easily saw the Cherek King and the bear as one and the same. “I'm not disagreeing with that, but if we divide the burden, what of the spoils? Tolnedra will profit from the roads. The expansion from Rak Goska to Thull Mardu alone---what, besides not being overrun by Murgos do we hope to gain? Are we only the muscle to help the Empire mint more gold?”
“Why you!” Jaken jumped up, shaking a fist at Anheg. “You just want to pick fights with both Varana-sama and Porenn-sama. You rude beast!”
“Jaken, don't---,” began one twin gently.
“---antagonize Anheg. He means well,” finished the other.
“Excuse me?” Anheg's fierce eyes locked onto Jaken. He stopped his pacing, towering over the toad demon. He said, his deep voice like ominous thunder, “You were not there last time. I refuse to become a vassal to Tolnedra in this venture, and I will not simply let them profit from this when our goal is to keep the West intact while Belgarion is in Mallorea.”
“Profit! All you can complain about is how unfair it is that Varana-sama has found a way to turn this to his country's advantage.” Jaken shook a fist, punctuating his words. “You are simply jealous that your country wasn't fast enough to do the same. You wouldn't be so infuriating if you weren't, you big brute!”
“This has nothing to do with profit,” Anheg replied, his deep voice a seething whisper. He straightened to his full and impressive height, glaring balefully down at Jaken. “This is about our real objective being overshadowed by a blatant attempt to turn this to one country's clear economic advantage while the rest of us do all the fighting, bleeding, and dying.”
Jaken stood his ground, glaring up into Anheg's thickly bearded face. The toad demon straightened his shoulders, trying to puff himself up. “You're getting what you want. You're not going to have these Murgos invading your country. You're going to distract them from their rebellion to their King. Why shouldn't Varana-sama get something in return for helping you? You should be grateful, you insolent mortal, for his gracious assistance to hold this Mishrak ac Thull.”
The Cherek King's face hardened, his dark eyes like agates. He placed a massive hand on his chest and snorted, the sound incredulous. “Be grateful? If not for Ce'Nedra, Tolnedra would have stayed at home---and the West may have been crushed by the Angarak horde no matter what Belgarion did in Cthol Mishrak. We lost many good people at the Battle of Thull Mardu. We all risked so much last time---all the while Varana-sama stood by as an observer and only acted on the situation after making suggestions to get around absurd Tolnedran policies. They didn't stand with us as a committed ally in that conflict---waiting to see what would profit them. Why then should I be grateful now that he is so eager to use this venture to profit while the rest of us stand for a peaceful future?”
“We told you---,” one twin said, amused.
“---not to antagonize Anheg, Jaken,” finished the other as he took a long sip from a tankard.
Jaken snapped at them, “No one asked you!”
“You go too far, Anheg,” Varana said, a hard edge in his voice. “Yes, Ran Bourne tied my hands, but to be fair, Ce'Nedra did steal his legions after she coaxed him into having a seizure. Did I not find clever ways around his restrictions? Did I not provide good advice under the guise required? I'm Emperor now, and I say we're fully committed to helping the West remain peaceful and profitable for all.”
“Listen to Varana-sama, you crude animal,” Jaken shouted, stomping his foot. “You should hope to be as wise.”
Anheg's eyebrows shot up and a scowl settled over his lips. In his dark eyes, however, Jaken caught the odd glimmer of amusement. He crossed his arms, the gesture nonchalant. “I should, eh?”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen!” Porenn said sharply. “Let's not get bogged own by the past. We all want the same thing.”
Jaken snorted, his arms crossed over his chest. He'd yield the point---but only because the Queen Mother had asked them to stop fighting. He said, his words clipped, “As you wish, Porenn-sama.”
“My, my. Jaken certainly brings excitement to our councils, doesn't he?” Brand said, a hint of amusement in his voice. He stood, smoothing down his grey cloak. “Not to stir debate, Porenn, but I must agree with Anheg. In Belgarion's stead, I must press that we make certain all countries benefit beyond simply helping Urgit and keeping the Murgo crisis from spilling. Not that I reject Tolnedra's road proposal, but what other benefits can we hope to gain---how do we all profit and not simply watch Tolnedra reap all the rewards?”
“I agree,” Cho-Hag said quietly. The reserved and black leather clad King of the Algars had contributed little to the discussion, but judging by the serious concentration settling over his hawk-like features, he clearly missed nothing. Behind his throne stood another stony-faced man, his piercing gaze sweeping the room. Cho-Hag continued, “We are in this together. We should receive equal rewards.”
“You Alorns are utterly predictable,” Varana said, rolling his eyes. “Of course all of Aloria is unifying behind Cherek. Let's be honest. We need to occupy Mishrak ac Thull to draw the attention of the rebel Murgos. Building roads opens new trade which will infuriate them. We all want that. I thought Alorns wanted nothing more than to frustrate Angaraks. How is that not a benefit to you? After all, isn't Urgit your brother King---is he not Prince Kheldar's half-brother?”
“Well, this is the Alorn Council,” Anheg quipped. “I'm not sure why you're surprised by that.”
“I'm no Alorn, and I only see you reaping the rewards, Varana. Your goal is to unify the Caravan Routes which could disrupt all the trade agreements,” Drosta said, his nasal voice firm. The King of the Nadraks gestured towards Porenn, angry red splotches marring his hands. “The Nadraks have spent centuries cultivating a strong alliance with Drasnia. So far you keep the Murgo Grolims off of my doorstep and out of Torak's churches, but how is it a benefit to me to have Tolnedra trade from Thull Mardu and not Yar Marak? As the only Angarak present, I vote enthusiastically with the Alorns. We'll yield on the roads only if we get much more in return.”
“You foolish mortals!” Jaken shouted. “The roads were agreed upon last session. Why fuss so much over it when you get the results you want? Varana-sama is right. You'll stop these Murgos---,”
Porenn clapped her hands sharply. “Gentlemen. The purpose of this session is to discuss our primary objectives, not shout ourselves hoarse by debating in circles. I think we can find a compromise---one that will give Tolnedra her incentive to assist and our objective for a peaceful and profitable future for all.” She looked towards Varana, a pensive frown crossing her face. “Tolnedra owns the roads it builds, no matter the territory, correct?”
“Yes,” Varana said, steepling his fingers. An angry scowl settled over his features, his forehead crinkling in thought. “We consider the roads Tolnedran soil. Our hostels and checkpoints provide great revenues to the Empire.”
“Which makes sense,” Porenn cupped her face, her eyes lost in thought. “Thinking aloud here. This time, however, you'll be building this road with the other nation's assistance. Having everyone set up their own custom checkpoints would be a bit much---but what if for this stretch of road that we build together, the other nations are allowed to set up their own hostels? Their revenues would be collected and returned to that nation's Crown. The road itself would be Tolnedran, but---,”
“A splendid suggestion, your Majesty,” the Arendish King said. “Thy wisdom settles a troublesome problem and perchance allows for more charity between East and West. It gives me great pause, your Majesty. May we also entertain another proposal to build upon this goodwill? The hostels will allow for each nation to reap their own revenues, but may we also offer to the East a duplication of the Great Arendish Fair? It hath a respected reputation of great success and wilt give each of us more return on the investment.”
“You want to impede on your own Fair by replicating it?” Varana asked, blinking. “Wouldn't it compete with yours, diminishing its viability?”
“Nay, your Majesty,” Korodullin shifted, a stern expression on his pallid face. His rich purple doublet did little to help his complexion. “Goods are traded upon both Caravan Routes and we still attract the attention of the world's trade at the Fair. Establishing a second one on the Eastern side of the Continent would only do what the Northern Caravan Route has for the Southern. It shalt expand our trade and presence to our Angarak cousins.”
“Will it be a permanent fixture of the occupation?” Cho-Hag asked softly, curiosity in his eyes.
“It must prove itself a worthy venture, your Majesty. If it shalt, we can address its fate at that time,” Korodullin answered. “Methinks it wilt be a fitting piece in our proposal to extend generosity to the East.”
“I agree,” Porenn said. “A centralized location may allow us to build a neutral trading ground that will be independent of any single Crown. Even the Great Arendish Fair is largely left to its own devices outside security. This Fair would be no different. Couple it with our hostels, and we will have a genuine reason for all to contribute to the venture. It will also help us to build lasting peace going forward. My only provision is that any permanence on any Fair must come with Belgarion's approval.”
“I accept thine amendment to my motion, your Majesty,” Korodullin bowed his head in the Queen Mother's direction. “It is only Belgarion's right and duty as the Overlord of the West to weigh in on such measures and the Arendish Crown wilt yield to his decisions.”
“Good.” Porenn dipped the pen into the inkwell and scrawled across the parchment in florid strokes.
“Hold on. Wait a minute.” Varana held up a hand. “That's all well and good, but how do I know that this won't bleed into other branches of the road system? Competing inns along its route could create just as much discourse as build alliances---not to mention what a second Great Fair may bring to the mix.”
“I fundamentally disagree with that assessment. And why not?” Drosta said. He took a sip from a tankard, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his doublet. “It'd help the Western Continent bond and build better connections. Each inn could represent the very best of their home country. And the Murgo Church? This type of cultural mingling would stick in their craw. They've used the same tactics with Murgo merchants for centuries. I say turn it back on them---with a real intention to build true and lasting goodwill between Angaraks and the West.”
“I quite agree, Drosta. I get it, Varana. When Tolnedra reaps all the profits, that's fine. You become more like a true Bourne every day.” Anheg lounged in his chair, buffing his fingernails on his tunic. “I saw we put the measure to a vote. These hostels would give us all incentive to help build your roads---and after all, that's what you want, right, Varana-sama?”
“I---,” Varana slumped on his throne, chuckling. The sound was chagrined. “You've outwitted me this time, Anheg the Sly. Clearly any vote would yield a losing result for Tolnedra. If you'll concede the debate on my road, I'll concede the debate on sharing hostels along it.”
“Deal. Though I'll want that in writing.” A wide smile crossed the Cherek King's brutish face, making him appear boyish. “I must say, that whole argument worked well to our favor---wouldn't you say, Porenn?”
“I can neither confirm nor deny,” Porenn replied, a demure smile on her face. “However, the result does have its benefits to the Drasnian Crown.”
Varana's eyes narrowed as he glared at them with suspicion. Throwing his hands up, the Tolnedran Emperor cried, “Alorns!”
Jaken noted the pleased looks exchanged between Porenn and Anheg. Somehow, it became clear that the two had engineered this fight between the Cherek King and Tolnedran Emperor with the express reason to insert these hostels into the proposal. Human politics were much more sophisticated than he had ever anticipated. Anheg had been combative on purpose---to the point of irrationality---all the while opening the door for a reasonable proposal from Porenn. It'd ensure that it'd be accepted. Jaken realized that he, himself, had become a pawn in the Cherek King's chess match---and oddly that impressed him. He surmised that he'd have to watch Anheg all the closer. He indeed was as sly as his nickname implied.
Nevertheless, Jaken settled for shaking a fist at Anheg before retaking his seat. He muttered, “Foolishness!”
The Queen Mother of Drasnia smoothed the parchment. She said, “Now that negotiations for our hostels are complete, let's resume our discussion. What are our priorities for our occupation? What percentage of military forces should each country provide? So far, we have Fulrach's supply chain and Anheg's commitment of eight to ten Cherek war boats.”
“I recommend no more than fifteen percent from each nation,” Brand said quietly. “It'll leave the home territories protected while giving us a large enough force to stave off a Murgo army.”
“I can stand behind that,” Fulrach said. “My only suggestion is to add a provision to draw on more troops as needed via the supply chains. Perhaps rotate men on a select period of duty.”
Porenn wrote the number down on her scroll. “Excellent suggestion, Fulrach. It'll give the men a chance to rest and keep our forces fresh. I'd say a six-month deployment rotation should suffice.”
“Good idea,” Anheg said, rubbing his thick beard. His entire demeanor had changed. Gone were the scowls and angry outbursts. The King of Cherek lounged on his throne, one leg draped lazily over an arm. “I'll blockade Rak Goska while the land forces secure the border between Mishrak ac Thull and Cthol Murgos. I'll also provide a few ships to Urgit to give him fresh supplies and help. He'll avoid that damn desert that way.”
“Okay, gentlemen. I think our last priority is to reach out to Sadi in Nyissa. I'm sure we can convince him to close the border to any rebel forces looking to invade the West. The jungle itself will hopefully deter enough on its own.”
“Good call,” Varana said, his tone subdued. “I was just going to ask about that.”
The large oak doors swung open and the tall, rail-thin Javelin stood in the doorway. Next to him, clutching his hand, stood the sober-faced little boy, Geran. Javelin bowed low and said, “Forgive my intrusion on your Council, your Majesties. His Highness insisted that we come to the throne room immediately upon our arrival.”
Geran looked over the room, his blue eyes lighting up when he saw Jaken. The toddler tottered on wobbly legs as he rushed to him. He threw himself into the startled toad demon's lap. Geran cried out joyfully, “Jaken!”
The toad demon squawked, his posture stiff. “Foolish boy! Get off of me!”
The little boy giggled, hugging Jaken tight. “I missed you.”
“I don't know, Brand. It looks like the Crown Prince may favor a new Warder,” Anheg quipped. “He sure made it a point to see Jaken first.”
“Very funny, your Majesty,” Brand said, his tone injured.
“Let me go, you insufferable boy!” Jaken protested half-heartedly. An ache settled in his chest the longer the small child hugged him. The embrace and the joyful innocence reminded him of Rin. The little girl---until now---had been the only person to ever be this happy to see him. Before he realized it, Jaken hugged the little boy back. He said softly, “I missed you, too.”
“Methinks Jaken doth protest too much,” the Arendish King remarked.
Not ending their embrace, Jaken shouted, “No one asked you, you overdressed, pompous, and long-winded mortal!”
“I think you've struck a nerve, Korodullin,” Anheg said, chuckling. “I think our prickly friend is hiding a soft spot he doesn't want any of us to see.”
Jaken was about to protest when the little boy put a finger to his lips. His calm blue eyes locked with Jaken's and he shook his head. The Crown Prince of Riva put his head onto the toad demon's shoulder and promptly fell asleep, leaving an astonished Jaken to hold him close.
“Javelin, I'm glad you interrupted,” Porenn said. “I'd like to add one more item to our agenda. As we will be in Mishrak ac Thull for a few months at least, I would like to propose that Margrave Khendon be our main liaison. He would assist in the day to day administrations, send runners to us so we may remain atop our daily business, and stave off any crises that crop up in our absences. I trust Margrave Khendon explicitly to do this in my stead.”
“Now, Porenn,” Anheg protested. He sat forward, a stunned expression on his face. “Surely you have no intention of coming along on this dangerous campaign.”
“I do and I am.” Porenn jutted her chin out in defiance. “ There is no debate about this, Anheg. This is my Alorn Council, and I will continue it whilst on the road.” The Queen Mother sat up, her back straight and her dark eyes fierce. “You need me there. We should adjourn here and meet again in Aldurford with our military forces.”
“I am honored, your Majesty.” Javelin bowed low. “All of your proxies, your Majesties, will be able to rely on me to reach you through our best agents. You can trust me to keep you abreast of your nation while you focus on the campaign.”
“I still don't like it.” Anheg snorted, his arms crossed tightly. “Women, on the campaign. It's unnatural.”
“You don't have to like it. You just have to live with it.” Porenn stood stiffly. Her sharp eyes swept the room, assessing the other monarchs. She clapped her hands and said, authority in her voice, “Well, let's get to work. We have much to do, gentlemen.”
“Fine.” Anheg sighed, waving a hand dismissively. “It is your Council. Have it your way, Porenn.”
“I always do,” Porenn said back, a victorious smile on her face.
Upon seeing the Cherek King back down to the Queen Mother, Jaken smiled in satisfaction. He muttered to the sleeping little boy, “Serves him right, eh, Geran?”