Chronicles of Mervan
The Memoirs of Arken Sowd Baron of Tshou
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Aye, a fine piece there. The Baron’s memoirs are a true masterpiece of history; never has a war been so well told. In Sordesht, Arken Sowd is a national hero for what he did for…well you are going to read it, aren’t you?
I was born in the streets of Ligsowd, poor and weak in the bones1. There is little I remember of those dark times. By five I had become a most effective pick-pocket, the Second of a gang of orphaned children in the Old Quarter of the city.
The ancient walls, there still, built in times we then could not fathom to protect this Great City from Du Far,Tur, and Ouyi, had become great barriers to keep us, the unwanted, within the confines of the Furnace. We called it that because that was what everyone called it, and they still do.
Nestled away in the depths of the Old Quarter, the Furnace was a twisted, hot, winding beast of twice cobbled streets, fetid with the stench of hogs and the masses. The evenings were drowned in Bathers, selling their wares to the passer by for just the chance of some bread that night.
Young forgotten souls dare not ask why it is known as the Furnace, but the old remember that it was once the Old Palace of Ligsowd. The double cobbles were left from its squares and parade grounds, the remaining walls its battlements and the odd tower house the last of the fortress proper. Some time in our deepest fears and memories is the night when it burned, lighting the skies as one great theater for Ouyi.
And one day a boy happened to trip a man in the streets of the Furnace who had drawn bead on Emperor Darfo’s carriage. The would-be assassin had taken the boy’s one remembrance of his family, and no one was going to steal the last thing left of my mother: the tattered string and beads of a necklace.
It was the last year of the Emperor Houtushu Darfo’s reign, and the first of his young son Houtushu Barga. He was but a boy, only twelve when his father Emperor Darfo was struck down by bandit Farvs in the province of Tshou. This clearly left a deep scar on him, and I as one of the Seven Crimson Generals had to stand by him, tears streaming, while the Priests anointed him in the kingly fashion with tut berry oil and hijin feathers. Luckily I had seen the lifting of some of the more archaic laws surrounding the Emperor and that night we were all able to comfort the boy-king.
Later that year, Emperor Barga came to me and asked if the Emperor can do whatever he wanted. He seemed genuinely curious, and not yet being of age I did not expect him to know such things.
“Well, yes, you can in a way do anything your heart desires you to do, but you my king can not yet; the law in Sordesht is the Emperor can not act by himself until he is of nineteen years. A reagent must be selected from the Seven Crimson Generals to rule in your stead. As you know, I am yours.” A faint smile sat on my face, partly because it was my nature and partly because I saw the glint of adventure in the cooped-up Emperor’s eyes. Curious myself, I asked: “What did you have in mind, my king?”
His answer was a little more than I had expected.
“I wanted to go to Tshou, to the Vantrolm...” Emperor Barga’s aura became dark and brooding over the phrase ‘to the Vantrolm.’ I took pause.
“There is nothing you can do to bring him back, Barga.”
“I know, I didn’t want to.” This struck me as even more disturbing, largely because the Emperor did not seem sad at the mention of the late Emperor Darfo; he knew full well what he was saying. His innocent query was by no means innocent; there was a great deal of anger in this boy, a great desire for vengeance. Far more than I then ever knew. At the time, I took it to be the fantasies of a troubled child, but no more troubled than a child should be at the loss of such a great man. I regret what I then said in jest and with a fatherly nudge of his shoulder:
“Maybe when you’re older.”
As the years of angry youth passed, Emperor Barga grew more and more fearful of the threat of the northern Vantrolm tribes, a fear which he fully confided only to me; spurious though legitimate laws and ordinances regarding the northern border seemed to sate a brooding hate. But, as far as We Seven had known, it did not affect his abilities as a leader. He lowered taxes on the land Nobles rented to the common folk, negotiated the appropriate lowering of the rent rates, and began many projects to both improve the Empire and employ the poor. The people loved him, and followed his every word when he spoke at the Festivals. By his thirtieth birthday, Sordesht had spread to three outposts on various islands, and a vast network of canals watered the getam fields. We were prosperous.
Around this time, a particular meeting of the Business Council unrivaled in a most unexpected way:
“Now,” I said as the senior Crimson General and the chair of the meeting, “Talgæn, what does your council have for the Business Council as news this meeting?”
Talgæn was a tall Myzcen woman, very dark as her people were, with fiery yellow-green eyes. The large shoulders of her robes only made her seem taller. At the time she was the Bookswomen of the palace, and clandestinely the Chief of Investigations.
“Well, Sir Sowd, the reports are here, and…well the palace is under staffed by about a dozen servants.”
“Yes. We don’t know where they are, or even who they are. There are just twelve servants missing, and no records concerning them, whoever they are.”
“Has anyone reported missing family members in the city?”
“No.” A darkness fell on the meeting room. This was strange; Talgæn was impeccable with the records, and no one left the Majesty’s service without her knowing. For twelve persons in the employ of the Palace to disappear with no trace was actually almost terrifying.
“Well, Talgæn, I suppose we’ll just have to replace them. No one has seemed to notice, so there is little we can investigate, but we need to fill those jobs.” I made my intentions clear.
No one there that day neither understood what the disappearances meant, nor did they completely shake that feeling that they should know. I took it upon myself to investigate, having a few auзe fill the missing servants’ places to gain the others’ trusts and find out where the missing persons went.
After some weeks, the reports I received were disturbing. The missing servants had left their respective lodges early one morning to attend to their tasks, and then they simply never returned. Sometime during the day, as well, their lodges became empty and barren: not a trace of the family that lived there was to be found. The palace’s common staff was superstitious and fearful as a rule, and so no one had said a word to the Auben Lor . I chose to withhold this from the Council of Seven, except for Talgæn. Her own investigation had revealed similar information, except she had found a common thread: the servants had all been from Tshou border towns. My gut told me something was wrong.
I confronted the Emperor at the first occasion.
“Sire, the missing servants?”
“Of last month? I remember.” Not a flinch.
“Well, we have looked into them, and the only lead we have is that all of the missing servants were from Tshou.” I shot a glare at the Emperor. “From the border towns.”
“Intriguing.” What!? Not a twitch, not an explanation, not even a reaction. I took pause.
“In fact it is the only thing they all had in common.”
“Probably some green blood, too.” Emperor Barga sneered at me, but did not sneer. Just enough so that I would know, but no others would even consider his expression, his deed. It was lurking in his eyes, a dark thing, a darkness that I could not control from where I stood.
Luckily, the Emperor was gracious enough to give me the ground I needed to stand on: I would be given the Barony of Tshou. For most, this was a noble death sentence.
Traveling to the capital by caravan, I reflected on the land I must govern. Tshou is the backwater of Sordesht, a warm, dry interior of the subcontinent inhabited almost wholly by common peasant farmers and much of the famous crimson sands of the Vermilion Wastes. The entire northern border of the country is swallowed up by the thirsty, drifting dunes there, barely demarked by the Old Wall.
The province has but one sea-port, Tsheved at the mouth of the Red River, and it is visited only a handful of times each year by ambitious, and stupid, merchants. The high stormy winds in the plateau of Tshou make airships dangerous to operate, and so most supplies make it to the derelict provincial capital by land.
Past the border lies the Vanrolm, the untamed wilds of our tribal bretheren, living in uncharted and dangerous mountains. For whatever reason they never joined us in the Empire, or the Empire never took them, and so a constant state of reserved, uneasy hostility persisted that made the dusty air even thicker with tension.
Needless to say, Tshou was a dangerous place to be a Baron. The land is good for bringing up only one thing: strong-minded, self-reliant, sturdy common folk. Though we value these things in our children in the cities and the villages, rarely are we placed such that they are necessary traits to persist. As the Baron, it would make my job harder to rule, but more importantly to survive. It is well known to the Palace Staff at Ligsowd that the Barons of Tshou have an odd record of curious accidents: falling off of carriages in the middle of the night, guards being in just the wrong place at the wrong time, a single helm of the wrong type of mushroom in a dinner.
Since the tribes of the Vantrolm, though skittish, are no real threat to Sordesht, the troubles in Tshou are simply glazed over as just that: troubles in a border province. “You can’t tame Tshou” is a colloquialism we used in the Palace often, and it was true. The problem was every province needs a baron, and so Tshou became a place to send dangerous political enemies. With no power base and a rebellious population, the problem usually solved itself in one way or another.
This was the province I had been charged to “uphold his majesty’s every decree, word, and wish in the name of the Empire” within. I was the enemy now, set to die in a barren dunescape whether by accident, attack, or my own guards. My carriage grinding over the sands through the gates of Tshou, I saw a young boy with a small pet scorpion in a cage. They are common here, as artifacts of interest and one of the few tamable creatures that can withstand the harsh climate. The boy was feeding the scorpion a red mouse, a frail little thing which it greedily poisoned and began consuming.
These people were pet scorpions. Caged for amusement and utility, but ignored otherwise, a joke. I was a joke too, a little desert mouse offered up as a sacrifice to sate a violent little boy’s parched thirst for vengeance, for approval.
The joke was over.
The provincial capital of Tshou is placed quite literally in the middle of nowhere. It exists only because it lies at the nexus of three trade routes to the Vantrolm. Some 120,000 people live here, quite a number considering the surroundings. What saves the city from collapse is a centuries old system of dank tunnels beneath the streets that stretch out into the surrounding dessert for miles. The nearby plateaus and short mountains provide a terrain that supplies endless water to those who can find it.
And those who can find it are revered as some kind of shaman or sorcerer; they are known as Chardith, and the profession runs in families. Traditionally, they also serve as aids to the Baron and his entourage, as few wield as much power in Tshou as the water bringers. As I exited my carriage in the courtyard of the provincial palace I was met by the dry visage of Tam Bar’chardith, my new aid.
“Greetings, Baron. Welcome to Tshou.”
“Thank you, Tam. Nothing happened since last I received your correspondence, I hope?” His worried eyes told all. “Oh, well then. I expect you to report at once. Let us inside.”
* * *
Much of the Baronial Palace was made of reddish sandstone and the dark red rocks of the nearby mountains. The meeting hall, however, was adorned in tan marble and black nightstone2. The sole piece of wooden furniture was the table, made of imported Myzon teak with carved Teppin head legs.
Around the table sat my own Business Council: there was Tam, a suspiciously rotund and bearded man called Murjag Bar’Sepeth who was in charge of other finances3, along with his secretaries Solm, Han, and Severig, Captain of the Guard Murjag Bel’Norlan, the provincial councilors Romb Bel’Chak and Torin Bar’Jagur, Palace Booksman Rugam, and the Citizen Consult Gordha. There was a heavy and uneasy tension in the stiff air of the meeting room; no one greeted me save Tam.
“Well? What is it?” I had surmised it would be easier to simply skip pleasantries and get to business. A moment of surprised silence passed as the Council considered such directness4.
Murjag Bel’Norlan spoke first: “There is no water.” Her words fell dead and wet in the hall.
“No water?” I was shocked. “How?!”
“We don’t know, sir,” said Bel’Norlan. “The Chardives don’t know, either.”Tam added, “We are sending out parties into the tunnels; it will some time before they learn anything.”
1 The Baron most likely had flint bone disease, a bone growth syndrome that often occurs in young persons in impoverished areas. This fact apparently never held him back and through much work and medicines he was reportedly cured of it.
2 A near-black stone largely containing amphibole-type minerals. Some varieties are bluish with white specs.
3 The Baron means that water was effectively legal tender in Tshou, so Tam is a finance minister of sorts. Murjag Bar’Sepeth was in charge of the more traditional treasury.
4 This is indeed a strange method of starting a meeting in the Baron’s time, especially the first of a Baron. Usually there are gifts exchanged and good-wishes of luck towards the new Baron, and an hour may pass before any real business gets done.