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Paragon Ruin, Chapter 8


Thoraus

The gryphon guard begins their descent just as I consider throwing myself off just to be done with this onerous journey. Despite how many wool things I wear, the wind at this height still nips like a vicious dog.


The gryphons fly over an open space in the trees occupied by the ring of wagons from Kitannia’s Trading Cycle. I press stiff lips together. I erroneously hoped we wouldn’t run into her. But since the increased threat of the Nightmares, and my need for a fire, I already dread my conversation with the Caravan Master about seeking the safety of her camp overnight.


“Nolene, we will require camp for the night. We would benefit from joining our camp with the caravan since she is here. Will you inquire if she will accept us?”


“Yes, torc.”


My entourage descends onto the caravan road, out of sight from the caravan. I wait, hopping from cold foot to cold foot as Nolene dismounts and walks toward the caravan camp.


He returns moments later, his hardened leather helmet tucked beneath his arm. “She agreed, though wanted me to stress it would be free to do so.”


Free. As if I impress a burden upon Kitannia asking if the torc of the Human Realm could borrow a small corner of her wagon circle, and the necessity for me to know I hold that rare exception.


“She’s not a very pleasant kindred, is she?” Nolene asks.


I proceed forward, the five gryphons padding behind us along a trail connecting the road to the caravan camp.


Nolene and Fardon speed ahead of me, entering the ring of wagons. I still wear two layers of wool coats and a wool cap on my graying head, mostly to stay warm but also to look unassuming to the Nightmares we must have flown over while en route. So whether the eyes of the caravan attendants glancing my way recognize me or not, they turn back to their tasks without a second glance.


A woman with a long, black braid approaches me. Her breastplate and leggings are a little much to wear around camp. I wonder if Kitannia donned her battle attire only to prove a point to me. She stops in front of me, folding arms across her chest. “Thoraus,” her voice like a quick undercurrent to pull kindred closer to her distaste. I’ve ceased to feel bothered with her never addressing me as torc. “Fancy finding you in this area.”


I nod, donning my imaginary armor, though I struggle pretending I’m not burdened with enough warm clothing to make an old man happy. I stand straighter and pull back my shoulders instead. “I do have duties required of me outside the castle,” but those duties are none of her business so I transition to, “Thank you for your camp’s protection tonight. My knightlords appreciate a full night’s rest.”


“Selfish to charge one to guard your sleep,” she airs with a casual flick of her fingertips.

As Kitannia is not bound to the Kingdom, I can’t impose discipline against her. I do, however, clasp hands in front of me and make a huge show of looking around and counting all the guards in her camp under my breath.


Nolene steps forward, smothering my attempts to feed this growing conflict. “Direct us to where we’ll sleep and we’ll be out of your way and gone by morning. We brought our own provisions.”


She grins at Nolene and spreads hands behind her. “Everywhere in this camp is suitable for government. Pick a spot and it’s yours.”


I would’ve preferred to camp elsewhere. Not that I haven’t just recently slept in the dirt on my way to Fire Forge already, but Kitannia’s vast show of her obvious disdain without reason over my presence chagrins me. And even though I’m not her torc, she’s still rude.

“I’d offer you a tent and a cot to rest your crown on,” she says, “though I only have one. And it’s mine. You are, after all, in my empire.”


The knightlords shuffle, likely wondering if they’re jurisdiction reaches this far to defend me.


“It is quite alright.” I look pointedly at Nolene whose gaze holds steadfast on Kitannia. “Nolene, please go find a spot suitable for government and a rock to lay my crown on.”

As if with frozen limbs, Nolene turns away from Kitannia, trailed by the other knightlords who glance over their shoulders as they walk.


“I would speak with you a moment,” I say, turning back to the Caravan Master. “About a serious matter. I’ve sent you falkons, but since you never replied, I must assume you did not get them.”


“The opinion of torcs do not concern me.”


“I know, I know, but this matter is not for you. It’s for those in your caravan who are still bound to the Kingdom. I must take their welfare into account, regardless of the opinions of caravan masters.”


She blinks at me.


“Can we talk inside somewhere?” This feels like a battlefield, standing on the same dirt as her.


She concedes easier than I had supposed and walks toward the only tent in camp — her tent — erected with the back wall alongside a caged cart containing weapons. Some of them I recognize as Kingdom merchandise.


Weird how she uses a tent as a show of power. Bizarre how power needed little else to establish dominance than erect features just a mite better than everyone else, be it even the difference between worn canvas and a wagon bed.


She slaps the tent flap aside, causing me to do the same following behind her, warming to the heat penetrating all my layers from what looks like a giant R’th rock center of the tent. I know dwarves were experimenting with R’th rocks to make them expel warmth as well as light, but to date, they claim they have not achieved that result yet. For this warmth-emitting R’th rock, I give credit to the droogs.


Kitannia’s cot on which to rest her crown is crammed into a corner, piled with clothes. Clothes and oddities scatter over most of the space and the field desk constructed center like an altar. For how controlled and organized she governs her caravan, I muse how quickly she discards her personal space.


Her back to me, she drags her cot and a broken crate onto either side of her desk, motioning for me to sit on the crate. I do so, resting clasped hands on top of the desk. “Your caravan is attracting the Nightmares.” If I know and respect one thing about the Caravan Master, she prefers succinct discussions. “Like flies to a river of honey. It’s pulling them out of their camps to see how they might take it from you.”


“If you know where the Nightmares are hiding, why don’t you send your four knightlords to dispatch them?”


I tire of this game already. “You know what I mean.”


“The Trading Cycle dates back to the March of One Foot. Back when the nine torcs ceased warring and bonded together to end the Equality War the Dreamer started. The day they bonded, the torcs walked side-by-side around Eloshonna, touching every realm.”


I twin my thumbs against each other. I could’ve recited the story back to her, but I find patience in my aging.


“So many kindred marched together,” she continues, “that they created the road the Trading Cycle still travels this day. The Trading Cycle continues as a representation of that day, hiring a member from every realm. And that is not my tradition. That is the Kingdom’s.”


“Ironic because you do not belong to the Kingdom. But you see, you broke that tradition when you hired on dark elves, dusutri, and an occasional droog.” I look at her silver eyes for a reaction. Blank. “They aren’t part of the Kingdom. They did not walk the March of One Foot. You’ve turned the Kingdom’s tradition into your own. So, in fact, you own this and all the troubles it’s causing.”


“I hired them on,” she says in a voice sharpening along the edge of every moment, “because they have trade value. I’ve acquired remarkable opportunities from the Darken Nation.”


“Illegal things.”


“Only because they’re not part of the Kingdom. That is your fault. I say if we have good relations with the Outside Realms, we won’t have to war with them because, besides humans wearing the armor of the Nightmares, we also found dark elves, dusutri, and droogs wearing them. Because you haven’t tried harder to invite them to join the Kingdom, you’ve turned them into your enemy. Again…your fault. I was part of the Kingdom until the torcs told me I could not hire Outside Realms. If the torcs had permitted me to hire them, you’d still find me under your power and I would not have taken the Trading Cycle away from the Kingdom. See…still points back to your fault. So why are we having this conversation again?”


“Because you are the one driving this train, and because you own this caravan, you’re responsible for all the lives lost in its defense because they still fall under my jurisdiction everywhere on Eloshonna. And if they are harmed, you will belong to me, and I will charge you with equipping the Nightmares with weapons and whatever R’th-infused merchandise you’ve purchased from the dark elves.”


Kitannia laughs as if I’m funny. She stands and pulls a glass bottle of black liquid out of a crate near the door and brings two cups over. “Care for an illegal drink? This amusing conversation calls for a treat.” She sets a wooden tankard in front of me and partially fills it with the oozing black liquid. She fills her mug and re-stoppers the bottle.

“Dark elf wine.” She sips. “Made from a liquefied black crystal with just a touch of ground unicorn horn for nice dreams.”


“Unicorns are protected.”


“The horn grows back. Everyone knows killing the unicorn will send Sovereign Life’s curse upon you. Dark elves aren’t stupid, even if they don’t worship Life.”


“Stopping the caravan is temporary. Park it in Malandore just until we defeat the Nightmares.”


“Are you defeating them tomorrow?”


“Of course not.”


“This is my empire, Thoraus. It appears I must remind you of that often. I live in this caravan. If I stop, I lose money. If I lose money, I can’t pay my employees. If I can’t pay my employees, they leave. And if they leave, they may not come back. Furthermore, I will starve.”


“You’ll room in my castle until the threat passes, access to free meals, and I will give you a stipend for your troubles.”


“You going to pay my employees, too?”


“No.”


“If I don’t pay them, they’ll leave and won’t come back once they’re settled in somewhere else. Then I will lose more money waiting for enough kindred to drive my train.”


“We must take this chance.”


“But you said you’re not defeating the Nightmare problem tomorrow.”


“Obviously that is not possible.”


“Then when will you defeat them?” She waits. “You see,” she says in a lilting voice, calmed by whatever makes up the illegal wine. I wish she’d drink the whole bottle. “You keep telling me to stop the caravan, but you can’t say when I can restart it. It could be years. The torcs already spent two years and still haven’t found a way into their camps or the Dream. They might take two more.


“I will not sit in your castle on five links a day to sustain me while the merchandise in my caravan expires, stales, rots, rusts, and dulls. I’ll have to start all over. I’ve already spent most of my lifetime filling my carts with what I have. I don’t have a lifetime more. If you can’t guarantee a day when the Nightmares are gone, then I can’t stop my caravan. So if you want to protect this caravan, find a way into the Dream. And quick.” She stands and opens the tent flap, looking pointedly at me.


I leave my tankard untouched and walk out of her canvas fortress, the flap falling closed behind me like massive doors booming shut against a problem she refuses to face.



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