“Looks like it’s more than just those dark hounds we killed yesterday.” Val pointed off into the distance noting a large bonfire. “Wait here while I go check it out.” He glanced back just at the edge of the party’s lantern light. “As usual, come running if you hear me screaming.”
As he approached the bonfire, Val caught the sight of a twisted beast man on watch. Val called on the power of his ring to render himself invisible. He laid low to the ground as the goat-faced guard paused, sniffing the air right by his position. Val moved on, inspecting the camp. It was a patrol of beast men. He counted five, but imagined there might be another one or two watching the other side of the camp.
He relayed what he saw to the others through the power of his ring. He glanced at the tripod keeping the large cook pot suspended over the fire. ‘Just give me a moment. I’ll create a diversion.’ Val sent through the ring.
‘No, get away from there.’ Iezecele returned. He had already summoned his Will to release him from the earth’s binding, allowing him to fly. As he sped to the camp, he used his Will to wrap the night around himself. His invisibility rendered his approach unnoticed. When Val had cleared the area, he summoned his Will over the campfire. An explosion of fire detonated, tearing away the cloak of night Iezecele had draped around himself. The fire burned through three of the beast men, killing them.
The guards who were patrolling the outskirts of the camp drew their black bows and shot at Iezecele. Two of the arrows struck him as he flew out of their range. Iezecele gritted his teeth and and summoned his Will of fire to strike at the camp. Once more, a ball of flame exploded in the night. Another of the beast men fell, flesh seared from his bones. Three remained and fired again. The arrows came close even at a distance. The beast men’s keen animal senses still pinpointed Iezecele’s location. He decided to withdraw back to his companions.
After awaiting the remaining beast men to pursue Iezecele, the party cautiously approached the campsite. They found it abandoned. By torchlight, Lucinde found some tracks of the retreating beast men. “Looks like they knew they weren’t up for the fight.”
The next morning, the party continued the journey to Mistral. They noted tracks every so often moving in a wide arc. “It looks like they’re making a blockade around the city.” Lucinde commented.
Hours later, the party climbed up a newly dislocated slab of rock and looked out at the city of Mistral. The city’s flag still flew above the Hall of the Council of Six. Carts travelled freely along the streets. Things seemed normal. “Remember, don’t trust anyone,” Iezecele warned.
“Anyone?” Lucinde questioned. “Didn’t you say your family lived here?”
Iezecele grimaced, “Especially don’t trust them.”
Upon closer inspection, Gaspar noted wagons leaving the northern gates, heading in the direction of the new mountains. Val pointed out guards patrolling the streets. Most wore the colors of Mistral, but he noted a few squads dressed in the dark armor of Marmo. “Looks like it’s more than a blockade. This place might be occupied.”
The group waited until the dead of night to approach the city. Iezecele used his Will to make himself invisible and then used it again to fly above the wall. Using the power of his ring, Iezecele let the rest of the party know when the coast was clear to climb over the wall. Under his direction, the party made it’s way to the city’s warehouse district. Val’s lockpicking skills easily gained them entrance.
Early the following morning the party slipped out before the warehouse workers started their day. The streets appeared normal as the city began to wake. People began to fill the streets. Though there were Marmo soldiers patrolling the streets and the citizens of Mistral gave them a wide berth, the people of Mistral didn’t seem particularly fearful of them. Val noted that Mistral’s guards and it’s citizens were still armed. A town crier began to call out about, reminding all citizens that they needed to appear in the city square to provide their final vote.
Val made his way into the Sapphire Inn and began chatting up the locals about the vote. It seems that Marmo was attempting a peaceful conquering of the city. The citizens were being called to give their final answer on whether to accept Marmo rule. Some citizens told Val that they were happy to accept Marmo, seeing the strength of its soldiers. Others were wary of their strange new northern neighbors. “We should check out this Final Answer tonight.” Val suggested.
As evening came over the city square, the party found themselves in the crowded city square. Either through sense of duty or fear, it seemed like every citizen of Mistral was packed into the area. Val glanced at the edges of the square, Marmo soldiers were gathering there.
“Look,” Lucinde, tallest of the group, noticed first. “It’s starting.” She saw six chairs placed on a raised platform. A group of men who were huddled together in conversation took sat in the seats. Iezecele, through the power of the ring, informed the party that the men were the Council of Six. None of them saw him grimace at the sight of his father among them. The leaders of Cendrillion. Six others approached the front of the platform. Three were dressed in plain, but well made clothes, two were clad in the same black armor and cloaks. The last was a plain faced man with long greying hair, dressed in a fine suit of full plate armor. A black cloak was draped over his shoulders.
The man in the armor stood at the edge of the platform and raised his voice to the crowd. “People of Mistral, thank you, each and every one of you, thank you for coming tonight. I hope that you have come here with conviction in your heart. It is a night of momentous decision. It is our greatest wish that you hope to join the Empire.” He folded his hands, “Though we understand if you choose not to.”
Lucinde couldn’t quite place it, but she swore that she had heard the speaker’s voice before.
The man unfolded his hands and gently waved his hand to the hall behind him. “Inside, you will place your vote. Your decision will be writ in a grand ledger. Should you choose to join the Empire, you will be asked to take an Oath and swear allegiance. Should you choose the opposite, you will be asked to gather your belongings and leave these lands with all haste. You will be granted safe leave to the Cosette border.” He bowed to the crowd, “It is our deepest hope that you swear to stand with us.” He motioned to the Council of Six. “Now, as they should, your leaders with guide you into your future. Let us begin.”
The Council of Six walked into the hall. The citizens of Mistral began to file in behind them. After awhile, people began to filter out of the Hall. Val saw the ring of Marmo soldiers tightening at the edges of the square, ensuring that all the citizens present would place their vote. ‘Unless we want to start a fight, it looks like were going to have to place our vote.’ He notified the group through his ring.
As they funneled onto the platform, the party took a glance at the six from Marmo. Iezecele noticed that the black armor was the same armor that the eyeless creatures wore. Val saw the glint of precious metal around the necks of the three men. Each wore the same wolf’s head necklace that they had seen on the Marmo Willworkers in Senna. One wore a necklace of gold. The other two had ones of silver. Wondered if it was a form of ranking among them.
Lucinde focused on the man who was speaking. She noticed that he wore a ring very similar to her own, only adorned with a pearl. Now close, she overheard him speaking and could finally place the voice. It belonged to the eyeless she had encountered outside of Tepest. It was Mastema’s voice. ‘Can Willworkers make magic disguises?’ She sent to Iezecele.
‘I can disguise anyone, put now’s not the best place to cast spells.’ He returned.
‘I think the speaker is Mastema. I also think that he’s wearing the ring of a Chosen.’
Iezecele glanced over and saw the pearl ring. ‘Probably the ring of the one that went missing.’
Gaspar took a step back when he looked at Mastema. ‘If I didn’t know any better, that is Tristan Durant.’
‘Well, he must have chosen to go to the other side,’ Iezecele noted wryly.
Gaspar shook his head, ‘No, he was a Chosen of Verite’. He’s one of the best men I’ve ever met.’
Mastema felt the eyes on him and glanced over. Recognizing Lucinde, he approached her. “We never did get to have that conversation.”
To late, she realized the danger they were all in. She steeled her nerves. “With or without my companions?”
Mastema looked up and down the line of citizens, but didn’t recognize anyone. “If you wish, you can call them. I would love to be introduced.”
Lucinde sent a warning to the others. ’Don’t risk yourselves.’ She took a deep breath and placed her faith in Verite’s protection. “Let’s go have a conversation.”
Mastema and the two black armored men, who Lucinde could only assume were both eyeless, went into the hall and went off to a private room. He sat in a fine chair, the two eyeless stood behind him. He motioned to the chair across the table. “Please, have a seat?”
“I prefer to stand.”
Mastema raised his hands. “If that is your wish. Perhaps a refreshment?”
Lucinde shook her head.
Mastema began. “Well, what brings you to Mistral?”
“Why not go first?”
“Ancestors of Marmo live in these lands. We came to give them a proper chance to swear to their rightful rulers.”
“We came looking for information.”
Mastema rested back in his chair, “What do you want to know?”
Lucinde noticed him absently spinning his ring. “How the people of Cendrillion are doing. What you invaders are doing.”
“We can debate the term ‘invaders’ later. You heard what I said outside. We are giving the people of Cendrillion a chance to reclaim their birthright and join the Empire.”
Thinking of Gaspar’s claim about Mastema, Lucinde leaned forward. “What is your name?”
Mastema paused and blinked once, “Mastema.” He leaned forward, closer to Lucinde, “And yours is Lucinde Solide.”
“How long have you been working for Marmo?”
“A few years now.”
“So you’re not from Marmo? You’re from here?”
“I was not born here.”
Lucinde nodded to Mastema’s hand, “You seem fond of that ring.”
Mastema noticed he had been spinning and stopped. “It is quite similar to yours.” He sat back in his chair. “As you can see, the people are not being ill treated. What did you expect?”
Lucinde was about to answer when one of the men with the wolf necklace returned to the room and cast spells on Mastema and the other two. She could only guess that it was magic to disguise the eyeless.
“I came to see if those that survived Marmo’s return are being treated well.”
“Before the Empire returned, these people were sad and lost. We will give them new purpose.”
“A war with Cosette?”
“While my Master has no love for the Oathbreakers of Cosette. We have not set one foot inside its borders.”
“Not even spies or assassins?”
Lucinde smirked, “Really, attempts have been made on my life.”
“I wasn’t aware of that. It certainly wasn’t me.”
“Have you met Tristan Durante?”
“Tristan is no more.”
“It is Verite’s Will that the Isle belong to the People.”
“My Master says Mesonge claims the opposite.” Mastema shook his head, “It seems that you have a poor opinion of Marmo.”
“Marmo uses a power that twists men into beasts and unleash unnatural hounds and monsters.”
“My Master would say it is a gift from his god. Would you choose not to use a gift from your god?”
“And you serve this master?”
Mastema tilted his head slightly, “Mostly.” Lucinde noticed the Willworker who had cast the spell on the eyeless start at Mastema’s remark. “You’ve granted me the favor of your company. What would you wish me to grant you?”
Lucinde paused and thought of the crowd of families that were squeezed into the square outside. “I want you to honor your oath and allow the people who leave to do so in safety.”
“It will be done.” The Willworker pursed his lips and began to lean forward, but Mastema halted him with a raised hand. “If I can make a request, conversing with you has been most enjoyable. I would ask that I can speak with your companions.”
“I can ask. They are their own people.”
Lucinde continued to think about Gaspar’s statement. Was Mastema really Tristan Durante? “Do you have any plans for June first?”
“Are you asking permission to court me?” Mastema smiled.
“No.” Lucinde responded flatly.
“Birthdays can be a joyous occasion.” The Willworker whispered something in Mastema’s ear. He frowned, “I’m afraid my duty calls. Thank you again for your time. My companions will show you out.”
Lucinde tasted the outside air like she was surfacing from a deep swim. After relaying the conversation with Mastema to the party, ‘We need to get out of here. I think I soiled myself.’
‘I think we need to stay.’ Gaspar responded. ‘He sounds just like Tristan. I swear it is him.’
Val and Iezecele responded at the same time, ‘Was.’
‘No, he mentioned how birthdays are important.’
Lucinde heard the emphasis Gaspar placed on the word birthdays. ’They’re called Neverborn, right?’
‘Right. How can a birthday be important to something that is never born? I think there’s something there. Maybe Tristan is still there. I like the man very much.’ With all Marmo soldiers and Willworkers, he surrendered to the thought there was nothing they could do right now. He sighed, ‘Do you think they’ll keep their word?"
‘They have to.’ Val claimed. ‘Otherwise they’d be Oathbreakers like the rest of us.’
Iezecele tapped Val’s arm and motioned to the platform. As the last of the citizens filed out of the hall, the Council of Six left. Iezecele followed them through the familiar streets of his youth until they eventually stopped at his father’s house. The six stopped in front of the gate. Iezecele worked his Will into the stone, picking up the slightest vibrations when they spoke.
Iezecele’s father spoke, “I really wish you were all coming with me. Mistral and Cendrillion have been independent for so long.” He looked in the direction of the city square, “I don’t want to live under their thumb.”
One of the others spoke, “No matter where you go now, Cosette, Kantora, you’ll be under somebody’s thumb.”
“Less than here, I think,” Iezecele’s father responded. He shook his head, “I don’t trust them.”
“Our people are staying,” another of the six spoke. “If they’re staying, I’m staying with them. Marmo says they’ll help us rebuild. Maybe we can become something greater.”