Someone in the capital wants something.
Written March-May 2022
Pestowbo, the Imaadudish imperial capital, was far less expansive than Longjing. From the sky, Irikshan was actually able to see the far side of it, straying only a little into the valleys between the northern mountains. It was still the second largest city he’d seen on this side of the world; the layout was far more compact than inner Longjing. It was clearly not designed for dragons, but neither could he see anywhere where it got so densely packed as the poorer regions of outer Longjing.
Scars carved their way through the city. A thick brown river running from west to east, joined by another silvery river from the largest valley in the north. More green strips of streams too small to be seen through the trees pushed through on their way to join the main rivers.
“You look like you want to draw another sketch.”
“I do. It reminds me of home in a way.” He looked over to Lingzan. “Just much denser.”
“They do not have a mage college around a waterfall like you, though. I would like to see that one day.”
He looked to her again, not sure how to interpret the intent behind that. It could have been innocuous. While Guandong had remained mostly professional and distant, Irikshan had become quick friends with Yeong-Gi and Lingzan. He’d noticed, however, that Lingzan seemed to be somewhat clingy. She was almost always keeping in mental contact with him and while he found himself comfortable in her presence, he was not looking for a partner at present and she was far too old for him. He was probably overthinking it.
“You could always visit Tumenzar. We have been getting some human mages from the empire sent to our college for training, might be about time we had some Scriven or Ostracas.”
“We would need to ask Guandong for some time off,” said Yeong-Gi, who was also flying near Irikshan, with them all following Guandong.
“Some of the mages we see from the empire are state-sponsored. Maybe you can make a case for you two to get sponsored.”
The three drifted onwards and downwards as Guandong led them towards the outer edges of the city. It eventually became apparent that they were flying towards an outlying neighbourhood filled with buildings built at a much larger scale than the rest of the city. These were built with dragons in mind. In fact, he saw a handful of dragons on the streets ahead.
The biggest building of them all was almost a fortress-scale construction near the centre, surrounded by wide open courtyards. The travellers touched down in front of this palace. Heavy wooden doors opened before Guandong before he strode in like he owned the place. Some humans came scurrying from the passages and bowed deeply.
“Did you pack any formal clothing?” he asked Irikshan, not sparing the humans a glance.
“All my ceremonial attire is at home. I did bring a cloak and a caparison in case the weather got too frigid or the humans found my lack of clothing unsettling. I also have my college scarf, which is a status symbol.”
“You can put the caparison on once the servants have shown you to your room. We’ll be flying to the imperial court in half an hour.”
Irikshan nodded, then looked over to the two who had begun bowing to him.
“This way if you please, master,” said one. They both began marching up a large stairwell, then down a passageway. Their gait was faster than he expected from them, but at a speed that seemed suited for him. Both the servants and the palace wore wealthy cladding but didn’t have much beyond that in the way of decorations. Irikshan thought that his type always liked to display their wealth or power, but either Guandong must not have much care for art and trophies, or perhaps he kept them elsewhere or collected something else that couldn’t be displayed on walls.
Arriving at a well-furnished room where the furniture was surprisingly just about the right size for him, he thanked the servants and entered. He noticed that they remained outside, waiting to either side of the door, so he closed it for some privacy. As the edge swung past him, he caught sight of a pretty hefty locking mechanism, but he didn’t engage it once the door was closed.
Flopping lazily onto the bed. It had been a swift trip with little time to rest. He lay there for several minutes before bringing himself to rise again. Once he had, he unstrapped his bags and lined them neatly against an available wall. He pulled out his second journal and his stationary, then began to do as quick of a sketch as he could of the views on approach to the city. He’d worry about writing about today’s events after they had concluded.
After having put the sketches on paper, he pulled out the caparison and unfolded it on the floor to make sure he lined the pieces up correctly. It was made from a plain green dyed material, nothing fancy. He pulled it on and made sure to tightly secure the straps behind his wings and under his belly. Flying with these things on was bothersome, the extra layer of fabric wrapping around his body messing with his usual aerodynamics. The parts under his wings were the loosest due to lack of support, and would likely be flapping about a bit as he flew. Still, it was better than a cloak that covered his wings entirely.
While he fiddled around with his bags, trying to figure out if he should leave everything here or take at least his valuables in one of the smaller bags, there was knocking on the door. “Master,” came one of the humans’ voices, “We should depart at your earliest convenience.”
“I shall be right there,” he called back. He quickly decided that he’d leave his money and journals in the room, but set his crystals floating in place above his head. Maybe they’d distract the nobles from his otherwise boring outfit. Even one of them would probably sell for more in these lands than the rest of the belongings Irikshan had brought.
Irikshan opened the door and the servants immediately lead him to the front doors. There he found the other three already waiting. They all wore similar attire to Irikshan’s caparison, albeit with more decorative patterns and some superfluous flaps and strips of fabric.
Guandong looked over Irikshan critically. “You can’t bring shiridite crystals into the vicinity of the emperor without his explicit prior consent. Historic law.”
“Oh, sorry. I shall take them back to my room.”
“Aston and Nicole can,” he gestured to the two servants who’d been guiding Irikshan. After a moment’s hesitation, he handed his gems to them. Of course Guandong would have trustworthy servants. He needn’t have been worrying so much about leaving valuables in his room.
Outside, he found that a few other dragons had gathered. They were clearly interested in Irikshan, but they focused their attention on Guandong for the most part. Guandong answered a couple of questions, then dismissed them, saying that he would return in the evening. He took to the air. Irikshan, Yeong-Gi and Lingzan followed suit.
The city below seemed as if it were in miniature, despite them not flying particularly high above it. Unlike Meihian or home’s human-central areas, even the streets here were small. Irikshan might be able to land in one if he was careful and perhaps even take off again at an intersection, but Guandong and Yeong-Gi’s wings would certainly hit the buildings. He could see the occasional human who spotted them, but most didn’t even seem to realise as a squad of dragons flew over their heads.
The guards posted around what he could only assume was the royal grounds were far more observant, clearly noticing the dragons’ approach. There was no panic. They simply stood to attention. The gates were already opening when they landed. They had done so outside the walls, despite Irikshan being certain he’d seen enough space in the gardens beyond. Guandong waited silently for the gates to finish opening before comfortably strolling through.
Despite not having met him, Irikshan felt great excitement to meet such a respected man as Emperor Trent V. He admired the meticulously maintained flowerbeds and hedges as they walked. The road they followed ended in a circle just before the palace, which was lined with various carriages. The horses spooked as the dragons approached. As the coachmen and their assistants began rushing to calm them, an unnatural calm suddenly overcame them all.
Unperturbed, Guandong continued marching to the palace doors. Lingzan and Yeong-Gi both walked out into the gardens, but Guandong motioned for Irikshan to keep following him. The building was clearly not built with dragons in mind as Guandong’s mansion had been, but it was so excessively large that the old dragon could fit inside. Even then, there was not enough space for little Irikshan to be able to walk beside him.
After a fairly brief walk past a dozen or so guards and more opulent decorations than Irikshan had ever seen in one place, they stopped before another decorative pair of doors where Guandong briefly spoke to a man who entered the room before them.
“Imperial Advisor, Guandong Kongying,” the man cried, “And Tumenzarian Scholar, Irikshan Kennissoeker.”
Guandong pushed open the doors and entered, Irikshan hot on his tail to not get left behind. Before them, a small crowd of various humans dressed like ornaments parted. Whispers broke out in the room. Their minds were all guarded to some degree. To Irikshan’s surprise, Guandong stepped up onto the throne platform and continued right up to the emperor’s side, where he took his station sitting on a massive pillow beside the throne. Irikshan knew not to follow onto the platform, and instead bowed deeply. The whispering died down.
“Welcome to Pestowbo, noble Draq.”
“Thank you, your majesty.” Irikshan finally raised his head again. There was a time of silence, where Irikshan noticed Guandong shielding a mental connection to the emperor, who had turned to look at the dragon.
“Guandong shall continue leading the assembly on my behalf,” he announced to the room. “Dres Kennissoeker has travelled far and I wish to speak with him.”
The whispering started up again as the emperor stood and made his way to a smaller door behind the throne. Irikshan realised that he was meant to follow. He skirted the raised platform and waited for a pair of pike-wielding guards before exiting. Irikshan sensed Lingzan beyond the wall at the back of the throne room. What is she doing on this side of the palace?
“Thank you for coming so soon,” the emperor said once a guard had closed the door behind him, “though I know Guandong can be hard to say no to.”
“You are welcome, your majesty.” Irikshan was taken off guard by the more casual tone. “How may I be of service?”
“Truthfully, he was the one who wanted you. But I wanted to have an honest conversation with you before you spent too much time with him.”
“I am sorry, I do not understand what you mean, your majesty?”
“Don’t think about it too much. It’ll only make him complain to me about making things harder later. Don’t bother with the ‘your majesty’, please. I find formalities only stifle honest conversation.”
“Yes, yo-… Yes.” Irikshan’s head was feeling hazy. He was struggling to focus on what the man was saying.
“I understand you spent a while travelling with my brother? How is he?”
“I am not sure who you are talking about? I only travelled with a pair of Namhnese mages from Shormton, and Guandong’s group.”
“Oh, he’s already removed James? Those two could never stand each other.” He mumbled something more that was too soft for Irikshan to hear. “Well,” he raised his voice again, “let us change the topic before I break something too soon. Tell me about your family?”
He had some reservations about speaking about his personal life, but for some reason he was getting a strong feeling that he could trust this man. In fact, he felt it would be disrespectful to lie or avoid the question. “My father runs a crystal enchanting business, while my mom is a professor at the Raifal mage college whose main interest is enchanting. My brother has detached himself from the family and joined the military, while my sister keeps her distance from us but hasn’t stopped speaking to me entirely.”
Trent gave an understanding nod. “Oh. I can relate, to a degree. I take it your parents expect you to carry on their legacy?”
“Well, you certainly can be proud of your enchanting skills. Even I have heard of them.”
“You’ve heard of me?”
“In reports, of course.” Walking through a weird-looking door, a wall of hot humid air hit Irikshan. They had entered a room filled with exotic potted plants and flowerbeds. An extensive glass ceiling and three walls exposed them to the view of the gardens behind the palace. Irikshan could see Lingzan and Yeong-Gi sitting in the gardens nearer the centre of the palace. They were far enough that their mental presence was very faint now, but Yeong-Gi had noticed them and began walking in their direction.
“Welcome to my little collection.” Trent sat down. “Now, tell me, what would you say the general sentiments towards the empire are amongst your fellow Tumenzarians?”
This question troubled Irikshan. The more he thought about it, it became apparent to him that his positive feelings towards the emperor and the empire as a whole were coming into conflict with the truth he knew. He still felt that he should be honest in his answer. “Mixed. The empire has maintained its peace with us, but continues its conquest against our neighbours. Some expect you to honour your peace treaty, given our trade and the ties we’ve built. Others think it is a matter of time until the empire attacks.”
“That’s about what I expected. And what have your impressions of the empire been, now that you’ve seen it first hand?”
As Irikshan thought back through his journey, he began to feel increasingly disoriented as conflicting emotions arose. He braced himself against a table, pots rattling. The confusion was suffocating. What is going on?
“That bad, huh? Please be careful; some of these flowers are worth a fortune.” Emperor Trent beckoned his two guards closer.
Irikshan didn’t care. He closed his eyes and focused inwards, trying to figure out what was wrong with himself. He dug through his memories, and felt strong negative emotions where there should be none. Were these emotions inserted into my memories? To what purpose? Something’s clearly been messing with my emotions. Why would I be so trusting and open to the emperor when I’ve barely met him? I’ll have to rely on the pure facts of my memories. Irikshan opened his eyes again, looking towards the emperor. He didn’t seem particularly unsettled. “I am sorry, your majesty, I am not feeling like myself.”
“Take your time.”
Then again, my memory has been shaky lately. “Sorry, I cannot answer your question without my journals. I do not trust myself.”
“It’s hard to when they’re around.”
Irikshan glanced to Yeong-Gi, who was sitting outside with his back to the greenhouse. “Guandong, Lingzan, Yeong-Gi… They have been manipulating me.”
Irikshan felt anger rising within him. “On your orders,” he growled and bore his teeth. The two guards, which he now noticed had excellent mental defence, readied their pikes.
“Don’t do anything you’ll regret. They have not been doing it on my orders. Guandong takes his own initiative, I merely asked to see you when he took you.”
“Do something I regret? I regret being here at all. You will not let me leave, will you? I will not see my home again.” Irikshan began trying to worm his way past the guards’ mental defences while adopting a threatening pose in a vain attempt to intimidate them. Their guard was almost as good as the emperor’s, but he would eventually find a crack to slip some illusions in. “I would much rather die than be another’s puppet.”
“You will be returning home.”
This gave Irikshan pause. “Why?”
“Your elders will surely notice if their spy doesn’t return. I don’t want an incident such as that to cause diplomatic tension. We want the opposite, in fact.”
“I am no spy. I am a scholar.”
“Will you not be reporting what you have seen in the empire to anyone in a position of authority? Why have you been keeping such detailed journals of your travels?”
“This is a natural part or scholarship! Gather information, keep thorough records, report it to supervisors and relevant stakeholders, then publish your work.”
“You can go right ahead with that. Guandong simply wants to stop you from reporting on some things that might reflect badly on our empire.”
Irikshan sighed and backed down. He glanced to Yeong-Gi, who was still staring out into the gardens. “And why did you want to see me personally?”
“I had hoped to talk to you about your true thoughts on some matters, and to perhaps ask a favour from you – a fairly complex enchantment to block mental influence. Guandong may like his games, but I still have an empire to run.”
“He manipulates you too, doesn’t he?”
“That does not bother you?”
“Why do you think I want the enchantment?”
“Can you not just get rid of him? You are the emperor.”
“When you figure out a way to get him to do something he does not want to, please inform me.”
“So you just let him run the show?”
“He does not ‘run the show’,” Trent bristled with indignity, “I am still the Emperor. Guandong and his organisation make sure that things run smoothly in the empire where normal administrative processes are not effective or efficient. In turn, he gets to indulge in his… collecting. For the most part. I put my foot down in some cases, like with you.”
Irikshan wanted to thank Trent sarcastically for ensuring he only gets brainwashed a little, but he decided to not antagonise him too much. He settled with, “But he is holding your royal court session for you right now.”
“I wanted some time to talk to you without him hovering around. As you can see, it’s keeping the worst two of that trio busy. I filled him in on what he needed to know. The nobles know he carries my authority, and I do mostly trust him.”
Maybe I can use that.
“Look, I could have threatened that you would never return home if you didn’t comply with my request, but I’d be lying. I have already made it clear to Guandong that you shall return home, and he saw the logic in my argument. The enchantment I want will simply help me stand my ground when he does not like it so much.”
“How is it supposed to withstand him indefinitely? I might not be an expert at mental combat, but neither am I a pushover. Yet, he has captured me. I doubt I would not have been actively fighting him if he tried to take me by force.”
“From my understanding, a well-made enchantment is more like a tool or a building. Static. Serves its purpose. Not vulnerable to the lapses of concentration that humans or dragons have, but they degrade over time and if you find a flaw in their design, that’ll always be there for you to exploit unless someone fixes it.”
“That… sums it up pretty well.”
“What if the enchantment were a fortress that could repair and maintain itself?”
“I have never heard of such a thing. How would that be possible?”
“See for yourself. There’s a crystal in a safe within that cupboard that has something special on it. With your expertise, you might be able to make it do what I desire.”
Irikshan reached out mentally and, to his surprise, found the emperor himself had also lowered his guard to reach mentally towards the cupboard. Irikshan followed him and found the crystal. It was hiding itself, but not well enough to escape direct attention. Trent did something, and it lowered its own defence, letting Irikshan examine it. He sensed another mental presence there. Draconic. Very familiar. Lanfen.
He recoiled and immediately edged his way to the door. He did not want to become complicit in whatever was happening here. “Well, as honoured as I am that you wished for my skills and my honest thoughts, we both know that my freedom shall rapidly dwindle the longer I stay with my lovely host. I would rather abscond while I am still myself. If you would excuse me, your majesty, I shall see myself out of your empire as swiftly as I can.”
The guards moved as if to block him, but Trent stopped them. “Good luck, Kennissoeker. Perhaps I shall ask you to do the enchantment when we meet again.”
Irikshan glanced once more towards Yeong-Gi, whose light mental presence surely meant he would notice if Irikshan left. He thought back to his walk through the palace. They had gone in a straight line from the throne room to the greenhouse. But he had seen a passage or two that could perhaps give him an escape route. Steeling his nerves one last time, Irikshan made a dash for the door.
Almost as soon as he had left the room, he heard shouting from Yeong-Gi. He sprinted down the long corridor he had come. He soon arrived at the first passage, but a quick look down revealed it was a dead end. Behind him, Yeong-Gi entered the passageway, shouting his name.
Irikshan continued running to the next side-passage. He could see it turned a corner near the end. The only other option was the back of the throne room. He stood even less of a chance against Guandong than Yeong-Gi, so he ran down the side passage. Fortunately, the corner revealed not a dead end but a door. Shoving it open, he found himself in the palace entry hall amongst several startled guards. He ran towards the front doors and began to pull them open, using his magic to shove guards who tried to stop him aside.
Guandong’s mental presence suddenly enveloped Irikshan as he was forced to the ground. His struggles felt feeble beneath the weight and the mental battle was almost entirely one-sided. “Not this again,” came his annoyed voice from behind. “How did you break yourself this time?”
Yeong-Gi’s claws clacked against the tiles as he caught up. “Should I knock him out?”
“Yes, we will need to get him back to my place.”
Irikshan found himself forced onto his side as the ostraca touched the right side of his chest. He immediately felt his heart crystal being cut off from his reach. Realising that this must have happened before, and that his struggles were futile, Irikshan gave up.
To his surprise, Guandong didn’t immediately start tearing into his mind. Instead, he felt a tap at the top of his head and quickly lost almost all feeling in his body. He could see that he was being picked up and hefted onto Guandong’s back, but could only dully feel it. He sought some crack in the cage that trapped his mind, but found none before darkness closed in.