Final Gambit

Original Written Work
Characters: Rannon, Saya Eztari, Akari
Summary: Rannon travels in secret to the South, to convince the obstinate Southern Lords to lay down arms and swear fealty to the new King.
For art and other works inspired by this, click here.

You have not been returning my correspondence, Saya Eztari.”

She froze, three steps into the hall. Not the annoying messenger she had exasperatedly left to wait; the commanding figure sitting upon her dais at the end of the hall was unmistakable, with ice-pale eyes flashing as brightly as the regal diamonds set in his simple circlet crown.

”Sati-rama!” she gasped, floundering, trying and failing to hide her shock.

”Sati-rehu. Our King is still in the capital, awaiting your surrender. Patient, but likely not for much longer. As I have told you, multiple times, in the letters you have chosen to ignore.”

There had been no word, no official retinue arriving; somehow the former King of Kayalana had entered the heart of her estate alone and unnoticed as anything but a humble messenger. Traitors or incompetents under her roof; heads would roll, she swore to herself.

Schooling her features neutral but polite, she gave a slight bow before walking forward. She would be damned if she would be reduced to shouting across her own audience hall.

”Forgeries, obviously. Surely our true King would never so blatantly ask us to set aside our time-honoured loyalties and bow before a usurper.”

She stopped before the dais and chose to remain standing, her mind racing, trying to calculate the threats and possibilities this impossible encounter could offer. ZanTaoyaka’s eyes narrowed slightly and he graced her with a short smile devoid of all humour.

”And yet here I am, telling you to lay down your arms and swear my nephew fealty. Unless you wish to argue that I am a fraud as well…?”

Grudgingly she bowed again, deeper, impeccably polite.

”Of course not, sati. We are honoured beyond measure by your highly unexpected visit to the south. I am sure we can resolve this lamentable misunderstanding to everyone’s satisfaction.”

”Good,” he clipped, pulling a scroll from his sleeve. ”I have drafted a proposal for the formal peace treaty. The south’s dogged persistence in fighting a war that is already over is damaging Kayalana further by every passing day. But the King is a merciful man. If you lay down your weapons, swear your loyalty to him and offer up all your conserved resources to be distributed to the kingdom at large, I am sure he will accept your surrender without further penalties – although of course that will be his choice to make.”

Just barely resisting the urge to snarl something unforgivably rude, she settled for a very stiff smile. Even all the increasingly acerbic letters aside, she had not actually expected the man to back the pretender king so openly. ”Nephew”, indeed! Convenient puppet of close enough age and looks, more likely. What could the former ruler’s true intentions possibly be, going his successor’s errands? A display of loyalty, to secure future power?

”You give me much credit, Sati Rannon, to think I alone could make such a decision for the south,” she said, stalling for time. There were at least twenty guards outside the hall, and he had brought none. She needed only decide how best to play her pieces.

His gaze was flat.

”No undue credit, saya. It is well known the south follows your lead. Hopefully to joyfully reunite with the rest of our healing kingdom. Else they might just agree follow Sati Koteye, and leave you woefully behind, as the only family to openly defy your true King. Not to your advantage.”

She clenched her jaw and wondered just how much of a ”might” was in those words. Had Koteye, old fool, already agreed to switch sides? Or was it an empty threat – surely everyone knew the feeble old lord would follow the latest suggestion laid before him. He did hold sway, though, one of the oldest and noblest bloodlines in the south, aside from her own. If he did agree to bow to the puppet king, others would no doubt follow suit, especially if approached personally by the former king himself. The man was watching her with those steady grey eyes, ruthless mind no doubt working as fast as her own.

They both knew well enough the south’s rebellion had little to do with loyalty to one king or another. But he was not wrong when he spoke of the ruin of Kayalana. If the south was to yield, and carry the wounded kingdom on its back, every hard-won advantage they’d carved out over the last ten years would be forfeit. On their own, however, they were strong. Strong enough, perhaps, for a crown of their own.

Maybe the northerners were not the only ones who would join ranks behind a puppet king.

”You must be tired after your long journey, sati,” she said sweetly. ”I would be glad to extend our hospitality for however long it will take me to summon my fellow lords and discuss this grave matter. You may find you will like the south, where the people are still loyal to you, as all of Kayalana should be. Your presence here will no doubt give great pride and solace to those who have ever valiantly fought in your name.”

His eyes went even colder at the thinly veiled implication. Twenty guards just outside the door, who could easily overpower even a renowned swordfighter, and with a ZanTaoyaka, still named rightful King in the south, as her most honoured guest… All manner of regal orders could well be passed on through her channels.

”My presence here is for no-one to know but you. A courtesy, to give you one last chance to make the right choice out of your own free will, before the south is overrun and treated like defeated enemies rather than welcomed allies. For the sake of a unified Kayalana, and a final end to the war.”

They locked eyes, sizing each other up. It was tempting, so tempting to give the word, but she forced herself to remain cautious. Renowned swordfighter he may be, but more renowned master strategist yet. Surely he would not have come here, so brazenly lecturing her form her own high seat, unless he knew with absolute certainty that he was untouchable.

”And if I should insist..?” she finally pressured, his hard features giving nothing away.

”If you should insist on making an enemy of the former King you claim loyalty to as well as the rightful one on the throne, the servants I have in place here in the south have been instructed to send out personal letters to every single lord and lady still in opposition. I have amassed a rather long list of evidence of interesting affairs, secret pacts, death sentences and betrayals the noble houses have committed against each other during the war, and before. I believe you have some of those secrets yourself, worthy Saya. It would destabilize the south, cause outright war between the noble houses and leave Kayalana’s lushest province a wasteland. I would be loath to sacrifice it, but if it is the only way to bring peace to Kayalana, I will not hesitate.”

Even as she forced a smile more vinegar than honey on her lips, her stomach clenched. There was no way he could know the truth of what had happened to Koteye’s daughter, foremost among her rivals, in the alleged battle with brigands where she was tragically struck down. There had been no witnesses, she had made very sure of that. But if he did… With Koteye openly against her for underhanded murder, the other lords would follow suit, she had no doubt.

A risk too great.

”I would never make an enemy of the noble Sati-rama – or Sati-rehu, if you so prefer – forgive me if my intentions seemed anything but sincere. I will speak with the other lords and ladies, and discuss the proposition you have made. Perhaps, as you say, it is time we reach out to help our suffering brethren in the north. We will consider it.”

He gave her another of those faint and humourless smiles, never reaching the hard eyes, the flashing diamonds of the crown seeming dull in comparison.

”I’m glad to hear it. Consider quickly. If you recall your fighters to their fields within the next week or two, you could yet coax one more harvest out of the ground before the seasons change. Another asset the King would no doubt count in your favour.”

He stood with a warrior’s grace, and she bowed grimly, knowing she was beaten.

”Forgive me for declining your kind hospitality today, saya, but I must return to the capital at some haste. Perhaps we can speak further when you come there to swear your allegiance to your true King.”

She only barely managed to stretch her lips into something resembling a smile as he descended the dais and handed her the scroll – a heavy thing, with multiple rolled up documents and charts.

”You are a wise woman, Saya Eztari,” he said, impassively. ”I have no doubt you will decide to do what is best for your people, and your country. Goddesses’ blessings to you.”

”Goddesses’ blessings,” she smiled between clenched teeth. ”And safe travels, sati.”

***

”Did all go well?” Akari asked when they were safely back aboard the small ship heading north. Shrugging off his bags, he knew perfectly well it was more practical for them to carry the extra luggage than Azani, traveling across the mainland, but his back complained all the same. ”Will they go for peace?”

Leaning back against the rough boards of the ship wall in the communal space below deck, his master just gave a tired half-shrug.

”I believe so. They are not happy, but if they have any sense, they will see it’s in their best interest to lay down weapons and swear fealty. I think they will. Time will tell.”

”We could have stayed the night,” Akari pointed out, stretching out his back with a few sharp cracks, trying to not sound accusing. ”Given them some more time to think about it. Slept in real beds for a change.”

Rannon scowled slightly, wrapping his ragged traveling coak tighter around himself, no doubt already missing the smooth and warm finery Azani was carrying.

”Time to think is the last thing I would wish to give them. They would have happily decided that having me here, in person, gave them the figurehead they needed to carry on the war in my name, no matter my opinion on the matter. We should be grateful they let us leave without detention.”

”They wouldn’t have dared, though, would they? We had the backup plan, the messages we would send out to turn them all against each other. They wouldn’t want to risk that, would they?”

There was an odd expression on the prince’s face that could have been exhausted but genuine amusement on anyone else’s.

”Guesswork and assumptions, based on rumours seven steps removed from their sources. Enough to cause some friction and inconveniences, but hardly more than that.”

Akari stared at him.

”Are you saying you risked everything to travel here, sati, walking straight into the dragon’s den to drag all the southern lords into a peace treaty kicking and screaming – and it all hinged on a bluff?”

”Somewhat crassly put, but yes.”

Akari looked at his master with a mixture of horror and sheer awe.

”That’s… That’s amazing. That may just be the ballsiest gambit I have ever seen, and I’ve played cards with every shady dealer in the capital.”

Rannon narrowed his eyes, still just a flicker of unusual mirth in their depths.

”Playing cards is nothing compared to wearing a crown. People will only do as they’re told if you present them with the utter unquestionably reality that you know what you’re doing and they should damn well fall in line. It helps if you can speak well, talk fast and leave them no time to stop and think.”

”Wow,” he breathed, still somewhat in awe. ”I mean, I’ve sold just about every last fishing boat in the harbour to one gullible fool after another, but even my sale’s pitch has nothing on that. Even I fell for it, and that’s no small thing. One brazen grifter to another, sati, I’m impressed.”

The corners of the former tyrant’s mouth twitched, in amusement or annoyance, and he wondered if he’d gone too far. But Rannon said nothing, so he chose to interpret it as the former.

With one last stretch to try and make himself comfortable against all odds, the man closed his eyes with a sigh, the rare conversational mood clearly over for this time.

”Wake me when it’s time to eat. Other than that, I intend to rest all the way back home.”

Despite the other people crowding in around, it was only a few minutes until he was deeply asleep, unusual enough to betray the tension the high risk of the bold scheme had cost him, perfectly impassive facade aside.

Gently shrugging out of his own cloak, he draped it over the sleeping figure, knowing the prince’s still recovering body would soon be shivering with cold in his sleep otherwise.

”Rest well, sati,” he mumbled, leaning back to close his own eyes. ”You’ve earned it.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *