The Champion's Companion Ch. 21byBlknMild611©
"Finally we have the martial arts festival." The ministers stirred in their seats and looked at the presiding female court officer standing at a podium in the center of the room.
Behind her sat the Queen, and beside her, was a low table empty save a set of gold scales balancing several gold sovereigns. One for each minister, Marcos, and Kaarthen now too, Janis, and the King's Emissary in Mavvus.
"Of course we all look forward to the many tournaments." She started looking around at the ministers seated around the room in a crescent shaped table.
"Every year is brutal, but the king wanted to add something to this year's tournament for the title of 'Blade Master'." The court officer looked to Marcos and the Queen before continuing. "Last years deaths were near 120, and most of those were outside the actual competition. Many unknown fighter's can't participate, and thugs of mercenaries have their own unofficial tournament in the streets challenging each other, or even trying to get in by knocking off a recognized contender before they register themselves."
The Queen nodded, the random street fights were a part of what the martial art's festival was. "Competition breeds success, we could allow those fighters to qualify..." She again looked over the room of seated ministers. "A proposal was that perhaps we announce a preliminary battle royale or some extra rounds."
"Will we vote for the addition of a few preliminary stages then?" the court officer asked moving to clear the scales.
A minister on the right edge of the room spoke up quickly. "The Battle Master tournament lasts nearly the entire month of the festival for the fighters to rest between rounds. It will also obviously change, or delay the festival's closing ceremonies too. I vote against this. This festival is already enough of a disturbance. These rabble are just looking for excuses to get killed. It isn't mentioned that the people challenging registered contender's tend to die. There's no point in paying for a three or four month long annual tournament this is one of the few times the criminal element does our job for us."
The court officer dropped a coin for him on the scale.
"I approve." Marcos said simply.
Kaarthen nodded trying to stay awake.
Janis raised her hand to signal silent agreement. She couldn't find an actual reason to disagree with Marcos over this.
The King's emissary nodded too and scribbled in his papers to annotate the direction of the decision.
The Queen gave a clipped nod since she was 'impartial' and was really supposed to not vote at all, the remaining ministers joined her.
The court officer turned and gave the scales an overly critical look. "Seven approve and one in dissent on the measure, 7:1, and the Queen accepts the favored position. We can now move on to the dates and then the make up of these extra rounds."
"A battle royale will be quick," The dissenting minister offered. "I agree it would but, we don't want to judge them if they fight in packs or in teams. Weaker fighter might try to take on people together, and this isn't a tournament for team play." The Queen said looking over. "Besides what magic could we use to decide the winner in all that? Each person captures someone's flag? Our Imperial champion won't be decided by such juvenile rules. So what then, they each bring back a head? We'll be back to where we started."
"We'll just have them fight preliminary rounds in front of judges. We can have multiple sites to save time." The emissary offered. "Besides the king was looking for something like an individual capture the flag. Something that allows the normal people to say they tried. They can then drink over it and stop the fighting."
"That would be valid if every other tournament wasn't made for that purpose." The Queen retorted thoughtfully, "This is the Blade Master tournament. The whole point is for the very best to show case themselves all the way to the end. It would be all for nothing if they were injured early. The one-week rest we offer after the semi-, and quarterfinals would extend this into next year's tournament if thousands show up. We will also have the Blade Masters from neighboring states show up too."
"It matters little if a Blade Master from some small state comes." Marcos huffed.
"Well your daughters will at least get a challenge, and perhaps an outsider will make it into the finals rankings for the first time." One of the ministers said grinning. "Don't worry, I'll still bet on your girls."
Marcos leaned back with a smug grin.
Janis loudly cleared her throat. "Well I hate to break a heartfelt moment between to perverts who seem happy to watch the Goddess' children of beauty fight to the death over a title of little consequence but-"
"Easy there you silly old nag, my girls love the chance to go, and only ones I send are young girls. You have a lot in common with them since you've both been down in the stadium and your both virgins-"
"Wha-!?!" Janis's face turned bright red as she bolted to her feet. The air crackled around her hands as she reached over Kaarthen seeking Marcos. For his part, the immortal was still grinning as he raised an ink quill with which to stab her.
"ORDER!!" The court officer and the Queen shouted halting the witch's blood lust. "Let's break for... committee deliberations... I think we're done here for today, we will return to this and the marriage issues tomorrow before the noon hour."
"Kaarthen please walk out with Lady Vixtorixx," Kaarthen nodded and the Queen addressed Marcos. "Lord Panthi, a moment if you please."
He didn't have to worry about Queen Mensillin reprimanding him for disrupting the meeting since this was how the meetings usually ended when Janis was in town. Kaarthen watched the Queen disappear with Marcos. The two were very comfortable together, much more so than Janis who still bristled.
"You should have said something too, or does that man not listen to you?" Janis snapped as they moved away from the others.
Kaarthen gave her a big fake smile, "I can see you're still angry and I get it. Forget about what happened earlier, why don't you tell me about the past, or about the tournament. I'm new here and I know you've lived through a lot of history."
Janis shot her a look but backed off. "Well I guess...Well my story of the tournament is how I met Marcos. The first time at least."
Kaarthen lifted a brow but kept quiet as they resumed walking the halls of the Citadel.
"I'll explain." Janis muttered. "It's something I can't stop thinking about when he is near. Before I was me, before there were my statues, before Sisters sang my name to each other. I was weak. I was just a weak nobody born to an outcast sister. I had met up with Warrioresses fighting to win honor and a way back into the enclaves, and perhaps even legend."
On a frigid mountainside under a darkening cloudy sky, a Warrioress confronted a man in his tiny campsite as the thunder rolled overhead. Around them the wind was starting to blow over the grass and knock around camp rubbish as a storm approached.
Her silvery hair declared her an Amazon. She wore a grey homespun robe over her petite frame that reached past the knees on her long legs. A black bear pelt was wrapped over her thin shoulders. Her few weapons were all cheap, and in the case of the wooden spear in her hands, handmade.
"Are you 'Garec the scribe'?" The young woman asked over the tip of the spear she kept pointing at his throat from across the fire. Looking at him under the point of her weapon helped her in summoning all the authority of her twenty winters.
"Aye," The man slowly said straightening till he came to his full height.
The shivering Amazon had to bend back at the waist and step back to keep her spear at his neck. He was intimidating. He was way more than a foot taller than her at six feet. His barrel chested body was hairy. He seemed more animal than man. He even wore his dark dirty rags like a savage barbarian despite the cold.
Looking up into his darkened face, Janis straightened her back up but was still a head shorter than him. "There is a price on you." She said in a strained voice lowering back into a crouch.
Moving forward, she closed in slowly around the fire, the man drew a sword from behind him that made her steps falter.
His weapon was a huge double bladed monstrosity. The steel glowed from end to end making it seem much bigger than anything she'd seen before. As though reading the mood, lightening flashed overhead and a strong cold gust of the storm front blew in. The chilly air did more than send a tingle up her spine, it felt as though death herself was toying her loose hair, and tugging her fluttering rags closer to oblivion.
"You're no good dead." Janis choked trying to stay in control even as her stomach tightened and her knees shook. She cleared her throat, clenched her jaw, tried to steel herself, and tried again. "Just put that down."
"I ain't goin back!" Garec shouted and lunged.
He fought like a cornered beast slashing at the Warrioress recklessly as she danced back. He shattered her spear with a powerful slash and quickly gained an edge. His berserker attacks forced her to draw her puny short sword to defend herself. As Janis tripped and stumbled around the cluttered campsite, he was able to hammer her with all his strength.
As she stumbled and fell dropping her sword, he kicked it away. Wide-eyed Janis's blood ran cold as she scrambled to her feet, and tried to pull her knife before he got closer.
"Foolish girl!" He bellowed and cracked her over the head with his hilt. After a moment, she staggered and dropped to a knee feeling woozy and sluggish.
"Like I said I was weak." Janis said stopping to sit on a bench in the busy central room of the Citadel. Before them, the wide central staircase went down to the lower levels of the castle. Beyond the stairs, a huge curved wall of glass windows stretched up a hundred feet to the ceiling and bathed the unofficial hangout of the Imperial capital's elites in midmorning sunlight.
"But there was more?" A slow voice added.
Janis and Kaarthen looked over to see Ein with the two junior Princesses Ruegin, and Princess Nossin.
"We have an account of your first meeting," Princess Ruegin said looking around. "I read about it."
"That...Well that was.." Janis blaunched, "When Saliss wrote that we didn't know the future's path-"
"The truth is easy to see." Princess Nossin said flatly. Seemingly out of her ears letters of the God's creation tumbled out in glittery silver and gold. Kaarthen was the only one who could see that, but the others recognized Nossin going into a trance.
On a sea wall of a coastal town on Menthino's side of the Lazy river a beautiful pale blonde in a flowing dark purple robe turned her mischievous deep blue eyes to the northern shore.
"Hey Marcos, let's cross the river. I want to tour around to see the principalities." Princess Saliss said turning to her beleaguered bodyguard.
The tall, skinny, tan man in dark clothes had a huge overstuffed pack complete with a three-legged stool tied on top that made him seem comical though she dared not laugh while standing so close.
Marcos was sweating under the load as he watched the lighthearted swirling princess dance closer to the river's edge enjoying the view.
The weather in early autumn was unseasonably warm down here in the lowlands, and it was a beautiful clear day. The river's waters sparkled, and even the weathered fishing ships seemed handsome as they cut through the waves or sat at anchor. The low cliffs of the far shore a mile or two away could be seen with ease. Even the usually cloud covered white capped mountains to the north could seen.
"Wandering about is not why you're here." Marcos replied quietly. "I think you're enjoying this too much."
"Well it was an interesting lesson to see what the world is like without law and order. Considering who I'll become, it was a heartening lesson on the necessary limits of power and so on and so forth." Saliss prattled off in a flat voice then stopped and lifted her chin to affect some authority. "As a Crown princess, I have benefited from this structured adventure. I was illuminating to learn by the observation of the day-to-day lives of common citizens outside our country's protective, loving, and guiding hand. But..."
This 'adventure' was the pinnacle of a Crown princess' coming of age. It was a daring full emersion-learning trip into mystic lands of Alcanton where humans were the minority. If successful, it would tie together various points of her royal tutelage, and open her eyes to the common life outside the Citadel's cushy apartments, and guarded halls. It was also a chance for the Heiresses to work over their crown's patron Marcos while he learned about them and their qualifications before they took the 'Eternal throne' as Queen.
Marcos looked back up and realized she had turned away to look back over the water. The breeze picked up her hair and swept it away. She looked lonely as she stood with her back to him, vulnerable even. But, Saliss was a calculating woman. Goddess help the man who gave her what she wanted.
"Since we're already out here, we could also do something more... 'freeform'..." She paused for a moment knowing her minder already had a response coming. "I shouldn't even have to ask you. Until we return to Mavvus, you can only follow me. But then... you know that already."
Marcos stirred at the princess' haughty words. She was too smart for her own good sometimes. She turned and flicked her suddenly serious blue eyes at him and pointed across the river to the mountains and cliffs on the far side. "I wish to go north... I have become aware of a certain map while preparing for this journey. On it, there are directions to a certain tower. I will not be denied Marcos."
Well I can't say I didn't have a feeling something like this was coming for some time now." Marcos started slowly still thinking of his response.
"I could think of better things to do up there. Do you really want to go on a treasure hunt this close to winter over a rumor you must have read in the little diary you princesses aren't supposed to have, or pass around? And shame on your mother for keeping it hold of it and giving it to you."
"So that's how you know all this?" Kaarthen asked out of the blue.
"Ehhhhh...that's a secret so don't tell." Ruegin muttered.
Saliss pouted her lips and cocked her head. "You don't like us learning about you or the about the world? This about the truth! We can't come out here knowing nothing! Sure I may have read the many reports of what others have done out here. But, for now, it is just us. It's my turn! When I have the throne, the world will be mine. I want to take this chance though to discover something. I need your strength. The search for the truth must continue! Don't make me a fool!" Saliss shouted in a rising voice as she spun to look away from him and collect herself.
It had been a month already since they left the capital for this. For the entire trip, she had a mask of giddy wonder on her face as she had met and interacted with the foreign creatures, people, and cultures that were found just across the river from their homeland's eastern border. On the surface she seemed to be doing exactly what was intended. She met with and associated with a wide range of society. But in truth, casual appearances aside, they had moved in one direction, and one direction only after they had began their trip.
"I didn't need a map to notice you have been leading us straight north this whole time." Marcos retorted.
She turned back to him and her face broke its stern demeanor and one of mischievous curiosity bloomed.
"Marcos, I can see past your bluff." She said offering him a way out of his position of resistance to her idea. "You have let the others cross before. They were all seeking it... I know you know of what I speak of, that mythical 'Crown of Emperors'. Lost for who knows how long since the old god Minun sank the nations of the east into the sea."
Since this trip was also among the most important events in a princess' life, clever girls had created a secret diary like a guidebook of things to do when 'out'. Queens passed it to their daughters to read out of prying eyes. Over the generations, receiving the diary became a ritual in and of itself. Stories, myths, and legends were created stimulating countless princesses to see and discover more and more of the mystical world to the east. More than a few mysteries like 'this magical crown rumor' were created too. Marcos cleared his throat and dropped the pack before stretching and giving his answer. "Any other princess that crossed this river was well east of here. I'm sure you know that, but still, if we cross here and head north, we'll be in wild highlands of the mountains. There are more humans up there than other creatures but there still won't be much civilization up there. Most of the land is wet tundra too cold to be called a swamp and wind swept barren rocky outcroppings. You don't like nature enough to do this. Besides, with the mountains and the Moxle river to the west we'll end up having to go east eventually anyways. But if you must go..."
In a huff Saliss stepped around him moving back to the empty road, she started up the road without waiting for him to finish. Marcos hefted the pack again and followed where she was leading them: north, towards the docks of the river ferry.
******************* "To be honest I never heard that part." Janis said thoughtfully.
"That was the famous Queen long before she took the throne." Ruegin explained proudly, " She apparently handled him so well that the following Queens named their daughters Saliss to give them an added advantage when dealing with Lord Panthi."
"Well I can't argue that, but Marcos was usually very easy on her." Janis shrugged. "She was there when we first met. In fact, suiting her style, she was the reason we first met."
The pain was intense. Hunger is an insidious thing. After a few days without food it becomes all you can think about.
Janis plodded off the dirt road into a meadow and fell to her hands and knees feeling lightheaded. Once more, she would try to eat grass. Something had to be done.
Things hadn't gone too well after being defeated. Dirty, starving, and dehydrated, her once white hair was matted like a birds nest, and her once pale grey Amazonian skin was tanned to a dark reddish bronze color and blackened further with the dirt and mud she found herself crawling in. Her already skinny frame had eroded into an unhealthy thinness. Under her now filthy grey short robe, her ribs, and small breasts could be seen through the armholes. Garec, the fugitive she found herself with had kept up a brutal pace, and never let her eat.
Luckily, the she was in a bountiful clearing in the mountains. The rough beauty of nature's alpine splendor was wasted on her as she rooted in dirt around on her hands and knees. Tugging up clumps of sweet grass and wild onions, she ate hungrily with what felt like the last little bit of energy in her body. Finally, she collapsed. Exhausted and too starved to do more, she resigned herself.
As the sunlight on her back warmed her, bugs and other critters of the forest skittered over her. Unable to move, she just laid still digging her face deeper into the cool dirt as her back heated under the sun.
As the seconds ticked by, she became aware of a cold feeling on her back as a shadow fell over her. Struggling to open her eyes, her body went on alert as she realized Garec had come back for her again.
Janis cringed but was unable to move. "Oi! you still alive?" The man's voice called.