“We need a response.”
Fer Kira was one of Morland’s best knights, and a close friend to Oxanlis. However, as Oxanlist reclined in her obsidian throne, the only thing that she could think of was Kira’s insolence right now. It was obvious that a response was needed, she didn’t need to be reminded, as though she had failed somehow.
“Enough.” Oxanlis said, adjusting her posture in the hard stone chair so that she might appear more Queenly.
Supreme General. It was an honored title and it bestowed on its bearer virtually all of the rights and privileges of a Queen, but sitting on the Obsidian Throne was never easy. In addition to its physical discomfort, the Supreme General was often at risk of being usurped by a simple duel, known as a Ehren Duell. Oxanlis was still confident that she was the best fighter in Morland, but that advantage was only a slight one.
“Instead of telling me what to do, tell me about the situation in the pass.”
Kira paused for a moment, not quite flinching from Oxanlis’ gaze. She held it well, but Oxanlis could read the fear in her general’s eyes and she knew her position was secure for now.
“We’ve sent the First and Third Battalions to defend it.” Kira replied, “the Fourth Battalion will join them shortly, they’re still recovering after their patrol to the shrine.”
“I think you know what I’m about to say,” Oxanlis said evenly. She ran one hand along the smooth, polished wood of her staff.
She then gripped the staff, but didn’t lift it. Oxanlis would have led the troops to the Deadwind Pass herself, but she had too much else to do to deal with the war that loomed on their horizon.
Not for the last time she damned Vrana. The General Queen of Hal’la didn’t seem like the type to provoke war, and yet, nevertheless, scouts had seen her troops moving along the border.
It was still unclear what exactly had transpired in the pass. According to the Panthers, a pack of Silverwood Wolves had attacked them, likely led by some of Hal’la’s werewolves. Yet they had responded by summoning the pass guardian, the skeleton of giant from the ancient world. This had triggered Hal’la’s guardians, the Angels of Thar.
The ancient giant had managed to retreat, and she had immediately sent some of their best necromancers to repair the damage, but the reports of her spies in Hallian territory suggested that the Hallian response was going to be a hammer’s blow rather than a rebuke of words or some other aggressive posturing which would ultimately amount to nothing. Instead of nothing, it seemed there was a very likely clash of swords.
“I will let them know to turn back around, Supreme General.” Kira bowed stiffly and left Oxanlis’ chambers.
Her receiving office was round in shape, with the Obsidian Throne in the center. Before the Throne was a war table, a cunningly carved table in the shape of Almos’ territories. As the iron doors swung shut behind her First General, Oxanlis rose and pushed three tokens back toward the Five Corner’s Shrine.
Five Corner’s Shrine was a valley near the center of the continent that was surrounded by tall mountains. Deadwind Pass was one of several that connected the nations and provided a path to the shrine itself. If there was one place the war wouldn’t spread to, it was the shrine. Still, they would need to send multiple forces to Nox’s Pass as well, since they called back the Fourth.
While she stood over the table looking down at her troops, the door opened once more.
Oxanlis looked up to find her next visitor, a werecat named Vrandiss. The woman was arresting in her wereform, her black fur was like rippling satin in the low light, but her eyes were the startling blue of a human, as opposed to the slits of a cat. She wore barely anything, as was the wont of many of the lycanthropes of Almos. Magical armor or clothing which could shift with the wearer were expensive and most preferred to wear things that didn’t need to change or didn’t need to change much to survive.
“I’ve spoken with your catsss,” Vrandiss said, her voice was sort of like a purr and a hiss, catlike. “I believe their ssstory.”
“Did you figure out how they got the attention of the Angels?”
“The giant, of coursse.” Vrandiss said with ease, “ssssuch magic doess not go unnoticed…”
Oxanlis let out a frustrated sigh, her nostrils flaring as she turned away from the werecat. So far the woman had only confirmed what she suspected. Yet there was so much more that needed to be known. If the werewolves were the aggressors, she needed to know why. Was it by order of Vrana? Oxanlis felt that was unlikely, but it seemed strange for the werewolves of Hallia to go rogue all of a sudden.
There were reasons aplenty, of course. Neither Morland nor Hallia were exactly tolerant of their lycanthrope populations. Eteras kept a tight lid on their lycanthropes, but they still allowed them to attend the academy, so lycanthropes from all over Almos had been there if they had any magical inclination. Perhaps the werewolves of the Silverwood simply wanted to force recognition.
If so, they were playing a dangerous game. If Vrana found out about the deception, it would likely create a rift, not unify the nation. That’s a start.
“Do you think you can get a message to the General Queen?” Oxanlis asked, turning around to face the lycanthrope woman once more.
“Perhapss.” Vrandiss said, her eyes narrowed slightly. “What’ss in it for me?”
The way that Vrandiss was dressed, one might assume she was a noblewoman in Morland’s court. She wasn’t, but that didn’t matter. She could play the part, and since the Supreme General was a position that even a commoner could aspire to, Oxanlis had no problems lifting the woman up if she could prove useful.
“I suppose that depends on whether or not you’re successful.”
“I sssee.” Vrandiss seemed to consider Oxanlis’ offer, or, rather, the lack of it.
“There are things I can promise now and things I can offer later, you understand.” Oxanlis continued. She turned and walked over to her throne.
Keeping an eye over her shoulder, Oxanlis unlocked a chest beside the chair. She withdrew an egg-sized ruby from it and turned it over in her fingers. The jewel was worth more than many villages, but she had plenty more in her treasury and if the precious gem could act as a sufficient deposit, then it was well worth it.
She threw the gem over her shoulder, following it with her eyes. Vrandiss took a step, then two, backward, then reached up and snagged the gem out of the air with dexterous ease. She examined it closely with a hungry look that told Oxanlis she’d made the right call.
All that was left were mission details.
Oxanlis did mention the possibility of nobility, but she emphasized it depended on the results, as Oxanlis would still have to seek the approval of the court before she could raise the woman up. She didn’t emphasize the sheer amount of political maneuvering that it would take. It would have been overselling, and she had a feeling that Vrandis was aware it wouldn’t be easy to begin with.
Still, it was clear what the woman wanted and cared little what it would cost Oxanlis.
For her part, the Supreme General knew that a successful mission would fracture Hallia. It could easily be the difference in the war. If they were fractured enough, perhaps Morland could even gain some territory from the rival nation. It wouldn’t be easy, but if they could, the court would be rabid over it. At that point, granting new nobility would be easy enough.
However, for now, her focus had to be on not losing territory to Morland’s largest rival. As much as she didn’t want to admit it, Hallia’s military force was superior. Oxanlis had done her best with the Morland military, it was why she was Supreme General, but their forces lacked discipline.
Part of it was the fault of the court, though Oxanlis couldn’t blame them outright. Oxanlis was personally wealthy, in large part because of the favor of the court, but the money that was required to train and maintain a proper military force was exponentially larger. The various nobles of the court did have their own militias, and if Morland was truly threatened, she knew they would give her troops as easily as breathing.
But that was only if the danger was imminent.
At the moment, the incident was distant and remote, and, if anything, Oxanlis knew the court would blame her once she let them know what happened. She would have to let them know. There was too much troop movement, too many witnesses that something had happened. The nobles would know, some of them likely already did know.
Oxanlis sat there, sprawled out over her throne, fingering her staff. She had a puzzle before her that she needed to fit the pieces to. There was opportunity, but there was also danger. Oxanlis didn’t trust the werecats. They had fumbled their duty and created a disaster. She wanted to trust Vrandiss, but the woman had so much to gain from the likely results of the disaster. Even if she didn’t order her minions to lie, for she hadn’t been at the pass to command them to attack the werewolves, she had plenty of reason to seize the moment and make the most of painting a story that put her werecats in the best light.
She thought about her conversation with the woman. Oxanlis had learned to ferret out lies and to seek out the truth, even from those hostile to her. The politics of Morland were a quagmire as dirty and messy as the swamps that made up so much of their territories. The pauses and tells that were typical of a liar weren’t evident in her questioning of Vrandiss, either just moments ago, or the first time she had questioned the woman the day before, after learning of the incident.
Nor had Oxanlis gotten a whiff of lying from the werecats themselves. They were in the nobles cells of Morland’s dungeons. Not officially prisoners, but not exactly free either. She would keep them there until she was certain of their story, and she didn’t need them free and able to conspire with one another.
What Oxanlis really needed, she realized, was a fight.
“You,” she said to the guard at her door, “Kol, right?”
“I’m looking for a spar. You ready?”
Kol grunted, but then lifted his axe. “Aye, just let me make sure someone else is on guard.”
Oxanlis nodded and dismissed him with a wave of her hand.
While he went to get himself relieved of his duty, she was already imagining how the fight could go. She saw herself blocking, the axe blows. Oxanlis imagined scenarios where she could use her weapon to sweep out Kol’s feet.
More likely than not, she would be involved in some wrestling or other close-quarters combat. Perhaps she would elbow Kol in the nose, she felt she was unlikely to win a fight if it came down to brute strength. Whatever she did, it would have to be quick and brutal. She had the advantage that Kol wouldn’t try to seriously injure her, so she knew she should try to minimize any serious injury to him as well. But a broken nose wasn’t deadly, and if it got her the advantage, she’d use it.
Oxanlis was still fantasizing about the upcoming fight when two of her guards walked in. She recognized Kol, and the other was a woman named Jusfain.
“Took you long enough,” Oxanlis said as she hopped up out of her seat and twirled the staff between her hands.
Jusfian glanced at them both and then shook her head. “I’ll keep an eye out while you fools go at it.”
Jusfian’s grin was difficult to see beneath her helm, but Oxanlis could see it. Perhaps she would spar with the woman after. It depended on how her fight with Kol went.
“On your guard!” Oxanlis shouted, leveling her staff at Kol.
At least she’d be able to have fun.