:: Dungeons & Dragons - The Threshold Party - Bother in Biazzan ::

Bother in Biazzan

She hadn't been there a moment before. Then she was.

The chill of the winter wind brought her to her senses, and with it came the realisation that she was high in the air. She dipped slightly as her flight spell took a fraction of a heartbeat to assert itself.

Four score feet below, the town was as she remembered it. Smoky wisps rose from the chimneys of rustic cottages, the remnants of fires which had burned through the night to keep the cold at bay. Some of the townsfolk were awake and Lana watched them move through the streets huddled in cloaks and other warm garments. Some of those figures would be elves, she knew. Perhaps even a Forester or two.

She remembered his warm brown eyes. Fevered and unseeing, they had opened many times that night, in that faraway place while she watched over him. He would have died for certain, had she not intervened. In a brief moment of lucidity his eyes had met hers, she had recognised fear and helplessness in their depths… yet by next morning that vulnerability gave way to firm resolve.

Was he even here? For a moment she thought about seeking him out. She imagined the palm of her hand connecting vehemently with his bearded jaw. She was entitled, she told herself. Her honour provided all the justification she needed, the Foresters had been her friends and he had betrayed her trust, all that she thought had gone unspoken between them…

You were naďve. Get over it.

She sighed, her breath becoming mist. It was true.

There’s a war on. You rushed to trust a stranger, thought you could count Thyatians as friends. Now things are even more divided.

More and more townsfolk were milling around, beginning their day. Some faces would be familiar, were she to tarry and greet to them, yet she had no wish to draw attention. She had a task to complete.

Focussing on the matter in hand, she took a moment to orientate herself. The sun was rising in the east but it was to the north-east that she would go, departing at speed over the town’s wooden palisade and the river beyond and heading for the hills in the far distance.

She flew, relishing the feeling of complete freedom that her carpet just could not match. It had been so long she had come close to forgetting how it felt. Late in the morning her spell waned and she landed to bring out the carpet and inspect the map she had borrowed. She could not see any recognisable landmarks but she had not yet reached the hills. At least she reckoned she had cleared Vyalia County. She ate a few morsels before setting off again.

An hour or so later she spied a valley through which a broad river flowed. This was likely the Grendale River. She smiled, satisfied that she was making good progress. She might reach Biazzan within a few hours.

So it was that around three dozen miles after leaving Foreston the carpet began following the Grendale River upstream. Although the map did not depict the river as flowing through or past her destination Lana followed the watercourse for a while in an attempt to keep her bearings. After a few miles she spotted a small village on the south bank and decided to visit - if only to take a break from the cold winds blowing down from the Altan Tepes.

She flew towards the village, which looked to be two or three times the size of Glaston, and landed near a smithy. Two dwarves were standing talking with a halfling. They spared the newcomer a casual look as her carpet descended then went back to their conversation. There were few other people about - all human - but they also betrayed only casual interest in her arrival.

"Good day and well met." She made directly for the dwarves and greeted them heartily, attempting her best Imperial Thyatian accent. It would not do, she had decided, to proclaim herself a Karameikan at a politically sensitive time. "Pardon my interrupting but I'm trying to find my way to Biazzan. Is it true that Fort Nicos has fallen?"

One of the dwarves squinted up at her. "Aye, we heard tha' this mornin'." He didn't seem particularly concerned.

"Oh my. So the reports are true? Aren't you concerned? What if the Ylari continue to advance, your village and the rest of the barony could be at risk? Is there anything you can tell me about how many they are in number, who they are led by?" She smiled sweetly, "anything at all?"

The dwarf snorted. "Why would they come here? There's nothin' fer raiders." He gestured to the steep hill, in the shadow of which the village lay. "The mine's a poor un. No much of a yield this year."

"A pity,” Lana sympathised. “What is it you mine?"

"Copper."

The other dwarf chipped in. "The dervishes'll get bored soon 'nuff an' go home. No sense in making a dragon's lair out of a rabbit burrow."

“Dervishes?” Lana had heard the term before, but wasn't sure of its precise meaning. "What do you mean by that?"

"Desert raiders. Well tha's what they are far as I sees it. But I heard tell these ‘uns came in the name of the'r Eternal Truth."

"Ah." The statement made her heart sink. Likely, these were no mere brigands from the Alasiyan Desert. She would need to keep the possibility of a religious affiliation in mind. She would face a more arduous challenge, she knew, if it were religious fanatics she was trying to persuade to return home.

She thanked the dwarves for their assistance, conveyed her hope that next year's yield from the mine would prove fruitful, and got back on her carpet. She left the village and flew onwards. Drawing out the map she realised that she did not know which, if any, of the marked settlements she had stopped in however, the proximity of the hills to her right and the direction of the river suggested that she still had a way to go. She decided to leave the river behind, flying over hills in the hope of intersecting the trade route which ran south from Biazzan. From the look of the map this route more or less dissected the barony. She hoped this course would be more direct than following the meandering path of the river.

Crossing the Grendale she flew north-east. According to her map the river wound in such a fashion that she should cross it again if she held to her course and after a few miles she did. The carpet passed farms and villages. Some looked to be of a reasonable size but were not large enough to be Biazzan. Being Kaldmont, it was beginning to get dark when she saw what looked like it might be her destination to the east.

She flew towards the large town, watching as torches and lanterns were lit to illuminate its streets, windows and doorways. She did not see any sign of the military encampment she might have expected from an invading army. In fact, it unsettled her to observe, the scene looked practically serene.

She thought about how to approach her task. The Ylari were suspicious of wizards, she knew from past experience, but were yet more distrustful of those who were surreptitious about their craft. Indeed to act in such a manner constituted a crime in most parts. She reckoned if she was entering an occupied territory she had better be transparent about her arrival. As the darkness gathered around her, she brought a copper coin from her pocket and willed it to emit bright radiance. She set the coin beside her on the carpet and began her descent into the town.

Finding her nerves to be calmed by the familiar glow of her magic, she kept on course. As she drew closer she noticed that Biazzan had no town walls - highly unusual for a population centre that could almost classify itself as a small city. She thought she recalled Drewen mentioning this after his return from the trap-filled dungeon where he acquired his fabulous armour. Presumably the deserted central area she could see was the large market place where her companions' wagon had been stolen along with the steed Karnus had named Magic Missile. A smile came unbidden to her lips. She attempted to locate the famous University but there were a great many large buildings, any of which could have been the University if not some other civic building.

Clip, clop, clip. The sound of hooves on cobbles alerted her to the presence of two mounted figures emerging from a street to her right. They were dressed in concealing robes that reminded her disconcertingly of the Master's agents, though the style was decidedly Ylari. They spotted the magical light at once and called out however Lana could not understand their words.

She answered in Imperial Thyatian. "Good evening gentlemen and well met in the Light of Al-Kalim. I regret but I do not understand your words."

The pair of riders did not appear to understand but reacted to 'Al-Kalim' with a bow of their heads. One said something to the other, turned his steed and rode off at a trot whilst his companion gestured for the wizardess to descend from her carpet.

Doing as he bid, Lana noted that his expression was neutral but his face had the harsh, worn look of one who had experienced much hardship in life. The two faced each other in silence for a few minutes until they heard horses approaching and three more riders came into view. They spread out to encircle Lana’s carpet. One, who seemed to be of stockier build than his lean, wolfish companions, raised a hand and said, "Good Evening."

"Evening of Light," Lana replied having read up on the appropriate response to this greeting. She felt rather pleased with herself for remembering.

"I am Urabi Al-Djamal of Ctesiphon," the rider continued in heavily accented Thyatian. "May I ask who you are and what you are doing out of your home at this time?"

"Pleased to make your acquaintance." Lana dipped her head slightly. "I am Lana Budanter and I am far from my home, for it is Karameikos to the west. I have friends in the neighbouring duchies of Machetos and Vyalia, whom I visit from time to time. I wish to establish whether these lands have been taken in the name of the Eternal Truth."

As she spoke she rearranged her cloak to display the brooch of the Desert Rose. Its tiny rubies and emeralds sparkled in the light of her glowing coin.

"Indeed." The man's eyes alighted upon the Desert Rose but he said nothing about it. "This city and its green lands have been claimed in the name of The Way so that its people may share in the Dream of Justice and Honour."

"Oh?" She nodded favourably. "As an open-minded traveller I would learn more about these concepts so that I might uphold them, as you are doing in your own way." She looked thoughtful and passed her glowing coin from one hand to the other. "But first, you would do me an honour by telling me - who commands the forces here, if not you then might I speak with your superior in the interests of..." she paused to think of some pretext, "international relations?"

The four men eyed her coin and carpet in a slightly nervous manner. Al-Djamal frowned slightly. "I understand not all your words but we follow the honourable Omar Al-Nazar of the Shahran. If you are a True Believer he may speak with you and answer your questions."

"It would be a mistruth were I to claim to be a True Believer. However I can assure you that I own a copy of the Nahmeh and I intend to continue reading it as often as I can."

She drew herself to her full height and set her shoulders back, fixing the man with a solemn look. "Urabi Al-Djamal," she said, "by the emblem of the Desert Rose I respectfully request that you bring me before your leader, this Omar Al-Nazar of the Shahran."

The dervish hesitated and conferred with his fellows before turning back to her and bowing his head. "Very well. It will be as you request. Please follow me." He led her through the streets of Biazzan. One of the other riders followed close behind the carpet. The other two went on their way. Occasionally an inquisitive face would appear at a window but a harsh word from the rider was all it took to send them quickly retreating from view.

At the edge of town stood a palatial building of modest size and distinctly Alaysian appearance. It was through the gates of this building that Lana and her escort passed. In the courtyard fifty or so horses had been tethered.

Fifty, Lana found herself thinking. How many are they in all? She wondered whether a small force might succeed at driving the invaders back to Ylaruam. The Foresters were not far away. But equally there could be Ylari reinforcements on the way. And the lack of a town wall wouldn’t help keep them away.

The horses were being fed and groomed by men dressed in the same fashion as the escorts. Al-Djamal dismounted and handed his reins to a lad of about twelve. The fellow behind Lana did the same. She decided this would be a good point to step off her carpet and stow it in the Bag of Holding.

She climbed steps to an arched entranceway guarded by two particularly fierce looking men with long spears. This led into a long carpeted hallway decorated with ornate tapestries on the walls. Her escorts stopped and looked at her expectantly. Making eye contact with Al-Djamal, his eyes drifted upwards very slightly, whilst his expression remained unchanged.

Think, woman. She willed herself to recall past experiences of Ylari culture. Much depended on respect for tradition, she knew, which was expected to be demonstrated by various means. If she was to gain audience with the leader of the dervishes, she knew that the manner of her presentation would count as greatly as the substance of what she wished to say.

Reaching into her bag she drew out a gossamer scarf and bound her head before entering the building. She was glad that her choice of footwear - sturdy winter boots - did not expose her ankles or much of her legs, and her travelling cloak meant she was not at risk of showing much other bare skin. She took a few moments to neaten her appearance all the same.

Al-Djamal smiled as she performed these simple actions. "For an infidel you are most knowledgeable and respectful of our ways. Please wait here whilst I announce you." With that he headed for double doors at the end of the hallway. The guards stationed there let him pass and after a few moments he reappeared and motioned for Lana to approach.

She entered what was evidently an audience chamber - luxuriously furnished with large colourful cushions, silken drapes, beautiful rugs and low ornate tables. There was a throne but it was unoccupied. Instead the twenty or so occupants of the room were seated close together on cushions, listening attentively to a handsome young man of about Lana’s age as he read aloud from a book.

Lana took in the scene with continuing surprise. Truly, this was not what she was expecting from a conquering army.

The young man finished reading and stood. He made a very slight nod of his head and spoke in good, but again strongly accented, Thyatian.

"Good Evening Lana Budanter of Karameikos. I am Omar Al-Nazar of the Shahran tribe. How quickly news of our glorious triumphs spreads, that you have some from so far away! Tell me truthfully, are you a sorceress?"

"Evening of Light, noble Omar Al-Nazar." Lana returned a deeper nod than was given her. "It is true news of your conquest has spread to the borders of the Thyatian Empire, though it is not my land to call home. And I answer you truthfully that I am indeed a scholar of the magical arts." She held up her glowing coin. "As you see I have made no attempt to hide my ability."

She looked around herself. "These are very fine surroundings."

"They are fine indeed,” Al-Nazar replied, “but they also betray the soft living of the hazar chief. He surrounds himself with Alaysian riches like an emir but he has not faced the hardships of the desert or won the right to them in battle."

He smiled. "But we must not talk of such things before we have taken tea together. Or perhaps you would prefer coffee? We have plenty of both."

"I have travelled all day to get here," Lana replied, "therefore refreshments would be welcome. I prefer coffee over tea, if that is not too much trouble. Then we should indeed discuss more serious matters.”

Coffee before all else, she found herself remembering while Al-Nazar gave orders for coffee to be brought in and invited her to sit. She recalled that the drinks ceremony was an essential prelude to any formal discussion and bore religious significance for the Ylari. It would be highly improper to launch into the reason why she had travelled there, before proper formalities could be observed.

The men made room in their circle so that Lana was sitting opposite Al-Nazar, with a low table between them. The men were clearly uncomfortable in her presence and gave her more space than was required by simple courtesy. Their leader however seemed relaxed and completely at ease. She examined him more closely once seated.

He was tall and slender with large eyes that were almost black in colour. His beard was neatly trimmed and he was dressed in simple woolen garments. His feet were bare. His shirt was slightly open and Lana could see old scars on his torso. He regarded Lana impassively as they awaited the arrival of the refreshments he had promised her.

It did not take long for a trio of serving girls to bring in the coffee. Al-Nazar poured it himself. He poured a cup for Lana and for all his men. He then poured a cup for each of the serving girls. He then took his own cup, raised it, offered what sounded like a brief prayer and drank. Everyone else did the same. Lana took a long draught of the strong smelling black drink. It was very bitter and she thought one cup might be enough to keep her awake for a week.

"It is said the winter will be hard for most peoples this year," said Al-Nazar. "I hear the snows are heavy in Darokin and the harvest was the worst in many lifetimes. The poor will starve I fear. How fares your own land in these times?"

"We are not without our own troubles,” Lana answered. “Thankfully the meteor devastation did not spread to us, at least not directly.” She sipped from her steaming cup. “Civil divides continue as they have for decades, many are unhappy that our King broke away from Thyatis. We await the Emperor's retaliation and a programme of improvements has begun along our eastern borders and around Specularum." She quaffed her drink and smiled. "It is true this winter shows signs of being the harshest in years... yet come the spring we will emerge stronger for our hardship."

Her host nodded approvingly. "You are wise to see the opportunity for strength in hardship for, as it is written, 'Look for the acacia that blooms in the heart of the desert and there you shall find a flower stronger than steel.'"

Lana savoured the aroma from her cup. "This is a good strong coffee. One of my apprentices brought Darokinian and Sindhi blends to my tower and has renewed my appreciation for the drink." She drank deeply from her cup. "This, I must say, is strong but excellent. Might I trouble you for some more?"

"But of course." Al-Nazar gestured for one of the serving girls to refill his guest’s cup. "It is a simple blend of Nicostenian and local beans but most acceptable."

Lana nodded while she took another long draught. "I understand the yield from the copper mines in the hills to the west has been poor this year. The dwarves there hope the natural supply is not depleted."

"In the Emirates it has also been a poor year for copper mining but not for gold. It is said this is a sign of great things to come; that the Shah-i-Zindah will soon return to us."

Lana’s brow creased. "Forgive me, but this 'Shah-i-Zindah' is unknown to me. Might I ask what that is?"

"The Shah-i-Zindah - the Living King. The Nahmeh tells us that there is one; a holy father to the True Believers, who cares for our nation, who guides us with an invisible hand through the lifetimes of many men and who will return to us in person when we have greatest need."

"I see." Lana nodded at the explanation. She forced herself to drink most of what remained in her cup, leaving just a small amount. She then made a gesture to the serving girl who stepped forward to replenish the cup. Al-Nazar appeared to look on favourably.

"I am told you have a flying carpet that is most beautiful to look upon. May I see it?"

“It would be my pleasure.” As she stood and pulled the full length of the carpet from the physically smaller bag of holding, she heard disapproving murmurs around her although none were loud enough to draw the ire of the men’s leader. Nevertheless, Lana had the feeling she was doing well so far. Nobody had shown any signs that she had made a wrong move but she knew that the art of diplomacy with the Ylari could be as much of a trap-filled maze as any dungeon.

She gestured with one hand which caused the carpet to unroll, then it lifted off the floor to hover at waist height. "It is of my own making," she announced proudly. "Fabric interwoven with magical cloud gifted me by cloud giantesses and located with assistance from the Djinn, whose floating city I was privileged enough to visit. And," she added as if it were a final thought, "you will note the weaving style is Ylari."

Omar Al-Nazar admired the carpet. "Truly it is wondrous and most beautiful but it pales in comparison to its owner. I cannot believe that Karameikos has a rose more fair. Tell me Lana Budanter; sorceress; scholar; explorer of the Realm of the Upper Air; friend of the Djinn - is there no end to your fine qualities?

Lana flushed at the unsolicited compliments, mindful of the audience of two dozen around her. She wondered whether, despite her handsome host’s impeccable manners, this was not a strategy to unsettle her in the proper discussion which was to ensue. "Noble Omar Al-Nazar you flatter me with your words but I do not claim mastery of any of my pursuits. I am aware of my limitations." She nodded toward the scars on her host's chest. "Evidently you have great fortitude as a warrior to have sustained such wounds and lived. And you converse most eloquently in a tongue which is not your own. Surely both in word and in deed, you must have no rival among the Shahran."

"I am but a humble adherent to the Way of the Warrior,” her host responded, unphased by the returned compliment, “who has learned that even the ugly and inferior blades of orcs and hobgoblins can cut deep.” He drank from his cup. “Now tell me oh Rose of Karameikos how come you to wear that fine ornament that proclaims the favour of the Council of the Desert Rose? How did one flower find the other and why does one such as you honour one such as me with her presence?"

"The Rose was awarded to me by Karim Al-Amar," Lana said, "Ylaruam's ambassador to Thyatis. I was among a group of adventurers who rescued him from Hattian Storm Soldiers..." her expression soured as she referred to them, "…who were intent on harming him for the honour of the Immortal Vanya. The Storm Soldiers, as you may have heard, are xenophobic hatemongerers. And they bring me to the reasons why I am here." She sipped what remained of her coffee before setting down her mug and drawing a breath. It seemed to her that polite protocol had been observed to a sufficient degree and proper discussions might commence. Her host appeared to detect that she was thinking along these lines and nodded to indicate that she should continue.

"You ask why I sought you out, Omar Al-Nazar. I answer you truthfully and say that I am here under the banners of friendship and diplomacy. I ask you to bear that in mind for you will not like what else I have to say though I believe the truths I wish to speak should reach your ears. And let me make clear from the outset that I do not doubt that in coming here your actions have been guided by honour and the glory of Al-Kalim's vision for the Emirates."

She met Al-Nazar's dark eyes with her own gaze. "I mean to assert that your position here in Thyatis is untenable. I will elaborate on the reasons why if you permit me to do so."

To her astonishment, Al-Nazar's smile did not fade in the slightest. He gave a further nod to show his readiness to hear his guest out.

Lana returned the nod courteously, glad that her host kept an open mind or at least seemed to. She considered the possibility that she was profaning against the will of Al-Kalim, and that Al-Nazar might set his men upon her in an instant. It was a risk she needed to take. To be mild and fearful before this audience, she knew, would gain her nothing.

“You have shown exemplary skill in taking Fort Nikos,” she said. “But such manoeuvring while Thyatis is distracted will be seen as opportunism. Thincol Torion has lost Karameikos and is expected to retaliate against us. Plagued by defeat on the Isle of Dawn his pride and rage will not allow him to accept the loss of a territory from within his very Empire. Thyatis is hurting from many blows but do not underestimate its resources or think the Emperor a toothless beast. Is it not written in the Nahmeh, that a wounded serpent bites the deepest? There are many forces which can be sent to reclaim Biazzan.

“One such force threatens your people and mine alike. I will explain." She paused to focus her thoughts.

"Within the last year I confronted a vampire who was transporting riches from Karameikos into Thyatis. I believe she was sent by the Black Eagle Baron, a Hattian noble, to buy voting power in the Thyatian Senate. Hattias is a vast territory and its senators hold great influence. Moreover the Storm Soldiers whom they command are aggressive, fanatical militants. Two days ago, I learned that the Black Eagle is currently a guest of the Storm Soldiers at their enclave in Thyatis City. It is my belief that the Black Eagle - who already commands an army of mercenaries and humanoids - will petition Thincol to let him reclaim Karameikos in the Emperor's name, and will receive the title of Archduke if he succeeds. The senators will throw themselves behind his motion whether motivated by patriotism or bribes or both.

"However... Biazzan lies closer than Karameikos, its defences are more meagre. It is likely the Emperor will grant the Black Eagle's request but send the Storm Soldiers to prove their worth by repelling your people out of Biazzan. The Storm Soldiers' hatred of the Ylari is no secret," she gestured to the Rose brooch, "as Al-Amar will attest.

"Closer to Biazzan are the Vyalia Woods, less than two days' march away. The elves and Foresters who live there are formidable warriors and spellcasters. They will not suffer a hostile presence on their doorstep. Add to their number the Retebius Air Fleet, with their dragons and hippogriffs and pegasi beyond counting - or the dozens of sorcerers living on the Isle of Sclaras, many of whom will have attended the Biazzan University and will wish to see it liberated. Any of them could Teleport here in the blink of an eye and bring with them immense magical might.

"As for your defensive location, the town has no walls. Fort Nikos offers protection against attack from the north, but you will face aggression from all other directions.

"So it seems to me," Lana intended her words to sound firm, and hoped her diplomatic intent would be borne in mind, "as much as you might rightfully reclaim this land in Al-Kalim's name, the practicalities dictate that you will not be able to maintain your presence here. Instead I ask you to consider an alternative. What can you do to uphold the honour of the Ylari people, to leave a lasting positive impression and derive a worthwhile benefit, before you are forced to withdraw?"

Al-Nazar had listened politely without interrupting. He had nodded several times to show that he was paying attention and considering what she had been saying. He did not look particularly worried however.

"I do not expect the Emperor of Thyatis to ignore our presence here,” he replied. “By all accounts he is a courageous warrior - or was once before he allowed himself to be chained to a throne. The same cannot be said however for his soldiers. When I was a boy my grandfather told me tales of the fighting men of Thyatis. They were, after the nomads of the Emirates, the greatest warriors in the world. I am very disappointed. We took Fort Nicos in a single night with a force of fewer than three hundred men. This city had surrendered to us before evening prayer the next day. It does not concern us that there are no walls for we would rather meet our foe upon the open field of battle than cower like turtles in their shells. We hope to battle the famed Kerendan cavalry and see which of us are the better riders. We would welcome a chance to meet the twisted, black magiks of the elves with the shield of Faith in our hearts. We are not cowards but the Thyatians are. They concern themselves with the squabbles of sorcerers but are afraid to face real warriors.

"Furthermore, the Thyatian military is like the great lumbering dinosaurs that once roamed freely across the lands now ruled by men. It is slow to react and unable to adapt - it has lost the very strengths upon which it built its empire and is doomed to extinction. The Emir of Dythestenia has promised me troops and they will be here before the Thyatian legions. We will then number a thousand strong and a thousand men who have Faith in one another and in the Immortal Guardians are worth ten thousand soldiers who fear their companions or leaders may desert them at any time and fight only to cling on to that which is not theirs in the first place. There are a thousand slaves in this city. I will set free all who accept the truth of The Way and join with us. Then our numbers will grow again.

"You believe that Thyatis will march against us in strength but from where will this strength come? Alphatia is winning this war. If Thyatis hopes to hold the Isle of Dawn it will need its best fighters to be there. That will leave only the weak, the corrupt and the cowards to face us. These are the crops that Thyatis has chosesn to sow for itself through its decadent and treacherous ways. Now it is time for the harvest and it is not only to Biazzan that Thincol should look. I am not the only one to have accepted the holy mission of the Immortal Guardians."

"That is how I answer your concerns Lana Budanter but still I wonder why you have come to voice them. Your king seeks to cut himself free from the web of Thyatis and we have no quarrel with Karameikos at this time.” Lana could not help but notice one or two of the men frown visibly at this. “Why therefore do you concern yourself with what happens here?"

"It is true," Lana replied, "Thyatis has allowed some of its military cohesion to slip. But even with courage in your hearts your thousand men will be vastly outnumbered. The troops from Hattias and Kerendas will be well versed in military strategy and will not be routed easily. I greatly admire that you are prepared to fight for your beliefs but I beg you to consider other ways of achieving greatness, rather than waging war. War is an unnecessary and ugly thing, I have seen much of it thanks to the squabbling sorcerers you refer to, and others. If you wrest land from Thyatis, there will be an attempt to take it back. Relations will be soured, blood will spill, countless lives will suffer in both countries - men, women and children alike, many of them innocent. I ask that you implement another strategy - demonstrate your ability as thinkers and strategists, diplomats and scholars, as greatly as you do in your swordarms. For example - the University is knowledgeable about the workings of Air and no doubt weather patterns and agriculture. They could assist in furthering the Dream of the Desert Garden. Or, seek a treaty whereby Biazzan is declared a shared territory, to be protected by Thyatis and Ylaruam alike. This would permit the trade route to remain open and benefit both countries. There are opportunities but they need not be military ones. It is said, that it takes greater courage to wage peace than to wage war, and the fruits of peace are sweeter by far. Why drink just a trickle of water in the desert when you can transform your surroundings into a lush oasis?

"As for why I am here, I seek to determine whether you have set your sights on my homeland, which you are not far from. We have committed to staying neutral in this War but equally must be ready to defend ourselves against hostile forces. I wished you to confirm that your quarrel does not lie with Karameikos, as you have alluded to. I do not speak for my King, only myself. Partly also I was curious about the reports I had heard. Like I say, I have seen more of War in recent times than is good and proper and had hoped I might dissuade you from your intended path."

Once again Al-Nazar had permitted Lana to say all she wished without interruption. He replied:

"You continue to speak well, Rose of Karameikos. Before I was accepted into The Order of the Mace and took up the Way of the Warrior my path was the Way of the Scholar. I travelled the Emirates as an Itinerent. I therefore consider the spreading of wisdom and knowledge among the most noble endeavours a man can pursue. The university here is the greatest prize to be found in this city. It is my hope that when I address the students and scholars they will come to accept the Eternal Truth as revealed by Al-Kalim through the Nahmeh and take their first steps on the Way of the Follower.

"War can be brutal but as yet no lives have been lost in our seizure of Biazzan; not a single drop of blood has been shed. It will continue to be this way so long as its people accept the Word of the Immortal Guardians. We are not brigands. We are not here to plunder, rape and murder. We are here to reclaim the lands of our fathers. It is the manifest will of the Immortal Ones that this be done and men, no matter how great their numbers, cannot oppose destiny. As it is written, 'Men are but grains of sand and the Immortal Ones are the Wind. They direct us; bring us together with other grains, shape our lives and in the end they scatter us across the Eternal Desert. Fight not the Wind but accept and know you are blessed to be touched by it.

"Peace is what we desire but if we must defend the Faith by force of arms we will do so for Al-Kalim has said 'We must be the candles that burn so that others might have light.'"

"You speak of defending your Faith,” Lana answered quietly, having heard her host out, “but it is not under threat.”

She reached for her coffee cup and sipped the cold dregs while she considered what to say next. Despite the potency of the coffee helping her maintain focus, Lana felt herself growing disheartened. Nothing she could say would sway this individual from his course. He was walking a path which he believed had been ordained by his people’s Immortal Guardians, was convinced that his actions were utterly justified. As much as she might have demonstrated respect and adhered to proper accords, it seemed nothing she could say would bring about the result she had hoped to achieve. To make matters worse, she found herself agreeing and sympathising with much of what her host had said. But not all…

“What of liberty?” she demanded after a long pause. “The slaves who long for freedom but will not accept the Way, the hot-headed students who treasure knowledge but choose to remain infidels in your eyes, others you encounter who have their own ideologies? Many here have revered the Thyatian pantheon for generations and hold them dear as you adhere to your Eternal Truth. Will those who do not join you find scimitar blades at their necks? Coersion does not make for stability, it incites resentment and betrayal. You will compound qualities which already abound in Thyatis. You run the risk, noble Omar Al-Nazar, of becoming a harsh oppressor of these people. Your candle will burn too brightly and will consume much that is good. Might does not make right. Mutinies and rebellions will rise against you from within Biazzan while you fight to keep outside forces at bay.

“Tell me, my host. How certain are you that your being here is the will of the Immortal Guardians? It is my belief that the Immortals pursue their own ends, which are not always the best interests of their mortal followers. If the Immortals are indeed a wind, they have blown me into your path and perhaps that is meant to be so. Many in Biazzan are seekers of knowledge, as am I. I would not have them harmed if they decline to accept the Eternal Truth. If you will not withdraw, then by the honour of the Desert Rose I wear please vow to me that no harm will befall the people of this town." She regarded Al-Nazar very seriously. "For it seems to me a harsh desert wind blows through this place and threatens to erode those in its path.”

Lana had invoked the status of the Desert Rose, whose authority was not properly hers to call upon. Al-Nazar’s dark eyes burned into her with far greater intensity than the potent coffee they had both consumed.

"I fear the 'liberty' treasured by the soft nations of the world is but another word for decadence. 'There is no true freedom to be found in this life but that found in serving the Immortal Ones. Those who deny Truth when its face is before them are fools.” His gaze did not leave Lana for an instant. “Nevertheless, if the lives of the people of Biazzan are truly of such importance to you then I grant you this: so long as they be merely fools and not wicked fools who bring harm to the True Believers, then by Al-Kalim and the Eternal Truth I swear that no harm will befall them. They will be granted the gift of time; time to allow themselves to see the Truth that we bring. I make this vow as a mark of my respect for your conduct this evening, for your scholarship and for your compassion.”

Lana’s spirits soared; here finally was a concession on her host’s part.

"Now, forgive me, I am a poor host but I have much to do and regrettably cannot continue our philosophical debate. If you wish to stay in this palace tonight you may do so and you will be under my protection. If you wish to leave, you are free to do so."

Lana rose, placed a hand upon the brooch she wore and bowed deeply. "Omar Al-Nazar of the Shahran tribe, you have my gratitude. May your honour never be doubted and may the Immortal Guardians keep you safe through dangerous times." She smiled at him sincerely. "I will avail of your kind offer, and will take up no more of your time. I had thought to take in the sights of Biazzan tomorrow if you have no objection? I would like to see what the University and the markets have to offer."

Another thought occurred to her. "I take it you intend to keep the trade route open? It would be a hardship were it to close."

Al-Nazar considered this. "The route to the north will be kept open so far as the winter weather allows so that Biazzan might continue to trade with merchants from Ctesiphon, Ylaruam and Selenica."

Two men rose at Al-Nazar’s command and bid Lana follow them. Swords were slung upon both their belts. She was content to leave and so exited the chamber. Her mind was buzzing as she left; the Ylari were clearly in Thyatis on a holy mission and were the famed diplomats of Darokin to have risen to the challenge, she doubted whether they might have secured much more than she had. At least the people of Biazzan would be treated fairly and would be afforded some greater safety.

“Whereabouts does Al-Nazar come from?” Lana asked as the guards escorted her along a marble hallway and up a curving set of stairs. A serving girl followed them, her head lowered fearfully.

The expression of the guard to whom Lana had posed the question was utterly blank.

The other guard, a balding middle-aged man of medium height appeared to speak some broken Thyatian. “He is of Shahran tribe,” he answered her, “who call home to sands of Alaysian desert, and to highlands to south and to plains to coast of Nicostenia.”

A nomadic people, Lana concluded. As she was shown into a luxurious bedroom it occurred to her that there were many questions still requiring answers. The sun had set long before, yet she wondered whether the remaining part of the evening might lend itself to further investigation.

She was left alone in the bedroom with the two guards posted outside. As Lana finished unpacking her possessions, the serving girl returned bearing a light meal of flat bread, olives and dates. She looked frightened and the knuckles of the hands with which she clutched her tray were bone white.

"You poor dear," Lana said quietly. The dishes on the tray rattled as they were set down. "You look scared witless! Could you sit and speak with me for a while?"

The girl, who looked to be around seventeen with long dark hair and large eyes, hesitated before saying loudly, "Forgive me my Lady. I will change the sheets at once."

"Canny," Lana murmured with a smile, "I like that." Then more loudly: "See that you do. And shut the door for the love of the Immortals, you're letting in a draught."

The girl closed the door, leaving the guards on the outside. She then turned trepidatiously to face Lana.

"Relax," Lana said, "I'm a friend and you can trust me. Although I suppose you only have my word for that.”

The girl nodded, seeming focused on steadying her nerves.

“Come sit with me,” Lana invited her, “have some of those refreshments if you like. Please, tell me what happened here? How did three hundred men manage to take Fort Nicos and why has there been no resistance?” Her eyes narrowed. “The answer wouldn't be anything to do with zzonga fruit, would it?"

"I don't know what happened at the fortress,” the girl replied with a shrug. “Najla said that two days ago a messenger arrived, saying a huge army of Ylari warriors was on its way to kill us all and a few hours later the first riders were seen coming down the road. Lord Yazafadres just disappeared, leaving the baron behind and now he's in the dungeon and his wife and son are locked in their rooms and the dervishes are going to kill them and then they'll butcher all of us."

"You mustn't fret. I have spoken with the dervish leader and nobody is going to get butchered. Tell me who this Lord Yazafadres is, and who the Baron is as well. Where might his Lordship have gone to?

"I'm Lana by the way." She smiled. "What's your name?"

“I'm Karida.” The girl seemed slightly calmer. “Are you sure the desert men won't kill us? They look so fierce! In the stories they chop off the hands and cut out the tongues of anyone who makes them angry.”

“You're right,” Lana nodded, “they're very fierce. But they’re not so bad if you're civil to them. Tell me more about Lord…” Lana pronounced the name awkwardly, “Yazafadres.”

“Lord Yaza' is the Baron's wizard. He makes me think of snakes.” Karida shuddered visibly. “And the Baron? How can you not know who the Baron is? Everyone knows him. He is my master and he is a great man. He is a mighty warrior with a magic sword and a carpet that flies! He is master of all the lands of Biazzan!”

Lana’s interest stepped up a notch at the mention of another flying carpet. “Why would Lord Yaza have fled, and where might he have gone to?”

She shrugged helplessly. “He's a wizard. He can go anywhere.”

“Is he of Ylari descent?”

"He has some sand in his blood. Lots of people do. I do. But we are civilized, not like the desert men."

“And does he have chambers here, in the palace?”

She looked up. "Above this room."

That's convenient. Lana noted this. “And you say the Baron is locked in the dungeons? Perhaps I should meet with him, if the guards allow it. I could speak with him and reassure him that things aren't as bad as he might fear. Could you show me the way?”

The girl’s face turned as white as a sheet. “Oh no my lady, I cannot do that. I am not allowed down there.”

Lana studied the girl. “You're right and I'm sorry. I shouldn't be asking you to do anything you're uncomfortable with. But tell me, whereabouts is the entrance to the dungeon? Just in case I need to go down there on my own.”

Karida rose from the bed and moved to the room’s slender window, which was filled by a hinged pane of multi-coloured glass. She opened it to point out at an annexed structure to the Baron's home.

“That’s the guardhouse. It’s under there.”

“I assume a curfew has been imposed,” Lana said, “have the dervishes issued any other orders?”

“There’s a curfew, yes,” Karida replied though she didn’t sound certain. “I’m not allowed out at night anyway, only to the market during the day.”

“I see. Do you know if anybody is planning an uprising or will people acquiesce for the time being?”

Karida looked blank. “Biazzan is a peaceful town. Most people here are students and wise men. Only guards are allowed to carry weapons, most of them have been caught and locked up. There are a few halls where members of the Thyatian orders meet, like the Brotherhood of the Grey Lady, but this is not a warriors’ town so…” She looked at Lana blankly. “I don’t know who would be planning an uprising, if there’s going to be one.”

“Very well.” Lana mulled this over. “You’ve been most helpful and you’re free to go. Do be brave, won’t you?”

Karida rose from the bed and moved quickly to the door, smiling at Lana before she departed.

Once the door closed Lana moved to the window that Karida had left open, and drew out a pottery bead from one of her pockets. After whispering a word the bead’s eyelids blinked apart, then floated out the window and upward. In Lana’s mind’s eye she peered through the decorative window of the room above, but could make out nothing of the dark interior. Instead, she bid her carpet rise and float outside the slender window. It responded sluggishly since she was not physically upon it. Her body passed through the window gap, which proved a tight squeeze, then rose ten feet and she used her ring of telekinesis to release the latch which held the window pane tight in its surround. She then slipped through the gap into the room beyond.

She brought forth her glowing coin, cringing as the bright light emerged from her pocket as a beacon which anybody who happened to be outside would be able to see. She closed her hand around the coin as she drew the heavy curtains around the window through which she had entered, and looked around. As the bright light resumed she found herself wishing she owned a Teldon Torch or had brought a casting of her Discontinuable Radiance spell.

She waited anxiously for a few minutes and listened for the approach of any further visitors but she heard nothing other than the guards talking to one another in low voices.

The magist’s bedroom and adjoining study were richly furnished, as was to be expected, but they appeared to have been stripped of all personal possessions. She kept her coin gripped in one hand while she cast a couple of detection charms, then began her search in earnest.

Thoughts filled her mind of why Yazafadres might have abandoned his position in such haste. If he was of Alaysian descent, he might have assisted the Ylari in sacking Fort Nicos. She was reminded how he put the slave girl Karida in mind of snakes. Likely he had betrayed the Baron. Why then would he have fled the Ylari? Perhaps he hadn't assisted them and feared for his safety when the reports came that the Ylari were on the way. They were known to hold wizards in contempt, after all.

She conducted as thorough a search as she was able to hastily and quietly. Chests, shelves and cupboards all appeared to have been emptied, evidently in some haste. Items of clothing and other personal effects were found dropped on the floor or left under the bed. There were some ornaments, vials of scented oils, candles, ink, blank parchment and the like. Nothing gave off a magical aura.

In the study were a few maps of the surrounding area and a plan of Fort Nicos with markings on it. There were some spoiled parchments with the beginnings of magical formulae on them but these had been scored out with the note "No. Wrong. Will never work" scribbled in angry handwriting at the bottom. There were a few books, mostly scientific studies on fairly mundane matters. A number of hidden panels had been left open but the valuables they concealed were gone. Lana had just about finished her investigation when persistence paid off and she discovered a scroll case down the back of a book shelf. It was covered in a thick layer of dust and had obviously been there for some time.

Waste not want not, Lana congratulated herself. She opened the case, breaking the layers of caked dust and to her delight an ancient scroll emerged bearing a magical inscription. She joyfully stowed the case within her robes and gathered up the books also.

She could not be sure what the marks on the map of Fort Nicos were. They looked to be strategic points around the fort but whether these were indicated for the benefit of an attacker or a defender she could not tell.

She dropped the items through the window of her room, stowed the Fort plans on her person and descended to the guardhouse on her carpet. None of the guards at the dungeon entrance spoke any Thyatian, and they were clearly hesitant, but the Desert Rose still adorned Lana’s cloak and they did not prevent her gaining entry. It occurred Lana that she might have despatched an Airy Messenger from her room, to forewarn the Baron of her arrival, however she had not done so and she did not wish to alarm the Ylari by casting magic in their presence. Instead, she held up her glowing coin and went down into the dark to see what she could find.

She descended stone steps and walked along a narrow passage. The glow of her coin provided comforting light but it could do nothing to ward off the chill air or block out the sounds of tiny scuttling feet. Compared to the Tower of Sighs however, this place was as welcoming as she remembered the Flying Ferret being.

Lana peered into the first cell and found a tall man in his physical prime dressed in loose fitting silk shirt and trousers. His hands were manacled but his feet were not and he was pacing - muttering to himself. A low burning torch afforded him some light in his cell but the sudden appearance of the magical illumination caused him to turn his head away and growl in a deep resonant voice, "What? Is it to be torture now? Are you trying to blind me?"

"Granted my jokes are bad,” Lana replied, “and my singing's as lousy, but I won't inflict either of them on you. I'm a friend, relax. I bring you news about your wife and son. You are, I presume, his Lordship the Baron?"

The man nodded, spread his arms as far as he was able given the manacles and bowed slightly. "Babrak, Baron of Biazzan at your service. I will question not how you come to be here but ask that, if you be the friend that you claim to be, you tell me with all due haste, the fate of my beloved wife and son."

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Baron. I am the Lady Lana Budanter of Glaston. I hail from Karameikos. I have spoken with one Omar Al-Nazar of the Shahran," she went on, "who leads the Ylari here. He has sworn an oath in Al-Kalim's name that the people of Biazzan shall suffer no harm while they take no wicked action against the Ylari. Naturally this benefit extends to you and your family.”

“How gracious,” spat the baron bitterly. “I suppose that is good news of sorts but I worry as to what the warlord Omar Al-Nazar will consider 'wicked behaviour'. Be not fooled by his demeanour. He acts as a civilized man and is indeed concerned with acting honourably but he is a proud nomad who believes himself on a holy quest for the glory of his prophet and could no doubt be harsh and unforgiving as a sandstorm should he choose.”

“Be that as it may,” Lana said frowning, “the man's word is his honour therefore I beseech you - do not give him cause to view your people as 'wicked' or believe they are conspiring against him. Thyatis still has many forces it can engage to reclaim your land, so long as your people remain peaceable Al-Nazar will be honour-bound to see that they do not get caught in the crossfire.”

“Where are my family being held?” the Baron demanded.

“I spoke with the slave girl Karida who believes they are locked in their rooms.”

"Hmm, Karida. A good girl Karida. A clever girl. So what would you have me do Lady Budanter? Sit in my cell and rot whilst Al-Nazar plunders my treasury? That is not my way. I would rather trust my blade to protect Biazzan than the word of a fanatic, no matter how honourable he may seem."

"Well that's up to you, Baron, isn't it?" Lana replied snippily. "Frankly your options are limited. From what I've heard the fighting men of Biazzan are few, compared to three hundred dervishes here and another seven hundred on their way. By all means go running through Biazzan with your blade drawn but I assure you that sweet clever girl Karida and others you hold dear will find scimitars at their throats. Al-Nazar alluded to that much before I extracted the oath from him. It's a qualified oath, I grant you, but operate within its parameters and at least it's something.” She looked exasperated. “I'm a Karameikan I shouldn't even be involved here but I came to help and if you want to throw away my effort getting that oath then that's your decision.

“But I promise you this - go running at them with your sword and they'll fight you till their last man, and they'll cut down all your peaceloving citizens before they get to you.”

“I was thinking of flying at them rather than running but your point is taken,” relented the Baron.

Lana paced up and down like Babrak himself was doing a moment ago. “You want my advice? Know your enemy and play the Ylari by their own rules - they respect thinkers and orators, use words and strategies to fight your cause, rather than your sword. Do something like... I don't know, sign a treaty acknowledging Ylaruam's interest in the land Thyatis stole. Or implement exchange programmes between the University and seats of learning in the Emirates. Or say you'll build a temple to Al-Kalim out of the funds in your treasury. Something to respect their claim and their culture. Suggest something along those lines and they'll respect you for it. And your people will stay safe because you'll be fighting using your wits. There is a very old tale in Ylari culture is there not - that of a woman named Scheherazade? She used her wits to stave off disaster for a thousand nights. You only need to distract the Ylari for as it long as it takes for the Emperor to send you aid.” She glanced around. “At least it'll get you out of this dungeon. What about your wizard, is he doing anything to help? I found plans of Fort Nicos in his chambers.”

The Baron’s eyebrows raised. “The last time I saw my magist was before we heard of the raiders riding down the road towards us. I sent for him at once but he could not be found and the door to his room is kept magically locked. How did you get in?”

“I happen to own a flying carpet,” Lana said. "Which rather simplified getting in through the window. His rooms have been stripped bare and there are clothes strewn everywhere which would suggest he left in a hurry. The plans of Fort Nicos were an odd find, though. I brought them for you to look at.”

“I have a carpet too," said the Baron, almost wistfully. "In different circumstances I would love to compare our magical conveyances.”

“I would as well - I've only ever seen one other up close. A shame that we have more pressing concerns.”

She pressed the plans of the Fort through the bars; the Baron took them and studied them.

“Hmm. The commander of the fortress unfortunately does not answer to me - otherwise I would have some very serious questions for him. He did however give me a tour a few months ago of some newly constructed defences, intended to strengthen Nicos in these times of war. I'm not certain but those look like the spots where the new defences were built. I don't know why Yazafadres would have such a plan. Military matters are not among his duties.”

Lana shook her head. “It seems the benefit of those new defences has been stripped away. How long did you employ Yazafadres?”

“For two years. I never considered having a magist before but thought an advisor on magical matters might be worth having.”

“The signs point to him being involved in laying the Fort open to invasion. But it would be unlike Al-Nazar's men to conspire with a sorcerer, surely? As effective as such tactics might be they aren't in keeping with the honour of the raiders' holy mission." She looked confused. "We need more information about what happened.”

“I agree. If you care for the good people of Biazzan, as you seem to, I would be indebted to you if you could find out more about how Fort Nicos was taken by what seems to be a rather small force of men, why we received no warning and what their true purpose is in being here. You seem to be on speaking terms with the leader of these brigands. Perhaps you could learn more from him but please be careful. I will agree to bide my time and take no action that might endanger my household and the citizens of this town if you promise to do likewise.”

Lana felt apprehensive at the idea of a further meeting with Al-Nazar and wondered whether she would need to undergo another coffee ceremony. Nevertheless she responded with a nod.

"You have my promise, Lord Babrak. I will tread with as much care as I can muster. However the hour is late and Al-Nazar dismissed me from his company a short while ago, saying he had other matters to attend to. Perhaps I should wait a while before requesting another meeting."

"My thanks. You are in a far better position to determine how to proceed than I. I will trust you to take the right course of action."

"I am still curious about Yazafadres' involvement." An idea came to her mind. "I wonder, Baron, would you assist me in a magical experiment?"

The Baron's eyebrows rose warily as Lana cast a spell. The likeness of a man came into view outside the cell. His appearance was generically Alaysian.

"Is that meant to be him?"

"Only to begin with. Bear in mind I've never seen him before."

"It looks nothing like him."

"Describe to me how he looks different."

"He's taller, for a start. And older."

Lana waved a hand upward and the man grew by several inches. Then creases appeared around his eyes and lips and his skin became more sallow.

"That's more like it," the Baron said, bemused at the spectacle. "Thinner now, he needs to lose a good few pounds."

Lana concentrated and the man's waist slowly contracted.

"That's enough. Now lose the vague expression," the Baron went on, "give him a more of a glower."

Lana did as bid and the phantasm took on a menacing glare.

"You need to fix the beard as well. It's full and thick, not that wipsy thing you've given him. And the clothing's wrong also, he dresses in the Thyatian style."

The man's beard expanded and his vestments transformed into a tunic overlaid with a heavy cloak.

"That's practically him. The shifty bastard. What was the point in all this?"

Lana smiled now that the likeness was suitably refined. "In case my path crosses with his. It's best I know what your traitor looks like."

Without further ado she took her leave and departed, returning to her room without trouble.

She looked around to make sure nothing had been disturbed. To her satisfaction everything appeared just as she had left it. She seated herself and brought out her crystal ball. She recalled as clearly as possible the likeness which had formed in the Baron's prison cell. In the crystal depths she discerned another prison cell, much less pleasant than that in which she had found the Baron. A man, who looked like he might be Lord Yazfadres, was chained to a wall.

The image took her aback. Yazafadres' departure from the Baron's palace had evidently not gone well for him. She wondered who might have taken him captive, and for what reasons. She put aside the ball and walked to the window of her room, speaking words of magic as she did. A breeze formed around her, lifting her hair while it awaited instruction.

"Arrived in Biazzan," she murmured," dervishes are open to reason but refuse to withdraw. Leader is Omar Al-Nazar of the Shahran. Suspicious goings-on at Fort Nicos. Baron's magist has disappeared."

The breeze departed speedily through the open window. Lana changed into her bedclothes and turned in for the night. The huge bed was festooned with no fewer than a dozen plump cushions. After she had removed them and climbed in under the silken bedsheets she turned over the day's events in her mind. She had learned a great deal but suspected that there was something she was missing.

Think, Lana…

She slept well and woke only once. Something Al-Nazar had said was dancing on the edge of her consciousness. She still had the feeling she was missing something but exhaustion won out over anxiety and she fell back to sleep.

The manifest will of the Immortals...

I am not the only one to have accepted the holy mission of the Immortal Guardians...

The words were circling in Lana's head when she awoke. The matter of the Ylari invasion was put on hold however as she opened her spellbook and memorised the incantation to decipher the magical scroll she had acquired the day before. She felt the usual sense of anticipation as the markings on the parchment twisted and revealed their secrets to her eyes.

Powerful, she mused, having seen the spell cast previously. She found herself wondering whether Yazafadres had much cause to use it, and decided that he probably did not.

Her hand reached for quill and ink to copy the incantation into her book, however she stopped herself. For all the Baron's depiction of Yazafadres as a coward and a traitor, she recalled seeing him chained to the prison wall so pitifully. She felt guilty appropriating the wizard's property with such haste. Leave it for now, she told herself and replaced the quill and ink among her other possessions.

Lana was wrestling with her conscience as the cold winter sun slowly dragged itself into the sky and she became aware of many voices chanting in unison, seemingly from outside though she could not see anything from her window. It was a beautiful dawn, crisp and cold, and beyond the pastureland which surrounded Biazzan the peaks of the Altan Tepes were glimmering like mist-swathed amethysts in the East.

She wrapped the scarf round her head, stowed her belongings in the bag of holding and went in search of the voices.

There were no guards outside her door - indeed the baron's home seemed deserted as she made her way downstairs and out into the courtyard where she saw a mass of men engaged in morning prayer. Al-Nazar stood apart from the crowd, facing the rising sun. He solemnly intoned ritual words in his native tongue and turned northwards, kneeling and pressing his face to the ground as he did so. Behind him, his followers repeated his actions and words in perfect unison. Around the edges of the courtyard, wide-eyed servants and slaves looked on nervously.

It was freezing cold and Lana could see her breath in front of her face. She decided against doing anything which might be considered disruptive and observed the spectacle until it finished. She could not help but think that this display would provide an excellent distraction, were she to wish to sack the Baron's treasury.

The prayers went on for about ten more minutes. During that time she did a rough head count and concluded there were between two hundred and fifty and two hundred and eighty men present. Although, confined within the area, there appeared to be a lot of them, they were nevertheless a pitiful band compared to the vast armies, thousands strong, which she had seen at the Battle of Darokin. Again she wondered how such a small force could have seized a major Thyatian fortress.

As prayers concluded, most of the men mounted steeds and exited the courtyard. Al-Nazar remained to watch them disperse and saw Lana.

"Good Morning Lady Budanter."

"Morning of Light, Al-Nazar," she replied. "It is a bracing one for your devotions. Might I beg a few moments of your time for a discussion in private? I have some questions relating to what we discussed last night."

"But of course. Shall we go inside? It is, as you have observed, rather cold out here."

They walked.

"I trust you slept well? Would you care for some breakfast?"

"I slept well enough, thank you, although much of what we talked about has been weighing upon me. Breakfast would be lovely. Your time must be in short supply, there must be a great deal requiring your attention."

“I anticipate that it will be a while yet before the first townsfolk come to take up the Way of the Follower. You have my full attention.”

The pair entered the room where they first met the previous evening. Al-Nazar invited his guest to sit. Breakfast was already awaiting them and fresh coffee was steaming in a large pot.

"I understand you visited the dungeon last night. To seek out the former ruler of Biazzan no doubt. I trust you saw he has been well treated."

Lana detected mild annoyance in the man’s tone. "Yes indeed. I have seen far worse prisons in my time. I informed Baron Babrak of your holy oath," she dipped her head, "and whilst his temper is like fire within him he will encourage his people to remain peaceable, lest harm befall his family and loved ones."

She took a long draught of coffee. "I wonder whether it is he to whom you referred when you described the Thyatians as lumbering dinosaurs, unwilling to adapt... but the Baron sees the reality of his predicament and will make the best of what is, to him, a bad situation over which he has no control. He seems an honourable type, in his own way, and it would be a kindess if you could permit him to see his wife and son."

Al-Nazar nodded. “Babrak Biazzan does not seem a truly wicked man - his concern for his family is admirable - but he is Thyatian beyond a doubt and he is Hazar. He is soft, weak and accustomed to his luxuries. A little hardship may give him time to reflect on what is most valuable in life. Nevertheless, I will allow him to speak with his wife and son. But please, next time you wish to speak with one of my prisoners, ask me first.”

"Your benevolence speaks volumes for your good character. I apologise for not asking your permission to meet with the Baron. I would visit him one further time, perhaps this evening, if you do not mind?"

"I have no objection. I would ask that you urge him to consider carefully The Word of Al-Kalim. He may yet have a position of standing in society."

"I will convey your wishes. I do not know whether he has already chosen any Faith but he is loved by the people of Biazzan and he would make a strong ally, were you to reason with him and get him on your side. A little kindness and patience might go a long way with him."

Lana sipped at her coffee.

"There is something which nags at me. A wizard by the name of Yazafadres disappeared from this palace when your men were riding from Fort Nicos. Do you know where he might be?"

Al-Nazar's eyes flashed with righteous anger. "The treacherous sorcerer came to me hours before we took Nicos and offered to help us take the fortress in return for a treasure he believed in my possession. I told him he should flee for I would not deal with a creature so dishonourable as he and if I saw him again I would kill him."

"Your three hundred men took the fortress without magical or clerical assistance?"

Al-Nazar nodded. "Not every battle must be fought with steel and blood - this we know from the example of Farid. The mountains can seem threatening in their own right. Place enough fires, cast enough shadows, make enough noise at the right time and in the right places and the imaginations of your enemies will do the rest. I told you the Thyatians were weak and cowardly. They surrendered to us because they believed themselves hopelessly outnumbered and valued their lives over their duty."

Lana was impressed. "An astonishing military exercise. Pardon me asking but what was the treasure Yazafadres believed you possessed? It might interest you to know that I have observed him clapped in chains in some dark, dank dungeon though I cannot say where he is or who his captor might be."

Her host appeared surprised to hear this. "Good. Not even a sorcerer can escape his fate. He believed me to be in possession of one of the lost Ionian Gems - I do not know why. He was mistaken but if I had such a treasure I would die before I gave it to one such as him, no matter what was offered in return."

"The Ionian Gems... what are they? I wonder what led Yazafadres to believe that you possess one. I don't suppose he elaborated on his reasoning before you dismissed him?"

He shook his head. "I know very little about the gems. I recall they are supposed to have healing powers and be somehow linked to one another. They once belonged to a Thyatian sorcerer I think but I do not know the tale."

"Curious. I might conduct some research into the matter. But tell me - I would know more of the holy mission you accepted by coming here. For it seems to me that the will of the Immortals, which you termed manifest in our last discussion, is growing more and more prevalent the world over. Have there been omens and portents which guided you to bring your men here?"

"I met a dervish," Al-Nazar answered, "a great prophet, in the desert and he travelled with me for a while. Such a thing would be a great honour under any circumstances but this man was exceptional. He had the strength and vigour of a youth but the wisdom of an ancient sage. In the towns and settlements we passed through, crowds would always gather to hear him speak. When he spoke it was the words of a great scholar but spoken with the passionate fire of a young warrior. All that heard him knew the Truth. It was time for all those of Alaysiani blood living within Biazzan and Tel Akbir to be free from the corruption of Thyatis."

Lana said nothing for a while though bells were ringing inside her head. "This is not the first such story I have heard. I passed through Tel Akbir several months ago and I heard a report, though indirect, of a prophet inciting those of Alaysian descent to remember their heritage and rise against the Thyatians. A young nobleman was charged with treason that very day for causing civil strife. I wonder was it that very same prophet you travelled alongside? Did he give you any name and where has he gone to, now that your paths have parted?"

"Zuhayr-min-Shams was his name. I do not know where he is now. Perhaps he has returned to his contemplations in the wilderness, having passed to others the holy mission of reclaiming our ancestral lands for the True Believers."

Lana endeavoured to commit the prophet's name to memory. She found herself doubting that Al-Nazar would agree to participate in a Phantasmo-Fit exercise to show her what the prophet looked like.

"One other matter I am curious about - how come your men took the Fort with so little warning? Granted you are but three hundred men at present, were you able to conceal your passing over the border? And are there many of your men stationed at the Fort?"

As she voiced the question she wondered whether she was prying a little too much. She persevered however, for it was possible other parties might desire to hear the answer.

"We succeeded ultimately because we serve the will of the Immortal Ones. However, I spent several months learning secret paths through the mountains and observing the fortress from afar, preparing for our holy mission to begin. The favour of the Immortals is granted most freely when it is earned."

He smiled faintly at his guest's continuing questions.

"I cannot imagine what interest you have in how many of my followers are in Nicos. Enough to keep the imprisoned Thyatians fed and watered until the Emir's soldiers take over. Does that answer your question?"

She grew alarmed at her host's smile. "Do not think me a sneak, Al-Nazar. I posed the question as I was curious. Your answer confirms what I already thought to be the case." She fiddled with her breakfast before regarding Al-Nazar squarely. "I came here wanting to find out what was happening. I have achieved that. For years my King allowed his lands to be seen as an annex of Thyatis. He rebelled around the same time your people reasserted their claim to Biazzan and Tel Akbir. Karameikos' interests must now remain apart from those of its former ally. If your concern is that I might be gathering military intelligence, let me assure you that I would not be so foolish as to compromise my country's position in the War between nations. I say to you truthfully that I respect your holy mission and I will take no action which might cause your people hardship.”

Al-Nazar seemed satisfied by her response and his smile appeared broader as he replied:

“Very well. In return I once again assure you that Karameikos has nothing to fear from The Faithful.”

“I appreciate your assurance."

"Is there anything else you wish to discuss with me?"

Lana shook her head. "You have been patient and kind to entertain my questions and answer them as directly as you have. I will not take up any more of your time.” She rose.

Al-Nazar stood also. She offered him her hand and he took it, kissing it lightly once. It was a chaste gesture, with no possible hint of flirtation. "Farewell, in the Immortals."

Lana fought to remember the appropriate response but it would not come to mind. "May the care of the Immortals keep you true," she said as her best guess, while she placed the palms of her hands together and bowed slightly. The man smiled.

She exited the audience chamber and indeed the palatial building; the guards took no steps to prevent her from doing so. She returned briefly to the dungeon where she found Baron Biazzan in more settled form than when they had first met. She reported her findings from the follow-up discussion with Al-Nazar. The Baron thanked Lana for her efforts and promised to remember the assistance she had provided.

With this done, it seemed to Lana that she had achieved most of what she had set out to achieve.

As she walked from the courtyard of the Baron's home into the streets of Biazzan she reflected over the past couple of days. Her objective of persuading the Ylari to return home had been unrealistic. Nevertheless she felt she had performed to the best of her ability, and she doubted whether more could have been achieved. It would be a decision for the Emperor and his advisers whether they could afford to re-take Biazzan, or indeed Tel Akbir, but as Al-Nazar had indicated the Emir's reinforcements were expected to arrive soon and Thyatis had other distractions at present. The fate of Yazafadres still nagged at her. It was still possible she might determine the errant wizard's whereabouts.

For the time being she strolled south toward a low hill on the southern outskirts of town; the University campus awaited her.

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