:: Dungeons & Dragons - The Threshold Party - Sundsvall, The City Built By Magic - Part Two ::

Sundsvall - Part Two

Breakfast with strangers

"Ah." Lana scrutinised the expression of the man who had introduced himself as Stefanius. "Can we assume you're allies of Gedaryl? In any event, I don't intend to relinquish the Staff to the Alphatians. I know how significant that would be. I don't wish to bolster their self-importance, nor would I wish to incur the wrath of Tarastia to whose care the Staff is entrusted. Rest assured, the Staff won't pass into Eriadna's hands if I've any say in matters, and I believe my fellow Karameikans will support me in making sure this doesn't happen?"

Glancing sideways, she was relieved to see Karnus nod.

"Hmmm," said Stefanius, stroking his beard with one hand. "Yes, well I'm afraid your intentions aren't really relevant at this stage. You're in Sundsvall Lana. You don't have any say in anything anymore. Tell me are you familiar with a term from the theatre - 'Deus ex Machina'? It is taken from ancient Thyatian and refers to what is in my humble opinion a particularly lazy dramatic device for the solving of all problems in a play. Well think of me as your Deus ex Machina. Gedaryl. Tarastia. The Staff of Lucinius. So many problems. Where do I begin? Perhaps with the staff as it is the easiest to resolve. It was entrusted to you for the purpose of dealing with the threat that Bargle the Infamous posed to Karameikos. How are you getting on with that? As Bargle is not here, nor likely to be any time soon, I will take the staff with me and look after it for the time being."

Lana stiffened in her seat. "With respect, my companions and I know nothing of you or your true loyalties. What comfort do we have that you are even supporters of Thyatis, or that if you take the Staff it will be returned? For all we know, you could be agents of the evil northern Immortals who have pursued us since Helskir. No," she shook her head, "I will not have this relic fall into the wrong hands. The Empress has received word that the Staff is coming to her court, she expects to see it with her own eyes. This 'get-out' you offer is tempting but I will not jeopardise Karameikos' safety by denying the Empress her expectation, or by indicating that we colluded with Thyatians on the very day we sought audience with her. Eriadna will be reasoned with and, by Tarastia's will, she will be made to accept that she is not entitled to the Staff. If the worst comes to the worst, and she takes it from me, then the Thyatians can see about getting it back. But for the time being the Staff is going to be borne by Karameikans. And in this time of war Karameikans are not about to allow themselves to be dictated to by any party - be they foe or friend, Alphatian or Thyatian."

"Oh," she went on, though her tone lost its confidence slightly, "I haven't got round to confronting Bargle yet. The War thing sort of got in the way."

To one side, Karnus fiddled with some food.

Stefanius massaged his temples. "Lana I admire your courage and integrity. It is just a shame you did not adopt such caution before allowing the Alphatians to learn of the staff or so very kindly teleporting Gedaryl back to Thyatis."

Karnus pushed a slice of peach around his plate, appearing amused.

Seeing Lana's expression turn ashen, the bearded man continued. "Whether you believe it or not I am here to help. Let us leave the matter of the staff for the time being. Its significance pales in comparison to your mission for Karameikos. What are we going to do about that do you think?"

Karnus spoke up. "What's done is done. The staff is Lana's responsibility, though while I trust her motives I fear the Empress' will is not often contradicted in the Imperial court."

Stefanius nodded. "I daresay you're right on all counts."

"As to the mission you find us on," Karnus continued, "I assume, if you represent the parties we suspect you do, that you would seek to turn us back from our efforts to clarify Karameikos' position in the coming conflict. If so, would you indulge us in providing the reasons for this?"

Stefanius regarded the blue-robed mage carefully. "I will agree to answer some of your questions but you must first satisfy my own curiosity. I appreciate Lana's reluctance to trust me so I will be as open as I can in the hope that she may change her mind. I hope you too will be convinced Master Teldon. I am Thyatian. I am not here representing any person other than myself. I feel however that I do represent the greater interests of Thyatis and so I suppose all its citizens. My friend is not Thyatian or indeed Alphatian. He has served Thyatis on many occasions and continues to do so now."

The golden haired man gave Stefanius a strange look and resumed eating - finishing off his third plate of food.

Stefanius continued. "My questions for you are these. What exactly do you hope to achieve for Karameikos here in Sundsvall? What do you imagine the consequences of a pact with the Alphatians will be? Are you prepared for those consequences? What evil Northern Immortals do you speak of? And finally, just out of personal curiosity, how did the war get in the way of dealing with Bargle when you were granted the staff months before war was even declared, a year before any fighting began and an as yet to be determined length of time before Karameikos has any direct involvement? Tell me to mind my own business on that one if you like.

"If you will answer these questions for me, I will tell you what I foresee as the consequences of your mission and why you should give me the Staff of Lucinius. I will also answer any questions you may have about the progress of the War since I imagine it has been quite some time since you heard any reliable information. You may find it enlightening - I'm really quite knowledgeable."

Lana considered this, but something struck her as curious. "You know so much about us, and you address us in an amiable, familiar manner. How do you happen to know of us, and of Bargle, and of when exactly I acquired the Staff?"

Stefanius laughed. "I applaud you for trying but as I said, you must answer my question before I provide you with the information you desire."

Undeterred, Lana addressed the golden-haired fellow. "You then, good sir. Might I ask what part of our world you hail from? And your name?"

The man paused eating for just long enough to say, "the Altan Tepes," and "no". His tone was one of indifference.

Stefanius grinned. "Don't mind him. He's always like this when he's hungry and Alphatian portions aren't really to his liking." His smile faded. "Now, the answers to my questions please."

Before either of his companions could respond, Teldon chose to address the stranger.

"You are very persuasive Stefanius but we have come too far and encountered too much unusual interest in us and our mission to take anything for granted. Our names and mission may have been learned from the Forester but I agree with Lana that you know far more about us than you should, you have found us very easily and although I might have expected agents of The Foreign Office or The Imperial Guard to come after us, you claim to be representing only yourself and the greater interests of Thyatis. Therefore I wonder whether ..." at this point Teldon suddenly switched to Traladaran and listed a number of random words. With her scant familiarity with the tongue, Lana failed to comprehend everything being said but recognised enough to identify that Teldon was not speaking in coherent sentences. Stefanius' brow furrowed in puzzlement and his companion even managed to stop eating.

"I'm afraid we don't ..." Stefanius began however Teldon cut him off.

"No, clearly not. Good." He then proceeded to ask Karnus a question, whereupon a short discussion ensued.

After Stefanius and his companion had exchanged irritated looks, Teldon resumed speaking Thyatian in a carefully controlled manner. "We can all play at mystery. I however don't have the time right now. Our mission is to convince Eriadna that Karameikos will remain neutral in the war, secure her assurance that we shall remain a sovereign nation should the Thyatian Empire fall to Alphatia, obtain a guarantee that Alphatia will intervene should Thyatis seek to move against us and various other objectives that really don't concern Thyatis and so couldn't possibly be of interest to you. I do not care to speculate with you on what the outcome of our mission may be. Lana and Karnus may do so if they wish."

Lana noted with horror that Teldon bore the expression he normally reserved for overbearing apprentices within the Magician's Guild.

Karnus' demeanour also had changed notably. "Gentlemen," he said. "As I'm sure you've been able to determine, you're not the first people to try and dissuade us from meeting with the Empress, and, rather frankly, I also am getting a mite tired of the cloak and dagger routine. If you wish to engage in intelligent, rational conversation on the topic at hand, then I am all for that. If however you persist in this tiresome veil of mystery, then even my boundless reserves of patience will be reaching their limit."

He pushed his plate away.

"We will have your names and who you represent or this conversation is over."

Teldon appearked pleased by what Karnus said and nodded to show his support.

A brief uncomfortable silence followed. Stefanius' face had fallen and he glanced at his companion who said, "Don't look at me old friend. These are your kind, not mine. You're in charge. I'm just here to look after you."

Stefanius regarded the three Karameikans and then sighed. "I had thought you wanted help Karnus but very well. What more can I tell you? I will answer Lana's question first. I know so much about you and the staff because I try to know everything of importance that happens in Thyatis. I was there when you and your companions of the time brought Senator Helenites Osteropolus to trial for his crimes and thus gained the favour of the Church of Tarastia. I cannot force my friend to tell you his name but I AM called Stefanius and I spoke the truth when I said I was not directly representing anyone other than myself. I am here because I genuinely wish to help you BUT I have yet to decide whether I should help by stopping you or allowing you to continue.

"Gedaryl Denrothan made his report to his superiors in the Foreign Office. The Home Office and Imperial Guard are likely to start investigating the Church of Tarastia as a result but I have managed to stop the Foreign Minister from alerting the Emperor to your mission. I have done this because, although I am extremely disappointed that Karameikos will not support us, if I had not acted immediately there was the VERY real possibility of you returning home to Archduke Ludwig von Hendricks and Bargle, head of the Magicians' Guild, and THAT is something I have no wish to see.

"Unfortunately, Thincol will find out what your Duke has planned. The question is when I should permit that to happen. When will it do the least damage to Thyatis and Karameikos?

"The Staff of Lucinius is another matter. If you present it to Eriadna she will take it. This will annoy a great many wizards on Sclaras who may well wonder how this was allowed to happen. At this time, Thyatis needs the support of every wizard it has."

"Now, what say you?"

Digesting this, Karnus resumed his seat.

"Thank you for your candid answers. I will not pretend that the Staff of Lucinius falling into Alphatian hands is a good thing - indeed I have entertained ideas of removing it from the equation myself. Yet I have restrained myself from doing this because I hoped that Lady Budanter had a plan to prevent this from happening."

He turned to Lana. "Perhaps you could elaborate on how you intend to retain the staff, when the most powerful woman in the world asks you to hand it over?"

Lana stiffened further. "I have several points to make to the Empress, which I do not propose to rehearse here but which I hope she will find persuasive. Like I said a moment ago, Eriadna expects to view the staff and Karameikos will incur her wrath if she is denied that chance. No-one can say she will definitely confiscate the item." She glowered at Stefanius and Karnus equally. "The sensible option is to appeal to her reason, and not run from the fight - I will not be deterred from that path."

She turned to Stefanius:

"I too appreciate your responses, which have a ring of truth to them - there are questions I might raise regarding the Order of Tarastia and your relationship with the Emperor but there are more pressing issues. If you truly offer the opportunity to minimise the backlash to Karameikos when news of the treaty we seek with Eriadna is made public, then we should accept your assistance.

"I'll say this much - Duke Stefan has reached a decision and while I for one am not convinced he has done so in the best interests of his subjects, rather than to concretise his personal autonomy from Thyatis, we have undertaken to carry out our mission to the best of our ability and we must continue to do so. Our quest to Sundsvall has been exhausting, and isn't over yet, but I fear the greatest fight awaits us when we return home.

"The prospect of finding Von Hendrikks and Bargle in power would spell disaster for Karameikans and must be avoided at all costs."

She drew a steadying breath. "While we�re on the subject, and since you asked - do you think I'm capable of going up against Bargle yet? I've been trying to raise my power level since acquiring the Staff, if I'd confronted him already I wouldn't be talking to you now. He fireballed my Inn and slew my master. Don't think he and I don�t have unfinished business. Anyway I don't mean to rant. Back to the matter in hand... are you truly able to delay Thincol hearing about Duke Stefan's treachery? If so, how might we convince you to do so? If we had any control over the timing of the Emperor's response, it might save many people of both nations from immense hardship."

Stefanius waited until Lana finished. When he spoke his tone was even but with a sense of underlying urgency.

"Lana, I did not tear myself away from Thyatis to be told that you do not wish to 'rehearse' your arguments for retaining the staff. You evidently do not know the Empress. I DO. Analysing her character and predicting her actions has kept me busy for decades. There is no reason that is conceivable to me that she will not take it from you but if you can think of even one I urge you to tell me. The staff itself is insignificant - just another magic item amongst thousands the Alphatians have at their disposal. But what it represents is very powerful and I cannot allow Eriadna to have that power. I could name a dozen Thyatian wizards of equal power to members of Alphatia's Grand Council who would gladly give Alphatia the keys to the Imperial Palace in exchange for that staff. Eriadna's spies could no doubt name the same individuals. Imagine if they all, being of the view that they were on the losing side, decided to compete to prove themselves most worthy of a high position in the order. That is just one way Eriadna might choose to use this tool that is about to be presented to her. I cannot begin to discuss the problem of Stefan Karameikos' 'treachery' - as I am very interested to hear you call it - or the evil Immortals you spoke of until you convince me you can avoid losing the Staff of Lucinius."

At this point Teldon spoke up, "I am afraid on this point I must agree with Stefanius. This problem has been hanging over us since we met Arythlyndar and we have been doing our best to ignore the dragon in the room but we can no longer do so. Lana, please explain what you intend to do. Surely a rehearsal of your arguments is exactly what is required."

Karnus chose not to say anything, but lifted an eyebrow and looked to Lana.

"Very well," she said quietly. "Teldon and Stefanius, I'll admit what you each say scares me a great deal. I will lay out points which have come to my own mind. I hope further points will occur to me before our audience with the Empress," she sounds a bit desperate, "or that my companions might have arguments of their own to present.

"I will attempt to impress upon Eriadna the implications of taking the Staff. Firstly, from a Karameikan perspective. We came to Sundsvall as emissaries extending the hand of friendship, wishing to forge a relationship on a good footing with goodwill being exhibited by both parties. To confiscate a weapon which was meant to benefit our country is not a display of friendship. Our Duke wishes Karameikos to appear as an independent country, able to defend its own interests. If Eriadna takes the Staff, we will appear subservient to Alphatia from the get-go of our treaty and many will assume we surrendered the Staff willingly. Does Eriadna wish that to be the perception, and to start her relationship with Duke Stefan on such a negative footing? People of all countries will consider that Karameikos has become another Alphatian kingdom, geographically removed but nevertheless part of the Alphatian collective. Think of Mylertendal's philosophy of beautification which has endured for centuries and received great support within Alphatia. Surely Eriadna will incur the disapproval of many Alphatian nationals - including the wizards of the Grand Council, who we heard she is having difficulty controlling - if she is seen to indulge an expansionist attitude by slighting those who approach her in good faith. Instead, would it not be preferable for her to permit the Staff to depart from her court in the hands of those who brought it, with her blessing? If Eriadna exercises this good grace it will show that she is satisfied with Alphatian resources as they stand, that she does not perceive her Empire to be in need of yet another magical item to boost its strength, and that she does not need to steal from those weaker than herself who are in no position to effectively resist. The analogy of taking sweets from children could be drawn. Is that how Eriadna 'the Wise' wishes to be perceived?

"Aside from our own feelings of discontent - consider the Thyatian perspective. We discussed how Thincol will react violently upon hearing about the treaty we seek. Imagine his greater fury will be if he hears Karameikos surrendered a symbolic relic of Thyatis to his ancient enemy. Alphatia will not suffer his reprisal - it will be Thincol's immediate land neighbour instead. Our party's objective in coming to Sundsvall is to demonstrate Karameikos' neutrality. If Thincol sends forces to reclaim Traladara, which he surely will, can Eriadna spare Alphatian troops to strengthen Specularum against Thincol's besiegement? She will be required to do so if our treaty succeeds. Surely to do so would deplete her resources considerably and would weaken her ability to maintain a strong military presence on the Isle of Dawn as well as in other locations. Her troops would need to cross the Sea of Dawn to get to Karameikos - we three can attest that it is no quick or easy feat to do so, and Thyatian territory makes up much of the land and sea inbetween."

Lana paused to draw breath. "Then, from a less political point-of-view let me ask you this. Have any of you suffered the loss of a loved one? In circumstances where that person has been torn from you by an enemy whose power outstrips your own? I have, and so has Eriadna. She fell in love with a non-arcaner, an individual who by Alphatian standards she ought to have had no time for, can you imagine the passion which must have raged between them? That romance was targeted by Eriadna's enemies to cause maximum devastation, to the Empire as well as to Eriadna as an individual. Imagine the fire which must have lit within her belly when Torenal died, which would have increased to an inferno when she - the most capable wizardess in our world - proved incapable of returning him from the dead. If she is to accept her own limitations, probably for the first time in her life, who can she look to for aid? Why, the Immortals. And who favours those on quests for rightful vengeance? Tarastia, who guarded Lucinius' staff since Thyatis was carved from the Alphatian empire a millennium ago. In presenting this aspect of my argument, I was going to adopt a particular tactic. The Empress' love of theatre and the arts is well publicised - I was going to attempt, in a sincere manner, to liken her to an epic heroine and allude to her Empire being the grandest stage in the Known World. Her tale has proved to be filled with star-crossed romance, intrigue and monumental tragedy. Would a fictional character such as she merit a happy ending in the eyes of those observing from afar? Of course she would, so long as the character's actions are just. Already, Eriadna's personal plight will surely have engendered Tarastia's sympathy however it remains to be seen what happens with the Staff which Tarastia has guarded for a thousand years. This, I submit, will be key to deciding whether Tarastia strengthens her support of Eriadna personally, or does nothing if the Staff is turned against Thyatis, the nation with which she is closely connected." Lana's gaze passed between everyone present. "With Tarastia's aid Eriadna stands a chance of avenging her loss and perhaps achieving a happy resolution. Surely Eriadna longs for that, and I intend to appeal to that sense of longing. Who knows, there might even be a way to return Torenal to mortal life and to Eriadna's arms ... if Tarastia is willing.

"Well, there you have it. That is about all I can think to say." She fell quiet.

To her surprise, Stefanius and Teldon appeared to be giving thought to some of her propositions.

Teldon said, "The only possibility I had considered was making the retention of the Staff a further condition of our neutrality in the war but I had wondered whether we would be pricing ourselves too high."

Stefanius said, "I have heard you out Lana. Now please listen carefully in return. You talk about Alphatian expansion. Why is Thyatis fighting this war. Is it for the sake of Glantri? Hardly. I cannot think of a nation in the Known World less worth defending than the Magocracy. Thincol has no love of the Wizard-Princes but he believes that the War on Glantri is an excuse to secure a foothold in the Known World, from which Alphatia can expand into Darokin, Ethengar, Vestland, the Shires, Karameikos.... to bring every nation into their empire. Whilst Alphatia may not yet want the rest of the world to share this view, I do not think Eriadna cares in the least what 'barbarians' think of her and in any case accepting a gift -which is how this will most certainly be perceived - can hardly be construed as aggressive. In time she will want Karameikos to appear just as 'subservient' as an insignificant subject nation properly should.

"The Staff will be of no significance in Emperor Thincol's mind next to betrayal by his friend, Stefan Karameikos, so although we must indeed discuss whether Alphatia will defend Specularum - that is part of the broader concern of your 'neutrality' and does not directly concern the Staff.

"I think it is dangerous to see Eriadna has a 'heroine' but she is a romantic and passionate woman. Your line of thinking is so melodramatic, so romantic, so wildly irrational and so very UN-THYATIAN that there might actually be a chance that you could succeed. It is certainly not something I would have thought of but beware, Eriadna is not so vain that she will fall for empty flattery and I do not believe she has ever held any deep religious convictions. I am not sure that she would seek or particularly welcome an Immortal's favour - but I cannot say for certain. I do think that your own earnest passion will endear you somewhat to her however.

"I still think however after all you have said that it would be safest for me to take the Staff - which, by the way, I can do as easily as Eriadna would - and perhaps return it to you at a later point. You could honestly tell Eriadna that it was taken from you by an agent of the Thyatian Empire against your will. I shall think on it. Although I have made much of this magical relic, the truth is that it is less important than the main objective of your mission. Had you succeeded in reaching agreement with Alphatia and affording your Duke time to secure his position, it would have been difficult for Thyatis to react. Unfortunately for you, if Thincol finds out now, it is all too obvious what will happen. The Emperor is not a fool but he can be rash on occasion and his mistress will certainly convince him he has been wronged and agitate for reprisals against Karameikos. Not wishing to appear weak before her, his people or other nations he will send a force to reclaim Karameikos for the Empire. Hattian senators have been saying Ludwig von Hendricks would be a stronger ally for Thyatis and Thincol will now certainly listen to them. If you turn aside now or meet with Eriadna and fail to gain her approval it will make little difference. Thincol will still feel betrayed. Karameikos will be a target and the Duke has been forced by the Master's recent actions to send great numbers of troops to Darokin - something I'm sure he would have preferred to do with the security of Alphatian protection. As I have said, I have no wish to see the people of Karameikos suffer but I must balance that against the fact that if you succeed, what would have been swift and easy reconquest of an almost undefended nation will become a disastrous distraction from our efforts on the Isle of Dawn. So do I stop you or not? What is in Thyatis' best interest? How can I ensure that Alphatia will gain no advantage AND protect the poor folk of Karameikos - particularly the Traladarans, who have already suffered quite enough in the last century? I would be very interested in your views."

"To correct you on one point -" Stefanius paused briefly to clear his throat, "- Karameikos has not sent troops to Darokin City. They have been shipped to the port of Athenos. The Master made a sudden drive southwards and was in danger of taking complete control of Darokin's already very limited access to the sea. Now any troops that hope to get to the Republic's capital will have to fight their way northwards."

A thought occurred to Lana. "You mentioned the Emperor's mistress - is there any way her sway could be diluted? Or could Thincol's focus on the Isle of Dawn be strengthened, to justify sending more troops - that would drive back the Alphatian forces while leaving fewer forces at home to ransack Specularum."

Stefanius' expression darkened. "Anya has been tightening her grip for years and I have been doing all I can to counter her influence but there are things she will do for the Emperor that I will not. Although she started as just one of his lesser military advisors, since she found her way into Thincol's bed he has come to pay more heed to her advice than any other. She is a warrior woman of Kerendas and is every bit as stubborn and strong minded as a woman needs to be to succeed as a fighter in Thyatis. She is also clever and ambitious. I have no doubt that she intends to one day officially rule at Thincol's side once she can get poor Gabriela out of the way. I have given up hope of loosening her hold over the Emperor. All our attention needs to be on the Isle of Dawn but we have not recovered from the loss of West Portage and getting reinforcements to where they are needed is difficult. The problem is that Alphatia is not fighting like Alphatia. Eriadna's tactics are completely different to the norm. Following their easy victory last year, the Alphatians would usually have gone on to reclaim the entire Isle of Dawn. At the moment however they seem content to just keep us at bay and sit where they are. The sense of urgency that would possibly divert Thincol's attention from Karameikos' treachery is missing."

Karnus and Lana exchanged miserable looks, recognising the hopelessness of their situation.

As if reading their minds Stefanius said, "I hope you appreciate how fortunate it is for you that providence has resulted in me being here in place of others that might be. I am really the very best you could have hoped for. If it were up to the Foreign Minister the Empire's best assassins would be here instead."

Lana nodded. "I'm inclined to believe you. Even though you're not the first mysterious benevolent stranger we've met on our way here, you've evidently got a surprising amount of scruples for a Thyatian. If you don't mind me saying so."

"Not at all," the man replied cheerfully. "I am well aware of the failings of Thyatian society, our politicians and the Emperor. I just happen to believe that the core Thyatian values are worth preserving and that it is possible for us all to improve. You have called me benevolent and while that is kind of you, I think it only fair to remind you that although I hope we can reach an agreement I will ultimately do what I think is best for Thyatis. I said I am here to help you and that is true but I only intend to help in a manner that is of the greatest benefit to Thyatis. I would not wish to have an unfair advantage based on your misunderstanding of my goals.

"We are no closer to a solution to my dilemma but you have not yet told me about these evil Immortals you spoke of. Oh, and by the way, I have no idea if you are 'ready' to confront this Bargle of yours. That is something I cannot help you with."

Karnus had been listening to the conversation with steepled fingers. He cleared his throat:

"Stefanius. It seems to me that the second of your issues presents the most threat to the Karameikos we know, though I appreciate that the fate of the Staff of Lucinius is a matter of concern for the entire Known World.

"Regardless of what Lana decides to do with the Staff, it seems Karameikos' fate is sealed if we continue with our mission - as, if you say, Thincol decides to punish Stefan Karameikos for his treachery. Unless, that is, you can stay his hand until Alphatian declares the Grand Duchy a protectorate."

Stefanius appeared to consider this.

"So," Karnus continued," it seems that we are relying on you to stay your Emperor's hand until we can be assured that the Alphatian Empire recognises Karameikos, though the thought leaves a bitter taste in my mouth...

"My question then is this: If Karameikos were to willingly surrender the Staff of Lucinius to you, thereby preventing further unrest within Thyatis, would you consider using your influence to protect Karameikos from the wrath of the Emperor, in the event that our diplomacy succeeds?"

Stefanius looked thoughtful for a long while, then replied:-

"Strange is it not that we appear to have arrived at a place where the best hope for Karameikos AND Thyatis is for the Grand Duchy to have clear, vocal Alphatian support? It may well be that we need to make attacking Karameikos so obviously dangerous that even Anya would not advise it. You would need to secure the very real threat of Alphatian intervention without actually giving Alphatia any military power in Karameikos for me to be happy with that. Is that something you think you can do? Again we come back to the Staff. Although I do not want to have to take it from you by force, you surrendering it willingly may also be a problem, as Lana has recognised. I must now decide whether risking the Alphatians' anger at you for losing it will in fact damage our position more than angering several hundred Thyatian wizards for allowing it to fall into Alphatian hands. Again, it seems our best hope lies with you being able to walk into the Imperial Palace carrying it and somehow walk out again with it still in your possession but I am not convinced you can succeed. However, if you do agree to the course of action that I determine to be best then I will do everything in my power to ensure that those who are able to influence Thincol will stop him from seeking revenge against Karameikos."

Lana turned to her companions. "It seems clear that an express condition of our treaty must require Eriadna to defend Specularum against Thyatis if we need her to, but her nation and ours are so far apart logistically, how can she comply effectively without establishing some sort of garrison within Karameikos? How can her pledge be implemented without giving the Alphatians a base with which they could engage mainland Thyatis, or take over our own country?"

"I am loathe to surrender the Staff," she continued in sad tones, "but I accept that the least harm might be caused if I avail of your support, Stefanius. Personally, my strong preference would be to enter and leave Eriadna's court still carrying it, like you say. If I am to lose the Staff, I would like to know I tried as hard as I could to retain it."

While the golden-haired individual continued to consume more than his fair share of the available fare, the remaining four looked to one another in the hope one of them might come up with a miracle solution. For the time being, their reserves of inspiration seemed to have been depleted. Would there be any resolution to the problems they faced? It appeared increasingly unlikely; certainly any solution was not going to be an obvious one.

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