“What…is this?” For a moment, Shekar lost her caution for the nocturne looming behind her. Almost compelled, she stepped toward the prism hanging inexplicably in the air, the vision of Riven, and reached for it. The reality of the nocturne’s menace crashed down almost instantly. A hand was on her shoulder, limp like a ripe corpse but chillingly powerful. Instinctively Shekar turned and slashed at the creature, nimbly escaping his pallid flesh. Zovalias retracted his hand from the empty air, licking the blood that beaded along the marks she had made. “My…” he purred, “Am I so frightening, Shekar? Truly, you’ve offended me.” His grin confirmed the lie. “I meant no harm, of course. But let us not get carried away. I have not truly shown you the potential of the Prism Door.” The Nocturne approached Shekar, holding out his hands, palm out, long clawed fingers splayed. Shekar was no fool, the gesture was as illusory as his smile. But rather than insult the Nocturne further, she relented and allowed his approach. Instead of touching her, the creature snaked towards the prism door, reaching up and twisting the floating prism with a swift jerk. Riven vanished, lush jungle replaced by crisp snow glaring under the light of a noonday sun. Somewhere far from them, a tower rose precariously from the frigid landscape. The breath caught in Shekar’s throat. “Now,” the Nocturne purred, “About the use of your vault?” Chapter 7 War of Coins and Courage “Endgame?” Zovalias almost seemed surprised, crossing his mismatched arms across his chest, “You must be more clear, Shekar. One might almost presume you are accusing me.” “Nothing of the sort, Lord Merchant,” She swiftly countered, “I simply hesitate to think you would require so many of us for a simple smuggling operation.” “I share her concern,” Belphebe chimed, avoiding the nocturne’s eyes, “So many interests only complicates matters. A wiser merchant would not have gathered so many rivals.” “Rivals,” Zovalias said, testing the word on his tongue. Through his jagged teeth, it resounded with surprising clarity. “Entrepreneurs, merchants, traders, craftsman, silver tongued, quick fingered, thinkers.” His claws tap-tapped Belphebe’s maps. “My esteemed colleagues, I must admit to a breach of my usual etiquette. I have deceived you.” Shekar’s reptilian face showed nothing, but her heart hammered a few stuttered beats. By the tensing of the rest, she wasn’t the only one. Zovalias had a reputation for brutality. It followed him for the fifty years he had toiled beneath the High houses. There was a moment when she sickeningly considered that the Vault had no other exits. What better tomb could there be than a secret vault below her shop? But Zovalias chuckled, holding his hands out peacefully. “Be at peace, the deception is a matter of omission. Let us consider ourselves rivals for a moment, desperately clawing at opportunity.” Inspecting his claws, he pried out a piece of dried flesh and let it drop to the floor, “Let us now imagine how much energy, how much profit is squandered by these pretenses. The High merchant families maintain their position not from any divine mandate, but from their number of symbiotic allies. All we lack is cooperation…and in the spirit of that simple observation, allow me to introduce you to revolution.” Swaying, almost drunk with the glee of his presentation, Zovalias spread Belphebe’s maps wide and stabbed a finger at a small group of islands midway between Kaustir and Viridos. “For the last several years, profiteers have plundered the High family shipments and brought a cut of their take here…to the Tears. Likewise, certain merchants in Kaustir have been covertly moving population and startling amounts of provisions. I, myself, have shipped numerous cargos full of lumber…for the simple purpose of establishment. My clever merchant comrades, I give you Prosperos, the Fourth Nation.” There was silence in the wake of his words, one that held far more weight than any noise ever would. Zovalias was adamant, his fierce gaze returned by none within the assemblage. It was Shekar who spoke first, carefully weighing her words. Zovalias had never proven to be mad before, but his claim bordered on the delirious. “A fourth nation? The resources necessary for such an undertaking…” “Enormous,” Zovalias assured, “But the advantage is with us. Nearly every island between here and Kaustir contain reserves for our navy.” “You can’t be serious.” “Can I not?” the nocturne speared Shekar with his eyes, “Can we not? Our kind hold the marketplace in our jaws. Vast power resides in the claws of those who control the gateway of demand. We have a navy, we have weapons, and we have supplies. With the nations teetering on the brink of war, we will own the seas and every coast we land upon.” “The Viridos Navy?” Belphebe asked, “The Kaustir Navy?” “Infiltrated, outnumbered, outgunned, and obsolete. We are merchants. Do you not believe we do not understand our competition? Religious fervor and powerful tyranny. We offer a far more lucrative freedom. We neither ask you to bend a knee to a sovereign ruler nor a god. We hold council over profit and trade, our specialty and the lifeblood of all commerce. Cowardice is the prize of those too fearful to cast it aside. The High Houses will assimilate, Tattersal’s blockade will buckle, and the Czar will find his route by sea to be beyond grasp.” “What do you want?” Teador’s representative asked, She wasn’t smirking…not any longer. “Want?” “Even if what you say is true, there still wouldn’t be enough ground to match any of the current nations. Do you intend to take the Chersonese?” “Better. I intend to take Hosia.” A silence swept in the wake of his words, no soul brave enough to clear their throat. The nocturne suggested madness. Zovalias drank the silence and then spoke, “You doubt my means?” “With good reason,” Belphebe hissed as she reached towards her maps. At the last moment, she seemed to reconsider and withdrew. “Have you forgotten the General? The Clad?” “Far from it. I expect a swift retort. But we won’t be running a flag of our colors above the port, nothing so crass. We will simply ignore the blockade and once again tie the veins of trade to their rightful place. Hosia will be ours in all but name.” “Tattersal-“ “Will be quick to respond regardless,” Zovalias finished sharply, “He has to. It would weaken his position if it seemed like the merchants went over his head. But the blockade starves the Virdosian economy and we’ve grown too large to remain self-sufficient as a people. Tattersal will come to Hosia and shortly thereafter, lift the blockade and seem a reasonable leader to the people.” Zovalias smiled hungrily, “That or risk riots. With the damage the bird’s city made falling from the sky, I doubt the General is eager to prolong the rebuilding process. The machine of Kaustir grows ever more threatening in the distant sky and Tattersal knows it. Without the support of the merchants, what are the Virdosi but savages swinging sticks?” Olanum growled, the first noise he’d made since joining the assembly. He controlled a modest silk trade with Kaustir and Pegulis, a business built on generations of modest merchants before him. “This is treason.” The nocturne turned sharply, almost as if to pounce, but held his ground and smiled, “Not to the nation of Prosperos, not to profit.” He turned to address them all, “Why did I call you here? I could have simply maintained my understanding with the Merchant houses and let you rot behind the blockade.” “You want our cooperation,” Shekar swiftly intuited, “You don’t trust the Four Houses.” “Should I? They’ve known nothing but market dominance for generations. Prosperos does not operate beneath a single sovereign ruler but a council of the most successful merchants. The Four Houses have enough resources to represent a large part of that council…perhaps too large.” “So you want to join our enterprises in a rival power to their influence.” Belphebe crossed her arms, but Teadoir’s representative had lost the edge of her displeasure. “How would it work?” “Not without a little bit of trust and some creative contracts,” the nocturne said, “Fortunately, you wouldn’t be here if I did not trust you, and I am rather…skilled in the written form.” “Trust us to act in our best interests, you mean.” Shekar murmured. “Is there any other kind of trust?” “And who would speak for us,” Belphebe countered, “You?” “Hardly,” The nocturne held out both hands defensively, “Shekar.” All eyes turned on her, but Shekar was watching Olanum who had grown much quieter, hands clenched into fists. She thought quickly. It was a maneuver, obviously, but she didn’t have the luxury of figuring out his motive. Of them all, Shekar held the best relations with all the merchants in attendance…perhaps with the exception of Teadoir. “I accept,” she said quietly, “But with the caveat that Belphebe write the contracts of merging.” Zovalias shrugged, “As you wish, Shekar. I’ll communicate our discussion with the Council of Prosperos. The rest of you, prepare to load your ships and continue trade. The proper hands have been greased and captains replaced. As of now, the blockade is broken for the select few who hold these sigils.” Reaching into his cloak, he pulled out stones engraved with silver wings and placed them on the table with the maps. “Welcome to the nation of Prosperos…may your ventures ever be profitable.” He turned, his gaze lingering briefly on Olanum before scuttling from the vault. The vine-haired merchant waited till the sound of the Nocturne’s passage had retreated and angrily snatched one of the sigils. “You may be content to be intimidated by that monster, but I won’t be party to this.” Storming up the stairs, Olanum left the rest of them looking to the tokens left behind. Shekar was the next to pick one up, turning it over in her hand. She remembered the door, the snow that wafted lazily into the jungle heat. “Shekar?” Belphebe asked hesitantly. The draken smiled. There was work to do. He wove a path down the winding streets of Hosia, choosing well lit routes to gloomy alleyways. Although he stepped with the nimble grace of a Forestkin, he betrayed that illusive confidence with every backward glance. At this hour, the streets were quiet with the distant din of taverns from the seafront. But the merchant had no business at the coast, instead making his way to Hosia's outer gate, and the guardhouse. Certainly Zovalias could not have bribed every guard on the watch, although most certainly there were soldiers in the barracks that might impede Olanum's warning to Tattersal. If he could secure passage from the city, perhaps to Riven, he could properly bring his findings before the General and the Clad. He dared to hope for reward. High Merchant Olanum, perhaps. Certainly the reward for thwarting treason of this magnitude had to be something impressive. But more importantly, Zovalias would be dead...left crumbling on the end of the General's spear. Everything about the grotesque nocturne offended the forest kin. Worse, the Merchant houses had deigned to leave him alive long enough to cook up this deception. His hand tightened over the sigil he'd left, white-knuckled and furious. Not for much longer, anyways. "Hungry." So quiet, almost like a breath of wind, but the pleading keen was unmistakable. Olanum turned on his heel, hand grasping for a blade to swing at the apparition. In the mouth of the open alley, the staved child watched the kin with hungry eyes. Ribs pressed painfully against his taut skin, and his skull-like face contorted as the boy smiled. Neat rows of filed teeth glinted in the pale moonlight and Olanum felt his heart leap into his throat. "Now, now, Olanum," Zovalias said, clawed hands clenching painfully against his arms, "Remember, an Aux is neither flesh nor blood. An honest mistake, I'm sure...but they're never quite so threatening as the Crux." His arms were pushed into his side with such force he opened his hands in reflex, spilling the blade and sigil to the cobblestone. "How clumsy," the nocturne tutted, "You must learn diligence, Lord merchant. Commitment is the bane of would be assailants." He leaned in. Olanum could feel the brush of his cold flesh against his jaw, "Do not draw your blade until you've resolved to use it. Not all of us are vulnerable to brandished threats." "Release me," Olanum hissed, struggling against the superior strength, "My disappearance will not go unnoticed." "Certainly not," Zovalias agreed, sounding almost shocked, "I'm apalled you'd suggest we'd forget you so easily. No, dear Olanum, you left this evening on your flagship, the Orchid, bound for the Dreadcove with a cargo of silk. You were the first to break the blockade. Truly, I'm surprised. I took you for a man of such smaller ideals. I suppose I will have to eat those words now...they'll talk of you for years to come." Olanum's mind raced. "That's..." "Impossible? I certainly thought so. But on the morn you will be the talk of the docks. I envy your courage, especially leaving so many witnesses. Richer witnesses, perhaps. Generous gossip always carries a price tag...but then that's the toll of good business." "No." Olanum twisted the ring on his finger which burned with a sudden brilliance as he activated an advent. At once his hair sprung out from his scalp, strong as thick branches, hurling Zovalias away from him and into the alley he'd slunk from. The kin didn't look to see how much damage he'd inflicted, sprinting down the winding streets toward the gate with adrenaline pumping his legs. Left. Right. Dancing around market stalls and avoiding the occasional debris, he raced with the hands of death clasping at his heels. Ahead of him he could see the shadow of the gate looming over the skyline, several blocks away...but easily reachable. He could hear the thunderous mismatched footfalls of the Nocturne behind him, but never with the staccato of his own frenzied pace. Ahead of him, the child loomed, Zovalias' Aux grinning wolfishly. He appeared too quickly for Olanum to dodge, but the Aux was not flesh and blood. Zovalias had foolishly reminded Olanum moments before. Besides, there was something satisfying about crashing through the dreadful apparition. Olanum didn't slow. So he was briefly surprised when the child leaped onto his chest, burying bony claws into his skin before burying his teeth in the merchant's throat. Surprise for an instant...the moment or two it took for the unearthly monster to gnaw through his throat and into his spine. He dropped, his legs pumping uselessly, twitching as the child continued to devour mouthful after mouthful of warm quivering flesh. Zovalias knelt beside the feasting Aux, dipping his finger lightly into Olanum before licking off the fresh blood. "Our Aux is truth, Olanum...in one fashion or another. You wore yours with pride, but never garish enough to draw attention. Mine? Well, sir..." taking hold of both feet, Zovalias dragged the corpse into a nearby alley, leaving his aux to lick the blood and gristle from the street. "He simply says what I'm thinking." Olanum said nothing, staring blankly at the night sky above them. Zovalias clicked his tongue and retrieved the blade and stone. His servants would dispose of the body before morning, long after the Orchid had passed beyond the grasp of Virdosi military. It would be a shame, such a noble hero's ship taken by pirates, but by the time word had reached Hosia, Olanum's bravery would have already launched a score or more of voyages. "At least you will be remembered," Zovalias said to the corpse, "A modest merchant brave enough to spurn the great General Tattersal. In death you will be greater than you ever were in life. A pity, perhaps, that you cannot appreciate that." Zovalias left him there, covered by his cloak, waiting for the swift arrival of his servants. Whistling he shambled towards the docks, counting the coins it would take to make Olanum a hero. Five a person perhaps? No. Three. These were trying times, after all. People wanted a hero anyways.