A tale of Itharia
"Surely you see the wisdom in my words General?" asked the merchant as he idly toyed with his moustache. "You are a great and powerful man – this is known across all Itharia. Medi Choiba hears the people say it when his ships pull into the ancient ports of Far Esta. He hears it from the fish ranchers on the western coasts of North Meeric. And he hears it in the mysterious bazaars of Great Bosk." The merchant paused, and folded his hands over his broad stomach. He seemed pleased with himself but across the table General Farthen stared at him with black, dead eyes, his face an unreadable mask. Choiba cleared his throat and continued.
"They say all these things about you General Farthen, but so too do they say that you are forbidden to reach your potential. They say the Vanguards languish because Farthen is prevented from waging the kind of war he knows must be fought. They say he is held in check by a little girl." The merchant pointed to a chest that sat in the corner of their inn room. Outside the marketplace was alive with vendors hawking their wares. Children screamed as they chased each other through the streets, and here and there was the braying of pack animals.
Farthen turned his head ever so slightly to look at the chest, then looked back to Choiba. He let the time pass in awkward silence. He watched a horsefly harass a half-eaten apple on the table. He focused his nose on the scents of fresh-baked bread wafting up from the kitchen below. And then he said, "You are made of fat and silk." Choiba's face spoke of confusion.
"I beg your pardon General?"
"You should. You are a beast made of fat and silk, and you come to me, a man of flesh and steel. And you insult me."
"Oh no, my good –" But Choiba's words stuck in his throat as Farthen leaned in his seat, drew his sword, then swung it to the merchant's bullfrog neck, all in one smooth, fluid motion.
"Clearly you are not a stupid man, Choiba. Your businesses and wealth can attest to that. Yet here you sit and insult me, and it makes me think you are not your own man in this. It makes suspect some outside agency has influenced an otherwise intelligent man."
"General Farthen! I meant no disrespect! As you say, only a fool would taunt a knight such as yourself. I merely repeat the words I –" The sword's point poked into Choiba's waddle. A tiny sphere of blood appeared, then ran down his throat, disappearing into the expensive silks he draped himself in.
"My mistress may not always agree with my strategies," said Farthen. "She might not always choose to follow my advice. But such is her prerogative. The Vanguards live and die at her service and we do so gladly. You dare come here and try to bait me with your treasure? Is my honor bought so cheaply to you? Am I so shallow that I would shirk my duties at a stranger's words?" Farthen stood from his chair, and Choiba mewled as the sword point wiggled in his throat. "I will take the stone you brought me today, but your master will be sorely disappointed. I shall take it to my mistress, offer it to her, and tell her of the little treachery that was attempted here today." He removed the sword from Choiba's neck and sheathed it, then turned his attention to the chest. He found the stone inside, wrapped in a nest of silks. It came alive as soon as his flesh touched it, and Farthen instantly felt a kinship to the other summoners of Itharia. This is what true power feels like, he thought. No wonder it seduces them so easily. He hastily wrapped the stone back up, half relieved to sever its connection to him, but as he stood he heard the sound of metal being unsheathed, and felt the point of a dagger pressed into the back of his neck.
"You are not the only man with steel I am thinking, yes?" asked Choiba. "This stone is not given freely, oh no. Though no coin was asked of you, there is still a price to be paid, and you have proven yourself unwilling to trade fairly. You being such an honorable knight. Ha. Now do be returning the stone to its chest, yes? Like a good boy now. Even if Medi Choiba did not kill you here and now, his men below would. Most certainly. As you said, I am not a fool. The common room below is filled with my agents. If you are not leaving here with me, then I am afraid you are not leaving at all."
Farthen looked down at the swaddled orb in his hand. He listened to the sound of Choiba's labored breathing. He heard someone downstairs laugh. And again he inhaled the scents of fresh bread. He realized he hungered – it had been five hours since he broke his fast. The general kicked backwards at one of Choiba's legs, making the fat man stagger. He unsheathed his sword and drove it into the man's belly. The dagger clattered to the floor, and the merchant's eyes went wide in terror. He gave one beastlike moan and grabbed the blade that pierced him, but his hands turned to red ruin on the sword's keen blade.
"Unlike my mistress I don't believe in the gods," Farthen said softly. "There is nothing but this existence. No gods. No great heaven to welcome us home. There is only nothing. I send you back to the nothing from whence you came." And with that he wrenched the blade free and Choiba's corpse hit the floor. Farthen stamped twice on the wooden floorboards, and soon he was joined by the vargath.
The goatman glanced at the dead man and said, "It is as I told you, yes?"
"It is," said Farthen, and he held up the bundled stone. "This gesture shall not be forgotten. I cannot speak for Sera, but I am certain she will welcome this alliance gladly." The vargath only nodded. "The common room is filled with Choiba's men," Farthen continued. "They won't like us coming back down without their boss."
The vargath snorted at this, and placed a hand on the head of the mace that hung by its side. "Then let us begin this new friendship by spilling blood together," it growled, and Farthen smiled.