Svetlana Leveton tugged at the chainmail shirt and adjusted her tabard, and gazed at herself in the mirror. The hammered sheet of bronze cast back her reflection, subtly warped and twisted by imperfections in the metal. She stared at the woman who was not only armed and armored but also clad in the colors of a Marshal of Brevoy.
Oh Oleg, if only you could see me now, my love, she thought to herself. Her hand reached up to her chest to feel the outline of the amulet hidden underneath her chain shirt, the silver stag horns that were the symbol of Erastil. It was all she had left of the man that she had followed south into the Greenbelt to start a new life together.
Now tragedy had transformed her from the dress-wearing and happy wife that she had been into this: a hardened and weary administrator and, let’s face it, politician, she thought. The thought would have seemed ludicrous to her just a few months ago. Sorrow welled up in her and she quickly belted on her longsword. The weight, once foreign, was now familiar to her, and the chainmail no longer wore her out as it once did. She was adapting. She had work to do.
A knock on her door startled her. “Milady?” It was Hosten, one of the few warriors who had survived the final Orcish attack on Oleg’s trading post. If it hadn’t been for the Guardians, she mused, it was likely none of them would have survived the attack. She remembered how the earth had shook under the feet of the ogres… she shook her head, and with a sigh, turned and opened the door.
“I’m ready to do the rounds, Hosten.”
“Yes, Milady.” Hosten said. While clad in chainmail like she was, he did not wear a tabard and wasn’t wearing his longsword today. Instead a ledger was wedged under a muscled arm and a scribe’s kit hung from his belt. The only one of the warriors who could properly read and write, Svetlana had quickly conscripted him into the role of Denroth’s first scribe and… personal assistant. She hoped the Guardians would forgive her this one indulgence. New information came in at a breakneck pace and she needed someone to take notes while she dealt with each new day’s problems, which were always different from the previous day’s.
Denroth. A new kingdom. It was hard to believe. Oleg had been certain that nobody would ever claim the Stolen Lands, that it was under the protection of powerful and mysterious creatures who would not suffer civilization to take root. But it was that lack of civilization that had killed him and resulted in her being… she felt that deep pit yawning inside of her, the horrible clenching terror, and her hands slipped into her belt pouch, touching the holy symbol inside of it. Slowly the terror and sorrow left her. She saw Hosten look at her sympathetically, and grew angry.
“Stop gawking and let’s go.” “Yes Milady.”
Svetlana and Hosten walked through and left the ruined Taldan fort where they had made their quarters. In the cellar, behind locked doors, lay the plunder that the Guardians had wrested from the Rivet Lord’s dying hands, as well as Lord Zor’s generous contribution to the nascent kingdom.
Where were the Guardians? The Lady Claire had come by in a hurry a few days ago, asking after some body that had supposedly been left behind, and Svetlana had confessed that she had burnt it along with the other corpses found within the Rivet Lord’s fortress when she and the migrants had finally arrived at the site of Denroth’s future capital. The Lady had not been pleased, but was she supposed to know? She had raced off again with the ashes, with nary a mention of where they were or when they would be back. Hopefully soon. There was so much that needed their attention.
Like this fortress, for example. Crumbling and ruined. Was it to be repaired? She was hesitant to allocate workers to fix it, unsure of the Guardian’s future plans. She strode outside the fortress’s main gate, nodding at the two guards there, and looked down the hill.
Before her sprawled an unruly mess of tents, temporary housing, wagons and stockyards. She once again touched the holy symbol, a golden key, in her belt pouch that Priam Agrivar, one of the newer migrants, had given her. She whispered a prayer, the words unfamiliar on her lips. Abadar give me strength. The words felt like a betrayal.
Svetlana started walking down the hill, Hosten in tow. She saw a bird suddenly flutter from out of the city. It circled and suddenly flew south. Another carrier pigeon. They flew often, but finding out who was sending or receiving them in the current bedlam of the temporary encampments was next to impossible.
At the bottom of the hill she made her first stop, a large canvas tent where a large half-orc, spectacles perched uncongruously on his flat, broken nose, was peering down at a shallow tray filled with red clay. The surface had been planed smooth and now delicate lines and notes covered it.
She suppressed the feeling of disgust that rose in her at the sight of him. Adjustements, she thought, they all had to make adjustments. The new kingdom had been carved out with the help of half-orcish hands, and although no half-orcs were currently on the membership roll of the Guardians it had not stopped half-orcs from flocking to the new kingdom where they hoped for better treatment than what they had received in placed like Brevoy, Pitax or Taldor.
“Good morning Saul.” she said. The half-orc looked up at her and smiled, showing cracked tusks and broken teeth.
“Good morning Milady.”
“Please Saul, call me Svetlana.” Although brutish looking, Saul had a kindly manner and his skill as a surveyor had come in very useful. The clay table in front of him held a preliminary outline of the new capital of Five Towers.
“Yes… Svetlana.” He turned to the table. “I completed my final surveys yesterday, the lots are ready to be allocated.” He turned to her, his expression grave. “The people are becoming quite impatient – when can we start?”
Svetlana sighed. “Not until the Guardians come back. They’re the rulers, it their city, not ours – they should have a hand in its design.”
Saul frowned. “Any word on when they will be back?”
Svetlana bit her lip. “By the end of the month.” It wasn’t quite a lie. She was pretty sure they would be back by then. Hopefully.
“I’ve had to turn down quite a few bribes. One woman, in particular, was quite insistent.” Saul’s eyes traveled to a leather pouch on a nearby table. Svetlana picked it up, hefted it. The clink of coins could be heard. “Who?”
“Lixy Parmenter.” Saul’s integrity really surprised her.
“I’ll have a word with her, Saul”. She handed the pouch to Hosten, and after reviewing the final lots, left.
Svetlana strode through the alleyways between the tents. People made way before her, some bowing deferentially, others greeting her genially. The Guardians came and went, but Svetlana was always there, and in the minds of not a few of them she was the true ruler, not them. Svetlana had heard the rumors and tried to quash them where she could, but they continued to circulate.
She ordered an alley cleared of carts, told a farmer to restrain his pigs, and complimented the craftwork of local carpenter. She stopped by a small tent, worn and patched, but set up with impeccable precision and order. A large iron key hung from one of the posts. “Wait here, Hosten” she said, and walked inside.
“Hello Priam” Svetlana greeted the elderly man. He was clad simply but neatly in a worker’s leather breeches and belted tunic. A small golden key hung around his neck. He was reading a book while a pipe was stuck between his jaws, a handlebar mustache drooping down around it. Around him, arranged in an orderly fashion, were boxes and bins of seeds and farming tools.
“Hello my dear! Please have a seat. How goes the surveying? When can we expect our allotments?”
“Not long now. The Guardians will be back soon, and then construction on the city can begin.”
“Good. Although I’ve learned to be patient, my heart yearns to fill my hands with the soil again, to plant and create a farm like the ones I worked in my youth.” The old paladin smiled.
Svetlana met his smile. “I wanted to thank you for your gift. Not just the one in my pouch, but for your words, which have done much to quell the grief and fear in me.”
“There is no need to thank me. I was happy to be of help. I knew you the moment I saw you – only those who have gazed upon, or experienced, the lawlessness of the wilds can truly understand Abadar and his drive to spread order, law and civilization. You were Abadar’s the moment you realized this. The lock was always there. I simply provided the key.”
“Well… I don’t think you can count me in the priesthood yet. I appreciate what he does, but I am nobody’s servant.”
Priam looked at her, and she blushed. “The Guardians saved my life. It’s not the same thing.”
He snapped the book closed. “Here” he said, handing it to her. She took it and flipped it open. ‘The Order of Numbers’ read the title.
“The holy text of Abadar.” he said, meeting her questioning look. “Have a look through it. You may find it mirroring your own thoughts, and if not, at the very least it contains a good description of the foundation of laws. Something Denroth will need, and shortly.” He stretched, picked up a hoe and began to sharpen it.
She weighed the book, considered giving it back. But then she put it under an arm. “I’ll read it… if I have the time.” Priam smiled, waved his goodbye, and she left.
More notes. People surrounded her, asked her advice, demanded her mediation, begged for favours. She tried to keep everything going, maintain order, to be fair and impartial. It was difficult – her training as a seamstress had not prepared her for this. After smacking a particularly rude merchant in the face with the Order of Numbers, she resolved to read the book.
“Lixy!” A petite, brown-skinned woman with short, curly black hair looked up just in time to catch a heavy coin-filled purse. “Saul’s not for sale, so back off. The man’s got enough on his plate.”
“That man’s too honest for his own good.” Lixy growled. “I won’t be denied that location, Marshal! I have plans to…” Lixy began, but Svetlana cut her off.
“..to build the best inn in Five Towers! I know! But D’Alventi has already but in a request for a guildhall to be built there.”
“D’Alventi! Pah!” She spat on the ground. “What did he do, Marshal? Buy you off with his tainted Chelaxian gold? It’s the same here as anywhere else – good honest folk can’t get a break!”
“He put in a request, Lixy, but nobody’s getting the lot until the Guardians come back. You can make your own case to them!”
Lixy’s eyes grew crafty, and Svetlana cut her off. “I won’t take your gold, Lixy. Save it. Maybe it can buy you the lot, I don’t know. But no more badgering the surveyors!” Lixy made a face at her, and Svetlana sighed and walked away.
So many problems. And here comes another one, she thought. A gorgeous elven woman with ebony locks, almost indecently glad in silks of black and yellow, was coming towards her, a sultry smile on her face. Around her men stared at her adoringly while the women scowled or stared in disgust. Shorata made no secret of her sexual hunger, claiming it was all Calistria’s work and nobody should be ashamed of it.
“Svetlana my dear, any word on the Guardians? I do so hope to see that darling Ithus again.”
Svetlana put on a crooked smile. “Not yet. Maybe the end of the month.”
“Good. I’ve made up my mind, I will set up a scroll shop, I think. One specializing in magical scrolls. Of course, I might provide other services on a…personal basis.”
“Well I’m glad you’ve given up your idea for a whorehouse.”
Shorata’s gaze grew haughty. “My dear, I am certain that your vulgar Common tongue has a more appropriate name for a house where men can get relief from their…masculine urges.”
“I’m pretty sure ‘whorehouse’ covers that.”
“A place where people can indulge in their baser fantasies?”
“A shop that barters pleasure for coin?”
Shorata’s eyes grew flinty, and Svetlana smiled coldly. “Well I’m sorry that your human culture is so primitive that they cannot appreciate the subtle differences between pleasure offered, bartered, sold or given freely.”
“A whore by any other name is still a whore…Shorata.” Shorata’s eyes grew cold, and Svetlana suddenly shivered. There was something cold and dark in those huge elven pupils, and Svetlana belatedly remembered that Calistria was also the goddess of revenge.
“Ah, miss Lev-eton, A word, if you would.” Svetlana and Shorata turned to the strangely accented voice. A tall man, his grey hair closely cropped and his face shaven, walked up to them. He stared openly at Shorata, who suddenly looked discomfited.
“Hylas.” Svetlana said. Hylas von Zinzer was an unusual man who had suddenly turned up at Oleg’s, not with the usual waves of migrants but on his own, coming in from the depths of the Greenbelt. He had strode into town in a suit of some strange shiny material that was eclipsed only by his own strange speech and ideas. In short order he had ingratiated himself to the migrants by offering healing for free. His healing had been nonmagical and thus surprising in that it worked, and he had shortly thereafter set up a small healer’s tent. The lack of any actual healing among the migrants after Dierdra’s death had helped boost his popularity.
He claimed that his land was very far off, in a place where there were no dwarves, or gnomes, or other humanoids other than humans, and as such stared openly and curiously at any non-humans he came across. Priam thought he hailed from Casmaron, Saul said he must be from some land beyond the Crown of the World, while privately Svetlana thought he might be an actual Azlant. He had the look.
“I have some-one in my te-nt who’s ask-ing for you.”
“We’re done here.” Shorata said dismissively. “Let me know when the Guardians come back.” She blew them a kiss and sauntered off, a sway in her hips.
“Str-ange be-ing that one.” Hylas mused. He shrugged and let Svetlana to his tent. A placard hung outside, showing a staff with a serpent twined around it.
“Jhod!” Svetlana said, surprised to find the young priest of Shelyn inside.
“Svetlana…” the priest croaked. “It’s … good to see.. you.”
“Gods above! What happened to you?” Jhod was a mess. His upper torso, bare, was crisscrossed with bandages soaked in some acrid-smelling chemical. His face was a mass of black and blue bruises, and was covered with innumerable small scratches. His entire right side of the body bore them, as if someone had picked up the handsome priest and held down his right side over a sanding wheel.
“Shelyn… had a test for me.” He grinned, the smile bright. “But I passed it… Love’s Heart is pure once again.”
“The Guardians didn’t report that there was any danger there. And you went alone? That was a mistake!”
“Maybe… Shelyn hid it from them. Maybe… they left…well enough alone.” He coughed, the sound thick.
“He ha-as some bro-ken ri-ibs.” Hylas said. "I’ve se-et them, but he will ne-ed a lot of re-st. The re-st, he just ne-eded some ste-rilized band-ages and " he said some word that was unfamiliar to her, but it didn’t matter.
“I’m happy you’re back, Jhod.” She said, meaning it. “Are… you going to stay?”
“Yes. My work…there… is done.” Svetlana felt inexplicably happy at the news. The city will need a good priest, she thought. Someone better than Shorata. Yes, that was it, she told herself.
She arranged for his care with Hylas, and saw Heston grinning at her. “What?”
“You’re smiling. It’s nice to see.” Svetlana frowned and Heston gulped, standing at attention.
“Let’s go, Heston. This city isn’t going to run itself.” And once more, dived into the chaotic beating heart of a nascent kingdom.