Yahimshara Halem Bitsha’amun sat waiting in an antechamber of the Surijah Palace for an audience with His Eminence Kahil Umah’ al Fadlan’ imsh Hajrim’ imsh Yathimsha. It was a plush room, to be sure, silk pillows on the floor to sit upon and a moderately sized window that looked out on the Emperor’s private gardens. Occasionally flying over the garden wall were sea gulls, no doubt fishing in the temperate waters of the Southern Sea just past the palace walls. The day was warm, though not uncomfortably so – which was a blessing this far south, and Yahim wore light but proper clothes for his audience. Still, the furnishings of the room aside, this was not to be a social call. Yahim was in a bit of a hard spot. All his work for his country, all the time spent from home and away from his beautiful wife and children, was going to be called into question; perhaps rightly so, since his lack of discernible progress was obvious. Even still, Yahim felt that this was the best bet for a lasting peace with the north. Give them something that revolutionized their lives, which made them dependant on the new technology that only the south could provide since the yathshamat plant could not grow in the colder northern temperature, and they would have no reason to rekindle ancient enmities.
It had been almost two hours, and Yahim could read the message in that. His Eminence was displeased. Else wise, why keep the emissary of the Harjim Court and famed scientific mind waiting for so long? Trying to lie back on the comfortably stuffed pillows, watching as the pleasant breeze wafting through the window created an idle zephyr of the incense smoke which perfumed the chamber, his left leg began to bounce up and down with anxiety. The Emperor was not a spiteful or evil man, but Yahim knew that if his patience were to completely end, he could sanction Yahim’s businesses, appropriate his wealth, and cast his family out in the streets. The call to evening prayer floated over the breeze now, and only the pending meeting with His Eminence excused him from performing the oblations his faith demanded. It was close to the middle of the evening prayer song when the chamber door opened and the majordomo bid him enter.
Yahim followed the brightly clothed man out of the chamber, down a corridor open on both sides to the palms swaying in the southern evening and supported by delicately carved white marble pillars, and into the throne room of the Beloved of the Ten Gods, Father of the Harjim, and Star of the Southern Skies. The Emperor sat in his alabaster throne in the otherwise empty room, back straight as a spear, the black and gold robes of his station displayed without so much as a single wrinkle. Upon his brow sat a black turban with gold piping, and nestled into its folds was a golden circlet containing a single blood red gem, the Eye of Uman Holiest of the Gods. Yahim walked forward with his eyes downcast and his arms spread wide as custom demanded, and fell prostrate before his emperor well before he could reach the throne.
“Beloved of the Ten Gods, Father of the Harjim, and Star…”, he began before the Emperor cut him off with a wave of his hand.
“Spare me, Master Yahimshara, from yet another recitation of my many titles. You are not the first of my audiences today, and I have heard them all enough times that I will likely continue to hear them in my sleep. What news of your works to the north?”, he asked, his arm coming to rest once more on the arm of his throne before he pushed himself up to walk towards the genuflecting visitor. “And do stand up. I have a greater need to hear your report than does the floor.”
“Of course, Your Eminence”, he replied, lifting himself up before the Emperor. “Progress is being made…though slowly. We are still working on the exact mixture of the substance in order to ensure that the flow of the liquid is constant. Once that is done, we can determine how to construct the combustion chamber based on the energy of the reaction. As of now, we are still using heavily blown glass and an open flame to ignite it. It will be a few years, however, before a functioning prototype of any sort of machine can be built.”
“Years?” the Emperor asked, his visage darkening slightly.
“Yes, Your Eminence, we must work slowly to ensure that this new science is safe…and for Lord Atrin to make it seem as though he has tested all possible uses for the substance. He is anxious to ensure there are no…offensive…applications before he reveals our work.”
“Yes. I am anxious of that as well. And many other things. I am anxious about the amount of time this is taking. More so when compared to the northern sentiment of our ‘heretical beliefs’, as they call them. Even more when I take into account that their High Thane’s Peace has extended for enough generations to ensure that they have a formidable standing army. You assured me that they would become reliant on this new science of yours, and that we would be kept safe from the possibility of their aggression because of their need for it. All I am seeing, however, is promises. Promises and the possibility that, despite your Lord Atrin’s best intentions, this substance could be used against us as a weapon. Or, Gods forbid, they decide it is worth trying to conquer and occupy our lands to ensure their access to the plant.”
Yahim could feel this conversation slipping in a direction that he did not want it to go.
“Your Eminence…if we could but be patient. This is new to us all, and Lord Atrin has shown our people nothing but respect. I believe his intentions are noble and I think that he would use whatever subterfuge is necessary to ensure this could not be weaponized. Please, if I could but have a little more time, I can…”, once more the Emperor cut him off.
“Yahimshara, I will not end your work on this. I believe it could still be of benefit to both our peoples, but I will also not place the safety of our people on this one gambit. You may continue your experiments, but I have another hand to play in this game as well.”
Yahim knew better than to ask what that hand might be. The Emperor had been kind; not cutting off his work (or the funding that went with it) or any of the other punitive measures he could have taken, and it was best not to push his luck. Casting his eyes downward, he bowed low before his emperor and stayed there until he was dismissed. If he was honest, he was anxious to get back to his work in the north, his brother, and the sometimes overly excitable Lord Atrin. In order to make this work for both their countries, he could ill afford to waste even a single moment.
“There have been very strange reports, my lord Atrin, of frightful noises in your thanage. And your close…association…with the southern heretics is most troubling. I have even heard whispers that you are engaged in sorcery…though I cannot bring myself to believe that the House of Nydal could fall so far.” Bishop Yothric said, belching and wiping the grease from the haunch of mutton he’d just finished across the prodigious girth of his travel habit.
Atrin’s face darkened. This was getting too close to outright accusation, and he’d be damned if he was going to tolerate that from this great whale of a clergyman even if he was a representative of the Arch Bishop himself.
“Sorcery, as Your Grace well knows, is outlawed by the Church. Not only is it outlawed, but has been so for the last several hundred years ever since the hallowed Crusade. The Crusade in which the Church burned every known sorcerer in these and all other lands belonging to us. Since then, there has not been a confirmed report of sorcery anywhere in the Thanelands. As to my ‘association’ with the southern peoples; yes, I associate with them. They are immediately south of my lands and must come here to sell their wares, wares which we then forward to the Ark and the Capital. So, I must ask Your Grace, how would I be a sorcerer after all known sorcerers have been dead for centuries? Did I learn such complex and heretical powers on my own? And how would the Capital enjoy being bereft of southern silks and spices, since it seems I will be required to ignore those bearing them here? My relationship with them ensures their goods keep coming and our cost is kept low. I wonder if they will stop trading with us completely, or simply increase their prices a few dozen times to make up for the insult it appears I am being bound to give them?”
The bishop’s face turned a few shades redder. A whale he may be, but not a stupid whale. The Church wanted Atrin on a short leash since he was the first line of defense against the heretics to the south, but they also knew that the Capital turned on the coin brought in by all the Thanes. Few wares were as highly sought after as those southern silks and spices, despite the pittance Atrin would receive for them from the Merchant’s Guild. The comments were meant to worry him into subservience; apparently there was some steel in his spine.
“Yes…well. Of course you must treat with them. Of course you must. Which is why I try to squash such rumor mongering whenever it rears its ugly head. I have always said the House of Nydal was a staunch defender of the True Church, haven’t I? But still, my lord, one cannot relax one’s vigilance for even a single moment. Sin can creep into the most faithful heart, if left untended. Which is one reason I do so enjoy my coming to Nydalia and availing myself of your hospitality. Perhaps if I were to come by more frequently, it would be seen as a confirmation of your faith.”
“Of course, Your Grace is most welcome here,” Atrin replied, “perhaps your increase visits will allow you to discover who is spreading these baseless accusations against my house. As I recall, Church Law provides a punishment for leveling false charges of sorcery. Public scourging, I believe it is. Perhaps a display of such commitment to the laws of our faith might help to…ah…confirm, as you said, my fidelity.”
The bishop could see plainly that this was not going in his favor.
“Of course, my lord, of course. I’m afraid I must depart your beautiful lands soon, however. I have other business in the neighboring thanage. Which brings me to the other reason for my visit today. You are summoned to the Capital, two weeks hence, the High Thane has a decree to issue to the nobility. He requested that the clergy carry the summons on our usual travels. I regret that I can only tarry for today, and must be off with the dawn. Perhaps tonight, I can lead your house in prayer?”
“We would be honored, Your Grace. I will see that your mounts are well fed and rubbed down this evening.”
The bishop daubed his chin with his napkin, thanked Lord Atrin for the meal, and excused himself to prepare for tonight’s services and tomorrow’s travels. After he left, Atrin looked over to Owen, who had sat silent through the meal.
“We must be very careful now. The Church is becoming intrusive into our business, and though they are not prepared to publicly accuse me of sacrilege, it is not impossible. Should they discover our work before I am ready…it may go ill for us. Guard your tongue, son. Intrigue is not confined to the courts alone, and the Arch Bishop and High Thane are close confederates.”
“I will, father. What of his other news? This decree?”, he replied.
“I don’t know. But I suppose we will find out together, eh? It’s about a week’s journey to the capital, you have a week to make ready.”
Owen’s face lit up.
“I’m to go with?”, he asked excitedly.
“You’re seventeen now, a man by any standard, and you’ve not been out of our lands. Aye, you’ll come with and stand beside me to hear this ‘decree’ of our beloved High Thane, and see something of our lands in the bargain.” Atrin smiled as he said.