Chapter 3: The Game Begins
Copyright© 2011 by Celtic Bard
It was almost sundown in the city. Myka stared imperiously ahead as Gnusyl bore them through the streets of Port Meikari in a plodding gate that quickly brought them to the plaza in the center of the city where the governmental complex was located. The colossal home of the Council of Houses, with its columned portico and sculpted portal, stood opposite the grand palace of the Royal Governor with its vivid green campus and stately fruit trees. Ringing the rest of the plaza were the office buildings of the other governmental agencies which ran the province of Meikari, each striving to shame the beauty of its neighbors.
The building which housed the magistrate also housed the city guard and the provincial jail. It was the only building in the entire plaza not striving for divine beauty in its form. It, instead, seemed to have been built simply to cow and restrain the citizens and visitors of Port Meikari, making them think twice before breaking the law with its severity and menacing facade.
Word of their arrival seemed to have been spread throughout the city. Lounging about before the intimidating structure were dozens of ornate carriages carrying splendidly dressed Ce'al women, a dozen or more Gnaths in their prime, and no less than a hundred Gnathar warriors in full battle regalia. An almost festive air pervaded the magistrate's doorstep and the drably dressed clerks and assistants were crowding the doorway to see what was happening to draw such a crowd.
Jonar stared at the throng as an aisle opened up to the steps. "This is precisely why I refused to allow us to come here straight away," Myka said smugly, her face still frozen in a mask of superiority.
"But they would not have known we were coming if you hadn't insisted on taking several hours to dress and sew this fool's suit on me," the young Gnathar objected as they reached the steps.
Myka glared at him as he dismounted. "Yes, they would have. The only difference would have been that they would have caught us coming out instead of going in. Now help me down."
Gnusyl sank to his knees and Jonar lifted Myka off the beast's back. There was much muttering and whispering at that but the young matriarch of the Junia ignored them. Gathering herself, she slowly walked up the steps without acknowledging the crowd or bothering to see if Jonar followed her. The clerks at the door scrambled to get out of her way and suddenly found something else to do when they saw the grim-faced young warrior stalking up behind her.
As soon as they were inside, Myka relaxed slightly and snapped her fingers at a shockingly tiny Gnathar woman gaping up at Jonar with lust-filled eyes. "You, girl! Where is the magistrate's office?"
The woman looked about to take umbrage at the Ce'al's tone when she saw Jonar frown at her and shake his head. "Down the end of this hall, take the right, then the first left and up the stairs. It will be the only door on that hall," she said sullenly before going back to her appraisal of the young warrior.
Myka noticed this but kept silent, motioning for Jonar to follow as she quickly followed the directions. Every door in the building seemed to have two or three people in it watching her every move. Most of them were Ce'al, but there were a few who could only be called Meikari and Myka suddenly realized that's what the woman who directed her was: a thorough mixing of the Ce'al and the Gnathar blood lines of Meikar. They had the strength and ability to bond with the Gnaths of the Gnathar while having the normal body features of the Ce'al and a lighter, barely green skin tone.
When Myka emerged onto the second floor she was surprised to see it empty of people. At the end of the hall was a huge set of double doors elaborately carven with the iconography of Sol, the God of Justice, and his punishment of Zondro-Xhan and Ptavre-Dei following the Time of Madness. Above the door was carved in Old Ce'alian script: "Com furth en be judgd so that thy fellow man mae knew yur soule!"
"What does it say?" Jonar whispered in her ear, causing it to twitch.
Myka looked up at him and frowned. "I am going to have to teach you to read, my friend," she replied. "It says this is where you are judged. Come. The magistrate is a busy man whom I am told is not one I want to be in the company of overlong."
Jonar's huge hands flexed at that. "Is there something about him I should know?"
"Just that he is the consort of one of my House's enemies. Mother mentioned him often."
She opened the door and walked into a nearly empty antechamber lined with hard wooden chairs and a desk placed to the left of the door on the opposite end of the room. A studious-looking Gnathar woman of middle years sat behind the desk writing vigorously. She looked up from her writing and frowned at them, causing her leather brown face to turn into a tracery of wrinkles. Her dark eyes bore into them as they approached her desk.
"We are here to see the magistrate. I am-"
"Matriarch Myka of the House of Junia, I know," she replied. "Our people informed us of your intent to report a crime. Go right in, your Gnathar may wait out here."
Jonar stepped in front of Myka and opened the door for her and promptly followed her, closing the door on the protestations of the secretary. Jonar turned and scanned the room, his muscles tense. It was a large, spacious chamber made small by the dozens of enormous cabinets and the expansive length of conference table that the man seated at the far end seemed to use as a desk. There were folders and papers strewn about him on the table and several quill stands and inkpots and official seals in front of him. He was a seedy little Ce'al male with a slight frame and tangled bushy brown hair the color of mud. His almost round eyes seemed to be half shut and he watched Myka approach him with a vulgar leer. His pointed ears were quite long and quivered with some obscene emotion as he sat up in his throne-like chair and straightened the black and green robe he wore.
Behind him stood four Gnathar warriors dressed in black and green tunics with mail shirts evident beneath. The eldest and roughest of the lot bent over to whisper in the magistrate's ear. The man shot an irritated glance at Jonar and nodded.
"You were told to enter alone, Matriarch Myka of Junia," the magistrate grated in a thin hissing voice.
"Magistrate Malin, I have come to report the destruction of the village of Mynar by a force of Dei-Xhan and Gnathar out of Zondroland. The matriarch of the House of Junia as well as all of the rest of the inhabitants of Mynar, except myself, are no longer in the region. They were either killed and their bodies burned with the village or they were taken by the raiders. I am here to charge you to do your royal duty to protect the citizens of this province," Myka replied in a sententious tone. Then she looked pointedly at the armed and armored Gnathar behind the magistrate. "That does not require my presence alone in a locked office with you and your thugs. L'Condarri will have to find a way to try to beat my cousin other than killing the Junia off in a rather pathetic attempt by yourself."
Malin grinned wickedly at her. "What makes you think that just because you brought this overgrown boy with you that you will live to leave this office alive?"
At that Jonar drew his sword and axe, took two long steps to the seated man and placed the tip of his sword under his chin. With his other hand Jonar raised his axe in a threatening gesture to the leader of the four guards. Out in the antechamber there was a wailing scream and the floor began to vibrate. A rending crash sent the doors bursting open and Gnusyl squeezed his huge body into the cramped room, knocking the table back against the left hand wall with his large head.
Myka placed a restraining hand on the Gnath. "I suggest you concentrate on finding the raiders and not worry about me, magistrate. Come, Jonar. We need to get this beast out of the building before the Governor's troops get here."
It was too late for that, of course. When they finally squeezed Gnusyl back out the front doors, the same half dozen men from earlier in the day were waiting for them with the rest of the crowd. They had brought another fifty Gnathar guards and were smiling as they watched the young man try to get his massive beast back outside.
"Young Jonar!" the commander yelled as Gnusyl lunged free. "You have been in the city less than a day and already I have been to see you twice. Are you sure you do not wish to join my force?"
Jonar's pale face turned red and he stammered. "Lord Lailar, I-that is we-"
The veteran gnath lord waved his hand and smiled. "Never mind, young cordach. The important thing is you got your Lady Myka out of Lord Malin's office alive," he said, his tone friendly. "The Governor was sending us over here anyway to make sure Malin did his job and left her alone. He is not unaware of l'Conda's plots and those of the House L'Condarri. The last thing he wants is a city full of feuding Houses."
Myka heard this and scowled. "Is the Lady L'Condarri that unskilled at the Game that everyone knows of her plans before she hatches them?"
Lailar shrugged. "I stay as far away from the Game as possible. Warriors tend to die suddenly when they dabble in it. I follow the Governor's orders and make sure my family is seen to when trouble breaks out. The Game I leave to those with enough time and money on their hands to play it."
At that minute the gaily-clad Ce'al women flocked around Myka, making Jonar tense and reach for his sword. Lailar clapped a fist around his hand and shook his head as the Ce'al drew Myka away from her Gnathar guardian. Lailar walked him over to where Gnusyl was lounging in awe with the gnath lord's companion.
"This is Fharthyl of the Qhanzyri Pride," he introduced the Gnath, gazing up at the grizzled snout of the beast with affection. "My friend, this is Jonar Telansson."
"So Gnusyl the Giant tells me," the subterranean voice of the older Gnath rumbled. The huge horned head swung down to gaze at Jonar unblinkingly. "What do you feed this young one to make him grow so big?"
Jonar blushed and stammered, realizing that his friend was nearly a foot taller than Lord Lailar's companion. "W-we really haven't been eating too well these last few months. The Gnysa Pagans ran us over the border of the Dorkan Empire and then the Dorkans chased us into Meikar just as winter began in the mountains," the young man babbled.
Lailar clapped the younger Gnathar on the shoulder and laughed. "He's teasing you, Jonar. Relax! From what I have seen, I am surprised you have not gotten a master before recently. You have shown great poise in your handling of the young Ce'al matriarch. Just remember that your only job is to see that she remains unharmed," he said, causing Jonar to straighten in pride from such praise as they carefully watched Myka with the gaggle of Ce'al ladies. "That is the other reason I was sent with so many men. The Governor feared that your mistress might have been killed and you would be on the Path of Sol against the L'Condarri. They are somewhat necessary in this city and he feared you might go too far."
Jonar looked at his askance before frowning. "Path of Sol?"
Lord Lailar turned to him in surprise. "Did your parents not teach you of it following your initiation?"
"My parents were killed three days after the ceremony by the Dei-Xhan. I was cast out of Telanaria for lack of a sponsor," the young man said in a flat tone, his eyes lost in memory.
"Surely you had kin?"
Jonar shook his head and shrugged. "What does it matter now? I am here and finally have a home, it seems, whether I wanted one or not."
Lailar shook his head in disagreement. "Your young matriarch is in danger not only from her House's enemies but also from within her House," he warned. "Beware Lady Alphi and her daughter. Until you arrived this morning with news of Lady Myka's elevation, Lady Alphi had been using her prowess at the Game to bring down her own matriarch. Now those plans will be altered to bring down your mistress."
"What is this game that you and Myka were talking about?"
"Not just any game, but 'the Game' my friend. It is a complex series of maneuvers and plots and schemes layered on top of one another by those rich enough, skilled enough, or foolish enough to play it. The greatest nobles, generals, politicians, priests, criminals, and spies all play against each other for often obscure causes and massive rewards which they simply shrug off as a method of proving who is the best," Lailar informed his young colleague. "Your Lady Alphi is one of the wealthiest people in Port Meikari because of her deft hand at the Game. From what I understand, the only reason Lady Myka's mother lived in that tiny village was as a ploy to stall and frustrate Lady Alphi and the other players from the Great Houses of Meikar. Myka, being the second daughter, was probably not schooled in the Game's rules or its playing so she is very vulnerable against all of Junia's enemies."
Jonar stood absorbing all of that as he watched Myka prattle with the other Ce'al. He watched the steady dribble away from the magistrate's building by the Gnathar guards and warriors and even Lailar's men began to drift to the perimeter of the great plaza as the sun began to sink beneath the city's skyline. The streets of Port Meikari were slowly emptying of the honest businessmen. The quiet time of the day had started when the workers went home and the revelers had not yet emerged to rule the nightlife of this port city.
"There is one thing I am really curious ... what in the Nine Circles of Zondro-Xhan's Hell are those?!" Jonar suddenly drew his sword and shouted, his eyes like saucers as he stared at a single file of glowingly diaphanous figures floating across the plaza from the huge edifice next to the Council of Houses.
Lailar flicked a glance over his shoulder and turned an incredulous look on the young man. "Have you never seen an Illuminant? What kind of backwoods place is Telanaria? You are aware that there are seven races, are you not?"
Jonar swallowed heavily as he resheathed his weapon and tore his gaze away from the ghostly manifestations to pay attention to the older man. "Seven? Really?" he said thoughtfully. "I only remember faery tales told by the village skald. I'd seen Dei-Xhan and Gnomes before, and now Ce'al and Illuminants. What others are there?"
Lailar's eyes narrowed, the older warrior thinking no one could be that ignorant. "Come with me. It is time you got your lady home safely," he said decisively. "And we have a few things to talk about. Exiling an ignorant boy without preparing him for the world," he added in a disgusted mutter, shaking his head. Fharthyl and Gnusyl fell in behind them.
It was full dark when they arrived back at the Junia mansion. They were informed that Lady Alphi and Lord Zokar had been invited to a dinner party at the Governor's Palace. While the servants set about readying dinner for Myka and an uncomfortable Jonar, Lord Lailar took the two youths aside with a sober expression.
"Is there a room in this house where we may talk without the possibility of being overheard?" he asked Myka, pointedly darting his eyes to the servants who kept a covert watch on them.
Myka nodded and led them through the house and out to the rear court where the stables, dove cotes, and raptor mews were located. Upon their return to the house earlier, Gnusyl led Fharthyl to the stables where they could find clean water and fresh meat. She led them over to the stables and the two Gnaths rose ponderously to their feet.
"There is a small room inside the stables. The stable hands are in the servants' quarters eating right now, so there is no one who has honest business around here right now. If your beasts can keep a watch, we should be undisturbed for at least a half hour," the young Ce'al told the gnath lord.
"It will do," he replied. "There is much you need to know and some decisions you must make before your kin return from their amusements with the Governor. And since it appears I am the only one likely to tell you this, I want to do so privately."
Intrigued, Myka led them into the stables to the nickering and stamping of nervous horses that smelled the scent of Gnath on them over the odors of dung and moldy straw. She walked to the very back of the dimly lit pens to a rickety door. She grabbed the glowing lamp next to the door and entered the small room beyond.
To Jonar it appeared to be the office of the hostler. There was a crude but well made desk surrounded by several chairs. Myka took the chair behind the desk and the Gnathar seated themselves before her.
Lailar looked at Myka and sighed. "I really don't know where to begin without giving offense to you, matriarch."
Myka smiled and relaxed, looking more like the girl Jonar remembered on their trip from the village than the regal woman who entered the city just that morning. "Why don't we just forget that matriarch business? We both know that there is no way I could last in this city for a week as the matriarch of the House of Junia. I may have only been a second daughter, but I listened to my mother enough to realize why she lived in Mynar and not in Port Meikari as she should," she told him in a quavering voice which made Jonar want to go to her side with his sword drawn. She saw this and smiled a sad smile. "I was very content in Mynar being a shepherdess and a very unimportant underpriestess of Cealie. I was not even betrothed to anyone yet. I only had dreams of becoming a rich landowner and rancher of sheep and argyr so that I could attract a good husband. Now I find myself with a Gnathar warrior as guardian against enemies I never dreamed of having in a city full of people who wish ill of me. And from the way my cousin Junaria looks at me, I do not even have a safe roof over my head. So please, be honest with me and don't worry about offending me. I have more on my mind than seeing you punished for impudence against a Lady."