Copyright© 2011 by Celtic Bard
If any nation in all of Titia-Lohr could be said to be dominant, the Empire of the Gnath would come to most honest, learned people's lips. For nearly a millennia, the Empire has been the guarantor of most peace treaties signed, been the peacekeeper of last resort, been the guardians of what highway systems have been built to connect the Empire to the rest of the continent, and been the force with which the Dei-Xhan and their minions have always been leery of crossing swords. And yet Gnathar are looked down upon as barbarians by most of the rest of the Races of Man. This situation had some basis in fact. Cultural, social, and dynastic facts.
For centuries, Gnathar have lived under the system of rigid castes that divide Gnathar, generally by occupation and social standing, into a stratified social matrix by which all Gnathar know exactly where in the hierarchy of society they stand at birth. Very few Gnathar ever manage to get out of the life chosen for them by the dictates of their caste and most who do manage this feat do so only through great deeds on the field of battle or by joining one of the priesthoods. The caste system has fallen out of use in most other Gnathar dominated nations, holding sway only in the Empire of the Gnath and the universally ridiculed and backwardly impoverished Kingdom of Sparkan. Add to this genetic traits that lead to berserkers, general lack of what other races consider education, and an Imperial Family that has held sway for over six centuries and one can come to the conclusion of barbarism based solely on the Gnathar in the Empire of the Gnath.
The center of the Empire, politically and geographically, is the capital city of Gnathar. More than a million Gnathar live within the towering walls of the city of Gnathar and nearly half as many foreigners either live or visit the capital each year. Among them are ambassadors to every country with which the Empire does business. These ambassadors all live within their own embassies but the Emperor and his government do business out of the Palace of the Empire, a massive, monolithic structure made entirely out of basalt. Quarried from the Domani Mountains in what is now the Domain of Pagans and shipped downriver to Lake Ilia and then across the lake on huge ships, the rock was a dark gray and very easily worked by the relatively primitive, warlike, and xenophobic Gnathar who built the Empire out of the merging of several tribes of early Gnathar. Those early warrior peoples had little in the way of artistic talent and even if they had such gifts, they were more interested in keeping what they conquered and massive walls and a colossal palace for their leader was what they thought would do it.
Several centuries later, Emperor Maxmar-Kan I resided in the same palace his forbearers built on the Ilian Plain. Upon first seeing the Palace, many a foreign envoy and master merchant took one look at the place from which the greatest Empire of the day was governed and thought phrases such as "barbarian splendor." Walking through its chill, largely undecorated halls, one could easily see the barbarian kings of old who turned a collection of squabbling tribes into an Empire walking through such drafty corridors.
Upon being herded unceremoniously into Gnathar from the border of the Kingdom of Illuminants early that spring, the Gnathar warriors who had arrested Alyssa, Myka, Donnar, and their protectors lead their horses up the crowded main boulevard and straight to the Palace of the Empire. They were quickly passed through the impressively imposing gates to the courtyard before the front door of the Palace by large, muscular Gnathar in shining breast plates and carrying huge axes as if they weighed nothing. Myka took one look at the structure before her as she was roughly helped down from her horse by the grim-faced warriors who had clapped her and her friends in irons and thought that perhaps Jonar's barbarian qualities were come by honestly, and not through the machinations of the castes in Telanaria. She looked at Alyssa and saw similar thoughts showing themselves on the now very visibly pregnant half-breed. The warriors were handling her as if she were a Princess of their Empire and not a foreigner. It was kind of amusing to see the hard-faced men escorting them to the capital wait on one of their prisoners hand and foot like servants instead of guards.
"Come, the Emperor will have been notified when we came within sight of the walls and he was most eager to speak with you all," the priest that was among the guards said as he dismounted before the stairs leading up to the large doors of the Palace.
Just as his expensive gabressi leather boots touched the flagstones of the court, the doors opened and several officious men in brown robes emerged and descended the steps. Each had a golden sigil around his neck hanging from thick gold chains. They were universally clean shaven, short-haired, white-skinned, and ranged in age from around Sancyr's age of thirty-three to somewhere north of seventy for the frowning, grumpy-looking man leading the group. He was a tall, slender Gnathar who looked as if he never had the general bulkiness for which the race is known. His skin looked baby-soft and his hair looked like chick down, it was so light and soft as it moved in the light breeze that reached the court. His robe was the same brown as the others, but his was made from a much richer cloth than his colleagues. He wore several gaudily large rings on his fingers and his eyes tightened when he noticed one of the guards solicitously help Alyssa down from her horse and stand by her side as if he were her escort and not her guard.
"Why is that one not in irons? Did the Emperor's instructions not state that they were all to be shackled, especially the half-breed woman and the Gnome?" his gravelly voice demanded as haughtily as if he were Emperor here.
"Uh..." was all the ridiculously young lieutenant in charge of the guards could muster in the face of such an obviously important official.
The priest stepped up in front of the officer with a smile at the dour old man. "I thought it inadvisable for a pregnant woman to be riding a horse while bound, First Minister," he told the man, ignoring the stifled gasps from the prisoners. "Should the beast have spooked or her condition deprived her of balance, she would have fallen and perhaps harmed the babe within her."
The glower that was making the guard officer cringe turned on the kindly priest and deepened into a loathing scowl. "And how, pray tell, did a vaellen wind up being assigned to this detail?"
The priest, a fairly youthful man with the characteristic bulkiness of the Gnathar and hands that looked as if they knew the use of a weapon intimately, grinned wider, making his handsome face look positively impish. He shrugged and absently flicked his long, butter yellow hair out of his eyes, tucking it behind his exceptionally long, pointed ears. "Can you name many priests, oppidai, who are not vaellen? And who are lowly enough to be assigned such repugnant duties? Come, you did not really expect us to keep our noses out of this, did you? Surely this winter has taught you something!"
One could almost hear the old man grinding his teeth from several yards away. "Do not mistake temporary gains for victories, impudent priestling. The oppidai still hold sway in this city and in this Empire and we will succeed in our endeavors, come what may," the First Minister hissed angrily. Then he seemed to realize they had a very attentive audience and straightened. "Bring them! The Emperor wishes to interrogate them personally." He turned on his heel and led the gaggle of officials back into the Palace of the Empire.
The shackled prisoners watched the First Minister of the Empire of the Gnath stalk back into the Palace of the Empire with drawn, foreboding expressions. "This can't be good news for us," Myka muttered with a feeling of dread settling in her stomach.
Shocking her into staring at him, the priest giggled, his green eyes dancing with unholy glee. "The Emperor is still his own man, my Lady, whatever the First Minister thinks to the contrary. He has been more curious than anything else about your young Lord Telanar," the cleric intimated reassuringly. "So come, Maxmar-Kan I may still be a fair man, but has never been a patient man and I am sure Minister Lore-Jessandi has been whispering half-truths since the messenger arrived telling of our own arrival."
The stark functionality of the exterior did not belie the interior. Halls were straight, much narrower than one would expect in a Palace, and austere in their lack of décor or embellishment. No tapestries or paintings, frescoes or mosaics. Just yards and yards of bare, dark gray basalt broken only occasionally by stout diamond oak doors bound with steel, they themselves severely plain in their utilitarianism. The only thing which gave evidence that a giant species of mole did not carve out a mountain into their burrow were the intricate, though bi-colored rugs that seemed to be thrown about willy-nilly, shocking the eye with the occasional flashes of blue and red or green and yellow or black and white amidst all the dark gray.
The priest led them after the swiftly moving First Minister. Alyssa and Myka had both looked meaningfully at each other at the name of the First Minister, wondering if there was a connection between First Minister Lore-Jessandi and the Lord Mayor of Telanaria, Arar Jukaadi-Lore, before Myka was nudged by one of the surly guards.
The doors to the throne room of Emperor Maxmar-Kan I were open and guarded by two hugely muscular Gnathar in plate armor and armed with battle-axes larger than Myka. The two warriors straightened and saluted the First Minister with their massive weapons as he passed within the expansive room beyond. The prisoners slowed enough as they entered that their guards nudged them back into motion rather roughly, making Myka stumble. The priest whirled and helped the Ce'al to her feet, glaring at the scruffy-looking guard who had knocked her to the basalt floor.
"Come, Lady Myka. We will soon have this sorted out and I am sure you will enjoy your stay in Gnathar much more from there on," the kindly priest told Myka in a low voice, supporting her unsteady feet by holding her shackled hands in his much larger ones.
"Don't make promises you can't keep, Essellivar," a burly, though somewhat short, Gnathar in splendid silk clothing said with a foppish air. Alyssa snorted and covered her mouth in a fake cough when she saw him. His brown hair was elaborately curled, his brown skin showed touches of rouge and kohl, and his voice was amazingly high for the barrel chest he possessed. "Father has promised I may play with some of the Telanar lordling's playmates when the Emperor is done with them. And my do some of them look delightful!"
Myka shuddered. Just hearing the words coming from the noble's mouth, one would make assumptions that he was speaking of torments of a sexual nature to be performed on Myka and her friends. One look into the young man's eyes, however, and Myka knew there would be no beds involved with the pleasures and amusements this sadist promised. Looking at her friends, she saw that they recognized that as well. In fact Sharn was looking dangerously close to the edge of his tolerance of this situation. When they had been surrounded not half a mile from the imperial border, they had quickly agreed to go peacefully with the Imperial Army soldiers who surrounded them on a stretch of empty road heading south. None of them wished to risk Alyssa and they had thought that without Jonar in their party that they would be unharmed. This assumption strained both Donnar's and Sharn's patience with the Gnathar soldiers. The Gnome, never even-tempered to begin with, had nearly lost it the first night of their captivity when the soldiers became quite insulting as they passed a jug of ale around amongst themselves. The Prince, long used to his freedom and being treated with much more respect than they were showing, had to be frequently reminded of what Jonar told them before he left them. All of the companions fervently wished that Maseryk had accompanied them, at least until they got past the capital. The coolest heads of the group belonged to Kyftassa and Sancyr, who often blunted the behavior of the soldiers with simple looks which easily backed down the surly men.
Now, all of them looked at the overdressed butterfly before them and wondered if they would have to begin thinking of escape after all. Myka looked around the crowded throne room at the court of Maxmar-Kan I with narrowed eyes. Most had turned to watch them enter and an aisle opened as the First Minister proceeded toward the large, middle-aged man dressed in a rather plain leather jerkin over a vivid blue silk doublet with visibly worn linen pants of an off-white hue. On his feet, crossed at the ankles, was a pair of serviceable leather half boots. His skin was a dusty brown and his hair looked as if the sun had bleached it out, it was so pale. Bright blue eyes peered from under bushy brows and his ears were longer and more pointed than most Gnathar could claim, looking more like Ce'al ears. His long pale locks were tucked behind those ears, which looked to be quivering with excitement, despite his relaxed pose on the rough hewn throne made of basalt, carved with the religious iconography of Kreu-Garra and padded with what looked like Gnath wool. The First Minister walked straight up to the man on the throne without bowing and whispered in his ear before taking a place two steps down and to the right of the Emperor.
"Bring them forth," a melodious bass voice said, the Emperor flicking a finger at the shackled prisoners and Alyssa. "I wish to question them before deciding what to do with them."
The guards quickly bustled them forward, the priest marching before them as if he were their counsel, even as they heard the doors behind them boom shut rather ominously. The guards jerked them to a stop ten feet from the first step of the dais and the priest halted five feet away and bowed deeply. Only Sancyr made any acknowledgement of the Emperor, saluting as best he could with his hands bound together as they were.
The sapphire eyes of the Emperor flicked over to Sancyr at his attempt to salute and smiled. "Ah, General Yothorinsson! We wondered where you had gone. Your nomarsor has been rather worried since you left no destination for your hasty leave. I trust you had a pleasant holiday."
Sancyr shrugged nonchalantly. "Not really. The Nethar Mountains are rather inhospitable at the best of times and these were not the best of times, your Imperial Majesty," he replied respectfully, bowing to his liege.
Before the Emperor could respond to that, Alyssa took a step forward and flung her hair back imperiously. "I hate to break into the pleasantries, your Majesty, but could you tell me why we were arrested and why my companions are still in shackles? We have broken no laws that we are aware of in the Empire of the Gnath."
"Ah, Princess Alyssa, welcome to our court. I must say your reputation for beauty precedes you," Maxmar-Kan said genially, nodding to her as she bowed slightly at his compliment. "Your state, however, was not reported to me. I hope they were not foolish enough to try to put shackles on you, my Lady?"
Somewhat shocked at his consideration and his agreement with the priest Essellivar, she shook her head. "No, this priest was able to convince the soldiers that would be a bad idea, despite the First Minister's suggestion otherwise when we arrived."
The Emperor turned dangerous eyes on his Minister. "In what civilized society does a pregnant woman get shackled and thrown on a horse, Xukar?" he demanded coldly, his hands suddenly on the arms of his throne, beating an irritated tattoo on the stone.
The First Minister cleared his throat nervously, face reddening. "My apologies, Majesty, but it is suspected that the Gnome and the half-breed woman are both gifted by one of the Gods. I did not wish them able to use those gifts. The shackles I ordered sent with the men were designed by the truthseekers to contain sorcerors, I had hoped they would inhibit either of the prisoners from using their gifts to escape and flee before we could question them," he replied, his voice firm despite the fact that he had obviously not anticipated the Emperor's response to those he had arrested.
The Emperor flicked his hand towards one of the warriors standing near the prisoners' guards and the man produced a key. He quickly walked down the line of shackled "guests" and released them to a clattering of metal striking stone. "Now that the unpleasantness is behind us, perhaps, Princess, you could tell us where your husband is? It was actually he with whom I wished to speak. And I notice your sister-wife is missing. Is she, perhaps, with your husband?"
Essellivar cleared his throat and sadly shook his head. "I am afraid, your Majesty, that they were carrying a grim burden when they were arrested. The body of Illyana Brashklarsdaughter was magically preserved and wrapped in linen. They had her strapped to a spare horse, your Majesty."