To save her kingdom, Veli has to usurp her enemy. (Rating: 12, Universe – Tales of the Dragon, Genre – Fantasy, Genre – Action)
“You know that you socialise with some truly peculiar folk,” Veli commented as Opeal led the other woman down a tiny alleyway which was littered with beggers and drunks alike.
“They’re the folk that will let you keep your kingdom,” Opeal said, “don’t be too judgemental.”
Veli gave Opeal a flat glare and shifted the scarf that was pulled up tightly over her hair and mouth in the style of many of the citizens of the poor quarter. It was the only way that she could wander the streets of her own city without her advisors finding out about her exploits and then giving her a lecture of the dangers of the poor quarter.
Opeal turned into another alley, that was barely wider than one person, and beckoned Veli to follow. By all accounts, Opeal had managed to get together a ragtag group of people who were willing to put their lives and rather unscrupulous reputations on the line to help Veli keep her kingdom safe from the hands of Bequid.
Suddenly, Opeal stopped abruptly in front of a scruffy looking wooden door that was bolted onto the stone structure of the building with hinges which would be better placed on a castle gatehouse. Veli glanced behind her to check that no one was following, as Opeal rapped on the door with a precise sequence of knocks.
No one following you doesn’t mean that there are not people watching, Veli thought. It was one of Neira’s favourite sayings, reminding Veli as the dragon had reminded her mother and grandmother before her that a ruler had to be aware of who was biting at her heels as well as those who had a knife to her throat.
The sound of a latch opening caught Veli’s attention, as the heavy door opened to reveal a man’s thin face, with weathered skin and wrinkles spreading out from his eyes like the first rays of sunrise. There was a sense of mischief in his eyes as well, the same kind of twinkle that Opeal’s had held when she had coerced Veli into agreeing with this crazy plan.
“Hello, Nate,” Opeal said, tugging her trademark hat off her head, “we have a visitor.”
“Nice to meet you,” Nate said towards Veli, drawing the door open wide to reveal a cramped stairwell that led upwards towards the top of the building.
“You as well,” Veli replied, nodding back at Nate. She didn’t know well Nate enough to justify the customary handshake that was reserved for old friends and close advisors.
Opeal stepped through and quickly began to climb the narrow winding staircase. Veli followed, not wanting to hang around in the street for longer than necessary, and her heart only stopped pounding when the echoing sound of Nate locking the heavy latch firmly shut.
The steps seemed to continue for an age, and cramp slowly began to form in the backs of Veli’s calves. No doubt Neira would find the fact hilarious, but then Neira had a warped sense of humour that only a dragon could hold.
Finally, Opeal came to a tiny doorway that was right up in the eves of the buildings. In a previous life, it had likely been a smugglers den, hidden in the roofs of the tall city buildings and far away from the prying eyes of the tax collectors.
Opeal had made Veli swear on her life that she would not reveal this location to any of her ‘proper advisors’ as she termed them. If she were honest Veli wasn’t sure if her ‘proper advisors’, those chosen by the wealthiest and powerful individuals in the city to try and influence her opinion, would even had allowed Opeal to live much longer if Veli had mentioned her plans today.
“Mind your head,” Opeal said, opening the heavy latch and pushing the door open. Veli did as she was bidden, although even this small door did not cause her much worry. It was one of the advantages of being short, you didn’t bang your head on doorframes.
The doorway opened into a thin, long room that was built right into the eaves of the building. Either side of the room, the roof sloped downwards at a sharp angle, with wide wooden beams dividing up the white plaster. In the centre of the room, there was a small gaggle of people lounging on an odd collection of chairs that had clearly been left and forgotten by their former owners.
The people themselves seemed to take after their chosen seating arrangement. The eldest of the group had thick silver hair down her back which had been pulled into a tight plait down the back of her head. Knarled fingers twisted around the barrel of her gun, polished bright in the dim light of the candles that were placed in the centre of the room.
Dangerous people for dangerous times, Veli thought. There was a younger lad sitting next to the elderly lady, lazily leaning his chair back against the wall with the casual ease that came with youth. His clothes were tatty from age, but well looked after and darned back together with a careful hand. On the other side of the room, another woman sat with her legs propped up on one of the other chairs reading a worn book in thin, gloved hands.
“Do I have to bow?” the young lad asked Opeal, nodding towards Veli.
“Yep,” Opeal said, “and you have to kiss her feet too, Iopus.” Opeal stepped to one side to allow Veli to walk further into the room. Nate squeezed in behind them, closing the door firmly behind him.
“Now you’re taking the piss Auntie Opie,” the young lad said with a grin on his face, doffing an invisible cap towards Veli, “nice to meet you m’lady.”
“Veli is fine,” Veli replied, as she was directed by Veli to sit down on one of the other seats. Veli sat down tentatively, not trusting the thin legs of the stool to hold her meagre weight.
“Let’s do introductions,” Opeal said, “this here is my sister Marliy.” She brushed her sister’s feet off the chair to sit down, as Nate took the other spare seat next to Veli.
“That over there is my terror of a nephew Iopus,” Opeal said, gesturing over to Iopus who looked rather irritated that he was called a ‘terror’.
“This is Peggi,” Opeal said, gesturing to the elderly lady next to her, “no relation.”
“Hah,” Peggi said, “you call your old teacher ‘no relation’?”
“You’re not as irritating as these two,” Opeal said. Her sister looked at Opeal with thinly disguised amusement, clearly used to the sibling banter.
“And finally this is Nate,” Opeal said, “the brains of the operation.”
“You mean the one who has enough stupidity to suggest the idea?” Nate said, “if that makes me have brains then I’ll take the compliment.”
Opeal kicked him.
“Anyway,” Nate said, turning to Veli, “we’re here to help you with a small diplomatic issue.”
“Opeal’s sketched out the basics,” Veli said, “riot and discord. The only problem that any political disturbance in Bequid’s land will hit Feliz like a sledgehammer.”
“We have a solution for that,” Peggi said, “but you’re not going to like it.”
Veli raised an eyebrow in question.
“Bequid’s advisors liked you original deal,” Peggi said, “they want stability just as much as you do. We have rumours that Bequid’s overextended his reach and there are already splinters throughout his small empire-”
“So we just need to remove Bequid and ensure that Feliz is not affected by any uprising,” Iopus interrupted.
“And to do that,” Peggi continued, giving a sharp look towards Iopus, “we need to put someone in Bequid’s place.”
“Who?” Veli asked.
The group fell silent.
Oh you’ve got to be kidding me, Veli thought.
“It’s the only logical solution,” Opeal said, noting the blood draining from Veli’s face. Veli gave her old friend a sidelong look of disapproval.
“Really?” Veli said, “You fail to realise that taking on Bequid’s empire would totally undermine Feliz’s economy? I wouldn’t be able to keep the two economies separate, let alone the implications for trade and-”
“It wouldn’t be easy,” Marliy said, her words encased with the strong drawl of the southern cities accent, “but it would avert war. And right now, you know that your last hope of peace was lost when Bequid spat it back in your face.”
Veli curled her hands into fists. If only the petulant asshole of a ruler had listened to her initially! Then at least his problems would stay on his side of the border and Veli wouldn’t have to worry about Bequid and his insatiable lust for power for another few years.
“Okay,” Veli said slowly, “but how could I usurp Bequid from his stronghold?”
“First,” Nate began, “we throw a few riots. Nothing major mind, just something to stir up a little more trouble to get Bequid noticing that he is losing control.”
“Two,” Opeal continued, “we get talking with Bequid’s Advisors and feed them a few rumours that will make them loose sleep at night. We want them to fear whatever happens with Bequid will be much worse than defecting to your command.”
“Thirdly,” Marliy said, “your advisors get a little bit of a wake up call as to who is boss. You’ve played their game for long enough now, and now it’s time for you to take a little bit of authority over them.”
Veli bristled at the insult, but the other woman seemed to not care that she was single handedly dismissing all of Veli’s efforts to try and bring some democracy back into the world by using the Advisors that were chosen to aid her rule instead of ruling over them with an iron fist. It had been a method of governing that Neira had advised against, but then Veli was not her mother or grandmother and couldn’t make people do something just by sheer force of will.
“Then finally,” Iopus said, “you call your advisors together in a loud gathering, somewhere in which Bequid’s spies will have a chance to listen. You proclaim your right to protect your lands and home, and those of your foremothers as well.”
“Which includes those of your grandmother, Nei,” Peggi finished, “lands which Bequid claimed for his own at the end of her reign. In retaliation, he will call a meeting which will attempt to call for war-”
“Then you gate crash the meeting,” Opeal said with a grin, “my favourite bit. If Neira was willing, that entrance would be even more dramatic.”
Silence settled over the small room, as Veli took in the enormity of the plan that had been conceived. Clearly, these were people who were used to defying the odds and taking on challenges that everyone else had thought impossible.
It was either killed, or be killed. If Veli didn’t do something about Bequid, he would eventually declare war on Feliz and death and ruin would rain down on her kingdom. Sometimes, the most ridiculous plans were the ones which gave a slim glimmer of hope against an otherwise dearth backdrop of looming war.
“I don’t like it,” Veli sighed, feeling the crushing weight of guilt build up inside her chest, “but I have no choice.”
Sometimes when the world was cruel, you had to play by its rules to get justice done.