“The gates are still closed.” The merchant frowned as the caravan moved closer to the city wall pulling off his thick coat which seemed too hot for the weather.
“Yeah, I was afraid of that…” I said, noticing that the ropes we had scaled the walls with had also been cut down.
In fact, the city watch was still acting on edge, their weapon at the ready as if they expected they might be ordered to attack us. Scanning the top of the wall, my eyes landed on Lord Stebes and I could only let out an annoyed sigh. I had hoped that he wouldn’t have gotten personally involved in this. Could he seriously still be planning to assassinate me in broad daylight with thousands of witnesses?
“Lord Stebes, an enemy is on the horizon!” I shouted, “Open the gates!”
“On whose authority?” He said with a sneer.
“You won’t open up?” The pushy hooded woman from before pushed forward, her voice coming off somewhat haughty.
“How do I not know your caravan lead those monsters here?” Lord Stebes answered. “I could be letting a traitor into the city. My actions are completely sound and justified.”
“Don’t worry…” I held up my hand stopping the woman from continuing the argument. “I’ve got this.”
She came off as bristly and hostile. I had the feeling she might bring the arrows down on us if she kept talking. She was likely a beastkin like the others, but she took great care to hide her ears and tail. I had seen her during the attack on the caravan. She was the only woman there that took up arms against the undead. She wasn’t a guard, but she wasn’t a civilian either.
“Hmph… suit yourself.” She crossed her arms and turned away.
I turned to look at Baba, who was sitting up in one of the caravans. She had been healing people’s wounds using her magic. The caravan was well aware that she was a magician, but if they heard she was the Grand Magus, they would certainly be shocked.
“Baba… I was hoping to learn a bit more magic from you.”
The little girl blinked and cocked her head. “Hmph? What’s that?”
“Explosive magic. Perhaps a demonstration. That gate sure looks sturdy.”
Her eyes narrowed and she snickered. “Is that my lord’s orders?”
“I wouldn’t dream of telling someone such as yourself what to do.”
A smug expression formed on her face. “Hehe… it looks like my young disciple is finally learning how to treat his Great and Magnanimous Master with res-“
“Children rarely listen to what you tell them anyway,” I added in a low voice only a few people nearby could hear while looking in the other direction.
“Geh!” Baba shot me a glare and then got down from the caravan. “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that last part.”
“Wh-what are you doing?” Lord Stebes let out a shout as Baba walked into the front of the group.
The caravanners didn’t know how powerful Baba was. She had barely cast a single spell to help during the battle. Many were grateful for her healing, but there were many healers in this world and that didn’t necessarily translate to being a powerful mage. In fact, given her age, it wouldn’t be surprising if it was assumed she was an apprentice to some mage. This only made our exchange of words where I was the disciple and her the master even more confusing to the group.
“Knocking the door off its hinges should suffice,” I added.
Baba nodded but wore a mischievous grin on her face. To some of the people, it sounded like I was egging her on, but I was actually hoping to reel her back. Baba had looked disappointed when the monster situation was contained without her magic. I had the feeling she would be happy to stretch her magic a bit and may cause some long-lasting damage.
“Are you crazy? You just said a monster army is coming! Do you want to put a hole in the city walls just before we’re attacked? You’ll kill everyone in this city.”
“I don’t fault you for looking out for your people, Stebes. I took, am just looking out for my own. If it was me alone out here, perhaps I would just turn and leave and let this city’s fate be decided by you. However, the second I leaped over this wall, I took responsibility for this caravan. I will do whatever it takes to protect these people. You have my word, while in your city, I will vouch for them.”
As I spoke, the pudgy merchant looked at me with a surprise and then a nodded, a smile on his face. My words did come out incredibly bold sounding, and those among the Caravan had a deep sense of gratitude. The most unnerving person was the woman in the hood, who was staring at me the entire time out of the corner of her hood. I couldn’t see her features any better than she could see my own. However, I still felt like she was studying me, and getting out far more information than I wanted to give her.
“You… vouch for them?” The Lord growled. “And why would I trust a devil?”
I pulled back my hood, listening to numerous gasps behind me. Even on the wall, a few people gaped in disbelief. My presence in the city was known, but hearing there was a devil and realizing the cloaked man in front of you was that devil were two very different things. This time, I spoke even louder so anyone on the wall could hear. I also let a tinge of arrogance touch my voice.
“I am Prince David, Prince of Pria and your lord. Do you deny me entry into the city? I will consider that an act of a traitor. Grand Magus, I see a better target if you aim up and to your right. It’s a much thicker piece of wood.”
That spot I indicated was of course where the lord was standing on the wall. His eyes bulged out like he was about to explode. However, the Grand Magus’s dark chuckle cause even his spine to tingle. I was merely a menace, but the Grand Magus was a catastrophe. There might have been some confusion before. When I had met Lord Stebes at the gate, I had followed the Grand Magus to the inn. He likely had believed I was hiding behind the Grand Magus and using her as a shield. This is why he dared to attempt to assassinate me.
Even earlier, my words had deferred to the Grand Magus. I had asked as a disciple. Now, using her title, I had ordered her to attack a lord, and she didn’t provide any lip. Everyone there understood clearly the implications of that now. The Grand Magus was this odd little girl, and she was taking my orders. I had a feeling I’d need to pay the Magus back later for this. She was showing me face during the sensitive situation in public, and I’d be indebted to her after this. I didn’t want to use her at all, but it seemed like Lord Stebes was determined to force my hand. I still had a few more chips, but this was the one I felt I could afford to pull at the moment.
The reaction of my reveal spread through the caravan. The looks weren’t exactly hostile. Some seemed confused while others had more complex expressions on their faces. It had certainly blown the steam out of my previous comments. They likely reasoned that at least part of the reason they were having trouble entering the city right now had to do with my presence. On the other hand, I was a Prince of this country. The hooded woman was only staring at me now, but what expression she wore as completely hidden.
“Very well!” Lord Stebes snapped. “You may enter the city. However, I’ll hold you to your promise. If these beastkin animals dare cause trouble in the city, you’ll answer for it.”
I bowed. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The gate finally opened, and Baba just seemed a little unhappy that she didn’t end up needing to blast us in. The Caravan moved first and I sat to the side and watched. As the people passed, I received a cacophony of looks from fear to discomfort. Some of the children stared at me, while others cried. The man in charge, the pudgy merchant, had a wry smile on his face. I had saved his caravan, but now we were tied. The way things were worded, I had joined our destinies. Once in the city, these guys would have to depend on me to survive. That was exactly what I was aiming for. It would be a layer of protection.
I finally headed into the city as the gate shut behind me. With a quick breath, I glanced over at the merchant. “We need to talk.”
The man looked over at me uneasily but then nodded, kicking the heal of his boots before turning to me. I grabbed his arm, leading him to one of his carts to discuss what he knew. Before we could make it a few steps, a person walking down the stairway from the wall shouted down at us.
“Wait right there!” Lord Stebes shouted.
I sighed, briefly considering just killing the man. He had already shown himself to be traitorous. The only reason I hadn’t bothered with him is that he still had control over the city watch. I had hoped he wasn’t smart enough to realize that we needed to question this man. After all, he almost let information die because of his own xenophobia.
“What is it?” I demanded flatly. “With an unknown threat coming, we must prepare quickly.”
“That’s what I should be saying!” Lord Stebes growled. “You push yourself too far! This is my city. You have no business discussing its protection.”
“You mean a city you wished to protect so much you refused a Grand Magus, two will users, and a small retinue of soldiers entrance?”
My words issued several mumbles from some of the citizens nearby. Perhaps they weren’t happy with the way I was speaking tot heir lord. Although some might actually agree with my points, and realize that the lord is threatening the city just to stick it to me.
Lord Stebes’ face was red, and he opened his mouth. “You-“
“My lords…” Saria stepped in between us, “Perhaps this discussion would be better served in the diplomatic quarters?”
I crossed my arms and nodded. “Very well, let us head there.”
Lord Stebes looked between the pair of us a few times, his face still displaying open anger, but when he noticed more and more of his subject whispering amongst themselves, his expression changed immediately.
“Very well, the diplomatic quarters it is.”
I gestured the merchant to follow along, bringing the whole caravan with him. I had only read about the diplomatic quarters. They were a specialized location in any city where diplomacy could take place. A keep or castle could be considered too dangerous of a location for many people to be willing to meet. Thus, the diplomatic quarters were created. In essence, it a building pressed against the city wall with an exit directly outside the city. This might make the entire building seem like a vulnerability to the entire city, except that the wall wrapped around the building, and had another entrance on the other side.
In short, it was a building that was neither in the city nor outside the city limits. It was a place for foreign dignitaries. Rather than settling at the inn, I could have set up to stay here. I had originally chosen not to because I didn’t even know this city had one at the time, and even had I known, it would have been dishonorable for a prince to act as a foreign dignitary. Lord Stebe’s would have likely found some trouble for me anyway.
However, now that our aggressions were more open, it was an ideal place to talk. Furthermore, if he attempted something, I’d be able to flee the city without having to storm the city gates. It was a preferable situation for both of us. I hadn’t expected Saria to come up with something so… diplomatic.
We came up to the city walls, the main difference between this and the main gate is that the size was only big enough for a few people to walk through at a time. The caravans parked out in a courtyard in front, still in the city proper. The merchant ordered the men to set up. They immediately began to put up stalls, and by the time we were led into the diplomatic quarters, a small bazaar seemed to have sprung up in the city. Eager citizens, likely unaware of the incoming blight, were coming out to see what was for sale. The goods consisted of a lot of meats and pelts, which sold well in a city such as this.
I shot the merchant a look and he shrugged. “We must sell when we can. If we are forced to flee this city, the lighter our loads, the better. Besides, once the news of an army spreads out, what people wish to buy will radically change. This is so-called maximizing profits.”
“When we are done talking, order you, men, to close down. I will be purchasing all food, medical supplies, weapons, necessities, and cloth from you at a reasonable rate.” Lord Stebes stated.
The man sighed. “And then there is that.”
It looked like he had hoped he could make a profit selling to citizens. Lord Stebes’ reasonable rate was likely whatever Lord Stebes was willing to pay. There was no saying their caravan could even make the money back on their trade.
As I entered a meeting room with a round table, Lord Stebes had an army regiment of ten men behind him and a scrawny man that looked like an advisor. As for me, I had my four soldiers, Bala, Saria, Aeryn, and my mother. The caravan leader only brought the one hooded woman along with him. We all found a place to sit, at three distinct corners of the table, with Lord Stebes consuming the most space.
I lowered my head to Lord Stebes, allowing him to go first. Rather than being satisfied, he shot me another hateful glare before turning to the merchant leader.
“How big is this army and how close?” He demanded.
“They should be here by tonight. The undead prefer to move at night. I assume they’ll attack then.” The caravanner answered quickly. “I do not know their numbers at all. They do not leave the same traces as a normal army. I would predict at least 5,000, probably more. They grow with each village along the way.”
Lord Stebes made an ugly expression. “5,000 undead…”
This city likely only had a few thousand itself. Most of them were women and children. That meant that we were completely outmatched.
“How many soldiers can you conscript?” I asked.
Lord Stebes snorted.
“What are our numbers?” Saria leaned forward and asked.
Stebes frowned, but then answered. “Two hundred men on the wall. About 50 in my keep. If I take every able-bodied male between 16 and 40, we could raise another 1000. However, my armories only have enough to equip 300 additional.”
“550…” Saria leaned back with a hiss.
I turned to the merchant calmly. “Where did the undead come from? How did you encounter them?”
“What does it matter?” Lord Stebes growled. “They’re just more devil games. They were sent from Neraka.”
“They came from Perang… correct?”
“How did you kn- ahem…” The merchant covered his mouth. “That is… their location… how could we guess…”
“Perang?” Lord Stebes exclaimed. “A human city? That is impossible! Why would a human city generate undead and then attack ourselves!”
“They undead haven’t been attacking the humans.”
“Not Peri!” the elvish princess gasped.
I shook my head. “Not Peri either. How bad are things… in Benatang?”
“The beastkin nation!” Lord Stebes burst out. “You’re mad! It isn’t even the most convenient location to attack from Perang. The forests of the elvish nation are right there. You’d have to cross an impassable mountain range!”
“Which isn’t very difficult, when you’re not alive.” I shrugged.
“Sir… we’re really just merchants. We were delivering goods from the Capital of Pria when…”
“Can we end this farce, we neither have the time nor the situation. Your caravan is a ruse used to spy. My guess is your country has been getting attacked by swarms of undead for months now. The mountains that separate the northern part of our country from your own, the same range that hid their movements, also kept us from hearing about it.”
“Your paranoia… it’s absurd!” Stebes cried out.
“Tell me, Lord Stebes… when was the last time you had someone approach from Perang? From the elvish nation?”
Lord Stebes looked down, “M-months…”
“We’d have been one of the last… and we bypassed Perang all together.” Saria spoke up.
The merchant sighed, straightening his back, his expression changing into something more diplomatic. “You are correct. For the last month, our country has been flooded with the undead. We were sent to investigate why the human nation as attacking us. I admit, when the Lord of this city refused to open his gates, I was convinced it was a declaration of war. Had you not come out to protect us, I would have sent a runner to begin preparations. Seeing that the man who saved us is a devil, I can’t say I’m not still uncertain. How did you know?”
“There were a few clues. I shrugged, first off, your caravan is extremely well armed for a journey across what should be a relatively safe journey between the elvish nation and the human nation. Bandits are known to be heavy in the south, but the northern paths are usually safe. You were also wearing clothing that didn’t match. Boots and thick clothing, the kind of travel over hills, not forests. Then, there is the fact that you’re selling meats and pelts, animalkin products. The elfkin nation exports mostly herbs and textiles. There was no way you had come from Peri.”
“You knowingly vouched to let spies enter my city?” Lord Stebes snapped.
“Would you prefer that they are allowed to report that the undead do indeed come from the human realm? Do you wish to start a war, Lord Stebes?”
“I see…” The leader sighed. “Since you’ve reasoned this all out, do you plan to capture of now?”
I shook my head. “How could we arrest you? You’re our distinguished guests.”
“Excuse me?” Lord Stebes shot me a look of disbelief.
“After all, you’ve done me a great service.” I smiled. “You’ve returned my sister to me. It has been a while, has it not?”
The robed woman sighed, pulled her hood off, two bunny ears springing up from under her hood. “Hello, Brother.”