The Mad Prince of Dellor
The plain, wooden letterbox on Banric Sahand’s desk was so nondescript that a visitor to his voluminous field pavilion might have noticed it anyway, given that everything else in the tent was unforgettable. An educated person would quickly note that the contents of his bookshelf ran in two varieties—military strategy and proscribed magical texts—and that the vast majority of the books there had long been thought lost or had been banned throughout the West. A businessman or merchant would have noted the ostentatious quality of the Kalsaari rug that covered the ground, or the expense and rarity of the iron-and-mageglass chair that loomed behind his massive, hand-carved desk. A soldier would note the rune-inscribed broadsword on the rack by the fire not only for the weapon’s quality, but also because it was clearly kept sharp, oiled, and in regular use, as were all of the various weapons and armor supported by racks and stands and attended to by invisible specters bound to Sahand’s will. An uneducated person, meanwhile, would have likely been distracted by the imposing person of Sahand himself—his heavy fur cloak; his polished, silver-shod boots; the dark, iron circlet resting on his rugged brow; the goblet he drank from, made from a human skull. All of these things were amazing, terrifying, and incredible to varying degrees, and then, as some kind of strange, mundane joke, there was the plain wooden letterbox, sitting alone in a corner of the desk of a man who had once sought to conquer the West.
Of course, few ever noticed it, or anything else at all about the room. They were usually too busy lying on their faces before the Mad Prince, groveling for their lives, to take in the finer points of His Highness’s personal living quarters.
On this particular afternoon, the groveler was a warlock from Ayventry named Hortense. Hortense was perhaps forty, with a wife and a teenage daughter, and had come highly recommended as a man of skill, principle, and noble bearing. Sahand’s right-hand man, the towering Gallo, pressed a heavy boot into the small of the man’s back, pushing his face towards the floor; watching this, Sahand noted yet again how quickly one’s ‘bearing’ slipped when faced with imminent death. Hortense was weeping tears, drool, and snot on Sahand’s expensive carpet. “Pl…please, Your Highness, permit…just…just permit me one more chance….I, I, I know we’re close…”
Sahand sighed and looked out the open tent flap, where the snow was falling in heavy sheets along the upper slopes of the Dragonspine mountains. “Hortense, what did I tell you last fall?”
Hortense tried to look up, his eyes blinded by tears, but Gallo pressed his face back down. “Oh! You said…that…that I had one year to get the machines to work.”
“And how long ago was that?” Sahand asked calmly.
“Silence.” Sahand nodded to Gallo, who pressed harder on the engineer’s back. “Now, I am not certain how they read contracts in Ayventry, Hortense, but if it is anything like in the rest of Eretheria, twelve months equals a year. That means you are two months behind schedule, which means I am two months behind schedule. This strikes me as unfair, Hortense. Doesn’t that seem unfair?”
“V-very unfair, milord…”
“I agree, it is very unfair. It seems that you are in a breach of contract, even after I so graciously granted you an extension to complete your work and even went to so great a length as to kidnap numerous thaumatuges to assist you and procured literally scores of wild beasts from all over the world to make your work possible. Are you aware of how much such activities cost me?”
Hortense’s voice was mangled by his cheek being pressed into the carpet. “A great deal, milord.”
“Do you hear yourself, Hortense?” Sahand asked, standing up. “Are you aware of just how cavalierly you just uttered the phrase ‘great deal’?”
Hortense’s breath heaved in heavy sobs. “I…I didn’t…I don’t…”
Sahand crouched besides the prone warlock. “Of course you don’t, Hortense—this, I believe, is the problem we are having in our professional relationship.” Sahand grasped the man by his hair and jerked his head back until Sahand could see his eyes. “You simply do not appreciate my problems. My goals, my aspirations, my operations, my finances are abstractions to you, aren’t they?”
Hortense didn’t answer save to produce a nasal whine through his running nose.
“I have a solution to this problem—a way to bind your self-motivation more closely with my own interests. Now, of course, you are too valuable to punish physically—an injured, ill, or starving man does not work well. However, I have found men with families in jeopardy show a great will to succeed in their tasks.”
Hortense’s bloodshot eyes widened and his face crumpled into an even less flattering expression. “Oh…oh please, Hann, no! Anything! Anything but…”
Sahand permitted himself a tight grimace. “For every day you do not meet the goals I set for you, on that night I grant my officers access to your daughter. It is my understanding that they are not gentle lovers.”
Sahand rose and nodded to Gallo, who released the sobbing warlock. Hortense simply sat in the center of the room, tears streaming down his face, his palms upwards in his lap. “It’s…it’s impossible! It cannot be done! I…I…can’t!”
“Well, then, Hortense,” Sahand said, sitting behind his desk, “Congratulations—you will soon be a grandfather.”
Gallo seized Hortense by the scalp and dragged him from the room like a sack of grain. The tent flap closed behind him, leaving Sahand alone. He glowered at the dark stains on the rug where the warlock had been. Ten years! He had spent the past ten years of his life painstakingly preparing for this winter, and now to think he might fail just when success was closest. He wanted to flay the skin of that inept fop of a warlock himself. He wanted to make the entire city of Freegate wade in rivers of blood. He wanted to call down all the powers of the world to crack the fortresses of Galaspin open and feast on the flesh of the fools inside like a bird cracking open a snail. He clenched his fists and teeth until he heard the leather in his gauntlets cracking and heard his teeth grinding with the stress.
He stood up and released his rage into The Shattering. The heat and raw power of the Fey roared through his blood and blasted forth into one of his bookshelves with a spectacular boom, reducing the shelf and the books to flinders and torn pages. The Mad Prince watched the paper flitter around the tent for a moment before taking a deep breath and sitting down. Then he heard something drop into the letterbox.
On the inside of the lid of the plain wooden container was a spider web of intricate astral runes that, when the lid was closed, linked the interior of the box with a spatial rift through which secure messages could be sent. It was, without a doubt, the most expensive object in the room. Even the mighty Arcanostrum of Saldor did not possess such devices. The Sorcerous League, however, possessed many secrets the magi of Saldor did not.
The letter inside had a red seal, marking it as important and specifically addressed to him—the whole League would not be privy to its contents. Waving his hand to seal the tent from intrusion, Sahand broke the seal with the proper word of power and flipped open the letter:
6th Ahzmonth, 33rd Year of Polimeux II
Our friends in Freegate have come upon a unique and unusual opportunity regarding your operations in the mountains. A meeting is requested this very night for those involved to discuss the situation.
Curse the Name of Keeper,
The Office of the Chairman
Sahand frowned, pondering the implications. The vague wording wasn’t unusual for a letter from the Chairman, of course—it was the highest priority of the League to maintain its secrecy, and so any official correspondence would lack detail in case the message were intercepted. The League was, of course, aware of his actions in Freegate—they had afforded him material support in the form of a variety of magecraft—but what they would consider a ‘unique and unusual opportunity’ was very much a mystery. Especially since they had no idea what his real plan was, else they never would have agreed to support him in the first place. Whatever the reason, the meeting would have to be attended. As usual, the timing was very poor.
Sahand summoned Gallo back into his tent. Gallo was a man of similar stature to his lord, but far less social grace. Even in this cold, he wore dull and dented plate and mail with a wolf’s-head helm that only partially hid his horrendously flame-scarred face. His breath was a choking rasp that gurgled and wheezed constantly, as though the man were constantly drowning in his own saliva. His face was a ruin of burn scars, with only a ragged hole for a mouth and two, dark, fish-dead eyes. Of all Sahand’s underlings, he knew he could rely on Gallo. Gallo was that rarest of creatures—a man without ambition or compassion. Whatever fire had melted off the warrior’s face had also taken with it whatever made him human.
“I am not to be disturbed for the remainder of the evening for any reason, on pain of death.” Sahand ordered. He found threatening death to be the most reliable way to keep his idiot underlings away from him for any lengthy period of time, and he knew Gallo would follow through without hesitation. Referring to the spirit clock in his tent, he saw that he had only seven hours before midnight—just barely enough time for the ritual to be completed. Again, he wondered what could be going on for the meeting to be called on such short notice.
Gallo’s voice was a hollow rasp. “Is that all?”
“No. Keep Hortense working, and inform the city that we will need to get the idiot more help. You are dismissed.”
Gallo executed a stiff bow and went out.
“This had better be good.” Sahand grumbled to himself. He sealed the tent, threw the letter in the fireplace, and got to work.
Author’s Note: This is the first half of a chapter from Tyvian Reldamar and the Iron Ring (working title), an Alandar novel I’m currently putting through it’s final revision (hopefully) before it’s healthy enough to send out. Sahand is one of the major villains.