Sorry guys, I have been infernally busy since college started and what with Beowulf and John Donne and all that stuff. Haven’t had a moment’s time to write the story. But now that the routine is settling, I’ll have more leisure for HTSAS!
Oh and, as a special treat and apology, some more ‘parallel-storyline’ chapters people have been asking for.
Interlude II: Cast in Sunlight
“Honor. Moral. Duty. Valor. The four pillars of the Ebraven Imperial Navy. Every naval soldier must follow these ideals and hold them above all the rest. Unless, of course, the Empire needs you to discard them. Then, your only action must be according to the Empire’s will. Anything for the Empire, may it reign till the end of all ages”
– The First Doctrine, Imperial Navy of Ebraven.
The visitor entered the room with slow, deliberate strides. His claws scratched against the grey stone floor, filling the entire room with a harsh sound. The soft shuffling of papers stopped as Morath looked up from his wood desk laden high with papers. The sight of the Maevarin filled Morath with disgust. Bloody beastmen, he cursed in his heart while staring the visitor down. The beastman shuffled his feet, the movement elicited a painful noise as his claws scraped against the floor.
This is why I fucking hate beastmen. Morath clutched the document in his hands tighter as he waited for the hated noise to stop. Uncivilised brutes.
Huge arched windows on three sides flooded the large room with sunlight. Shadows and the like didn’t reside in Morath’s room. A few stories above the ground, his room was the highest point in Ozine town, and the southernmost point of the Ebraven empire. The warm stone floors gave off the smell of sunlight and summer, mixed with the fruity scent of a full-bodied wine. Usually, Morath liked the time he spent in his room, a testament to the position he had gained through years of hardships and humiliation. Usually, but not today.
Morath’s nose crinkled at the heavy musk of the beastman overpowered the delicate fragrances in his room. Brutes, he cursed again in his mind. He shuffled and filed away the papers on his table made of luxurious dark wood imported from Aftalheir. He could sense his visitor grow uncomfortable as he waited for Morath to explain the nature of his summon. You might have Ambassador status, Morath was thankful for his self-control that his thoughts didn’t show up on his face, but you and I both know you will be treated like the trash you are.
The beastman coughed, unable to contain his discomfort. The sound was closer to a throaty growl that broke the silence of the room where order and propriety had established themselves like an invisible, heavy mantle. Morath gnashed his teeth until the growl had dissipated, and sombre order reclaimed the silence. The ensuing quiet was enough to impress upon the visitor the impropriety of his actions, forcing him into an uneasy muteness.
Morath looked up with his chestnut eyes to stare at the beastman hunching awkwardly. He took a perverse pleasure in seeing his visitor quiver in fright with his whiskers trembling in the golden sunlight. “Torr-Gaharin”, Morath rumbled, “pardon my rudeness, I get too engrossed in my work for my own good”.
Gaharin’s face twitched as he came forward, the sunbeams setting his brown-black fur golden. He knew that Morath’s was a deliberate façade, an attempt to humiliate him. The undisguised glee in Morath’s brown eyes made his fur itch. He suppressed the reflexive low growl emanating from him. Ebraven Empire’s bureaucracy held no love for the Maevarins, and an ambassador giving in to petty provocations wouldn’t do them any favours.
Gaharin shuffled on his feet, discomfited by the warmth and the fleas that plagued him.
“We deeply regret the treatment received by His Excellency”, Morath chewed on the honorific as if pained him to bestow such a title upon his visitor. “Unfortunately, our Southern Command Headquarters does not have… the proper luxury to receive a beastman”. Serves you right, you filth. If you had just died in that ship-hold, I would have a lot fewer problems.
“One cannot expect proper sanitation on Ebraven Ships”, Gaharin growled smoothly.
Morath’s brows wrinkled at his choice of words. How dare he! The paper sheafs scattered as his fingers shook. Insulting our ships? This son of a … Morath caught himself before he said those words out loud. Damn this—he rearranged his reports meticulously, again and again.
“The Duchy Sea Guard ships are hardly part of the Imperial Navy, I am afraid”, Morath grated. “Arranged by the duchy they are attached to, they just patrol the coast for smugglers and escaped slaves”, He put an unnecessary stress on the last two words. He stopped himself from gagging as the strong beastman-musk barreled towards him. Fucking piece of shit. I would have already hung you if you weren’t an ambassador, you bloody krumper.
“I am sure the Imperial Navy is much better”, Gaharin retorted, his striped tail coiling behind him. He picked off a tick from his fur as he stared at Morath, “pity it isn’t equipped to deal with pest infestations”.
Morath’s cheeks heated up as he felt the veins in his neck throb. This bastard! He clutched the wood table hard enough to make it creak. “As I already told His Excellency, Naval Command Ozin does not play host to beastmen usually”, his voice dripped venom as he leant back. The deck chair made of lightweight cane creaked under his weight, providing a sharp punctuation to the conversation of the two men.
Gaharin stared at Morath, his furs bristling. He retracted the talons that had come out in reflex. He cracked his jaw loudly, the popping sound a counterbalance to the creaking chair. Large canines jutting out of Gaharin’s jaws shone white in the sunlight. The two guards behind Morath tightened the grips on their cutlasses, their facial muscles taut.
“Forgive me, Torr-Gaharin”, Morath sneered while his hands ran through his golden hair, “how rude of me”.
Gaharin did a double take when Morath apologised. His ears moved back while his eyes went wide.
“Beastmen like to be called Maevarin, don’t they?”, Morath japed while he arranged the papers on his desk once again. “I erred out of habit, forgive me”. Did you really think I would apologise, you little cur? Morath laughed inside at the Gaharin’s reaction. The inkwell…there! He gave a satisfied smile as he set his desk perfectly. Gaharin’s clenched jaws and shaking form gave him immense pleasure. Beasts should just stay in forests, those bastards.
The guards stepped forward in a defensive manoeuvre. Gaharin’s bristling fur and savage expression had set them on edge. Morath waved his hands to restrain them. “Stand back”, he stared at Gaharin without blinking, “I am sure the ambassador meant no harm”.
“Indeed”, Gaharin drew back, clasping his hands behind his back. “Shall we get along with the nature of the summon?”
“Of course”, Morath leant forward, his hand clasped on the desk. “We have finished the questioning of your entourage. And…” , Morath chewed out the words slowly, savouring every word as it left his mouth, “we found some interesting facts, Silas-Gaharin”.
Gaharin visibly blanched at Morath’s words. He took two steps back as his hackles rose. The glass windows shuddered as the sea-wind changed directions, the wind vane on the balcony outside the east window rotated wildly, the whirr of the metal wind-vane unreasonably loud in the quiet room.
Right on the money, I was. Morath knew he had a smug look on his face. All it needed was a few days. His only regret was how messy the inquisition room had become when they questioned the beastwoman. ‘Inquisition room’, hah! He chuckled inwards, fancy name for a torture chamber. He had hated the room and its users when he had first come here, but soon as he found out, the inquisition room had it uses. Very useful, in fact.
His scalp itched at the thought of how incorrigibly dirty the room becomes. He just couldn’t take his mind off the bloodstains, the shit and piss on the floor, the dismembered body parts. It was a good thing that the beastwoman had cracked in under three days this time. No matter how cruel people thought he was, Morath couldn’t stand the damned torture instruments. So unclean, so unclean they are!
He wrung his hands as he dispelled the thought of the screaming beastwoman from his mind. She had been proven an invaluable asset, giving him all the information he needed. If it were possible, Morath would have preferred keeping the woman alive. He didn’t like killing without need. But this one…Tafina, wasn’t it? Was too broken, too far gone to be considered a sentient creature by the point the torture stopped. Not like beastmen are much sentient in the first place.
Morath waited with eerie patience as the beastman went from fear to shock to realisation. He enjoyed how ambassador Gaharin’s face changed colours as he shook like a leaf. This guy? A Silas? A light smirk arose in Morath’s face as he couldn’t control himself, with pack leaders like these, the beastmen would be wiped out soon.
The passing clouds threw the room in sudden shadows. One of Sangraal’s daytime moons grew brighter as the sun hid itself, glowing softly behind the dark ring. The flutter of the Imperial flag on top of Ozin’s Imperial Navy Southern Command died down along with the wind, plunging the whole room into silence and shadows.
Gaharin still stared at Morath with absolute horror. Muscles tensing, he leapt with a low howl, his claws tore through the air. Morath jerked back violently on his cane chair, eliciting a savage creak from it.
The guards were faster. Two cutlasses left red lines across Gaharin’s flank. Morath’s guards were best of the best recruited from the seasoned rank of sailors. They gave Gaharin no room as they pummeled him with the swords. Gaharin keeled over at the sudden onslaught of kicks and chops. The flurry of practised blows knocked the wind out of him as he was sent sprawling on the stone floor. THUD! The sound of Gaharin’s body hitting the floor resounded through the lavish chamber. Blood stained the dark floor, gathering in little pools on the cracks and nooks.
Morath clicked his tongue. Someone has to clean those stains up.
He stood from his chair and sauntered over to the far side of the room near the west window. The only dark part of the room was adorned with long shelves of fragrant wood. Glass containers in various curious shapes lined the rack in rows. Morath ran his finger over the bottles holding myriad colours.
Desert Snake, Corianth Whiskey, Salabar port wine, Dreadnaught rum…Nah. His finger rested over one glass container. Deep amber liquid rested in the transparent glass bottle shaped like a small cask. High Sea rum. That’s it.
Morath uncorked the bottle with a satisfying pop, taking in the aroma. The whole room got infused with a woody scent in moments. Ah. Now that is better than sniffing that beast.
Morath pawed through the cabinet for a glass, knocking over a few things in the process. Where is the fucking glass when I need it? Who in the name of Visakh keeps displacing my stuff? His hands closed around the glass he searched for. Oh, I don’t let anyone touch this cabinet anyway.
As the liquor filled the glass with short, satisfying glugs, Morath gestured for the guards to back off from Gaharin. The beastman lay prone on the ground, whimpering. His tail lashed helplessly on the floor as he tried to get up.
“His Excellency”, Morath lilted between sips, “that could have been a diplomatic crisis”.
Gaharin’s claws left long scratches on the floor as he tried to get up in vain. The screech made Morath wince. Gaharin spat out a mouthful of blood along with a few broken teeth. The blood-smeared, white canines lay in sharp contrast with the dark floor. Gaharin tried to roll over without success, only his pathetic low whimpers reverberated against the floor.
“So, you little dog”, Morath trembled as he sipped more of his precious liquor. “Tell me how does a wild-dog become a Silas”.
No voice answered him, only a pained wheeze desperate to inhale the air it so needed greeted Morath. A cruel smirk graced Morath’s face as he swaggered over to where Gaharin lay. “No more pithy remarks”? His eyes had an odd shine as he mocked, “His Excellency?”
Morath kicked the prone form in front of him full on its flank. His feet sunk into the lush fur, sinking into the hidebound muscle. How do you like it now, you little beast cunt? Morath kept kicking Gaharin, each kick followed by a sharp breath from the fallen ambassador.
After a while, Morath crinkled his nose as the room filled with the stench of tangy smell of blood. His eyebrows quivered as the air in the room itself took on the thick smell of copper. He covered his mouth so as not to gag while he walked over to the windows at a brisk pace. He threw the huge windows open, the glass warm from the unrelenting sun.
Air rushed in all at once, the salty sea wind battled the smell of blood and won. The squeals of the sea-faring birds filled the room, as did the sirens and horn calls of the numerous ships in the Ozin harbour. Morath looked down on the courtyard where his men practised under the sun, each of their faces inscrutable and sweaty. Rows of blue uniformed men marched and swung their cutlasses as part of their daily routine. The short commands enforcing the drills brought peace to Morath’s mind.
He turned towards Gaharin. The beastman had ceased his laboured breaths. His tail still lashed the floor helplessly as he took measured breaths. Gaharin’s whole body shook. The room was once again thrown in full sunlight, the golden rays of the sun lent the whole scene an odd layer of cheerfulness.
Yes. Everything looks better in the sun and the sea. Morath mused as he lapped at the last of the rum in is glass. Looking at the vast blue-green sea had always calmed him down. The salty sea winds, the screech of the birds were the only disorderly things he permitted in his life. With the sea at his back, Morath turned sharply towards Gaharin.
“Brave sailors are dead because of you”, Morath spat out. “Brave men of the seas who only wanted to protect the lives of citizens”.
Gaharin’s eyes flew open. At least, he tried. The beating had left one of his eyes too swollen to be opened, and the other stared back at Morath in a seething rage.
“What…what brave men?” Gaharin wheezed. “They captured and raped my people, even when we were not slaves”. He spat out some more blood as he spoke, “No, no one treats even slaves the way they treated us”.
Morath’s face twitched. This mangy cur dares insult the sailors? His voice took on a dangerous lilt as he barely contained his rage. “All things considered, His Excellency, my men haven’t yet forgotten the horrors of Poxtli riots”. Morath stared at the glass in his hand, as condensation coated its surface. The cool glass became warm as he rubbed it with his thumb, leaving behind trails of water.
Gaharin lay quiet, staring unblinkingly at Morath with his one good eye. A low derisive laughter emanated from his throat. “Twenty-seven years, and yet the humans haven’t stopped playing the blame game”. His laugh choked up as his lungs laboured to supply the air he needed. “We, the Maevarin have suffered most in that riot the humans created”.
“It was as you deserve, you filth”, Morath japed, “hundreds, you slaughtered hundreds of humans”.
“So did the humans”, Gaharin shot back, “they killed our kin too. Humans stole so many of our children to be sold into slavery. Your Empire refused us answers, cancelled all negotiations! Your greed had brought on all that”.
“You dare”, Morath fumed while his shaking arm pointed a finger at Gaharin, “you dare, against the Empire—”
“None of our sides had any control over the riots, Trident Deuxime”, Gaharin slammed his fists down on the floor, flakes of dry blood scattered from his bloody, matted fur. “After the riots, the Maevarin citizens captured by the Empire still haven’t yet been repatriated! You continue to treat our people as slaves!”
“Silence!” Morath lost his cool for the first time. “It was you beasts who came into our homes and killed our families at night! It was your people that tore us apart, it was you beasts who—” Morath checked himself before his voice reached the courtyard down below. “Who took everything from me”, he seethed at Morath.
A deep sigh escaped Gaharin as he let his body relax. Only his single reddened eye stared at the infuriated Morath. “So that’s it”, Gaharin muttered before laying his head down on the floor.
“What do you mean ‘so that’s it’?” Morath bellowed loud enough for the commotion in the courtyard to stop. Those red eyes of his…such insolence! He raged in his mind. “The laws allow you to stay alive, but that’s the only thing it says, not how I treat you, you cur”.
The wind-vane whirred into a metallic whine again as the wind picked up. The sudden gust sent papers inside the room into a wild flutter, disarraying what Morath had so meticulously arranged. Morath’s brows wrinkled as he watched his paperwork fly through the room. He walked over to his timber table, setting the glass down with a clink.
He ran his fingers down the edge of the table he so loved. He petted it like a pet while he stared daggers at Gaharin. The table was made of wood painstakingly obtained from Aftalheir, paying the Moon Elves a hefty sum. He might have just killed Gaharin if he had managed to damage it with his claws. Still, even selling a beastman ambassador wouldn’t be enough to pay for this.
Gaharin’s voice brought him out of his musing. Morath leant against the table as Gaharin uttered in a pained voice, “What have you done to her? My niece”.
“Your mistress told us all about this ‘niece’ of yours”, Morath sneered while rearranging his papers, sorting it out again with perfect precision. “Frankly speaking, the idea of a Civet cat being the niece of a Wild dog is preposterous”.
Gaharin’s voice was strangely hollow as he sputtered, “What…what did you do to Tafina?”
Morath’s face morphed into a tight smile as he remembered the broken husk of the beastwoman named Tafina. It was only three days, but she had undergone horrific torture under the hands of the inquisitors. She had her revenge, though, her blood and shit had made the inquisition room messy. Very messy.
“Your mistress succumbed to her injuries”, Morath said in a flat voice, “unfortunately, she passed away. The journey was too hard for her”.
Morath’s eyes went wide as he saw Gaharin cry. Trails of transparent tears trailed his furry cheeks. What? Beasts aren’t supposed to…they can’t have such compassions! Morath’s fists shook while he took in the sight of the proud beastman’s silent grief for his beloved.
“However”, Morath spoke with a hurry, “Third Princess Xaeth Prosain Forl Ixlotl is fine”.
“Let the princess go”, Gaharin pleaded, “she is just a child. She wasn’t even born during the riots”.
“Yet, she was the reason a shipful of brave sailors died”, Morath spat out. “Soldiers in service to the Empire”.
“Let her go!”, Gaharin was adamant. His body shuddered as he forced himself to talk, “she has nothing to do with this. Please”.
Even beasts care for their own, don’t they? Morath walked over to where Gaharin lay, standing in front of him. “What do you see there?” he pointed at the wall behind his desk.
Gaharin couldn’t respond. He wheezed painfully as his chest constricted. A few of his ribs had broken. It was only the ferocious tenacity of the beastkin had kept him going till now. Morath crinkled his nose as he pointed again.
“Tell me what is on that wall”. Morath brought his foot down on Gaharin’s outstretched hands. His finger bones broke with sharp snaps, the sound dreadfully loud in the large room. Gaharin whimpered in pain, thrashing against the stone floor.
“That”, Morath’s forefinger pointed at the deep blue banner draped on the wall behind his desk. The huge rectangular banner stretched taut as its swallow tailed-end was weighted with lead. “See the four cutlasses radiating outwards from the centre? That; is the heraldic coat of arms of our proud Imperial Navy Southern Command”.
Gaharin had come out of his stupor and stared dumbly at the wall. Morath’s face had taken on a maniacal look as he explained the drapery. His left hand lay flat on his chest in the standard navy salute.
“And that”, Morath trembled in excitement as he spoke pointing his finger at the other end of the wall. The sunlight had thrown the wall holding the banners half in shadow. I…hate this time of the day. Why do the shadows have to creep on the glorious banners!
The rectangular banner fluttered a little in the wind in spite of the lead weights as if in reply to Morath’s thoughts. The golden anchor tipped with a trident embossed on the flag rippled, the turquoise background a perfect match for the sea outside the windows. “Are you listening?” Morath nudged the fallen Gaharin with his foot. “Don’t you dare look away from the Imperial Navy flag, you imbecile”.
The climbing sun stretched the shadows so more and more of the wall grew dark. Morath agonised in his heart. I will change the architecture if I have to, but no more shadows on the banners…
“And now”, Morath kicked Gaharin full on the face. His heavy draken-leather boots smashed the beastman’s snout with a sickening crunch. Gaharin howled in pain with blood trickling down his nostrils as bright red blood matted his fur. His tail coiled and thrashed on the ground like an earthworm sprinkled with salt. “Look, look in awe you mangy cur”, Morath bowed his head as he pointed at the crimson banner with black and gold borders. “The shieldmark of the four divine instruments. Talaviel’s Sceptre, Fargalith’s Sword, Cromnorgar’vel’s Sickle and Bisakh’s Trident”, Morath’s voice took on a fervent reverent tone as he kneeled in front of the banners. “The four god’s blessings grace our Holy Ebraven Empire, may it reign till the end of all ages”.
Morath held up Gaharin’s head by the long fur on his neck. “This. This is all you have tried to defy, beastman. The Empire will exact its toll, and by the gods, will it be heavy”. He let Gaharin’s head drop, the motion making a dull thwack against the floor. “Your fate was sealed when you and your ilk sailed up to the Ozine harbour. You killed men of the Empire, destroyed Empire’s property and sail up to us? How brazen. Preposterous!”
Morath swaggered away from Gaharin’s prone body, towards the banners. “You and your preposterous stories about demons and Spire-Masters. Did you for a moment think anyone would believe you? After what you did? And with a Princess in tow?” His harsh laughter rang through the room, causing the numerous glass decanters in his liquor cabinet tinkle as they vibrated. “And now, you have lost your precious princess”.
“What…what are you—”, Gaharin’s sputtered in a choking voice, unable to keep the blood flooding into his lungs. “what have you done to Princess?”
Morath’s eyebrows rose as he stared at Gaharin. The beastmen are really persistent, aren’t they. Even after all the beatings…
“Nothing”, Morath splayed his hands as he watched the sea change colour outside the windows. “Absolutely nothing. The code of conduct and terms of Poxtli treaty demand that I return the Princess unharmed to the Tashcoatl Kingdom. I might be a lot of things, but I do not harm children”.
“No…no”, Gaharin protested in his weak voice, “Not…our Kingdom. She will be…killed”.
“I know”, Morath replied in a flat voice. His eyes traced the white and grey Johar birds fight for the fish that had spilt out of fishermen’s net. Their shrill cries filled Ozine harbour with chaotic cacophony.
“Please no”, Gaharin still sputtered with his last strength. “Don’t send Forl…to our Kingdom. We fled from…her siblings”.
“Succession rights can be nasty”, Morath walked up to Gaharin again as he stared the proud beastman-noble take his last breaths. “However, this is what the law dictates; hence, the Fourth Princess Forl will be sent to her homeland. But we don’t intend to let her die. No child will die on my watch. As long as she is of use to the Empire, that is”.
Gaharin stared at Morath with his one good eyes. “Humans!”, he wailed as tears ran down his cheeks, “Humans! how low can you kind sink!” . His voice was unusually clear for one dying. Bloody tears ran down his cheeks from the damaged eyes as he sobbed, “Forgive me, Princes, for…for I couldn’t sav—”
CRACK! Bones broke as Morath brought his foot down on Gaharin’s skull. The beastman immediately lost consciousness, blood drenching the floor beneath him.
“Anything for the Empire”, Morath said in a hollow voice. “Anything”, he muttered again as he walked up to his desk, manoeuvring himself on the cane chair.
He drummed his fingers on the dark, wooden desk as he had done on so many occasions before. He checked himself as soon as he realised what he was doing. Can’t do that. Such frivolity cannot be permitted for a man of my position. He removed his hands lest he be tempted to drum again.
Morath let out a huge sigh as he gestured for one of his guards to come forward. The man stood in front of his desk with a perfectly executed Navy salute. His face did not betray any sort of emotion. Morath liked it that way; Perfect soldier, he thought.
“Get the ambassador out of here”, Morath ordered while rearranging his papers and desk stationery. “Absolutely do not let the beastman die. Throw him in the deepest level of Ozine dungeon”.
The guard saluted again and marched out of the room to bring in people to carry the Gaharin’s body. His dull footsteps echoed in the room, a continuous punctuation to the shrieking birds outside.
“Oh and”, Morath added, “send someone to clean the blood up”.
Morath’s chestnut eyes scanned the documents for the umpteenth time as he thought about what was to come. Princess Forl, he mused as he thought about the black haired civet-cat girl. Soon, we will make you a Queen. His eyes tracked on the document the correct Maevarin term, Yes; Broodmother. That’s the term for beastmen queens. He sighed as he contemplated the immense work that needed to be done to transform the weak, sobbing little girl who was unaware of her true identity to the Queen Regnant of Tashcoatl. A puppet queen, mused Morath, dancing on our Empire’s strings.
Morath’s hands moved in a brisk pace, filing, rearranging, sorting. So much disarray! He agonised in his mind, must sort them out.
Whoops! Who thought Forl was a Princess?!? Now that she is in the hands of the nefarious Morath (Seriously, what is up with this OCD navy commander!) what will happen to the cute, little Forl? What do you guys think is going on?
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