All Steps Lead to the Empire
Leaving first from the unexpected meeting, Fulmis, Nyana, and the other Cathaks set a relatively brisk pace for Renny, moving through the Plaza quickly. It was when they had finally reached a section of the staircase that the pace returned to a more normal one. This section of Staircase, Renny noted, was composed of dark green rock of some sort, the smooth steps almost slippery. The landings were uncommon, and possessing one or two doors, each. The light came from lanterns on the landings, the staircases between were in shadow.
"The Plaza, or the Agora as some call it, can be a rather chaotic place. Mostly peaceful, but conflict can come out," Captain Fulmis said as he led the group down a set of stairs. "Hundreds of Doors, lots of cross-dimensional visitors and traffic, it is the Stair at its most singularly intense. Too, the Stair breaks off in a lot of directions from the Plaza, so it is easy, if you are wandering, to head down an unintended Stair. Or, say, to split up and come to the Empire by different vectors, if the senior Captain deems it tactically wise. That would be Shan, the Captain that had found the Field Marshall and his familiar."
"If that Fox is just a pet for the Field Marshall, I’ll be kissed by the Empress," he added.
"I am not sure the idiom translates well," Nyana said. "He means, he’d be surprised," she said helpfully to Renny.
Renny nodded absently, her face lost in thought. Finally she said, "I'm fairly certain we're moving away from my world?"
"B'ys," Renny said, "forgive me, but I am pretty anxious to get back home. I have things I need to do before I'm ready to go to see your Empire."
Renny held up a hand, imploring them to give her a chance to say her piece. "Hearing Tamas's story put this all into perspective. If I'm any judge, he is no hangashore; he's obviously more experienced than me; and he had much of his world working with him.
"And he lost. These Dwimmerlaik of yours destroyed his world.
"I don't think the Dwimmerlaik have ever been to my world. But -- they could arrive at any time, right? I need to start getting my world's defenses in line now.
"Of course, I absolutely have to work with your Empire to have a hope at this. I will arrive there ready to deal. I need to learn how to use these powers I have, too. But I need a bit of time to get things ready before I go. I hope that suits you?"
Lieutenant Nyana looked at Captain Fulmis. Captain Fulmis regarded his second for a long moment. He nodded and he turned to regard Renny. He let out a breath.
"I should have expected that the Field Marshal's story would spur you to this," he said. "Having an entire world destroyed by the Dwimmerlaik and be the survivor of that, that was a heavy story that he told us. Told you. It would be like taking you to the scene of the battle in the Empire, but even more so, because Tamas lost his battle and world. You can see, though, why we need you. But we can't force you to come. If you want to return to your Gossamer World, if you feel the need to see to your own, we can escort you back to that Door. Or another that leads to your world, although I would guess you want to be close to the Lees and not come out in, say, France."
"I think the Captain would not like that at all," Nyana said.
"All right, then," Fulmis said. "We turn around, and we take you back to your Door. I have a spare icon of myself, I will give it to you and on the way back show you how to use it. That way, once you are, as you say, ready to deal, you can contact me directly and save yourself a walk. Agreed?"
"Hold on," Renny said, "I don't intend to stay very long. A day, maybe two?"
The Captain let out a breath of relief.
"Set a few simple things in motion, then head for the Empire." She considered. "Ideally, I think I need your help. I'm going to need people who can keep an eye out for Dwimmerlaik all over the world. Putting it together quickly, I think I'm going to need a Grenadan trader with connections all over, and something I can offer him to make it worth his while." She trails off into thought.
Nyana spoke first. "And here we thought this was a Rejection of the Call in classic form," she said. "You just want to set some things in order. That's an airship of a different color entirely." She looked at Captain Fulmis.
"Y...yes," he said. "I think we can tarry a few days on your world while you set things to order. And then we can move with dispatch, afterwards. Do you think that there could be Dwimmerlaik activity on your world?" He seemed to be looking at Nyana as well as Renny.
"It's a possibility to watch out for, Captain." Nyana said. "Right, Captain?" she said, looking at Renny.
"I don't know how things are on your world," Renny said, "but from our perspective, our world is big and not entirely explored. There could easily be Dwimmerlaik there now, for all we know. Unless you have a way of detecting them from a distance?"
Nyana shook her head. "Unfortunately, no. They aren't usually for shapeshifting or spells to conceal what they are. But they are an entire civilization, an entire species, and generalizations only get you so far. If Dwimmerlaik were to, for example, start to infiltrate positions in a country in your world, France, say, as long as it aided their goals, they would work toward that.
"They also do employ sub-races," she added. "as specialists, shock troops, foot soldiers. There is every possibility they'd do that as a way to strike at your world."
Renny thought about that. "So there's no real description we can tell people to keep an eye out for -- just unknown attackers, or something like that? Have they been known to use humans, even? Either from other worlds, or locals?
"Though if all my Granada agent-to-be needs to do is act as a mail drop for me and keep an ear out for strange troubles, then perhaps I don't really need something extraordinary to hire him."
"Remarkably, they've only gotten limited mileage out of using humans," Nyana said. "It's happened, and there have even been Dragon Blooded and a Warden or two who have given over to their nihilism. That's the one real way you can make an enemy of the Empire, Captain, You can say goodbye, walk away from the Empire. You're a Warden -- holding you requires a lot of work and preparation."
"And such an imprisonment is a waste of resources," Captain Fulmis added.
Renny sought clarification. "You mean, not just walking away from the Empire, but actually siding with the Dwimmerlaik, yes?"
"Yes," Nyana said. "However, throwing your lot in with those who would destroy the universe is the way to make you a shoot-on-sight enemy of the Empire. It's unfortunately happened enough in the Empire history that we have a term for such traitors: 'Akuma'. Its even said the elements, their blessings of the Dragons, are warped to suit the Dwimmerlaik, and that is how you can recognize one. They are not bound to Air, Earth, Fire, Water or Life, but to twisted versions of same."
"That's just talk," Fulmis said. "Meeting Dwimmerlaik and their enemies? That's inevitable on the Stair. Akuma... much less likely. But keeping an eye out for strange doings is just good practice, Captain. Especially since for purposes of the Empire, and for the enemies of it, your homeworld is your Gossamer World."
"What does that mean?" Renny asked. "Have I rights? Responsibilities?"
"Rights and Responsibilities," Fulmis replied. "Those Wardens who have Gossamer Worlds of their own are allowed to keep them as personal holdings, and registered and recognized as such. The Empress, other Wardens of the Empire, and the Empire respect those rights of personal holdings. Now, you can't train an army in your Gossamer World and bring it into Imperial Territory, of course. I understand that was allowed, once. And a House decided to depose the Empress by bringing in blue-haired ape like creatures from a Gossamer World as an army to back their Dragon Bloods.
"House Postumia does not exist any longer," Fulmis finished.
"Now, those are worlds where the Warden has entered and took control of the world fully. I suppose a birth world is going to be different. Most Wardens are not born in other Gossamer Worlds. You, and the others will change that balance. But no House is going to move to annex or suborn your birth world. It is yours, as if you had found it and taken control of it."
Renny nodded in thought. "Are my rights in the affairs of 'my birth world'" -- here she spoke as if the phrase sounded odd to her -- "absolute, or is there an implicit 'Unless there's some really good reason'?" She frowned. "Also, surely there's a fair chance there's actually been another Warden born on my world? Or would you have detected that?"
"The really good reason, and of course there is always one such, would have to be something along the lines of the Dwimmerlaik taking portions of it under control," Fulmis said. "Something that represents a existential threat to the Empire, and that is about just about the only thing the Empress would countenance. It is said that she herself has Gossamer Worlds of her own that she uses for various purposes. Ones difficult to find via the Stair, distant from the Empire."
"As far as other Wardens, no Warden has ever been born in your world, before, since it would have long since been claimed," he added. "And the detection method would have come up with multiple hits when we arrived in New Granada, if there was another one there besides you. We didn't."
"To answer your next question--if another Warden should arise, that would be rather interesting. You'd be asked to bring her, or him, to the Empire, of course. Same is true of straight up Dragon-Bloods. Although outside the boundaries of this disposition from the Empress, you'd likely just adopt them into whatever House you wind up joining, if you wanted."
Renny stayed silent a bit, thinking things over. Finally she said to Nyana, "Are there any of those upgrades you promised for the Lees that can be done in a day? I think I can do what I need to at New Granada in an hour or two, but I definitely wouldn't mind giving my crew an edge while I am occupied elsewhere."
Nyana looked thoughtfully. "Two days, I think, will give you a good start on them. I'd like longer, of course, but two days?" She gave a glance at the Captain.
"Of course," Fulmis said. "You'd take a month if you could. We don't have a month. This trip, anyway. But we are dawdling. Let's get moving."
The march back to Renny's Earth -- her Gossamer World -- was at a fast pace, the Dragonbloods setting good, brisk time, trusting Renny to keep up down Stairs and through corridors. She paid careful attention to the route; she hoped she could duplicate it and come back on her own in the future.
Having seen it both directions, it seemed to Renny to be a matter of counting landings and doors and grokking the layout. There must be charts, like an old fashioned rutter, that would be a vehicle for keeping a route to a particular world in a useable form.
Once they reached New Granada once more, all the Dragonbloods but Nyana remained at an Inn, trusting the engineer-minded Dragonblood with Renny. Nyana sequestered herself in the engine room of the Lees and got to work on engine modifications.
When Renny wasn't busy helping Nyana, she talked to her crew about where she was going, and how to handle themselves while she was gone. A fair chunk wanted to come with her, if not possible on "this trip", of course, then definitely on the next. Jones asked Renny to at least bring back maps of the places she was going. Keillor promised to keep the Lees in good order while Renny was gone.
"Keillor, I know you were ready to captain your own airship months ago. Now is your chance to prove that to the rest of the world. I know you won't let me down."
"I will try not to, Captain." Keillor promised.
Abdul Marikar, a coffee merchant, took up the offer and down payment to be the mail broker for her. He agreed to hold any and all correspondence that arrived for her for a minimum of a year for any given piece, and to forward any mail he was given to its proper destination. Given his contacts in his trade, he promised a reach ranging from the New World to Europe, Africa, and the Levant without difficulty. The letter that Renny wrote to her family promised to be the first piece of mail that he would contract to have delivered.
Dear Jake, I pray this finds you well. I find I am the beneficiary of a sudden opportunity for study in a distant land. While I wish I could return home and say a proper goodbye to everyone, time is of the essence. Strange as it sounds, what I go to learn may, I think, be very important not just for our family and Talamh an Éisc but for the world. I am not sure how well often I will be able to contact home, much less visit. I have made arrangements with Abdul Marikar of New Granada -- you will remember meeting with his coffee salesman in St. John's last September -- to act as a maildrop for me. If you send me post care of him, I will eventually get it. Likewise when I get the chance, I will send letters to the family via him. I am leaving Keillor in charge of the Lees. He has done very well this last year, and I am sure he will be a capable skipper for her while I am gone. As extra insurance and a sort of downpayment on a piece of what I go to learn, my new friends have upgraded the Lees' engines. She should be the fastest airship flying the North Atlantic now. Please give my love and apologies to the entire family. I hope Orla is doing well? Mother will be there to help after the baby is born. I'm including a silver coin for the baby. If (as would be understandable) you don't have time to play fetch with Miranda, get Alan to do it. If Tinny still wants to learn swordfighting, tell her to talk to Athdara from the Lees' crew -- she's good enough that I've learned a number of tricks from her. If Father objects, point out to him it's more dangerous for her *not* to be trained. Athdara will take good care of her, and will teach her well. There's a person I've met that I think is like us. I mean, he's a come from away, but he speaks Gaelic and seems to have a good head on his shoulders. I suspect he's forgotten more about war than any of us are likely to learn. His name is Tamas Wolfe [OOC: at this point Renny included a quick sketch], and if he should show up when I am not around, please offer him hospitality on my behalf. You'd do well to heed him if he offers martial advice. Circumstances being what they are, I may have to send someone else to represent me at some point. If I do, the password will be the place where Tinny first kissed John. I don't think any of us are likely to forget that. Take care of everyone, okay? I'll be back. Love, Renny
By the time Renny, Nyana and the Dragonbloods left, the Lees had, to Keillor's estimation, a twelve percent increase in top speed, a nine percent increase in acceleration, and an eight percent improvement in the ship's best cruising speed thanks to the Dragonblood's upgrades. Nyana explained that the engine improvements would need refinement and tuning, but should last at least a year without her brand of maintenance. This was not, she explained, quite the full magical retrofit that she promised, that would take a couple of weeks, and special materials imported from the Empire, in order to make happen. "That," Nyana said to Renny, "will truly be revolutionary. Especially if the materials can then be identified and found in your Gossamer World."
Renny grinned at Nyana. "When we get the time..."
"Indeed," Nyana said. "The advantage to being a Warden is that, barring accident, we will have that time. Or find it."
Three days after they had turned around, Renny and the Dragonbloods stood on the Staircase, the New Granada Door behind Renny.
"And we are back where we started," Fulmis said. "Now, I hope, more ready of leaving your world, for a time, and ready to see what the Empire offers?"
Renny took a deep breath. "Let us go and find out."
Fulmis led Renny and the Cathaks back along the same course as he had the first time. With the exception of skirting the outer edges of The Plaza, the course was identical, and it helped to refine the course to her world in Renny's mind. Once they were on, from Renny's perspective, virgin territory, it was not much longer before the group reached a section of the stair that was clearly manned and guarded by Imperial soldiers. Fulmis exchanged greetings with them, and introduced Renny in turn.
"Captain, this is Islesi Claridge, Commander of the Threshold Garrison. Claridge, this is Captain Renait, our newest Warden to be, and also an airship pilot herself."
The Commander raises an eyebrow and looks at Renny. "Truly? Captain Fulmis in the infinity of possible Gossamer Worlds went and found a Warden Lost Egg with the same skills and interest as himself?"
Renny looked back at Claridge with interest. "Not exactly the same skills and interests, but similar." Then she grinned. "And I'm pretty sure the Empire's dossier on me said I was an airship captain, so I suspect it's no coincidence that these two good folk were the ones that came after me."
"I might've known," Commander Claridge replied, nodding. "Many are the times I've seen the Captain and his crew return from some far off expedition, telling tales of sailing the skies of various Gossamer Worlds on behalf of the Empire. It makes one almost jealous."
"You would be welcome, Commander Claridge." Captain Fulmis said.
The Dragon Blood shook his head. "They also serve who only stand and guard the Threshold." He turned and bowed to Renny. "I look forward to seeing you time and again in your own future expeditions, Captain. Cathak would be foolish not to give you your own command."
"Quite," Fulmis agreed.
"Thank you both," Renny replied, though her head whirled. I think I can learn to do what they do, she thought. But they seem awfully eager to assume someone they hardly know will be a suitable warrior for them.
"I will send a message ahead by Icon so that transport is awaiting you," Claridge said. "Although Lost Eggs have been coming through, and they're on the watch for new arrivals now."
"Good," Fulmis said.
"Just up two landings and we're there," he said to Renny.
Renny did her best to pick up the pace now that the end of the trip was nigh. Two staircases and their landings up, past more guards, they reached their destination. It seemed a Door like any other, but Fulmis opened it with flourish, as if revealing a grand secret. When he pushed it open, he revealed an open space in the late afternoon, a raised platform over a large plaza.
Renny lurched forward onto the plaza. She found herself in the center of a large city of stone and wood, stretching in all directions. Most of the buildings were brightly, even gaudily colored, walls and roofs alike. A large wall stood under the setting sun. On the opposite side of the plaza was a huge bazaar. The Door itself was in a square building in the center of the platform, looking something like an ancient Roman church.
Renny spun around, trying to take it all in at once. She was stunned by the scale of it all.
"The Imperial City," Lt. Nyana said, pride in her voice. "Center of the Empire. A million people live here, including the Empress." She gestured in the direction of the wall. "Grounds of the Imperial Palace, but that means there are lots of government and aristocratic buildings there, including where you get to stay. Some of us get to go back to the barracks for the nonce."
"A million people," Renny said quietly, awed. "That's ten times the population of all of Talamh an Éisc."
"There are wild places in the Empire like your Talamh an Éisc," Nyana said. "Rocky coasts inhabited by a few sheepherders, beautiful scenery. Places where Daana and Pasiap are both strong. You will love it. And then there is the fecundity of the Empire heartland."
"I am certain you will be finding opportunities to visit the Captain in the Guest Palace," Fulmis said. "As long as it does not interfere with duty."
Nyana nodded, and turned to face Renny. She bowed from the waist. "Until we meet again, Captain, I leave you in Captain Fulmis' hands, as I will be shepherding the unit back to quarters."
Renny smoothly imitated Nyana's bow. "Please do come visit soon," she said warmly.
"I shall. After all, we've airships to discuss." She turned and bowed to Captain Fulmis. "Captain," she said formally, taking her leave, along with the remainder of the troops, heading north across the immense plaza, leaving Fulmis and Renny on the platform.
"And now we'll go and take a horse carriage to the Guest Palace," Fulmis said, gesturing to the west side of the Plaza. "I know one of our fellow Wardens is trying to introduce bicycles to the Imperial City, but they haven't quite caught on as yet. Difficult to manufacture here, we don't have the rubber and would have to import it."
Renny briefly considered asking what a bicycle was, but reckoned if they didn't have them, it wasn't important to know now.
"Aside from the Threshold, and the top of the mountain," he gestured to a looming peak to the west, "the weather across the Empire is temperate, if a bit warm overall. Not tropical enough for rubber trees. It's fortunately diverse enough for tea and coffee, though."
"Shall we go?" Fulmis offered.
"I've always wanted to take a carriage ride," Renny responded.
"Good!" Fulmis said. "Now will be your chance."
A couple of minutes later, Renny was helped into an open air carriage, done in green and gold, the tack of the two black and two white horses similarly decorated. The driver started them off, into the flow of similar vehicles, as well as carts pulled by people, horse riders, and people just walking along the street. The route took them toward and through a gate in the large wall, the bustling and busy city replaced with a green and verdant park like area, with the road winding placidly through the landscape.
"The Imperial Palace grounds take up a big chunk of the city, but it's more than just where the Empress lives," Fulmis said. "Sometimes I think it's too isolated and not connected to the city for its own good, with its attendant problems. I understand your France was like that before Napoleon, the old Monarchy living off in Versailles, and not caring what was happening in Paris and the rest of the country, and unable to make change until it was too late."
Renny nodded. "Are you suggesting this place might be ripe for a revolution?"
"An Empire and an Empress, however benevolent, is the worst form of government," Fulmis said. "Except for all the others."
"Speaking of rulers," he pointed at a large statue of a woman in the center of a roundabout ahead, "that is a depiction of Her Glory, now."
Renny took her first look at the features of the Empress. The statue, 10 feet tall and of bronze, was of a severe looking middle aged woman in a full panoply of robes and a headdress. She held a hand palm upward and pointed toward the road
"There are many different kinds of depictions of Her Glory," Fulmis explained, as the carriage reached, and maneuvered around the roundabout and drew away from the statue. "Empress as mother of the Empire, defender, lawgiver. People don't worship the Empress, she's blessed by the Dragons just as we are, but she's something more than just a Dragon Blood, or even a Warden. What that is, Renny, is a good question. She's over a millennium old, and has powers and resources that keep the Houses in check."
"What I fear is what happens if she were to leave the scene unexpectedly," Fulmis admitted.
"Surely there is a well-established line of succession?"
"No," Fulmis says. "That's a part of our history. The Empress appeared on the scene, and unified a fractious and fractured landscape of kingdoms, duchies, free cities and other polities that continually squabbled with each other. She declared an Empire and made it stick by her power, and abilities. She's ruled ever since, Renny. That sort of rulership doesn't have provisions for a succession, at least not one in recent history. Maybe there was in the beginning. Only one of her original children still lives, and Mnemon is widely considered to be the heir. But the Empress hasn't declared that."
"Possibly," he added after a moment, "to try and keep people from removing Mnemon from the position."
Renny frowned. "I'm not certain I see how moving from presumptive heir to declared heir would make a difference in that respect?"
"It means that thoughts and half-formed plans for dealing with an Heir, that have been put off, have to be made official. It means Mnemon gets a real target on her back, although I suspect there is already the occasional attempt at assassination." Fulmis seemed dead serious.
The carriage rolled along a tree-lined path, away from the statue. A little further, and the carriage slowed down as it passed another carriage just like it, looking worse for the wear, on the greensward next to the road. The horses look agitated, and their driver tried to sooth them.
"Something happened," Fulmis says. "There's a story to that. Possibly someone lost their temper. And it's clear that we're not the first."
"My apologies for that," Renny said. "Shall we make haste in case we are needed?"
"Oh, nothing is going to happen until all the Lost Eggs that are found are brought here. This will likely take a few more days. We just might have gotten pride of place had we been here first. The Chamberlain will make you welcome all the same. And a few minutes of speed won't matter, we're nearly at the Guest Palace. You can see it through the trees." Fulmis pointed at the glimpses of a colonnaded building ahead.
"I am worried that there has been a disturbance at the Guest Palace."
"Frankly, so am I at this point," Fulmis said. "Driver, be wary."
Fulmis seemed agitated and ready for anything as the coach broke the tree line and into the front courtyard that abutted the palace. A large fountain in this courtyard, in the shape of a Dragon, merrily ejected water from its mouth. Up at the Palace, the backs of several individuals could be seen as they entered through the main door.
"All quiet so far," Fulmis said.
A tall, dark-haired, middle-aged woman came out of the doors, hurrying at the approach of the carriage. She gave a curtsey and waited for the carriage to stop where she stood at the front of the Palace.
"A thousand apologies!" she said to Fulmis and Renny. "The Chamberlain just met the first two Lost Eggs who approached, and is escorting them through the Palace. I am Xene of the House of Peleps, his Second. Although I am not he, I welcome you to the Guest Palace," she said, as if rehearsed in front of a mirror a hundred times.
"Thank you," Renny replied while bowing back. Her friendly grin showed she was not in any way disappointed with this greeting. Unsure of protocol, Renny subtly glanced at Fulmis to see if she should introduce herself.
Fulmis gave a short bow. "Greetings, Xene," he said. "I have brought a Lost Egg to the Guest Palace, but I think she should introduce herself."
Renny grinned. "I am Captain Ranait Nic Gearoid of Talamh an Éisc, and I am very pleased to meet you, Xene of Peleps."
"I am sure the Chamberlain will be back shortly to meet you properly. Perhaps I might bring you through the palace to the center..." Xene stopped, and furrowed her eyebrows in confusion as two figures raced into the plaza in front of the palace on two wheeled vehicles.