Book 6: The Ebony Prince of Earlgos
Episode 1: To Parros
The sound of footsteps could be heard far and high. The marble floor, it’s complicated pattern of entangled swirls, collided with the white, hard-heeled boots creating a unique echo. The beautiful lady in the white cloak – behind her the troops from the Nospherus expedition – including Feldrick, Astrias, Lindrot, and others in bandages from the last battle – advanced in silence. Only Amnelis, her head held high, showed a lack of fatigue in here gait.
“Glad you are safe.”
“Your Highness has returned,” From left to right, Amnelis’ face alone garnered the party many a greeting.
The majestic Gold Scorpion Palace laid in the center of Mongaul’s Capital city of Torus. It’s golden walls, marbled flooring, and jeweled upholstery meshed together in a dazzling brilliance.
Well, I was able to return alive, she forced herself to think, though it did little for her already deflated ego.
Amnelis – helm in hand – looked to her left and to her right, her emerald eyes taking in the nostalgic scenery. Toga-wearing Goddesses and soldiers in ceremonial armor numbered among some of the figures chiseled into the palace’s many pillars and columns. It was a sight Amnelis remembered so well. Indeed, it seemed the ideal symbol of luxury for the capital of one of the emerging Gohran empires. More than anything, those that entered the golden palace, both men and women with sun burnt faces from daylong work, showed the will of the citizens to persevere and fight. However, when the expedition forces passed through the cleanly polished corridor, full of dirt, tired from the long journey and broken from their recent defeat, it seemed like the atmosphere changed. Amnelis bit her lip, and shook her golden hair.
“General of the Right, the honorable Lady Amnelis of Mongaul!” roared the gatekeeper, partly to match the loud, steel crack of the gong that echoed heavily within the palace.
Amnelis had reached two marbled doors, and she and her party made a ceremonious stop, clicking the heels of their boots together in synchronicity. The doors were massive; the width of the gold that wrapped thinly around them about the size of an adult hand. The emblem of Mongaul, resting in the middle of this mammoth gate, began to split, the left and right halves dispersing in response to the gong’s signal. The soldiers were struck with the brightness of emerging light. Within was a line of people. Mongauli nobles, senior citizens, warlords, people in fur cloaks and special headwear, and all in positions of importance. They all were quick to greet the noble woman, putting a hand to their breasts. Amnelis was also quick to do so. As she brushed off the dust from the hem of her white cloak, she proceeded through the middle of the rows of people without hesitation. She was now in the throne room. Behind the line of military guards and generals were murals of niche paintings of the king and his sons during the founding of Mongaul. The paintings reached the ceiling, where the eyes of Mongaul and the Three Kingdoms of Gohra were illustrated. A globe made of pristine jewels caught the typical wandering gaze on the other side of the room. At their feet was an image depicting a large, gold scorpion, demanding the eye’s attention. Amnelis wasted no time heading forward, trampling over the embedded arachnomorph, reaching the front of the throne and taking a knee. As she bent down, her long white cloak fell upon one of the scissor-like claws of the scorpion, eliciting the illusion that it was preparing to cut the cape in two.
“Your Highness, I have returned,” Amnelis said, lowering her head in what could either be obeisance or disgrace. Her golden hair was long enough that, with this bow, it touched the floor. “It shames me that I was not able to fulfill your order. I am prepared to resign my position as General of the Right and am ready for any punishment that befits my crime” said Amnelis, clearly forcing the words out of her mouth with disgusted self-pity. Her head continued to hang downward.
Behind her, the captains of the expedition troops, such as Feldrick and Lindrot, couldn’t help but remember the scene that had unfolded such a short time ago.
“Oh,” Amnelis continued. In all the principality of Mongaul, only she could lack the fear of failing the Archduke Vlad – once called the Black Scorpion of Mongaul, his voice loud and tone intimidating as it was – for he was her father, and she was his precious daughter. “One thing I would like to say – speaking on behalf of Gajus, Feldrick, and any others who still draw breath after the battle – is that neither Marus nor Leegan were ever meant to be lost to the barbarians of Nospherus. I do ask that you permit me to go back and make camp at the barrier of the Kes River, and send for reinforcements while we rest our tired soldiers. Then, we can go back to the Nospherus wildlands to fulfill your order once again. I was prepared to fight on the battlefield for 10 or 20 years to fulfill your order, claiming Nospherus for Mongaul in the process. I never planned to come back to Torus until I had taken it. Please, fath… no, Your Highness!” Amnelis was no longer bent over, moving her beautiful hair from her eyes as she looked at her father, waiting for him to speak.
However, as if demanding attention from the room, the man at the throne raised his hand gently.
“I understand, Amnelis. I am just happy to know you are back in Torus now.” It was the first time since his daughter arrived that the Archduke opened his mouth. Archduke Vlad stood wearing a soft, warm fur coat of luxurious crimson flush. The throne he had been sitting upon just begged one to gaze upon its masterfully designed lion head that rested atop it. The lion gave off an intimidating ambiance, though rather than being meant to frighten, it was widely accepted as a symbol that embodied respect. At first glance, save one similarity, Vlad looked nothing like his daughter. He was an excellent warrior, strong and robust. His body was large, his shoulders and neck both solid like a rock. His hair, in the process of aging, was half-white. He had a chin that appeared heavy. His face, lascivious and copper red, had a dignified yet terrifying appearance, as if he could not know warmth or compassion. Under his long eyebrows, the single resemblance to Amnelis he had was the twinkle in his eyes. Their deep, green, icy stare were enough to intimidate whatever they fixed on.
In contrast, to the left of the throne almost hidden behind the line of adults was the Archduke’s son, a slender young boy with clothes much the same as his father’s, but possessing a much more soft, placid look. It was none other than Lord Mial of Mongaul. His blonde hair reached to his shoulder, not unlike his older sister Amnelis. Even his eyes reflected the same shade of green, like the young leaves of the Frontier forest: gentle, fragile, and clear. Speaking of fragile, first impressions of the boy were not befitting of an heir to the throne. He was handsome, but was like a beautiful butterfly – distracting, perhaps, while present, but becoming forgotten once it disappears. His age was close to that of the twins of Parros – Rinda and Remus – perhaps slightly below. From the moment Amnelis entered, the boy’s eyes were directed toward his sister, a mixture of worship and jealousy enveloping his thoughts. At the same time, Amnelis, whom hadn’t seen her brother in several months, did not even seem to notice him.
“But why?” Amnelis asked, eyes fixated intensely on her father, unlike the eyes of young Mial. “As it stands now, this will be heard by the Kingdoms of Kumn, and Yulania. In addition to losing Stafolos Keep by a group of Sem barbarians, Mongaul expounded a total of 15,000 soldiers all the way to the Nospherus wildlands, in which the Sems advantageously call home. What’s more, many of their ilk still live. Don’t be a fool, father! Not only that, but if Kumn and Yulania have suspected why Mongaul was obsessed with Nospherus so much, what do you think they will do? The only way we can claim Nospherus under Mongaul’s flag is to have tens of thousands of soldiers posted there! Just because we retreated back to Torus does not mean soldiers lack the morale to go back. In addition, we have Alvon Keep, a valuable military outpost bordering the Kes. Provided the leader of the side that lost never speaks of it, we should continue to be superior. My conviction cannot be satisfied with your actions, father!”
“I know, I understand,” The Archduke shook his hands, waving away any misinterpretations that might have entered the air.
Amnelis frowned. Her father was foolish to be in such a good mood. His cold, merciless green eyes seemed to shine with satisfaction as he stared at his offspring. If she were not his daughter, he would have been like any other ruler, exploding with rage and yelling, “Idiots! You imbeciles should be ashamed of yourselves. How can you even show your faces here?”
The archduke, catching the suspicious eyes of Amnelis, received them calmly. “In any case, even though Nospherus, the Sem, and the other party are still relatively unknown to Mongaul, it is only but a small piece to the larger puzzle we must complete. Furthermore, it is not a game where you lose one piece and everything collapses. It is not a key point that allows the ‘king’ to be taken. You did well, Amnelis. If it had been anyone but you, the sands of Nospherus would have swallowed them by now. In fact, the Nospherus expedition gave us more information about the geography there, and indicated the threat its denizens present to us. I’d say that is satisfactory enough.”
“Father!” Amnelis protested, glaring angrily at the Archduke. “This is unlike you. Are you saying it is okay that the barbarians of Nospherus are in an alliance with Parros? The brutish tribal monkeys known as Sem, and the giant humanoids known as Lagon lent their numbers to help the twins of Parros escape, while I turned tail and ran back to my kingdom. We can’t guarantee the safety of the Frontier Country, not to mention the safety of the barrier across the Kes, when at any time, the orphans of Parros could bring their wildling army and wipe us out!”
“Amnelis, that is what I think, and there is nothing left to say.” The Archduke’s tone became slightly more severe, revealing his usual scales. Though she hid it well, Amnelis was taken aback by his sudden fierceness. But, he quickly returned to his gentler voice, showing a hint of a smile. “Well, no matter. I understand long trips tend to be hard on a woman, not to mention you just lost dear old Marus.”
“And Leegan, and Vlon…” Amnelis bit her lip. The miserable death of Count Marus, who was trapped by boulders and left to burn alive, and General Leegan’s fatal encounter with the yidoh, ran through Amnelis’ mind. In the corner of the line of nobles stood Maltius, one of Count Marus’ children. For a moment, all the glistening extravagance seemed a dream, as if the soldiers were still out there in the barren wasteland, boots buried deep in sand. “Also, Tangard was taken to Alvon keep due to his serious injuries. Even if he were somehow still alive, who he originally was is now completely…”
“I see. He was a fine knight, great on the battlefield.” Vlad responded. However, his mind seemed to be concentrated on other things.
The color in Amnelis’ calm eyes seemed to darken, no longer the emerald it was before. However, owning up to the title of “Lady of Ice”, she kept a cold, hard gaze on her father, her expressionless face frozen as she waited for him to continue speaking. Whenever Vlad went quiet, thinking vexingly about an idea, everyone knew he was getting ready to say something important. In all the four directions, it was not likely that her father would disregard this as a simple vacation taken by a daughter born in luxury. Sure enough, after thinking long and hard about what to do as a compassionate father, Archduke Vlad opened his mouth.
“Well, I am sure the battle was rough. Though I would like to allow you to settle down and rest your body slowly, I fear I cannot do so. You may take a break and relax for just a couple days, but then you must leave. I have responded to your anger without resistance because I feel there is another urgent matter. As for Nospherus, do not fret; I shall leave it in good hands. Marus, and others who have perished, will not be disrespected, and shall never be forgotten. After all, Count Marus was like a grandfather to you. I am deeply sorry that we have not the time to prepare a proper funeral for him. Now, preparations are already in progress. I need you to set out as soon as they are complete. Your destination is Parros.”
“Thank you.” Amnelis replied, her face unchanging. “So it’s the city of Crystal now?”
“Before calling you back from Nospherus, I had assigned Tylan as the commander of troops in Crystal, with Brook and Caaslon as second in command. I may be wrong, but something tells me Crystal is more important. I have other plans for Nospherus.” Archduke Vlad gradually pulled his arms into his sleeves. “By the way, Amnelis, you can dance can’t you? Of course you can.”
“What?” Handing over Nospherus to Parros was one thing, but this was more than she could swallow. Dance was a word she had never expected to hear. “Dance, did you say?” The Lady of Ice, in spite of this, remained expressionless, though her eyes grew bigger in response to the surprise.
However, Vlad showed no sign of sugarcoating the subject, and replied, “Yes – dance – though the dance of Parros is quite difficult. The customs of a civilized country is indeed troublesome. However, I have had plenty of Parros’ latest clothing fashions tailored for you in your absence. I’m loath to admit it, but their tastes are quite a bit more elegant and sophisticated than that of our country’s. I’d like you to try them on later. I think you would look positively dashing.”
“Father, what is this ludicrousness?!” Amnelis was exploding now. Her smooth cheeks were flush with anger. “Now you’ve got me wearing dresses! What is this for? I am Amnelis – daughter of Archduke Vlad and Lady of Mongaul! One does not become the General of the Right, commanding half of Mongaul’s two hundred thousand troops, by wearing pretty dresses and going dancing! Am I truly just a nobleman’s daughter to you? Even a Mongauli farmer carries a sword and keeps a horse ready in case of emergency – but I have to dance wearing a stupid dress?!”
“Do not get so angry,” The Archduke muttered, no visible signs of agitation. In fact, his eyes seemed to shine in amusement. “I am still your father. I am not accustomed to things outside of issuing ‘commands’ to troops to make weapons and fulfill orders. However, things like civilized nations, which make up the belly of the Middle Country and its fame, tend to make troublesome tasks such as this so important. I do hope, though, with respect to your dear old father, that you understand you cannot always fight with horses and swords. Sometimes, you must learn to fight with your smile and gentle curtsies.”
“I refuse,” Amnelis said bluntly. “I am not about to behave like a court lady; a warrior who shames himself by putting flowers on his horse. If this were the purpose of sending me to Parros, you’d be better off sending cousin Aria, Count Marus’ younger sister.”
“Such a troublesome daughter. Nothing, not even seeing a battle-hardened warrior in a beautiful dress, could cause the people to laugh at you.” The Archduke began to grow frustrated. A small stir broke out among some of the nobles surrounding the throne. “No. It must be you, my dear. You shall do as I say not only because I am your father, but because you have pledged your life to the Archduke of Mongaul”.
“True. I am the Lady of Mongaul, General of the Right who pledged her sword to you… If an order is given, there is no alternative than to obey, of course,” said Amnelis, rather ironically, as she showed her allegiance by placing the flat side of her sword to her chest. “Whatever I must do, I shall do it, father.”
“I’m relieved to hear that. You are a wise daughter.” The Archduke seemed to smile with his eyes. However, it was far from being a smile from a compassionate father this time. “Amnelis. You turned eighteen this year.”
“Right. Well, when a girl turns eighteen, she becomes a woman. A woman of royalty such as you should be married. That is why you must go to Crystal – I have made wedding arrangements.”
“Huh?” Amnelis tried to say, only realizing too late that she had forgotten to open her mouth. “That’s…”
“Tylan is commanding troops there. He is making all necessary preparations, so there is no need to worry. Adorned in your beautiful dress, you shall capture the heart of the bridegroom. Of course, you are beautiful already, my child. It would not be an exaggeration to say you are the most beautiful woman in Mongaul.”
“…” By now, Amnelis was as pale as a sheet of paper.
Behind her, as she stood in a frozen stupor, Astrias felt a sudden jolt run through him in response to what he had just heard. He knew better than Amnelis herself what the purpose of this marriage was. His eyes began to wander, and he started to feel lightheaded. His ears rang with the sound of his own heart pounding in his chest, and he was no longer listening to what was going on.
“Astrias. Hey, Astrias!” If Feldrick was not there to pinch the back of his hand and bring him back to sanity, perhaps he might have let out a short burst of hysterical laughter.
However, after a momentary silence, Amnelis quietly asked, “Is that your order?”
“Alright. Well then, to fulfill your order effectively, I, Amnelis, shall leave immediately for Parros.” The large room gradually became chatter, like the start of a sizzle from a hot frying pan.
“Are you not interested in whom you are getting married to?” said the Archduke, a bitter smile on his face.
Amnelis gave a cold smile of her own. “No matter who it is, such things have nothing to do with me. A doll possessed by the spirit of a demon, or a Sem of the wilderness… whoever it is, I will still be a general of Mongaul”.
“Yes, yes.” Archduke Vlad said, seemingly contented. “You truly are the paragon of every Mongauli warrior. Do not worry, the marriage your father has prepared for you will no doubt please you. However, there is something troubling I must speak with you about. You shall go to Parros, and you shall have a wedding, but before that happens, you must first findthe bridegroom. You must push him out of the hole he’s hiding in and then take him. The bridegroom might not even be in Crystal now.”
Strangely, as soon as she heard this, the pale white from Amnelis’ forehead – even the last cloudy color – had evaporated, revealing her sunny face once more. “Understood.” She said with a grin. “Who is my bridegroom, and why am I to marry him? Whoever it is, if I am to represent Parros from now on, I must find where this future husband of mine is hiding and drag him to his own wedding.”
“That’s right. But, I am not looking for you to wed someone who is not a young man himself. After all, I do not want you to become a widow so soon after marriage.”
“I am not worried.” It seemed the emerald gaze of both father and daughter was the same shade. There were no signs of emotion in Amnelis’ eyes anymore. No longer was it the face of a daughter of eighteen, but the face of a ruthless conqueror that boldly realized the strategy in the warlord’s grand scheme. “At the very least, I suppose I shall practice my dancing. By the way, father, about Nospherus…”
“Ah, yes. I was going to talk to you about that after we consulted about the details of Doal’s land. I wonder whom I could send to not only deal with our departed troops, but also take over as General in your place? The circumstances have changed quite a bit. I can no longer afford to pour my heart into that territory. For now, I think I can at least set up a small line of defense across the east bank of the Kes River. Visount Maltius, I assume you would want revenge for your father’s death?”
“Thank you, Your Grace. Please forgive my vengeful desires,” came a youthful voice belonging to the first son of Count Marus, who came forward quickly to express his gratitude. He had dark, black hair, as well as black eyes, and his face length showed he was a young man similar in appearance to Astrias.
Amnelis made a quick glance at him before looking away. “No, you’re probably right. We do need to think about sending too large an army; the sooner a decision is made the better. However, it may not be a good idea to send Maltius, who already holds a grudge against the Sem.” Amnelis sat in thought for a while. “Might I suggest Generals Rozan or Mentius as the acting general to the river Kes, and Astrias, who participated in this previous expedition, as lieutenant?”
Astrias’ face went pale as he heard the Lady’s request. Noticing this, Feldrick said, “Hey, don’t worry, just accept it for now. I’ll see what I can do about getting them to switch you out for Irrim or Lindrot.” As Feldrick whispered this in his ear, Astrias nodded like a puppet, a soulless shell of a man, as if to say he had given up hope.
“That is good advice. Well, Mentius?!”
“I accept, your majesty.”
“Then, I shall place Astrias under your command. Feldrick will assist Amnelis, accompanied by Dirk and Lindrot. Now, this operation will be much longer than your last. Pick some servants to accompany you on the journey. I feel they will be beneficial to this mission.”
“I understand,” Amnelis replied, smiling. But her smile was cold. “Well then…”
“Yes. Later, let’s get a detailed report.”
“Haa,” Amnelis let out a breath of air as she felt herself coming in and out of consciousness. In her state of dizziness, she could vaguely make out Astrias standing behind Feldrick. For a moment, she could see a strange look in his eyes, some complex expression that Amnelis could not explain. Suddenly, she lifted her head, her golden hair flowing almost to her waist, shining even more brightly than the golden scorpion delineating the floor they stood on. No longer was she the young and naïve maiden of eighteen, but a woman, prepared to marry for her country.
Later that day –
“This is absolutely ridiculous!” Amnelis’ eyes were glazed with anger, engulfed in an emerald flame. After passing through a long corridor, she entered the women’s private quarters. There, she allowed the handmaidens to help her remove her cloak, take off her outfit, unravel her boots, and rid her of the rest of her garments.
“Your Highness, you must be tired.”
“It is a long journey to Parros. As the archduke’s daughter, you are invaluable.”
“Even if a noble woman is strong, a woman is still a woman…” While they lamented, the handmaidens rid the room of the Lady’s dirty clothes. Amnelis was seated in an elegant, white marble bath that had been prepared for her.
“Married! I knew that when marriage came, it would be a strategic move for Mongaul, but I thought I at least had two more years.”
“But, being a noble woman, surely a wedding dress would suit you nicely.”
“Yeah. You’d look like the Goddess of beauty, Saria.”
“Oh hush yourselves, Flory and Lucia. I feel relaxed like the Goddess Saria, but it is Irana, wife of the War God Ruah, whom I wish to be.”
“Really? Her Highness – Irana?” The maids laughed, as Amnelis poured a cup of hot water onto her golden locks.
Despite her wariness from the long journey, Amnelis decided to go to the terrace to dry her hair, as she put on her long, soft toga. She frowned, looking down at the garden. “Mial, come into the women’s quarters. Don’t be shy.”
“Elder sister…” The sickly young nobleman looked up at his older sibling with envy.
“How are you doing, Mial? Has your little body gotten stronger? How are you with the sword? What about your horse riding lessons? Are you reading those war strategy books?” Amnelis asked, somewhat condescendingly.
The young lord gave a weak expression, and just shrugged his shoulders.
“Heavens! No matter how many years since mother’s died, you’ve been stuck in a bad place. You don’t look like a hero at all. Oh, I’m sick of this. Bring me the dress, I’m ready to dance!” As she realized what she had just said, she remembered the words spoken to her on the battlefield that day.
‘A woman’s place is outside of battle. She should wear dresses and dance at palace balls!’ Guin’s words kept sounding in her ears as she recalled the painful image of him standing above her during the battle of Nospherus. Thinking about that moment caused her to bite down hard on her lip in rage. This is not Nospherus, She thought to herself. Nospherus was far away now, and so was the leopard-headed warrior who had made her so upset. Guin…! Amnelis flicked her hair to the back, and with that, flicked her own nagging thoughts behind her.