This is more a background chapter that really sets the world in place and explains what the boundaries are for the fantasy. My hope is that it also clarifies a lot of questions the reader has been having up until this point.
And so, without further a do...
Masquerade Chapter Three
“Your ignorance surprises me, Count Wymund. I’d never have imagined that there would be a soul in the nobility who did not know about the Emperor of Berma.”
“You’ll have to forgive me, Lord Carnell. Unlike you, I am not the smartest man in the kingdom.”
The funny little man, who was Lord Jop Carnell, sat across from Wymund giggling like a gnome. By all accounts he looked like an elf from the old folktales, save for his lack of pointed ears. He was a good foot shorter than Wymund and had a bush brown beard that covered most of his face so much that only his long nose and silver spectacles could otherwise been seen. Carnell seemed to fancy giving the impression to others that he was a sorcerer, as he enjoyed wearing long robes and pointed hats.
“Now, now, I have never made such a claim. I’m just a man who believes information is among the most important things one can acquire in life. I’ve based my fortune on it after all.”
“Right, I’m sure plenty of people want to pay for information on shipping manifests…”
“Not just shipping manifests, my young friend!”
Carnell stood up on his stubby little legs and wandered around the study where he and Wymund had been drinking tea in most of the afternoon. Aside from old tomes, most of the room was filled with legers, newspapers, charts, maps, and every other sort of parchment imaginable. Wymund found it impossible to believe that such a mess could be considered organized, but Carnell seemed to be able to navigate through the maze of papers with such direction that the young count could only assume he knew where he was going.
“Behold, nearly every piece of information within Avalot, and even some of our nation’s surrounding neighbors! My collection is constantly being updated on a daily basis by my agents who find every newspaper, every written word, and any tidbit of knowledge that anyone can know!”
“Yes, and I haven’t come to listen to you brag about it, Jop.”
Carnell looked angrily at Wymund, who sat looking bored in his chair. “True, you certainly have your father’s arrogant disposition towards my brilliance, Wymund. What was it you asked? Why an old soldier like Captain Newgate would be so shook up by a presence like the Emperor’s? I’ve heard a whisper that you and he have been friendly with one another lately.”
“I simply wish to learn more about the Emperor of Berma. No doubt you’ve heard of his impending arrival, correct?”
“Of course I have! You’d have to be a fool with stones in your ears to not know about it, the way they talk about it within the Court!”
“I don’t understand what the huge fuss about this old man is, though.”
“Then I suppose it’s true what they say about youth, so quick to act but never taking the time to consider their actions.”
“Isn’t that why I came to you?”
A sly grin appeared underneath Carnell’s bushy beard. “Indeed, even after mocking my collection. You wish to learn? Impress me with an appreciate sum for cooperation, information should not be freely given.”
“Ah, so what you’re saying is you know next to nothing about the man or his imminent arrival and wish to charge me for the legwork involved?”
The smug smile on Carnell’s face quickly disappeared as a pair of big angry eyes took its place. “No. No. No! It irks me to think a know-nothing lord such as yourself could make such an impression within the court! Don’t insult me by claiming I know nothing about a subject you only remain ignorant about because it was before your time!”
Carnell hopped up on one of his table’s and pulled down a map of the world as Wymund continued to sit smiling, happily sipping his tea. “Now pay attention, you young upstart, I’m only going to explain this once!”
He took a stick and pointed at a large landmass in the center of the map. “As you no doubt know, Avalot wasn’t always the great nation it is today. In fact only fifty years ago, we were as much divided as the Outland Countries are now. This was because of two great factions at the time.”
The world map was divided into several large chunks, with two provinces larger than all the others. Carnell aimed the pointer at the one on the right.
“On one side of the conflict was our general province today, Avalot. Our great mines and forests, including our trade on gasoline, allowed us to maintain a constant presence among the other nations through trade and commerce for generations.”
This time he pointed to the section on the left. “On the other was a relatively new power rising in the west. A small unnoticeable nation called Berma had made a discovery that drastically altered the face of warfare and allowed their small armies to acquire territory faster than we could have been prepared for.”
“I see you aren’t completely empty-headed, Wymund. Yes, by stroke of luck, the tiny failing government had stumbled upon that explosive black powder. With the help of their inventors, they equipped their armies with it and began marching to conquer their neighbors before we could react to stop them.”
“I thought gunpowder was some queer magic they used in the stories to scare the troopers.”
Carnell’s face turned beet red in anger. “And I trust you heard such rumors while drinking with those vagabonds in the tavern! I detest excusing simple science as works of magic, rest assured gunpowder is a very real and very dangerous natural phenomenon. It allowed the once small nation Berma nation to expand into an empire which pushed all the way to our borders until twenty years ago.”
“What happened then?”
“What was inevitable, the Emperor of Berma declared war on us. He and King Alric were practically at each other’s throats for a time, if the word from the old veterans of the noble court is to be believed.”
Carnell hopped off of his desk and began flipping madly through some of his old books all while continuing his explanation. “It was a brutal war. Many of my relatives fought and died in the war, leaving me alone as the sole inheritor of the Carnell fortune after my father was killed. The armies of Avalot at the time were the largest in the world, but Berma had the advantage of their new technology. Imagine fields of men charging at each other, only to have wave after wave of them being cut down by only a handful of soldiers. Much of the battles had been fought on the lowlands to the west, making the land there completely unusable.”
“Charming, who emerged victorious then?”
“No one, the fighting ended in a draw that lasted for years. The Bermans couldn’t push our vast armies east enough to make any more progress inland, but we couldn’t supplant them from the hills west, they were too entrenched. The worst days of the war happened there, day to day charges into the Berman filled hills with no real sense of progress.”
Carnell held up a sketched picture in what appeared to be an old journal of sorts. It was a crude drawing of men in armor walking towards mountains with more soldier aiming sticks at them. Red ink covered the paper, to the point where Wymund wasn’t sure if it was blood in the picture or real blood the artist had himself spilled on the book.
“Captain Newgate had been one of the commanders in the armies that took part in these marches. I suspect he saw many of his friends perish at the hands of those Berma soldiers in the hills. Any mention of Bermans or their worst enemy, the Emperor of Berma, no doubt sparks some pretty disquieting memories for the Captain. Worse still was that the conflict never really ended, save for the truce.”
Finally, Carnell pulled out an old newsletter which read in big bold letters “TRUCE ACHIEVED!”
“Former King Alric finally was able to negotiate with the Emperor. I think you know the rest; peace happened at last. The King agreed to marry the Emperor’s daughter, our Queen Beatrice, in trade for an alliance between Avalot and Berma. Beatrice was wedded and dozens of nations followed our unity. After years of conflict, we now have the largest and most powerful country in the world.”
“With some old in bred bad blood it seems. Knowing all that, it comes as a complete surprise to me that the Emperor would bother to come to his most hated enemy’s funeral.”
Carnell cackled as he took his seat and returned to his tea. “I know many things Count Wymund, but I cannot claim to know the thoughts of men. Motives and history, most definitely, but the shadows in men’s hearts are best left alone. There are too many variables to consider as to why men behave as irrationally as they do.”
“I never thought you’d be one to decline on learning something new.”
“I’ve lived a long time to know not to trifle with the Bermans, especially their crazy Emperor. Whatever he’s scheming, so long as I can maintain my status, I care not about the fate of Avalot.”
“When you put it like that, you make it seem like the King being murdered was no freak accident, just like Newgate.”
“He’s said such things, has he?”
“Not to me directly, he hasn’t. But the way he and the Queen have been at each other throats, you’d think it was some sort of conspiracy.”
“Perhaps, but people like you and me shouldn’t trouble ourselves thinking about the what-if’s and theories that no doubt litter the court. If there had truly been some sort of plot, I’m confident I would have heard about it at the very least. Newgate’s behavior can easily be written off as grief, he and King Alric were very close. Childhood friends, even.”
“I wasn’t aware that you considered me in your little upper crust noble club, Carnell. Should I be honored?”
The little noble sighed reluctantly. “Though you are incredibly naïve, young Wymund, I cannot deny that you’ve been making a particular amount of waves within the noble hierarchy. We’ve all made our claims to different lands and regions as members of the noble court, but only a select few of us ever hold enough influence to win over the crowds of Avo. Information may lead to power, but it appears as if it isn’t the only road to rule.”
“I have no idea what you could be implying…”
“Act the fool all you wish, I can see through your ruse. You have a silver tongue on you that can convince anyone to do anything for you. How you managed to win over half the population of Avo is beyond me. Those bands of cutthroats and ruffians are beyond me, but it may be their voice that wins you a piece of the pie that gets divided up after Alric’s funeral. That will make three of us.”
“Perhaps if the rest of you actually cared for the common folk, there wouldn’t be a funeral to begin with. You should go down into the ‘sewers’ as you call them once and awhile to have a drink.”
Carnell made a quick look of disgust and continued sipping his tea. “And lower myself to drinking in the same room as those ruffians? Not a chance!”
“Who’s the third member of this jolly round table you seem to be establishing, anyway?”
“That loudmouthed exploiter, Radolf Maynard. No doubt you’ve heard of him, haven’t you Wymund?” Carnell gave a sickening laugh.
Wymund just stared into his tea. His coy smile had completely vanished. “Yes, him I’ve heard of.”
“He’s apparently been amassing a fortune through weapon’s trading and armaments dealings. He was right on the border with the Berman Empire during the war. Rumor has it he’s even discovered the Berman’s secret to gunpowder but has been selling it for such outrageous prices that no one’s willing to buy it.”
“He’s a disgusting man.”
“Well, we can call him what we want, but the fact of the matter is he’s been playing the trade game right for the past few years. In fact, I daresay that even if you added up all the wealth from each noble in the court together, it still wouldn’t be enough to topple his fortune and he only seems to have a taste for more.”
Wymund continued quietly contemplating his tea, Carnell merely shrugged and said, “Between the three of us, there’s more than enough influence to run the kingdom.”
“But not one of us would be fit enough to rule it.”
“I hadn’t pegged you as a cynic, young Wymund. Or are you merely speaking about others and not yourself?”
“It doesn’t matter I suppose. You know things, I know people, Maynard knows the market. What happened to the heart of the kingdom? Ruling with a just cause and divine righteousness? What does power do to a man to twist them so?”
“I think the answer to your question is that we grew up. Such ideals are the things for the youth and blind men, like your father.”
After a long pause, Wymund finally spoke. “Do you think we’ll improve ourselves?”
“Well, that’s one of two roads we can go by. But look not to the future for too long, it is the present we must be wary of.”
It was at that moment, there was a knock at the study door. Carnell cursed and continued to sip at his tea.
“Just as I finally sit down too, come in!”
A messenger nervously entered the room. He tipped his hat and bowed, not daring to look Lord Carnell in the eye.
“M-Message for you sire! Urgent delivery! Didn’t mean to disturb-“
“Fine, fine, fine! Be gone you whelp! Set it down on the table!”
The young boy nodded and looked up briefly. His eyes caught a glance of Wymund and the look of anxiety on his face transformed into a sincere smile.
“Ah, Terry. Off delivering messages today as opposed to cleaning up the vomit in the bar, are you?”
“Yes, well, it’s only that way when you treat the house to a free round, my lord.”
“Are you here to deliver me a message, boy?” interrupted Carnell. “Or are you here to waste my valuable time with pointless stories from the gutter?”
“B-But I have a letter for the Count as well…”
“Bring it here then, Terry.” The young boy sheepishly handed it over to Wymund. The Count noticed a wax seal that he did not recognize, but continued to open the letter and read it out loud.
Greetings Count Lancelot Wymund,
Despite these darkest of times with news of the death of Avalot’s greet leader, King Alric Dacre, I have elected to hold a small gathering of great host. The most influential and popular noblemen and nobleladies have been invited to attendance.
I seek only to gain a greater perspective of my former rival’s lands by getting know the stalwart defenders who have assisted Alric in ruling it for all these years. No doubt you keen members of the Court can make a guest to this nation feel more welcomed, especially since I go to a funeral of not only one whom I respected but one whom I considered a friend.
I look forward to seeing you there, Lord Wymund. We will meet in the royal garden, overlooking the courtyard an hour after the wake.
Wymund gave a great pause in the reading as both Carnell and Terry looked at him with intense curiosity. But only Carnell spoke aloud.
“Well!? Who’s it from, Wymund?”
“…The Emporer of the Berman Empire. Julian Narvineous.”