“The superior and the inferior wage a hundred battles a day… thus, a wise ruler, when he makes his laws, is bound to find himself in conflict with the world.”
– Hanzi, 1st Chancellor of the Left, Ying Dynasty, Dawn Imperium
Konstantin’s jaw stretched in a huge yawn as he sat on top of his mount. His maid, who stood beside him by the muddy dirt road, soon covered her mouth as she caught it like a contagion.
After nearly twenty minutes of waiting, the young lord pulled out his arcane pocket watch from his fur coat and examined it.
“He’s late!” Konstantin declared with a frown.
The young noble anxiously adjusted his collar and pulled his coat straight. His traveling wardrobe for the day might not match the usual imported cashmere with silver embroidery, but its fox-fur trim still spoke of upper-middle class affluence.
With nothing to do but wait, he examined his maid and scowled at her drab clothing. She wore a plain brown and white dress in a style common among peasants. A faded-green wool cloak that looked like a worn-out moldy carpet wrapped around her shoulders. The only thing nice was that she at least didn’t smell like a peasant. As someone who occasionally shared his bed, the girl took baths fairly often. She also tended to carry the scent of freshly-grounded rosemary and chamomile, and the fragrance was stronger today than usual.
“Couldn’t you have worn some better clothes?” He muttered with annoyance.
“What’s wrong with this?” Luna puzzled in her soft voice. “It’s perfectly adequate for the weather.”
“I need to make a good first impression today, and you look like you’re wearing an old blanket,” he scowled. “Remind me the next time we go to Boh that we should visit the tailor. If you’re going to accompany me in more than just my wastrel persona, I need you to look better than just a servant.”
“But that’s the truth…”
Konstantin sighed. “When it comes to social perception, Luna, the truth is greatly overrated.”
The young lord then looked back down the road again. Still nothing.
“And I can’t believe that a soldier could be so lacking in punctuality.” He added irritably.
“Is he coming by horse?” Luna asked. Her gentle, airy voice exuded calmness as always.
“No,” Konstantin answered. “We spoke by Farspeak last night.” He referred to the long-range communication spell that mages could use to converse over thousand of kilopaces, as long as they had established an acquaintance before. “He’ll be driving a wagon down with supplies.”
Luna looked down at the sticky road caked in centipaces of mire. The rain last night had signaled the beginning of the late autumn muddy season.
“This mud won’t be easy on a loaded wagon.”
Konstantin stared at the road before making an inward frown. I should have considered that. All his book-learning on logistics and scheduling didn’t seem to make up for the fact he had zero experience in it. Worse, it left him with a blind spot when adapting estimates to reality.
The mud had barely slowed his horse during the trip, thus he hadn’t considered that a heavier, road-bound vehicle would be disproportionately affected.
Yet what he failed to notice, his maid identified with ease. Konstantin knew Luna had spent years traveling with her merchant father, not to mention the months she had spent surviving in the wilderness during wartime. All of that meant she held an abundance of practical, real-world experience that he couldn’t help but envy at times.
“How much do you think it’ll delay him?” He asked.
Luna pulled up her ankle-length skirt and stepped one of her boots into the mud. She even pressed her whole body’s weight against the boot and grounded it into the muck. It sank enough to swallow half of her seven-centipace heel. She then pulled back and did what she could to wipe the mud off in the grass, before finishing the job with a handful of leaves.
Certainly no sheltered lady would have done that. Konstantin mused with a humored half-smile.
“Around an hour. Probably less, I’d surmise. Anton seemed quite an experienced survivalist. I think he would account for this,” Luna concluded.
Then, as though to verify her words, he heard the creaking of wagon wheels in the distance. Two horses came into view as they turned the bend up the road, followed by an open-topped wagon laden with sacks of grain. The vehicle had been prepared for the weather as steel snow chains had been locked around the wooden wheels, which provided them with extra traction in the mud.
A gruff and homely man in casual, traveling clothes sat on the front. Konstantin instantly recognized the perpetual frown and mismatching blue and gray eyes as those of Anton the Druzhina Captain.
“Morning, Your Lordship,” he nodded in greeting. “Sorry I’m late. The mud grew heavier along the way.”
“Not a problem,” Konstantin had already banished his annoyed gaze, exchanging it for a soft nod and eyes full of sympathy and understanding. “It’s a journey from the new camp. You must have departed early enough as it was.”
“Three past midnight,” Anton pulled the vehicle to a stop. Yet despite his answer, he looked the least sleep-deprived of the group.
Anton then gazed upon Luna as she stepped back a few paces over thick grass before dashing forward and leaping across the mud. She caught onto the ledge of the wagon with her frail hands, but missed the foot step and soon began to slip off. Anton grasped her hand and pulled the thin girl into the front carriage. Though even as she voiced her thanks, his curious gaze made it clear that he wondered why the maid was coming along again.
“Luna has a history with several of the towns we’re visiting. She might be of some help.” Konstantin explained as the maid sat down besides the druzhina.
The older man whipped the reins to get the wagon moving again, while the young lord guided his mount effortlessly with only his feet. Anton then reached into a pocket and pulled out something hidden in his palm. He rubbed it before Konstantin felt a tingle in the back of the head, signaling the formation of a Telepathy link between the two men.
Konstantin accepted it with a mental tug, and soon he heard Anton’s voice materialize straight into his mind:
“Is it wise to bring a girl along, Your Lordship? We’re supposed to be recruiting a mercenary unit.”
Konstantin looked back at the maid before answering in jest: “Should I have asked her to dress up in armor?”
“That’s not what I meant, Your Lordship.” Anton responded. “We’re planning to build a professional army with integrated logistical support, not one with a gaggle of camp followers to slow us down.”
“Trust me, she won’t be washing any clothes except mine.” Konstantin smirked as he interjected.
Anton, however, did not look amused.
“But wouldn’t bringing her be giving the wrong impression?”
The young lord contemplated for a moment before answering:
“I hope someone would recognize her in a better context than just my servant,” he scowled at her clothes again. “But we’ll have to see.”
The druzhina raised his eyebrows in curiosity before asking next: “should I also assume that she knows all of your plans?”
“Most of it, though I doubt she understands it all.” Konstantin answered before his tone turned dismissive. “Her father was a merchant who saw to her education, so she has a basic grasp of politics. But what do Samarans know of war? They’re pacifists.”
It was one of the reasons why Samara was a Protectorate under the Polisian Federation. Their low status meant they have no political voice despite giving up their sovereignty. However, they did receive a military guarantee and market access, while not being held to any army obligations.
Anton snuck another glance at the girl. Luna’s hands were currently pressed against her stomach while she wore a faint scowl of discomfort.
“She also looks a little pale, certainly compared to the other day.”
“Yes, I think it’s that time of the month for her.”
Anton’s brows almost vanished into his hairline this time. His eyes widened with astonishment. “You keep track of your female servants’… fertility?”
There was even a shadow of revulsion in his tone. But Konstantin merely stifled a laugh:
“No. But Luna is slightly anemic during her periods, so it becomes a bit obvious after a day or two.”
As Konstantin looked back to reexamine Luna’s countenance, he found himself staring at an annoyed pout. Normally the girl might have been able to hide it better, but her discomforts today clearly left her in a more temperamental mood.
“What is it, Luna?”
“Could Your Lordship please not talk about me like I’m not here?” Luna finally objected. “And yes, I can tell even if you two are conversing by telepathy.”
For a brief moment, the gruff Anton looked almost sheepish. The Druzhina Captain then tried to say something, but Konstantin interjected with a chuckle out loud:
“I forgot to mention,” he passed a glint of warning to Anton through his smiling gaze. “She has a knack for reading minds…”
“I don’t even use magic.” Luna shot him a stare that shouted ‘stop lying’.
“–Even if she does often take words very literally.”
“And here I thought she was just a wallflower.” Anton muttered to himself, which only made the young aristocrat grin.
Most people would agree with the Druzhina Captain, and Konstantin had certainly benefited from this. But at this stage, he needed Anton past that impression. Konstantin knew that he lacked a military advisor and experienced organizer. He wanted to bring Anton into his inner circle of confidants, but that meant they must be able to trust each other. And to achieve that, both of them need to be truthful from the start.
…Or at least, as truthful as I could manage, he thought.
Deception did become a habit after all. Once an individual wore masks for long enough, it became hard to take them off.
Konstantin and Anton conversed back and forth about the details of the new encampment for over an hour. Their men had began construction of logging facilities and cabins almost as soon as they arrived. After five days of magic-assisted labor, they already built a dozen cabins, as well as sawmills, sheds, kitchen and a mess hall — all the buildings needed to establish a logging outpost. The group still mostly hunted for food, though they had purchased an entire shipment of grain from a distant town to the north. All things considered, it was a speedy start for a secret training facility in the woods.
By the second hour of their journey though, the two had mostly exhausted their task-oriented conversation. Thus Konstantin soon resumed his yawning spree as silence fell upon the three travelers.
“I take it Your Lordship isn’t an early sleeper?” Anton asked after the younger man spent a minute with his mouth more open than closed.
“I slept early enough. Just two hours past dinner,” Konstantin commented after he finished. “Then I woke up in the middle of the night to read. Middle of my way through Records of the Lunar Historian.”
“Never heard of it.”
“It’s the official history of the early Dawn Imperium. Though it reads like a political drama, considering how the Easterners like to incorporate vivid storytelling, including first-hand accounts, into their record-keeping,” the young lord’s sleepiness seemed to evaporate as he explained with an eager smile. “Its author was a court secretariat. He loved history so much, that when the Emperor flew into a rage over his unflattering account, he would rather endure castration than to falsify history.”
Anton almost cringed as he gave a noticeable swallow. It was certainly not a punishment any man would wish to suffer.
“–But the secretariat got the last laugh.” Konstantin continued. “His life’s work was adopted as the true historiography of the Dawn Imperium, and his example made him into a hero for all record-keepers in that eastern superpower. Meanwhile his liege earned a reputation as an ill-tempered despot. It’s one of those real stories which gives hope that integrity and justice truly prevail.”
“Does Your Lordship believe in that?” The druzhina asked after a brief pause. His tone came neutral and mollified, as though he was trying to hide his own leaning.
Now this is the real test, isn’t it? Konstantin realized at once before reeling in his casual mood. To see whether I’m a lord worthy of his fealty.
He still remembered the warning that Luna gave him after they first met Anton. The maid was certainly right that this retainer’s inquiries couldn’t be taken lightly.
“To a point?” Konstantin pursed his lips as he brought a few extra seconds to consider his answer.
“I believe that ‘justice’ is born out ‘fairness’, and ‘fairness’ is an universal desire. Unfortunately, it is also the great universal illusion, and — for better or worse — it falls upon leaders to maintain that illusion.”
His second line instantly raised the eyebrow of the senior druzhina, who looked intrigued but skeptical as he replied: “why do you call it a ‘Universal Illusion’?”
“Let me put it this way,” Konstantin replied by asking, “do you consider the world fair?”
Anton almost barked a laugh.
“I take orders from a boy quarter my age, who has all of zilch experience in warfare. What do you think?”
Konstantin returned a chuckle.
“But you believe that justice can be fair.”
“I believe leaders should be evenhanded even if the universe isn’t.”
Though as Konstantin looked back, he could see hints of grievance in the older man’s gaze. Clearly, he had been seriously wronged at least once during his long life of military service.
“Since you’re a soldier, tell me: what is the punishment for a man who takes military equipment that belongs to the regiment and sells it for personal funds?”
“If below fifty silver rubles, the punishment is severance of the offender’s right hand. If above fifty rubles, the offender is executed and his body hung as warning.” Anton replied in a steely voice before adding: “and the rule stands regardless of whether the criminal is captain or recruit.”
“Draconian but fair regulations is key to instilling military discipline,” Konstantin nodded. “But tell me: what do you think happens if a General is guilty of corruption? If a Prince discovers that his military commander has inflated the regiments’ strength to siphon state funds paid to nonexistent soldiers?”
“A tree cannot stand firm if its core is rotten,” the druzhina declared. To him, the answer was obvious.
“From a long-term view, you would be correct. But what about more immediate concerns?” Konstantin challenged. “What if the man is a leading field commander and a war is looming? What if there are no replacements as capable to fill his shoes? Should a lord rattle the army with a change in leadership precisely when confidence is of utmost need? Or should he assist in covering it up with a firm warning for the commandant to cease and desist?”
A fierce scowl spread across Anton’s lips as the druzhina pondered the question but could not find any easy answers. Meanwhile, the younger man showed neither satisfaction nor contentment for his argument. Instead, he wore a troubled mask to show solidarity with the old soldier, gracing the latter with a minute to digest.
Konstantin knew that there was no better way to draw a man in than to engage his core beliefs. By challenging it with logic and insight, he could prove his intellect and earn the respect of his senior. By debating it while asserting that they were on the same side, he could attain camaraderie and even trust.
That was the plan at least, but plans were easy. To actually thread the needle — that was far trickier.
“A law always comes with two components that every leader must keep in mind,” Konstantin explained. “The letter of the law spells equal punishment for equal crime. But the spirit of the law is to maintain a goal for society and state. When the letter of the law ceases to uphold the spirit of the law, such as when a commanding officer’s untimely removal would disrupt the effectiveness of the army, then justice finds itself in direct conflict with practicality. And that is when the Prince must decide: will he uphold ideals, or will he seek results?”
“Results, of course,” Anton turned towards his younger with a sigh. “Otherwise he would not be a Prince, but a Priest.”
Konstantin nodded back with a slight scowl, as though he only begrudgingly admitted this truth.
“The fact is — we differ by our capabilities, achievements, and resources, not to mention our wisdom, loyalty, and virtue. Therefore, it is impossible to treat us equally, to give us equal voice and equal repercussions when we ourselves were never equal to begin with. In the end, ‘Justice’ is what we reveal to the public, to show that the law was upheld in instances when the letter of the law reinforces the spirit of the law. In other words, when it is convenient, or perhaps necessary, when an offense is too infamous to disguise. But when the damage is still under control and a leader must weigh the pros and cons?”
“And thus we have one set of laws for the rulers and another set for the ruled,” the druzhina almost growled.
Konstantin feigned a sigh.
“I don’t like it any more than you do. But I was taught to accept the world for what it is, not what we wish it to be. What is worse in my book is that such behavior opens the doors to cronyism and nepotism. It’s just too easy for lazy leaders to fill the ranks with close friends and family, whom they know they can trust and work with,” Konstantin added his own scowl. “However, there is also another angle to examine this division.”
The two men exchanged looks, as doubt and cynicism from the latter met the younger man’s probing gaze.
“One set of laws for the dispensable, and another set for the irreplaceable,” Konstantin stated as though admitting a difficult-to-accept fact. “The more useful someone is, whether it be to his lord or to his state, the more special treatment they receive.”
“And that is why you call it the ‘Universal Illusion’,” Anton concluded dryly.
“It is a core question for any political philosophy: where does the illusion of fairness and equality end and political necessity begin? Because the common follower is too simple-minded to see all the repercussions. They won’t see that jailing the largest merchant in town for bribery might bring unemployment to countless families. They won’t see that removing a mayor over a scandal may paralyze the city’s administration for weeks or months. They clamor for justice with few regards for unintended consequences. Thus, it is up the ruler to maintain the illusion of ‘Justice’, to balance the human desire for ‘fairness’ with that of practicality.”
“In that case, where does Your Lordship stand on this?” Anton asked.
Konstantin smiled and almost laughed. Straight to the point, the young lord thought to himself.
“Politics in the Polisian Federation has three major factions,” he noted. “Do you know what the one my father led was called?”
Anton shook his head. “I’m a soldier, not a politician.”
I can see that, Konstantin thought.
“I know most soldiers prefer to stay that way as a sign of professionalism,” he returned an approving glance. “But politics exist as long as people interact. The more individuals you must cooperate with or take charge of, the less you can avoid to be political. Better to start too early than too late.”
Anton returned an accepting nod, but otherwise stayed silent in a gesture for the young lord to continue.
“My family had historically led the Reformist Faction,” Konstantin explained. “We’re also called the ‘Imperial’ Faction, especially by our opponents, because many of our members were educated in the Inner Sea Imperium and came to admire their model of centralized governance. We believed that for a nation to stay strong and sovereign, it is necessary to have a powerful, central authority. The more centralized power is, the less competing hierarchies of power you have. Externally, that means the nation can act as one in the face of outside threats. Internally, it broadens the talent pool and brings everyone into a single ladder of ranks under one coherent system of justice.”
“Which reduces the importance of the individual,” Anton added plainly, “making them less ‘irreplaceable’ and thus more equal in the eyes of the law.”
“Exactly,” the younger man waved a raised finger. “When a hierarchy expands rather than duplicates, it lengthens the social pyramid vertically instead of broadening it horizontally. That leads to increased social stratification, but contrary to popular belief, this actually reduces the privileges of the upper classes as it increases their overall numbers, making each of them more dispensable. Sure, those at the very top hold more power than ever before, but there are also comparatively less of them, and the competition more fierce than ever to ensure that only the most competent, most able, and most canny may rise to the apex.”
“This is the founding belief of the Reformist Faction,” Konstantin declared. “Greater centralization, greater authority, and greater stratification. In exchange we will have more unity of action, more competent leadership, and more equality before the law.”
“Assuming everything works out and the most competent, rather than the most self-serving, rise to the top,” Anton commented.
“Indeed,” Konstantin nodded, impressed at the old soldier’s acumen despite his lack of political experience. “The weakness in the system is, of course, human laziness, which could infest the whole structure with corruption. But if that’s the disease, then the cure is internal competition. A state of constant struggle along the rising ranks is vital in ensuring that only the best climb their way up. And to facilitate this internal competition, we require two essential institutions.”
Konstantin raised two fingers, one at a time, as he outlined the Reformist vision:
“A comprehensively enforced legal code, and a strong education system backed by a capable intellectual class.”
“Knowledge is the key to social mobility,” Anton nodded. No yeomen who had to work their way up could deny this most important lesson of life.
“Unfortunately, Polisia has neither of these at the moment,” Konstantin replied. “My father laid the foundation for legal reform when he established the High Court of Ilmen, which would have jurisdiction over the courts of the various Principalities. But since his death…”
The young man trailed off. Needless to say, all efforts in reform have stalled and even regressed since the opposition retook power. The lesser courts have regained their independence, while the High Court became a figurehead without any power to enforce its decisions.
“Why does the current Grand Prince disagree with this?” Anton asked, his words almost casual even as they brought a an icy flicker to Konstantin’s gaze.
“The Dulgorukovs… they’re leaders of the Principality Faction, though some of us prefer to call them… ‘Populists’,” Konstantin sneered in cold contempt. “They believe in greater autonomy for the Principalities, which sounds great until you realize it means more power in the hands of the local elites to do as they like. It’s why they have popular support from both the aristocracy and many of the guilds. The major exception being the Merchant Alliance, who prefer our vision of uniform commerce laws across the land and greater guarantees for their property rights.”
Anton nodded as he absorbed the picture that his young lord painted.
“As a soldier, I may not be well-versed in internal politics,” he admitted. “But I do know that ever since the Streltsy Revolt, Polisia has been lacking in unity. Clearly ‘autonomy’ comes at the expense of the Federation.”
“Not just that,” Konstantin added. “Grand Prince Mstislav has never achieved a secure hold on power. He relies upon a combination of appointing his loyalists to key positions and handing away privileges to the Princes in exchange for their fealty.”
“Well, whatever he’s doing, it’s left the recruits more discontent and the officers more splintered than ever,” Anton complained. “I heard from a brother back in Ilmen that when the Coalition Military Council issued orders to begin mobilization, several of the Streltsy and Home Guard regiments actually refused, claiming that their local leaders did not approve the campaign!”
He shook his head with a heavy sigh. “It’s what the Marshal is most worried about: that we’ll reach out with a hand that can’t agree to clench, and the Eastlings rejoice as they break us one finger at a time.”
Konstantin grimaced at the metaphor even as he returned nods of agreement. ‘Weakened by internal division’ has always been the greatest fear of the militarists, which was why the Tuchkovs were firm supporters of the Reformist Faction. It helped when the generals traveled the Inner Sea and gazed upon the Imperial Legions in awe, wondering why Polisia could not manage such a disciplined and professional force of their own.
Nevertheless, it seems he was successful in initiating Anton into the Reformist view. Though Konstantin had no doubt that this would be a long process — at his age, Anton was certain to have deeply ingrained beliefs of his own.
“And the third faction you spoke of?” the druzhina then asked on a tangent.
“The Isolationists, led by the divided House Sheremetev-Dashkov and Sheremetev-Naryshkin,” Konstantin answered. “Some also call them the ‘Traditionalists’, as they favor upholding the Hyperborean traditions that the old aristocracy brought with them to Polisia. That includes the old ways of approving laws where every man — or at least, every man who owned property — could make a direct vote through the Veche Assembly. However, the Boyar Aristocracy is a minority there compared to the Polisian middle class, which in turn undermines their ‘old values’.”
The young lord shook his head with a faint, twisted smile, as though he found it both tragic and humorous at the same time.
“That contradiction is the reason why Sheremetevs split. It made them the weakest of the three in Polisian politics, though I’m not sure if that remains the case since the Streltsy Revolt.”
The uprising had not only cost Konstantin his entire family, but many of the leading figures in his father’s administration. The results forced many to openly switch their allegiances, either for ambition’s sake or, as in Marshal Tuchkov’s case, political necessity.
A military fractured by political grudges was recipe for Civil War. As the most respected commandant in Polisia’s military hierarchy, Marshal Tuchkov did everything he could to prevent that disastrous scenario. Konstantin understood this, and it was the reason why he did not begrudge the elder Tuchkov’s decision… even if he knew many other Reformist faction members cursed the old man’s ‘betrayal’.
“There’s also something I never quite understood, Your Lordship. It has to do with the current political circumstances,” Anton brought up after a moment of thought, and Konstantin immediately recognized it as a request to ask something… intrusive.
“Go ahead.” He looked back to assess the older man. If he could also answer this to satisfaction, perhaps he would be able to grasp Anton’s true loyalty in hand.
“How is it that the Grand Prince Mstislav Dolgorukov could destroy your entire family yet failed to eliminate you?” Anton asked, his apprehensive gaze revealing a genuine concern for his lack of understanding. “To a military man like me, it seems like sloppy, unfinished work. So I feel like I’m missing a piece of the puzzle — what exactly is holding him back from finishing the task?”
There was a brief moment when Konstantin thought his heart had stopped, as the cry that had haunted his nightmares for years replayed once more in his mind.
Sister, behind you!
His face swiveled back forward as he hid his turbulent emotions. The feelings of loss, anger, hatred, self-loathing, and guilt shot through his chest in an unending stream. He bit down on his lip as he remembered that moment when fifteen years of his childhood had been destroyed in a single instant. It was the reason for despite how the young man named Konstantin still lived today, he could never again be the boy he was back then.
The young lord closed his eyes for a moment. He took a deep breath, stopped, then exhaled slowly to relax his tensioned back. He repeated this process three more times, taking the moment to ‘meditate’ exactly as his maid had taught him.
“I apologize,” Anton spoke as the ensuing silence lingered. “I shouldn’t have–”
“No,” Konstantin reopened his eyes at last. “You have a right to know, considering the risks we all take in this endeavor. It’s just… not an easy topic for me to approach, so please give me a moment.”
He never saw the genuine appreciation that flashed through Anton’s gaze as the druzhina nodded.
The young lord repeated his breathing exercise four more times before he brought his emotions under a semblance of control. Then, at last, he began to speak:
“It is as you said, the Dolgorukovs destroyed my family yet somehow failed to eliminate me. But my survival was a fluke from the start. The Streltsy troops that launched the revolt had been whipped to such a murderous spree that nobody, not even the servants, from my father’s household were meant to survive. Nevertheless, I did survive, and by that point Mstislav Dolgorukov had revealed his hand.”
Unseen by the others, Konstantin clenched his fist around his horse reins so tightly that he could feel his fingernails through his velvet glove. It had been an exercise in willpower just to keep his voice even, though he held little doubt that the faint trembling of his arms did not escape his maid’s notice.
“The Dolgorukovs claimed that the revolt was due to the roused anger of the Streltsy troops, whom had been neglected and alienated by my father’s reforms. However, while the citizens and lesser nobles accepted this explanation in exchange for a return of peace, the other Princely Houses have remained wary of him, as they saw how Mstislav had taken advantage of the situation. If I died, even if by mere accident, it would mark the end of a great dynastic house. The Apraksins have been a major political force in Polisia since the before the Federation’s founding. Our demise would send a warning to all the other houses that they can no longer allow the Dolgorukovs to act outside the accepted rules of the political game — that power struggles were supposed to affect only the life and death of individuals, not the survival of entire bloodlines.”
“In other words,” Konstantin summarized. “it would rally all of the Dolgorukovs’ enemies against them, and like any longstanding political power — they’ve made a great many deal of enemies over the centuries.”
“And that’s why you put on the wastrel act,” Anton commented.
Anton had never actually seen Konstantin’s usual persona, but the young lord surmised that the druzhina must have either heard of his reputation, or the stories from Aleksandr Tuchkov, or both.
“Precisely,” Konstantin nodded. “If I remained a threat to the Dolgorukovs, it is possible that they might simply decide to bite the arrow and eliminate me. But if I wasn’t a threat, it would be far more costly for them, politically speaking, to have me killed in an accident rather than to keep the status quo. As long as I remain alive, my life gives legitimacy to their claim that the Streltsy Revolt was merely ‘an unfortunate event’ that escalated beyond all control, and not a deliberate attempt to exterminate a rival family. It’s not enough to convince everyone, but it does prevent a coalition of enemies from uniting against him.”
With a snort of hot air through his nose, the last Apraksin heir noted:
“As a matter of fact, I’ve seen evidence over the past year that the Dolgorukovs actually want me protected at this stage. They’re afraid one of their enemies might try to assassinate me and pin the blame on them. It was quite troublesome as I had to show my rat of a steward three times that no guard could keep up with me on horse, so he might as well not even bother to try.”
“Excuse me Your Lordship. Please stop for a moment!”
Konstantin turned as her heard Luna’s beckon. She didn’t actually interrupt him, as he had already finished, but it was unusual for the quiet maid to cut in so forcefully. The wagon also came to a sudden halt as Anton pulled the reins in. The two men could only stare with curiosity as the girl leaped off the vehicle and strode towards a massive oak tree, one which must have been at least a century or two old.
“Luna?” He called out as the girl pulled a small leather bag from her skirt pocket and crouched down beside the tree’s trunk.
“Just give me a moment to collect this.”
Curious on what it was, Konstantin beckoned his mount to move closer. He arrived just in time to see his maid break the root stem of a large, leafless shrub from a crevice in the thick trunk. It looked like a massively overgrown white beard, which Luna compressed in her gloved hands before stuffing into her leather bag.
“It’s a… lichen.”
“Bearded lichen, yes,” the girl nodded with a bright smile. “Also called an ‘old man’s beard’. But the official name is Usnea. This is the first time I’ve seen one grow this big — must be at least sixty centipaces!”
I wonder how many other girls can get this excited by a piece of moss? Konstantin pondered as Luna tightened the cords to close the bag, before walking back towards the wagon.
“What’s it for?”
“There’s quite a few uses: infections, pain relief, fever control. It’s a staple in quality poultices to treat injuries and is one of few herbs capable of curing pneumonia,” Luna referenced the dangerous lung disease that had a high chance of fatality for those who could not afford magical treatment. “I believe the Inner Sea Imperium’s healers might even call this an ‘antibiotic’.”
Anton had to help the girl back into the wagon again when she leaped on. However this time he gazed upon her in an entirely different manner, as though he wondered what other secrets the maid could be hiding.
“You’re an alchemist?” He asked as she settled back into her seat and he whipped the horses back into motion once more.
“Nothing that grand,” Luna still held her smile from the discovery. “My late mother was an apothecary — potions, poultices, and balms. I don’t begin to know how to turn lead into gold.”
“And let’s hope no alchemist ever will either,” Konstantin casually remarked. “I would rather not see a complete collapse of the continental market in my lifetime.”
After three hours of travel since their rendezvous, the trio finally arrived at the town of Bohopil. The settlement lay on the northern bank of the small Pervomaisk River, which was notorious for its tendency to flood at the beginning of May when the snow in the Dead Mountains melted. Because of this, Bohopil and its smaller neighbors — Holta and Olviopol — were surrounded by sophisticated networks of dikes and drainage ditches to channel excess water south of the river. But the floodwaters this past spring exceeded even their capacity to manage, and Konstantin could see still the fallow fields that had to be reclaimed during the summer, where the turbulent river had consumed dozens of kilopace-squares of crops.
“Were the other towns this badly hit as well?” Anton asked as the wagon rolled across a drainage ditch bridge, which showed clear signs of major repair work in recent months.
“Worse,” Konstantin answered. “From what I could gather — Bohopil lost sixty percent of its crops in the May floods, while both Holta and Olviopol lost nearly three-quarters. Furthermore, the summer droughts and reduced harvest from previous years meant their granaries were low to begin with. All three towns have been trading away their valuables just to stockpile enough grain for the winter. But unless the differences are made up, the people here will likely be starving by early spring next year.”
Then, as his horse trotted into the town’s borders, Konstantin saw several men gathered around a poster nailed to a local news board. A middle-aged man had just read its contents aloud to the others. The freshness of the parchment stood in fresh contrast with the dirty, disheveled men. The bright, large font on the poster and its crude drawing of a man-at-arms waving Polisian colors screamed to every man who passed by the road, and Konstantin was no exception as he read at a distance:
Defend your country! Enlist for the Home Guard today and be paid in grain!
“That lazy, ill-bred baron. Where was his sense of duty when we pleaded for him to not tax us this year!” Konstantin heard the bystanders vent their anger.
“I heard Mitya and his brothers have already joined up though.”
“Can you blame them? Their home was one of the first to be flooded this Spring.”
“They probably don’t even have anything left to trade for winter grains.”
“Still! I’d rather starve and go begging in the city than to serve that Baron!”
“And your mother? Your sister? Should they go begging and whoring in the city too?”
“Father Misha!” Luna interrupted them all as she cried out in a soft, cheery voice, prompting the men who gathered around the poster to turn and face the newcomers.
“Lucina, is that you?”
The middle-aged man who had been reading the poster squeezed his way to the front. He was broad-shouldered and stout, with a bright, paternal smile which spread beneath his thick, black mustache. His tattered and patched black vestments reminded Konstantin of a Trinitian priest’s frock, except the man left his collar loose while his sleeves had been rolled up to reveal thick, muscular arms. Like the other men around him, his hands still held the tools of this morning’s work — his was a carpenter’s hammer that showed decades of deterioration.
“Yes!” The maid leaped off the wagon and ran up to give the dirty man a hug around his waist. Konstantin had to make sure to not to let his smile falter as a mild sensation of annoyance bubbled up inside him.
“Luna, care to introduce us?”
“Yes Sir,” she extricated herself from the man’s grip and stood besides him. “This is Father Mikhail, a Trinitian priest and close friend of my late father.”
“I’m also the town’s master carpenter,” Mikhail stepped out and offered a callused hand.
I thought Trinitian evangelists didn’t get along with Samarans? Konstantin thought as he kept up his bright smile and shook the offered hand.
After all, the dogmatic Trinitians preached that there was only one true God, and that all believers of false idols were heathens who would receive no salvation. For the Samarans who lived through reincarnation and believed that virtue lay in correct action rather than unwavering faith, the Trinitian’s encroachment represented a threat to the religious diversity and therefore tolerance within the Polisian Federation.
“Kostadin Alexandrovich Arkhipov, trader and adventurer,” Konstantin used the false identity he had groomed for years, which he often utilized when he left the estate to purchase goods that an indulgent wastrel wouldn’t be interested in. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Same,” Mikhail beamed a welcoming grin. “I hope Lucina is doing well in your employment. Her late father — peace be upon his soul — was a benefactor and close friend of this town. He loaned us an entire shipment of grain with no interest after another flood twenty-three years ago. He even brought in an Imperial civil engineer who helped us build newer and better dikes that spared us from flooding for more than two decades.”
“I’ve heard the story,” Konstantin replied. “And yes, Luna is doing quite well. In fact, I would say that she has become an essential person in my life,” he beamed at the maid.
Luna smiled and looked down as a young man who stood behind her whistled and patted her on the shoulder. The gathered men assumed it was a display of shyness and the girl — despite her humble appearance — was in a romantic relationship with her wealthy-looking employer. However, Konstantin knew the truth was simply that Luna felt uncomfortable lying, or even just misleading the townspeople.
Nevertheless, she had agreed when he pressed the issue, accepting that it was his best method of starting off with an excellent first impression from the townsfolk.
Besides, he figured. It’s not entirely misleading…
“In fact, we were just exchanging stories of our past the other day when your lovely little town came up as our topic,” Konstantin continued. “I told her that the news from the market claimed this region had been struck by disaster and now suffered a shortage of food. She almost begged me to come here and offer a good deal to help you all.”
“I’m afraid we don’t have much left to trade though,” one of young men behind Father Mikhail spoke.
“Our town has never exactly been wealthy, and the past few years have been… difficult.”
“The only items we have left that would interest most traders are the tools of our trade,” Father Mikhail grimaced with sadness in his gaze. “But if we give them up, then we’d merely be prolonging our time until starvation.”
“Of course I wouldn’t wish to barter away your livelihoods,” Konstantin responded in kind. “I’m not looking for trade-able goods. Rather, my intention was to come here and offer grains in exchange for your services.”
“Our services? What services could a rustic little town like us offer?” Another young man remarked. Yet despite his skepticism, it was clear that Konstantin now held their undivided attention.
“It is my experience that the more rural a settlement, the more resilient, hardworking, and reliable its people can be,” the pretend-merchant offered a few flattering words that he did somewhat believe in. He received several proud smiles in return as the gathered men appreciated his praise before adding: “Is there a way to gather the townsfolk where I could make my offer to everyone? It would be much easier for everyone involved to hear me out all at once.”
“Of course,” Father Mikhail replied. “We were just heading back for lunch. Wouldn’t be a bad idea to gather everyone together for a communal meal today.”
Konstantin stood on the porch of Father Mikhail’s small chapel home as he admired its craftsmanship. Unlike the gilded Trinitian churches built in cities to impress potential converts, the priest’s sanctuary was modest and sported only intricate woodwork carved by his own hands. The young aristocrat wasn’t a believer in the Holy Trinity, but even he had to admire the cherubic, wood-carved seraphs that decorated the oaken beams. They were a faithful tribute to God made by an artist who clearly took pride in his work.
There was even a large oaken cross depicting their savior — Hyperion the Dragonlord — casting the unknown spell that the Trinitians later renamed ‘Ritual of the True Cross’.
No scholar of history doubted that this Dragonlord had indeed existed centuries ago, and that his final sorcery had brought an end to the Demonic Invasions that once plagued this world. Humanity still viewed the Dragonlords as benevolent, divine beings that have long since departed. But in their legacy, they left behind the blessed gift of magic, taught to man by the disciples of Hyperion himself.
The main disagreement between Trinitians and all other religions was that Trinitians believed Hyperion was ‘the Son’, one of the three aspects of their ‘one true God’. Meanwhile other religions maintained that Hyperion was just another otherworldly being, albeit one who offered his life in an altruistic final sacrifice for the world.
“Is it true a new merchant has arrived in town!?” Konstantin was pulled from his reverie as he heard the frantic voice of an older woman on the street.
“I’m the new merchant.” He stepped down from the porch as the plump woman turned to face him with a distraught look. “Is something the matter?”
“It’s my sons. They’ve been sick, burning with fever for a week now!” The woman was on the verge of tears. “We’ve tried everything and I’ve no one left to turn to! Please, tell me you have some medicine available in your wares!”
With his brows furrowed, Konstantin shook his head and turned to Luna. His maid eagerly stepped up and replied in her gentle voice:
“I have a little with me. But I’d need to ascertain if it’s the right kind. Could you please bring me to them?”
“O-oh thank you Holy Father,” the woman finally let go of her breath. “P-please, follow me.”
As Luna scurried after the broad woman and began asking for descriptions of the symptoms, Konstantin turned towards Anton and lurched his head in the maid’s direction.
“What about the wagon?” The Druzhina Captain who still sat on the vehicle asked in a low voice.
“Leave it here,” the young lord smiled to answer. “The borderlands townsfolk have a great sense of pride. They’ll appreciate a sign of good faith and trust in them.”
“It’s typhoid fever,” Konstantin watched from the doorway as Luna declared with a grimace.
She lowered the thin blanket covering the chests of two early-teen boys. The two sickly-pale adolescents were forced to share a cot in this impoverished dwelling, which was never a good sign.
“It is contagious?” One of the young men who followed them asked as he poked his head through the doorway.
“Extremely, but not by touch or air,” Luna answered as she stared grim-faced around the appalling environment.
Truth be told, Konstantin hadn’t wanted to enter either. The dilapidated cottage that was the family’s home showed signs of water damage and even a partial collapse during the Spring flooding. Some repairs have been made since then, but the efforts looked makeshift at best and the sanitation remained nothing short of atrocious. It felt as though rats or cockroaches might swarm over the dirt-covered floor at any moment.
Nevertheless, the young lord had forced himself to stand inside. He could always afford medical services if need be, and it was important to show the villagers that he was not prejudiced towards even the least fortunate. Besides, in his opinion, it wasn’t the peasants’ fault for being forced to live in squalor.
Poverty is the disgrace of the state, he thought bitterly to himself. If the village had better infrastructure and post-disaster support, then they wouldn’t have to live like this.
“Typhoid fever is spread by bodily wastes,” Luna explained. “The most common cause of contagion is by contaminated water supply. Where is your toilet?”
“The outhouse had been washed away during the flood,” The mother replied sheepishly. “We… hadn’t quite gotten around to building another properly. Been making do with pits dug in the back.”
“By the pond!?” Luna looked horrified. “Of course they’re sick then. I’m guessing that they also bath and occasionally drink from that pond?”
The mother nodded her head with reluctance, as though by not answering she might be able to change reality.
“Your… Sir,” Luna almost addressed her lord as usual. “You wouldn’t happen to know any disease curative spells would you?”
“I’m afraid First Aid and Rejuvenation is all I can manage,” Konstantin returned a helpless shrug. “Never showed any affinity for the healing arts.”
“I have Rejuvenation and poison Neutralization runes. Would that help?” Anton chimed in just outside the door.
“What’s Rejuvenation?” Luna betrayed her complete ignorance of the standard mage repertoire.
“It’s an energy booster spell, usually used to alleviate fatigue and exhaustion.”
“That’ll help,” she commented. “It won’t tackle the core of the problem, but it might boost their bodies’ resistance.”
Konstantin watched as the Druzhina Captain strode pass and peeled back the wool blanket covering each boy’s torso. He pulled a rune-inscribed pebble out from his pocket and placed it on top of the adolescent’s chest before activating it. The rune glowed with the sky-blue color of his mana for a brief moment before the faint light transferred into the body and faded. Anton then went to the other boy and repeated the process.
Without any warning, Luna pulled up the side of skirt until she revealed the garter on her stockinged right leg. There she untied a leather strap wrapped around her thighs. She unfolded it to reveal a holder containing a dozen thin, reinforced-glass vials. It was a hidden stash of multi-purpose potions and extracts that she created herself, which she always brought along in case of emergency.
The maid then paused as she bit down on her entire lower lip. It was a habit whenever she grew troubled over a difficult choice. She looked back at her lord and opened her lips, only to close it again as she refocused her attention to her patients.
What was that about? Konstantin couldn’t help wonder.
He made a mental note to ask her later, while Luna pulled a vial from the bundle and offered it to the mother.
“This is all I have right now. It’s an extract made from garlic, ginger, lemon balm, achillea, usnea…” She finally realized that she was only confusing the poor woman before summarizing: “around two dozen herbs in total. Boil fresh water, cool it and rinse their throats first. Then wait five minutes and give each of them half. If we’re lucky, this’ll help suppress the disease to give their bodies a fighting chance.”
“Oooh dear miss,” the mother sank onto the dirty floor as she knelt before Luna with tears flowing. “Thank you, thank you so much…”
The servant girl was now looking distinctly uncomfortable.
There’s only one dose, Konstantin realized the problem. And their symptoms are already advanced.
Luna could prioritize one patient over the other, preferably the one who had a greater chance of survival. It was what he would have done. However, that would also require her to take the deliberate act of choosing one life over another.
She was unwilling to make that choice, even if meant the likelihood of throwing both lives away.
“Please, there’s no need,” his maid replied. “And we must hurry. Their conditions only worsen with every passing hour and this is by no means guaranteed. You’ll also need to feed them only stewed food and boiled water until they recover, and the air inside must be vented regularly. Their weakened bodies won’t be able to resist if they catch another illness in the meantime.”
“Yes, yes of course,” the woman took a wooden water pail and an old, blackened kettle. “I’ll go to a town well to fill this.”
“I’ll do it Missus Kravchenko!” One of the young men volunteered. “You just look after your boys. I’ll be back in a moment!”
Luna was still explaining all the other endeavors that might help boost the boys’ chances of recovery when Father Mikhail arrived outside. The priest announced to Konstantin that the town was ready to hear him make his offer.
The young lord and his entourage began walking back to the town center after his maid remarked “I’ll catch up as soon as I finish here!” On their way back, Anton opened another Telepathy link with Konstantin as they walked behind the carpenter-priest.
“Your Lordship never mentioned that she’s a medic as well.”
“She’s more knowledgeable than a medic,” Konstantin replied with a faint sigh. “Shame she can never be a healer since she has no affinity for magic.”
“She certainly knows enough to train combat medics for our battalions,” Anton added. “Even teach them to produce their own medical supplies.”
“I agree, though I’m not sure if she’s the best at teaching medics how to prioritize.”
Time was a limited resource on the battlefield after all. Combat medics had to choose between those who were likely to live, and those who were already going to die.
“Anton,” Konstantin focused his thoughts to give his words an imperious tone. “When you get back, I want you to send your healer down here and give the people a look-over. Just tell the townsfolk that we hired him, and make sure he knows about those two boys.”
“You’re not confident in the medicine?” The druzhina asked.
“She isn’t confident in splitting the dose,” Konstantin stressed. “And I know Luna. She’ll be devastated if they both die as a result.”
“Yes, Your Lordship.” Anton nodded.
For a moment after he looked hesitant. Then, an inquisitive glance from the young aristocrat finally made the old soldier speak his mind:
“Forgive me for bringing up this topic again, but is she really just a housemaid to you?”
Konstantin turned his gaze and stared back into the Druzhina Captain’s off-colored eyes. Anton’s curiosity wasn’t limited to the the girl’s mere potential; there was also a security concern as Luna knew everything about them. There was no reason why Konstantin couldn’t reveal the truth to answer all his curiosities and doubts. After all, most of his household already knew.
Yet… it had become harder and harder over the years to admit what Luna truly was.
“Do you think a mere housemaid can afford violet ribbons and lace garters like hers, or those imported composite-glass vials from the North Sea coast?”
Anton’s gaze lit up as his interest deepened. It became clear that he never even made the connection. Product prices were one thing, but Konstantin expected him to at least recognize that purple was the mark of aristocrats and patricians, due to its dyes’ expensive cost.
“I realize she holds your trust, but where does that…”
“No, you don’t understand.” Konstantin interjected before he finally admitted with a clear distaste in his mouth. “I own her.
For a moment, Anton almost forgot to walk.
It wasn’t that slaves were rare in Polisia. Large estate owners especially had plenty of them. They could be anything from cheap farmhands to reliable bookkeepers. However the Captain clearly never saw her as one of them.
“You disapprove?” Anton asked.
“I disapprove of anyone whose social status does not match their true disposition,” Konstantin scowled. “She deserves better.”
“I… didn’t see a mark on her though.”
All slaves had a permanent magical brand inscribed onto their body, usually on the hand, neck, or forearm. It was the primary means of identifying and controlling them.
Konstantin looked back at the Captain like it should be obvious.
“Consider if you were a legionnaire of the Inner Sea Imperium,” he began. “You’ve just won a punitive campaign against the Kingdom of Iskar with your Polisian allies, and you’re pillaging the land for spoils of war. You find a girl, perhaps fifteen years of age, huddled in the forest in fear. She’s dirty, tattered, and thin, but has an attractive face and the most exotic hair color you’ve seen. Do you think you would mark her as a labor or domestic slave when she could fetch a much higher price with some rich noble or patrician?”
Anton thought for a moment, before his eyes widened again. There was one type of slave who were not marked in a publicly-visible location, because their owners would probably prefer to keep their status a secret and not be judged for it.
“You mean she’s a sex s–”
“Don’t be vulgar,” Konstantin cut him off.
“But… didn’t you say that her father was an Imperial merchant? That makes her a citizen of the…”
“Just how many white-haired Samarans do you think live in the Inner Sea Imperium?” The young lord answered. “She was lucky that the soldier who caught her was intelligent enough to realize he’d be paid far more for a virgin. Otherwise the soldiers might have raped her on the spot.”
Anton scowled under his perpetual frown as they stepped back onto the town’s main street. He expelled a deep sigh as though to release his disappointment with the world:
“War never changes does it? And beauty remains both a blessing and a curse.”
“So is power, and wealth,” Konstantin shrugged with a mild scowl of his own. “Because as long as you have it, there will be others who seek to snatch it from you.”
He didn’t dwell on it though, unlike the Druzhina Captain. The facts of human society were, in the end, facts. Now, it was his task to manipulate the playing field he’d be given by making a speech.
Jump to Next Chapter
- Records of the Lunar Historian: based on Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian, who was known for being castrated for speaking the truth against the will of Emperor Wu of Han China. The incident that lead to his punishment was actually separate from his writing of a history book (which also provoked the Emperor into a raging fit), but nevertheless these two incidents were joined in a Chinese fable, which would remind later rulers that Confucian historiography will always outlast their reign.
- Veche Assembly: a direct-democracy assembly with legislative powers in Medieval Slavic city-states, particularly those of the Kievan Rus and the Novgorod Republic. The Veche in this story is based after it. How it functions will be detailed as the story progresses.
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