Sail from the String of Tears

During the 13th-Century Battle of Breze
Near Modern-Day Charlottesborg

The blast of a winding horn ripped across the waves and rent through Scyles’ aching skull.

All the world had gone askew. His beloved Madyesa was listing portside, the groans of her timbers a final death rattle. Somewhere in his muddled brain, Scyles knew that the ship was taking on water, her hull shattered by an enemy ram.

Leidensen’s fleet had circled the Czernomykki defensive rings like sharks. Someone had broken, Scyles knew. An overconfident commander seizing upon a feigned weakness, or perhaps one losing their nerve. But where one broke in a ring, all others broke in turn. What had followed? Gouts of Cryrian witchfyre were forever seared into his eyes. The hellish screams rising from burning vessels still echoed through his mind. And amidst it all the Vriden had danced like some twisted god of war, gliding through the chaos towards the Madyesa , ripping her oars to splinters and…

Scyles tried to move, but felt only pain. He felt slick blood on the wooden deck beneath him and idly wondered if it was his own or another’s.

He could not hear his crew.

Perhaps they are dead.

Perhaps I am too.

His throat burned with a desperate thirst. Could dead men still be thirsty? That seemed unfair. But above him the blue skies beckoned, marred only by the columns of smoke that had once been ships and men. Scyles summoned a final prayer.

The words caught on dry, cracked lips. Heavy footsteps vibrated through the deck, and then he heard shouting that seemed to come from a thousand leagues away. The red ensign that still waved proudly atop the Madyesa ’s mast dipped out of sight, and in its place rose the White-and-Blue.

And in the distance, the horns screamed their song of madness and triumph.

Formerly Breze
Modern-Day Charlottesborg

The baleful blast of a horn echoed across the waters.

“They are signaling us in, Starosta.”

Saka sighed, her eyes on the waves lapping against the shipside.

“This is where it happened, is it not?” she asked, more to the sea than to her crew. As ever, the cold ocean offered no response.

Somewhere, deep beneath that murky surface, Scyles was resting. Him, the Madyesa, and all the rest. Czernomyk’s finest, lost to the flames. He at least had left a lock of hair for them to burn in the last rites. Others who had been more certain of victory had not been so wise. Their souls now lay trapped and rotting beneath the waves.

It had only been her insistence which had led her brother to consider the possibility of death, and now that the bleak prediction had come true Saka could not help but wonder if she might not have in some small way drawn ill-fortune through her worries.

Mlythla will do was Mlythla wills, the Starosta told herself. Mortal qualms meant nothing, for good or ill.

Someone moved up beside her, and Saka looked down to find Madyes. Her nephew too was gazing down at the waters below.

“It doesn’t look red,” the child muttered, as though the seas should have left some marker of the men and women it had swallowed.

“No,” Saka agreed. Just seeing the boy sent a pang through her heart. They all knew why Madyes was here on this most dangerous of voyages. They were about to put their head into the shark’s jaw, and leave the child behind as tribute.

The Cryrians always demanded wards from their vassals - Hostages, in truth. A far heavier sort of tribute than the one Celanora had claimed. But Celanor was a distant and dying power now, and Leidensen’s star was on the rise. That little display of defiance outside Breze had been her idea - Hers and Scyles’ both. But it was only the dead man who would be blamed, and who better to offer as tribute than the child of the one who had led Czernomyk to such a bitter defeat?

That had been what her councilors had said, and even as Starosta she was in no position to refuse them.

All this, Madyes knew. But what could the child truly know?

Gods, curse me and curse me again.

“Starosta?” the Captain’s voice cut through her thoughts.

“Take us in, Captain,” Saka said aloud, “And see that our colors fly high. Let us see how Leidensen will treat with us.”

From atop the walls of Breze, the White-and-Blue waved lazily in response.

Formerly Breze
Modern-Day Charlottesborg

All the world had turned dark for King Segol. It pained Sture to see his old friend now, defeated in the aftermath of his own victory. Seated within the shadowy banquet hall of Breze Citadel, the King was diminished, his face marred by burn scars and bandages wrapped around his now-useless eyes. A victim of his own victory.

“Tell it to me again, Lord Almkvest,” the King rasped.

“The garrisons at Sargos, Lisis, and Salnai have all yielded,” Sture reported, “And Count Widfross has laid siege to the fortifications at Kaioldo.”

Segol nodded to himself. The invasion had gotten off to a grand start - Buoyed by favorable weather their vessels had arrived at Breze faster than its defenders had expected. The fleets of Czernomyk and floundering Celanor had failed to complete their planned ambush, and the enemy flotilla had been smashed upon the Asciec Sea.

But the good Lord Luck was a fickle beast, and the King, riding high on glory, had chosen to partake in the storming of the city. Sture had been proud in the moment - It had been like seeing Magnus come again, a proper warlord of old.

But a battlefield cared not for rank or office, and Segol’s wounds told the rest of the story.

“Scraps of what we’d hoped to gain,” Segol said bitterly. Sture said nothing, but knew it to be true. Their war had petered out with the King’s injury. Oh to be sure, they were still roving across the northern peninsula, seizing the coastal fortifications which had for centuries held firm against Cryrian raiders and sacking the inland villages. But the grand thrust onto the Mainland was now lost.

“The reinforcements from Vesterholm will be arriving soon,” Sture said optimistically, “With those we might yet push further south. Breze is a fine port, and the interior is open to us now. Celanor is dying, and the spoils are many.”

“Perhaps,” Segol said tersely. The King turned his head towards the light shining through one of the high windows, as though he could still feel the warmth of the weak sun.

“Has there been news from the Drifting Court?”

“None, Your Grace,” Sture said. “Save that it still rests at Tarva. Per your orders, we have sent no word of your injuries. Yet… I cannot say for certain if no word has been sent at all. There are many ships that accompanied us here, and many more which were already in port. Lords, mercenaries, merchants and priests. It can only be a matter of time before your brother hears of what has happened.”

The King’s expression turned grim. “We should never have let Valter remain in the Isles.”

“You feared for the succession,” Sture noted. Segol clumsily pushed himself to his feet, and Sture hastened to take his arm and assist only to be shrugged off. “Aye, I feared for it in the case of my death,” Segol growled, “But I still live, and given half a chance Valter will seek to rectify that. I must cloak myself in what victory I can, and return to the Court.”

“Then let us return,” Sture urged, “You have taken Breze, that alone will please the Talveri greatly. The households that have followed you here can ensure Leidenstad remains loyal too. We need only give them the spoils of our conquest.”

“Soon. Soon,” Segol nodded, “There is one last thing I mean to do here. The Starosta of Czernomyk, she has come to yield, has she not?”

“Her ship has just arrived in port,” Sture affirmed, “Czernomyk is a worthwhile prize, if freely surrendered.”

To that, Segol offered a low chuckle.

“Nothing is surrendered freely, Lord Almkvest.”

Formerly Breze
Modern-Day Charlottesborg

How quickly things returned to normal.

The Uctydr’the had pulled into Breze Harbor, and Saka could not imagine that scarcely a fortnight ago these walls and been filled with dying men, the seawaters stained red with blood. The dockside bustled with activity as merchants and traders from across the Asciec Sea moved their wares, and the piers were a field of wooden masts and creaking timbers. Everywhere she looked, Saka saw the Leidensen colors flying proudly, as Breze determinedly proclaimed its new allegiance.

It was as if the city was in a haste to forget the battle, and those who had fallen for it.

If Saka had been a lesser woman, that thought would have enraged her. As it was though, even she had to admit that Czernomyk was now little better - And as its Starosta, that sin was her own as well.

None came to greet the Uctydr’the as it berthed alongside a pair of merchantmen, save for a harbormaster collecting his due. It was a slap in the face, one which the Starosta had expected, but one that stung all the same. She had gathered her council of war just a few moments prior - Perhaps her last.

“The Cryrians will not greet us by the docks,” Saka had said, “No more than they would any other petitioners. Nor will we be offered direction or ceremony. They wish to make it known that we are not their peers, and are owed nothing - And we will let them play these games, as we must now play our own.”

Captain Ateas interjected here. “It is not for the Starosta of Czernomyk to walk these streets unescorted,” he had insisted.

Saka could feel nothing but appreciation for the man, but he had voiced her thoughts as well. “So it is,” she had nodded, “Ariantas and Lykos will accompany me. And you too Saulios - Fetch my arms and armor! We will make all haste for Breze Citadel, and see what awaits us there. I leave Madyes in your care, Captain. Should you feel that anything has gone awry, you are charged to abandon all loyalties and ignore all commands, and sail with haste to Partomyk.”

She had offered a wan smile then to her crew, “I took the liberty of writing my will on our voyage. You will find it in my cabin, and present it to the Council there. I pray whatever respect they still hold for me will see my wishes respected from beyond the grave.”

With that said, the crew swung into action. Saka had knelt down by Madyes - The boy had been silent all throughout, but watching all the same. He did well to hide his fears, but he looked ever so much like Scyles, and that was a face the Starosta knew to read.

“You will have the command now, my good nephew,” she said, clapping him on the shoulder as if to impart some final confidence, “But you’ll have the men and women for it too. Take care of them, and they shall do the same for you. Captain Ateas will see to the rest.”

The boy nodded mutely, and there was nothing more to be said. Moments later they had said their goodbyes, and were in the streets of Breze.

Formerly Breze
Modern-Day Charlottesborg

King Segol could see nothing. Clerics, surgeons, and a hundred worse charlatans would claim otherwise he knew, offer him miracle treatments or pretty lies in exchange for Leidensen silver or royal favor. But Ademar had spoken, and through Him, God. He would never again watch the fog lift over Leidenstad, or see the waves crash upon the cliffs of Trauer. No more sunrises, no more sunsets.

Only the deep and abiding night.

No, King Segol could see nothing, but he could imagine everything. The knives that might wait in the dark could be anywhere when the dark was everywhere, and though he may have lost his sight his ears still heard the whispers that came from distant Tarva. Rumors that he was incapacitated, unfit to rule. How long, he wondered, before such things reached Valter’s ears? How firmly would brotherly love hold then, when the throne was so near for the taking? How would their lady mother choose, between a crippled son and a traitorous one?

These all swirled in his imagination, yet there were some things the King could picture clearly in his mind’s eye. The Cardinal Segolstad, young for a woman of her rank, yet filled with schemes and blood as cold as a shark’s.

“Your Grace must know the Church’s disapproval of this decision.”

“His Grace,” the King ground out the words, “Is above such disapproval. Or has the Church become a body that forgets its own head?”

“The Church merely channels the disapproval of God,” Segolstad’s smooth words came out of that darkness, “And no mortal is above God.”

Segol kept himself from snorting. He held his faith of course, every good Cryrian did. It was a warm flame to guide him even now when every other light was lost. But somehow he did not feel that this was a matter to concern the God-on-Urth.

“You are a holy woman, Cardinal,” the King said, “Tell me, why does God disapprove of the man who has brought His light back to the Mainland?”

“God does not disapprove of Your Grace’s victory,” the Cardinal responded, smooth as ever, “He disapproves of Your Grace’s decision to cast it aside.”

“Do you suggest, Cardinal, that I mean to retreat?” Segol asked drily.

“I think Your Grace means to hand Segolstad over to the Talveri,” the Cardinal said, “And allow Talveri law and Talveri faith to hold sway here.”

Silence filled the room, and the King regretted allowing it to persist as long as he did. The space between words all but confirmed Cardinal Segolstad’s insinuation. She was correct, of course. Given a choice between courting the Church and courting the Talveri, Segol knew which he would choose. Particularly when so many within the Church cared not one bit what happened to this spit of land, while the Talveri claim to Breze had underlain this entire expedition.

But these were not things the Cardinal should have known, not with such confidence that she might make such accusations before him.

But of course, the Church has ears… and eyes.

“The God-on-Urth may be worshiped freely under Talveri law,” the King said, though he knew full well that this alone would never be enough for the Cardinal, “Nor has the Council of Cardinals issued any edict in opposition to this. By what right, then, do you alone claim to know God’s will?”

“It is by God’s will Your Grace has lost your sight.”

Another silence, more deafening than the last. Had Segol not held this audience in private, his court would have been in an uproar. Even now he could sense the tension among his guards. To raise a hand against a masked priest was anathema, yet they might be ordered to avenge such an insult all the same. The King wondered if even the closest of his soldiers would obey such a command.

Today was not the day to find out. Instead, the King gripped the arms of his chair and rose to his feet.

“And it is by God’s will,” he grated out, “That I have survived, and may thus dispense of my duties in Segolstad as benefits the Realm.” Without waiting for a response, the King inclined his head and uttered the line of dismissal.

“This audience has pleased me.”