Chapter 28: HomecomingFebruary 28, 2019
The sights and sounds of the bazaar were nearly overwhelming. Dust, kicked up by everything from armored boots to serasaur claws, choked the air. Competing calls from the many merchants only added to the chaos, making Svetya's head spin.
“Finest armor in Myria – never been bested by bullet or blade!”
“Stop by Akansi’s stall for the curios, relics, and all manner of mysteries.”
“Blades! Fresh from Shingane forges. Ready to dance in your hands!”
“Remind me why we are here, specifically?” She shouted over the din to Milos. The cacophony had put her guard’s mounts on edge, so they had come on foot. Svetya’s soldiers kept close to her, hands near their weapons. Milos’ rebels were more relaxed, fanning out in a loose group, browsing the wares, and bartering idly.
“Can’t retake a nation empty-handed!” Milos shouted back. “A merchant here owes me a favor, so we’re going to cash in and get supplies. All my people need cold weather gear.”
“Next time I’m going to find an ally who’s at least seen snow,” Svetya muttered, holding her scarf over her nose to ward off the dust. “Very well, let’s get this over with.”
“We’re not stopping at any of those stalls?” Svetya asked. She could hear the smile in Milos’ voice when he replied,
“What? No. We can’t do the kind of business we need to do on the street in broad daylight.” Looking down a long row of stalls, Milos added, “Come to think of it, this friend of mine has sold guns and other goods all over Myria. Maybe she’s been through Kosul recently.”
Svetya’s heart raced. After severing the treaty with Argenport, Yushkov had closed Kosul’s borders. Rumors leaked out, of brutal crackdowns and strange magic, but trustworthy news of her homeland had been hard to come by.
“Coward! Come defend yourself!” The guttural shout had come from a group of oni surrounding a covered wagon at the edge of the market. As Milos and Svetya watched, the largest oni hammered on side of the wagon again. “I won’t ask again, thief. These blades are painted to hide their rust. They aren’t worth a tenth what you charged.”
Svetya heard Milos sigh, and looked from him to the warriors. “That’s your contact’s wagon, isn’t it?” she asked.
“Yup,” Milos nodded, placing a hand on his holster. “We better interve—”
There was a resounding boom as something blew out the side of the wagon and sent the lead oni sprawling. Before the others could draw their weapons, a boot kicked through the smoldering wood and a woman stepped out of the cart, an oversized shotgun held in one hand.
“No refunds!” she called. “If ya don’t want to lose more than some gold, I suggest you leave.”
Scowling, the other oni helped their leader to his feet. “We will remember this,” the bloodied warrior snarled.
“I won’t,” the merchant said, flicking the gun in a dismissive gesture, “now get.” As the oni left, her eyes flicked up to Svetya and Milos, and her face broke into a grin. “I’d know that awful mustache anywhere. Milos, how the hell are you? Still hidin’ out in dirty caves?”
Milos gestured for his rebels to stand down as he and Svetya approached the smuggler. “Pardoned, if you believe it. But still fighting, apparently. Gabri, this is Svetya. We’re making a trek up north, and I need guns and winter gear.”
“Certainly,” Gabri said, “you know my prices. For bulk deals, I coul—”
“I seem to remember a certain someone saying that they ‘owed me’ after I shot the wings off that Inquisitor that was lookin’ too hard at your wagon…” Milos smiled, with a hard stare.
Gabri muttered, and rolled her eyes, with a slight smirk back, then finally nodded. “Fine. I can pull your order together by nightfall. But we’re even now, got it?”
“Thank you,” Svetya said, stepping forward. “Milos says you travel often, yes?”
“Gotta keep ahead of my reputation,” Gabri shot back. Behind Svetya, Milos snorted.
Svetya kept her voice steady as she asked, “Have you been through Kosul recently? … since the coup?”
“Sure, got some steady customers up that way,” the smuggler nodded. Svetya’s brow started to furrow as Gabri added, “They’ve got a home-grown resistance, just like Izalio here. Gathering ‘round someone who they’re calling ‘The Fox.’”
Pride surged through Svetya. Yushkov and his supporters may have taken the palace, but they hadn’t crushed Kosul’s spirit. Her people were fighting! Svetya turned to Milos, excited,
“If there’s a resistance, we can rally them. Join forces!”
Milos nodded, scratching his chin slowly. “Might work. This Fox would know the lay of the land and Yushkov’s forces better than either of us.”
Svetya faced the remnants of her Bear Guard. They remained composed, eyes scanning the bazaar for further trouble, but she could see in their faces that they had heard the news too. “You heard the man,” Svetya said. “It’s time to retake our home.”
“Open. I would speak with you. Now.” Yushkov growled, punctuating the demand by slamming his fist against the door to his advisor’s quarters. The blow echoed through the stone hall of Korovyat Palace, followed by a creak of hinges as the door swung open.
“Of course, sire.” Severin said with a humorless smile. “What brings you here at such an hou—”
Yushkov pushed passed Severin, stepping into the bare room. “Close the door,” he commanded, looking around. The room was well-lit, for a change, wisps of unpleasantly sweet incense hanging in the air. The large man was able see into the corners of the small, stone room, where rows of vials sat on a long, low shelf, alongside ritual blades. Against the far wall was a large box of black iron, chained to the ground. Faint whispers drifted from it, dry and indecipherable.
“How can I serve, my liege?” Severin asked, his hand scraping the floor in a low bow.
Yushkov glowered. “Eight of my men died in a raid on the temple earlier tonight. Some had their throats cut with wire, and their captain was poisoned. I cannot fight a foe I cannot see, sage.”
“Of course,” Severin nodded. “Such things are lamentable, but losses are to be expected as we crush this resistance, an—”
“I did not order this attack,” Yushkov said. His voice was flat, the menace in his expression was clear. Severin went still, and did not reply as Yushkov continued. “According to my men, you have been ordering assaults on Solist sites across Kosul.” Yushkov leaned down, “Would they lie to me, sage?”
“I cannot have my forces thinking that I am not in control, can I?”
“No, sire,” Severin repeated, his hands smoothing out his ill-fitting robes.
“Then explain yourself.” Yushkov growled, crossing his arms. “Your guidance has been invaluable. You told me when to begin my campaign, what to say, and where to strike. But,” Yushkov bared his teeth, “do not mistake my gratitude for mercy. Now, use that silver tongue of yours. Convince me to let you live.”
“Of course,” Severin said, dipping into another bow. “I apologize for my indiscretion, Yushkov. I have no ill intent. You are the Oren, the savior of Kosul! I merely thought some matters beneath you.”
“Matters that led my soldiers into a trap?” Yushkov roared. “They were cut down! My army looks weak. I look weak!”
“Yes,” Severin straightened, his eyes gleaming, “the rebel’s trap. That was why I struck at the church. I believe that the Solists, these newcomers the old Oren allowed into your nation, are twisting your people. Turning them against you.”
Yushkov folded his arms, his eyes narrowing. “The priests?”
“Hand-in-hand with this resistance.” Severin nodded. “From the day we met, I knew you were destined for greatness, Yushkov. Nothing has swayed me from that belief. Have my prophecies ever lead you astray?”
The room was quiet as Yushkov thought, fingers tapping on the heavy handle of his war hammer. From the corner, the whispers of the iron box grew, twisting around the room. Severin’s glanced over at it, his expression guarded, before looking back to Yushkov. Finally, the large man grunted, nodded once, and pointed a finger at Severin.
Yushkov turned and wrenched the door open. Torches from the hallway cast red light on his face as he said, “We will break this resistance, Severin; publicly, for all to see. Kosul is mine, and all need to know it”