Prologue, Chapter 4: The Envoy and the Thief

1

 Baldo parted with the old herbalist and was once again alone.
 The evening had almost arrived.
 He entered the first village he encountered.

 There was a river beside this town.
 One deep and full of water.
 This river was not one that came from the mountainous lands next to Jhan Dessa Roh.
 Were that the case, it would flow from east to west.
 This one, however, went north to south.
 It was an offshoot of the Great Orva.

 That meant that the fish contained therein would be different than what Baldo had experienced before.
 The fish of the Orva were delicious and varied in kind.

 I cannot wait.
 Don’t you agree, Staboros?

 he said to the old horse that carried his belongings, but there was of course no response.
 Baldo knew naught of this village save its name.
 He had pictured it to be a smaller place, but there were a surprising number of inhabitants and a gants for good measure.
 The gants itself was bustling with activity.
 He tethered Staboros to a hitching post and entered the establishment, asking if he could stay the night.

 “I reckon you could.
 In fact a room just opened up.
 You came at a truly great time.
 I mean, today of all days?”

 said the proprietress with enthusiasm, to which Baldo inquired about the occasion.

 “My, you didn’t know?
 His majesty was just crowned!
 And a truly magnificent king, he is.
 Who else would send a messenger to such a quaint, little town?
 This very messenger bought a round of drinks for everyone here.
 His majesty, King Wendellant, is picking up the bill!
 Come, you must have a cup as well.”

 The drink he received was watered-down mead.
 It did not taste particularly good, but Baldo would not complain about a gift.
 Thrice did they say cheers to the new king before Baldo could finish his cup.
 He then ordered some distilled spirit on his own coin before asking further about King Wendellant.
 The proprietress ran this and that way around the gants to take care of work as she answered Baldo’s question.

 Beyond the Orva River was a kingdom called Palzam.
 The Palzamic Kingdom had been at war against another great power, but they managed to come out victorious the year before.
 So bloody was the conflict that many of the princes aside from the crown prince perished, however in the end did Prince Wendellant lead their forces to victory.
 Prince Wendellant returned a hero, triumphant, yet with the relief of victory, the king could no longer resist the embrace of death in the last stages of his life.

 Thus ensued many a conflict as to who would succeed the throne.
 Prince Wendellant was older than the crown prince and a man of great ambition and accomplishment, but he was not thought to be a candidate for the throne, for his mother was of low birth.
 Now was he the hero who saved the kingdom, however, and the military stood behind him thus.
 In the end, it was decided that Wendellant would be appointed to the crown, and one year after the end of the war and the previous king’s death did the coronation take place.
 The new king then wished to spread the news of their victory and his coronation wide across the land, and so he send envoys to each and every region to bestow royal gifts and impart the details of his governance.

 This was what the proprietress told Baldo.
 She was frightfully well-informed for someone in a village so remote.
 Baldo knew that the Palzamic Kingdom had ended the war, and that the man instrumental in their victory would succeed the throne, but he did not know nearly as much as the proprietress did.

 Baldo could scarcely believe it.

 The frontier was simply too vast, Palzam was simply too distant, the various towns and villages were simply too far apart.
 Be it to collect taxes, to send troops, to administer the law—all of it was terribly inefficient and frankly not worth the hassle.
 Over the years there had been several great powers in addition to Palzam that have claimed dominion over this part of the continent’s eastern frontier.
 Never have they managed to effectively exercise such rule, however.
 For the Great Orva River thwarted all attempts.

 The most realistic of approaches was to appoint lords to the region to represent their authority and thus rule by proxy, however many powerful countries including Palzam already engaged in such methods.
 And yet though engage they did, it served no purpose.
 As the great powers remained unable to understand and control the frontier, the local powers that governed the frontier changed on a regular basis.
 It was not uncommon for entire towns and villages to disappear under the siege of kaejel or natural disasters.

 The only things that connected the countries of the midlands with the frontier were the occasional traveler and the trade between them.
 Though there were several countries to the west of the Orva River, only the Palzamic Kingdom established a trading port on its banks.
 If you but cross the river at this point, you can participate in trade as well.
 One can also travel directly to the kingdom by horse-drawn carriage from the port.
 Those who wish to study and become something in the city have Palzam in their sights,
 In the continent’s eastern frontier is the name Palzam spoken with a tinge of familiarity and wonder.

 No matter how much you shower them with wine, the folks in these parts will likely forget the name of the king within three days.
 A commendable thing to do, indeed,

 thought Baldo as he slowly ate some food when the clamor of the gants suddenly grew silent.
 For a knight clad in splendid armor had arrived.
 With a youthful, vigorous voice did the knight ask,

 “I beg forgiveness for intruding upon your merriment!
 Is there an herbalist present, or one familiar with sickness?
 The special envoy to the frontier, Father Tode has suddenly fallen ill.
 He complained that his limbs grew cold and that his head shook with pain, and now has he lost consciousness with a terrible fever.
 Can anyone here save him!”

 There was no chance that an herbalist would be around in a village such as this.
 There were herbalists in Lints, but no one here could save the priest in such an urgent manner.
 There was no one here who wished to be involved with this knight, one from beyond the river.

 Baldo stood up and asked the knight for more details of the symptoms.
 Might you be an herbalist, asked the knight to which Baldo replied that he was not, though he may be familiar with the sickness.

 Baldo was then quickly brought to the residence of the village chief.
 The chief himself was not present.
 He had left to inform the neighboring villages of the envoy’s visit, as well as to provide with him with accommodations.
 So too was the chief’s wife not present, for she was pregnant and staying with her parents.
 There were but two girls there to take care of the meals and housework, yet neither could help with the sickness.
 He thought perhaps there was someone in this village with medicinal knowledge, so he went to the pub for any help he could find, was the explanation the young knight gave.

 Next to the priest with the title of special envoy was an older knight.
 The young knight briefly explained the situation to him, and thus the older knight bowed to Baldo for his assistance.

 Upon close examination of the priest did Baldo rule out the possibility of gheriadra.
 It was a condition instead known by many in these parts as an overnight fever.
 The old herbalist had insisted on a peculiar theory that it was transmitted by mosquitoes.
 The body would be assaulted by a sudden fever, yet it would usually go away within two or three days if left alone.
 Were the fever too high, however, one could descend into a coma and lose their life or become paralyzed in a section of the body.

 Baldo explained that he was not an herbalist by trade but told the two what he made of the situation.
 Furthermore, he said that he had medicinal herbs to lower one’s fever and could administer them if the knights agreed as well as that it was important to warm the room up and make sure the man was sufficiently hydrated.
 The older knight gave Baldo permission, and thus did Baldo grind the herbs, extract their properties, and feed the concoction to the patient.

 It was fortunate that the man readily drank the medicine and water while unconscious.
 They fetched a brazier and pot of water, and before long did the room grow hot.
 Baldo sweated as he tended to the patient.
 So too did the young knight display a surprising amount of skill as he helped.
 Both of the young girls who took care of the house also did their best to stay of use.
 The older knight never left the sick man’s side for a moment.
 Upright, clad in armor he stayed, paying the heat of the room no heed.

 A bit past midnight was when the patient expelled a foul-smelling sweat, and both his condition and breathing grew calm.
 The older knight expressed thanks to all those involved, and told them to take turns getting rest.
 The day dawned and the man’s fever had fallen, and so too did his symptoms gradually begin to disappear.
 There’s no need to worry any longer, said Baldo, so the older knight made it a point to stand from his seat and respond,

 “I am truly and utterly grateful.
 Words alone cannot express my appreciation.
 It dawns on me that I have failed to ask you your name.”

 Baldo did so, and the older knight continued.

 “Are you perhaps Sir Galdegarsh Gwera?”

 asked the man, and his ever-stern expression started to slightly melt.

2

 “Can I interest you in more wine, Sir Rhowen?”

 Baldo accepted Father Bali Tode’s offer, and so an attendant came forth with a jar of wine and filled Baldo’s cup to the brim.
 The wine was of utmost quality, and the cup had intricate designs etched into its silver body along with a base at the bottom.

 At first, Baldo was not impressed by this so-called envoy, for with but two knights and two attendants in tow was he sent to a place so remote.
 So too was it strange for a cleric to come in such a diplomatic capacity.
 It appeared, however, that this man was no ordinary cleric.
 Not only did he possess items of such quality and a robust education, but there wasn’t the fainted trace of vulgarity on his person that often accompanied corrupt members of the clergy.

 The two knights were highly distinguished as well.
 The older man was known as Zifelt Bowen.
 He was a man of great skill, and likely a seasoned veteran.
 Giving orders seemed to come naturally to him.
 He sat all through the night and until morning next to the cleric with poise, and never did he falter.

 The young knight was known as Shantilyon Graybaster.
He had put forth considerable effort to be of use, and although his perspective could at times be a tad  inflexible, his dedication to righteousness and the protection of virtue was both amusing and dazzling.
 The name Shantilyon1 itself was incredible, though Zifelt later told Baldo once out of earshot of the man in question that he was an unparalleled genius of the sword.

 Of such caliber were these men that one would have second thoughts about the constant rumors surrounding the great countries, that they were but places of rot and degeneracy.
 Although they were of such noble birth in their lands, Baldo was fond of how the two said nothing of it and were but knights above all.
 The two attendants as well were both skilled and astute, and Baldo could not help but be astounded by how naturally he felt when they served him.
 So too were a large portion of the dishes before Baldo prepared by the attendants, and their skills in the culinary arts were something special.

 In essence, this was no ragtag assortment of unlucky nobodies, sent to the middle of nowhere by the whims of the new king.
 Though they may have appeared to be so, they were in fact a highly capable group of individuals, one surely tasked with an important mission.
 As for what the mission was, however, Baldo of course had not the slightest desire to know.
 It was enough for him, truly, to have this opportunity—to enjoy wine without worry alongside wonderful people.

 “I really must say.
 I had told you I would go to any lengths necessary to reward you for your deed, but I had not dared imagine that this would be all I could treat you to, in a village so small as this.”

 Upon looking at the healthy complexion and beaming smile of the cleric, Baldo could scarcely imagine it was only last night that the man was so ill.
 The entire group was in great spirits at the cleric’s recovery, and so too was Baldo full of joy.
 In the center of the table was placed a large dish with cooked fish atop.

 It was jabo.

 It was a fish that could only be found in the Orva River, and in these parts it was known as a knightfish.
 Both because it was as fierce as a knight and because one needed the bravery of a knight to consume it.
 Inside the fish there was poison.
 One must never eat its skin or intestines.
 A single bite would certainly invite death.
 Though dangerous it was, its taste truly had no equal.
 Upon catching a single one in the net did they immediately call for the proprietress of the gants to prepare it as she was familiar with the method.

 The jabo was filleted and briefly seared, and then it was cut into small bite-size pieces.
 Its flesh was extremely delicate, so to prepare it required dexterity, boldness, and uncanny precision with a knife.
 If it was not grilled, the fish wouldn’t develop its taste, yet if grilled too much, the depth of flavor would be lost.

 Baldo took a piece and brought it to his lips.
 A mellow sweetness started at his tongue and enveloped the entirety of his mouth.
 The tender meat fell apart at the slightest touch of his teeth.
 He savored that taste with great purpose and intent.
 There were but the faintest variations of flavor in different parts of the fish, and each one billowed out and covered the others in layers.
 The taste was as if rainbow manifest.
 Before the meat had dissolved completely, Baldo took a sip of wine.
 The fish melted into the liquid, and with both a buttery smoothness and a tinge of sharpness did it slide down his throat.
 A deep exhale escaped his lips, and so did a crisp fragrance come through his nose, complexity lingering in its wake.

 The white flesh of the fish possessed an almost understated flavor, yet even to the bold bitterness of the full-bodied red wine did it refuse to be eclipsed.
 The wine was a Rauphwen Macalister aged for 43 years.
 The cleric admitted that this 43 could not hold a candle to a such a miraculous fish, and he lamented that he was unable to bring anything finer for them to share on this journey.

 I am but a layman in matters of wine.
 This one here is in no way inferior to the jabo, I must say.
 I am wholly in agreement, however, that wine must not be allowed to accompany us on our journeys,

 Baldo replied.
 Were one to take red wine with them, one that had been aged to exquisite perfection, and that very wine was agitated by the constant rumblings of a horse-drawn cart, it would take a year of rest for it to return to its former glory.
 So too was it possible that it might never be the same again.
 It was best to enjoy the wine in the land of its origin.
 A young wine was then ideal for a bumpy journey.
 Thus did the cleric choose the oldest wine he could among those that would survive the trip.

 “You speak nothing but the truth.
 I had hoped that this 43-year red would endure the journey.
 Alas, it still happened to develop a rather unfortunate bite.”

 Surely enough did Baldo notice a slight, unpleasant tang on the tongue, though one could be convinced that it was just another dimension to the taste.
 The wine allowed Baldo to savor this divine fish with even greater intricacy.
 So too were the cleric and the two knights tasting this jabo for the first time in their lives, and now all were held hopelessly captive.
 To be on the safe side, Baldo once again reminded them not to eat this fish unless prepared by a highly experienced chef.

 “Sir Zifelt, you mentioned something about a ‘Galdegarsh Gwera?’ ”

 the young knight asked, to which not the older knight but the cleric instead answered,

 “Oh?
 Have you never heard of the Knight of the People, Sir Shantilyon?
 I cannot blame you, for it was a name that took the capital by storm more than forty years ago.
 To think the day would come when I would meet the very man in the flesh.
 Blessed Xyen, god of the stars, I thank you for your guidance.”

 “Shantilyon,
 You recall that upon being knighted, one must take a Knight’s Vow in the presence of a high-ranking member of the clergy, their lord, and their mentor knight?”

 continued the older knight as the cleric was seemingly not going to explain further.

 “I do.
 I swore fealty to my lord and his majesty, the king.”

 “Sir Rhowen,
 I hear in the frontier, there is but a single knight that observes the vow.”

 Baldo verified his claim and added that there were occasionally members of the clergy that chose to sit in on the ceremony as well.

 “Shantilyon,
 In this day and age we have countries and within them order, and it is from the relationships between lord and subject, in families established, that knights are brought into being.
 This was not always the case, however.
 There was a time when to become a knight was to build a House, to create another royalty, to raise a new town from the dirt and give it a lord.
 To then choose a vow was to decide the fate of your house and your liege, and your ability to carry out said vow would shape how others would view the legitimacy of your knighthood.
 To be a knight was to choose what you would offer your loyalty to, unfettered by any and all constraints.
 This was what it meant to take a Knight’s Vow.
 Upon hearing the contents of those three vows could one learn of their true nature.
 Thus the method of vows in the frontier remains truest to the original.
 Not only is it a vow of loyalty.
 So too must one chose a virtue and a god to worship.”

 The older knight paused as he took a sip of the wine.

 “You must choose a virtue?
 As well as a god to worship?
 Does that mean one is not bound to any other virtues?
 That they cannot pray to any other gods?”

 The older knight cut a slice of thick ham and brought it to his mouth and responded,

 “Of course not.
 One who attempts to uphold all virtues, however, may at times find themselves unable to uphold any.
 In current tradition, when asked ‘By which virtues wilt thou serve,’ one is expected to recite the list of thirteen virtues.
 I will not say that it is wrong, but there are many a man who understand that vow to simply be a test of memory.
 Well, I won’t dwell on that.
 The point I’m trying to make is that in the frontier, one is still expected to choose a liege to serve, a god to worship, and a virtue to uphold in their vow.
 That is how it used to be as well.
 When I was still but an orderly of the knights, there was talk of a man in the frontier who took the commonfolk as his lord in his Knight’s Vow.
 It was quite the rumor, making its way around all of the knights and squires in the capital.
 ‘Ah, that is what it means to be a knight!’ I recall thinking at the time.”

 When that rumor originally circulated the capital, Baldo surmised that in most cases it was accompanied by words of mockery instead.
 Zifelt had intentionally chosen to not mention that, however, and Baldo felt it spoke magnitudes to the depth of his character.
 The young knight appeared to be deep in thought.

 Father Bali Tode then kept the group entertained with his lighthearted wit as well as kept all of their cups full.

 “Forgive my forwardness, but I must say you are still in marvelous physical shape for your age,”

 said the cleric, alluding to the fact that Baldo went through the entire night without a wink of sleep to take care of his illness, and even now was staying perfectly awake for dinner.
 If asked, however, Baldo would say a man who could not perform his duties after two or three days of no sleep was unfit to be a knight, and not to mention, taking care of the infirm did not require such physical expenditure.

 “What training do you recommend, then, to bolster the body?”

 asked the young knight.
 Both he and the older knight took turns getting sleep once the cleric’s condition stabilized.
 There were moments that night when the young knight caught himself starting to nod off in his chair, and so he especially was deeply impressed by how Baldo displayed nary a trace of fatigue.
 To this Baldo simply responded that he ran.
 The young knight was clearly perplexed, so Baldo explained further.

 When Baldo was still a knight in training, he was made to run every day.
 With a bag filled to the brim with heavy stones affixed to his back did he run circles through the hills and fields, and when he returned an exhausted mess to his mentor, that was when his training began, only to be later made to prepare the equipment, take care of the horses, clean up the training grounds, and so on.
 Through this did he temper his endurance and fortitude and develop all of the muscles in his body, but there is no greater training than that of running, were the words his mentor often said.
 He was once made to run for a full two days, Baldo continued to say.

 “Shantilyon,
 Often do squires these days complain of hellish conditions after but a mere half-day of training in armor.
 You must take great care to listen to Sir Baldo Rhowen’s words.”

 The conversation was full of life, and thanks to the cleric’s generosity, so too was the food provided by the villagers delicious and the wine of wonderful quality.
 To all present, the evening went by, bounding with a mirth second to none.

3

 His body was heavy.
 It was numb, unmoving.

 Baldo awoke for he sensed a suspicious presence.
 He managed to force his trembling legs to move and made his way to where his cloak lay.
 In it was hidden an herbal panacea, for use in an emergency.
 He placed the entire thing in his mouth and vigorously chewed.
 Sword in hand, he stepped into the corridor and heard a sound coming from one of the rooms.

 That’s where the cleric should be sleeping.

 In front of the door, the young knight was collapsed on the ground.
 He was not dead.
 It was simply that he was paralyzed and could not move.
 Baldo walked up next to him could see that the young knight was desperately signaling with his eyes that something was amiss in the room.
 From within could Baldo hear the sound of rustling and rummaging, as if someone was looking for items.
 The ruffian was not attempting to conceal the sound in the slightest.
 That could only mean the person was aware that no one could move.
 Baldo drew his blade and leapt into the room.

 “What!
 H-How are you up and about!”

 came the slow-witted reply from the man, and he immediately stopped his search, slung a sack full of what were surely stolen valuables over his back, and then quickly tried to make an escape.
 Baldo grabbed an item immediately beside him and threw it at the thief.
 It was a statue in a demon-god’s visage, meant to ward off evil.
 Just as the ruffian was about to jump through the window did the wooden carving that surely weighed as much as a full-grown adult hit him squarely on the back.

 “Yowch!”

 Baldo pushed his legs to move so that he could give chase to ruffian that fell down outside.
 Out of the corner of his eye, Baldo saw that the cleric was sleeping soundly in his bed.
 There wasn’t a trace of harm done to him.

 Baldo climbed through the open window and rolled out onto the ground outside.
 The ruffian had stood up and was in the midst of trying to untangle his sack from the demon-god statue.
 As he staggered forward did Baldo swing with his sword from left to right, aiming for the ruffian’s legs.

 “Eek!”

 cried the man as he jumped on reflex, avoiding the attack.
 It was as if he had eyes on the back of his head.
 As he was himself unprepared for the sudden jump, however, his head collided with the branch of a tree next to him and he fell back to the ground on his back.

 “Ow!”

 With a hand on his sore head the ruffian leapt back to his feet and quickly shuffled down a slippery slope lush with grass.
 Just as he did, Baldo once more hurtled the demon-god statue, striking the back of his head.
 Now the ruffian was surely starting to feel the effects of the attacks as he stumbled to the left and right for five paces or so before falling with a thud, face-up on the ground.

 Again, he quickly came to, and he shook his head to the left and right.
 This time, however, he made no attempts to get up.
 For Baldo had caught up to him and placed his sword above his throat.

 Under the glow of the moonlight was the ruffian’s face surprisingly young.
 Both of his hands were opened in a show of surrender, and for whatever reason was there a bright smile on his lips.

4

 Baldo had an inkling of just who this ruffian might be.
 Are you the one called Julchaga, he asked the young tied-up man, and without losing his calm did he reply,

 “Wow!
 Am I really that famous?
 What a happy day.”

 This Julchaga, also known as the Gorra Cheyzara,2 was a thief of particular note in recent days.
 He would put his targets to sleep with a homemade drug and make off with their valuables—not a single victim of his would die.

 At first, Baldo attributed the paralysis of his body to the jabo.
 Normally when consuming jabo poison would the effects appear quickly after.
 Instead however, it was due to the wine and tea, laced with a drug by Julchaga.
 There were undoubtedly many opportunities for him to do so, considering Baldo and the rest were preoccupied with the cleric’s illness.

 “What rotten luck!
 I was tailing this esteemed envoy from the Palzamic Kingdom for a little while now.
 I found the perfect chance to strike.
 Those two swordsmen with him were—how can I put this—calamities walking about on two feet?
 But that just inspired me more.
 I have pride in my work, you know?
 Once I got the better of these two, oh boy, would I be in a great mood for at least a month!
 Though my god of trade, En Nu, is racking in quite the profit with this.
 I promised him, you see.
 ‘Oh blessed En Nu, I will offer up but the finest of wines to your grace if you allow this humble one the chance to succeed!’
 And the next day?
 The cleric collapsed just like that, and then in the next moment made a speedy recovery.
 Then night came ‘round and everyone went deep to sleep, creating the perfect chance.
 ‘Now’s the time to strike!’ it made me think.
 So who are you?”

 Baldo gave his name, and the Gorra Cheyzara closed his eyes and raised his face to the sky.

 “You’ve got to be kidding me.
 Jhan dessa roh!3
 How could the very Galdegarsh Gwera be here of all places!
 You are the one man I dared not meet!”

 Baldo had defeated many a bandit over the course of his life.
 The lords of each region rarely paid heed to the pleas of villagers outside their lands, and so did theft and banditry often go unpunished by them.
 As such was Baldo the nightmare of all who perpetrated these crimes.

 Fortunately the drug that the Gorra Cheyzara used had no lasting ill-effects.
 All Julchaga stole were gold and other valuables, as well as some food and wine—he did not touch any information or documents.
 A common tale about the Gorra Cheyzara was if he spotted an expensive piece of jewelry and a delicious piece of food next to one another, he would make away with the food without a moment’s hesitation.
 There was no plot behind him.
 He was but a normal thief—as simple as they came.

 Following Baldo’s personal judgment, the Gorra Cheyzara was left to the village chief.
 There was a well-off individual in a town some distance away who had placed a bounty on this particular thief, so by giving the man to the chief could he consider it a way for the village to make some money.

 “This is the second time you have saved me, sir.
 I will be heading toward the domain of Dorba now.
 You have retired, Sir Rhowen, and are now traveling at your own leisure.
 Might I interest you in joining our group for the time being?”

 offered the cleric.
 Dorba was the domain governed by Cardos Coendela.
 It was the new center of the Greater Giguenza Region.
 Baldo was attacked nearly in ambush by Cardos’s nephew and killed him in return—it was possibly the place Baldo wanted to avoid the most.
 Baldo wished to travel to Lints instead, so he declined the invitation.

 The cleric did not offer Baldo any gold or expensive items to express his appreciation.
 Rather, he entrusted him with a single glass bottle filled with a certain distilled spirit.
 Bottles such as these were quite the rare commodity, hardly found in the frontier in particular.
 The alcohol inside seemed of exceedingly good quality.

 “This one has quite the taste.
 The best part about it is that a journey won’t do anything to spoil it, either,”

 the cleric said with a smile.

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