Things had already started to change for Athron. The Order of the Dawn had granted him the title of Pater, putting him on the same standing as his mentor, Pater Alphonse Orrick. It wasn’t the only change for the cleric. Members of the Storico pushed over each other to help him with his research on both successful and failed negotiations. Even in his own utilitarian Order, brothers and sisters gave way to him with a short bow of the head or quick salute. Although it had felt strange to him, Athron had been given the charge of taking two acolytes from the Order of the Dawn on his mission to the Middle Redding. He still had no idea who, or even how, he would choose. How had Pater Orrick chosen him? Duran, of course, had quickly suggested that he take Joy with him to the Middle Redding. Despite the horseman’s own reasons for bringing the young acolyte, Athron had to admit there were several advantages to having her along. It was something to consider.
More important to the moment was his meeting with one of the Order’s leaders, Archmater Freida Norris. Being a member of the Dawn meant the call to spread the Light of Hamal where only darkness reigned. Archmater Norris was always focused on evangelizing the faith. It was rumored that she was one of the first to speak of Hamal in the current age, that she was there at the founding of the Church. Now she wanted a private meeting with Athron to speak with him about the plans of his mission to the Middle Redding.
He stood in her antechamber, reviewing his early plans for the Middle Redding. His initial thoughts, already written up and submitted to the Archmater before this meeting, was to develop unity among the clans of the Middle Redding. Through the strength of that unity, they could present a viable negotiating power to the League. From there, he had hoped to work some type of land lease system between the farmers and the horsemen. His short conversations with Duran led him to believe the success of such a plan was dubious at best.
“The Archmater is ready to see you now, Pater Dolmen.” Athron nodded respectfully at the acolyte and entered into the Archmater’s office. He first noticed her desk. It seemed to be like the center of a storm. It’s perfect neatness contrasted with the chaos of paper spread about the room. The walls were arranged with makeshift pigeon holes brimming with letters and scrolls. On the wall directly behind the desk was a large map of the lands, dotted with an odd arrangement of colored pins.
“Have a seat, young Dolmen,” the Archmater spoke without looking up from her notations. Athron had to move a short pile of books from a chair to find anywhere to sit. “Magda,” she called through the door and the acolyte entered, “see to this.” The young acolyte took the parchment handed to her and retreated as quickly as she had arrived.
“Archmater, I must first express my,” Athron stopped as Archmater Norris held a hand up.
“None of that Pater Dolmen.” She looked up with her piercing gaze, “What you must express is how you intend to keep Middle Redding and the League from igniting like a lightning strike on dry tinder.” She folded her hands in an arch, listening to the young Pater’s plan, formulating her own opinions on both the man and his bold intentions.
“You say your friend Duran has the favor of his chief, and the boldness of his deeds in their warriors’ challenge also drew the favor of other clans.” She cocked her head to one side. “But he himself seems little inclined to parley with the League. Indeed, he seems inclined to welcome conflict.” Her concern that the beginnings of Athron’s plan rested upon a Middle Redding horseman who might want nothing of the diplomatic processes obviously concerned her.
“Yes, Archmater, at face value Duran seems ready, eager even, to bring war to the farmers touching the horse clans’ lands. Honor is a strong matter among the clans and clansmen have been slain. He says that he seeks retribution, but I believe what he wants more than anything is that his people are able to live in their own manner.”
As soon as he said it, the cleric knew that it sounded like a contradiction. That Duran wanted his people to retain their customs, and one of their customs was retribution, blood for blood. He held up an apologetic hand. “As we traveled the North Redding, we came across a mystical being, the Wyrd. She said that the Middle Redding, that the ground would bend to the plow. Worse, I think, was her words that the clans would know bit in their mouths and crop at their flanks.” He remembered Duran being more chilled by those words than ever he was by the frigid air of Broc’s homelands. “I have faith, then, that he wants his people to be retain their,” he searched momentarily for the word, “identity. I believe he knows that open hostilities would only lead to escalation and that escalation would lead to fires on the plains.”
Athron paused, watching Archmater Norris mull over his words, weighing his judgment of the clansman. He had not wanted to speak it. Indeed, he was almost ashamed to have even thought about it. “There may be another way to reign in Duran’s more martial ideas. There is an acolyte in the Order of the Dawn, Joy, Ethan Seer’s apprentice from Halveet. Duran favors her. I think that if she were to join us on our negotiations, she might be able to deflect some of his aggression. He would not want to look poorly in her eyes.”
Athron could already feel his face warming. To be a cleric of Hamal’s Truth, to even suggest manipulating a person, let alone a boon ally, it felt like sin to Athron. Kardinal Rovati words after the questioning of his mentor stung in his ears, You might have had a place in the Inqueridore. “Forgive me, Archmater Norris, I should not have spoken such words.”
One corner of Norris’s mouth twitched. “I would not consider it appropriate to use Joy Marvelle as a romantic distraction. But if she can inspire the young man to nobler conduct,” she spread her hands, “that, Pater Dolmen, is not an inappropriate consideration in deciding whether to include her in the delegation. And so perhaps you should ask her – if,” she emphasized, “including her would likewise benefit her. She is not simply a pretty young girl, and she merits more from us, as her teachers, than to be treated as a lure for the clansman’s passions.”
“Yes Archmater, I will speak with her in detail.” Where Kardinal Rovati would most likely have nodded in approval and continued into the plans for negotiations without a single pause, his own arch priest expressed reproach and caution. It was oddly reassuring.
Archmater Norris twirled her fingers in the air, urging the conversation to continue. “Yes, I think that the land’s history could aid us in the present,” he went on. Collin Jacobson, a particularly helpful acolyte of the Storico, had helped out considerably by directing him to Ina Shal D’Valettia’s Histories of the Quaj. Jacobson had been enthralled by the writer’s history, how she had left her Sa’iph home to live amongst the native Quaj. The book spoke of how the struggles between the Quaj and the Sa’iph Shal ended. The Sa’iph lords needed warriors, they promised their new cavalry land in reward for service. The unified army of Sa’iph dislodged the diversive clans of the Quaj. Athron told this abridged tale to Archmater Norris.
“I think that we can learn from this that a single, unified force has strength over a loosely organized clan system. The League is very organized. The first step is to have the Clans present an equal level of organization. I was thinking that if the Clans could field an army and show that they were willing to fight as one people for it. It would bring a balance to the negotiating table.” Athron paused, there was perhaps a second lesson to be gained from the book.
Archmater Norris could see that there was something behind the young Pater’s eyes, something like a question, “Pater Dolmen, I have not been a young woman for some time now. I would like to spend as much time as Hamal has given me in action. Speak your mind.”
The priest nodded, “Yes, well, I think there may be something else we can learn from the book, but I’m not sure. I think there may be something in the trade between land and service. The League wants to use the land for farming. I don’t know if they want to own the land.”
“I am unsure whether there is much of a difference in the League’s eyes,” Norris mused. “Or,” she conceded the possibility of dissent even within the League, “at least the eyes of most of its leaders. The merchant houses typically want to control the lands they use, whether it be those that provide the resources that they trade, or those across which their caravans travel. Whether one terms it ‘ownership’ may be irrelevant to the decision-makers on either side if the end result is much the same.” She looked up at the ceiling, considering. “What service do you think the League could offer the Middle Redding clans that would merit the clans granting the use the land for farming?”
And there it was, the place where his plans fell short. It was hard to fault himself, the largest thing he had previously negotiated was the use of a bridge in southern Torei, a pale comparison to keeping two people from war. Or was it? Both parties wanted something. As always, honesty would be the path to follow. “I’m not sure, Archmater. I haven’t spoken in detail with Duran about what his people might want. I do have some ideas, though. It could be something as simple the League paying tribute, like a form of renting the land. I also thought that the nomadic tribesman must experience difficult winters and parched summers. Perhaps a bit of stability might aid the clans. I thought that the League could enforce a sort of tax on the farmers, having them distribute part of their yearly harvest.”
Athron held up his hands, “Honestly, I’m not sure what the horse clans might want. I even had an idea that since the clansmen pride themselves on their warrior status, that the League, with its far reach, might set up schools in the Middle Redding to teach the clansmen a wider range of fighting tactics, making them the strongest warriors in the lands.” He shrugged, “Far fetched, I know, but I have little experience dealing with countries. They breathe differently than individuals.”
Norris waved away the self-deprecation as if it meant nothing to her. “If the clans negotiate like anyone else, they may try to force the League to make an offer or two first – one starts from a stronger position if one can maneuver your opponent into starting the bidding. Still,” she agreed, “the clans must have their own position – both starting, and fall-back – in mind, regardless of whether they can win that opening gambit. And that, indeed, is something that will require the intercession of your friend.”
Athron nodded, “I have every confidence that with Duran’s help, I’ll be able to get the Middle Redding to stand as one. The League, however, I have little knowledge of them and their ways. What little I do know, however, does not put them under a good light. They place taxes on people, but give them little in return. I know that what I know does not speak the entirety, but they seem like a watered down Sa’iph. Do you have any suggestions on how I should approach them?”
“All I can suggest is that you approach it as a business proposition, the negotiation of a contract,” Norris suggested. “I have heard that Councillor Ankarra of Tarrish is particularly pragmatic, and you have the advantage of being known in that city, and can call upon Pater Aubin to assist you in your mission.”
Business proposition. Athron knew that he was sorely pressed for experience in that area. In fact, the only one he was acquainted with who was skilled in business was Cassick. While a boon ally, he did not sit in the Grace of Hamal. And yet, he might provide valuable insight into the minds of those in the League. It might be a good idea to call upon Cassick’s expertise. But he couldn’t count on his availability, “Archmater, is there any acolytes who have solid experience with the League, one that I might take on this mission?” Surely everyone from acolyte to Archpater was listed in the books and scrolls of Archmater Norris’ office.
“Other than Joy Marvelle?” Norris asked. “After all, she is the daughter of merchants.” She waved one hand to indicate he did not need to respond. “I jest – she is rather young, and joined Pater Seer’s chapterhouse long before she acquired any meaningful experience of that sort of her own. I will look through my records and perhaps make some recommendations.”
Athron headed in the direction of the training fields behind the Order of the Dawn’s sanctuary. The Archmater’s suggestions had been helpful in pointing out the gaps in his plan. Not the least of which was his thoughts on Joy. The daily orders had listed Acolyte Marvelle assigned to martial studies in the morning.
Guilt colored Athron’s thoughts as he saw her dueling her partner. She looked like a battle maiden of Hamal there on the practice field. Her brow was lined with sweat from her labors. Her eyes, focused on the task at hand. She was getting better. Archmater Norris was right, it would be wrong to use her as some type of sexual carrot to dangle in front of Duran.
Her session completed and changed from her armor, Joy approached Pater Dolmen. “Joy, please, walk with me for a bit.” They walked in silence into the botanical gardens tended by acolytes and priests performing penance. “Tell me, Joy, what do you think of Duran of the Kesten clan?”
“Duran?” Joy blinked, and looked at Athron in surprise. “He’s … well, he’s quite nice. Funny. More serious than he was the last time I saw him, but that’s to be expected I suppose, with his brother’s death.” She shrugged. “Ummm… I guess he must be quite brave, given what he has faced with you.” She thought for a bit more, looking at her feet as they walked. “He also reminds me a little bit of myself,” she ventured uncertainly. She shot a glance up at Athron, unsure how to continue. “It … took me a bit to figure out what I could do. What I could be, what I can do for the people I care about. He strikes me as someone who hasn’t quite found that out yet. I mean … not what he can do. He knows that quite well. I mean … what he should do. If that makes any sense.”
“Yes, I see what you are saying. In fact, I believe that you can assist him in finding his true path.” Athron paused before continuing, trying to see the correct path, wondering if he was placing too much on the young acolyte. “When he is around you, I sense Duran’s spirit drawn to the light of his better nature. For that reason, I feel you would be a fine addition to the Church’s diplomatic mission to the Middle Redding. However, one thing does concern me. I believe that Duran has feelings for you.”
Joy looked away from Athron, considering the gardens and those working in them. She was silent for some time after Athron finished speaking, and then sighed softly. “I suspected that,” she admitted grudgingly, “when he gave me that diamond. If he had wanted to donate it to the Temple, he could have just given to you, after all. I’m sure it’s just a passing fancy. And I don’t want to mislead him. I have a lot I want to focus on before I think about even a light-hearted dalliance.”
“I see.” The priest thought about how this affected his plan. Surely if she had responded with equal enthusiasm, it would have made the decision to invite her on his delegation easier. Still, as when he had found her training in Hatham, Athron admired her dedication to Hamal as she strove to do all she could for the faith.
He bent down next to a patch of marigolds, pulling a choking weed from amongst the flowers. He gently ran his fingers through the flowers, and tossed the weed onto the path, where it would be trampled. “Life can often be like these flowers, something beautiful, but always in danger. Duran’s people, I think, are now in danger of losing something which makes them unique and beautiful. The League threatens their lands. They desperately seek to farm the soil. The Horse Clans of the Middle Redding feel that they need the land for their herds to roam free. Blood has already been spilled. I fear more may spilled by the maw of war. They might not know it, but both peoples need Hamal to weed in their gardens.”
“I was thinking about asking you to join me in my attempt to broker a peace between the League and the Middle Redding. However, I would not want to place you in an uncomfortable situation should Duran wish to press his advances.”
Joy laughed, and the sound of it was clear, uncomplicated. “He’ll not do anything untoward or unwanted. He may think himself an unsophisticated country boy, but he has better manners than many of the fine merchants’ sons I grew up with.” Her certainty that Duran was an honorable man, one who would respect her wishes, was apparent in her face and her voice. “Besides, he may find, after spending more than an hour or so with me at a time, that a Middle Redding maiden is more to his liking.”
Athron smiled softly and nodded, “Of course, there is a chance that you might find a certain Middle Redding warrior to yours.” He waved his hand, suggesting that particular discussion be left alone. “Then can I count on your strength in the coming mission, Acolyte Joy?”
“You can, Pater Dolmen. Tell me what I should bring and when I should be ready to go.” Joy didn’t bother to try to keep the excitement out of her voice, and she might have been ready to fetch her things right then.
To be continued.