Varlmorg knew he had to return to Pochreka but couldn’t tear himself from his chambers. It was immensely comfortable lounging in the nude, or at least as close as he could get, with that bandage always wrapped tight around his midriff. He was surrounded by his turtle doves of naked men and women who had spent the whole morning entertaining him with tales of adventures from their ordinary lives.
“What about that blind man?” The newest member of Varlmorg’s group asked. “Was that one of you?”
“Yes, he was mine.” Brushka replied with a giggle, “I remember it well.”
“How was it? Could he find… things?”
“He was excellent,” Brushka said, remembering the encounter. “You could’ve learnt a thing or two George.”
“What does that -”
“He would’ve been listening,” Mariam interjected.
“What’s listening got to do with it?” George erupted. “You can’t listen your way to an orgasm.”
“Oh, darling…” Mariam tittered. Varlmorg felt the bed sway as she cupped George’s cheek. “A proper gentleman always listens.”
“No need to listen when you know exactly what you’re doing.”
“Listening is the difference between a job and accidentally falling in love. Now we know why George ranked so low.” Mariam sniggered
“First of all -” George started with a scoff, “I don’t see anybody falling in love with you. Second of all -” Varlmorg opened his eyes to see George nod to Petraeus while grabbing his crotch. “You know this thing is the reason we can’t keep up.”
“Actually…” Petraeus quietly corrected him. “I was the highest ranked last month.”
“This fool?” George blurted, pointing to Petraeus’ pudgy stomach. “You’re joking.” His cheeks flushed red as the women laughed at his sunken face.
“You can tell Petraeus listens,” Brushka said as she leaned over to kiss him.
George’s face fell even further as he looked away from the affectionate display. “Looks like nobody’s falling in love with either of us.” Mariam playfully elbowed George.
“I love all my turtle doves very much.” Varlmorg chimed in. “But you – you should listen more…”
“George,” Mariam informed him.
“George.” Varlmorg continued, “I knew that.”
“Thank you for having me, Lord Valgusta. I know I’m only filling in for Draskal. Where did he go?” George asked, taken aback by the gasps of his partners.
“Draskal will no longer be joining us,” Varlmorg curtly informed him. “And you need to pay more attention. It’s no surprise Petraeus is ranked number one. He has said the least. When one is talking, they are unable to observe. Stuck on the surface level with only their own thoughts.”
“Observe?” George chuckled. “Once their clothes are off, what more is there to see? I’m not hired to observe them.”
“No? Do you think they hired you for the mediocre half a part you can provide?” Varlmorg said, causing Brushka to snort as she tried to cover her laugh. “There is more to observe than just penis, vaginas, and breasts.”
Varlmorg closed his eyes and lay his head back on his pillow, his imaginings triggering a smile to creep across his face. “Movement. Breath. Tension.”
“A proper gentleman.” Mariam nodded.
“Listening is your greatest ally,” Varlmorg said, sitting up and addressing the group. “It allows you to understand not what is said, but what is meant.”
“Why don’t I show you how well I can listen,” George whispered seductively as he walked his fingers up Varlmorg’s leg.
Mariam lunged forward and snatched George’s hand away. “Apologies my Talutaja.” She bowed, yanking George down to do the same. “It will not happen again.”
A knock at the door rang around the chamber.
“Go away,” Varlmorg ordered sharply.
A continuous rapping on the door began before Bogdarsha’s panicked whisper could be heard. “Stop it.” There was a slight pause before he continued in full voice. “It’s important, my lord.”
“Nothing is important enough that I -”
The door swung open to reveal a small arm reaching around Bogdarsha, who was desperately trying to swat it away. Rifalm poked his head out from behind Bogdarsha’s bulging stomach, his eyes widening at the sight of all the uncovered flesh.
“Is this how you spend your time?” Rifalm’s prepubescent voice reverberated around the room. “Doesn’t look that important to me.” He feigned left before ducking right and skirting around Bogdarsha. He took in the multitude of naked bodies with interest and revulsion.
“Cover up,” Varlmorg instructed his turtle doves. “The boy is much too young to see.”
“I’m old enough,” Rifalm shouted, his lips thinning as he snapped his head around to look at Varlmorg. “I’m a bound man.”
“You use the term man loosely, I see.”
“A man is more than whom he kills and beds,” Rifalm replied, much to Varlmorg’s intrigue.
“Yes,” Varlmorg said, inspecting the little boy. “Atypically wise. I thought you returned home yesterday?”
“So does everyone else. Let’s talk.” Rifalm said, keeping his eyes on Varlmorg. “Alone.”
Varlmorg subtly nodded to Miriam, who hurriedly stood from the bed and placed on her robe. George, Brushka and Petraeus quickly followed suit before they scampered from the room.
“Close the door,” Varlmorg instructed Bogdarsha, who grumbled to himself as he exited. Varlmorg scooted to the edge of the bed and allowed a lengthy silence to follow as he inspected every detail of Rifalm, from his oversized coat to the rings on his tapping fingers, all accentuated by his stilted breath. “At least a two-day ride to Yoghoy,” Varlmorg said as he stood and stretched naked before Rifalm. “I can’t think of any reason you would have to stay an extra night.”
“I wouldn’t have if I didn’t,” Rifalm responded, careful not to drop his eye line.
“The nature of this visit is highly unusual.” Varlmorg groaned as he stretched backwards once more, then walked to his changing table and placed on a pair of tight pants. “We had the whole council to converse, and here you are, in my private chambers. How long do you plan on staying?”
“As long as this conversation takes,” Rifalm answered confidently.
Varlmorg’s eyebrows shot up; this was not the Rifalm he had expected. “Seems a waste of your precious time.”
“This is important. We thought it best to deal with it away from prying ears.”
Varlmorg thought on Rifalm’s choice of words before gesturing to two chairs in the corner of the room. “Take a seat, boy.”
Rifalm winced before bounding to the felt chair and allowing its luxury to encompass his whole body. Varlmorg lifted a jug from a nearby wine table and offered it to him, who shook his head politely.
“I’ll get straight to it,” Rifalm said. “No need for wine or distraction, I wouldn’t want to waste your precious time.”
“Very considerate,” Varlmorg said sarcastically as he sat opposite. “Please.”
Rifalm grinned from ear to ear. “I have something you want.”
“I doubt it very much. I have everything I want right -” Varlmorg stopped as Rifalm produced a scroll from his pocket and waved it in the air. “And that is?”
“To?” Varlmorg asked, reaching out to inspect it.
“First -” Rifalm said as he snatched the scroll away. “I want some guarantees.”
Varlmorg chuckled. This little boy was different from the one he had seen running about the council. A trained little boy like a pup learning to sit. “I won’t guarantee a thing.”
“What if the Mothers were involved?” Rifalm said as he twirled the scroll in his hand.
“The Mothers? I don’t think they have much interest in me.”
“You don’t think?” Rifalm said as he unfurled the scroll to reveal its stained back, which had four golden circles, each with an x inside, inserted around a cross.
Despite his best effort, Varlmorg couldn’t help but sit forward. “Where did you get it?” He asked. He licked his lips, annoyed by Rifalm’s silence. “Where did you get it?”
Rifalm’s eyes closed as his face scrunched, temporarily pausing before they burst open, and he started with incredible confidence. “We were going to show it at the council before we saw how Arafalt’s book was received.” He trailed off as he stared into the room, furrowing his brow before continuing. “In this world… In this world, one must do what needs to be done. Words travel fast. The word is that you may want this.”
“I may.” Varlmorg shrugged. “What is it you’re looking for in return?”
“I thought you weren’t willing to give me anything - Boy.” Rifalm bounced on his chair. “There are a few things I want.”
“Yes?” Varlmorg said, trying to hurry him along.
“Well…” Rifalm scowled as if unsure what to say. “Respect.” He finally blurted out.
“Yes, respect! And… well, no, but, respect first. Everybody laughs at me, and I don’t deserve it!” Rifalm cried, jumping from his seat. His calm demeanour disappeared as if going off script. “I’ve got as much power as any of the Talutajas. I haven’t done anything wrong, and it’s not fair!” He shouted as he stamped his foot. He took off pacing about the room as he continued babbling. “For some reason, those people listen to you. They listen to what you have to say. And they laugh at me. But they forget -” He stopped and turned his little face towards Varlmorg. “They… they forget - When the war comes, my army will be just as big as theirs!” Silence echoed through the room. Varlmorg watched Rifalm squirming uncomfortably. “What I’m trying to say is… What I meant to say is, we could help each other.” Rifalm meekly added. “I know that I’m… but I’ll get better. I promise. I can be of use.” Rifalm stood tall and full of confidence. “I want an alliance.”
There was a long silence.
“You want respect?” Varlmorg sighed, putting Rifalm out of his writhing misery. “Respect in the form of an alliance?”
“They’re the same.”
“Not quite,” Varlmorg added with a wry smile.
“They should be.”
Varlmorg stroked his beard as he considered what the little boy had said. This was not at all how Varlmorg had pictured his day. He was looking forward to spending the afternoon hearing tales, getting drunk, and watching naked bodies – no chance of that anymore. Rifalm slinked back to his seat and huffed as he collapsed into it.
“The elixirs were made for a reason.” Rifalm sulked as he picked at the fabric on the arm of his chair. “Do you know what it is?”
“Anyone who says they do are lying,” Varlmorg said before shifting forward in his chair and winking. “But I have an idea.”
“So, the whispered words were right? You do want this?” Rifalm said, waving the scroll in the air yet again.
“Good!” Rifalm beamed before quickly wiping the smile from his face and clearing his throat. “Some say you have plans to take over Maailemätuld?” As if he had rehearsed it many times, he dramatically averted his gaze only to return it mid-sentence. “In a divide, one always takes sides.”
“One may not always be taking the side they suspect,” Varlmorg said as he lounged back in his chair and clasped his fingers together. “Tell me - how would dear old Pharamis, the most trusted of your father’s advisors, feel about these secret deals you’re trying to construct?”
“Pharamis?” Rifalm asked with surprise. “He trusts me to make my own decisions. I have never let him down.”
“Of course not.” Varlmorg nodded in agreement. “And your dear promised?” He asked, tilting his head to the side. “What would Sashen think of all this?”
Rifalm looked at his hands. “Sashy only cares for my well-being. I love her dearly.”
“And she loves you very much,” Varlmorg emphasised before continuing with a high level of gusto. “I only ask because when I take over Maailemätuld, I will need a Fidus Achates.” He poured two small goblets of wine. “Someone young. Someone I can trust. Someone I respect.”
“That could be me!” Rifalm grinned as he eagerly took a goblet of wine from Varlmorg. “I can be all of those things.”
“I think so too.” Varlmorg smiled as they clinked drinks.
Rifalm held out the scroll for Varlmorg, who hesitated to take it.
“Are you sure?” Varlmorg asked, full of concern. “You can keep it if you want. Although… I may have use for it.”
“I’m sure,” Rifalm assured him as he thrust the scroll into Varlmorg’s hands. “This is what I came for. I’m just glad we can be friends.”
“I won’t take up any more of your time,” Rifalm said as he stood from his chair and bowed. “I know you’re a busy man.”
“Nonsense!” Varlmorg gushed, jumping from his chair. “I’m never busy when it comes to friends. And we, Rifalm, are friends. I’ll tell Bogdarsha to prepare a private chamber, we can feast, you can rest, then leave in the morning.” Varlmorg returned Rifalm’s bow. “Talutaja.”
“Thank you so much! So, so much! This is exactly what we wanted. I’m so excited this is… I know it’s just the start, but, well, hopefully, the start of something, I don’t know, good.” Rifalm beamed, bouncing up and down on his toes.
“I think so too!” Varlmorg said as he placed his arm around Rifalm’s shoulder and walked him to the door. “Oh, one more thing -” he said suddenly as if he had forgotten. “I assume your promised is somewhere, no doubt close by. Tell her I say hello.”
“Uhm…” Rifalm groaned as he scratched his ear and shifted uncomfortably. “Yes, yes, I will.”
“Excellent!” Varlmorg gushed as he opened his chamber door, revealing Bogdarsha with his ear pressed to the wood and Meriam standing nearby. “This is Meriam,” Varlmorg said, gesturing to her as she stepped forward and curtsied. “She will escort you back to your chambers.”
“Thank you,” Rifalm said, unable to wipe the grin from his face.
Miriam ushered Rifalm down the corridor as Varlmorg nodded to Bogdarsha, inviting him inside. “That was unexpected,” Varlmorg grunted as he returned to his changing table and began to dress appropriately.
“What did you discuss?” Bogdarsha asked, inspecting the wine table and both the used goblets.
“Ohh, nothing much.” Varlmorg shrugged. Bogdarsha grumbled disbelievingly. “A new alliance has been formed.” He said without care as he changed into a pair of woollen jodhpurs. “A great opportunity for both factions, no doubt.”
“What?” Bogdarsha cried. “Without my knowledge? Maybe if you had consulted me, I could have advised otherwise. The south is… they’re nobodies, ruled by a child.” He said, sitting with disgust and taking one of the goblets, then swirling the wine in his hand. “I don’t think you’ve thought this through.”
“Enlighten me,” Varlmorg said as he looped a belt around his waist.
“This could be seen as an act of aggression, not necessarily the worst thing, but tensions are high, and you’re creating alliances? You’re telling our enemies everything they need to know.”
“Is that so?” Varlmorg asked, his fingers tapping the changer in front of him.
“You can’t possibly intend on keeping this promise?” Bogdarsha asked as he placed down his wine and took his feet. “He is a little boy without the faintest ideas on politics.”
Varlmorg shrugged. “As long as it benefits me.”
“This could lead to all-out war!” Bogdarsha ranted, throwing his hands around and moving about. “This stupid boy is moronic enough to visit you in the Capital, where prying eyes are always watching. Who knows-”
Varlmorg cut across Bogdarsha with authority, “Do not be so naïve as to believe there is not more going on here.”
“But he -”
“But nothing. I have made my decision.”
Bogdarsha slumped back into his seat, crinkling his nose and shaking his head while glaring at Varlmorg.
“Any news from Yarganov?” Varlmorg asked politely as he placed on a tight-fitting linen shirt.
“He’s on their trail,” Bogdarsha mumbled.
“Their?” Varlmorg questioned him. “I was told there was only one.”
“The woman seems to have friends.” Bogdarsha sighed as he played with the key attached to his necklace. “Some boy and -” He paused.
“Out with it.” Varlmorg urged as he placed on his flat boots.
“A bear?” Varlmorg repeated with intrigue. “A boy and a bear. I trust Yarganov can handle a bear?”
“Probably not,” Bogdarsha grunted sullenly.
“Have a message sent to Yarganov,” Varlmorg said, stopping to consider what he wanted to relay, “If he succeeds, the boy is his.”
Varlmorg placed the scroll on his desk and opened one of the draws, riffling through its unorganised contents. He pulled out a map of Maailemätuld and put it next to the scroll, inspecting the two furiously to ensure he would not make a mistake.
“Why are you in riding gear?” Bogdarsha questioned as he returned to his feet. “Making dreadful alliances only to -”
Varlmorg held up his finger to silence Bogdarsha. He muttered before grabbing an inkwell and drawing multiple lines on the map. “I’ll be riding for Pochreka immediately.” Varlmorg started, inviting Bogdarsha to peer over his shoulder. “This map leads us south into Maga Päike. I will retrieve provisions, horses, and a small troop, be seen by those who need to see me, then leave immediately. I have limited time to ride down and back without being detected.”
Bogdarsha’s eyes lit up as he spotted the golden circles in the corner of the scroll, “Where did you get it?”
“Where do you think.” Varlmorg grinned. “I’ll be riding within a half section and should return to Pochreka by morning. On the way to Maga Päike, I’ll stop at Ristuv and Verpun to change horses -” he pointed out the two villages on the map, “And nowhere else. I get what I need, I come straight back.” He lifted the scroll and delicately held it in his hand. “You will return to Pochreka tomorrow.”
“Because tonight you’ll be feasting with Rifalm,” Varlmorg said, unable to avoid the irony.
“I must object.” Bogdarsha started, wholeheartedly offended by the suggestion.
“But you won’t. You will do as I say. And once you are finished, you will go home to Pochreka, where you will be in charge until I return.”
Bogdarsha’s greedy eyes lit up. “Of course, my Talutaja.”
“Then it is decided,” Varlmorg said as he delicately rolled up the scroll. “A second elixir. It’s within my reach.”
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