Chapter 5
A Deal with the Devil

AZ 1455 - Autumn
Kalonis, Notos

Daphne had to wonder what sin prompted God to curse Zephyr so. Dispelling the evil of the Darklands should be His work, so why were those left behind facing utter ruination? This year's harvest was the worst one yet and it would take massive imports to sustain the people through the winter. Fortunately, the wealth of the mountains would save them, but only if they had a willing buyer.
It was a cruel trick of fate that brought Daphne to Notos. It had not been so long ago that the current Notian leaders were spilling Zephyrian blood in their rebellion against the Protectorate and now they potentially held the key to Zephyr's salvation. The fact that they agreed to this meeting at all was a promising sign, but there was the very real threat that it could all be a farce to humiliate her and revel in her people's suffering. She had to take that risk, though, for her people's sake.
She stood there passively in her stateroom while her handmaids dressed her. Normally diplomacy between heads of state would warrant the full ceremonial regalia, but Daphne decided that her standard court dress would be more appropriate, hoping a more humble presentation would be better received by the rebels turned statesmen.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Uriel asked.
This was not the first time he asked this question, but with the negotiations set to begin later that day, hopefully it would be the last. Now that she was mostly dressed, she nodded for one of the handmaids to pull back the curtain that sequestered off the former treasure hunter.
Uriel narrowly survived the wound left by the shadow walker's blade thanks to magic of her mother's people, but even then, only Daphne's power kept him alive. It was not the way she wished to keep him close, but she could not complain about the results. Though he looked healthier than when she thought she lost him there on the ramparts, he was still paler than he once was and his eyes somewhat sunken in appearance. He remained as active as he could manage within the confines of the palace walls, but his treasure hunting days were behind him.
It was hard not to pity him, but he resented pity, so she did her best to treat him no differently than before.
"Uriel," she said, "remember that these are delicate negotiations. I want you by my side, of course, but you must let me do all the talking. I hear this Rowland is a proud man and no matter what insults he may level at me and my kingdom, you must not return in kind."
"I'll bite my tongue."
Daphne managed a slight grin and replied, "Take care that you do not bite it off."
Uriel returned the grin. Indeed in moments like this it was easy to pretend that nothing had changed.
The handmaids finished dressing Daphne and soon it was time to disembark from their ship and proceed to the praetorium for their negotiations. Disembarking with her entourage was an honor guard of one hundred men. Normally at least an entire cohort would accompany a member of the royal family, but the small escort was part of the agreement that made this meeting possible. In exchange, the Notians were not supposed to move any additional troops in the area beyond an equivalent honor guard for their leaders. It would not be enough to save her if the Notians had a mind for treachery, but she owed it to her people to hazard her own well-being for their sake.
The streets along their route were empty. It was unsettling in such a large port city. In what was once the most loyal city to the Protectorate, the red and orange banners of the Promethean Alliance now flew from atop every building, making the entire city look like it was aflame.
When they reached the praetorium, most of the honor guard was posted outside. Only four Bodyguards were allowed to enter the praetorium with Daphne's entourage, another part of the agreement. Lord Loukios went on ahead with two of the Bodyguards in tow to announce her arrival.
"Her Royal Highness, the Princess Regent of the Kingdom of Zephyr, Daphne, the daughter of Solon."
Daphne walked into the main audience chamber and took her seat at the end of the table. Uriel, Lord Loukios, Lord Balios, Lord Memnos, and the Grand Logothete then took their seats around her. Two Bodyguards were posted immediately behind her and two at the door.
A black-haired young man at the opposite end of the table sneered, "A long title for such a little girl."
So this was the leader of the Promethean Alliance, the man who humiliated the celebrated Genius of the Nanoi Campaigns and now held Notos in his grip.
An elderly mage at young man's right hand said, "Captain of the Free Forces of Notos and the Promethean Alliance, Rowland, son of Carolus, Your Highness."
The mage had some sense of propriety and an appreciation for the gravitas of these proceedings, quite unlike Rowland. The former rebel's muddy boots were propped up on the table and he slouched in his chair with his arms crossed. The praetorium was no better than a tavern to him. Her entourage bristled at his effrontery, but they thankfully abided by her orders not to speak unless given leave by her. She knew it would only get worse from here.
Daphne did what she could to preserve civility.
"On behalf of my father the King and the people of Zephyr, I want to thank you for graciously hosting these negotiations, Captain Rowland. It is my sincere desire that we can put the past behind us for the sake of both our peoples and normalize relations between our two nations."
Rowland did not seem to give her words any regard, but she was expecting him to be difficult. He was being petty for the sake of being petty, but she could sense that there was more to him and his actions than what he showed her.
A Black Xotikan female on Rowland's left leaned in and whispered into his ear, "Be wary, Rowland. That halfbreed wench is a mindwalker of no mean ability."
Rowland gave a dismissive wave of his hand.
"Let her peek all she wants. She'll gain nothing from it."
Daphne was not sure if the rebel leader's confidence was overconfidence, but it was so strong that it overshadowed anything she might skim from the surface of his mind. Also, though the Black Xotika's powers of the mind were much weaker than her own, she would be able detect any attempt by Daphne to look deeper into the minds of the Notian leaders. She would have to rely on more mundane techniques to read them.
"It wasn't that long ago that you Zephyrians carried yourselves like lords over us," Rowland said, "and now this little girl comes to me as a supplicant. Tell me, girl, why should I help you?"
"We are prepared to pay you very well in exchange, Captain Rowland," Daphne replied.
She motioned to the two Bodyguards at the door and they exited, returning shortly thereafter bearing a chest whose contents they spilled out onto the table.
As the Bodyguards were returning to their post by the door, Daphne made a sweeping gesture to the pile of gold coins and said, "A thousand aurei, a small token of our good will. It takes much gold to build a nation. Gold and silver we have in plenty, but these cannot fill people's bellies and sustain them through winter.
"We have heard that Notos has had a blessed harvest this year. We only ask for a share of your surplus. A fair exchange. We give of our plenty and you give of yours and both our peoples reap the benefits."
A disinterest Rowland asked, "What are you asking for and what are you offering for it?"
Daphne nodded to the Grand Logothete, who replied, "We require fifty million modii of grain, or as much as you are willing to spare, and we are prepared to pay five aurei per modius of grain."
"Eight aurei," Rowland said bluntly.
"Eight aurei!" the Grand Logothete exclaimed. "That is twice the market price!"
Rowland grinned.
"And if you could find enough grain on the market, you wouldn't be coming to me."
"We will pay you six aurei," Daphne said. "Furthermore, we will formally recognize your government and act as your guarantor when you are ready to open up trade with other nations."
"Why do we need our occupier to vouch for us in our dealings with other nations?"
"Your nation has been independent for fifteen months. Ours has stood for fifteen centuries. Which do you think outsiders will judge the more reliable partner in trade and diplomacy?
"The Protectorate was never intended to last forever. Perhaps we did not do enough to foster Notos' return to independence, but I would like to remedy that, at least in part, now. Though our history has been troubled, we at least know each other and who are more natural allies than two of the Four Kingdoms of the Wind?"
"The four winds each blow in their own directions."
"But when they blow against each other, they give rise to storms that cause much grief."
"You think you can stop the storm at this point?"
"I think it is time for calm."
"Don't be fooled by her honeyed words, Rowland," the Black Xotika warned. "You can't trust Zephyrians or Alari and she's both."
"You forget your place, Simona," Rowland said harshly. "If I want your counsel, I'll ask for it."
The Black Xotika nodded and took a step back. Rowland was not paying any attention to her, though. Behind his lazy, disinterested facade, he was intently studying Daphne, the Princess could easily tell as much.
"It takes a lot of gold to raise an army and build a fleet to carry it all the way the Darklands," he said. "I'm surprised you have so much to spare. I'd think your coffers would be empty by now."
"Zephyr has always been a strong nation, Captain," Daphne replied.
"Not strong enough to best me."
This stung the pride of military men like Lords Memnos and Loukios keenly, but their discipline was strong enough to bear the insult. Daphne knew better than to engage in any posturing to save face. Listing off the rebels' defeats and projecting the results of an all-out campaign would gain her nothing. He could preen and boast all he liked if it got her what she wanted.
"You and your forces have indeed proven yourselves formidable," Daphne said, "but winning the peace is always more difficult than winning the war. It is my hope for the sake of the people of Notos that you prove yourself to be a wise and just leader."
"If you're so concerned about the people of Notos," Rowland replied, "maybe you could look after them on a more permanent basis. I hear that you royal types like to use marriage to seal deals like this."
Daphne did not believe the marriage proposal was a sincere one, but the mere mention was enough to spark the jealousy of both Uriel and Rowland's Black Xotika.
Daphne demurred, "My hand is not mine to give away."
It was true. Daphne did not have the freedom to choose her husband even if she ruled as queen in her own right. Marriage was too valuable a tool of alliance to leave in the hands of any one person. She hoped that would be enough, but Rowland did not stop there.
"Well then," he said, "maybe we can come to a more temporary arrangement. I don't need your gold. Fifty million modii of grain is a fair price for a princess' maidenhead, don't you think?" He glanced at Uriel and added, "Assuming you still have it, that is."
Uriel rose with a start, but Daphne checked him with a sharp glare and the subtle use of her powers to hold him in place. When he regained control over himself, she released him so he could sit back down. Rowland grinned slyly, but Daphne did not rise to his provocation.
"I know what you are trying to do, Captain. You are looking for an excuse to walk out on these negotiations, regardless of the harm it would do to the government you are trying to form and the people you claim to fight for. You want to see us debased before you at all costs. Very well."
Daphne rose up from her seat and stepped away from the table. Turning to Rowland, she knelt before him and bowed her head.
Without raising her head, she said, "My lords, Uriel, kneel."
"Your Highness, we--"
"You will kneel!"
Her entourage and her Bodyguards reluctantly complied with her order, lining up behind her and kneeling according to her example. The swell of emotions, from the furious outrage of Lord Balios to the mournful shame of Lord Loukios, grieved her heart far more than her own feelings on the matter. Still, it was a necessary gambit that she prayed would be enough.
"You have called us supplicants, Captain Rowland," she said. "Yes, we are. Do you think that I am so proud that I would watch my people suffer and die for the sake of my pride? Our lives are in your hands."
After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, they received their answer. Rowland burst into laughter.
He was laughing so hard that he actually struggled for breath when he said, "I never knew you Zephyrians could be so interesting! Ha ha!"
It was bizarre. This man whose supreme confidence overshadowed all else was overflowing with mirth. Not sadistic pleasure at torturing his enemies but genuine mirth, like that of a child. Even more surprising was how easily he could rein it back in, returning to his prior calm with only the barest hints of the upwelling that had been so strong only an instant before.
"Very well then," Rowland said. "You'll have your deal. Fifty million modii of grain at six aurei per modius. Return next spring and we can put this pact into writing."
Rowland sprang from his seat and walked over to Daphne, extending his hand.
"Come on, get up."
Daphne accepted his hand and he helped her to her feet. He of course could not be satisfied with a simple gesture of good will. Tightening his grip ever so slightly, he drew her in close like a dance partner, cupping the small of her back with his other hand.
He whispered into her ear, "Though it is a waste to have you on your knees for nothing."
He released her just as she was going to pull away. She was unable to suppress a blush at his boldness, especially when their proximity intensified the emotions she could pick up from him. These were, however, greatly overshadowed by the jealousy of both Uriel and the Black Xotika, now burning hotter than ever.
Drawing in a slow breath to calm herself, Daphne leveled her gaze at Rowland and said, "One more thing, Captain. When our troops return from the Darklands, I want you to grant them safe passage and provide whatever provisions they may need to return home."
Paying little thought to the request, Rowland replied almost reflexively, "Ten aurei a head."
It was a steep price, but bearable. It was the least she could do for the fighting men returning from the Darklands.
At the risk of Rowland taking advantage of the situation once again, Daphne extended her hand and said, "We have an accord?"
"I suppose we do," Rowland said, clasping her wrist to seal the deal. "You have a knack for getting what you want, girl. Perhaps it was you they should've sent here four years ago instead of your fool of a brother. Bring your gold and we'll bring our grain."
Daphne gave Rowland a slow bow and he replied with a simple nod of acknowledgment.
Rowland then motioned to his entourage and said, "Alright, we got what we wanted. Let's head back to Maximilion."
The Black Xotika shot Daphne one final glare as she turned to leave, but the elderly mage remained behind. He gave her a curt bow and said, "Zephyr is fortunate to have one such as you, Your Highness. There may yet be hope for a genuine peace between our two peoples. I will do my part to ensure the survivors of the Darklands campaign return safely to Zephyr. They do us all a great service."
"Thank you, Master--"
"Scipio, Your Highness. I have done what I could to guide this rebellion, but you see how headstrong he is. He is a good man, though, as I hope one with your powers can see."
Daphne simply nodded. There was indeed good in Captain Rowland, but it was cloaked in much unpleasantness. Still, if he honored their agreement, the indignities of this day would be well worth it.
Not everyone thought so, however. As they were leaving the praetorium, Lord Balios grumbled, "You should be ashamed of yourself, girl, bringing shame on us like that."
"Watch your tongue, Lord Balios," Lord Loukios said sharply. "You are addressing Her Highness."
Wholly unrepentant, Lord Balios continued to grumble.
"I will not forget this so long as I live."
"And you shall live that much longer thanks to the Notian grain I have bought us," Daphne replied. "That man wanted to hurt us one way or another. We should be thankful he was satisfied with wounding our pride alone."
It was easy to be harsh with a man like Lord Balios, who had been a lifelong thorn in her father's side and no more pleasant to her during her regency, but she was more regretful for the toll of the experience on Uriel. Though he maintained his self-control, the bitter anger continued to churn within him.
"I am sorry to put you through that, Uriel," she said.
"Never again, Daphne," he replied. The hard edge to his voice surprised her. "I'll never let you kneel like that to another man again."
One of the consequences of the wound he received from the shadow walker was that negative emotions gained greater purchase as they wormed their way to the depths of his heart. Without her constant ministrations, he would be consumed by them, twisted into a monster of anger and hate until the Darkness took his life.
"Uriel, I--"
Fighting back valiantly against his empowered dark side, Uriel said, "I know why you did what you did and I wish to God your people never forget the debt they owe you, but I'm tellin' you right now that so long as I draw breath, I'm not gonna let you do that sort of thing again."
Daphne stopped their procession. Despite the need for appearances, she turned to embrace Uriel. Subtly, though, she removed her glove and slipped her hand under his tunic to touch the shadow walker's wound. The latent dark energies in the wound would still sting her as she channeled her own power to suppress their influence.
He had sacrificed everything for her. The least she could do was honor his wishes here.
"I promise you, Uriel. Never again will I kneel to another man. Never again will I ask you to sit silent while I am abused. The next time any man tries, you may do as you see fit."
The words made her feel better and they brought some comfort to Uriel as well, but she would never have guessed that this promise would come back to haunt her.