Morning. The sky was blue and cloudless. They’d left the mountain passes behind them and had emerged on the flat plains stretching for what seemed like forever to all points of the compass. As was fitting their station, Jordan, Melvin and their new guest dined in their compartment. The breaking of their fast was a solemn ceremony, each man occupied more with their food than with wanting to engage in any form of dialogue.
It was only when the breakfast dishes were collected by a snobby slave that Melvin opened his mouth. He was talking to Belsair, and the tone was nothing short of belligerent.
“You had the chance to kill me last night. Why didn’t you?”
“Because that’s not what I do.”
“You’re an assassin, right?”
“And that means you kill people, right?”
“Then why didn’t you kill me? You knew I had a stiletto, or a pig sticker, as you made a note of.”
Belsair glanced up briefly at Melvin. “I didn’t kill you because there was no need.”
Melvin pondered that information for a few seconds. “No need... but you wanted to, yes?”
“No,” Belsair said, bluntly. He leaned forward to fix Melvin eye to eye. “You aren’t as important as you think, son. In terms of my level compared to yours... you’re not even a gnat in the eye of a water buffalo.”
If the insult found its mark, Melvin didn’t show it. Though it wasn’t too far of a stretch to imagine that Melvin missed the analogy altogether. Indeed, his next words suggested that the latter was the case.
“But this man, Darellion Kraithé... he’d kill me like that, eh?” Melvin said, snapping his finger to emphasise the point.
“No. He’d have you killed because that is his job. I wouldn’t kill you because that is my job. We’re two entirely different people, Melvin. With slightly different agendas.”
Melvin accepted the explanation in what Jordan guessed was his usual manner. He pouted, before turning away and leaping onto this bunk. Belsair followed his course with his eyes, before dropping them to regard Jordan. “Another day of this?” he remarked.
And so it was. For the next twenty hours, their locomotive plunged through lands scarred by twisting rivers that irrigated various types of crops. As they approached the coast, the effects of man became ever more apparent. The first signs being the sophistication of the irrigation systems, followed quickly by the density of urban populations. Very soon, the fecund fields gave way to small towns, the small towns to ever-larger towns before even these became eclipsed by the first small cities. These dotted the countryside like dark spots on pallid skin, with their factory chimneys pointing skywards colouring the sky from azure to gunmetal grey and the rivers from crystal clear to muddy brown tinged with syrupy green slime.
Jordan watched these developments with a heavy heart. Being born in the Western Provinces, which were still largely rural, seeing the rapid industrialisation and the impact upon the environment tore at his inner core. Yet, this was progress; there was no point arguing this. Such ventures at the very least provided employment for thousands in a burgeoning empire close to bursting at its seams. On the downside, such rapid growth meant equally rapid expansion, and the need to acquire more and more resources to keep the cycle in motion.
In short, to survive the expanding Empire needed to consume. And if there was a scarcity of consumables within her borders, the Empire had to look elsewhere. The theory was sound. It was just the application of the theory that left little to be desired. While Julian’s aggressive foreign policy followed his forebears to the letter, it was a somewhat antiquated stratagem to adopt. Furthermore, it did little to alleviate the nervousness neighbouring realms felt, given that more than once in their shared history, those illustrious forebears of Julian had cast covetous eyes over their lands. It begged the question, “when will it be their turn?”
Instead of being proactive, these potential victims sat in isolation behind their walled cities and just watched. What went through their minds, no one knew. Were they waiting for Julian to finish mauling their neighbour so that they could then swoop in afterwards to pick up the scraps? Or were they hoping against all hope that Julian would somehow overextend, or make a critical error... enough for them to make a grab for glory?
All of this played in the background of Jordan’s mind as Ma’arnar drew ever closer. But only in the background though, in the infrequent lulls between Melvin’s irritating baiting. It seemed his desire for attention and the need for approval overrode commonsense. Only, Belsair wasn’t to be won over by Melvin’s outrageous claims, or brought into conflict with his immature barbs. Both sets of antagonism rolled off his shoulders much like the rainwater had when he first set foot inside the carriage. Unlike Jordan, Belsair didn’t flinch or pull sour faces at Melvin’s most belligerent statements.
“...so I slit the dude’s throat... from ear to ear...” he had claimed once.
“Not with that pig sticker, you wouldn’t have,” the Master of the Knife retorted, bringing that hyperbole ridden conversation to a swift conclusion.
Night rolled over the plains swiftly, mercifully; only this night was imperfect. Along the eastern horizon, a pall of ugly yellow light stained the sky. Poison, was Jordan’s first thought upon seeing the smear. It wasn’t too far from the truth. What he was seeing was the mixture of night-lights from factories running twenty-four hours a day, combined with the huge clouds of filthy black smoke belched into the sky: progress, the glowing light of civilisation. The irony was that this quest for civilisation was slowly killing them.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Belsair said from across the carriage. When Jordan glanced up at the old man’s reflection floating on the window, he could see his gaze following Jordan’s east, towards the capital and the ugly glow in the sky. “Which is why our mission has to succeed.”
“It is unrealistic to lay all of this at the feet of King Julian,” Jordan said.
Belsair nodded. “That is true. But, if not for his sudden push for mineral resources, the scale of our self-destruction would be greatly reduced. As a child, I remember being able to fish in the Ma’arnar River in water clearer than glass. All around me was the chorus of insects and frogs. Now, there is naught but silence, and the fish you’re likely to land are riddled with tumours as they rot from within. In thirty years, so much damage has occurred.”
Jordan found himself staring into the eyes of the reflected Felipe Belsair, trying to gauge the depths of the man. Only his face was a mask, utterly impenetrable. Even his voice, despite the gravity of the topic, remained an even deadpan. Still, the power of the words—their meaning, beyond their literal interpretation—gave Jordan cause to ponder.
“When Julian falls, what happens next?”
Belsair shrugged. “Without an heir, I guess a council of some sort will be formed. In the short term, the costly war against Cedodor will be abandoned. The knock on effect of this will be the cessation of the purge of raw materials, followed by a cutting back of industrialisation to a much more reasonable level. While this won’t repair the damage already caused, it will go a long way to reducing the long-term effect. Who knows... our great-grandchildren may very well pull a healthy fish from the Ma’arnar River...”
“Surely that is merely speculation?”
The Master of the Knife shrugged once more. “Who’s to say? All I know is what my sources tell me, and they’re linked together by a common thread. Namely, King Julian has become somewhat an autocrat, and in doing so, threatens to destabilise the entire realm. Already, resources are overstretched. Throw in a foreign war that is diverting necessary supplies from the needy... for the sake of running a few factories in the Eastern Provinces...” A shaky breath hissed between Belsair’s lips. “There is one of two options left. A discreet mission such as ours... or...”
Belsair nodded. “And everyone knows the greatest tragedy of civil war...”
“Yes,” Jordan replied. “Everyone loses in a civil war... even the winners.”