â€œSo, if you donâ€™t mind my asking, how long have you been in the service of She Who Lives In Her Name?â€
It was late at night, and the preparations for the following day had been made. The Perfectâ€™s armies had been given the orders that would force a clear path, and the Solar Circle that was to go to Autochthon was spending one last evening with their friends and loved ones before embarking on their adventure.
With no such people present, Fokuf had found himself at more or less at loose ends. Somehow, this had resulted in him joining the Perfect for dinner, and now the two were relaxing and talking as though they were old friends, and not allies of convenience. It was decidedly odd, but Fokuf reflected that he had carried on cordial discussions under worse situations back in the Dynasty.
The Perfect smiled, taking a deep drink from the decanter of wine sitting beside him. â€œJust over four hundred years. Most of my kingdomâ€™s existence, to be truthful.â€ He tapped the staff beside him. â€œI already had this wondrous thing in my presence, so I knew that our natures were in alignment from our first meeting.â€ Fokuf nodded thoughtfully. He knew the rumours of the Perfectâ€™s staff; that no mind control could affect its wielder, and that it could not be taken by force. â€œI realize that it may seem odd to you, but I have never seen Her will as diverging from the good of Creation.â€
Fokuf shrugged slightly. â€œWell, I have seen cities managed more badly than Paragon. Youâ€™ll have to forgive me, however, if I place a higher value on freedom than you.â€
â€œSuch as the freedom you had as Regent?â€ The Perfect spoke lightly, then paused. â€œIâ€™m sorry, I should not have said that.â€
â€œProbably not.â€ Fokuf sighed heavily, taking a sip of his own wine. â€œBut youâ€™re right. The Dynasty has a multitude of its own faults â€“ and one of them is the way that it forces people into roles they may not be suited for.â€
â€œTouchÃ©.â€ The Perfect inclined his glass, and Fokuf smiled faintly. â€œStill, our goals arenâ€™t that different from those of creation. Joy, order, and purpose. That is all that my alliance seeks.â€
â€œI know. Iâ€™m still here, arenâ€™t I?â€ Fokuf grimaced theatrically. â€œIâ€™ve worked alongside people with lower ambitions.â€ He grinned, taking a grape from the table and chewing thoughtfully for a few moments.
â€œIndeed. I think I may be dealing with some of them soon.â€ The Perfect sat back, glancing out the window at the desert. â€œDo you think the Empress will sign onto our alliance?â€
â€œProbably.â€ Fokuf nodded after a moment. â€œFrom what Serafin said, youâ€™ve convinced Lookshy, Greyfalls, and the icewalkers. The Realm will see the advantage in a short-term alliance. Long-termâ€¦ well, weâ€™ll have to see if there is a long-term, first.â€
â€œI know.â€ The Perfectâ€™s expression turned sour. â€œWe warned Sacheverall, when he presented his plan, that it would likely lead to just this sort of damage. That the Creation we sought might not be here at the end of a Competition. But our voices werenâ€™t loud enough to sway him.â€
Fokuf perked up. â€œIt was Sacheverallâ€™s plan?â€
The Perfect nodded. â€œFour hundred and fifty years ago, he decoded the sutras that Autochthon left behind upon the Loom. He understood what they might represent to us, and started laying out the groundwork for the Competition. It took some of the Yozi longer than others to find those who matched perfectly â€“ Malfeas, Sacheverall, and the Ebon Dragon already had champions, by sheerest chance, but none of the rest of us did â€“ but they all found someone eventually.â€
â€œHmm.â€ Fokuf nodded glumly. â€œToo bad for us. One or two fewer enemies would have been nice.â€ When the Perfect chuckled, he continued. â€œWhat I donâ€™t get is why Autochthon would leave something behind that could be used like that.â€
â€œI doubt it was deliberate.â€ The Perfect smiled. â€œThe intent of the sutras, I believe, was to help Creation to understand the Primordials, as a defense against them. Only Sacheverall realized that it could work both ways.â€
â€œMm. Sounds like heâ€™s the man to beat.â€ Fokuf and the Perfect shared a nod, and they let the conversation steer onto less dangerous topics. After an hour of this, Fokuf excused himself to get some sleep, and the Perfect nodded and agreed that this seemed a good plan.
Outside the Perfectâ€™s tent, just out of sight of the demonic guards, Fokuf paused and pulled out a notepad. Scribbling something quickly onto it with a golden pen, he blew on the surface of the expensive paper for a few moments, then tore it off and crumpled it, shaking his head. Tucking the notepad back into his pocket, looking for all the world like a man who had just changed his mind about something he was about to write, he resumed walking.
Crossing the dark campground, walking towards his tent, Fokuf paused as a familiar shape took form out of the night. â€œNash. Late for a stroll, isnâ€™t it?â€ He raised an eyebrow.
â€œJust getting some fresh air.â€ Nash shrugged, with a faint smile. â€œI might say the same to you.â€
â€œI was just coming back from the Perfectâ€™s tent. Pleasant fellow.â€
â€œAh.â€ Nash nodded, stepping forwards and lifting his hand. â€œI may be occupied with the distractions tomorrow morning. In case I donâ€™t get a chance to say it â€“ good luck. I think weâ€™ll all be counting on you.â€
Fokuf took Nashâ€™s hand, giving it a firm shake. â€œThank you. Iâ€™ll see you when we get back.â€ He paused, and sighed. â€œGood luck in Creation.â€
â€œThank you.â€ Nash stepped backwards, with a bow, and Fokuf resumed the journey to his tent. Behind him, Nash continued walking, his hands in his pockets. He finished his walk, then turned and returned to his own tent.
Once inside, grimly, he slipped his hands out of his pocket. One hand opened, holding a crumpled-up piece of paper that had once graced an ornate notepad. Glancing at the walls of the tent, mindful of possible spies, Nash quietly uncrumpled the paper, reading what was written.
â€œYou were right. The Conduits come from the sutras on the Loom, as Serafin suggested happened to her. Sacheverall figured it out, about four hundred and fifty years ago.
When did Gaia first start speaking to Serafin?â€
Nash breathed out slowly, shaking his head. He himself was over six hundred years old, and Serafin was older than that. And he knew, from when she had discussed her visions of the Dragons with him, that the first warnings of this Competition had come when her form was fixed.
He sat in the tent, the shadows seeming dark around him. How had Gaia known of the looming disaster three hundred years before its own agents? And if she had, why had she warned no one else?
His suspicions, already aroused, began to blossom. This was something that he was going to have to investigate further.