I claim no ownership rights to any of the works of Rumiko Takahashi, or anything I've borrowed and modified from the Banestorm setting published by Steve Jackson Games.

The mega-map of Yrth can be found at www. sjgames [.com] /gurps/books/banestorm/img/banestorm_world. jpg (remove spaces and brackets).


Lord William of Wallace sternly suppressed his frustration as he stood at the entrance to his castle's central keep — a keep that was actually one of the strongest in the realm, and for good reason. The lording of Wallace was only one of five holdings along Caithness's border with the Great Desert (previously six, before the southernmost and most exposed, Blythe, had been overrun by the Reptile Men that infested the desert four years before). But Wallace was also the border holding on the most direct line for raiding Reptile Men or especially Orcs to strike directly at Caithness's seat of government. That hadn't been a concern for generations, not with Castle Defiant and its Caithnesser colonists just across the Great Desert in the southeastern Orclands, but with the fall of Castle Defiant in eleven years before the possibility had returned and Lord William had ordered repairs as his surplus allowed. They'd been completed five years later — just in time for the civil war to break out, and with Lord William's decision to join the rebels King Conall's bulwark has abruptly become the greatest threat to his western flank.

Which, of course, was why Lord William had been receiving what sometimes seemed like an endless stream of emissaries, all trying to convince him to return to his previous fealty to the king. He had hoped that after Court Wizard Myrddin's embassy that would be an end to it, but apparently not. So now here he stood, waiting to greet one more silver-tongued hanger-on when he could be doing something useful. And it would just be the beginning, there would be the feasts and meetings that would drag on until the emissary, however it was, decided it was hopeless and went away.

Lord William wondered who this one would be. He didn't see how it could be someone more important than Myrddin, so maybe closer to the king? But Sir Ordsig, the knight that had raised King Conall in hiding during his minority after the death of his father, was years dead along with his wife. That only left Sir Galardon and maybe Baroness Bronwyn, the first the king's childhood friend and the second rumored to be his lover. But the first was a wenching, brawling fop and the second with her barony on the border with Megalos occupied with more immediate concerns, so Lord William couldn't see either of them as likely. But then he shrugged as he set aside the speculation. It wasn't like he wouldn't know in a little bit, and wouldn't care much whatever he learned.

Then the cavalcade came through the gate, and he got his first glimmerings that this embassy was different.

The first hint were the knights. That they and some squires were part of the party wasn't a surprise, leaving aside the need for extra protection on the road when traveling through a kingdom at war they'd be included for prestige value alone. But that they were all members of the Order of the Knights of the Stone and half of them female was a surprise — while it had been decades since the first woman was knighted in Caithness there simply weren't all that many female knights, and fewer still in the king's own Order. That half of the escort's knights were female had to be a deliberate statement.

Then Lord William realized just which of the riders had to be the emissary, and the reason for that statement became clear: the emissary was young, exotically beautiful even in plain (if expensive) riding clothes ... and undeniably female. She definitely wasn't native to Caithness. And she was riding astride, even if she was apparently wearing some form of split dress.

Then she swung one leg over her horse's rump (scandalously exposing a trim if stocking-covered calf in the process) and dropped to the ground rather than waiting for one of the knights to help her dismount. She even took a moment before turning to the lord of the castle to help her maid dismount from her more typical sidesaddle and made sure the clearly exhausted young woman (if perhaps not as young as her mistress) had the support she needed to stay on her feet from one of the female knights.

Having seen to her companion, the young foreigner approached Lord William. She stopped at the foot of the stairs rising to the keep's entranceway and dropped into a proper ... if somewhat unpracticed ... curtsey. "My Lord William, I am Maid Nabiki Tendo," she announced in a quiet but firm voice. "I come on embassy from the king." Even her voice was exotic, her words correct but carefully stated with an accent he had never heard before.

"You are most welcome, as is any opportunity to bind the wounds of this war-riven kingdom," Lord William replied. He was surprised to realize that he actually meant it — he didn't know what, but something had changed and he found himself hoping that the change was for the good, however unlikely that seemed.

He motioned toward the door. "Come, rooms await you all where you can rest from your journey, before tonight's feat."

"Thank you, my lord, for your gracious welcome. A rest will be much appreciated." She mounted the steps toward him, the rest of her party behind her now that the knights had handed their mounts' reins to squires and stablehands, and followed him into the keep.

/oOo\

The next morning:

Lord William rose as a servant ushered Maid Nabiki, dressed in the same type of split dress she had worn the previous day and carrying a document case, into the working room of his chambers with her older maidservant behind her. As her servant hobbled over to a padded bench by a window to gingerly sit and set out some embroidery, Nabiki strode over to him and curtseyed. "Thank you for seeing me so promptly, my lord," she said.

"The matter is of some urgency," he replied. "Please, sit. Ale? I'm afraid that I can't offer more of last night's excellent wine, but that vintage is expensive enough to reserve for special feasts."

He eyed Nabiki as he poured the ale while she sat in the room's other high-backed, leather-upholstered (and expensive) chair, that his wife typically used. He thought that she had taken his point that her arrival had turned the normal evening meal into a special feast, but he couldn't be certain — he suspected that even if her exotic appearance didn't make any attempt to read her difficult, her own self-control would have done so. Even sticking to inconsequentials, his conversation with her during the feast had told him that her status as an emissary wasn't a joke. Though he'd also been shocked to learn that not only was she foreign, she wasn't even Christian but an honest to God pagan! That simply didn't fit the image he was building of a bright, quick-witted, educated young woman — pagans were flea-ridden, fur-clothed barbarians from the Nomad Lands or country rustics hiding their bonfires from the local priest in woodland clearings, or the Lizard Men and Orcs that raided out of the Great Desert. At least she isn't a Muslim.

Nabiki sipped at her ale and he hid an approving grin when she didn't grimace at the taste — he'd deliberately selected the closest beverage in his cellar to the rotgut he remembered from his youthful wandering days, and she'd taken it with the aplomb he'd expected after the previous evening — then put the mug down on the table and leaned back in the chair, fingers at the clasps of the document case in her lap. "I appreciate your courtesy," she said in her careful Anglish, "but the matter isn't so urgent as you believe. I am mainly here to answer any questions you might have about this." She pulled a single sheet of paper out of the case and passed it to him.

Frowning, he accepted the sheet. His frown deepened at the size of the printing, and he carefully took his glasses out of their case and tried again (very carefully took out his glasses — outside of his armor they were perhaps the single most expensive item he owned, and certainly the hardest to replace). He read down the page, eyes widening, then read it again ... and again. Finally, he burst out, "Grand Councils ... no changes in law without their review and comment ... meeting this spring to discuss funding or providing the forces needed for the recovery of Blythe and Castle Defiant ... is he serious?!"

"Oh, yes," Nabiki replied. "I was there when the Grand Councils were discussed, and later when Archbishop Siccius agreed to allow the first to be held at the Adseveration Cathedral — as church lands, Photius ought to be acceptable as neutral ground. The Great Councils are for real. Or will be."

Lord william demanded, "Do you expect me to simply inform my people of the councils? Help them choose their representatives? To pretend that the past six years of war haven't happened, and Conall doesn't still sit on his throne at Carrick Town?"

"Actually, we thought we'd relieve you of that decision," Nabiki replied lightly, an impish smile on her face. "Last night copies of the announcement were posted on the church door and throughout the town — especially in the quarter now mostly filled with refugees from Castle Defiant. I suspect that there are enough literate people in town to ensure word spreads."

Her smile held for a moment as Lord William's clenching fist crumpled the announcement, then she straightened with a sigh, face abruptly sober, and placed her document case on the table. She said, "After years of stalemate we're into the endgame, and just who gets checkmated is up to you. These announcements are also going out to Ferrier, but not Sterling, Denton, Oakwood or Donlis. Sterling is going down this year, maybe Oakwood if Lord Brance can't get the rebellion brewing in his own lands under control. That will tip the balance decisively in favor of King Conall. At that point the decision is yours: which do you prefer, an independent Caithness with Conall on the throne, or Caithness as one more province of Megalos? Because the only way you'll be able to win will be through direct intervention by the legions, and that will be the price." She tapped the document case. "The invitation to the Councils is Conall's assurance that your and Baron Nabbik's rebellion will be ignored if not forgotten, and his promise to share the guidance of the kingdom with its nobles and people."

"And how long will that promise hold after we give up the rebellion?" Lord William ground out, face turning red with anger. "Then he will be free to move against us individually, and forget that there ever was such a thing as the 'Grand Councils'."

Nabiki shrugged. "For the first year at least, assuming the Councils aren't too strongly opposed, he'll be campaigning across the Great Desert, retaking Castle Defiant. After that, you'll be able to join with the legions when they come across the southeast border. You alone would probably be enough to ensure that the legions win at least the south, Baron Nabbik's joining you would clinch it." She grinned mirthlessly when Lord William gaped at her. "As I said, we can take down Lord Towne, maybe Lord Brance — but not Baron Cabble or Lord Marsden. But their positions will be untenable, they are going to run away to Megalos and take Deneral with them. And in a few years, after the legions dealt with whatever is going on in the Blackwoods, they'll will be back, using returning them to Denton and Donlis as an excuse. Count on it."

Lord William frowned thoughtfully, his anger cooling. He asked, "You are aware that I will be telling Lord Towne of the threat to Sterling?"

Nabiki shrugged again. "Of course, and I expect that your messenger will cross paths with his messenger to inform you of the same. If he doesn't know about it yet, he will any day now." She opened the document case and pulled out another, uncrumpled copy of the announcement and handed it to him, then rose to her feet. "I think I've given you enough to think about for the moment. My instructions are, with your permission, to stay until you have an answer for the king — and to answer any questions you might have, of course."

A jolt of anger flashed through him at her peremptory dismissal, before he dismissed it with a mental shrug. As well-mannered as she'd been she was a foreigner, after all. She probably didn't realize the faux pas she'd just committed. Rising to his feet, he slyly asked, "Any questions?"

"Well, not any question. We do have secrets, after all," she replied, her impish smile back, as her maidservant put away her embroidery and stiffly rose to her feet. Moments later the pair was gone, leaving a very thoughtful lord behind them.

/\

As soon as Aylara joined her inside the room they'd been offered the previous evening, Nabiki closed the door and locked it ... then dropped to her knees, fell onto her side, curled into a ball, and shook. Aylara tossed her embroidery onto her cot, dropped to her knees and pulled her mistress into her lap, crooning softly as she stroked Nabiki's hair until her shivering eased off. Finally, when Nabiki stiffened and pushed herself upright, the maidservant rose with a groan and offered her a hand up. She asked, "Better?"

"Yes," Nabiki agreed. She stepped over to flop on her bed. "Pulling off the act was a lot easier when there weren't any real consequences."

"That is usually the case," Aylara agreed. She stiffly sat on her cot and picked up her embroidery. "When we return to Carrick Town, we are taking it slowly," she said firmly. "I am very tired of that horse, and I suspect it is equally tired of me."

Nabiki laughed softly but nodded her agreement.

After a few minutes of comfortable silence, Aylara remarked, "That was a rather interesting approach you took with Lord William."

"I didn't have much of a choice," Nabiki replied, then bit back a yawn. "However exotic I might be, Lord William has no reason to trust me any more than any other envoy. So the best I could do is lay out how the game has changed, and make him responsible for the outcome. From what Myrddin and King Conall said, the last thing Lord William wants is to hand the kingdom to Megalos. We'll have to see if he bites."

"And do you think he'll 'bite'? What if we fail to capture Sterling?"

Her only answer was a soft snore, and Aylara smiled fondly, then groaned as she pushed herself to her feet, so she could pull the bed's topsheet across the sleeping girl. She wasn't surprised, considering how poorly her mistress had slept the previous night. After she'd lost her breakfast as well, the only question had been which would hit Nabiki worse, exhaustion or hunger. Apparently, exhaustion had won out.

Returning to her cot, the maidservant resumed her embroidery yet again, reflecting on just how to report the day's meeting to Sir Galardon. The king's spymaster would be pleased with Nabiki's performance but not, Aylara thought, surprised.