The woman in the mirror was the same as always. A bleak lifeless eye and skin marred by scars and burns, warped beyond repair. Skin of a creamy brown tone that should have driven men and women alike to gaze at her with desire and admiration. Oh she was bitter about it for sure, you could tell by the way her other eye looked at you hard and her smile was always too tight.
The only difference today was that she wore a crown. A cold thing of iron. Black and burnt with sharp edges jutting up like the top of a castle battlement. There were no jewels, no luster, no display of wealth. She was the Monster Queen as much as she was the Merchant Queen. Dressed in a tight fighting black uniform outlined sparingly with gold, like a general going to war. Let friend and foe know first and foremost that she wasn’t the same as her predecessors. No, her predecessors hadn’t had a Father like hers.
I got up from the mirror exiting the room with my cane.
“You couldn’t have chosen something more… regal?” Chunnly asked as soon as he saw me. I smiled at him “Why do you think I added the crown?” He looked as if he was about to throw a fit so I laughed and continued walking.
Today was my coronation, Princess Azeal Ulgar to become the sixteenth ruler of the City, Merchant Queen. Citizens would be here, slaves too, all too see what kind of person would shape their fate over the coming years. My Father was a man who wasn’t well loved by the people, he tried his best to appease the demands of the various Merchants around him and oftentimes it was at the expense of the people. He had allowed the mercenary wars that had killed many parents, sons and daughters. He had allowed slavery to grow as rampant, he had never contributed anything good to the City and its people.
No doubt they had their concerns about me.
‘Just like her Father’ they would say. ‘The one-eyed monster’ some would mumble. ‘Damn she's a looker’ none would say. But that's the whole point of today, to let the people know exactly what they should be saying about me, and it was important. The Merchants, oh they had all the wealth and they kept their house and slaves in check nicely but it was all built off the people. There would be no product to sell, no food to eat, no house to sleep in without them. There would be no fool to swing the sword either.
They would see a monster wearing a crown and understand that this was not a ruler to be trifled with, it would inspire fear and respect. The citizens of the city waited in anticipation. As I entered the balcony, a hush befell; all eyes were on me. By all accounts nearly two-hundred thousand people lived in the City, the palace square couldn't even fit close to twenty thousand. It was like a sea, the filled the ground, spread onto rooftops and leaned out of windows, all to catch a glimpse of me. It made me pause, it almost made me stop. The weight of their gaze. Chunnly touched my back urging me onward so I walked. The balcony edges were protected by my personal guard, dressed tightly in their brown uniforms. Captain Gezel nodded to me, his eyes holding a complex expression.
"Are you ready to serve me Captain? I'll send you to hell and back over and over until you are nothing more than a corpse, I'm not a forgiving woman." I asked.
"It is my duty... and perhaps my punishment too. I will serve." he said.
I nodded, "Then serve well and repent."
I was no longer just a beaten girl with a lost eye looking for her knight, but a powerful queen. I stepped forward, chin held high and looked out over my people, I spoke into a runic apparatus that boosted my voice.
"I stand before you today in my own right. Not as a daughter of some forgotten King, but as Azeal Ulgar, ruler of this City." I stated, my voice echoing throughout the square.
The people were silent, the air filled with anticipation. I could feel their eyes on me as I gazed out over the City, and oh what a beautiful City it was.
"Look around you, we stand today in what may be the finest City in the world, the crown jewel of the Desert." My voice was strong and resolute, echoing throughout the square.
"And who built it?" I asked. Mumbles, whispers. “Do not fear, speak as your heart wills it, say what you know is true, who built this City?”
The people answered me. “We did.” they cried.
"That's right, you built this City, but look at it now." I said. "Every day it crumbles a bit more, every day less and less traders come, every day the City of Sand and Stone fades into irrelevancy." The crowd grew still at my words, no, they simmered.
"We look ever inwards, biting and gnawing at ourselves. We whored ourselves out as soldiers and came back worse off. Worse yet our own citizens enslaved." I continued. "In the past Merchants have brought the city prosperity but today they bring only ruin. Ruin to what you, the people, have built." I paused and looked out over the crowd.
"My Father was one of those Merchants, I am not him." I held up my chin "Some of you may call me a monster, that is fine. A monster is what is needed to whip the Merchants back into shape, to keep the hounds at bay." The crowd was boiling over, screaming yes at my words, slaves grew bold stepping out of line cheering when their masters told them not to.
I gestured to the citizens around me, "But it's not just the Merchants that have brought this City to ruin, it is us. All of us!" I looked around at my people, "We must remember who we are and where we came from if we wish to save our City. We must put our past behind us and look to the future. We are Sand and Stone, the greatest City in all of Talmanar."
"Today," I said loudly, looking around at the citizens, "I lead the City as Merchant Queen Azeal, I will build schools for all to learn what they wish! There will be opportunities a plenty, anyone with enough skill, determination or wit will be able to accumulate wealth and become a Merchant!"
Merchants paled at my words and the crowd cheered.
"Today," I repeated, "I lead the City as Merchant Queen Azeal, I banish slavery and will take the palace and guards full force against any who disobey my decree!" I held up my slave ring and smashed it against the railing, Chunnly shuddered beside me.
Slaves danced against their chains and slaver’s grew pale.
"Today," I said slowly one last time, "I lead the City as Merchant Queen Azeal, I take the city to war, to give us the fields and resources we need to prosper. We will fight no longer for others but for ourselves. I ask you sorry folk who have come back from the fight, will you fight one more time?" I asked calmly.
The crowd was at first still, every single breath was heard among the square as the people leaned in to listen to my words. Someone shouted out from the back "Long live Queen Azeal!" Others joined in soon enough and a ripple effect started to spread. It was like a collective scream, deafening in its intensity as tens of thousands of voices shouted for freedom, for prosperity, for war. It was a roar that seemed to reverberate through the city itself, a sign that times were changing, it could no longer be stopped.
I was now Merchant Queen.
One may think I was a fool to insult the Merchants so, to take away their walls and gates, to take away their wealth. They would be mistaken.
The palace ballroom was filled with Merchants all moving about and talking excitedly. Already ten had come up to me expressing their interest in my plans of conquest. For you see I knew how they worked, they worked in deals and exchanges. I offered them new land and plunder, in return I wanted their exclusivity and slaves. Once they saw the offer all that was left was to haggle and negotiate. Deep down I could feel it too, the Merchants were excited, too long their appetites had been left unmet by the opportunities within the City, now they had the chance for more.
Of course there were still some who couldn’t grasp the change, too unyielding, stubborn or vile to change.
“This is madness! You would ruin us Merchants for the common squabble. My house will not support you.” yelled one Merchant, I had him escorted out.
“You are a fool, we just came back from a dozen wars and now you would have us go fight another, your brains have rotted just like your skin.” exclaimed another, I had him escorted out in a less friendly manner.
The rest of the merchants, however, saw my plan for what it truly was- an opportunity to get a piece of the pie. I reassured them that I had taken into account all the risk and reward involved in my plan and reiterated the rewards- trade, land, and new industry. The room was abuzz with chatter as my words sunk in. "I look forward to your reign" they would say "My son is similar in age to you my Queen" some would try. It made me sick at how quickly their tones changed now that I held stick and carrot. Some of them would surely still plot to get more than they should, somehow keep their slaves perhaps or take advantage of the new citizens. To them I would offer a knife in the dark and smile.
I looked around the room seeing most of the big players. Halin Vaar caught my gaze and raised a glass I nodded and smiled back. I turned to Chunnly “Where is Lady Relly? I wanted to ask what the rumors say of my coronation. Chunnly looked down at a parchment frowning “I’m not sure, she assured me she would be attending today-”
Chunnly was interrupted by Captain Gezel who came up quickly. “My Queen, bad news.” My gut began clenching as I got a bad feeling.
“Lady Relly has been found dead in her home.”
I sighed, nothing was ever easy.
The room was a mess, furniture and belongings strewn across the floor as if a hurricane had just passed through. In the center of the chaos, a large pool of blood was drying where a body once laid. The room was still and silent, the only sound of flies buzzing. The walls and furniture had been splattered with blood, giving the impression that some kind of struggle had taken place here. Around the room were broken bottles, discarded weapons and signs of forced entry. It was clear that this was no accident, that Lady Relly had been brutally murdered here.
I shook my head in disbelief as I surveyed the scene of chaos around me. What in the nine hells had happened here?
“What of her house guard?” I asked.
“Forty-five dead and thirteen wounded, my men are questioning them as we speak.” replied Captain Gezel.
I whistled “That’s no small number.”
Gezel frowned and nodded “Indeed, to take a Merchant in their home by force one would need at least double their troops but the locals report no movement in the streets that represent such a number. This was done by a small group, skilled and dangerous.” I looked around the wreckage “This wasn’t done by any assassin guild I know of, none of them are so… brutish.”
I hobbled up to the bloodstain poking it with my cane, the bottom became coated in goopy blood, still wet. A murdered Merchant wasn’t anything new but the timing and methods of this were unusual. Lady Relly was one of the most powerful Merchants in the City. She didn’t get there by dealing out roses, she had many enemies as Merchants often did, but none of them had the means to pull this off. My mind drifted to the morning, when I had announced my coronation plans - plans which meant upsetting the status quo. It wouldn't be odd for some to become upset, to try and knock me down a notch or two.
I pulled out my pipe and lit it in one smooth motion, I took a deep pull and sighed.
No, that wasn’t it. The timing had been too quick and few if any knew of my new alliance with the Relly family, so why now, why her?
I needed to know more, soon.
“Take me to the survivors Captain.”
The survivors were a sorry sight. Most had spilled blood that stained their clothes and skin, their faces pale with shock and exhaustion. The eyes of some were blank, as though they had seen too much to ever forget. Others wore expressions of anguish, tears streaming down their faces as surgeons sawed off unsalvageable limbs. They carried themselves with weary resignation, they had lost when it mattered most.
“Who attacked your house?” asked Captain Gezel.
A tired looking guard with a bandage over one eye and arm in a splint shrugged “Dunno, some carriage showed up at night and the slave driver asked to see the Lady, Lady said she wasn’t taking nameless visitors and we told em to fuck off.”
His right eye twitched “Then all hell broke loose an- and… we couldn’t do nothing, Gods we didn’t even slow him down.”
The guard was visibly shaking now, reliving the horror. Captain Gezel gave him an understanding look and nodded. "Do you remember what the attackers looked like? How many were there?" He prodded.
The guard broke into a laugh that turned into a pained cough. "One, it was one man, no, not a man, a monster. Huge as an Ogre in plate-armor black as night and evil as the devil." Captain Gezel shot me a doubtful look but he smothered it and patted the man on the shoulder "Thank you lad, well find who did this."
He shook his head, eyes wide, "Best you don’t sir, best you don't."
Some distance away I shot Gezel a look and he shook his head “It’s impossible, one man couldn’t have done anything close to that, maybe one of the Empires famed twelve swords but no one in the City. The lad must be overcome with shock, I’ll ask around and see what the others say.”
“I’ll ask too, I have some other questions that need answers.” I said and Gezel nodded, walking away briskly striking up conversation with another wounded. I watched him for a moment, he seemed to genuinely care about the wounded, for the City, so why, why had he let me tortured so?
I shook my head, hobbling away feeling the pain in my leg, it was too late for reasons.
I met the eyes of a young servant girl who was staring at my crown with wide eyes. She flinched a bit when she noticed my milky eye, realizing the offense that was she grew beet red stammering out an greeting "Y-your Majesty, an honor to meet you." she attempted to bow laying down and it looked rather amusing. Seeing my smile she only flushed more deeply.
"An honor to meet you too young..." I raised my eyebrow in question.
"Slyvie." she said.
I scanned the girl and saw no major wounds, just some scratches. "Do you work for Lady Relly Slyvie?"
"Aye, in the Kitchens, the Lady found me in the red light district one day and said I was far too young to be there, been in the kitchens ever since. Umm, is the Lady all right?"
I paused for a moment at the concern in the girl's voice, it seemed Merchants still could do some good.
“She’s dead.” I said.
Slyvie opened her mouth and closed it “I need your help to find who did this Slyvie, to give the Lady some justice. Who did you see last night, who attacked the house?”
Slyvie nodded “I was in the kitchens all night making the guards evening meals, then we heard it, cries and fighting so we hid in there, after some time a huge guy smashed into the kitchen, just walked through the door like it wasn’t even there. The other servant tried to run and the big guy he…”
I waited for her to continue even though I knew there was no other servant in the infirmary.
“He hit him so quickly, the other servant crumpled and never got back up. I was just frozen hiding and the big guy sat down with his back to me and took off his helmet. He was mostly bald, only a few small patches left and he looked like he was sick, horrid purple veins went up his neck, the kind you get when you get poked with a rusty nail. He just kept eating, he ate most of the cooked meals and some raw food too, he even ate a few raw potatoes. I thought he was distracted so I tried to leave but I made some noise.”
She gulped before continuing “It was the scariest thing I ever seen your Majesty, he just stopped eating and calmly put on his helmet. He got up head almost scraping the ceiling and turned looking down on me, just two slits in his helm but his eyes looked angry they did. Looked at me for a long while before eventually turning back, sitting down and going back to eating, I went somewhere else to hide and never looked back.”
Scraped the ceiling? Gods that would make him almost seven feet tall. “Thank you, Slyvie. Was there anything else you remember, something unusual or out of place that night?” I asked.
“Oh! There was another thing, when I went to hide I passed by the front and saw a carriage I had never seen before, it was the kind for transporting goods but the kitchen wasn’t due any deliveries as far as I know. It was big with metal and had the words ‘Carevet Carriages’ on it. I hope that helps you find who did this to the Lady.”
Carevet, a merchant family known for production of transportation equipment including saddles, travel gear and carriages, this was useful indeed.
“That will help a lot.” I said, patting her arm.
Sometime later I was talking with Captain Gezel outside the infirmary. Like me he had found all reports indicating the same large assailant in thick black plate-armor, he used no particular weapon and the armor itself seemed impenetrable.
“My guess would be a foreign mercenary, plate is rarely used in the desert. Perhaps the armor is even an artifact plate, the guards said they couldn’t even leave a scratch on it with war-hammers.” Captain Gezel said.
“That would make it an extremely expensive mercenary.” Merchants were wealthy, but could they affort to hire someone of such a caliber? “Which son is next in line for the Relly family?”
“Both sons are dead as well, the only eligible heirs are six and seven respectively, a distant relative is stepping in for now but she won’t be able to get access to the full network for some time.” he said.
“Fuck.” I said. Those two men were extremely handsome.
Worse yet this was starting to look like a makeup covered whore, one thing at first glance, worse underneath. The network that the lady had fostered through her red-light industries was extremely valuable, without it I couldn’t get half as much info even half as quick. My eyes went wide and I turned sharply, hobbling back to my own carriage motioning for Gezel to follow.
“Where are we going, your Majesty?” he asked as he caught up to me.
“You are to head to the Carevet estate and inquire into the carriage I mentioned. I am heading back to the palace.” I said. Pausing at the carriage door I turned to him “Someone just put us in the dark on purpose Captain, investigate this quickly and with diligence. Apparently there are monsters out at night these days.” I warned him.
He saluted and I closed the door, banging the roof to tell the driver to be off. I rubbed cold sweat off the back of my hand and realized I was shaking.
I was afraid?
I had been in court with the most devilish of backstabbers and raised by the vilest of fathers. I had braved assassins and killed them with my own hands.
So why was I afraid now?
I sat once again in my Father’s office, well, I suppose it was my office now. Already I had the decor replaced. The large ornate desk had been replaced with a more moderately sized one of black steel. The tapestries were replaced with a map of Talmanar, the small desert of Tandoor and its once city near the center surrounded by giants. And the waiting chairs had all been replaced with stools of hard iron, surely to make anyone sitting for more than a few moments very uncomfortable, of course my own chair was well cushioned. Today the balcony doors were closed shut, the curtains drawn tightly and only one dim lantern lit the space. This is what my old room had been like, no windows and dark, never enough light.
My good leg bounced and I bit my finger nail as I waited, he would come soon enough, he always does.
“My daughter Azeal, now Queen Azeal, should I bow perhaps?”
I looked at the fat man who appeared in my room. A large pot belly that was tucked under a tight belt, dressed in fine clothes and atop his head a gold crown sat, he smiled and looked right at me. It sent a shiver down my spine considering his two eyes were covered with gold coins. A man I had seen too much of but who haunted me still.
I scoffed “Merchants never bow, the most you can get out of them is a slight nod of the head, stiff basterds that they are.”
He let out a chuckle “True indeed.”
It had been the night after his funeral that he first appeared. I awoke and saw him standing there in the far corner of my chambers, he said nothing then and I took it for what it was, just one more lingering wound left behind by a cruel man. But the days following he would begin to appear when I was alone, and he would ask me things, talk to me. I ignored him at first but he was well practiced in poking and prodigy me in a way to get a response.
“Your coronation was wonderful little one.”
The words little one grated against my ears like nails on metal.
“I care not what a useless King thinks of me, begone apparition I have matters to attend to.” I said.
My Father nodded and walked over to the balcony doors pushing open the doors, my heart clenched with fear as I saw them open and felt the wind rush in. He was just a ghost, a figment of my mind, how…
“Look at them, Azeal.” he said gesturing out to the City, I looked at him for a long moment, his coin covered gaze taking in the City. I got up and walked over. Night had set but the City was abuzz, beautiful and lively with music and good smells arising, festivities a plenty.
“Look at how they sing and dance.” the ghost said.
“What of it, festivities after a coronation are not so uncommon.” I replied.
He shook his head “Not them, they always sing and dance.” He pointed out further, to the farthest rims of the City “Them.” My gaze followed his finger and my eyes opened wide as I saw lights and the smoke of large campfires. The citizens at the rim, the lower class, were celebrating.
“You have won both the Merchants and the People, no small feat.”
He turned his gaze to me and I felt myself go tense “And no small responsibility either.” he said. My heart ached as I looked out at the City with my tormenter, it was beautiful and vibrant, filled with life. I felt a weight descend on my shoulders, as I realized the reason I was afraid.
I was afraid for them.
For what would happen if I was gone. Would they revert, go back to crumbling to dying, would this wonderful City disappear one day. The thought of such a thing brought me a chill to my bones, I couldn’t die now, not yet, this place couldn’t stand on its own yet.
“What should I do?” I asked him.
He said nothing but slowly began to smile, it grew into a wicked grin, one I had seen when he put the fire to my eye and broke my leg, one that made tears well up in my eyes like a little girl. This was him, my Father.
“What should you do?” he mocked.
“Let it loose!” he screamed. I flinched backing up into the corner.
“The monster that's deep inside you, that’s inside all of us. Let it out like the rabid dog it is, let it hunt and sniff the blood trail of all who would oppose you and let it rip them limb from limb eating them whole!” he breathed heavily, fanatic.
My breath came in short gasps as I stared at him in horror. This was the man who sent thousands to die in foreign fields, who allowed thousands to be enslaved and who chose not to love his daughter. His words were reaching into my soul and tearing it apart, his face seemed to become darker and darker with each cursed word he spoke.
“I know you have it in you too, a monster just like my own!” he said.
My head throbbed with panic and I felt the tears streaming down my cheeks. Once again I was a little girl in my Father's dungeon, I clenched my eyes tightly.
"I hate you." I said.
"I know." he replied.
When I opened my eyes he was gone.
My heart sank as the words hung in the air, like a fog that refused to clear, I felt something deep within me stir. A beast awakened by the promise of blood and flesh, a decrepit disgusting thing I kept buried deep within. It had been fostered by my Father, his legacy living within. I started laughing, even in death he continued to torment me. I wouldn’t beat little girls, no, but I feared I may do something worse, that I may fail at accomplishing anything at all and that from whatever afterlife I dwell in I would watch my City crumble into dust, its people beaten and tormented just like myself. My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a knock at the door, sniffing I snatched up my cane and hobbled back whipping my face with a cloth before opening the door.
Chunnly greeted me “Captain Gezel’s investigation of the carriage is complete.”
I sighed in relief, I had been waiting for the report ever since I had left. Taking the parchment from Chunnly, I quickly read through it. The carriage was one of seventeen produced heavy duty carriages, the purchasers of all the carriages were listed.
The palace itself owned four. The trading Merchants whom I had made a deal with before owned ten. One was owned by Reem al-Hassan who mined sandstone, another by Zarah Gobaiti who imports lumber from abroad and the last was owned by Reji Ourlous who currently managed the artifact mines.
“Chunnly, send a message to Captain Gezel. He must pay a visit to all the owners of these carriages to see if they still have them. Tell him he can use my name and use force if he is turnt away.”
Chunnly nodded “Right away your Majesty.”
“Oh and Chunnly, prepare my carriage as well.”
He nodded again “And where should I tell them you will be going?”
The palace had around three-hundred well trained and equipped guards, this was good for personal protection but was poor for covering the entire City. I needed more quantity, the City was full of retired mercenaries, I just needed to begin recruiting them, to do that I needed someone who knew them.
I wracked through the history books and many names came to mind. I even thought of the disgruntled Reji who spoke to me at my Father’s funeral, but his reputation was too infamous. I wanted the right kind of soldiers, those driven by country as much as money.
“The estate of Lady Eliza Ironhold.” I told him.
Chunnly paused “Lady Ironhold hasn’t taken any visitors since the Mercenary Wars.” he said.
The hounds were closing in, thinking a cripple like me was an easy meal. I could feel their hot breath on the back of my neck, their claws and fangs ready to tear through my flesh and devour my soul. They were in every shadow, down each alley. I needed hounds of my own, just as hungry, just as ferocious. I grinned at Chunnly.
“She will see her Queen.” I stated.
And if not, if she would turn me away like some common beggar I would tear down her gates, march up her steps and pour myself a cup of water. If even then she would try to shun me off… well, it’s as my Father says.
Each of us has a monster within.