An unrelenting sun had left his skin a mottled green, while working in that sun firmed it to a leathery hold. His name, Qaistha, meant “son of the Qaai,” and today he acted as the son of his race. Average height, wiry as his peers, an excellent swimmer and an excellent thinker. A credit to the Qaai's place among the greater species of orc, spread throughout the known world. A world they themselves knew little of, other than that which was there before them.
The Qaai had lived simple lives for generations, until it became apparent to them that there was something more. This realization was visited in the form of said something more subjugating the Qaai race. Now, their lives were as simple as ever, but each year tribute was paid to support those who lived larger. This created in the Qaai a desire to make more out of existence, while leaving them less with which to make it. An undercurrent of dissatisfaction had festered over the years, until finally it was decided that Something Should Be Done. Qaistha had been given the dubious honor of doing that something.
The Qaai were not as knowledgeable as their oppressors, nor as well-equipped, nor even as numerous. But they did like to think of themselves as clever. So Qaistha, one of the most clever youths in town, was sent on a mission to observe, undermine, and possibly even eliminate. More accurately, his mandate was simply to gather information; but should any openings arise, his mandate could be expanded. And in any case, he was to demonstrate that the Qaai were intelligent and hardy. That demonstration would have been easier if he had not been beset by robbers while traveling to Oeijyna, their oppressors' capital and home.
Now he stood before D'jyrveir, the Oejein Emperor, the most powerful person in existence. The Oeijyna Empire literally surrounded the son of the Qaai, right down to the surprisingly comfortable tunic he had been loaned. The tunic was the only thing about Qaistha that was comfortable.
“We do not often receive visitors from the Acqrn provinces,” D'Jyrveir said, using the term that grouped the Qaai with their neighbors. “To what may I attribute this honor?”
“The Qaai” – he was adamant they be properly recognized – “wish to know if we may expand our territory into the uninhabited marshland to the west.” This was an actual interest, and so made an excellent cover.
“You could have contacted the provincial satrap,” Emperor D'jyrveir noted. Said satrap was located in Kel, the other community bordering the marshland. “In fact, your satrap is better situated to judge and thus should be the one to decide. But since you are here, you may rest for three days as my guest. After that, you will be given provisions and an escort to see you safely home.” Before Qaistha could respond, he added, “I will be busy today with official business, but shall see you at dinner.” And with that, Qaistha realized he was dismissed.
He remembered little of his first day, sleeping through most of it in exhaustion. On the second, he awoke in a room that seemed the height of luxury. The bedcloth was finer than the skin of a spawnling's egg, and the mattress softer than the down of a Weeping Kelraush. The wooden furniture was carved with detailed ornaments; a small table, two chairs, a desk, a cabinet, and a chest. Completing the ensemble was a bowl of fresh fruit on the table, and a pair of actual leather-bound codex on the desk just begging to be read. Disappointingly enough, both were written in Traditional Qerjei; Qaistha could of course read, at least mostly, but only in the Qerjei's simplified Universal Script.
Footsteps coming down the hall indicated someone who might be able to help with that. He looked out, and saw a youth around his own age, dressed in a simple tunic with an oilskin pouch hanging from his neck. “A pardon,” Qaistha asked, “but could I trouble you a moment?”
“You may borrow my peace,” the youth replied. “What is your trouble?”
“I was wondering about these two books.” The youth stepped into the room, looked at the covers, and smiled.
“I see one is The History of the Qaai – I haven't read that one yet. And the other is a collection of the poems of Natfrei – he was my namesake, for I am Natfrei as well.” Natfrei responded.
“You can read?” Qaistha asked. “I am shamed; I took you for a servant, when you are of noble blood.”
“What you ask is complicated,” Natfrei replied. “I have noble blood, but I am a servant and not a noble. If you wish, I will tell you my story.”
“My grandfather was born a noble in the Whrraen dynasty. While he was still a boy, famine and war destroyed the province. First there was little food, then the peasants rebelled when the nobles demanded it for themselves. The soldiers took a third role in the conflict, wanting the food for themselves. Within weeks, the nobles were all but wiped out, the peasants the same, and the soldiers fighting among themselves. My ancestor escaped by wearing rags and joining the fleeing peasants. Other nobles who fled in their splendor found themselves cut down.
“Eventually, in his medial age, he found himself in Oeijyna. He married then, passing down his story to my father, who passed it down to me. In his old age, he learned that the famine had been avoidable, if only the Whrraen had not treated their land recklessly. Overfarming of certain plants had stripped the soil, an error mandated by the nobles. The entire conflict could have been avoided with wisdom, wisdom the Oeijyna already possessed.
“So I am not a noble, but a servant. Now, how may I be of assistance?” Natfrei concluded.
“I was wondering if these books were available in Universal Qerjei,” Qaistha admitted sheepishly. “But then why can you read, if you were never nobility?”
“Everyone in the service of the Emperor is taught to read,” Natfrei said proudly. “We are educated, that the brightest among us might rise and give form to better things. Educated servants were instrumental in creating the miracle of modern crop production, which the Jyntrafers now teach to save other provinces from what condemned my own.” His eye gleamed. “This is the Oeijyna that I serve. It is better to be a small part of something great than a great part of something small. Now if I may be pardoned,” his eyes flicked to the door, “I must empty the chamber pots. I will send somebody about the books.”
Qaistha continued to stare after Natfrei was already gone. A chambertend that knew how to read? Oeijyna was a strange place.
“It is better to be a small part of something great than a great part of something small.”
Natfrei was true to his word, and another servant soon escorted Qaistha to the library. As he walked, he noted the etchings on the wall. Were they exhortations? Mystic wards? Proverbs? He asked the servant, who told him they were directions for those traveling unfamiliar areas of the palace. That made sense, if everybody here could read.
The library itself was bigger than he expected, at least in that he expected to be able to judge the size of it by sight. He was left in the care of the library's overkeeper, an Oejein advanced in experience “You may borrow my peace,” was the elder's greeting, one that Qaistha was beginning to suspect he'd hear a lot.
Covering his teeth in deference to the other, the son of the Qaai replied, “I wondered about the History of the Qaai – do you have it in universal Qerjei?”
The overkeeper frowned. “I would have to ask the librarian of history. I'm not familiar with the Qaai, but he would know.” Getting up from behind his desk, he beckoned, “Follow me, and we shall find him.” Qaistha followed at the other's pace, and found it brisker than the power of his own elders. In fact, it was somewhat brisker than he'd have liked after walking the palace halls, but in deference he said nothing.
The keeper of history was of medial age, and currently occupied with turning through a dilapidated volume. “May I borrow your peace?” was the overkeeper's inquiry, jolting his subordinate to attention.
“There's peace enough for the both of us!” Qaistha noted that the keeper's teeth were covered in proper form, even if he still sat in the presence of his elder.
“This is Qaistha, esteemed guest of the Emperor,” the overkeeper introduced them. “He seeks your experience on a particular volume. Do you have the History of the Qaai in universal Qerjei?”
Now it was the keeper of history's turn to frown. “We've only just completed the volume's traditional composition. The scribes have barely started transcribing it into the universal writing.” Beaming, he then added, “but if there is any specific historical information you would like to know, I have just finished reading it and could quickly find and read to you any details that are in question. We, of course, have based this volume on extensive interview with the elders of the Qaai.” Which meant that everything there would be things Qaistha had already heard.
“If that is the case,” Qaistha bowed, “may I read the history of the Oejein in universal Qerjei?”
“That we do have, and I will show it to you!” As the unnecessarily jubilant keeper led Qaistha away, the overkeeper excused himself, with the assurance he would be at his desk if further help was needed.
The history itself was printed in seven volumes, all quite large. “These are chronological,” the keeper explained, “so the most recent of times are in the last one.” Qaistha picked out the first and last ones, and retired to a desk to explore their contents.
Surprisingly enough for a seven-volume set, Oeijyna's history began less than three hundred cycles ago. A group of merchants and mercenaries had coveted the ore-rich trees of the Jynnian mountains, and formed a collective to settle and exploit the natural resources. This was difficult, as the mountains were home to the Paexaraush, fierce and territorial creatures. They were described in passing detail, with an implied assumption that any reader already knew of such things. Qaistha had never heard of the creatures, but he was beginning to realize there were a lot of things he had never heard of before.
The collective's journey into becoming an empire was doubtlessly fascinating, but in the span of the morning he only reached as far as the finished construction of the first Fortress of Oeijynn. The name was coined by modifying the mountain's name with the prefix for possession; these mountains were now owned. After lunch, he set to work on the modern history.
This proved somewhat drier, the facts recounted being mainly involved in administration and expansion. The Emperor D'Jyrveir instituted such-and-such a policy; the empire seized so many smaller provinces and fledgling nations. The latter was the most interesting part, suggesting that different tribes could and had banded together to form for themselves a stronger existence. That these nations were trampled made little difference; it was a concept Qaistha wished he could explore in detail. Instead, he focused on the practical: two instances of nations which took longer than most to succumb. That night at dinner, he asked the Emperor about them.
“The Iedan were fierce warriors, quite quick and lethal. It was their nature as hunters and raiders. But while they were fast, my warriors are not prey, and we were more intelligent in our strategy. If they had ever relented, or if they had been more peaceable towards their neighbors, we would not have had to wipe them out entirely. The Keeugr were entirely different – more organized, better equipped, but less experienced. We still outpaced them in every regard; our soldiers were quick to exploit any lapse of technique. The best of the Keeugr were offered new positions. Few accepted, out of a laudable but still misguided loyalty to their old way of life. Since we have annexed their territory, they have experienced many imports for the first time – while increasing their output to allow for exports.” Emperor D'Jyrveir spoke confidently, and Qaistha would have thought him arrogant if he hadn't known the empire's capabilities. And possibly if he had understood more of the words.
The pause meant the son of the Qaai was bid to speak. “So it is not enough to be quick, or clever; you must be both?”
“Exactly, my new acquaintance,” the Emperor responded. The rest of the dinner went by quickly, or at least did not stand out quite so well in Qaistha's mind.
“It is not enough to be quick, or clever; you must be both.”
It was on his third day he decided to take advantage of the palace's physical training, a suggestion the Emperor had made the previous dinner. As usual, a helpful servant soon came by to lead him on his way. Once at his destination, an enormous object commanded his attention. It was large, larger than he, leathery, and hung from the ceiling on what looked like metal chain.
“It's a Paexaraush stomach, dried and stuffed,” the training-master helpfully explained. “We use it as a training dummy on which to practice our fisticuffs.” Qaistha decided he'd rather not ever meet a Paexaraush.
After an exhausting hour of instruction, Qaistha lingered to collect information. A few others had remained to further work on their technique, and it was from them he made his choice. The squat skull, flat nose, and oval eyes betrayed one as not native to Oeijyna. It was with him Qaistha would converse. “May I borrow your peace?” he inquired in the Oejein manner.
“There's peace enough to go around,” the stranger replied. “I am Dgreiu, born of the Kegran, but now in service of Oeijyna.” He gave Qaistha a quick look up and down, then said “I see you are born of the Qaai. Are you new to the service?”
Qaistha's nose drooped in embarrassment. “I'm not actually in the service of the Oejein. I came to deliver a message, and was invited to stay a few days as the guest of the Emperor.” Picking his nose back up, he continued, “How did you come to reside here?”
“As a spawnling, I ran errands for the jyntrafers, to help in their efforts to modernize our society. They noted me as sharp, and apprenticed me to be honed in the service of the emperor. Now I am a senior officer in his service.” Dgreiu, apparently seeing the conversation as closed, turned to the Paexaraush stomach. Then he looked back. “Don't worry, I can practice and still speak.” In demonstration of this claim, he delivered a kick to the dummy.
Trying not to be distracted, Qaistha resumed his questioning. “So you command in the army?”
“What?” Dgreiu seemed momentarily confused. “No, I'm in the civil service. Head tax collector for Keeugr, Ghitr, and the Oghan provinces. The exercise,” which he continued, “is because tax collectors must sometimes defend themselves and their work. And sometimes,” he paused momentarily, “we must also be executors.”
Dgreiu turned to look him in the eye. “The rules are there for a reason. Those who violate the rules must be made to pay.” Turning back, he delivered a spinning blow to the Paexaraush dummy, setting it rocking. He weaved back and forth, delivering blow after blow to the moving target. “Three cycles ago, some elders of Keeugr attempted to cheat the empire. For their lies, I stripped out their tongues, and exiled them to be peasants in another region. Some in Keeugr still consider me a traitor.”
“And you don't think yourself one?”
“Everything costs money. The empire has brought order through our satraps, prosperity through our jyntrafers, and peace through our army. If they want the benefit of our rules, they must also bear the burden of our rules. The rules exist to serve us, but they can only serve us if we also serve the rules.” Dgreiu
Qaistha spent his next hour considering this.
“The rules exist to serve us, but they can only serve us if we also serve the rules.”
It was after another afternoon in the library that Qaistha again found himself dining with the Emperor. This time, the feast was even more impressive, with more food than Qaistha had ever seen on one table before. The centerpiece was an actual Paexaraush, terrifying to behold even when plucked and roasted. Its four powerful legs, massive jaws, and sweeping wings were all quite unnerving, even when quite clearly dead and cooked.
“I regret that you missed the hunt,” Emperor D'jyrveir spoke, and Qaistha vaguely recalled being told something of the sort. “But your rest was needed, and so the servant left you after you drifted back into sleep. This was a young Paexaraush, barely a century old, and still full of vigor. I had quite a fight in bringing it down yesterday.”
“I am surprised that your excellency's peace was risked in such a way,” said Qaistha, now confidant in his social graces.
“Oeijyna does not coddle its leadership,” D'jyrveir explained.“I did not inherit the throne; neither have I spawned an heir. My position was granted to me based on perceived merit, and my successor shall be appointed in the same way. Thus the kingdom remains flourishing, with a proper guide. The sons of kings are flaccid blunderers, coddled since birth into a state of entitled incompetence. They are poison to a nation.” The Qaai leadership, although less than formal, had always been hereditary.
“The laws, you see, can only serve us if they serve dispassionately,” the Emperor continued. “If a specific family were to become a law as to themselves, then there would be no law at all. This is why we are a meritocracy, and not a monarchy. The rules can only serve us if they serve all of us, for if any of us are not required to serve the rules then the rules are impotent.” Qaistha's head was beginning to spin.
“And how was the hunt?” he deflected.
“Oh, it was glorious!” The Emperor was again in form. “This Paexaraush was more clever than most. With his feathers he shielded the spots we have learned to target; a Paexaraush feather is more formidable in strength than solid oak. And while he was shielded, he took to his advantage with vicious precision!”
“And what did you do?” Qaistha was interested now.
“Well, he could guard his entire neck very well with two wings, but a tightening noose could turn those very wings into weapons against him. So that is what I did. We always carry climbing equipment when hunting in the mountains, so I fashioned a device against him and in the end it fell him. It is not enough to be both clever and quick; you must be able to be clever quickly.”
Qaistha had stopped chewing. “And so you took down a beast with the wits of a man? And lived to tell about it?”
“How else do you think Oeijyna is able to outwit every possible governance formed by man?” D'jyrveir responded. “It is good to be part of something great, but something can only be great if it is made up of those who are great.”
The next morning, after Qaistha had left, D'Jyrveir confessed to himself that greatness can also be great by lying through its teeth. Neither Qaai nor Acqrn would trouble them, after this show of strength. To his scribe, Natfrei, he admitted an axiom he hoped his successor would remember: “There's a simple formula for the art of propaganda, my friend: you have to tell a story.”
“There's a simple formula for the art of propaganda: you have to tell a story.”