Azal took a long look around, savoring the vibrant colors all around him, before opening the tavern door and stepping inside. This was a different sort of tavern. Here, the door never creaked when it was opened. There was no musty smell. The lighting wasn’t a dark affair that suggested something immoral going on – the place was rather well lit, all in all. And the patrons told jokes and stories and laughed, not whispered to each other about their shady plans.
He rather liked it, really. Though, of course, it was completely impractical for his needs. But, as before, he had someone to meet here.
Regina looked up, saw him, and raised her eyebrows a tiny bit. She beckoned him over, and this time, there was no need for whispered words at the counter. She just went to the door to the backroom and Azal followed her.
The door shut with a click. “Hey there,” she said.
“Hello,” Azal said.
“How did you know?” she asked.
“Know what?” Azal asked.
“That I’ve found your ally,” she clarified. “Though, if you had to ask that, I suppose you didn’t know after all.”
Azal’s eyes widened. “I… did not,” he managed to say.
“Why’d you come here, then?” Regina asked him. “It hasn’t been all that long since your last visit.”
“My… associate… told me you had something for me,” Azal said. He was still uncomfortable with the idea of mentioning Darius’ name to a mortal – even with someone like Regina, who he knew held his kind no ill will, he couldn’t help but worry that they’d ask questions. It was stupid, he knew – if she was fine with talking to him himself, she’d be fine with the idea of him talking to other demons – but he still just called him his ‘associate’.
“Your associate seems to know a lot,” Regina pointed out.
“I’ll be honest, I can’t say how he does it either,” Azal admitted. “But he is undeniably effective.”
Regina raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you think that’s a bit suspicious?”
“The thought had crossed my mind,” he said. “But he has been nothing but loyal.”
“Thus far,” Regina corrected. “Though, I’m probably worrying for no reason, myself. You’d be surprised at how much information you can get by just listening to strangers talk.”
“I suppose,” Azal said.
“That said, yes, he’s right,” she said. “I have, in fact, found a potential ally for you.” She sounded almost… reluctant to say it.
“That is… good,” Azal said. “What is it?”
“Ah…” she muttered. “Remember last time you came here? When we discussed this back then?”
Azal searched his memories for a moment. “You said you had an idea in mind,” he remembered, “but you hoped you could find something else. I take it you have not been able to?”
“Yeeeah,” she said, clearly displeased. “So… I guess you’ll have to make do with my original choice.”
“Very well,” Azal said.
“Alright then,” Regina breathed. “Take a look.” She went over to her table, found the map once more, and unrolled it.
Once more, Azal looked down at it. From behind him, Regina started talking. “Our choice needs to meet a few criteria to work,” she explained. “First, it needs to be an at least somewhat powerful country. Otherwise, they just won’t be able to help – the Council is still powerful, even if not as powerful as they say.”
Azal nodded. “Of course.”
“The second one’s harder to meet,” she continued. “Our nation of choice needs to be actually willing to help.”
“Many mortals hate the Council,” Azal mused. “It should not be difficult to find a country with such a leader. Although, they are still unlikely to help us unless they think we have a reasonable chance of success…”
“And that’s exactly the problem,” Regina said. “Once you get going – once you show everyone that you might just actually do this – you’ll have no shortage of friends, trust me. People really don’t like the Council, and for good reason. But while you’re still just a bunch of demons making trouble, very few people will want to get involved. Why would they? As far as they know, you’d probably still fail even with their help, and they’d just end up making the Council angry.”
“Yes,” Azal said. “So where does that leave us?”
“Well… there’s the issue,” Regina said, a note of frustration seeping into her voice. “No reasonable king or queen will lend you their aid. The only way to get the ally you need is if you talk to an… unreasonable one.”
Azal blinked, and Regina pointed a finger at a nation on the map. It was next to Paleland, and the bold lettering written across it read ‘SAGNIR’. The country was quite large – if Azal had to guess, it took up a bit less than a third of a quarter of the entire continent of Aphage – and had an odd shape, almost like an open mouth. The western end of it reached all the way to the ocean, whereas the other reached outwards until it collided with Paleland’s border at a location where the border jutted out, resulting in that end of Sagnir’s border being forced into something approximating a half-circle.
“This is Sagnir, the third most powerful country on the continent,” Regina said. “It’s got a fairly short history, but one it’s proud of – and I can see why. The whole nation effectively grew from nothing. At first it was just a bunch of small kingdoms, each of them squabbling and feuding with each other… you know, the things small kingdoms do.
“Then someone known as Jonathan of the Red Helm – or just the Red Lord – arrived. No one knows exactly what his origin was, but he was a nobleman from some powerful country near the border of all those tiny kingdoms. He was charismatic, intelligent, strong-willed, ambitious… oh, and very rich.
“So, with an army of mercenaries under his command, he began his conquest. With each kingdom he defeated, his force expanded, and his charisma drove men to aid him. His tactics were impeccable, and soon, the last of the kingdoms was under his control. And so, he united them, and the nation of Sagnir was born.”
For a moment, Azal thought about it. “That sounds unlikely,” he said.
“Well, it’s a legend,” Regina shrugged. “I’m almost certain parts of it are embellished, if not outright untrue. But one thing’s for sure – the land where Sagnir is was originally just a bunch of small kingdoms. And the Red Lord did exist, one way or another, and it’s likely he was responsible for Sagnir’s creation. As for the rest… well, who knows?”
Azal frowned. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I am not here for history.”
“Yes,” Regina nodded. “Of course.”
“Why do you think they would make for a good ally?” Azal asked.
“Frankly, I don’t,” she said. “But they’re the only ones you’ve got. It’s like I said – the only sort of nation you could hope to get on your side is one with an unreasonable leader. And the Queen of Sagnir is… well…”
Regina paused for a moment, as if searching for the right word. “She’s batshit insane,” she finally said. “No offense meant.”
Azal blinked. What?
“Well… perhaps that’s not quite the right way to put it,” Regina said, a bit more mellowly. “She’s insane, certainly, but… not necessarily what you immediately think of when you say that. By and large, she’s normal. It’s just that her priorities are…” A note of hatred slipped into Regina’s voice. “Twisted. To say the least.”
“What do you mean?” Azal asked.
“I think she’ll help you,” she said. “She’ll help you just because you’ll be interesting to her. She won’t care about the risks, or about the fact that the Council will be angry. Nor will she do it for any sort of noble reason. She’ll just do it because she wants to see the world burn. She wants chaos, she wants excitement, and to her mind, you’ll be able to give her that.”
Azal’s eyes narrowed. “And you want me to seek help from this person.”
“Yeah,” Regina said. “Trust me, I don’t like it any more than you do.”
“If she is that oblivious so as to hurt her own kingdom just for excitement’s sake,” Azal said, “do you really think she will be a good ally to have?”
Regina turned to him, sadly. “You misunderstand,” she said. “She’s not oblivious – she’s worse. She completely understands all the risks any given action of her could pose to the kingdom. She just doesn’t care in the least.”
Azal stared at her silently.
“It’s like I said,” Regina said softly. “She wants to see the world burn. And her own nation isn’t exempt from that.”
“…I see what you meant,” Azal said. “She is insane.”
“Yes. She most certainly is,” Regina said.
As Azal listened to the way Regina spoke, a thought hit him. He stored it for future use.
“So you think she’ll just agree to help me?” Azal asked. “Simply because I am likely to make things… ‘interesting’?”
“Well… it might not be quite that simple,” Regina admitted. “She’ll probably want to at least see that you’ve done something before she commits to anything. But I can assure you that her standards will be far lower than anyone else’s.”
“I see,” Azal said.
“Anything else?” Regina asked.
Azal thought about it for a moment. “Not yet,” he said. “Not for my plan, at least. But I must ask something.”
“Go ahead,” she said.
“Regina,” Azal said, turning to her, “you’re not from here, are you?”
She tilted her head. “What do you mean, ‘from here’?”
“Not from Paleland,” he clarified. “You’re from another kingdom. And while you were there, you were a woman of at least some status.”
Regina pursed her lips. “Perhaps.”
“And I think I know where you’re from,” Azal said. “You’re from Sagnir, aren’t you?”
Her eyes widened, and she froze.
“It wasn’t difficult to figure out,” Azal continued. “I heard how your voice sounded, when you talked about the Queen. You hate her. Deeply.”
When she still said nothing, he just continued on. “I don’t know much about human history, but I know some things,” he said. “In recent times, Sagnir hasn’t invaded any other country. That means that the main people the Queen could hurt that much – the only people she could hurt enough to leave that sort of hatred in their hearts – would be the ones who lived in her kingdom.
“You have a history with this queen, don’t you?” Azal asked. “She did something to you. Something you still hate her for. If I had to guess, that’s the reason you stay here – for whatever reason, you can’t come back to Sagnir. The Queen wouldn’t like it.”
There was a pause, and Regina stared into Azal’s eyes, her gaze stern. For the first time, Azal really saw her eyes – they were a cold blue, and they looked sharp, intelligent. When they bored into him like that, he couldn’t help but feel worry building up in his gut. Those eyes, that gaze…. they told him ‘You have crossed me’. They told him that Regina wasn’t happy with him, and somehow, they assured him, too, that she would be able to destroy him if she so wished. He knew it wasn’t true, he knew it wasn’t that simple… but Regina’s stare was still intimidating, and almost terrifying. Her eyes were those of a predator.
And then, she sighed and looked down, and the tension vanished from the room. “You’re right,” she admitted.
Azal looked at her. A moment ago she seemed mighty, imposing. Now… she just looked tired and vulnerable. “What happened?” he asked.
“I was born to a noble family,” she said, her words dull. “My parents were some of the best people I’d ever met. I loved them.
“And then…” She swallowed. “And then they spoke against Lily. That’s the Queen’s name, by the way. I don’t think I’ve told you that.”
“You haven’t,” Azal informed her, and she shot a stern glance at him. But then her eyes just went back down, like she couldn’t even muster the energy to be angry.
“Well, whatever the case, my parents spoke out against her,” Regina said. “They opposed her, publicly. They told the citizenry of the atrocities she’d committed. They revealed the truth about her. And she…” Regina stopped.
Azal understood. “She killed them.”
“Slaughtered them,” Regina spat, vitriol adding an edge to her words. “Like they were nothing more than wild animals to put down. Didn’t even make a big deal of it or anything.” Her voice rose until she was nearly shouting. “Just had their heads chopped off in the night, like it was fucking routine!”
The chirean’s eyes widened, and he stood, frozen, staring at Regina.
She sighed, though it was closer to a growl, and turned back to look at him. “I got away, because she didn’t bother with me at first, and that gave me the time to get out,” she said. “Of course, now I can’t come back, cause if I did, my head would be next. Not that I particularly want to return, mind you.”
For a moment, Azal simply tried to process what she had just said. “I… see,” he finally said. “I am sorry for your loss.”
Again, she sighed. “And now you see why I didn’t want to suggest you ally with her.”
“…Yes,” Azal admitted. “I understand.”
“But we’re out of options,” Regina said, her voice heavy. “You want to do this, you’ll have to ally with a tyrant and a madwoman. She’s the only person who can help you.”
“I see,” Azal said.
Despite all she had just said, she smiled, weakly. “That’s it?” she asked. “No righteous indignation or anything?”
“I will do what I must,” he said simply.
“That’s a useful attitude to have,” Regina said. “Won’t win you many friends, though.”
Azal shrugged. “That does not concern me.”
Again, Regina smiled a weak little smile. “Somehow I thought that’d be your answer.”
When Azal got back to the tavern in Aead that he’d frequented so often recently, the very first thing Darius said to him was “Did she tell you?”
“About what she had for me?” Azal clarified.
“About what she had for you,” Darius said. “Though… I think she told you something else, too. Didn’t she?”
“Yes,” Azal said, his voice solemn. “She told me her story. About… what happened to her.”
For once in his life, Azal saw genuine shock on Darius’ face.
Not just mild surprise. Azal had seen that before. Back when he’d told him that Regina had shown him her ability to use magic, for instance. Darius had been surprised then – surprised that she’d revealed so much about herself.
But even then, Darius had stayed on top of things. That surprise lasted only for a second or two, and then he was right back to asking questions.
This was different. Darius’ eyes grew wide and they stayed that way.
“Well, damn,” he finally said, quietly. And then he leaned in, a sparkle in his eyes. “What was it, pray tell?”
“She was from Sagnir,” Azal said. “But her parents spoke out against the Queen.”
“Lily,” Darius whispered, a frown on his face.
“She had her parents executed,” Azal told him. “And, I’d suppose, the rest of her family too, though I don’t actually know that. She herself only escaped because she was overlooked.”
“I see,” Darius said, settling back into his seat. For a few moments they sat like that, in silence.
“Why did you just tell me that?” Darius eventually asked. “Seems like that might be the sort of thing it’d be considered insensitive to share.”
Azal’s eyes widened a bit. “Do you take issue with my decision?”
Darius laughed. “Oh, me? No. Gods, no,” he said. “I trade in dirty little secrets. They’re my lifeblood. I’d just like to know why you were so open.”
“I suppose I didn’t see the point in keeping it secret,” Azal shrugged. “She did not tell me to tell nobody, so I supposed there was no point hiding it.”
“Really?” Darius asked. “You didn’t think she might be hurt by you telling a complete stranger something that she hasn’t told… well, anyone except for you, I think? Especially something this personal?”
Briefly, Azal considered his answer. “It crossed my mind,” he finally said. “However, information is useful. There is no point not sharing it with a trusted ally.” He hesitated briefly. “At least, in most cases.”
The aeadite chuckled. “The fact that it might hurt someone doesn’t count as a reason?”
“Not a good one,” Azal said, dismissively. “If we are to do this, we must do what we have to.”
There was a lull in the conversation. And then, something changed in Darius’ expression, as if it had finally gotten through to him that Azal was serious.
He frowned. “By the gods,” he whispered. “You’re quite serious about this, aren’t you?”
Azal nodded. “Indeed, I am,” he said. “You understand that we are not in a good position. Our foes are more powerful than us. Our only major potential ally is led by an unstable and demented leader. We don’t even know yet if we’ll even be able to start this – if we aren’t careful, support could simply fizzle out.” His eyes narrowed. “There are many, many things that could go wrong, and our chances of success are low. So we must take all steps necessary to improve them. No matter what.”
Still, Darius’ frown didn’t leave his face. “Ruthless,” he said.
“Yes,” Azal responded flatly. “And necessary.”
For another moment, Darius simply sat there, hands clasped in front of his face. At last, he said “That’s how we’re doing this, then?”
“Yes,” Azal said, impatience coloring his voice.
Darius lowered his hands and smiled. “I see. Well, that suits me just fine.”
“I’m glad,” the chirean said.
And then, Darius’ smile turned into a frown. “So, what now?”
“If Regina can be trusted, we have Sagnir as an ally,” Azal said. “If Johannes can be trusted, we have him to gain us the sort of influence we need amongst demons. If you can be trusted, we have you to work behind the scenes for us. It looks to me like all the preliminary preparations are taken care of.”
“Ah.” Darius’ face turned serious, and his eyes locked onto Azal’s. “So, the real fun starts soon, does it?”
Azal scowled. He didn’t like Darius talking about it so casually. But he said nothing about it. “Yes,” he simply said instead. “We need to talk to Johannes first. But then, we make our move.”
Darius stood from his chair. “Let’s go, then.”
The three of them were all clustered in a small area, leaving the vast majority of the long table that dominated the room unused. Azal barely stopped himself from rolling his eyes as he looked around. He knew Johannes was a wealthy man of notice, but his home still managed to be significantly more extravagant than he had expected.
“S-so, uh… it’s happening?” Johannes asked.
“Yes,” Azal said. “It is. Be ready.”
Johannes stared blankly outwards, a frown on his face. “When?”
Darius smiled a bit. “Oh, friend…”
“I will not tell you that,” Azal said. “I still do not know if I can truly trust you. Simply put, you will know when we make our move.”
“I see,” Johannes said, a bit uncertainly. “And what do I do then?”
“It’s simple. Turn the people to our cause,” Azal said. “You are the one they will trust the most. You are the one who has the most influence over them. If you are truly on our side, you will be an invaluable asset.”
Johannes frowned. “Really?” he said. “I mean, I know they like me, but…”
“Do not underestimate yourself,” Azal advised. “Many of these demons will be willing to follow you, whatever you do. One word from you, and they will turn against our foe.”
The descendant looked doubtful, but he said nothing.
“So, it’s decided, then?” Darius asked. “You make your first move – whatever that is – and then the two of us spring into action. Johannes talks to the people, I spread rumors and sow dissent unseen. We get popular support, at least around here, and then… and then what?”
“That is when we strike,” Azal simply said.
Johannes frowned. “Strike… where?”
“As before,” Azal said, “I find that is information I would prefer not to trust to others for the time being.”
Johannes sighed, but Darius just smiled. “Don’t worry,” he said, half-reassuringly. “This is how he always is.”
“So, that’s what we’ve got, then?” Johannes asked. “Just… a vague plan and a few orders to start us off?”
“Yes,” Azal said. “I am sorry.”
Again, Johannes sighed, more deeply this time. “Alright.”
“Wait,” Darius interrupted. “We need a name. What are the people going to rally to, otherwise?”
Azal turned and stared at him blankly, briefly trying to process what he’d just heard. But… he supposed Darius was right. Without a name, it would be much harder to build up support.
Darius grinned, and Azal felt a pang of worry in his gut. “How about the Bloodhorns?” he asked.
Azal sighed, but Johannes smiled too. “Sure,” he said. “Sounds good. Azal?”
Azal looked down at the table, one hand covering his face. He hadn’t considered this. In retrospect, maybe he should have.
“Come on,” Darius said.
“…Fine,” he said. Though he didn’t like it.