The Horde, Part Two
Part Two: The Firstpopped
by Thomas K. Martin
Seated on the Wolf Throne, Minghis anxiously awaited the arrival of the dawn. Only the original surviving members of his tribe waited in the throne room with him. That and two stacks of archers behind him as an honor guard. It had been twenty-five turns since he had led them through the wilderness to found Mango City and the side of Mangolia. In that time the side had popped numerous archers and stabbers and even a few twolls, but today Minghis anxiously awaited the arrival of his first warlord.
Outside, the sky was finally beginning to lighten with the impending dawn. Then, all at once, it happened. New income flooded into the treasury, rations popped throughout the city and the new unit exploded into being at the entrance to the throne room. That was a little unexpected. When Minghis had popped, it had felt as though he had collapsed into existence. This, however, was no implosion, but an explosion into existence.
But that was not what most surprised him. In disbelief, Minghis rose to his feet and stared at the last thing he had expected to see today.
* * *
Cashcarry Mango’s first breath was a sharp intake of air as he planted his feet onto the ground for the first time in his life. He opened his eyes for his first look at existence.
The throne room was not what one would call grand, but then Mango City was only the level two capital of a fledgling, single city side. Brass braziers lined the walls of the throne room holding the powerballs that illuminated the room. Before the dais, six stabbers were lined up, three along either side of the carpeted path to the throne. A lone twoll stood at the end of the left hand row of stabbers. Cashcarry wondered briefly about that.
Atop a short dais sat the throne. The throne was basically just a large wooden chair covered in the fur of a dare wolf with the immense head of the beast mounted atop the back. Behind the throne, two stacks of archers stood at attention.
And, on that throne, sat Overlord Minghis Mango, Light of the Dawn and Master of Horses. His father. The overlord slowly rose to his feet and stared at Cashcarry in disbelief. After a moment, Cashcarry decided that he should say something.
“Greetings, my father and Overlord!” he called out to the court, such as it was. As he had hoped, that served to break the awkward pause.
“Introduce yourself to the court!” his father ordered.
“I am Cashcarry Mango,” he replied. “Moneymancer to the glorious court of Mangolia!”
“Kneel, Cashcarry,” Minghis ordered. Cashcarry complied without question.
“Do you swear to serve me in all things to the end of your turns?” his father asked. Surprisingly, this was not accompanied by an order, unspoken or otherwise, for him to respond.
“I swear to serve my Overlord, Minghis Mango, Light of the Dawn and Master of Horses and to bring glory to his house all the turns of my life,” Cashcarry replied.
“Then rise and be welcomed to the court of Mangolia,”
Cashcarry rose to his feet to see his father descending from the throne to approach him. The Overlord was a powerfully built man, in bronze lamellar armor. He carried a massive sword on his hip and a quiver full of javelins on his back. A thin moustache and a wispy goatee adorned his face. He looked much more intimidating than a level three warlord had a right to.
What caught his attention, however, was the helmet. Cashcarry was no hat magician, but even he could tell that the Overlord’s helmet was very strongly enchanted.
Cashcarry began to get nervous as his father approached, but then the Overlord scooped him into a powerful hug and laughed.
“Welcome to Mangolia, my son!” he said enthusiastically, pounding Cashcarry on the back hard enough to do damage, he was certain.
“Th-thank you, father,” Cashcarry replied.
“Come, there is a feast prepared in the Grand Hall.”
The so-called Grand Hall consisted of the head table and four other tables with benches. No one sat at the lower tables. Cashcarry sat with his father and the six stabbers from the throne room at the high table. The twoll from the throne room waited on them, bringing food and wine to the table, although everyone, even his father, served themselves once it arrived. The feast consisted of lamb stew, roast mutton and potatoes roasted with onions. It was surprisingly good, although Cashcarry did not have many other meals against which to compare it.
“And then your father set them free,” Kherlen told him, continuing his tale. “He knew they would eat to save themselves instead of attacking us.”
The tale was at once both pitiful and inspiring. So far, Mangolia’s greatest battle had been against a village of twelve feral ho elves. However, to take a single feral stack of stabbers that spawned in some ruin in the mountains and then lead them to found a capital city was nothing short of miraculous. However, this tale had given him a revelation.
“That must be why I popped here,” Cashcarry said to the table.
“Oh?” Minghis asked, inviting him to continue.
“Yes, father,” he said. “The entire time you were leading your men here, you were fighting your upkeep. You needed a moneymancer, and here I am.”
“Indeed,” Minghis agreed. “I must confess, my son, I was not expecting to pop a caster today instead of our first warlord.”
And with that one idle comment, Cashcarry learned that Mangolia had no warlords. Immediately, he found himself concerned that his father was disappointed that he had popped in place of a warrior son he might feel more in common with.
“So, tell me, moneymancer,” Minghis said. “Can I appoint you to manage my city instead of doing it myself?”
“Oh, absolutely!” Cashcarry replied. “In fact, with me managing the city, it will produce more shmuckers than it has until now. Since we are such a small side, that is probably the best way I can help.”
“Then fate has smiled on us, today,” Minghis said with a smile. “You are hereby appointed as city manager and Chief Caster. Come, I will walk with you on your first tour of the city.”
* * *
Minghis studied his son as they walked through the city. His skin was a few shades darker than Minghis and he had shorter hair, with no facial hair. Cashcarry’s nose was a sharp beak and he wore trousers and tunic of horsehide. Over the tunic he were a horsehide jacket trimmed with fox fur and a round horsehide cap, also trimmed with fox fur. This was certainly not what he had expected, but it could be everything they needed.
They stopped at the slaughterhouse and Cashcarry dutifully walked through and inspected the empty facility. Then they continued on toward the bank. Now that Mango City had been upgraded to a level 2, it was much more impressive than when it had first popped. The yurts had been replaced with huts, the outer wall and towers were now stone and the buildings closer in to the courtyard were much larger. Another floor had been added to the tower and the stone walls of the tower itself had thickened.
“So, tell me moneymancer,” Minghis said. “Would you have been able to help me when we were on the march as barbarians?”
“Oh, most definitely,” Cashcarry replied with a quick smile. “For one thing, every evening I could have spent all my juice and added a hundred shmuckers to your purse.”
“Say we had come across a small, level one city which was practically undefended,” Minghis asked. “If we had taken such a city, I could have razed it, but…”
“But most of the shmuckers would have been lost,” Cashcarry interrupted, nodding. “Had I been with you, I could have converted the excess shmuckers into gems as you razed the city.”
That had been exactly what Minghis had wanted to hear. He gave his son a hearty pat on the back and laughed.
“I believe you may be the answer to all of my problems, my son,” Minghis told him. That earned him a proud smile from the caster.
“Father, may I make a request?”
“Once we have finished here, I would like to travel to the Magic Kingdom.”
* * *
They stood in the portal room, before the glowing portal which Minghis instinctively knew would kill him. Actually his knowledge was a little more than just instinctive. When it had first appeared with the city, Minghis had known it was dangerous, but he had placed his hand into it anyway. The pain had been unimaginable. Fortunately, his fingers had reappeared with the next dawn…
“This thing will not harm you?” Minghis asked, even though he already knew that his son was correct.
“No, father,” Cashcarry assured him. “I will simply pass through into the Magic Kingdom. The portal will kill any non-caster who attempts to pass through it, however.”
“And you think you can learn more about your craft from the barbarian casters there?”
“Then you have my leave to go, my son,” Minghis said to his son. “But be wary. Anyone not of the tribe is not to be fully trusted.”
“Of course, father.”
Minghis watched as his son stepped through the golden portal. His ruler senses told him that Cashcarry still lived and was now in the Magic Kingdom.
Minghis looked around the portal room. Now that he knew what this thing was, he needed to take action to protect his city. He mentally ordered two stacks of stabbers to come and stand guard at this portal. When next he upgraded the city, he would endeavor to add an iron gate to this room. Even then, there would always be two stacks of stabbers on guard here.
Once the stabbers arrived, Minghis gave them their orders and left. He climbed the tower stairs to his chambers and found Sonja there, asleep. She must have come here to wait for him and fallen asleep. He reached down and touched her bare shoulder, gently. Her eyes snapped open, and she grabbed at his wrist, but he had already pulled his hand away.
“Oh,” she said. “I must have fallen asleep.”
“Must have,” Minghis agreed with a smile.
“How was your morning, my lord?” she asked. “Did you learn what you needed to know from your firstpopped son?”
“I, did,” Minghis told her. “He is the key to our future.”
* * *
It was after midnight when Cashcarry returned to Mango City. He blinked in surprise when the two stacks of stabbers in the portal room snapped to attention as he entered. Of course his father would see this as an entrance which needed to be defended, now that he had been made aware of its purpose.
Cashcarry wearily climbed the stairs to the casting room. His visit to the Magic Kingdom had not been as productive as he would have liked. For a bunch of orphans from failed sides, the moneymancers of the Magic Kingdom certainly had high opinions of themselves. Still he had managed to learn a little from them and now even had a couple of rands in his pocket from some basic work in their counting house.
Between that, and casting in Mango City’s vault to boost shmucker production, he had only about a quarter of his juice left. Once he reached the casting room, he planned to add that juice to the tower’s magical defenses. Since Mango City had never been attacked, the tower still carried the base amount of juice from its last upgrade, but it could always use more.
Once that last task had been completed, he idly used his moneymancer senses to check the side’s treasury and expenses on the way to his room. Mangolia’s treasury was barely over eleven thousand shmuckers, but the side’s upkeep was only a few hundred per turn at this point. He also saw that the city was popping another warlord. They certainly needed them. They needed everything. Titans help them if anyone stumbled across Mango City anytime soon. If that happened, they would likely suffer the fate of his father’s hypothetical scenario this morning.
Tomorrow, he would forego another trip to the Magic Kingdom. If his overlord had no other duties for him, Cashcarry would spend the rest of the day in the library after tending to his management duties. He would likely learn more there than from another turn of apprenticeship in the moneymancers’ counting house.
He found his quarters off of the portal room easily. His father had already stationed two stabbers at the door. The men snapped to attention as he approached. One was a very striking fellow – clean-shaven like Cashcarry and very…broad.
“Wake me at dawn,” Cashcarry ordered as he pushed open the door to enter his room.
“Yes, lord,” the guards replied in unison.
His quarters were less modest than he had anticipated. There were no windows down in the portal area, of course, but it was brightly lit with three powerballs. A desk and bookcase sat along one wall and a wardrobe stood in the center of the wall opposite the large bed. Right now, that bed looked like the most wonderful thing on Erf. Cashcarry hung his clothing in the wardrobe and climbed into the bed. He ordered the powerballs to dim and closed the curtains on the bed.
* * *
Freed from the chore of managing the city, Minghis found himself free to drill with the stabbers in the morning, instead of the afternoon. Perhaps he could take his own stack out on a hunt this afternoon. It had been a while since their last hunt where he had taken the dare wolf that now adorned his throne as a prize.
True to his son’s word, the treasury had grown by an extra three hundred shmuckers this turn. Perhaps he should invite Cashcarry to hunt with them? Minghis laughed at that thought as he knocked the stabber facing him onto his back with the wooden practice sword.
“You seem in good spirits, today, lord,” Kherlen noted.
“I was thinking of going on a hunt this afternoon,” Minghis told him, without mentioning the exact thought which had brought him laughter. “What think you?”
“Recall what happened the last time, my lord,” Sonja cautioned. The dare wolf had wounded him severely before he had croaked it. He had only a few points remaining when they had brought him into the city. It was then when he had realized what would happen to his city if he croaked without an heir.
“I won’t kill any beasts myself unless they are incapacitated,” Minghis countered.
“A wise precaution,” Sonja agreed.
“What of your son, lord?” Kherlen asked.
“We will invite him, but I do not think he will be interested,” Minghis said. “The burdens which rest upon his shoulders are greater than bringing home a handful of game.”
* * *
Cashcarry watched the twoll saddle up the hobby horse. He could not help but find it ironic that, for a side whose overlord was called the Master of Horses, Mangolia possessed a total of ten hobby horses. The saddle was an odd combination of harness and saddle. Most of the rider’s weight would be supported by the collar and the animal’s shoulders, instead of its sloped back. The same twoll had made him a pair of riding boots with tall heels to hold the stirrups. Cashcarry actually preferred them to his own soft-soled shoes.
“I am pleased you chose to come with us, son,” his father told him. “I was not certain if you would need to visit this…Magic Kingdom again.”
“I think one afternoon with those stuffed shirts was enough for now,” Cashcarry replied.
“Oh, ho!” Minghis laughed. “That sounds like a story you will have to tell me while we ride.”
“Not much to tell,” Cashcarry admitted as he mounted the hobby horse and rode beside his father toward the main gate. “They put me to work in their counting house for most of the afternoon and barely taught me enough to do the work. They did pay me at least. Two rands.”
“It is a currency that is only used by the free casters,” Cashcarry explained. “It will pay a caster’s upkeep for one turn if they are in the Magic Kingdom. It is useless in the real world.”
“So, why is it that you refer to them as ‘stuffed shirts’?” Minghis asked.
“Because they are full of themselves,” Cashcarry replied with a hint of exasperation in his voice. “They think they are superior to any caster who serves a side, even though they are only there because their side fell. I probably would have learned more from the healomancers or luckamancers.”
Cashcarry’s father brought his horse to a stop and Cashcarry felt the silent order for the stack to stop as well.
“Are you saying you could learn healomancy as well?” the Overlord asked.
“I…believe so,” Cashcarry said. “It is in the same class of magic as moneymancy.”
“How much would they charge to teach you?”
“I…don’t know,” Cashcarry was embarrassed to admit.
“Take a hundred shmuckers with you tomorrow,” Minghis ordered. “Find out if you can learn healomancy. Pay them as little as possible.”
“Yes, my lord.”
* * *
Two other roads led away from Mango City, one to the northeast and one to the northwest, but the only gate opened onto the southeast road – the road which had led them here. Not for the first time, Minghis stared down that road, wondering where it led. This city had been their salvation, but it was now their prison, even for Minghis. Every time he ventured outside these walls, he put his entire tribe at risk.
Minghis turned to the right and led his stack toward the hex south of the city. For their hunt, they would circle through the six hexes around the city. Any further out and the hobby horses would not have enough move to return them to the city. Before the dare wolf had shown him how much of a risk it was to his tribe, he and his original stack would spend two or three nights out during a hunt. That had been over a tenturn ago. He missed it. He felt free out here beneath the sky.
They traversed three hexes before finding any sign of game. Minghis was not surprised. Game was scarce this close to the city. In the third hex, they inadvertently flushed out a covey of veepquail. The birds took to wing and Minghis futilely hurled a javelin at them.
“Hoboken,” Cashcarry intoned behind him and something that resembled an arrow of light shot out from his hand. It struck one of the birds which let out a startled veep before plummeting to the ground. The bolt then arced to the other birds in the flock which all fell to the ground. Minghis turned to gape at his son, along with the rest of his stack. Cashcarry smiled at him with obvious self-satisfaction. Minghis burst into laughter.
“Well done, son!” he laughed. Minghis dismounted and motioned for Cashcarry to join him. Together they went to claim the prize. There had been five birds in the covey.
“How much…juice…did that take?” Minghis asked as he tied the bird’s feet together with a strip of leather.
“Only a little,” Cashcarry replied. “But I should probably not do that again. I just wanted to…show you.”
“I am glad you did,” Minghis said. “I did not know your magic could be used for combat.”
“It’s not the most effective use for it,” Cashcarry told him.
“I understand,” Minghis said. He picked up the bundle of quail and walked back to his horse.
“You know,” he said, “I’ve never actually tasted these before. We’ll have Gomar cook them up for us tonight. Ought to save us a shmucker or two.”
* * *
Cashcarry spent the next three turns working with the healomancers in the Magic Kingdom. The first turn had cost him the hundred shmuckers his father had given him plus the two rands he had earned from the moneymancers. According to Marcus Makewell, the healomancer who had instructed him, Cashcarry had shown a natural aptitude for the craft, however. He had agreed to take Cashcarry on as an apprentice, basically using Cashcarry’s juice for minor healing and pocketing most of the payment for himself. Even so, Cashcarry had about six rands in his purse now.
This turn, however, he would not be going to the Magic Kingdom. Today he had been woken before dawn and ordered to the throne room. He arrived to find the same layout of troops as when he had popped here, and with good reason.
“Welcome, son,” Minghis called to him as he arrived. “Come, join me.”
Cashcarry walked up and stood on the bottom tier of the dais to his father’s left.
“We pop our first warlord today,” Minghis said. “Or perhaps another caster. But this time, I hope it’s a warlord. We need someone to patrol around the city.”
“You could always promote warlords, my lord,” Cashcarry suggested quietly.
“Yes,” Minghis agreed. “But I want my first warlords to be popped. I want my sons to rule the tribe with me – you and your brothers.”
The first rays of dawn shone through the windows and there was a loud pop of displaced air as Mango City popped its first warlord. Cashcarry and Minghis both stared at the new warlord. She was a smoky beauty with long raven hair which gave off hints of red when the sunlight struck it. Her arms and shoulders were bare, better to use the bow slung across her back. Her eyes were like green gemstones. An archery warlord clad in a bronze breastplate, emphasis on “breast” in her case. Laced sandals gripped her calves and a pleated leather skirt flared over her hips.
“Or sisters,” Cashcarry said quietly. It was enough to jolt Minghis from his surprise.
“Introduce yourself to the court, warlady!” Minghis ordered.
“I am Ornella Mango!” she called out proudly. “Warlady to the glorious court of Mangolia and the firstpopped daughter of Minghis Mango, Light of the Dawn and Master of Horses!”
The following feast was much the same as it had been when Cashcarry had popped, with the addition of roast veepquail. Apparently they had begun popping in the city’s larder since Cashcarry had gone hunting with his father.
“And then your father set them free,” Kherlen said, continuing his tale. “He knew they would eat to save themselves instead of attacking us.”
The stories were exactly the same, however. This time, though, Kherlen seemed to have his audience of one completely mesmerized. Then again, judging from the way Ornella’s eyes seemed to wander over Kherlen’s massive frame, it might not be the tale which held her attention.
“How delicious,” Ornella breathed. Okay, now Cashcarry was certain she wasn’t talking about the story.
“Father,” Cashcarry said, “if you have no objection I will beg your leave and begin my duties in the city.”
“Wait just a moment and Ornella and I will join you,” Minghis replied. “I wish to show her the city as I discuss her future duties with her as well.”
“Yes, father.” Cashcarry used his moneymancy senses to analyze the state of the side. He smiled to himself when he noticed that the city was currently popping another warlord. Father wanted that warlord son pretty badly, it seemed.
* * *
It was late in the afternoon when Minghis finally returned to his chambers. He was certain the Titans were laughing at him. He was going to pop one more warlord and then he would upgrade the city again and see what new units became available to him. The way his luck was going, this one would have three eyes, or something.
“What troubles you, my lord?” Sonja asked him as she followed him into the room.
“I have popped two warlords,” he said, “and it seems the only thing I can pop are tarts. I almost thought Ornella was going to mount Kherlen on the banquet table.”
“I thought you were happy with Cashcarry,” Sonja objected.
“Oh, I am,” Minghis agreed. “He is literally the answer to my problems. However, it is fairly well known that he shares his sister’s…tastes.”
“Cashcarry is critical to the side, lord,” Sonja assured him. “In time, I am sure we will find that Ornella is as well. Give her time – she is not even a turn old.”
“You are right, of course,” Minghis conceded. “I am merely being impatient. This is taking far too long.”
* * *
Ornella rode out the southwest gate the next morning with a mixed stack of stabbers and archers for her first patrol. She didn’t know why father had ordered her to take the smelly beasts. The hobby horses did not have much more move than her stack and they were only patrolling the six hexes around the city. Mangolia had no knights as yet, so her people would have to dismount to fight. Tomorrow she would insist on patrolling on foot.
She stared down the road for a moment, wondering where it led. Father had only followed it here. What lay at its other end? For a moment, she let her mind drift, dreaming of forests and cities with streets that weren’t made of mud and golden ballrooms.
She angrily pushed such thoughts out of her mind and turned toward the southwest to begin her patrol. This place was so boring!
* * *
Cashcarry was more than a little surprised to find Ornella waiting in the portal room when he returned from the Magic Kingdom the third night after she had popped. In fact, this was the first time he had seen her since then.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Waiting for you,” she said. “Where do you go? Where does this take you?”
“This leads to the Magic Kingdom,” Cashcarry explained. “Ornella, you must never try to…”
“Oh, I know,” Ornella interrupted. “It would kill me instantly if I tried to pass through it. I knew that was true before father told me. Tell me about it.”
“Well, there’s not much to tell…” Cashcarry began.
“Cashcarry,” Ornella interrupted again, “all I ever see is mud, dry grass and the backsides of horses. Tell me about someplace different.”
Cashcarry smiled at his sister. She hung onto his arm as they left the portal room.
“All right,” he said. “When you go through the portal, it takes you to a park. It is called Portal Park.”
“What is it like?”
“It is covered in short, soft wet grass that is more green than anything I have seen here,” he told her. “Greener than your eyes, even. And there are portals everywhere.”
“Where do they go?”
“To all the capital cities of the world,” Cashcarry explained. Ornella gasped as her eyes widened at the thought.
“You mean you could go anywhere?”
“Only if I wanted to be taken prisoner,” Cashcarry laughed. “Rulers don’t like unannounced guests wandering in through their portals.”
“What else?” Ornella asked.
* * *
“Upgrade the city now?” Minghis said. “But we’re in the middle of popping a warlord.”
“This won’t interrupt that,” Cashcarry assured him. “Actually, the production increase will make him pop a turn earlier.”
“If it’s a ‘him’,” Minghis said. “Or even a warlord. Very well, I’m sure we could use the increased income.”
“Indeed,” Cashcarry agreed. “And, if I might make another suggestion, my lord?”
Cashcarry took a deep breath before answering.
“We could hire a dirtamancer from the Magic Kingdom to assist with the upgrade,” he said. “With his help we could get a…nicer city.”
“Nicer?” Minghis’ tone did not sound pleased.
“What I mean is…,” Cashcarry began, but Minghis held up a hand.
“I know where this is coming from,” he said. “You’ve been talking to Ornella, haven’t you?”
“Ah, yes father.”
“I thought as much,” Minghis said. “How much would this cost?”
“I talked with the dirtamancers last turn and one of them would take the job for six hundred shmuckers.”
“Six hundred!” Minghis exclaimed. “Absolutely not.”
“I understand, father,” Cashcarry agreed. “If you wanted, you and I could…plan the upgrade in advance, instead. Then, when you upgrade the city, it will take the form we desire. That would not cost us anything.”
“Except time,” Minghis countered. “Although, Titans know, I have plenty of that.”
Cashcarry said nothing else, waiting while his father sat on the throne and thought.
“All right,” Minghis said, “let us redesign the city.”
* * *
“If we put a fountain here,” Cashcarry said, “there is what appears to be an old culvert outside the south wall. The water could drain out through that.”
“That would leave a hole in the wall,” Minghis objected. The two of them had retired to the library to plan the upgrade. Cashcarry took a piece of paper and a stick of charcoal and began sketching. He had discovered during this exercise that he had a talent for drawing.
“We could place metal bars over the opening,” Cashcarry explained as he quickly sketched what the drain would look like. “Too small for anyone to pass, but the water would flow out freely.”
“Yes, that would be good,” Minghis agreed.
“What do you want the fountain to look like?” Cashcarry asked.
“I don’t know,” Minghis told him. “I have never seen a fountain.”
Cashcarry grabbed another sheet of paper and began sketching. He had seen a few fountains in the Magic Kingdom. The moneymancers had an especially nice one outside of the counting house. Three stacked basins with water shooting from the mouth of a fish the top. Minghis watched as he drew, nodding.
“How does that look?” Cashcarry asked.
“Good,” Minghis replied. “Good. But, instead of this fish, can we have a warhawk?”
“With water shooting out of its mouth?” Cashcarry asked.
“Hmmm, no,” Minghis said.
* * *
Cashcarry waited inside the main gate with his father for Ornella to come back in from patrol. She led her mixed stack in through the main gate and stopped in surprise when she saw her overlord, his stack and her brother waiting for her.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, walking up to them.
“Nothing,” Cashcarry assured her with a smile.
“We have a surprise for you,” Minghis said. “For all of you. Dismiss your stack.”
“A surprise?” she said, becoming intrigued. She dismissed her stack with a wave of her hand. “What is it?”
“This,” Minghis replied and silently gave the command to upgrade the city. Cashcarry was startled by the windchime and the blast of trumpets and even more so by the blinding display of giant sparkles, but, when his vision cleared, an entirely different city was laid out before him. Cashcarry smiled. A large fountain sat just outside the courtyard wall. Upon it, a warhawk stood atop a carved mountain peak with its wings spread and its head thrown back in defiance with water shooting from its mouth. A swath of short, green grass surrounded the fountain.
Mango City now boasted three gates, one at each incoming road. The streets were paved with fitted stone and the buildings looked more…finished. There wasn’t a yurt in sight.
“Golly!” Gomar exclaimed as Ornella actually gasped in delight. She ran over to the fountain and Cashcarry turned to smile at his father. The smile fell from his face as soon as he saw the orverlord, however. Minghis expression was one of stunned silence. Cashcarry followed his father’s gaze to the tower.
Another floor had been added to the tower, but this floor was very different from the others. In place of the eaves on the floor just below it the floor was surrounded by a wide, heavily buttressed balcony with no railing. Cashcarry could see open archways leading into the top floor from the balcony.
“Huh,” he wondered. “What is that for?” Just then, Minghis grabbed him by the arm.
“What’s wrong, father?” Cashcarry asked.
“We can pop warhawks,” Minghis whispered in reply. Cashcarry’s eyes widened in surprise. Warhawks?
“As mounts!” Minghis exclaimed.
“Father!” Ornella shouted, unaware of Minghis’ state of mind. She ran back from the fountain and embraced the overlord.
“It’s wonderful!” she said. She turned to Cashcarry. “It’s just like the stories you told me of the Magic Kingdom. The grass is soft and moist.”
“Ornella!” Minghis interrupted. His voice carried the weight of an order.
“Yes, my lord?” she said, snapping to attention before her ruler.
“I have orders for you for tomorrow,” Minghis told her. “You are to begin drilling with the archers. I want you to pick eight archers who are suitable for knighthood. These will be your personal stack. Patrols are suspended until then.”
“Yes, my lord!” she replied, some of her excitement returning.
* * *
Two turns later Cashcarry was again standing in the throne room at the foot of the dais. He looked over at his sister who stood across from him. Her mood had been much improved since the city upgrade. So had father’s, since discovering that warhawks were now one of his unit types. Cashcarry glanced up at the overlord who was waiting anxiously for the dawn.
There was a loud pop and Cashcarry looked to the entrance of the throne room where Mangolia’s latest warlord had appeared. It was Cashcarry’s turn to stare in surprise this time.
The warlord who stood there was easily as large as Kherlen, yet clean-shaven like Cashcarry. He had a strong jaw and brow with a sharp nose, but it was his dark eyes that commanded your attention. They were sharp and piercing and drilled right into you. This warlord was every bit as intimidating as his father, the overlord.
“Warlord!” Minghis commanded. “Introduce yourself to the court.”
The warlord took a single step forward and looked around the room at each of them.
“I am Khan,” he declared. “Khan Mango, Warlord to the glorious court of Mangolia and proud son of Minghis Mango, Light of the Dawn and Master of Horses!”
“Kneel, Khan,” Minghis ordered. As Minghis administered the oath to Khan, Cashcarry reached out with his moneymancer senses to see if his father had changed what the city was popping. As expected, he had, but it was not to warhawks as Cashcarry had anticipated. They were now popping hobby horses. Curious.
* * *
“And we followed the warhawk to this city,” Kherlen said, bringing his story to a merciful end. Each of the three times Cashcarry had heard this story, not a single word had changed.
“Truly an inspiring tale,” Khan said. “No wonder the warhawk is our totem.”
“I fear I had best be about my duties in the city, lord,” Cashcarry said. “Welcome to Mango City, brother.”
“Hold, Cashcarry,” Minghis ordered. “We have much to discuss at this point.”
“Of course, father,” Cashcarry replied, settling back into his seat. This part was most definitely different.
“First off, to the first members of my tribe,” Minghis said. “Tomorrow I will promote all six of you to warlords.”
“Huzzah!” Khan shouted in reply.
“Hold,” Minghis ordered. “Then I shall promote the eight best stabbers in the city to knights as well. Khan, you shall take that stack on horseback and travel down the road which led us here. If there is another abandoned city there you will claim it for our side.”
“I live to serve, oh Light of the Dawn,” Khan replied. Ornella did not seem pleased by this announcement. Cashcarry knew how she longed to explore.
“Cashcarry,” Minghis said, interrupting his thoughts, “I have some questions for you.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“What happens if I leave this city and am croaked?”
Cashcarry blinked in surprise at the question. Everyone knew the answer to that.
“Without an heir, the side would end,” Cashcarry answered. “All units in the field would disband and this city would freeze in time until someone else discovered it.”
Cashcarry was fairly certain his father was about to name Khan as heir. That would be the only point of asking that question. However, there was not enough in the treasury to do that at this point. Oh, this was really going to upset Ornella.
“And what would happen if I were to leave the city and abdicate the throne?” Minghis asked, totally upsetting Cashcarry’s thoughts.
“Ah,” he said, thinking. “All units in your stack would survive so long as you could support their upkeep from your purse. This city would still freeze in time.”
By now, all conversation around the table had died and everyone was listening intently to Minghis’ conversation with Cashcarry.
“What if there were another warlord with me?” Minghis asked. “One who also had a full purse?”
“Both of your stacks would survive,” Cashcarry replied. He could not figure out where his father was going with this line of reasoning.
“And if every unit in the city were outside and stacked with warlords with full purses?”
“Well, nothing,” Cashcarry said. “We would all be…barbarians.”
Minghis stopped asking questions at that point. Several moments passed as all of them looked back and forth at each other.
“My lord,” Sonja said quietly. “My love, what are you thinking?”
“If we remain here,” Minghis replied, “eventually, someone will find us. Someone will come to take all that we have, just as we took all that we needed from the ho elves.”
“They will fail,” Khan replied.
“Perhaps the first time,” Minghis agreed. “But eventually, we would fall. We are trapped here like veepquail in a nest. This city was our salvation, but it is also our prison. Every one of you here is my slave – I can end any of you with but a command. Even my own sons and daughters. I swear to you now, that will never happen.”
“What…are you proposing, father?” Cashcarry asked. He remembered now the first question his father had ever asked him about razing a city as a barbarian.
“We will build a mighty army here,” Minghis said. “Every stack will be led by a warlord. And, when we can grow no larger, we will distribute the treasury, convert the rest into gems, raze our cities for shmuckers and leave this place. We will be free!”