Aldrono stroked his dark beard as he examined the parchment map on his desk. He may have ruled as King of Oragan, but it took a mere glance at this map of the entire Hisborian peninsula to show his domain’s paltry significance. Oragan covered only a puny proportion of the peninsula’s northeastern area, no more than any of the other petty kingdoms which squabbled in the north. By contrast, the great Mourish Empire, those sooty invaders from across the sea, had conquered Hisboria’s whole southern half.
Aldrono had heard more than enough reports of how the Mours had established great libraries, universities, public baths, and other luxuries of high civilization in their controlled territory that destitute northerners like his own people could only dream of. Never mind that they were heathens who bowed before wooden idols and sacrificed their royal servants every time one of their kings passed away. Any more nonsense about the superior culture of the Mours and Aldrono would explode into a rage more fiery than hell itself!
Growling his most vulgar curse, he threw a knife into the southern area of the map. Someday that region, and for that matter the whole of Hisboria, would be his, even if he had to soak it all red with blood.
“Are you all right, my King?” It was his brother Prince Elcidos who spoke, peering into the bedchamber from outside.
“I’m fine, thank you,” Aldrono said. He wiped sweat off his reddened brow. “Just still a little pissed about the Mours.”
“Funny you should say that. I’ve received word that a Mourish envoy has just arrived in Oragan. They request your audience this very instant.”
Aldrono stared at his chamberlain while scratching his hair. Many times before he had sent out his own envoys to the Mourish capital of Kardabou, offering all manner of deals in exchange for their submission, but the Mourish Emperor had snubbed each and every one of these.
“Why? What in God’s name are they up to?” Aldrono said.
“They say they offer gifts for Your Majesty,” Elcidos said. “It surprised me too, but they claim no malice in their hearts.”
“Gifts?” Aldrono grinned from the image of Mourish gold cascading like a waterfall into his treasury, among other benefits. “Let’s see what they’ve come with.”
He threw on his crown and kingly cape and followed Elcidos through his castle’s drafty corridors. They opened out into a wider audience hall where his other courtiers were gathered in a chattering crowd. Aldrono seated himself on his throne at the room’s end and leaned into it, sighing with pleasure. Nothing could comfort the future ruler of all Hisboria like sitting in his biggest chair.
The trumpets blared. The mass of courtiers parted to leave an open aisle going through the middle of the room. The high doors at the hall’s opposite end creaked open, letting a wave of sunlight wash into the room. Afterward there sounded the thumping of Mourish drums.
“Behold, in the name of our beloved Emperor Olango, we Mours come bearing the greatest gifts you can imagine!” a herald cried in a thick foreign accent.
Into the hall marched a formation of Mourish soldiers with spears, swords, and wicker shields. They wore no shirts over their dark brown torsos, but gold and copper jewelry decorated their necks and limbs, and their kilts sported many vibrant colors. Alongside these soldiers, musicians pounded their drums and chanted songs that filled the audience hall with deafening echoes. Young women carried bowls filled with gold treasures which they tossed at the Oraganese courtiers, who scrambled down to collect as much as they could.
In the center of the procession, a team servants hauled on their shoulders a gold litter veiled with linen drapes. Aldrono could make out the contours of a dark human figure through these sheets. Had Emperor Olango himself condescended to visit the lowly kingdom of Oragan in person? There was one other alternative that occurred to Aldrono, a prospect that every young man would find even more pleasing.
The drums silenced with a final cracking thud like thunder. The Mourish soldiers that led this whole party halted to make way for the servants hauling the litter, who set it on the dais supporting Aldrono’s throne.
“Is this for me?” Aldrono asked.
The whole Mourish entourage snickered and giggled. Aldrono’s face flushed pink.
“Come and take a look,” a sultry female voice said in a Mourish accent. Through the litter’s drapes, Aldrono could see that the figure within was beckoning him with a curl of its finger. A warmth grew in his loins as he tread towards the litter and pushed its drapes aside.
There sat a young Mourish woman whose obsidian-black skin glistened even more than the jewelry decorating her. Except for a brief but colorful skirt and a head-wrap, her slender yet curvaceous figure bore little clothing. Looking up at Aldrono and batting her dark eyelashes, she curved her full and glossy lips into a smile.
Try as he might, Aldrono could not force out any words to do her beauty justice.
“Well, aren’t you more handsome than I expected?” she said. “I am Jeboye, daughter of Emperor Olango. He sent me here with two gifts to bestow upon you and your kingdom.”
“And what would those be? I can already guess the first one.” Aldrono winked.
“You would be correct, O King of Oragan. It is indeed my hand in marriage! Such would bring our countries, once distrustful of one another, closer together. Which brings me to the second gift.”
Jeboye fished out a papyrus scroll and handed it to Aldrono. Its upper half had writing in native Mourish glyphs which he could not understand, but below that was a translation in his own Oraganese language. The papyrus quaked in Aldrono’s hands as bubbling excitement rose up within him from reading this message.
“You mean…you’ll surrender your Empire at last?” he said. “You’ve finally caved into my demands? What brought about this change of heart?”
“We understand your passion to unite all of Hisboria under one throne, and we concur wholeheartedly with it,” Jeboye said. “With unity will come peace. No longer shall the blood of armies pollute Hisborian soil.”
Aldrono clapped, as did all his courtiers and the Mourish entourage in a great applause.
“Beautifully said, my future Queen. Together we shall rule the peninsula, with you by my side.” Aldrono lent Jeboye his hand, kissing hers as he helped her off the litter. “The marriage shall be arranged as soon as possible!”
“Don’t you want to…try me out first?” Jeboye said with lips almost touching his cheeks. She glided her hand down his tunic and swayed her hips sidewards. “I want to see what this northern gentleman looks like underneath his kingly attire.”
Aldrono nodded. “We shall, after supper. You must be famished after all that travel.” He embraced his new bride, rubbing his face against her neck.
This was too good to be true.
As Jeboye rested on the canopied bed inside her newly assigned bedchamber, her stomach purred. At supper that evening she had eaten a much more modest amount than she had expected. King Aldrono may have promised that the food served was the finest in all northern Hisboria, but it all tasted bland without the spices and sugars that flavored Mourish cuisine. How the Oraganese could live on a whole diet of such tasteless cooking, Jeboye could only guess, but perhaps she should not have expected better from their impoverished culture.
She shivered when a cool nighttime breeze whistled into the room from the window, threatening to blow out the candlelight. The windows in this castle lacked the colorful stained glass that protected the rooms in her father’s palace back at Kardabou. Nor did anything like the smooth tan plaster on Mourish architecture coat the castle’s walls of coarse gray stone. Any Mourish princess forced to spend her whole adulthood in this cold, miserable fortress surrounded by pale barbarians would sooner put herself to death than endure that life.
It was not Jeboye’s intention to endure it for long.
A shrill bird’s cry summoned her to the bedchamber’s window. Heru, her pet fishing eagle, flapped his wings across the night sky until he landed onto the windowsill. In his claws he carried a short-sword by its ivory hilt. Stroking the eagle’s white head as a gesture of gratitude, Jeboye coaxed him to drop the sword into her hands. Inscribed in the curved blade were glyphs praising Oshange, the Mourish goddess of war.
“Please watch over me as I strike down this threat,” Jeboye murmured in prayer to Oshange as she slipped the sword into the back of her skirt.
The door to her bedchamber creaked open. “Is something wrong, my lady?” It was Elcidos, King Aldrono’s brother.
Jeboye jerked around to face him. “Oh, nothing. I was just praying to one of my gods.”
“If you are to be a proper Oraganese bride, you pray to our God instead. Anyway, Aldrono is ready for you.”
“So he couldn’t wait too long to play with his new toy, I see.” Jeboye grinned and swished her hips. “Very well. I’ll give him an experience he’ll never forget!”
Elcidos directed her to the King’s bedchamber which was only a few strides down the corridor from hers. The sword’s blade chilled her skin under the skirt as she strutted, but she did not mind. Her heart pounded with an excitement that made her light on her feet, an excitement different from what King Aldrono would expect from her.
Already Aldrono lay on his bed with only his trousers on. His chest, Jeboye had to admit, boasted large and chiseled muscles that shone with sweat. With the heat of genuine desire burning inside her, Jeboye wished she could lick the sweat off those hard abdominals. The bulge in his crotch impressed her too.
“I see you’re eager as I am tonight.” Aldrono chuckled. He rose from his bed to wrap his arms around his new betrothed again, pressing his lips against hers as he stroked her back.
Jeboye slipped her hands under his pants. “You’re better endowed than most, my King.” She pulled the pants down to let it spring out. “It sure looks plump and juicy. It would make a perfect…trophy.”
Aldrono blinked. “Trophy?”
Jeboye dug into her skirt and flashed out her sword. “For my country, you barbarian dog!” With one swipe of the weapon, she cleaved Aldrono’s endowments off. Like a little child he screamed, falling onto his knees with hands over his bloodied crotch.
“Why did you do that?” Aldrono whimpered.
“Don’t think you can threaten my people and go unpunished!” Jeboye swung her sword a second time. This time it was the King’s head that went off, rolling onto the floor.
“What in hell’s name is going on?” Elcidos burst into the room and roared with shock. “What kind of madness is this? This, this is treachery!”
Jeboye smirked. “This is a defensive measure.”
Elcidos whipped out from his scabbard a sword with a longer and straighter blade than Jeboye’s. He lunged at her, but she leaped out his way and slashed his flank. He landed on his chest cursing and grunting with pain.
Jeboye drew her sword overhead. “You Oraganese go down easier than I anticipated.”
She hacked down towards Elcidos’ neck. It cut through air when he rolled aside. Jumping back onto his feet, Elcidos swung again at Jeboye, breaking through her blade when she tried to parry his. The sheer force of the clash kicked Jeboye down onto her back.
“The same could be said of you Mourish.” Elcidos towered over Jeboye with his sword pointed down at her heart, laughing with vengeful glee. “We have even more cause for war against your Empire now.”
“But will you win it?” Jeboye banged her leg sideways against Elcidos’ ankle. As he staggered away, she pounced for the bedchamber’s desk and yanked the knife sticking out of it free. She chucked it into the Prince’s foreheard, knocking him onto the floor dead. He did not even scream out a death cry.
Jeboye picked up Aldrono’s severed member and squeezed it. Even if never went inside her, it would still make an impressive trophy to commemorate how she decapitated the barbarian forces of Oragan.
Mail armor clinked as shouting Oraganese castle guards rushed into the room. They encircled Jeboye and thrust their spears and swords only a few inches away from her neck. Surrounded and without a capable weapon, she could only raise her hands up in an admission of surrender. There was no point in fighting back this time.
Jeboye should have seen this coming. The plan seemed ingenious when first devised, but it never got around to explaining how she would escape once she carried out the deed. Perhaps she never would.
Looking towards the bedchamber’s window, where stars sparkled in the black sky, she silently prayed for Oshange’s mercy to return.
The rough texture of ropes scratched against Jeboye’s wrists, which they bound behind her back. Stripped of all her clothing, she knelt on a wooden stage in the castle’s inner courtyard, surrounded by sneering courtiers. The noontime sun’s heat burned her skin like an executioner’s fire, but the stage itself had no stake or tinder. Instead there stood a brawny headsman with an ax enormous enough to split an elephant’s skull.
The other, more ancient man on the stage donned a judge’s robe, smacking his thin lips when he looked down at Jeboye. He brushed his bony fingers on her shoulder while circling around her like a shark plotting to attack.
“You are quite the exotic beauty, my Mourish princess,” the judge croaked. “Such a pity you had to be caught with the King and his brother’s blood on your hands. Otherwise we wouldn’t have to remove that comely young head of yours.”
“I don’t mind that as much as you think,” Jeboye said. “Your King threatened my father many times, like a petulant child who wants his way. We had to punish him somehow, and we did. You can do whatever you want with me, because I have brought your wretched kingdom down!”
The judge cackled. “If only it were that simple, my lady! There are many more men in Oragan qualified to take Aldrono’s place—myself included. Certainly, if the throne were mine, we could rally the whole north and crash down on your Empire like a storm of fireballs.”
The blood in Jeboye’s veins turned cold as mountaintop snow. The judge spoke the truth. So long as he could convince the other northern kingdoms that the Mourish Empire posed a threat, he could merge them into one larger force and pose a greater threat to her people than they could have ever imagined. And given the assassination she had committed, the judge had ample evidence to sway the north to his side.
In an effort to defend her country from the barbarians, Jeboye would have only provoked them even more.
“This heathen’s guilt has strangled her speechless,” the judge said. “Very well. Off with her head!”
The headsman heaved his ax so high over his head that it caught the sunlight, its glint blazing pain into Jeboye’s eyes. She whispered a desperate prayer to her gods even though they would not listen. Instead she would plunge into the black abyss of the underworld, denied her afterlife for the horrible fate she had brought upon her people.
A birdlike screech, and then a small dark shape flashed past the headsman. He reeled back, dropping the ax away from Jeboye. Above him soared Heru the fishing eagle who chirped as if taunting the brute.
The headsman opened his mouth and started to curse when another, narrower shape shot through his head. Behind him a red-soaked arrow hit the stage. Blood streamed from the holes in the headsman’s skull as he collapsed like a fallen tree.
High on one of the castle parapets overlooking the courtyard stood the black figure of a Mourish archer. He smiled and waved at Jeboye, who recognized his youthful countenance even from the distance. It was her brother, the Crown Prince Seydou, and rising next to him were more archers with bows drawn. The mass of courtiers, and even the judge on the stage, cowered around Jeboye.
“What’s going on here?” the judge asked. He glared at Jeboye. “Did you set this all up too?”
She smirked up at him. “I did pray for it.”
Seydou jumped onto one of the cypress trees which lined the courtyard’s edges. With arms locked around the tree’s foliage, he slid down its height and swaggered to the stage with the courtiers crawling out of his way. He unsheathed a sword very similar to the one Jeboye had used to kill Aldrono, but larger, and used it to cut through Jeboye’s bonds.
“I overheard your plans for our Empire,” Seydou said with sword aimed at the judge. “And I have a mind to storm your puny kingdom with the thousands of warriors I’ve camped around your walls. Nonetheless, I don’t like bloodshed any more than you do.”
“And yet you had our King and his brother killed,” the judge said. “Not to mention my executioner, of course.”
“All to prevent many, many more lives from being lost. If you truly value human life, my Oraganese friend, you’d agree to what I’m about to demand.”
“How about I turn around what your King demanded of us? In other words, how about Oragan join the great Mourish Empire?”
“I would heartily recommend my brother’s offer,” Jeboye added. “Think of what your country could gain from it. We’ll grant you many more gifts of our civilization. You’ll even have spices and sugars to flavor your food!”
The judge cocked an eyebrow. “But what about our way of life? Would you force us to bow before your idols?”
“Not at all,” Seydou said. “Unlike you northerners, we Mours are always willing to tolerate gods different from our own, so long as everyone pays their taxes.”
The judge paused to glance around his courtyard. Jeboye’s heartbeat sped up as she watched him. Hopefully he had discovered the wisdom of Seydou’s offer. That decision would spare thousands of lives, Mourish and Oraganese both.
His wizened face darkened. “I’d rather take taxes in than pay them to sooty heathens!”
Seydou tossed his sword to Jeboye. “You know what to do.”
Jeboye winked back at her brother and drew the sword behind her head. “If that’s the case, O Judge of Oragan, I’m afraid we’ll have to send one more soul to the abyss.”
And with that, she lopped off the judge’s head exactly as he had wanted done to her.
All the courtiers in the courtyard were shivering on their knees, pressing her hands together in prayer.
“That should be enough blood spilled for now,” Jeboye said. The guilt returned to weigh down her heart. “If only we could resolve this without violence.”
Seydou patted her on the shoulder. “Sometimes a little violence is needed to prevent even more of it. Better four men die than several thousand.” He held her arm up by the wrist into the air. “Behold, people of Oragan, your new provincial governess! From this day onward, you shall join the Mourish Empire without war!”
The whole crowd of courtiers bowed around Jeboye. Instead of guilt holding her down, pride and glee soared up within her like a fishing eagle heading into the sky. She may have come offering the gift of empire, but in the end the gift had come to her instead.