The song was as beautiful as the Crystalline Castle itself, and as old, first practiced when the pillars upon which the Castle stood rose into empty space, and its first Empress traveled the lands for which she had won peace. The true meaning of the words, with all their subtle connotations, could only be fully appreciated by a handful of educated men and women who enjoyed such erudition. The language had been ancient when the song had been fashioned; now nothing remained of the language but scraps of paper and the song. The words translated as “Long live the Empress,” but in meaning and performance, the words expressed hope, longing, and desire fulfilled—everything a newborn Kingdom believed of its first Empress.
Doors hidden in the back wall of the Chamber opened like flower petals. The Empress stood in the center of the blossom, tall and decisive. Her gown was the white of innocence and the blue of an afternoon sky. Strings of braids like pulled-back curtains looped down, hovered above her shoulders, and swooped up again. Her face was veiled, a blank mask of flesh.
She entered and walked with slow, deliberate steps, and six Cria followed her, wearing white and gold. The Advisors stood solemnly as she approached her throne. She stood before it, and the Cria spread to her sides, singing. The song rose, peaked, and the Empress sat. Around the semi-circle, the Advisors sat in unison. The Trio sat also, at two chairs provided to the right of the Empress. Strin sat at a chair to her left and pulled Fred down with him. The song of the Cria faded into silence, like the colors of sunset fading into night.
Advisor Telmion rose. “The Council is blessed by your presence.” After the Cria’s song, the words fell like heavy books to the floor.
“Wisdom is the Kingdom’s foundation,” the Empress replied emotionlessly.
“We are Wisdom and you are the Kingdom.”
“So be it,” the Empress declared. The Cria’s song reprised briefly, a burst like a laugh of joy.
Fred leaned over to Strin. “That’s the Empress? She doesn’t look very old, but I can’t tell ’cause her face is all freaky.”
“She isn’t old. Be quiet.”
“She’s spoiled, isn’t she?” Fred glanced back at the Empress. “Look at all those servants. She probably doesn’t even walk except for show. I bet they carry her.”
“Quiet!” Strin whispered fiercely. Fred opened his mouth again, and Strin gave him a look none but Fred’s mother could best. Fred shut his mouth and sat straight in his chair.
Telmion had already begun his presentation. “ … this same Governor linked back here late this morning with a report from a messenger riding a renj. The Governor maintained sense enough to transcribe the messenger’s account.” Telmion flourished the paper in his hand briefly. “The account is as follows.” Telmion looked down at the paper, then raised his eyes again. “Please discount any odd phrasing or transitions the account may hold. I’m certain Governor Bulbatrano was merely pressed for time and could not be bothered to prepare a decent copy.”(1)» Telmion cleared his throat and began:
“Messenger says that the person who sent him didn’t believe it at first. Governor asks, Believed what? I’m getting there, the messenger says. Been riding half the night. Governor benevolently forgives the messenger and waits with great magnanimity. Some kids saw it first, the messenger says after refusing a drink, when they planned to sleep next to the Horizon. Messenger goes into a very interesting tale of why kids sleep next to the Horizon, mostly concerning a legend of some lady named Lila, and the Governor is much entertained until the messenger realizes he has a message to relate. Governor allows him to do so.
“It was a Sertrima, the messenger says next, one straight out of the Horizon. The Governor is much surprised. The Governor politely disagrees. The messenger politely disagrees with the Governor’s disagreement. The Governor starts laughing, saying that he just dealt with bandits, so this has to be a joke. The messenger says (rather harshly) that it is not a joke and proceeds to relate how a group of men investigated the children’s claim and found not one, not one—this the messenger repeats forcefully—not one, but nine Sertrims. They were ‘scuttlin,’ according to the messenger. Governor says, I imagine so.
“Now what, the messenger demands. We can’t find Strin. Heard he was here. He was, the Governor says. I’ll tell the Kingdom, they’ll help. The messenger seems dissatisfied. He cracks his knuckles absently. What about Strin, the messenger asks. He’s there, too, the Governor says, leave it all to me. The messenger is escorted out. Did you get all that, the Governor asks. The humble scribe nods and asks if he should continue. No, that’s good, says the Governor. Seal it. The humble scribe, after transcribing a final sentence, obeys.”(2)»
Telmion finished reading. The room was silent. Despite the letter’s form, the mention of nine Sertrims could not be taken lightly. Every person educated in the form and variety of monsters knew—in theory—what a Sertrima was. They were considered, by those who should know such things, among the most dangerous of all monsters. Each Sertrima had ten spidery legs, tough as metal and spiked at the joints. These enabled them to scale vertical cliffs. The rotting central body was the color of new skin, rubbery and thick. This allowed the Sertrima to squeeze into cracks and ooze into crevices a fraction of its size.(3)» Extending from the main body were two—sometimes more— trunks that served as heads. Each trunk ended in a double set of teeth that could vibrate to lacerate the Sertrima’s victim. A Sertrima ate like a snake, swallowing its victim in large chunks and digesting later. When a Sertrima stood upright, its height was twice that of a tall man.(4)»
But this was all in theory. Of those in the room, only Strin and Fred had ever encountered one.
“The odd thing is,” Strin said, “Sertrims never associate with one another. If two meet, they either mate or kill one another.”
“There was a theory once by a scholar … ” Preitru mused, mostly to himself, but everyone listened. “I can’t remember his name, but he conjectured that perhaps—Frelger’s the name, great man, met him once when I was young. But anyway, he conjectured that they, the Sertrims that is, traveled in families or whatever they call a group of them.”
“That’s not true!” Fred said. “I’ve fought two of them and killed one on my own.”
“Liar,” Webi whispered from the other side of the Empress, just loud enough for Fred to hear.
“Advisor, there’s no name for a family of Sertrims,” Strin said. “It doesn’t occur.”
“I have!” Fred shouted as he leaned to look past the Empress at Webi. He looked up to find the Council staring at him. “Sertrims are loners,” he said importantly. “They won’t die easy, either. It’s like a tick you find in your hair—you smash it to pieces a dozen times and it’s still crawling back for blood.”
The Council stared at Fred.
“I understand the seriousness of the situation,” the Empress said coldly. “I know the creatures of my Kingdom. What course of action shall be taken? My Hand shall protect even the furthest reaches of my Kingdom.”
Keck Truenight stood suddenly. “Your Majesty, if I may make a suggestion. You need not worry your Royal Self any longer. As you have summoned, so the Trio has come. We shall handle this little matter.”
“You three couldn’t—” A look from Strin silenced Fred.
“If you would do the Kingdom such a favor, it would greatly lessen the complications,” Owa said. He wiped his sweaty hands squeakily along the black table without realizing it. “It would be difficult to send a legion of troops.”(5)»
“Yes, yes, difficult,” Preitru said, brushing Owa away with his hand. “And time-consuming. The Generator would need time to prepare to send so many so far.”
“What if there are more?” The question trembled uncertainly in the air. A plump woman on the table end beside Fred lowered her eyes. Strin had caught a glimpse of them—they held the round innocence of a child.
“More? More Sertrims?” The Advisor next to Telmion asked skeptically. She leaned forward as if she and Strin were alone, and she was in a position to teach him. “I very much doubt that more than a handful of these Sertrims exist. No one outside of the Horizon has ever reported seeing one. They could be mounting a final attempt to claim some territory.”
“Sertrims are not intelligent, Advis—”
“Advisor Jeenra,” she said abruptly. “At least take the time to address me by name.”
“I apologize, Advisor Jeenra,” Strin said. “Sertrims are not intelligent. They live and destroy by instinct. The lust to kill, to ravage, to gorge—these are the only motives they know. There is no planning to their movements, except lust. I think, though I don’t know why, that it will be as the Advisor here suggested.” Strin motioned to the quiet woman beside Fred. “There will be more.”
“What basis do you have to make such an assumption?” Advisor Jeenra demanded.
“I have lived my whole life in the region called the Horizon,” Strin said calmly. “I have looked into that sheet of blackness that gives the region its name, the very edge of the territory of the Kingdom. I have watched the eddies and clouds and fogs blow and boil within its dark depths. There are more mysteries in that plane of Eternal Night than has ever been explained to me. The messenger said that a Sertrima walked out of the Horizon. I’ve never seen such a thing happen, but I don’t doubt his account. It fits with many of the legends of the Horizon.”
“The Trio is more than capable of handling any number of these Sertrims,” Harmony said. She sat straight, her hands flat on the table; she was calm, collected, and innocently aware of the force of her presence. “We’ve stopped numerous minor civil wars, and some major ones, killed a whole slew of beasts, saved more than our share of handsome dukes, farm boys, and princes—”
“…as well as some beautiful princesses,” Keck added.
“Yes, Keck.” She smiled at him, and the simplicity of the smile seemed a great excellence. “We’ve traveled most of the Known World, even some places outside the Kingdom, where there is no rule but your own and no peace but death.”
“That’s good,” Webi said. “Can I write that down?”
“We’ve encountered insane magicians and berserker trolls,” Harmony continued, “and creatures no book or scholar has ever named. If you need a task done, and done well, we’re the ones to do it.”
Fred stood suddenly, knocking his chair to the floor with a tremendous crash, like glass shattering. “I’ll tell you what!”(6)» He checked quickly to see if the chair was in pieces—it wasn’t—then turned and leaned angrily over the table so that he could see the Trio. “Maybe you can take on ten Sertrims! Twenty Sertrims! Let’s make it a hundred! But you aren’t gonna soothe the people there. They don’t like change! You! Muscle-man! The old men will see you as the downfall of civilization, drawing their children away from farming and into the evils of the world! And you! Miss Sing-Song! The ladies will gossip and whisper because of your skimpy outfit and exotic looks. Only that dumb plant will be accepted!”
“Dumb?” Webi asked.
“He’ll make no difference to Horizon people. He’s a talking plant and we’ve got talking rocks. What’s the difference? I know these people! I am these people! They’ll fight you and resist you every step of the way if you try to help them. They don’t want help, not from you! They sent for me and Strin, not a bunch of nice teeth and pretty eyes!”
Fred stood silently for several long moments, breathing hard. Advisor Preitru coughed weakly. “That’s all I wanted to say!” Fred said defiantly. “And you’d better believe it!” He remained standing a moment longer, tried to sit, found nothing, picked up his chair, and sat.
“Fred is right, Your Majesty,” Strin said calmly, filling the silence. “Horizon folk are good people, but they’re people. They’re set in their ways. They want things their way, and I’ve never met a person, from the Horizon or elsewhere, who didn’t want the same. They’d feel most comfortable with Fred and me. But whatever your decision, I also recommend sending royal troops as soon as possible. It’ll calm the people, regardless of the situation. They don’t often ask help from the Kingdom, but royal troops would remind them of an Empress they only hear about.”
“Advisor Jeenra, what do you think?” the Empress asked. Her voice was devoid of emotion.
“I … ” The word hung alone, Jeenra’s mouth open, as she tried to form others. “I think experience in the world is more appropriate in this situation than personal connections. I believe the Trio should be sent to the Horizon. Strin can stay and inform the troops while the Generator is prepared for so large a link.”
“I agree,” the Empress declared.
“Your Majesty,” Telmion said. “I must dissent.”
The Empress’s blank gaze touched upon each Advisor’s face. “What does the Council say?”
It was tradition so old that it had become indistinguishable from law. The Empress’s word required no consent, but if there was sufficient opposition to her decision, she would reconsider and hear more counsel. The Council voted, and Jeenra’s reasoning appeared to represent the majority. Six voted that the Trio should go. Only three, including Telmion, voted for Strin’s going.
“So be it,” Telmion declared soberly, acknowledging the Empress’s edict. “You have my blessing, Keck Truenight, Harmony Everpeace, and Webi of the Trio,” the Empress said. “I will see you before you leave.”
The Cria began to sing again, and the Empress rose slowly from her chair. All rose in response. The Empress turned and proceeded deliberately, face held high and forward, the way she had come. She exited, the Cria following. The song drifted into haunting silence.
Fred shattered that silence. “She can’t do that!” He slammed the table with his fists. “It’s our home! She can’t do that!”
“Yes, Fred,” Strin said, “she can.”(7)»