Business of Change
Thomas J. Lauser
A sudden lurch jolted the businessman from his slumber, and he awoke to a blazing afternoon sky. His eyes darted from side to side in rapid fashion as he tried to discern where he was. He was bound by a rusted chain to the bed of a cart, which was moving across a golden savannah at a droning speed as outposts and villages rose up in the distance. Two Orcs sat at the front of the vehicle, guiding it through tall yellow grass.
The businessman’s name was Alistair Blackwood, a pale-faced human from the Claudian Empire. There, he was a member of the Imperial Magocracy, a government run entirely by magic users. Though he doubted either of his captors knew it, he was also the Chief Operator of Blackwood Company, Theranos’ largest and highest grossing trade organization. It was a business that had dealings in nearly every major nation. Unfortunately for Alistair, this did not include the land he now found himself in.
A well-traveled individual, Alistair surmised that he was somewhere in the Reformed Seragorn Republic, a country with a myriad of reasons to despise a Claudian, especially one from the Magocracy. His two green-skin captors and the scorching landscape around him were enough to give his location away. At this realization, he began to quake with fear, for he knew that wherever this cart was headed, only a gruesome death at the hands of a bloodthirsty, savage Orc awaited him.
That afternoon, as the savannah sun pulverized Alistair’s ghost-like flesh, he looked nothing like the man who had nearly doubled the value of Blackwood Company in his eight years as Chief Operator. His normally pristine hair was matted, caked with mud, and laden with seaweed, and the usually clean-shaven portions of his face were now covered in rough stubble. The vibrant teal doublet he had been wearing was covered in cuts, blood, and discolored by ocean water. Alistair’s body was adorned with bruises and lacerations, including a large one that ran from his left shoulder all the way down to his elbow.
The cart then went over a bump in the road, causing Alistair’s back to smash against the floor of the bed. He wondered how in Octavarius he had ended up here, so far from any lands or people he was familiar with. Alistair’s head throbbed as he tried to recall details. Like a long forgotten song lyrics pulled from the mind’s depths shortly before sleep, a few scattered images came to his mind: a ship, a tumultuous sea, a cackling storm above, and finally, cashing into dark and harrowing waters below.
It all came back to him. He had been aboard The Regis, Blackwood Company’s newest galleon, on his way south to strike a business deal with the Troll Warbands of Jedor when the ship got caught up in a storm. Amidst jagged streams of lightning, furious rain, and chaotic winds, the captain, a Leonii by the name of Yandos-Eddes, tried desperately to keep The Regis afloat. The gale was relentless, however, and jettisoned Yandos from his position at the galleon’s wheel and onto the main deck. Yandos landed right on his head, crushing his lion-like face and spewing blood in all directions. Determined to protect his crew, Alistair came from out of his cabin, fought his way through blistering winds, and ascended the stairs to the vessel’s quarter deck. It had been some time since Alistair last steered a ship, but his time at the helm did not last long. A minute later, he too was sent flying. Tossed by the tempest like a ragdoll, Alistair was flung into the air and down into the dark sea below. Alistair likely would have died from the impact had he not managed to cast a magical shield around himself just before he hit the water.
From there, Alistair remembered trying to swim as best he could through the choppy current with the aid of a small raft he conjured after his shield had been broken by his fall from the ship. He managed to keep afloat until the storm subsided. At last, met with tranquil waters, the businessman passed out, for his body was weary from warfare with nature.
As the cart continued to drone through the blazing hot savannah, the businessman sat up as best he could, pointed a finger at the rusted chain that bound him, and attempted to cast a red magic spell to break it. To Alistair’s disappointment, his fingers came alight with a crimson glow for only a brief moment before it subsided. Furious, the businessman looked up to the sky and cursed. He was too weak to work any sort of magic.
Alistair’s failed spell and swearing drew the attention of one of his captors, a female Orc with light green skin and braided brown hair.
“Obu! He’s up!” she said to the other Orc, who had just struck the creature pulling the cart with a whip.
“Oh?” said Obu, the other Orc. He was plump and had a bald head. Both of Alistair’s captors, like all free Orcs, sported several tattoos, detailing important life moments, family histories, and clan allegiances. “Good afternoon, Claudian. Hope you’re ready to make us some coin.”
“We’ve never caught a mage before,” said the female Orc. “You’re going to make us rich.”
Identifying a Claudian mage was not difficult. Arcane abilities were hereditary, and every person with Mage-Blood bore bright azure ley lines on their left hands called Lerdas. To an uniformed person, they resembled a tattoo, but to a someone with knowledge of history and culture they were a sign of status and power.
“I don’t know what you want,” Alistair said, tugging on his chain. It was going nowhere – he was stuck for certain. “But I’m a wealthy man. I’ll give you as much coin as you want if you let me go.” The female Orc laughed, but Obu tilted his head.
“Hold on, Kurda. How much?”
“More than you’ll see in a lifetime.”
“Well, where is it?” Alistair couldn’t help but laugh at the Orc’s comment. What did he expect, for him to carry his financial assets with him everywhere he went?
“Back in Calanar. In a Claudian bank,” Alistair explained. Both Orcs chortled.
“At home, he says! That’s no good to us, pink-skin!”
“Please,” Alistair begged, his voice straining. “I have a daughter. My wife died in childbirth years ago. Don’t leave her without parents.”
“Only weak women die giving birth,” said Kurda, the female Orc. “Do you know how many Orcs have died in slavery to your people, Claudian?”
For the moment, Alistair did not know what to say. No sort of direct reply would help his case here. Orcs had been slaves to the Empire for over a thousand years, ever since their lands were conquered by The Ascendant, the Claudian God-Hero. Alistair himself owned countless slaves, both in his home of Soldrafor Manor and throughout the various levels of Blackwood Company. As he stared at Kurda, whom he noticed had a brand of the Claudian Eagle beneath her right eye – the official mark of slavery – he once again began to regret his quiet support of an institution that he always believed was cruel and inhumane anyway. Blackwood Company had always made use of slaves, from the time the organization was founded by his great grandfather. Why change that now, when the business was reaching new heights on an almost monthly basis?
“I’m a powerful and influential man. I –“ he said, trying to change the subject, when Obu interrupted him.
“Damn right you are,” Obu said. “You’re a mage. The Arkresh will surely have uses for you.”
Alistair shuddered with fear. Venomar Ahn’Vas, Arkresh of the Seragorn? The Dark Hand of Durham, the Butcher of Serrac, and the Enemy of the Empire? For a Claudian, there was no more terrifying a person in all Theranos.
“No, I beg of you,” Alistair pleaded. “Don’t take me to him, he’ll-“
“Torture you?” Kurda asked, grinning. “Ship your head back to your daughter?” From what Alistair heard about Venomar, such a thing was not beneath him.
“You’ll regret coming to our lands, Claudian. Worst mistake you ever made.”
“You can’t do this. It’ll start an international incident,” Alistair argued. This was likely true – the execution of the Chief Operator of the world’s largest trade company would certainly draw the ire of countless nations.
“Tell that to the Arkresh,” Obu replied.
“If he doesn’t impale you first!” Kurda added.
Desperate, Alistair tried to fire several more bursts of red magic at his chains, but each one failed. His time at sea had weakened him a great deal. Furious and frustrated, the businessman began tugging in vain at the rusted chain that bound him to the bed of the cart. This delighted Kurda, who mocked Alistair as he did so.
About half an hour later, Alistair had given up. He was curled up in a ball at the back of the cart reciting prayers to The Ascendant that he barely remembered when the cart pulled up in front of a large military camp with lines of brown tents stretching out into the distance. Judging from the number of green-skin soldiers working on their armor, sharpening their weapons, and testing their mettle in grappling contests, they were likely gearing up for an imminent conflict.
“Come on, whelp,” Obu said after stopping the cart.
Kurda stepped up onto the cart’s bed, removed Alistair’s chain from the mechanism that kept him bound to the vehicle, and tossed the pale Claudian onto the savannah floor. Alistair’s face hit the ground hard, shoving bits of golden dirt into his eyes, mouth, and noise. The Orc then grabbed hold of Alistair’s head. With a fistful of his midnight colored hair in one hand and his chain in the other, Kurda ushered the businessman into military camp.
Alistair walked slowly, his legs still not recovered from his time at sea. Resigned to his fate, he felt every bit like a man walking towards the hangman’s noose. He would make one final appeal before the Arkresh, but if this green-skin was anything like the stories, the businessman was certain he would be beheaded before he could even begin to beg.
In the center of the encampment Alistair and his captors came upon a large tent, far bigger than the others that they had passed thus far. Standing in front of the tent’s entrance was a massive, burley Orc with sunburst colored skin and a single braid that reached down past his rear end. He was dressed in an elegant, flowing green robe so flamboyant that even Alistair, as convinced of his impending doom as he was, could not help but appreciate the Orc’s taste in fashion. The businessman had never seen an Orc as large as this man, for he seemed to be a titan amongst his already naturally tall people.
“State your business. The Arkresh is rather busy at the moment,” the huge Orc said, his hands held behind his back. He spoke with a soft, sweet voice that belied his exterior. Somewhere deep within Alistair, an urge to make a quip about this juxtaposition stirred like a caged animal long neglected, but he couldn’t bring himself to say anything. A first, the businessman said to himself.
“We’ve got a Claudian Mage here,” Obu said, as Kurda tossed Alistair down in front of the massive Orc. Alistair fell to his knees, his head bowed low.
“Interesting,” the huge Orc said, kneeling down in front of Alistair. He grabbed the side of the businessman’s face in a surprisingly gentle manner and looked him over. “How did you come upon him?”
“Found him stranded on the Pillaged Coast,” Kurda explained. The massive Orc placed his hand beneath Alistair’s chin and turned the Claudian’s head upwards so that he could get a better look at his face.
“Has he told you his name? Perhaps where he hails from?”
“Does it matter?” she shouted. “He’s a mage! He’s got to be valuable to the Arkresh!”
“Who are you to assume what is valuable to our Arkresh?” said the large Orc as he stood up, his massive frame domineering over Alistair’s kneeling form. The gargantuan man’s high pitched voice carried with it not even the slightest hint of amusement, and he glared at Kurda like she had spoken some sort of awful heresy.
“Who are you to question us?” Obu added.
With a sigh, the massive Orc, apparently the Arkresh’s majordomo, stepped around Alistair to tower above Obu. The plump Orc looked at his huge counterpart like a terrified child starring up at a furious parent. Obu backed up, and the majordomo chuckled. Still on his knees, Alistair turned his head to watch the scene, an expression of amusement upon his face.
“Listen,” said Kurda, trying to get between the two men. “What if he knows something? Mages don’t just turn up every day.”
Venomar’s majordomo stepped back and nodded his head. Obu continued to back away.
“I suppose you’re right,” the majordomo said, turning back towards the tent and opening the flap that led inside. “Come. But if the Arkresh is too busy to speak to you, do not take offense.”
Alistair followed the majordomo into the tent’s interior, which was lined with a hide carpet and decorated with maps of Theros. There, he at last laid eyes upon Venomar Ahn’Vas himself.
He was a tall figure, not quite as tall as the majordomo, but still at least the height of the largest Claudian he had ever seen. The Arkresh had long dark hair shaped into dreadlocks that extended down past his shoulders and a pair of violet, sorrowful eyes that seemed heavy with the weight of countless troubles. His face was adorned with a thick, braided beard, his skin was light green in color, and he had a long, jagged scar that ran diagonally from his forehead to his right cheek. Venomar stood behind a long rectangular table with a large battle map in front of him, and he was dressed in blue battle armor with golden trim, lion-headed pauldrons, and a flowing red cape. After all this time, Alistair had finally seen the man who handed his Empire their most damning defeat in a thousand years. Though Venomar seemed calm and in thought at the moment, Alistair was certain that it would not be long before the Arkresh’s Orc savagery was revealed.
Standing nearby him, at opposite ends of the table, were two female Orcs. The one on Venomar’s right, who was positioned closest to him, was nearly as tall as the Arkresh himself and had reddish-brown skin, long black hair, and wore light leather armor. Her eyes were amber colored, and she looked at Alistair with disdain as Kurda ushered him into the tent. As for the other Orc, she had short blue hair, deep green skin, and calculating black eyes that seemed to perk up the moment the captured businessman entered her gaze. She wore a strapless yellow dress, and carried a quill and ledger in her arms.
“Arkresh, I apologize for the interruption, but you have two visitors,” the majordomo said. “They say they have brought you a Claudian mage.”
“Damn right we have,” Kurda said, pushing Alistair down to his knees. “Here’s the pink-skin.”
“Truly?” Venomar said, rising and walking around the table. “Where did you find him? Was he spying on our camp?”
“No. Found him washed up on the Pillaged Coast.” Obu explained. By now, Venomar was standing right in front of Alistair. He looked down at the businessman as he stroked his beard with his right hand.
“Iranok,” Venomar said, turning to his majordomo. “Give this man a chair. A mage should not kneel, but sit.” Venomar’s majordomo, apparently named Iranok, nodded, grabbed a chair from the edge of the tent, and placed it behind Alistair. He then used his large hands to help the businessman up off the hide rug and onto the seat. What in Octavarius was this? The calm before the torture? Some kind of foul ruse to trick him into a false sense of security?
“You’re not going to interrogate him?” said Orc woman who had been standing closest to the Arkresh. Venomar shook his head.
“I’d prefer to talk to him first, Bazra,” Venomar said. Bazra, the Orc in leather armor, groaned. She began tapping her fingers against the table while starring arrows through Alistair. “The man has clearly been through a great deal.”
“If he was found stranded on the coast, then he clearly is no spy,” said the Orc woman with the short blue hair. Bazra shot her a furious glance, but the blue-haired woman simply responded with a shrug of her shoulders.
“He’s still scum,” Kurda said from behind Alistair.
“Perhaps,” Venomar responded. “Are you certain he’s a mage? Does he have the lines?”
“He does. Look,” Obu said, grabbing Alistair’s left hand and presenting it to Venomar. The Arkresh nodded and took a step back towards the table.
“Then a mage he is,” Venomar said, leaning against the table’s edge. “What is your name, Claudian?” By now, Alistair was as confused as he was terrified. Why hadn’t this savage Orc started ripping off his fingernails for information, beaten him until he revealed the inner workings of the Magocracy, or outright truncated him already?
“Alistair Blackwood,” the businessman said, his grey eyes looking up at Venomar with wonder. He was curious if the Arkresh would recognize his name. Judging from the Orc’s raised eyebrows, he did indeed.
“Chief Operator of Blackwood Company,” said the blue haired Orc. “Brother of Letherious Blackwood, Senator on the Council of Twenty Three, and one of the Emperor’s closest associates.”
“Is that so, Meldah?” Venomar said, looking back at Meldah, the blue haired Orc, who was now furiously writing in her ledger. “I knew about his role in Blackwood Company, but I was unaware that his brother is a Senator.”
“A nice haul, huh?” Obu said.
“He could be quite valuable to us, Venomar,” Meldah said, as she continued to write.
“As leverage,” Bazra chimed in. “Imagine if we sent his head back to Calanar in a box. The Emperor and this Senator would lose their minds.” This was far more the type of attitude Alistair expected out of Venomar and his crew. At least his suspicions had not been entirely incorrect, he thought to himself. He shuddered, terrified that Venomar might take to Bazra’s suggestion and lob off his head at any moment.
“That would be foolish. We need to pump him for information” Meldah countered, looking at Bazra like a mother scoffing at a naïve request from her child. Which of these apparent advisors would the Arkresh listen to? Despite the kindness the Arkresh had shown him thus far, he refused to believe that the Claudian reports about him were a fallacy. Soon enough, his green-skin barbarism would take over.
“Do what you want with the pink-skin,” Obu said.
“But we didn’t bring him here for free,” Kurda added. Meldah shook her head. Bazra grunted. Venomar’s face broke out into a coy smile.
“Of course,” Venomar replied. “You did it for the good of our people, correct?” Alistair acknowledged the amusement in Venomar’s words, but was still too terrified to laugh openly.
“The flow of coin is good for our people!” Obu said, holding out an open hand.
“Are you trying to extort the Arkresh, worm?” Bazra asked.
“Not at all I-“
“Damn right we are,” Kurda said. “We did not bring him all this way to receive no payment. And if he’s this important, then we deserve more!” Bazra stepped forward, furious. Iranok, who had been standing against the wall of the tent to observe the scene, did so as well. Obu cowered, and Kurda raised her fists.
“Calm yourselves, my friends!” Venomar shouted, causing everyone to back down. “Both of you will be paid for your efforts. But I must ask. Did you find him in this state? Or did you wound him further?”
What an odd question to ask, Alistair thought. Why did that matter? Why did Venomar care? And why was the Arkresh acting so differently than he always imagined him to be? Were the stories about him lies?
“Found him just as he is,” Kurda said, finishing Obu’s statement. He looked at her perplexed. Apparently, he had intended to say something much different.
“Good,” Venomar said, nodding. He then turned. “Meldah. Give them three days’ worth of military wages, plus a bonus for bringing no further harm to Lord Blackwood.”
“Very well,” Meldah said, flipping to a page in her ledger. She then scribbled a few quick notes and looked up at the majordomo. “Iranok, could you take them to the paymaster? I’ll make a note of it in my records.” Iranok nodded and stepped outside, waiting for Alistair’s captors to join him.
“Thank you, Arkresh,” Obu said, his plump figure teeming with joy.
“Yes. That’s fine payment,” Kurda concurred.
“No, my friends. Thank you. What are your names?” Venomar approached the two Orcs, his hand extended to them.
“I am Kurda. This is Obu.” Both of them shook Venomar’s hand. Once they left, Alistair decided he would try to make his case.
“Obu and Kurda, you have done our people, and our republic, a great service today.” Venomar patted Obu on the back, and Alistair’s captors followed Iranok out of the tent to receive their payment.
As soon as Venomar turned around and walked back to the table, Alistair’s mouth sprung open; his pleas spilling out rapidly like angry bees flying forth from an awoken hive.
“Please spare me, Venomar,” he began. “I have a daughter, friends, a company to run. I’ll do whatever you ask, but by the Gods, let me leave here with my life.” Alistair had been begging so loudly that he did not hear Venomar tell him to stop.
“The Arkresh asked for silence!” Bazra shouted. Alistair stopped speaking at once, and looked up to see Venomar towering directly above him like a giant specter of death.
“Stick out your hands, Lord Blackwood,” the Arkresh said.
Alistair complied, holding out his hands, which still bore the chains Obu and Kurda had placed on him. He closed his eyes, certain that doom was now coming to him. Venomar had no weapon that Alistair could see, but that did not matter, for he heard that the Orc was a shaman, a type of magic user that could control the forces of nature. The cackling of fire greeted Alistair’s ears, and the businessman shuddered more than he had throughout this entire experience. By the Ascendant, he thought, he was about to be burned alive. The businessman could imagine no worse a death, and prepared himself for the impending inferno.
A minute later, when the businessman felt no pain, and heard nothing other than the sound of melting chains, he opened his eyes. Venomar was leaning back against the table, a smile on his face.
“Much better now, isn’t it?” Alistair looked down at his hands. The chains that bound him had been disintegrated by Venomar’s magic, leaving only the cuffs around Alistair’s wrists behind.
“Why?” Alistair asked. He was still shaking, but now more out of confusion than fear. Behind the Arkresh, Meldah was shaking her head. She sighed, and tossed her ledger down on the table.
“Yes, Venomar. Why?” Bazra asked with disgust. She looked at Venomar as though she wished to beat him senseless.
“Because he is very valuable to us,” Venomar said. At that moment, Iranok walked back into the tent. “But not like this. Iranok, give this man fresh clothes, a meal, and allow him to bathe and shave.” Perplexed as he was already, Alistair was now shocked. Generosity? From an Orc? He felt as though he had entered some sort of alternate universe. What reason did the Arkresh have to treat him this way?
“Venomar, are you really doing this?” Meldah inquired.
“I am indeed, Meldah. I want to show Lord Blackwood what Seragorn hospitality truly is.”
Hours later, as the sun began to descend, turning the sky to a lilac color, Alistair returned to Venomar’s tent dressed in an oversized robe. Upon entering the tent, Iranok took a spot at the entrance, leaving Alistair by himself. Inside, the table that Venomar had been standing over earlier had been moved against the wall. In its place was a smaller one decorated with a bottle of rum, a pair of drinking glasses, and two decks of Quippa cards. The Arkresh sat at one end, pouring himself a drink.
“Alistair,” the Arkresh said, raising his glass. “Come, have a seat.”
“Alright,” the businessman replied, as he awkwardly trotted over to the chair across from Venomar and sat down. He was about to have a drink, converse, and play a few games of Quippa with his Empire’s most hated nemesis. If the Emperor or any other member of the Magocracy found out about this, he would surely be hanged at once. Even his brother Letherious would turn him in for this treason. Especially his brother Letherious.
“Care for a drink?”
“What do you have?”
“Kholdros Spiced Rum. A favorite of mine. It’s a good bit stronger than your Claudian wine, but I think you’ll enjoy it.”
“I’ve had it before,” Alistair said. “On one of my trips to Jedor. Shared a bottle of it with a Leonii Matron.” Venomar nodded, and began pouring Alistair a glass. He handed it to him, and the businessman took several sips of it.
“Ah, good. I had forgotten that you were so well traveled. Before I led this rebellion, my clan and I traveled the world over, performing all sorts of odd tasks. We’ll have to share stories sometime.”
“Sure,” Alistair said, before sipping some more rum.
Venomar had indeed shown him kindness, but up until now, the businessman just assumed he was simply respecting the noble birth of his captive. It seemed the Arkresh truly wanted to converse with Alistair. How bizarre for an Orc. Over the years, Alistair had a few decent talks with his slaves, but no true conversations. Most of those little chats took place on holidays, when Alistair allowed them to drink wine, something that was strictly against Imperial law. An Orc that genuinely wished to have an open dialogue with a Claudian? It sounded like the beginning of an Elven comedy.
“Do you play Quippa?” Venomar picked up the deck of cards next to him and held it in front of Alistair.
“Who doesn’t?” Alistair responded. Venomar chuckled.
“That’s what I hoped to hear!” the Arkresh said, placing his deck back down on the table. “Been too long since I had someone new to play. Would you be willing to use my Archaeus deck? I left my others at home. Ela’Hae is my main.”
“Funny,” Alistair said, grinning. “Ela’Hae is also my main.”
“Seems we have more in common than either of us expected, Alistair,” Venomar passed the Ela’Hae deck over to Alistair and took the Archaeus deck for himself. A minute or so later, both men had shuffled their decks and drawn their customary seven cards when Alistair interrupted their game with a question that had been on his mind for some time now.
“Venomar,” Alistair said, after finishing his glass of rum. He then put his hands down on the table. The businessman was in no mood for games. “Why the hell are you doing this? Why are you treating me this way, and not as your advisors suggested?”
“Is it not clear, Alistair?” Venomar said, folding up his hand and placing it next to his deck. “You do not deserve to be tortured or executed for being a Claudian any more than I deserved to be enslaved for being a Seragorn.”
In an instant, Alistair was overwhelmed with regret. Here he was, receiving unparalleled kindness from an Orc, while back home, his company was engaging in an institution that, no matter what one’s opinion on the war between Claudians and Orcs, was a gross injustice. Even if he had never agreed with slavery, by keeping Orcs in bondage and profiting from their pain, he was benefitting from a tradition of racism. Alistair could see that clearly now. The Claudians had been wrong about what type of person Venomar was, and they had been wrong for one thousand years about slavery as well.
“You call yourself a Seragorn,” Alistair said. Though overwhelmed with disgust with himself, he had a question for the Arkresh first. “But why do I know your people as Orcs?”
“Seragorn is the true name of our people. The one given to us by Nez’Gar and Ignaara in ancient times. ‘Orc’ is a word adopted by you Claudians. Before the time of slavery, it meant “the dirt that clings to my boots after a sudden storm,” Venomar explained. He then poured himself a new glass of rum, and grabbed Alistair’s cup to do the same. All this time, he had no idea that he was referring to the people he now knew as Seragorn in such an insulting fashion. Right then, he resolved never to call a green-skin an Orc ever again.
“Good to know,” Alistair said, before taking a long drink. “I’m ashamed.”
“Do not blame yourself, Alistair,” Venomar said. “It takes time to change a culture. A mindset. A people. Whether about word choice, or a vile custom such a slavery.” Venomar took a drink from his glass and stared at Alistair with his sorrowful violet eyes. The Arkresh knew, the businessman told himself. He lowered his head and began looking over his Quippa cards.
“How many slaves do you have?” Venomar asked, breaking the silence and Alistair’s quiet contemplation.
“Too many,” the businessman replied.
“A single slave is too many,” Venomar retorted.
“I know,” Alistair said lowly, looking down at his feet. “So I’ll ask again. Why are you sparing me?” Venomar finished his drink, stood up, and began to pace the length of the tent. Alistair watched his counterpart carefully. Had he offended the Arkresh? He hoped not, but he was unsure what the man was getting at with this line of questioning.
“I could reclaim the rest of the Seragorn homeland from your people,” Venomar began, referring to the northern portion of Avarad, which still belonged to the Claudians. “Incite slave rebellions throughout the Empire, and even defeat the Emperor himself in single combat. Each of those accomplishments would surely better the lives of my people. But none of that would change the hatred and bigotry that has been burned into the minds of Claudians who have grown up knowing nothing of my people but the propaganda of Seragorn savagery and simple mindedness.” Alistair nodded in agreement. This Seragorn was a smart man – perhaps the wisest he had ever met. Venomar grabbed his empty glass and began to pour some fresh rum into it.
“As Arkresh, it is my duty to confront the greatest threats to my people and eliminate them,” he went on. “Someday, I will liberate every slave and take back North Avarad by force or by treaty. I swear it. But doing so would be useless without a true change of beliefs in your people.”
“So this is why you’ve sparred me?” Alistair raised his head, his grey eyes meeting the Arkresh’s. “To serve as your propaganda tool?” Venomar shook his head.
“I let you live because you are a civilian. Not a soldier, nor a spy. But I am letting you go so that you may begin to help me end the wretched tendencies that have beset Theranos ever since the Gods fought their petty wars over this world eons ago,” Venomar explained. He then took a seat, and looked at Alistair with an expression full of hope.
“Why me?” Alistair asked, after finishing his own drink. Venomar quickly snatched up the businessman’s glass and began to pour him another one.
“You ended up at my doorstep, and I’ve shown you hospitality,” Venomar began. “‘One who does nothing for those who show him kindness shall someday awaken to find their gold turned to dust and their loved ones reduced to ash.’”
“You’d make a decent businessman, Venomar,” Alistair leaned back in his chair, rum in one hand, his Quippa cards in the other. “What would you have me do?”
“I believe you already know what I would suggest,” Venomar said, taking his seat and picking up the seven Quippa cards he had drawn at the start of the game.
“Deal,” Alistair said, before downing some more rum and leaning forward. As soon as he returned to Calanar, Alistar knew precisely what he would do to thank Venomar for his graciousness. The fact that he had not done it already, long before he ever met the Arkresh, brought him great shame. But as the man himself had implied, there was always time for change.
“Good,” Venomar said, surveying his cards. “Now, how about a game? You may go first.”
Venomar and Alistair stayed up late that night, drinking and playing cards until rays of morning sunlight poked through the tent’s entrance. Meldah woke Alistair up later that afternoon. As he pulled himself out of the makeshift bed Venomar made for him, he had a whole different kind of throbbing in his head than the sort he had experienced the day before.
Later, Iranok and a reluctant Bazra escorted the businessman to the port of Alter’Fehras, where he hopped aboard a Troll trade ship and traveled to Patamos, Theranos’ largest and most populous city. Part of the Theraan Free States, Patamos was neutral ground, and thus a major hub for the Blackwood Trade Company. From there, he was able to find passage back home to main lands of the Claudian Empire.
During his journey home, Alistair began planning for what was to come. By releasing his slaves, he would surely be viewed as a traitor in the eyes of the Magocracy, including his brother Letherious, who was known to be one of the most traditional Senators on the Council of Twenty Three. While they had never been particularly close, it still pained Alistair to know that his politics would soon forever separate him from his sibling. And if his own family were to ostracize him, what sort of action would the other Mage-Bloods take? Men had been assassinated for far less than what he was about to do; Alistair would need to be prepared for an attempt on his life. Soldrafor Manor would require increased security. He sent an urgent missive to the Zehren Tusks, a Rhinox mercenary group with whom he had worked in the past, offering them an exclusive contract to provide him with additional protection for the foreseeable future.
When he at last returned to Soldrafor Manor, he was greeted by his daughter, Olivia, who was home on holiday from the Hibernos Mage’s Academy. Though he was overjoyed to see her, he had a matter of business to attend to before he could properly celebrate his safe return.
“Olivia, my dear. Summon all of our Manor slaves, and prepare letters to be sent to every Blackwood Company Quartermaster. I’ve an announcement to make.”
As he added his signature to the letters, the businessman felt confident that his newfound mission would bring great change to Theranos. No matter what difficulties might arise, he could at least take solace in that. These were but the very first, initial steps forward.
Thomas J. Lauser (TJ to his friends and family) is a writer and special education teacher from Wallingford, Pennsylvania. “Business of Change,” is his first published story, and he is currently working on several more short stories and a novel. His writing blog is www.adreamdeferredband.