When last we left off, Shangor found himself on an out of control stallion, without a ride skill. By some miracle, Shangor managed to keep on the horse and avoid running down an old man. However, Shangor was far from out of the woods yet. From out of nowhere, Katrina rode up, grabbed the reins of Cloud and in a brilliant display of horsewomanship, brought the horse back under control before anyone was hurt and Shangor was humiliated. All of the Valk warriors began to look at Katrina was a new found respect and possibly some lust too.
Jirro, the Valk general that gifted Cloud to Shangor apologized to Shangor. “I am very sorry, noble Shah. I thought this horse was fully broken, but it is not so. Those responsible for this terrible oversight will be punished, I can assure you.”Despite his apology, most of the group realizes that Jirro holds no love for Shangor, who he believes to be Ulesir, Shah of Shan’Ammar. The party also notices that Ruman Gask, the one eyed warrior that brought out the horse is nowhere to be seen.
Eventually, the “royal” group arrives at the palace where they are greeted by Tokarim Shah. The old warrior seems rather neutral towards his future son in law but he is very impressed by what he has heard about Katrina. After a formal greeting, the “royal” group enters the palace.
While Tokarim and Marduk are discussing the details of the wedding, the royal entourage is placed in the garden of lemons where finally, Shangor will meet his “bride”. She is polite and distant but Shangor attempts to impress her with his poetry (which turns out not to be completely terrible this time around) and his singing, which didn’t go so well. The princess remains polite and formal and eventually leaves so the meeting wasn’t a disaster.
There are four days until the wedding and Shangor remains busy and manages not to disgrace himself at any of the social functions including the Presentation of the Wedding Gifts, the Courtly Hunt, the Grand Ball and, most importantly, Shangor manages to stay awake through endless discussions on political matters.
During this time, Sylph manages to hear several rumors: Jirro is in love with his cousin Princess Karmella (no one was surprised to hear that), Ruman Gask is Jirro’s best friend. He saved Jirro’s life during an ambush by the Mountain tribes a year ago. He isn’t a Valk or a man of Teluk’Ammar and very few things are known about his past, Jirro has always wanted Tokarim Shah’s crown. He’ll do anything to have it and Jirro’s cavalrymen are more faithful to the Maquen than to their Shah. In case of a power struggle, they’ll be on Jirro’s side. To perhaps improve Jirro’s mood, Sylph attempts to seduce him but instead, they end up crying together over Jirro losing his true love to an arranged marriage.
A day before the wedding, a lavish party is thrown. The feast organized for the future husband is lavish: more than a hundred of people are attending and delicious dishes keep coming out of the kitchens. It is a great party, but only a mere shadow of what will happen tomorrow, for the actual wedding. Celebrations like this tend to become quite rowdy and embarrassing and this is why it is attended by men only. However, this time tradition is broken as Hawk, Sylph and Katrina are all present. Dancers, acrobats, and storytellers entertain the guests, while alcohol flows abundantly. In particular, the groom’s cup is constantly being refilled with Balait, a type of liquor made with horse milk. To respect the Valk tradition, he must get drunk on Balait so that tomorrow night, if it pleases the gods, he’ll beget a son who’ll have horse blood in his veins. Although Tokarim is hosting, a server arrives and whispers something in his ear. Tokarim apologizes and leaves, insisting that the banquet continue.
One of Jirro’s warriors proposes a toast. "To the prudence of a man who has women guarding him!” This is a reference to the Shah’s Amazon guards. This toast is met with much laughter. Shangor responds with a drunken and sprawling toast that offends no one. Another of Jirro’s warriors makes a second toast: “To princess Karmella who rides like a man, and to a man who will never be able to ride like a woman”. Marduk informs that Shangor that is a terrible insult. To the Valk, a man who cannot ride is not a man at all. Shangor gets up and tries to retort but before he can finish his rambling toast, Jirro stands up and says ”This foreign sheep, dressed in silk and satin, is not a man. I shall not let our princess be given to one who cannot even wield a sword.” Hawk jumps up and declares that if Jirro wants to fight Shangor, he will have to face her first. Jirro uses this as further proof that the Shah is not worthy to marry the princess. “Any man that has to hide behind his body guard, a woman no less, is no man at all. So, you say you are a man? I say you and your lackeys are nothing more than stray dogs, not deserving to lick the piss of my horse! If you want to prove me wrong, here and now, play with us, play the Dance of Snakes like the men of Teluk’Ammar do” Shangor and Sul’khaz accept the challenge.
Jirro claps his hands and servants are hastily sent to find what is needed, while the tables are cleared away to make room for the contenders. The servants come back bringing twelve closed baskets. Judging by their worried faces, the content of these baskets must be dangerous. An old man, with strange tattoos on his naked chest, advances with a sort of long flute in his hands. “A snake charmer!” Marduk whispers. The baskets are placed so as to form a sort of circle around the improvised arena. “The rules of the dance are so simple, even a puny dog like you can understand them.” Jirro says. “You and your lackey fight against me and my men in the circle, while the charmer plays. His music will awake the snakes in the baskets. When the music ends, the snakes will be free, and they’ll attack the dancers. Pray to your gods before entering the Circle, I don’t think you’ll come out alive!”
Shangor and Sul’khaz enter the arena bare-chested. Given the choice between daggers and swords, they chose swords. Sul’khaz takes one his blades and Hawk loans Shangor her Gorgon Blade. Jirro and one his trusted swords enters the arena, directly facing the Sul’khaz and Shangor. The Dance of the Snakes begins.
Almost immediately, the music ends abruptly and the snakes are free to act. They close in quickly on the combatants.
|The fight begins|
|The enemies close|
|The snakes converge|
|What a mess....|
Sul’khaz makes short work of Jirro’s warrior and grabs a snake by the head. Jirro and Shangor both exchange insults and blows. Sylph regrets that Katrina does not have her bow since she would like to see BOTH Shangor and Jirro shot. Sul’khaz is bitten two or three times by snakes and becomes very tired. Shangor strikes a deadly blow on Jirro. He is about to finish him off when Tokarim returns. He immediately flies into a rage.
“What is happening here?” He thunders. Lord Tokarim has returned and orders this folly to stop. Anger reddens his face, especially when he is told exactly what has happened. The Shah apologizes to his future son-in-law and publicly puts his nephew to shame: “If you were not blood of my blood, now I’d drag you behind my horse around all the city, stupid fool! You have shamed us all! I know why you did it! Karmella and my throne will never be yours! You feel like letting off some steam, don’t you? Take your followers to the old Tenebar fort on the western border, and start renovations so that we will no longer fear the Mountain tribes’ attacks from that direction. I want you in the saddle this very night. And don’t come back until explicitly summoned!” Under Tokarim’s cold gaze, Jirro and his men leave the palace at once, while the court watches in shock. After Jirro’s departure and after Sylph has calmed him down, Tokarim smiles again and has some news for the court: “A very important person arrived here a short while ago. He is a personal envoy of King Eku of Ekul. The King, who is a friend of our city, has shown us his favor by sending this holy man to celebrate the wedding.” The king’s envoy comes in. He is peculiar fellow: an old, plump Jademan monk, dressed in plain robes, with a long, thin beard. He smiles and bows in front of the court. The new arrival is named Philosopher Jimpah. Marduk informs the royal party that it is indeed a great honor to have such a renowned philosopher and teacher at the wedding. With Jirro banished, the feast continues.
The wedding ceremony is far from uncomplicated. The preparations start early in the morning: the kitchens work at full capacity and both the bride and the groom must go through lengthy rituals, attended only by their closest servants: baths in horse milk, purification rites, dressing ceremonies, and so on. This wedding includes traditions both of Valk and Ekul religion. In particular, the Princess’s apartments are closely watched as no man can see her before the ceremony.
Finally, everything is ready and the solemn wedding is held at midday in the main hall of Tokarim’s Palace, in front of the whole court. Jimpah kindly entertains the groom while he waits for the bride in front of the altar: “Are you worried, my Lord?” he asks with an earnest smile. Shangor, his feeling as if a thousand demons were banging hammers in his head, just groans.
Finally the bride arrives. She is dressed and veiled in the most beautiful garments: gold, silver, ivory and jeweled embroidery make her dress shimmer, and she is the very image of purity and beauty. She walks in slowly, escorted by a number of handmaidens throwing flowers in front of her, while the sound of cymbals marks her step. Her blue eyes are hypnotizing behind the veil and she stares at Ulesir with intensity.
The ceremony is short and very sober. The union is celebrated in the name of all the gods and for the Enlightenment of the couple and everyone present.“Now you can remove the veil from the bride” Jimpah says. You finally lift the veil over Karmella’s face, only to discover that…the girl isn’t Karmella but Serah, one of her two trusted handmaidens! (No one was surprised by this either) Everyone gasps. “By all the demons of my ancestors!” Tokarim swears so loud that his words thunder across the astonished hall. In a surge of rage, he draws his sword to cut off the girl’s head on the spot. Shangor, Sylph, Hawk and Jimpah all step forward to prevent this.
Serah throws herself at the Shah’s feet and confesses:” Oh my lord! I did it because your daughter, whom I love so dearly, ordered me to. Karmella fled last night. Ruman Gask, Jirro’s best friend, came before dawn to take her to Jirro. Karmella resisted for a while then she gave in. She always wanted to marry him and seeing no other way to do it, accepted Ruman’s plan. Karmella asked me to impersonate her during the wedding, to buy her some time. I beg you, don’t kill me! Everything I did I did for Karmella!”
Tokarim cursed and swore like a true Valk warrior: “In the name of all that is good and evil, I’ll have the head of my nephew on a pike and my stubborn daughter married, in chains if need be! Generals! Gather the army! We must be ready to leave in two hours!” Realizing what they must do, Shangor and his entourage volunteer to join the party to kill Jirro and bring Princes Karmella home to be wed.
Next time, the Battle of Tenebar Fort