On the porch of his manse Serapis Anhurtides, Prince of the Marches, sat watching his cattle as the drovers herded them past, all while Bes Sekhmetides regaled him with tales of woe.
"...really don't know what else I can do," muttered Bes, fanning himself desperately, glancing at his pet gryphon, which was quite joyously munching on a bone. "It feels as though I am carrying the whole of the state on my shoulders, and no one is acknowledging it. As bad as the situation was months ago, when I mentioned it in court, it's gotten worse now. Entire towns have vanished, Serapis! It's either the Ghouls or the drought, or both put together, but my riders go through a land, and find the towns that used to be there deserted, the buildings falling apart--if they are even still standing. Refugees flood the cities that remain, but food grows scarcer... And the elephants... Oh, Serapis, we find their corpses by the hundreds..."
The Prince of the Marches glanced at his guest, a cynical smile on his face. "Well, that takes care of your food problems then."
"No, they're so rotted that even a gryphon won't tou--" Lord Bes blinked. "Oh. You were joking, weren't you?" He coughed. "Because you see, I've actually considered it. That's how bad things have gotten." The little Southern noble sighed. "And these other rumors... oh, Serapis, they're terrifying. The greatest slave revolt yet, they say. Plantations on fire for miles. An army they say, moves through the region, unloosing death and havoc in its wake..."
"Rumors," said Serapis with a shrug. "Who has not heard such madness. I've been claimed slain a dozen times, over the years. And yet here I stand. Pay them no heed, these wild imaginings--that is my advice."
"Easy for you to say, here," replied Bes. "In this quiet place, far from the war, and far from the damn troubles, and far from court..." The Lord Sekhmetides shuddered. "I swear to you, that place grows more... uncanny with each passing year..."
Serapis nodded. "That I will agree with." He turned his head as a little set of footsteps tottered around the corner. A small child with great blue eyes stared at him, plaintively.
"Da-da! Nuut being mean!" she pleaded.
"Well, why don't you sit here, Ma'at," said the Prince of the Marches, "and you can tell daddy all about it, and he'll make it all better."
His youngest daughter gave an eager nod and then darted up onto her father's great chair, resting her head against his side. "Well," she began, "we's was playing, but she took all the dolls and she wouldn't give them back, not even when I usked, and I usked real hard da-da, but she wouldn't, she just wouldn't, and then she threw one at me..."
Ma'at Anhurtides' tale of childhood injustice was ended by the approach of a man on a horse, his clothing ragged, his expression desperate. "Prince... Serap... is..." he gasped as approached the manse, staring at Bes.
The more casually dressed Prince of the Marches stood up. "I am the man you seek."
The man turned in surprise. "I... it's a catastrophe, Your Highness. The Shining Horde of Pompeius are dead! All dead! Slaughtered at Brightcobbles!"
Serapis blinked. "You... you can't be serious..." He glanced around desperately. "How is that even possible? The League didn't have the forces..."
"The Army of Cthonique!" said the man, quietly. "They destroyed them! To a man! Cut through them like they were just... wheat! Golden wheat!" He shuddered.
"The.. what are you talking about?" snapped Serapis.
"The slave revolt I was mentioning," muttered Bes. "The one you insisted I was exaggerating."
Serapis gave his cousin a chiding glance. "They have wiped out a the Shining Horde?"
"Oh, more than that, sir," muttered the messenger. "They have liberated White Pine... They... the eight cities which defected from the Northern League after Bitterleaves have rejoined it. So have fifteen of the original members of the League of Prosperity... five of the members of the White Pine Confederation... And... I mentioned White Pine..." Serapis felt his mouth tightening. "I--you must return to the battlefield, oh Prince! Do your duty to your nation! The King of Kings has need of you!"
"Da-da? Why are your eyes going watery?" asked Ma'at.
"No reason, darling," he said quietly.