King Joseph rode his horse along the banks of the river, flanked by his faithful General Beatrice and a dozen bodyguards. Sheltered from the blazing sun under a white linen hood, he nonetheless licked sweat from his upper lip and pushed his gold-rimmed glasses up on his nose as they slid down.
He looked sidelong at the General and saw that she appeared to be in no discomfort, perched straight-backed upon her horse with her hands clasped on the pommel. A curl of golden blonde hair spilled out from under her hood and over one shoulder. She was wearing a thick pair of tinted goggles under that hood.
King Joseph had been squinting so hard and for so long that his face hurt. He said, “I need a pair of those. I thought I wouldn’t, but I do.”
General Beatrice had told him so, the wild deserts being what they were. But she was graceful in being proven correct. “Of course, my King. We can have some made that fit over your spectacles, my King.”
King Joseph raised an eyebrow at her. “You can call me Joseph, you know. Or Joe; my friends call me Joe.”
She seemed to find the thought distasteful. Her mouth was set in a firm line. “King Dawod was insistent on tradition, my King. I find it difficult to adjust…”
“Oh, yeah, no problem,” said King Joseph. “This is new to me, too. But I wanna bring a more informal touch to the position. That’s part of the platform I ran on, ya know.”
She hesitated. “I know. Yes, my King.”
“It resonates with the young people,” he went on.
“Yes, my King.”
They rode on in uncomfortable silence for a while. He’d only been King for a week and he was running up against issues like this all the time. Especially from those who’d, like General Beatrice, served the crown their whole lives. Oh well, he thought, they’ll get used to me. I never pretended to be anything but this, and it got me elected. I can’t very well back down now.
“Our escort, my King,” Beatrice said, lifting a gloved hand to point along the road ahead of them.
A dozen riders on identical black horses, bearing the standards of Rook. Black flags with bare white writing under a crucifix. The lead rider twitched his reigns to urge his horse forwards, and as he bowed his head, his horse did the same.
“The riders of Rook welcome King Joseph to these lands and bestow the blessing of God upon him.”
“Thanks,” said Joseph.
Almost to herself, Beatrice muttered, “We should’ve brought more bodyguards.”
The riders led them upon a scenic route up to the walled city, following the bends of the river for a ways, and then crossing over a stone bridge into the farmlands. Endless tracts of tilled earth, farmers bent upon it picking corn and rice, looking up at the travelers and lifting their scarves, wiping sweat from their eyes. The fields stretched in a patchwork of orange and brown as far as the eye could see, surrounding the great walled city, Rook. The breadbasket of an Empire. It was clear to King Joseph that his opposite number intended to show off, and he determined not to let that colour his judgement before he’d even met the other King.
Still, it made him think of his own city. Ride up to the gates of Solon and it all looks rather sparse. Just some high walls nestled against a mountain. The rivers make all the difference, Joseph thought. Rook was nestled in the crook of two of the biggest rivers in the known world. More water to irrigate their fields. As much as Beatrice and other hawks from Solon were wary of the Rookish and their ways (rightly so), they needed this trade. This food. Perhaps the King of Rook was trying to hammer that point home by making them take this route.
“That’s a lot of rice,” he said to General Beatrice.
“Yes, my King.”
The riders led them into the largest city in the world. Under the biggest stone archway Joseph had ever seen. Glancing sideways as he entered, he estimated the walls were at least thirty paces wide. He craned his neck back as they passed into the open again, squinting against the sun.
“I didn’t know it was possible to stack brick that high,” said King Joseph lightly. Beatrice didn’t answer. His folksy naiveté was probably embarrassing her.
It was clear they had entered through the richest part of town. The streets were well made and wide, the people well dressed. Not many of them looked at King Joseph and his retinue, still dusty from the road and rather bland-looking anyway. When they did look, it was to do a double-take at the curl of blonde hair hanging from within Beatrice’s hood.
The houses were tall and he could see through to interior courtyards here and there. Lots of green, too, more than he was used to seeing. Trees planted here and there along the side of the road. The odd garden in a window-box. Where were they getting their wood from? Their stone? There wasn’t much in this country but mud and reeds.
They crossed a wide stone bridge to a central keep. On the right, he saw a ziggurat with steps vaulting up. Before them was the palace where he could only assume he was to meet his fellow, the King of Rook. They entered and met lots more of the black-clad guardsmen, and were bidden to dismount their horses. They proceeded on foot, up what King Joseph decided was the tallest staircase he had ever climbed.
At the top, huffing and sweating, he was led through massive wooden doors. They must have cost a fortune, he thought. Inside the palace were yet more stairs, and yet more doors, and then he was in a vast dark room lit by braziers.
It was much darker in here. He blinked around in confusion for a moment before a voice boomed out with laughter.
“He looks a bookish type!”
The voice came from directly before him. At the top of a narrow set of steps, at the back end of the hall, from a huge man seated in a huge throne. The proclamation was followed by some polite laughter from all about, and Joseph scanned the room. There were other people in the room, to the sides, between the thick columns. It looked like he had interrupted a party.
King Joseph’s instinct was to turn and look behind him as if the King of Rook had been addressing someone else, but he immediately regretted that decision as more laughter echoed through the room.
“Well, he may approach. By all means, I insist he approach!” Joseph was not sure if the King of Rook was addressing the people in the room, or if that was just how he spoke.
He had just taken a step forward when the other King spoke again. “Halt!”
The King of Rook had leaned far forward in his chair and was squinting at Joseph, elbows on knees. He was either hugely fat or very muscular, and had a black beard. His hair was obscured under a gigantic golden crown. He was definitely speaking to Joseph now.
Joseph looked sidelong at General Beatrice. She had taken her hood down, revealing her long blonde hair and tanned skin. Joseph had foolishly assumed she would know not to do this.
“While I think she is beautiful,” said the King of Rook, “such displays are only appropriate for a more intimate setting. I must ask that she cover her hair, and, at the minimum, her face starting just at her nose. Like so.” He held up his hand to his face.
The murmuring that had begun died away as Beatrice put her hood back up and pulled her scarf over her nose with only the barest scoff that Joseph hoped only he had heard. She had done that on purpose, he thought. He had thought they might get away with a more relaxed dress code if she kept her hood up. He had assumed she would as she knew their hosts better than he did.
Maybe that was why she hadn’t.
In either case, it was high time he took a more active role in the situation.
“My apologies, King Galbert,” Joseph said. “Your ways are foreign to us.”
His voice sounded small in the huge chamber. He began walking the length of the hallway, feeling eyes upon him.
He spoke as he walked. “I am Joseph Sweet, King of Solon. This is my first state visit. However, I have long been proud of the friendship between our two kingdoms. And as a token of that long friendship, I brought a gift with me.”
“A gift, King Joseph?” King Galbert sat back, amused.
“Indeed.” He approached the throne, turned to Beatrice and she handed him the package she had been carrying in her satchel. Flat and heavy. Joseph unwrapped the linen coverings and took the item within in his hands.
Cool to the touch. A smooth, flat shape that fit just so between his two hands, like a huge river-stone eroded for thousands of years. But this could be no stone. Design had shaped it. A grey rectangle with rounded corners. A seam along the edge, where it opened, as well as a few strange holes and indentations. Four shallow bumps evenly spaced on the bottom, and on the top, a white emblem whose origin he did not know.
King Galbert’s eyes widened and he sat forward. “An artifact.”
“Yes.” Joseph cradled it and, with a slight deferential bow of his head, handed the artifact to the other King.
Galbert took it with a sigh, running his hand over the top in amazement. “What material is this?”
“I’ve no idea. Whatever it is, it doesn’t exist anymore.”
“I’ve never seen one like this in…in remotely this condition. It’s an excellent specimen. The exterior is…is…it’s…”
“Perfect,” Joseph supplied.
“Yes. It’s perfect. One wonders how you acquired it.” Galbert cocked his head at Joseph, who didn’t trust himself to speak.
Galbert set the artifact on his lap, and with exquisite gentleness pried open the lid to look at the interior. A black square. Tiles with markings upon them.
Galbert sighed and stood up with the artifact open in his palms. “And yet, like all artifacts of the past, it is a box with nothing inside it. A mystery with no solution. Perhaps…” He raised an eyebrow at Joseph for a long moment until the air became almost tense. Then he laughed and gingerly closed the artifact, and handed it off to one of his servants. “But that conversation is for after we’ve both had a drink.”
He approached and gripped King Joseph by the shoulder. “Come. I’ve a gift for you as well.”