Mordion hadn't realized how grim his expression had become until the House of Interest Head abandoned all pretense at dignity and fled the conference hall.
Mordion grimaced -- five years of rehabilitating the House of Balance had left him impatient with the corrupt machinations some of the Houses still tried to employ. Even after dismantling the intricate webs of bribery, there were still unpleasantly lingering aftertastes.
The House of Interest was one of the bitter nuisances that persisted even after the reorganization of the House of Balance. The House of Interest had been intimately entwined with the former Reigners; they had even finangled a way for one of them to become Reigner Two prior to Orm’s defeat. So when their Head came over, hinting that they’d be happy to contribute some money towards the House of Balance if only Mordion might consider one of them as a replacement for that outsider Reigner Fitela, it was all Mordion could do to contain his anger. Mordion’s curt refusal bordered on rude.
You could have been a bit more tactful, the Girl Child chided him in his head. Vierran was sometimes annoyingly astute.
Mordion sighed. Yes, I could have.
There was an exasperated pause where Vierran seemed to be exercising immense restraint holding back further critique.
Why don't you take a break and come help me with the wedding? The Prisoner quickly broke in before the conversation got too heated.
Mordion shuddered, then guiltily tried his best not transmit his reaction. Next to dealing with the members of corrupt Houses, Martellian and Siri's wedding was his second most dreaded task. However, there was no helping it; he was First Reigner for another 5 years and felt responsible for his fellow Reigners’ happiness. If that involved helping with invitations or suggesting possible honeymoons, it was the least he could do. After all, Siri had almost single-handedly arranged his and Vierran's wedding when they'd been busy reforming the House of Balance.
Mordion walked as slowly as his lounging steps allowed to the House of Guaranty, which had been turned into the command center for Siri's wedding planning. Right before he reached the portal entryway, an almost miraculously timed message arrived from Runcorn.
“Hello John,” Mordion greeted the stocky man on the other end. “I hope all is well.”
Controller John looked unusually flustered. “As a matter of fact, things are not going well. Or rather, things are generally going well, but there’s a problem. Just a minor one really. More of a special interest problem seeing as you are particularly invested in Banners Wood.”
Mordion's gaze sharpened. “What's happened?”
“Well,” the Controller sighed, “seems like some fool company thought they had found flint in Banners Wood, and sent a scouting company to assess the lands for mining. Well, I don’t need to tell you how that ended up; you know how the woods are in that area. The great Forest didn't take kindly to the idea of mining, which the company found out when everyone they sent in vanished.
“Now, I've put a stop to the idea of mining in Banners Wood,” John reassured Mordion, “but the people are still lost and there's no one on Earth capable of getting them out.”
Mordion frowned. “You've tried sending in people from Rayner Hexwood security?”
“Of course; we sent a couple groups of them in, but they all disappeared as well. To tell you the truth, I was about to give up, but remembered how the Woods took a liking to you. I’m thinking the Woods might make an exception for you.” John looked at Mordion expectantly.
Mordion nodded slowly, “I supposed that makes sense. I could be there in a couple days and take a look.”
Controller John looked relieved. “That would be mightily helpful." He sighed, before continuing gruffly, "Who knows, this might all be futile. But it just doesn’t seem right to give up until we’ve tried everything we could. I'll arrange things on my end so they're expecting you.”
Mordion ended the call with a curious combination of relief and anticipation. Relief at an excuse to break away from increasingly tiring political machinations, and anticipation at the idea of visiting the great Forest again. Though the previous trip had been a trick executed by the Bannus in order to overthrow the former Reigners, it had given him some of the best days of his life up until that point.
Sorry, Mordion told the Prisoner with an almost sincere imitation of regret, I have to make an emergency trip to Earth. Some people got taken by Banners Wood.
I'm coming with you, the Girl Child quickly said. No telling what the Woods will do. You'll need someone to keep you straight.
Mordion thought about it. Vierran always did prove steadying in her bluntness. Pack your bags then, I’m heading out tomorrow.
The night lasted longer than Mordion imagined a night should -- he barely waited until the creeping lights of dawn before waking Vierran, grabbing his grav-hoist, and rushing them both to the transit.
Vierran gave him a knowing smile. “You know, this could be trickier than you think,” she cautioned him as the Bannus strapped them into the typical Reigner mission gear.
“Don’t worry," Mordion's smile flickered teasingly, "I won’t be partaking in any dancing girls. That should neutralize at least one potential trouble I might get into with my companion.”
Vierran laughed. “I see you’re rather looking forward to this. Why have we never gone back to Banners Wood, I wonder?”
A couple transits later, it was easier to remember why they rarely went to Earth in person. The hops were quick and painless at the beginning, but as they moved further away from the established networks, each setup took longer and longer. And each transit came with Controllers eager to present the First and Second Reigner with their problems.
“This is the difficulty with making ourselves so approachable,” Vierran said with exasperation. “No one is afraid to throw any problem at you, no matter how trivial.”
“Yes, but at least we know their problems,” Mordion said grimly. Vierran pursed her lips and nodded. The previous Reigners had only made it their business to know about execution-worthy problems. So many issues got glossed over and hidden until they were too complex to fix.
Still, the trip to Earth was immensely more enjoyable than either Mordion or Vierran’s previous journey to Earth under the former Reigners. Stately meetings with Controllers gave way to casual chats with their staff, which gave way to wandering treks around worlds they rarely had the chance to explore before.
On one world, Mordion and Vierran even found themselves exploring a local market as they waited. The vibrant colors of the marketplace drew the eye from one stall to another. Tempting scents whaffed by with promises of exotic dishes they wouldn’t be able to try anywhere else. Products on sale were familiar yet strange at the same time.
“Did you know there was such a thing as powdered barinda sauce?” Vierran asked with glee as she bought bags of it.
Mordion looked on with amusement. “It never crossed my mind such a thing was even necessary.”
Mordion found pressures he didn't know he was harboring dissipate with each new world -- talking with staff members that weren’t afraid to bring their worries to the Reigners, and visiting worlds where the riches were more equally distributed, reminded him of exactly why he had agreed to the Reigner position in the first place.
When they reached Iony, Mordion gave Vierran a beatific smile as he declined the dancing girls. Vierran just shook her head and laughed. “You could have accepted,” she told him loftily. “I'm fine with you finding out the superior quality of your wife's dancing the hard way.”
The Runcorn station came almost too soon. Controller John greeted Mordion and Vierran with busy efficiency. “Take these wallets, and you’ll want to exchange those bags for Earth suitcases, or else you’ll more than startle any people you meet.”
Mordion gave John a thankful smile. “You’ve managed this well so far. Just get me and Vierran down to Hexwood Farms and we’ll see what more we can do.”
John nodded, “I’ve got this portal keyed to send you right outside the woods. Our technology doesn’t work well inside the Wood’s theta space, so you’ll just have to walk a bit to get inside.”
The transporter must have been very finely tuned because Mordion and Vierran barely strode a dozen steps before they passed the Coke rings on a small muddy path and found themselves immersed in a glittering green canopy of wilderness.
Mordion closed his eyes, soaking up the peace of the Woods. Vierran watched affectionately; she could never feel the Woods as closely as Mordion, but even she felt the gentle tug of the greenery unwinding her worries.
Mordion finally opened his eyes, “I guess we should see if we can track down those scouts?”
“Maybe they’ll be near the old castle,” Vierran suggested.
Mordion started walking in the direction of the castle. “That’s as good a place to start as any.”
Yet somehow, in spite of the urgency of their mission, Vierran found time to drag Mordion on numerous detours.
“Would you look at this?” became Vierran's common refrain. She said it in wonder as they glimpsed a griffin peacefully grazing in a meadow of deliciously green grass. She exclaimed it in excitement as they discovered edible flowers with the sweetest nectar. She cried it in horror as they found themselves running away from swans whose eyes gleamed with higher-than-average intelligence.
“The Woods have developed such a strong personality,” Mordion mused with a barely surpressed smile. Vierran could only agree as she barely escaped a pair of conniving swans intent on attacking the clasp of her food pack.
When they finally reached the castle, Mordion looked up at it in awe. The castle loomed above them like mountains swirled from sugar crystals. The towers soared into the clouds and were barely visible as a glistening outline among the mists. Birds freely flew in, out, and around the castle, with a sweeping abandon that Mordion couldn't help but respond to with envy. “It seems like the castle has grown larger.”
“I think it’s just finally attained its full potential,” Vierran whispered as she gazed at the castle with brightly gleaming eyes. “I always thought it was a shame that such a monument would house so much strife. Now that the rotten core has been rooted out, it finally is as pure as it looks.”
“Like the House of Balance,” Mordion said. Vierran could only nod in agreement.
“I want to see the old hut,” Mordion suddenly announced before starting off in a familiar direction.
Vierran trotted to catch up. “Do you think the scouts are hiding there?”
Mordion might have answered, but the wind blew away any response.
Finally, the roof of the shack Mordion had spent days constructing came into view. The thatch roof that Yam had bullied him into properly building seemed to rise out of the lake as they came closer.
Mordion gazed at the hut for a long while before finally sitting down against the wall and looking up at Vierran. He didn’t need to say anything; Vierran swept down into his arms.
Mordion leaned against the hut and heaved a sigh of contentment. It felt like so long since he’d had a moment to himself.
“There was no flint scouting party was there?” Mordion finally asked after the rush of water and wood magic had worked their soothing spell.
Vierran laughed. Seemed as though the game was up. “How would people ever get the silly idea to look for flint here? The Great Forest has a mythical reputation as a black hole now. No respectable flint miner would come near it.”
“So this whole emergency was just… made up?” Mordion asked.
“Well…” Vierran gave him a look, and judging him to be calm enough to handle the truth, burst out with a grin, “We all agreed you needed a bit of a break. Bannus reminded us of how at peace you were in the Woods and we decided to give it a try.” She gave Mordion a reprimanding look. “You're doing no one favors snapping at House representatives, you know.”
Mordion grimaced, which reluctantly turned into a smile of assent. “This was exactly what I needed -- a rest from the decisions, the manipulations, the organization." He looked around with quiet pleasure. "I've always liked the Woods."
"Mordion, let's come back every year,” Vierran suggested earnestly. “It'll be good for us. We can get a feel for the mood of the empire and take a breather from governing. Maybe we can even think about starting a family.”
Mordion gave Vierran one of his most enchanting smiles. “Starting now?”
The Bannus closed the communication (spy camera) screen with satisfaction. His predictions had worked out at the ideal 98% accuracy. Mordion would come back ready to make good governing decisions again. Vierran could stop worrying about Mordion burning out. There might even be a child soon to liven up the house. I've always thought I'd be a good parent.
"What are you grinning about?” Martellian asked the Bannus suspiciously.
“Oh, nothing,” the Bannus replied smugly. “Just doing some critical human maintenance.”