For nearly eight centuries, humanity drank deeply from the pool of its many successes. Civilized, industrialized, mankind continued to reach for greater glories, but only when it was far too late did man become aware of the stark limitations of his abilities. In a single day of ruin the earth was consumed by fire. All the splendor and glory of civilization was laid to waste by the vast weapons of war man had conspired to build in his ignorance.
More than twelve hundred years have passed since the destruction of the earth. It is time enough for man to return. Time enough for him to rebuild. In the twilight hours of his existence, the dwindling remnants of humanity cling to their petty kingdoms and their decrepit empires, squabbling over the few remaining resources left to the land. None more precious than the rarest of all materials, known only as manna...
We are all the Children of the Forest.
The small plaque that adorned the base of the World’s Tree, atop Crimond’s highest tier, bore only those few, simple words. Fionna Cohmwell read it each morning before beginning her climb to her perch high above. The roots of Yggdrasil descended into the foundation of the city, becoming as much a part of Crimond as the masonry. The God-Tree and the capital were one. It was said by the Druids of the Inner Circle that Yggdrasil had been birthed from a seed given to the first of the Commigial by the Mother herself. The Lady of Life. She had chosen the Commigial to be her people, to thrive in the wake of the Days of Fire, and to rebuild the world in her image. Fionna knew the story was only that, a fairytale told to explain complicated matters to dull persons, but there was no denying the World Tree’s splendor. Yggdrasil towered above the city of Crimond, hundreds of feet tall, and its lush-canopy shimmered with golden-green vegetation. It truly was a wonder, unlike anything else in the entire world.
The early morning was dark, and it smelled of manna, the material mined from the inner belly of the God-Tree. Thick plumes of blue smoke drifted on the wind, rising from the twisting tendrils of Yggdrasil’s roots. All across the base of the tree, dozens of men and women from the Inner Circle worked, mining the thick substance as it leaked forth. Manna was the most precious of all resources, even more valued than gold or jewels. It was energy, power, and with it, the Commigial were able to thrive. Manna powered the airships that patrolled Nin’s borders, keeping them safe from outside threat. It cured diseases through its distillation, and it could even be used to make incredible fields bloom and thrive. It was a wondrous thing, of almost limitless potential. It was no wonder the Men’kai had waged a bitter a war to take the tree for themselves.
Fionna had been only a child when the worst of the fighting had happened. Her parents had sheltered her and her brother, Euwin, from the news. It wasn’t until much later that she’d realized how close the Commigial had come to losing the war. The Men’kai were a peoples from the Blasted-Earth; a vast swatch of endless, barren rock and dirt, beyond the Illuvian River. Unlike the Commigial, who were able to thrive under the shadow of the World’s Tree, the Men’kai were less fortunate. They had no unending source of manna, no easy means through which to power their weapons and technology. Instead, they were forced to mine what they could from deep below the ground. There were pools of manna belowground, hidden away in vast caverns and wells. No one knew why, or where it came from, or whether those sources were somehow connected to Yggdrasil. It was but one of many mysteries, left behind from the ancient world of men before the collapse, and not something most were troubled enough by to need explanation. That was just the way things were.
Besides, that had been years ago. The war with the Men’kai had ended with their defeat in the Blackwoods, the great expanse of primordial forest that surrounded Crimond’s western border. Not long after, Fionna’s father had made peace with them, and that had been that. She was now a young lady of nearly sixteen years, and there had been no trouble with the Men’kai since the day her father had killed their clan's seneschal to save the Men'kai princess’ life. Now the Men'kai were busy with issues of their own. They were mired in civil war with one another.
She had just reached the tiny lookout when the morning sun began to rise above the distant mountains. The morning was warm and muggy, hot for an early September day. The bright sun added to the warmth. Fionna basked in its glow as she wolfed down her morning meal, a pair of cold sausages and quarter-loaf of bread. She’d stolen the supplies from the kitchen before Lady Aisha had awakened to begin preparing breakfast. Fionna had always hated her cooking. And she had plans for the day ahead, plans that didn’t involve being trapped with her mother or Lady Aisha. Had she not slipped out of the castle early in the morning before most of the staff and guards were awake, that would have been her fate. Thankfully she’d been lucky, and made free of the castle just before first light. It wouldn’t be difficult to finish her escape now. The coming guests and the commotion they would bring would mask her departure.
Sure enough, not long after finishing her food, Fionna spotted them. Against the red and orange sky, she could just make out their dark silhouettes. A pair of airships was approaching from the West, passing over the green sea of the Blackwoods. Fionna could see the great banners lining their exterior hulls as the ships drew closer to the landing fields outside Crimond. Both ships bore banners decorated with slender serpents of black and gold, wrapped around a pair of spears crossing one another. Coiled around each staff was a thin serpent, dripping venom. The sigil of clan Des’tra. The symbol of Ju’kall.
The air began to ring with the hum of the aircraft’s engines, and not long after, the watchtowers lining the city battlements sounded notice of the Men’kai’s impending arrival. Fionna wondered if the Men’kai princess was on one of those incoming airships. The answer was most likely yes; Ju’kall would never come without the bride-to-be. She was what today was all about, after all. Fionna wondered if Euwin was awake, and if he was as miserable as he’d seemed yesterday. Her brother still hadn’t quite adjusted to the notion that he was to marry Silas Des’tra, the princess-heir of the Men’kai.
Fionna tried to remember what she looked like, but she could only remember the vaguest of details regarding Silas. She remembered the girl’s dark skin, silver hair, as well as her golden eyes. She could even recall the purple dress her mother had dressed the young Men’kai girl in, the day her father had brought her to their home, but beyond that everything was foggy, and muddled. It had been years since her father had taken the young princess of the Men’kai prisoner. Years before he’d saved her from the murderous reach of his bannermen, and returned her to her father in exchange for peace. Fionna wondered if Silas might remember her.
She was almost tempted to stay, if for nothing else, than to see her brother’s reaction during the ceremonial greetings. However, that would mean suffering through the formalities, including wearing a dress and acting “like a proper lady”, as her mother liked to say. Fionna had no interest in that. So instead she finished the last scraps of food before shoving the plate into her olive-green pack. She gathered the rest of her things — her rifle and a small map of the city she had been diligently adding to for weeks — and began the climb back down the roots to the floor below.
Against the base of Yggdrasil stood Stirling Castle, a large keep surrounded by a circular wall encompassing four towers. At the castle’s highest point, the green and white banner of the Commigial danced on the wind. It displayed a white-warg, a great wolf of legend, prowling against a green field. In older times, the wargs had been numerous and dominated much of the lands of Nin. In those days, the Wolf-Riders had still existed. Fionna and Euwin used to pretend they were both the founding siblings of the Wolf-Rider order, Romulos and his brother Remus. But those were only games; the Wolf-Riders were all dead and gone.
Suddenly Fionna saw a trio of druids making their way along one of the stone paths that snaked throughout the tangled roots of the World’s Tree. Fionna stepped behind a large section of one tendril to hide herself until the men were gone. She didn’t need to be seen, not by them. The druids might have wondered why their princess was dressed in riding leathers, of all things, and carrying a rifle.
“That was close,” Fionna whispered to herself as she leaned out to watch the backs of the druids. They were deep in conversation with one another. None of them had noticed her. She hurried in the opposite direction towards the Golden Gate. It was guarded by a light complement of men in heavy plate and mail. Their golden armor shimmered in the sunlight, as did the metal tips of their long-spears and oval shields, as large as a small person. They were the honor guard of Yggdrasil, the God-Tree’s protectors. They were the Mother’s Sentinels. It was said they were descendants of the Wolf-Riders, an order formed from their collapse. Each of the sentinels wore a plate-helm, shaped in the likeness of a warg’s head in honor of this. Fionna walked past them wordlessly. None of the men acknowledged her, or even turned to watch her go. Their duty was above even the princess. Their loyalty lay only with the Mother.
She followed the steps winding down the roadway towards the Noble Quarter. Already the streets were alive and bustling with activity as merchants prepared their carts and wagons to bring down to the markets far below. One especially rich man had a pair of golems aiding him in loading heavy boxes filled with food onto the back of a large cart. From beneath their metallic flesh, she could hear the buzzing gears of their insides shifting and grinding as manna powered their life. It was rare to see one golem, let alone two, and in such fine condition as these were. Their owner was a man named Kenneth Canmore, and he was known for his collection of strange antiquities from the old world. The pair of metal giants were his most prized possessions.
As she walked past the three, Fionna made sure to pull the hood of her green cloak up to cover her head, fearing someone might recognize her. Soon enough the street was packed with traders heading for the lower district to sell their wares. It made a perfect cover to hide her from the guards that would be stationed at each gate on the way down. Fionna knew she was quick enough slip under their watch. She’d done so a hundred times already.
“And where might you be off to?” a voice called out to her. Fionna stopped and turned to see an old cart driver, seated atop a large wagon pulled by a pair of charcoal-colored draught horses.
“Hello Arth,” Fionna said as she forced a smile.
“My lady,” he replied while tipping his hat to her. The old trader was dressed in simple clothing belying the vast wealth he was known to possess. His straw hat was full of holes, and he busily took bites from a green apple as he watched her. There were greasy stains on either of his knees, and deep lines under his eyes. “Where are you headed, dressed in so peculiar a way?”
“Oh, I’m just headed for a short walk,” Fionna told him. It was an obvious and blatant lie, but she hoped he might let her on her way. Instead, Arth gave her a wry smile.
“A simple stroll is it?” He laughed.
“Yes,” Fionna insisted. “A long one.”
“That’s strange, given that you’re dressed for riding, and that rifle ... are you expecting to find trouble on your adventure? If I were to guess, I’d say you were planning on going hunting. Surely my lady, you don’t mean to embarrass your family in front of their guests? Your lady mother would be aghast.”
Fionna rolled her eyes at him. “Oh, what do you even care? You’ve helped me do this before!”
Arth gasped, while raising one hand to cover his mouth. “But my lady, I would never...” Arth broke out into laughter before he could finish, and Fionna joined him, no longer able to contain herself.
“You know, for a moment I thought you might actually be serious,” she told him.
“Ah, I’ve always been good at putting on an act. I believe that’s why I became a tradesman. I suppose you’ll be wanting a lift?” Fionna nodded. “Well, climb aboard, my lady, we’re bound for below.”
She clambered up onto the back of the wagon to sit amidst the various stocks Arth had gathered for the day. She took her place on top of an old cedar chest, nestled in between a pair of large crates filled with rich silks and other garments. Arth’s specialty was clothing, particularly women’s. He had a way of talking, an aura about him that many found hard to resist. She’d watched him work before, selling to even high lords and ladies of her father’s court. Once, he’d even managed to sell a doublet to Lord Duncan of Celtigar, a man known for his miserly ways.
“The whole city is in quite the uproar over this event of your parents. I can’t say I’ve ever seen so many people so excited over the prospect of Men’kai in their streets,” Arth spoke as their cart fell in line behind a dozen others. Up ahead, a man was making a scene with the captain of the Red Gate’s guard, screaming obscenities as he pointed at a large vase one of the men checking his goods had dropped and shattered. “Oy, this looks like it might take some time,” Arth groaned.
“You sound like you don’t like the idea of the Men’kai coming here,” Fionna said.
He turned and gave her a look. “Pardon me, my lady, I understand your brother is to wed the princess and all, but the last time they came here it was to put this city to the torch. Even if a decade has gone by, it’s hard to forget that. I still remember the night the Blackwoods were burning as your grandfather led the charge out the central gates. Thought we were right good and fucked.” Arth glanced at her and scowled. “Pardon my language...”
“It’s alright,” she told him. “I swear worse than you do.” Overhead, a pair of skiffs took to the air and departed rapidly towards the oncoming Men’kai ships. Escorts, sent to bring them in safely. Fionna looked back up the road towards the path to her home up above. She knew father would be furious with her, and her mother... She would be something even worse.
“Having second thoughts?” Arth asked.
“Maybe,” she told him. “I don’t know. I suppose this isn’t the best of choices.”
Arth gave her a shrug. “I would think not, but you’ll do what you feel you must. I’m not here to judge.”
The line began to move not long after that, once the scene at the gates had been quieted. Fionna stayed put, and didn’t look back again.
Albin read the letter again.
“My lord?” the courier asked, when the silence between them had gone on for far too long.
“It would seem that Alethia has been bested,” Albin finally said as he finished the document. He set the letter aside and dropped forward to lean with both hands against his desk. “Has the council been made aware of this?”
“I would imagine so, my lord. I was dispatched to bring this to you at the same time others were sent to notify the other consuls,” the courier answered him.
“Wonderful,” Albin said, his voice dripping with venom. He could already imagine Jullian’s reaction to the news. “I think I would like to be alone.” The courier left without another word. After the door was shut and Albin was free of any others, he took his seat behind his desk and sighed deeply.
Ten thousand soldiers of the Empirial Dominate were gone. Dead. Wiped out by the hordes of Euna. With the defeat of the Second Army, there was nothing left to hold the barbarians from the gates of the city. It meant only one thing: Valice was going to fall. A small part of Albin had expected this for some time. In the most recent months of the campaign, the empire’s war effort had been met with only setback after setback. This was merely the culmination of a grand series of miserable failures. He regretted his decision to refrain from leading the Second Army, but in truth Albin understood his being there would have made little difference. Alethia had spread itself too thin, and now the cost of the empire’s arrogance was coming back to finish them.
His eyes were drawn downwards, towards one of the desk’s drawers beside his left leg. Albin was tempted to read the contents contained within again, to calm his nerves and to ease his doubts. He’d already pored over it many times, and each new venture brought with it fresh discoveries. New wonders. He managed to control himself, knowing that it was only a matter of time. She will be here soon enough.
A knock drew his attention back to the door of his room. “Yes?” Albin asked. A moment later it swung open, and the figure of a young girl filled the frame of the open doorway. Right on schedule, he thought.
“Hello Albin,” Lailya Bashira spoke as she entered. She strode into the chamber to stand in front of Albin’s desk, an inquisitive look on her face. The girl was small-framed and clad in the pale blue robes of the Alchemist Guild. She was at least a decade younger than he, no older than twenty and two at the most. Her skin was darker, not quite so much as his, but enough to still mark her as something other than a true Alethian. The Empire favored white flesh, with blond hair and blue eyes. Both Albin and Lailya, despite the power of their positions, would always be something less in the eyes of their fellow empirials.
“Lady Bashira,” Albin said, his tone hinting at playfulness. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” He saw she could sense his game.
“The Illusive returned to port this morning,” Lailya said as a thin smile appeared on her lips. “I saw it.”
“You did?” Albin began to smile as well.
“Stop playing this game and show me!” she practically shouted at him.
Albin dug into the drawer and withdrew the letter. He handed it over to her without hesitation. Lailya quite nearly tore it apart in her haste to read it. He watched as her blue eyes danced over each word, each report, watched as the thin smile on her lips broadened into a wide grin.
“Is there more?” Lailya asked him, breathless.
“There are pictures,” he told her all too happily. It was not long before his desk was covered in the detailed etchings and more he’d been provided. He drank in the details of each with the girl, savoring them all as if for the first time. By far, his favorite was the centermost piece. On the parchment, a great city arose around the frame of a massive World Tree. A true World Tree, whole and unspoiled. It was as glorious as looking upon the very faces of the Pantheon.
“This is incredible!” Lailya exclaimed as she excitedly reached out to grip his arm. “I never doubted, never even for a moment that it existed, but these...” She gestured with her other hand to the myriad portraits. “This will be enough to show them all that you were right. Those were no mere stories.”
“I want to believe that,” Albin told her, “but I don’t know. Not after this, anyways. Have a look for yourself.” He handed Lailya the letter the courier had brought him, detailing the disastrous battle at Forn Eblen. The alchemist read the letter in silence, grimacing all the while. Albin waited until she was done.
“Has already been made aware,” Albin finished for her. “Including Jullian.” Her face dropped. “I know, I found out just before I was going to go to him. The timing couldn’t be any worse for us.”
“What are we going to do?” Lailya asked.
Albin waited a long moment before replying. “We go regardless,” he finally said. “We don’t have a choice. Neither will he.”
The outside wing was chaos. Dozens of council-members and their supporting staffs flooded the halls, their voices raised in anger or fear or confusion. All around him, Albin could see that word had spread of the disastrous rout Alethia had suffered. Panic gripped the air; it permeated everything. Together with Lailya, Albin made his way through the disorderly mob and down towards the central complex that lay at the heart of the Diocletian. The central building was an oval-shaped structure, named the Curia, which housed the primary senate floor and a series of separate rooms beyond for private negations or meetings. From that building spun off the four wings that were each controlled by one of the senate’s four primary factions. The Reds, Blues, Greens and Yellows were the easiest titles given to each of the four. Normally, the various powers of the senate remained distant from each other, only choosing to come together during times of great calamity or strife. Today, they intermingled everywhere Albin looked, with no sense of order or purpose.
Two armored spearmen flanked either side of the doorway to the High Lord’s private quarters. One addressed Albin when he reached them
“The High Lord is currently receiving news of the battle. You will have to wait outside, Lord Devroth.” From within, Albin could hear raised voices. He did not envy the whichever poor soul who had been chosen to deliver Jullian the news of Euna’s victory to Lord Jullian.
Suddenly the door burst open, and a red-faced courier stumbled from the chamber with tears in his eyes. He was quickly followed by a torrent of officers and generals, all of them looking just as miserable looking.
“And I swear by all the Gods Septus, if you weren’t blood-kin to me, I’d see you hang!” High Lord Jullian roared like a lion as he appeared in the frame of his doorway. He turned then to look at Albin and Lailya, noticing them for the first time. “Devroth,” Jullian said, his disdain evident in his tone.
“Hello, my lord,” Albin replied as he gave the man a stiff bow.
“And the alchemist...” Jullian muttered miserably as he eyed Lailya. “I am in no mood for more of your talk of fairytales. You know as well as I do that there are far more important matters at hand.” Jullian turned to retreat into his quarters but Albin approached. Immediately the two spearmen moved forward as one and crossed the blades of their weapons to bar his path.
“I have news that you must see,” Albin told Jullian. “This will change everything.”
“I said not now,” Jullian hissed.
“Gods damn it, Jullian, I’ve found it!”
The High Lord froze and he turned back to study Albin anew. Already Albin could see the hesitation in his eyes, the suspicion, but also the intrigue — enough, possibly, to grant him an audience. “Just give me five minutes, and I can show you,” Albin pleaded.
“Five minutes,” Jullian told him. “And I better enjoy what I hear.” The High Lord gave his guards a nod, and they removed their weapons from barring Albin’s way. Albin turned and motioned for Lailya to follow him into Jullian’s quarters. Inside Jullian’s quarters the room was dominated by a wide, oval table, fashioned from stone and carved in the shape of the Northern provinces. The map displayed Alethia and her many satellite-states, as did it highlight the various fronts of the campaigns being waged in the name of the Empirial Dominate. Albin studied the red and blue blocks clogging the table’s surface, displaying the armies of Euna or Alethia. There were fewer of the Alethian markers than the last time he’d seen the table.
“Show me what you’ve found,” Jullian said as he rounded the table, wasting little time on decorum. Albin obeyed as he tossed the pile of drawings onto the table, while Lailya came forward to place the letter he’d given her into Jullian’s hand personally.
“I dispatched a frigate out into the Argo waters, on a new course, charted based on new research, and the testimony of the fishmongers who survived almost five months lost,” Albin began as the High Lord started to read. “I had feared the ship was lost, but just this morning the Illusive returned under command of its captain, with all the proof I’ve been searching for. They discovered a landmass across the ocean, and on it...”
“A World Tree,” Jullian finished for him. “Yes, the detail in this picture is quite stunning. However, a few pictures and the word of your man proves little, by itself. Did he bring more?”
“More?” Albin was almost unable to comprehend the absurdity of the question. “How could you need more?”
“Watch your tone, Devroth. Need I remind you who you are speaking to?”
“Forgive me, my lord. I meant no disrespect,” Albin made himself say it, even as his body began to quiver. “I am merely confused, as to how this is not proof enough?”
“Are there samples? Vials of extract or anything else I might have to prove your claims?” Jullian waited for an answer, but Albin had none to give him. “I thought so.”
“There were complications, unforeseen ones,” Albin tried to explain. “The land where the World Tree dwells is not ravaged and torn like ours. There are forests, and fields. Greenery, Jullian, the likes of which we could only dream of. There are people as well. Whole kingdoms. Two in particular control most of the land they refer to as Nin, the Men’kai who dwell far in the west, and the Commigial, in the east. It is the Commigialsecond whom hold the World Tree.” The story that the crew of the Illusive had told of its nightmarish engagement with the enemy ship had sent chills through Albin when he had first heard the accounts. belied the terror it still managed to instill inside of him. The Illusive’s crew had spoken at length of their nightmarish engagement with the enemy ship. The skirmish had lasted for some time, and only narrowly had the Illusivehey escaped being overrun by enemy boarding parties.
“If they control this World Tree, have they not already tapped into its stores of manna?” Jullian asked. Albin again noticed the High Lord’s tone, disinterested and distant. The man did not believe any of this.
“In fact they have,” Albin answered him. “The crew of the Illusive was forced to destroy a Men’kai vessel that engaged them during their reconnaissance of the west. To our great fortune, neither sidegroup appears to be aware of the full extent of what they possess. The Commigial worship the World Tree as a living God. I believe this is what keeps them from fully harnessing the vast manna stores that lie within.”
“I see,” Jullian murmured.
“My lord,” Albin said suddenly, “Might I make a request?”
Jullian set down the letter he held and met Albin’s eyes. “You may ask,” he simply said.
“I would like to formally request with your leave , permission to take a force to claim this World Tree in the name of Alethia. The manna stored beneath the Tree’s roots could power our empire for another thousand years. It could quite conceivably return us to the golden age of man.”
“There is more, my lord,” Lailya chimed in. “The Alchemic Guild has made it one of our priorities to study the dead World Trees of our lands. To learn what we can from their corpses. The archemasters now believe that it is quite possible to we could restore many of the supposedly dead trees to new life, if we had sufficient manna.”
“Do you understand this?” Albin asked Jullian. “This could be the start of something glorious. It could mark the end of Alethia’s woes.”
“Enough,” Jullian shook his head.
“But my lord, there is so much more—” Lailya began, only for Jullian to cut her off.
“EI said enough,” the High Lord snapped at the girl. “I have heard enough of this. Do you honestly think with the armies of Euna practically on our doorstep that I would agree to your taking a fleet of any size? Taking men and equipment that could bolster the defenses of our fair cities’ walls? I think not.” Jullian shook his head. “I will not risk the safety of this city on something that might be nothing more than a filthy lie.”
“You cannot simply condemn him as a liar, everything he has done has been for Alethia,” Lailya shouted.
“I do not care what you think, girl. If you open your mouth again, I will see you whipped for your insolence,” Jullian spat. “As for you,” he rounded on Albin again. “My decision on the matter is final. There will be no crusade, no expedition, nothing. Alethia must stand united against Euna, or else it will fall. I will not send even a fraction of my forces off on a fool’s errand to chase after myths and legends. Do you understand me?”
Albin said nothing in reply. Never had he felt anything like this. He’d practically tasted victory, only to have it snatched away from him by the whims of a fool. He merely met the High Lord’s gaze, and fought down the urge to strike him. When it was clear he would receive no answer, Jullian waved him away.
“Get out, both of you,” Jullian commanded.
“You would dare claim me a liar? A fool?” Albin growled through gritted teeth, his anger besting his judgment. At once, Lailya was there at his side, pulling him by the arm. “We cannot defeat Euna by strength of arms alone, and you fucking know that!” Albin shouted then as he fought against the alchemist’s pull.
“Get out,” Jullian shouted, spit flying from his mouth.
I’m trying to save you, Albin wanted to say. I’m trying to save us all. Instead, he turned and left, with Lailya scurrying after him. It was a long time before Albin stopped walking. By the time he came to rest, he’d made it almost the entire way back to his own room.He walked in silence back towards his own rooms and finally came to rest just outside. Overwhelmed, he leaned against one wall of the hallway and slid down to the floor before wrapping his head in his hands.
“I should have known...” Albin whispered.
“You couldn’t have,” Lailya tried to reassure him. She knelt beside him and placed one hand on his shoulder.
“No, Jullian’s a fool and I knew it, and yet I walked into that room expecting something different. I should have known. than the same thing that’s happened every time II’ve tried to reason with him before.” Albin wanted to beat himself bloody. He should have known.
“We have to do something,” Lailya said. “We can’t just let Jullian ruin everything.”
“What choice do we have?” Albin asked. “You heard him. If we try anything, he’ll name us traitors.” No, they were well and truly finished. All his ideals, all his hope for the Empire, all of it was undone by the madness of fear that gripped Jullian’s mind.
“Then traitors we’ll be,” Lailya told him.
Albin raised his head to look at her. “What?”
The thinnest sign of a a small smile appeared on the alchemist’s lips. “You have ships, and you have men to crew them. How soon can they be made ready to leave?”