Written for moemachina as part of Yuletide 2019 and originally posted on AO3.

The newly-assembled airship fleet, funded by Meiden Fassa and commanded by his son, Dryden, shone in the bright morning sun as they hovered above the port. Their flags snapped in the wind, their guylines creaked under strain, and their sails filled as if they were eager to be off. The loud shouts of crewmembers making final adjustments echoed all around as they scurried up and down the rigging, double-checking every knot and latch. It was like a vision from another time, a remnant of Gaea before the war.

"So you're really going." Allen said, arms crossed over his chest and a distracted frown on his face. "I thought you'd find an excuse to stay at the last minute."

"Oh? But isn't a scruffy rake like me supposed to go running off at the first hint of marriage?" Dryden grinned, handing another newly-signed set of papers off to his rat man assistant, Nezem, who was already trying to juggle too many documents. "I'm sure that's what half the court was betting on."

"We both know you're not that kind of man." Allen looked away, clearly thinking entirely about his own personal troubles. Dryden gave him five seconds to say what was on his mind before taking the conversation back.

"Well, it's better this way anyway. Not being king means I can fly around with the backing of the throne without scaring the hell out of my clients about talking to the King of Asturia. Can you imagine if I was trying to do this while married to Millerna?"

Allen straightened up, every inch the Knight Caeli. "I wouldn't let you. No one would." He sighed and slumped a bit. "I can't believe I'm letting you do this as it is. You're still the son of Asturia's most prominent merchant and de facto fiancé-"

"Ah ah ah," Dryden clicked his tongue as he shook his finger at Allen. "First, we called the engagement off. Second, being the heir to the Fassas makes me the best person for the job. We have to re-establish trade with Zaibach as soon as we can, while we're still in a position of strength. If we move fast enough, we'll be the ones calling the shots this time. And who better to do that then the richest and most powerful merchant family in Asturia? It's a gesture of trust." He raised his arms in a shrug and gave Allen his most disarming smile. "So you see, I have to be the one to go."

"It's the gesture of trust I object to," Allen said dryly. He shook his head. "The war's not even a month over. We still haven't decided what to do with Basaram and the damn bomb they set off, let alone what we're going to do about Zaibach. No one wants to fight anymore, but no one's ready to declare peace yet either."

"Not even you?" Dryden's disarming smile relaxed into something a bit more ironic.

Allen stared him right in the eye and spoke clear and firm. "Van and Hitomi made a miracle. Everyone who was on the battlefield saw it. It's the people who weren't that I'm concerned about."

"Well. Guess we'll just have to hold out our hands and see what happens." Dryden turned away and found his assistant holding out another piece of paper for him to sign. He scribbled his name on it without looking and handed it back, getting another sheaf in return. "Personally, I think that trade makes better neighbours than war. You hit someone, he wants to hit you back. You make a deal with someone, he's got a reason to keep you alive." He finished signing another three documents and came back up with lazy amusement in his eyes. "Who knows? Perhaps with enough trade, we can end war forever."

"You don't actually believe that, do you?" Allen said with open disbelief.

Dryden laughed. "Not really!" He snapped his mouth shut and suddenly all the jokes were gone from his face. "But I know for a fact that we're well into summer, Zaibachian winters are harsh, and losing so much of their gigantic army means they're not going to have enough people to bring in the harvest. Maybe we can't end war forever, but I don't think most of the people over there are crazy enough to bite the hand that feeds them."

"You hope."

"I do hope!" Dryden laughed again, the change back just as sudden. "Maybe you're right, maybe they're all crazy. But I've traveled far and wide across Gaea and I've found out that when you get right down to it, most people will pick steady meals and a few luxuries over grim deprivation. I don't think Zaibachians are any different. Most of the people on the ground will been just as devastated by the war as their Asturian counterparts, and the best way to get us both on back our feet is by working together." He looked back as Nezem and blinked when there weren't any more papers being held out for his approval. In fact, Nezem was now crossing his arms and tapping his foot impatiently. "Well, looks like it's about time for me to leave. See you around, Allen! Look after the country for me."

Allen's lips twitched upward in a faintly ironic smile of his own. "Aren't you going to ask me to look after Millerna?"

"Nope! She can look after herself. But say hello to Van and Hitomi for me if they make it back into town!"

With that, Dryden strode aboard his flagship and the fleet slowly began to depart. Allen stood on the dock, watching them go and thinking about what Hitomi had said about trust and reaching out, until they were just a set of blurry specks in the cloud-strewn blue sky.

Zaibach was mostly pretty boring.

They were, Dryden allowed, barely out of Asturia. They'd just gone through Deghen Pass, which was usually avoided in favor of the broader and easier Swallowtail Pass further north, but no one but medical ships were going through there nowadays. The greatest battle in the history of Gaea would do that.

But still, so far there was nothing but rocks as far as the eye could see. Not even interesting rocks - dull, boring rocks that weren't worth mining. Dryden leaned on the railing and humphed.

"If you're looking for something to do, sir," Nezem started.

"I already went over the maps. Three times."

"And the historical import and export tables?"

"Five times."

"Well," the little rat man twitched his nose in thought, "how about what you plan to say to the villagers in that town up ahead?"

"Huh? What?"

Nezem glared over the edge of his glasses. "The village of Lisove, a half a day's journey away from the border, with a population approximately 70 people. It's on the map, sir."

Dryden raised his blank gaze to the endlessly blue sky. "Oh right, Lisove. Them." He scratched at the permanent remnants of his beard. "I suppose they wouldn't be a bad place to stop and gage the local temperature." He thought back to the various documents he had in fact gone over, trying to think of any useful information. It was a small mountain town that provided for travelers over the pass, and otherwise survived by a lot of hunting and what little farming they could do up here. Nothing in particular to trade, no real industry, but they frequently had contact with various Asturian merchant caravans that took the riskier route through the mountains. That would, hopefully, make them a bit better inclined to talk with the fleet.

"And I suppose they don't exactly have the firepower to shoot us down if we annoy them too much," Dryden mused.

"Sir! Don't even joke about that!"

"That could've gone better," Dryden allowed. He was sitting at the desk in his main office, packed between two towering stacks of books and papers, looking at the small pile of Zaibachian coins lying in front of him.

"It could have gone much worse, sir!" Nezem snapped, his fur fluffing out in indignation.

Dryden waved him off. "Now now, they only had one guymelef, and it was being kept together by hopes and prayers. A thing like that probably only had one shot in it."

"One shot's all they'd need," Nezem muttered darkly. He flicked through his usual collection of papers and frowned. "Well, we did get some useful information."

"That's right! They were downright friendly, when you think about it. Practically considered themselves Asturian." Dryden twirled one of the large gold coins, Dornkirk's face and the imperial emblem flickering back and forth between his fingers.

"Asturian towns don't threaten merchant convoys..." Nezem trailed off, remembering the past five years. "...often."

"They gave in eventually, didn't they?" Dryden flicked the coin up and caught it again, emblem side up. "It's not even so bad we didn't get paid in gidaru. The exchange rates are going to be in chaos for years, which means there's plenty of opportunity for profit. And in the short term it'll be easier to trade if we have some of their money to grease the joints, as they say."

Nezem sighed. "As you say, sir." After five years, he was getting an idea of when to give up.

Dryden kept flipping the coin, over and over. It was heavy, with a sawtooth edge for some obscure reason. The impressions were sharp and clear, and every coin he'd tested was the exact same weight. The detailing was intricate - they'd be very difficult to counterfeit. The Zaibachian internal system of currency didn't make much sense to him yet - shillings, crowns, pence and guineas, all joined together with their own logic. But one thing was clear: this was the most quality coinage he'd ever seen, which meant it was the best on Gaea.

He'd known Zaibach had strange methods of production that let them turn out guymelefs faster than any other country, along with a host of magicians working up miracles in the capital. Former Strategos Folken had been very open and clear about Zaibach's exact military capabilities, but he'd never gotten around to coinage. Leave it to a military man to miss something so basic.

Probably about half of the coins in Asturia were fake. If he never had to worry about cut-rate coins again...

Dryden caught the coin in his fist. The real value here wasn't goods. It was figuring out how the hell Zaibach did things...and how the rest of Gaea could benefit, without putting the entire population under an army boot.

"Now here's what we're looking for," Dryden said, overlooking the city below them. Favodsroy, the heart of the region, spread over the plains without check, interrupted only by a winding river right down the center of the town. It wasn't even as big as Palas, let alone Castol, the capitol of Zaibach. In terms of surface area it was probably as big as Fanelia before the little country was burned. In terms of population...well, buildings were crammed together like an above-ground mole city, and each one rose at least three stories off the ground. The spyglass revealed humans running about like ants, hundreds of them filling the streets as the fleet slowly glided to a halt a non-threatening distance away.

"We have the merchant flags up, don't we, sir?" Nezem asked as he watched guymelefs assemble on the outskirts of the city. They were in considerably better repair than the one in Lisove, and lined up with almost military precision.

"Have since we left Palas." Dryden didn't put down his spyglass, taking in everything he could. Massive rectangular buildings dominated in the west - factories? The elder at Lisove had mentioned Favodsroy was an industrial town, which was why they'd come. Dryden hoped to get answers about Zaibach's capacity in peace from them - answers Strategos Folken hadn't had the time to answer.

Losing him really had been a waste. He could've done so much more securing the peace instead throwing himself into a suicidal effort to cut the head off the dragon... Fanelians. Never got over their upbringing.

The assembled guymelfs below them waited, but made no move to attack. No flags of peace either. The populace of Favodsroy - mostly men, with a few women further back - watched the fleet without giving a hint to their thoughts.

Dryden snapped the spyglass shut and stepped down off the railing, to Nezem's evident relief. "Well, that's all we're getting from here. Shall we go meet them?"

The crew busied themselves, and soon they lowering a small landing craft to set down within shouting distance of the line of guymelefs. None of the opposing party moved. Dryden stepped off the craft, striding confidently towards them, with Nezem and a man bearing the merchant flag of the Fassas behind him. First impressions were vital, after all.

The crowd of men watched them warily.

Dryden stopped about a hundred paces away and waved cheerfully, which made no change in the men's expressions. He called out: "Hello there! We are a merchant envoy from Asturia, and we've come to trade! We have plenty of grain-"

"We don't trade with Asturia!"

The shout came from the middle of the crowd, and sounded like a young man. The rest shifted a little, but no one spoke up to countermand the claim.

"Oh! Well, pardon for the interruption, then. Elder Kallina of Lisove said Favodsroy was famed for its fine goods and friendly populace, but these things happen, eh?" He pasted a bland smile on and scanned the crowd. Most had the same look: hard, grim, and hungry. They were wrapped in the standard thick coats and scarves, with shapeless hats pulled low over their ears against the chill in the air. The crack about their hospitality was met with blank disdain, but...there. Standing next to the leg of a guymelef was a large man with greying hair and a scar across his nose who looked like he was considering something. More importantly, the people around him kept glancing at him out of the corner of their eyes, trying to take his judgment. Dryden didn't know if he was the man in charge or just a well-respected local, but he focused his gaze on that one.

The man focused back.

The young man was still shouting. "We're not giving you anything! Not until you give back all the men you killed with that bomb of yours!" That got a few approving murmurs from the crowd.

It didn't seem the best time to mention that it was Basaram who had dropped the energist bomb, not Asturia, and in fact multiple divisions of allied troops had been caught in the blast. It also didn't seem like a good idea to point out the devastation of Palas or any other country that had attracted Zaibach's gaze before the war broke out in earnest.

Unfortunately, that didn't leave many options for opening friendly relations. Dryden coughed while he tried to think of something to say. The crowd watched with nervous hostility. "The war was terrible, and every country suffered great losses-" he started, hoping pleasant neutrality would at least keep them from using those guymelefs. Nezem was repeatedly poking him in the back and making hurried, whispered suggestions to leave, right now, and not stop until they were back in Asturia.

One of the guymelefs leaned forward, making the crowd shout. Dryden hurried on. "-and we would love to trade with you as soon as you're ready. Let us know, and we can work together to make the peaceful vision of Gaea a reality!" he finished, and turned to walk back to the ship with as much dignity as he could muster.

Behind him he heard the creak of a guymelef moving, mutterings from the crowd, and a strange hush. He risked one glance backwards as they got on the landing craft and saw the crowd quiet again, and the scarred man still watching calmly.

The guymelef to move had been the one furthest from that man, he recalled. And the crowd quieted in waves centered around him. Well. That was very interesting.

Dryden was face down on his desk, pillowed in papers, when Nezem rushed in and shook him awake. "Sir! Sir, we must leave at once! Bandits!"

"Huh? Wha?" He picked himself up and peeled his latest letter home off his face. His head felt muzzy from a long night of vino and thought, and it look him a few minutes to understand what Nezem was going on about. "Bandits?"

"Yes, sir, bandits! We need to go! Now!"

Dryden scratched his beard. "Damn." They'd managed to avoid the worst of things so far, but their luck had to run out sometime. They had a couple melefs around to deal with trouble, but bandits here would likely be army deserters that were more than a match for his few guards. He'd been relying on being big and able to fly to be a warning...but he might just have to buy the bastards off. "All right, where are they? What do they want?"

"Well..." Nezem's whiskers drooped. "I'm not sure, sir. They're not attacking us."

"Huh? They're not?" That didn't make any sense. They were a rich merchant convoy, ripe for the taking. Sure, they were flying Asturian flags, but Dryden was pretty sure that meant they'd get more trouble, not less. Surely no one believed every Asturian ship was carrying energist bombs, right?

"They've taken a few shots at us, sir, but so far we seem to be out of their range," Nezem explained. "I don't know if they can't or won't fly, but right now they're attacking the town. But I don't know how long that will last!"

"Heh. It's the perfect opportunity," Dryden said, to Nezem's evident confusion. The idea made him feel like a scumbag, but he'd be a fool to forget the medical supplies his fleet was carrying. Time to test just how furious those Zaibachians really were.

He swept out of the room, carrying a protesting Nezem along in his wake. "All right, wake everyone up! Show me where the attack is, and if there's anything we can do to assist! Has anyone set up that...that thing Strategos Folken brought, the thing with the voices?"

"All we're getting on the radio is static, sir-"

"Keep trying until you find the town," he ordered as he hurried to the bridge. "Let them know we saw the attack and want to help, but don't do anything until they give permission. Don't give them an excuse to attack us too." He considered the possibility that the town didn't have radios - it had sounded like they were common among the military but once again, Folken had neglected to say anything about civilians - but he didn't have a lot of other options. If they couldn't raise them while the bandits were attacking they'd just have to send a skiff down after it was all over.

The crew swirled nervously around him, and Dryden put on his best authoritative face. Internally, of course, he had no idea what he was doing. He had the vaguest idea of strategy he'd picked up from attending endless meetings during the war, but he'd recognized early on that his job was to sit down, shut up, and let the generals work, not to come up with new plans himself. It was why he was currently picking the tactic of "wait and see", followed by "try negotiate eventually" instead of sweeping in to rescue the entire town like Allen or Van would've done.

The minutes passed slowly. The radio operator, a gangly cat man, kept fiddling and poking at his dials, getting nothing in return but a harsh, inhuman crackle. The rest of the bridge crew whispered among each other or held their posts in grim silence. Below them, the city glowed with the familiar light of burning buildings.

Was this what Palas had looked like during the attack? Dark and shadowed, lit only by its destruction? How many people would die while they watched helplessly above? Dryden grit his teeth and just kept mentally counting up how many medical supplies they had, and how many they could afford to just give away.

Eventually a small pack of guymelefs split off from the burning town and ran into the prairie towards the mountains. One particularly ambitious one raised its arm and shot a long line of silver towards Dryden's flagship, an attack that came nowhere close to hitting. And then they were gone, rushing away into the night. The entire thing was over with in less time than it took to eat dinner.

"All right, we're going down in a skiff!" Dryden called, ignoring Nezem's "we?!" squeak. "Load it up with what we can, and get more ready just in case. Let's go!"

It was, as expected, a mess. They were allowed to land, if only because no one was able to stop them, and Dryden quickly found himself in an argument with a harried watchman who finally agreed to let the Asturians stay and discuss payment for any supplies used later. There were still mutterings as the townsfolk gathered around to assess and repair the damage, but after three Asturian crewmen helped pull a child out of a collapsed building and a supply distribution system was worked out, they at least kept it under their breath.

The town had some sort of energist-lights lining the streets, Dryden noticed inbetween reassuring various members of the watch and trying to make sure they didn't run out of bandages. They glowed with a steady yellow light that never flickered or faded, and were a big help to the various would-be rescuers. The injured packed themselves around the lights, checking their wounds without squinting. It was simple, useful, and obvious that no one but the Asturians thought anything of it.

What a thing to notice now. Millerna should be here, Dryden thought with a wry smile. He'd been avoiding thinking of her ever since he left Palas, but it was true. Between her medical training and willingness to do anything to help, she'd have made herself the hero of Favodsroy, just like she'd done for Palas. Meanwhile all he was good for was soothing the ruffled feathers of the rightful authorities, looking calm, and paying more attention to what was salable than the people who needed help.

He looked around for something to do to distract him from either thought, and found a fist thumping into the wall right in front of his nose. A fist connected to an arm connected to a very angry-looking young man.

Dryden held himself perfectly still and kept a confident, self-assured smile on his face. The young man's eyes were wide, his skin pale and shining in the odd mixture of highlights and shadows that went with Zaibach's powerful lamps. His lips were pulled back, like a wolf-man trying to bare fangs. And all over his scuffed hands were the grease-marks of a guymelf artisan.

Or, wait, Dryden corrected himself. Guymelef factoryman. They didn't have artisan-houses here anymore, according to the good people of Lisove.

The young man screwed up his entire face and flung his body forward like a mishandled puppet. "This is all your fault!" he yelled, voice high and cracking. "Get out! Leave! Take your damn airships and go!"

"Hold on, hold on," Dryden said, putting his hands out in front of him. "I don't think anyone really wants me to go right now - least of all those poor injured folk over there. My airships make a tempting target, but they didn't attack me, did they? I'd be happy to lend any sighting abilities we have to help your town. So calm down. You shouldn't raise fists you don't intend to use."

The next thing Dryden knew, he was on his back in the gutter and his face was ablaze with pain.

In retrospect, he shouldn't have provoked the young and reckless.

The young man flung himself forward again, looming over Dryden with an expression that couldn't decide if it was furious or anguished. "This is all your fault!" he repeated. "If you hadn't come - if Asturia hadn't betrayed us - if you hadn't used that damn bomb! Now my brothers are all dead, the factory is stopped, and bandits are everywhere! It's all your fault!"

His fist pulled back for another strike and Dryden didn't know if he should try to get out of the way, block, or take the hit and it didn't much matter because the fist was coming down fast -

- and stopped, held less than a dagger's length from Dryden's already-abused face by a massive, equally grease-stained hand.

Dryden slowly tilted his head back until he could see the scarred man standing behind him, looking grim. The scarred man slowly dragged the young man up, leaving Dryden to scramble out from under them with as much dignity as he could muster on his own. Neither was paying him much attention by then.

"Go home, Pelai," the scarred man said. When the young man - Pelai - made to protest, the scarred man just shook his head. "Go home and take care of your mother. She's probably worried sick about you." Pelai hesitated a bit more, but at last he wrenched his arm away from the scarred man and lurched down the street, saving one last miserable, angry glare for Dryden.

It was only when the murmurs of the crowd started up again that Dryden noticed they had stopped in the first place.

"Well," he said, for lack of anything else to say, "thank you. I suppose I should have seen that one coming, shouldn't I? Fury is the privilege of the young."

The scarred man watched him with the same calm, dark gaze he had used on Pelai earlier. "I apologize for the boy's behavior. The war wasn't kind to his family."

"It wasn't kind to anyone caught in it," Dryden corrected, a bit more sharply than he'd have liked, but he had just been laid out by a punk. He settled himself against the wall and fixed the scarred man with a penetrating gaze of his own. "You do remember it was your country that attacked first, right?"

The man's eyes narrowed, and he looked away. "I wouldn't go around rubbing that in folk's faces," was all he said.

"I wasn't planning to, but Zaibach did attack my wedding out of the blue. It left a bit of an impression."

"Then I'm sorry for that as well." The man sighed. "I'll talk with Pelai and some of the other young men later. Don't let those boys fool you. We're grateful for your help just now, with the bandages and medicine."

"Glad to hear it. I'd be more glad to hear of something a bit more substantial." He waved to cut off the man's quick anger. "No no, I'm not a disaster profiteer. But I saw you at the crowd earlier today. You're a well-respected man, aren't you?" The man didn't answer, just kept watching. "I'm a merchant, and I'd like to make a deal with this town."

"And you think I can do it for you," the scarred man said without inflection.

"If I'm going to be completely honest, I think you're a way to start. But I'd be glad if I were wrong."

"Well, you're not." The man frowned. He hesitated before his next words, and spoke with careful consideration. "I know the head of the factory council, who is the man you're going to want to talk to. But I'm going to need to know what kind of deal you're offering before I do anything." He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall, watching Dryden with the kind of patient implacability craftsmen gathered after a certain age.

Dryden crossed his arms and gave him a lazy smile in return. "First I'd like to know who I'm dealing with, if you don't mind."

"Giattu." He stopped short there, not even pretending to consider giving a family name. "Head of the...in Asturia you call them guilds? The Guymelef Assembly Guild."

Well, this was luck. "A big man on the factory council, I imagine."

"Of course not. Those are government positions." He did not offer any further elaboration on why those positions would be part of the government or why his wouldn't.

"But you know them, and that's good enough for me." Dryden took a glance around under his smoked glasses, to make sure no one was listening in too closely. Nezem's paranoia was rubbing off on him - but after the boy earlier, it didn't seem unjustified. "I'm Dryden Fassa myself. I don't know if you know that name-"

"I do."

"Well, that saves some time." Dryden crossed his arms and leaned his head back, considering how to begin. "We can start with food and medical supplies, which I'm sure you need. As for what I want in return...well, let's start with fifty guymelefs and fifty of your engineers." He picked the numbers out of the air, but they were probably high. If they were low enough to agree to right out, he'd know better for the next town.

Giattu spat. "Your fate to disaster."

That probably meant 'get eaten by a dragon'. "The numbers are negotiable," he added, in a consolatory tone. The guymelefs were also negotiable, but Giattu didn't need to know that yet. The engineers...he wasn't leaving without at least a few. "I don't want to leave you completely defenseless, but you are going to have to pay in something. And we need more guymelefs too."

Giattu shook his head with a snort. "Let me tell you something," he said, watching Dryden from beneath his craggy brows. "I'm old. That means I'm more interested in going home to my grandkids than getting caught up in any war. But the kids...they don't see it that way. They got their heads filled with noble dreams of sweeping forth and civilizing the rest of Gaea, ending all the fighting and making a glorious unified world. And then the rest of the world fought back."

Dryden really didn't know what the Zaibachians had expected, but had the sense not to say that out loud. Giattu kept going. "Now the army's in tatters, no more orders for guymelefs are coming in, and all sorts of crazy rumours are coming out of the capitol." He paused, toying with the edge of his coat. His expression was unreadable. "Now like I said, I'm old. But not even I remember a time before the Emperor - no matter what my little grandkids say. If he's really gone..." His head bowed. "Emperor Dornkirk is dead or incapacitated. Someone besides us has the most terrifying weapon on Gaea. Things are very fragile right now, Mr Asturian Merchant. In this town, we make guyemelfs. That's our pride. But I'd be very careful about asking us to replenish your army."

"Pride's all well and good, but it doesn't fill any stomachs. I hope your young folks learn that before winter really sets in." Dryden slumped against the wall himself. Well, it wasn't as if he'd expected this to be easy. "And look, I can tell you right now that your Emperor is very much dead. What that means for this country is up to you." It was a bit strange the people in Favodsroy didn't know that. Were their talking things...radios...not working, or was the government trying to keep a lid on the news? Having an immortal emperor would make succession plans a low priority...

"Don't say that too loudly," Giattu advised, with an expression that said he had already known. He raised his gaze to the horizon, past the damaged people and buildings. "...my eldest grandchild is getting married soon. I don't want to get hit with one of those bombs."

"I realise this sounds like dodging responsibility, but in the name of clarity in negotiations: that wasn't us. It was Basaram's little trick that took out your entire army."

Giattu looked over and blinked. "...aren't they part of your country?"

Dryden's mouth moved without sound as he tried to work his way around that one. "...they're a few nations over, actually. We were allies, but we're by no means the same." Historically, Asturia and Basam didn't even like each other that much and had gone to war as recently as Meiden's youth. It was testament to how frightening Zaibach was that they had allied themselves in the first place, and the alliance had collapsed before the war was even over. The idea of them being the same was... How little did these people know about the world outside their borders?

"Is that so..." Giattu pushed himself off the wall and gave Dryden a long look. "I don't know how honest you've been with me, and to be frank I don't have a lot of reasons to trust you. But you've helped a lot of people here today, and I don't want another war. But if you're honest, we'll need Asturia. I can't trust you yet, but I can get you what you want. Meet me below your airship this evening."

"Thank you," was all there was to say. Dryden stood up himself and looked around. Things seemed to have calm down - people were filtering off the streets, helping the wounded home, and gathering in small knots to shake their heads at damaged buildings. His men were sitting off to the side on empty crates, one of them was entertaining a few children with outlandish stories. There was a general sense of the immediate crisis having passed as dawn's soft light replaced the sharp shadows of night.

Dryden blinked and rubbed his gritty eyes. "It's morning already? And I was looking forward to sleeping tonight..."

Giattu laughed, the first honest cheer Dryden had seen from anyone in Zaibach, and gave Dryden a clap on the back. "That means it's time for work! Rise and greet the day!" He laughed even harder at Dryden's blatant disbelief. "We aren't like you soft, lazy Asturians - we work! We'll both be busy today!" he explained with gusto.

"I think we both can live without exporting that attitude," Dryden said, shaking his head. He stretched and rubbed his eyes again, willing the exhaustion he was just starting to notice to disappear. "I'd better gather my men and head back - we've done about all we can with what we brought. Don't want to overstay our welcome."

Giattu nodded, but stopped him just before he left. "Listen, Fassa," he said. "You're asking a lot of us. Let me give you one last bit of advice: be very careful about your demands. Someone else would've punched you for that first offer."

"Haven't you folks ever heard of haggling?" Dryden grumbled. Louder, he said: "I'll keep that in mind. I'll see you tonight."

Offices were the same all over Gaea.

The head of the factory - Dryden hadn't caught his official title, but that's what it boiled down to - stood behind a heavy desk covered in papers, just like Dryden's father's back home. Sure, there were a few contraptions scattered around, from an arrangement of balls on strings to miniature guymelefs in a variety of poses, but there were dozens of books lining the walls, plush chairs in front of the desk, and the scent of ink thick in the air. There was also the faintest smell of something else Dryden was becoming more familiar with - desperation.

He hadn't gotten to see much of the factory as he came in, but a glimpse was enough to tell him it wasn't making anything. The few workers still there had been sitting drinking at the feet of a massive, half-constructed guymelef instead of putting it together. Metal was cool and still instead of hot and flowing, the sound of whispered voices was louder than the sound of hammers, and there was a thin layer of dust over some of the machines.

Making guymelefs was this town's pride, and it didn't look like they had much left. Whatever Giattu said about selling to Asturians, facts were facts. They needed Dryden as much as he needed them - if not more.

The thought was comforting as he stepped up to the desk and bowed slightly before flopping into one of the chairs with practiced carelessness.

"I heard you wanted to talk to me. Well here I am, as promised," Dryden said, watching the factory head from under the rim of his smoked glasses.

The factory head - Mishta, if he remembered right - sat down himself with fastidious neatness. He was younger than Giattu, with shaggy blond hair and deep circles under his eyes. His robes were clean and well-cut, though distinctly simpler than Strategos Folken's had been. He leaned forward over the desk, fixing Dryden with an intense gaze. "Funny. I heard it was you who wanted to speak with me." His voice was low and scratched.

"That too. In fact, I believe we want to speak to each other about the same thing-"

"You said the Emperor was dead." There was no emotion in Mishta's voice.

Dryden was suddenly very aware that the only person he'd brought along was Nezem, as a gesture of trust. He swallowed and kept cool. "He is. I know I can't prove it, but I heard it from someone who was there, and we've seen nothing to cast doubt on that information."

"Who was there?"

"A woman of impeccable honesty."

Mishta leaned forward just a tiny bit more. "Does this have anything to do with the holy white dragon over the battlefield that returning troops reported?"

"You could say that, yes." Behind him he could hear Nezem stirring. He couldn't hear a thing out of Giattu.

"Well." Mishta leaned back and the tension seemed to go out of him. "Some people are already talking about making the holy white dragon our new god, you know." Dryden wanted to ask what the new god would be replacing, but had a feeling he already knew. Mishta kept going. "Not me. I'm not a religious man. I believe the Emperor was a wise man, an intelligent man, a man who saved our country...but ultimately just a man. All men die someday. The question is what to do afterward."

"You can't just keep going on your own, you know. No matter what you believed before-"

"Do you know what I do believe in, Mr. Fassa?" Mishta cut him off again. "Stability. I believe that one day should be just like the previous, and be followed by a day just like it. The Emperor gave us that, you know - for a time. And now we've lost both."

"That's what happens in war," Dryden said, failing to keep the bite out of his voice. "Everyone loses something. I'm here to make sure it doesn't happen again." Was that a cynical glint in Mishta's eye? Dryden plowed on anyway. "I'm here to make a deal. I'm here to bring stability back and keep Gaea from going to war again. Your factory is idle, you're losing money, and I doubt you're the only one in Zaibach. Let's work together, and both our countries can benefit."

"By restoring Asturia's army." There was a definitely cynical tilt to Mishta's lips. "No. We'll trade in money, if you please. Our coin for gidaru and we'll handle the rest."

"That's not a bad idea," Dryden retreated in hopes of gaining ground later. "Zaibachian coin is renowned for its consistency and honesty." He just hoped he wasn't going to spend the entire trip trading away gidaru for perfectly-made coins that were barely worth the value of the metal.

"Of course it is!" Giattu's voice rang with pride from behind. "We don't suffer corruption here. All our coins come directly from the capitol!"

So that's where the mint was. He should've guessed. And right on cue was Nezem with the flattery: "That's remarkable! Even with our best anti-counterfeiters we can't do that, and the war's made it so much worse! Why, just last week..." and he was off on the quite frankly embarrassing story about how the Fassas had lost hundreds of gidaru on a bad trade, but if it opened Giattu up to bragging about manufacturing methods he could live with the assault on the family dignity - what was left of it, anyway. He left the pair to their discussion and refocused on Mishta with a smile.

"You're not just after our goods, are you." The flat words cut across the room, slicing Nezem's conversational thread before it could get started. Mishta grinned at the surprised expression Dryden realised he was making. "It makes sense. Not just goods, but methods. Sensible of you."

Jisha's teeth. Dryden rallied as best he could. "You can't keep them secret forever. The country is in chaos. All it takes is an artisan or an engineer who wants to get out, make some money in other countries, and then it's over. Or you can control the knowledge by working with an established contact who can employ any intelligent refugees." He had no idea if that was a good idea or not, but it made Mishta settle back into his chair, looking considering.

"I cannot give you our military secrets," he said after a long pause.

Don't worry, we already got those from Strategos Folken, Dryden thought. "I'm not asking for them," he said out loud, racking his mind for an angle. "I told you, Gaea's had enough of war. I want to build the peace." It was dangerous and might get him kicked out, but he took the plunge and said: "Can your factory build anything besides guymelefs? Airships, lights...those little carriages that run above the streets..."

"We build guymelefs, Fassa," Giattu said, his words sharp.

"Can you make them for anything besides killing people?" Dryden didn't manage to keep the edge out of his voice either.

There was a moment of silence, then both Mishta and Giattu burst into laughter.

Nezem crept up behind the bewildered Dryden. "Sir...perhaps we should try a different town? This one..." he whispered.

"No! No, stay!" Mishta managed to gasp out. With difficulty he settled himself again, with the occasional snicker still escaping. "You should have said what you wanted in the first place. Conselfs! Yes! How many do you want? How soon?"

Dryden and Nezem stared. He eventually managed to get out a "...what?"

Mishta and Giattu both went for the little guymelef models at the same time and - after a bit of back and forth - ended up shoving three of them in Dryden's face. "Conselfs!" Giattu declared, suddenly cheerful. "They give one man the strength of dozens! They carry the heaviest loads and don't get tired! With just one you can build a new three-story building in a third the time!"

"No crima claws, no stealth manteus, but see-" Mishta clicked his model's little arms back and forth, revealing some sort of wire-wrapped reel "-a built-in pulley! It makes it much easier to raise scaffolding, and here-" he reached behind him and brought out a tiny metal scoop to attach to the little model "-a shovel for clearing away dirt, rubble, anything. Very easy, very convenient, just a minor extra fee."

The pair were all smiles in front of him while Dryden was still trying to get his head around the idea of guymelefs - legendary machines that took decades to build - being so cheap they could be used in construction. He reached out and touched the little model, and coolly avoided yelping when Mishta dropped it into his hand without preamble. It was surprisingly heavy. Well-made too, each joint moved just like a real guymelef. Even the cockpit opened up, though there was little detail on the inside.

Mishta was going on about the differences between the various models, where one was better for heavy work like demolition and another was smaller and lighter for fitting into narrow areas, like what he called "old-style" streets.

Come to think of it, all the roads in Favodsroy had been absurdly broad. Constructed for guymelefs, not people. Well then.

It was perfect. The best solution, and it had dropped right into his lap. Dryden couldn't resist a broad grin. "I'll take - oh, ten to start with, but I require technicians to maintain them." He had no idea how much Strategos Folken's extensive notes on various military models would translate to these...peaceful creations and wasn't planning on letting anyone here know they had the notes in the first place. "Exclusive contract with the Fassas, an agreed percentage of construction profit goes to you, and..." he raised the little model and shook it. "Can you make any more of these?"

Mishta leaned over to grab some files from his walls with a predatory smile, probably already jacking up whatever prices he had given the imperial government a few hundred percent. "Technicians are impossible," he said with the clear air of someone who is willing to be argued down, "and we need a timeline, and of course..."

While he rambled on with Nezem taking thorough notes, Giattu leaned over Dryden with a conspiratorial smile. "Good eye. My grandchildren love the models, and no one else in the empire has them. They're our innovation!"

Honored Father -

The negotiation has been a success. We now have a contract with Guymelf Factory #11, of Favodsroy, for the next five years inclusive. Details have been included. Please put out the word to watch for Zaibachian refugees with engineering backgrounds - they will be an asset in the days to come.

Dryden put his quill down and rubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand. He never knew how to write a letter to his father, and ended up sounding stilted and formal as a result. "The negotiation has been a success"? What kind of report was that?

One his father would appreciate, but that was neither here nor there.

Maybe he could write to Allen, to get an idea of how Asturia was doing outside of facts and figures. Or Van, and try to arrange more help for rebuilding Fanelia. Or Miller- He cut that thought off before it could coalesce. Not yet. Not until he was the kind of man who could make her fall for him.

He frowned at the letter to his father. The contract was attached. There, honestly, wasn't all that much to add that would interest his father.

I am now headed to Castol, to assess the situation there and see what diplomatic relations are possible.

Possible. That was a hell of a word. According to rumours relayed by Mishta, the bureaucracy was running on sheer inertia and the tattered remnants of the army were too busy hunting down the less-organized-but-more-violent remnants of themselves to worry about the future of the country. Absolutely no one had thought of what to do if Dornkirk died. He was getting the impression that the idea the Emperor /could/ die was very close to blasphemy until it had happened.

Another thing Strategos Folken could have mentioned before he rushed off to kill the closest thing Zaibach had to a god. What a mess.

Mishta had been kind enough to lend him a few guymelefs, under the guise of "protecting his investment". All were piloted by young folk with ties to the capitol - Dryden got the feeling they had just been waiting for convenient transport to check up on their far-flung clans - and they would, theoretically, provide a bit of protection and cultural interpretation.

The latter was honestly what Dryden wanted most. He'd made it through negotiations by everyone involved being very forgiving in the name of Asturian money. He had the feeling that wouldn't last much longer.

Nezem bustled in with another pile of papers, a plate full of dumplings, and some hot kamtcha. "The pilots are gambling with the crew again," he said mournfully. "No one's going to have a scrap of pocket money by the time we get out of here."

"I didn't know you were a gambling rat," Dryden said as he grabbed two dumplings and a cup of kamtcha without looking up. Delicious. Zaibachian cuisine tended to the bland side, no, frankly, the spice situation was dire, but they did have some very interesting root vegetables.

"I'm not!" Nezem bristled. "But when the crew runs out of money, who do you think they turn to? Every single one of them promises to pay me back after the next game, and not a single one has!"

"Mm. Sounds like an opportunity for loans." Loans. That was something that might interest his father, setting out loans to make sure all the industrious little factories would owe the Fassa family money. And it would get Dryden quite a line of credit. He tapped his quill on the page thoughtfully.

"The pilots," Nezem had a way of saying the phrase that clearly delineated between men like Allen and Van and the ragged bunch currently below decks, "are giving quite a few suggestions on where to go first."

"Bring me a list, I'll decide which I'll listen to." He already had a handy chart Mishta had drawn up of people who might, with luck and fate on their side, be willing to listen instead of stabbing him. Most of them were other factory-owners, with a few engineers - not sorcerers, though he was getting a bit confused on the difference - and one army officer Mishta was "pretty sure" had survived and wasn't currently devoted to petty banditry.

It wasn't an awful place to start. Zaibach's industrial capabilities were, quite frankly, even more frightening than he had expected - Dryden was still reeling over Giattu proudly whispering to him that they could make a guymelef in one month, no matter what Mishta claimed - and he wanted to get that on his side as quickly as possible. If they got on to the idea of dominating Gaea economically instead of militarily...well, their coin was the best on the planet. Sadly.

I have industrial contacts, he ended up scribbling, and will be taking the opportunity to assess the remaining capability - terrifying - and any business opportunities - lots, and hope to every god in the heavens and oceans for the latter mitigate the former.

Or some bright bastard in Castol would figure out how Basaram had done it and the next war would end in horrible white light, this time without a miracle of love. Dryden hated to admit it, but only one country on Gaea had the scientific backing to even try to replicate the energist bomb, and there was no way every sorcerer in the palace hadn't been pulled off their horrible child-experiments and onto energists. Once that happened, there was nothing to stop the bombs from spreading across Gaea...well, besides the basic decency of man, but Dryden didn't trust himself to have enough basic decency to handle one of those awful things, let alone anyone else.

"I wish that turncoat was still around," Nezem sighed, sipping at his own kamtcha. "We could use the advice."

Dryden nodded, his thoughts running on the same lines. "He knew more than he had the chance to tell us," he added, more meditative than bitter. Strategos Folken would at least know who to track down about energy research, and what other science Zaibach was hiding - besides turning sweet little girls into psychopathic soldiers. Flying fortresses, stealth manteus, radios... "A real modern Atlantian. He brought the curse of knowledge which can only destroy...or something like that." There was a famous poem, but he never had a head for poetry.

"Don't say that, sir! You'll bring the entire country bad luck!"

Dryden waved off the superstition, much to Nezem's displeasure. "You know I don't believe in that, and even if I did, we've well proven that Gaeans alone can make new tragedies, no Atlantians or Mystic Moon folk required." He leaned back, looking at the ceiling. "Though, admittedly, they certainly help."

Nezem sighed. "They certainly do, sir. Now, about our cash reserves..."

"Huh? They're fine, aren't they? We still have plenty of gidaru."

"Not with how you're spending it! We need to preserve at least this much for bribes!" Nezem pulled out a long list of scribbled figures that he shoved in Dryden's face. "And this is a minimum guess, pulled out and averaged across all the pilots. We might need even more!"

Dryden groaned and looked at the figures with a bleary eye, all thoughts of cursed knowledge and terrible bombs forgotten in the face of banal reality. "We can supplement from our stash of native coin. That's why we have it, isn't it?"

"Not with the brand new exchange rates we're getting from Asturia we can't! Now look here..." he pulled out another set of figures, and which Dryden took with another heavy sigh. It was going to be a long night.

The ship sailed on.