You Have the Water
This story takes place during Insurrection, primarily on 1 May, 27 CLE.
Noxus and Zaun knew Qa’hhar would rebel, and relied upon the inevitability of an insurrection in their long-term strategic planning. More than that, Grand General Jericho Swain deliberately agitated Qa’hhar toward rebellion, the “dirty work” carried out at a distance with Governor Sorinius Felk as his disposable puppet, with the intent of exposing and annihilating those elements which might undermine lasting Noxian rule. (He had used this method in 24 CLE to consolidate his domestic power, fomenting a Reformist rebellion and then obliterating his enemies when they came out from hiding.) Students of this period must appreciate that, should this book travel back in time to 27 CLE and end up in the hands of the Noxian High Command or Zaun’s chem-barons, they would not be at all surprised to find “THE QA’HHARIAN INSURRECTION” in the table of contents. What would surprise them would be the date: “1 May, 27 CLE”.
It appears that, for all the grand schemes of Noxus and Zaun, the insurrection in Qa’hhar happened when it did simply because of the rash act of one person, who was having a very bad day.
—Magnus Hersevier, “A History of Shurima in the League Era”
Sorinius had woken up just a little groggy, with the musty taste of old alcohol on his tongue and the dry citrus burn of Spirox in his nose: the familiar after-effect of his nightly routine. It was a small price to pay for dreamless sleep.
He began the morning as he had begun every morning for over a year now: skimming the briefing report for news that Jericho Swain was dead. Once again, he was disappointed.
In the audience hall inside the capitol building, he wrote orders to his officers, filling page after page with excruciating detail, until the ache in his right hand bent his fingers into a gnarled claw. Bone-freezing cold throbbed out from the center of his forearm, where the mummy had seized him as he fought for what little glory there could be in defending this wretched city from the Black Winter. Half his troops had died around him, along with most of his best officers—the ones who followed him rather than cowering in the back lines—including both of those who had served alongside him in Shon-Xan. All of his mages, too, infected by the miasma surrounding the undead army. All except that useless Jovainus Yorksinson. His battle-mages, dead. His healers, dead. Anyone who might be able to cure him of this agonizing wound, dead. But how perfect that he still had Jovainus Yorksinson, ensuring that the Eighth Legion retained the capacity to write papers for the Institute of War on theoretical thaumadynamics.
He tried to slide his thumb down the quill, which brought fresh agony pulsing all the way up into his elbow. He stifled a gasp, and turned on the pain as though it were an enemy on the field. He gripped his forearm tight, squeezed it down to the bone, crushed the half-numbed throb into eye-shaking pain. He used the oldest magic he knew, compressing the soft, weak pain into diamond-hard hatred of weakness. The harder he squeezed, the more it hurt, and the more it hurt, the harder he squeezed. Magic seethed through him. The shadow his arm cast on the table deepened, thickened, curled up into oily smoke. He drew in a breath, and with a shout he slammed the gnarled fist down into the table. The entire room dimmed as the blackness drank in the light. He breathed again, and it was gone. He could feel the gap in his mind into which the pain would return, in time, but for now, his thoughts were clear again.
He finished writing the orders, and, finally, a letter to Jericho Swain. It began without pretense: It is getting hotter every day.
Just before noon, he saw Eshe, the captain of his city watch. When she unbelted her sword and held it out to him, he was not surprised. He was, however, caught somewhat off-guard when the laconic Eshe launched into what sounded like a prepared speech.
“Yesterday I had to order my watch to draw their swords on people they grew up with. Those people were on the streets because they needed water. Because of you, Governor, those people had to choose between water and food. They backed down this time. I don’t think they will next time. I’m giving you this sword before I have to swing it at someone because I’m standing between them and water for their family.”
Then, silence. Is she waiting for applause? He stared back at her, making no move to take the sword she was holding out to him, and waited for her expression to falter. Finally, it did.
He raised his eyebrows. “Did Jha’mai Ci’tum help you with that speech, Captain?”
“When you had dinner with her, last night.” He smiled. “I’m no spymaster, Eshe. We both know I wouldn’t have been banished to this miserable sandheap if I were particularly clever at that kind of thing. But I do somehow manage to hear about it when you have dinner in public with Shurima’s leading powerbroker.”
He took the sword from her, pausing to consider the Noxian crest stamped on the hilt, and set it on his desk.
“I don’t suppose you’d care to recommend a successor, Eshe.”
“I don’t suppose I would, Sorinius.”
“I wouldn’t, either,” he agreed, and handed her the pouch in which he’d set aside her remaining wages after hearing the news of the riot.
He turned back to the letter. After the Black Winter, Sorinius had written to Swain, explaining that it would prove impossible to replenish the Eighth so long as Zaun’s mines were paying workers almost twice a legionary’s salary. He had already raised taxes to the maximum allowed by the treaty Swain had signed with Zaun during the construction of the aqueduct. Assuming that Noxus had invested in Qa’hhar in order to expand the ranks of its legions with Shuriman soldiers, and not merely as an expensive private torment for Sorinius, Swain would need to send more funds, or else convince Zaun to let him tax their workers who had taken up residence in Qa’hhar. I must have the money from the treasury, or I must have the power to take it by taxation. I have no other option.
He shook his head and smiled hatefully as he recalled Swain’s reply, scrawled in a carelessly large and rapid hand. You have the water.
Only Jericho Swain could have written such a message. Its meaning was as clear as it was repugnant. But Sorinius had long ago learned that he had no choice in the matter. And so he had tripled the price of water for civilians, and halved it for legionaries. Those who were fit for service swiftly joined the legions; the rest rioted. There had been four water riots so far, counting last night among them. Eshe was probably right. The past four times, a show of force had been enough. Next time, he’d have to make good on this threat. He’d been killing these people by degrees for more than a year now, much as this place had been slowly killing him. Soon, they would go too far, and he would cut them down. After the first massacre, there would be no turning back. He and the city would plunge into hell together. But he was Noxian. He would survive, and they would die.
Sorinius had killed many times: to survive, to advance his career, to take something that he wanted and his enemy would not surrender. He was not squeamish. Yet he took no great pleasure in this posting, where he killed because Swain wanted him to kill, or the path it was leading him down. Surely even the Shurimans understood this was not so much an appointment as a particularly unpleasant banishment. He had come back from Shon-Xan. He’d listened a little too much to what Riven said. And, fool he was, he spoke out against Swain when the Reformists rioted in Noxus, and Riven…did whatever it was that Riven had been doing in Piltover. And then the Zaunite tanks had rolled in, and Swain brought in those hidden reserves of his. There was no revolution; there was a massacre. He’d not been surprised at all when, the next day, he’d opened his eyes to find Katarina duCouteau standing over his bed. He had been surprised at what she’d said: not die, traitor but, congratulations, Governor. She’d then pressed into his chest not a knife but, instead, sealed orders from Jericho Swain giving him command of the Eighth Legion, and sending him to Shurima.
The noon report came in. His eye skimmed down the list until he found, at the end, a freshly added note that the price of Spirox had increased twenty-five percent. Of course it had. Of course it had. But the chem-barons were far away, and he was right here, and so the rioters would be his problem.
One did not have to be the sort of strategic mastermind that Swain claimed to be in order to see the next steps in this sequence. The increased price would leave those who were not fit for service in the legion with a choice between Spirox to stave off the Void sickness and water. They would riot. He would slaughter them. Then, having done the High Command’s dirty work of purging the unfit and disloyal, he would himself be eliminated. Qa’hhar would probably throw a parade for Cassiopeia, and cheer her for freeing them from mad Sorinius Felk.
He took out a sheet of parchment, and wrote an order that the price of water be reduced by a third. It would buy him a little time. Unlike the sycophants in the capital, he did not believe that Swain was infallible. This would give him a little more time to wait for Swain to err.
Cutting the price of water would dry up the treasury, and something else had to be cut. So he took out another sheet, and wrote a further order, directing that the budget for the southwestern fortress be cut in half, suggesting that rubble bound together with cement be substituted for the solid stone in the original plans, and that the skilled Noxian craftsmen be replaced with whatever local laborers could be found. As to the name, let it be known as Fort Jericho.
In the conference room on the top floor of the Kommerzbank building, Cassiopeia DuCouteau settled back into her chair. And it was indeed her chair. No one else would have comfortably fit into its contours.
“A fifteen-percent discount on beta-grade Spirox is not a serious offer,” she said. “So I hope you will do the courtesy of apologizing profusely for it. Will it be research and development costs this time? Or did you try your best to convince the shareholders but they just would not have any of it?”
Tense smiles answered her. She pushed a little more.
“If you are powerless to bargain competently with me, and persist in pretending otherwise, then you have insulted House DuCouteau and the Noxian High Command.”
The weasel-eyed, rabbit-jawed man from the Corporate Administration Bureau, Zelton Brikkler, had the temerity to square up his shoulders and answer as though he were somehow her equal. Her eyes roamed over his suit, the receding line of his hair, and the way his stimulant-addled hands fidgeted on the table as he spoke.
“Spirox is the most effective anti-Void medication developed. It was developed in Zaun. We expect to get paid for our results. House DuCouteau isn’t a big buyer, and so frankly, I think you sound more than a little ridiculous throwing that name around like we care what House DuCouteau thinks, any more than we care where General duCouteau’s body washed up.”
She looked down his shiny forehead and at last stopped with a dead stare into his eyes. Just as his grin faltered, she began to speak.
“Your Spirox is a cure for a disease that you have caused, with your refineries. You are polluting the air that Noxian subjects breathe. You helped us build Qa’hhar, and now you are killing it.”
She looked around the table. “Do you understand that Noxus is not your enemy? Do you understand that Demacia would burn this filthy place to the ground if it could? We need legions. We need warriors. You need us to have them.”
Lysandra Velnoth, the chem-baron who profited most from Spirox, tapped the back of her pen against the table with a cool click of steel on marble. “Those refineries are essential to chemtech weapons development. Those weapons beat Demacia in Shurima not so long ago.”
She held up a hand. “But. This is a negotiation. Let’s compromise.” She looked to the side. “I don’t mind saying in front of our Noxian associates that I think the Bureau has been too lenient with Zafion and the others. The pollution levels could be reduced.”
“That is not on the table, and you know that,” hissed Zafion’s CEO, Helma Oshlash.
Cassiopeia smiled. “Dueling is not a Zaunite tradition, is it? A shame. I suppose you will have to fight it out with lawyers instead.”
Velnoth looked back at Cassiopeia. “Yes, we’re unrepentedly savage that way.”
Cassiopeia let herself grin for a moment. She liked Velnoth. “What offer is it that you are asking me to bring back to the Grand General?”
Oshlash answered instead. “We are willing to conduct an economic feasibility study on a new techmaturgic filter design.”
Velnoth scowled. “Now, we really are insulting her.”
Oshlash pressed her absurd line. “With a commitment to report back within a month and re-open negotiations at that time, if Noxus agrees not to raise tariffs in the interim. That’s the only way we get all the corps on board.”
“Oh, Zaun. If you could only set aside your squabbling for one day, you’d conquer Valoran by the end of it. As it is, you bargain like a guild of bickering tradesmen.” Cassiopeia rose, and her contingent rose with her. She let her smile sink and cool. “Once more Noxus must discipline our ally, for her own good. You will not curb your profits, and so Noxus will exercise that restraint on your behalf. Taxes will be imposed on Spirox imports, in an amount the High Command deems appropriate, and the funds used to pay the legions that will defend our common interests. And so you will never have to find out just how inadequate your HexKorps toy soldiers would be in a real war.”
She looked at Oshlash. “Another meeting will take place when you have reduced the pollution from your refineries by half.” Oh, yes, and Brikkler. Without looking his way, she added, “He will not be brought into my sight again.”
As she went down the hall leading from the conference room, she looked to her aide, and gestured with an open hand. Naleria dutifully presented a case with two sealed packets inside, one bound with a black ribbon, the other with red. Cassiopeia slipped her hand inside, and pinched the black-ribboned packet with her long nails. She took it from the case and handed it to Naleria. She’d known before that theater began that she’d be using this one. If only the Zaunites had surprised her. “Orders for Governor Felk,” she explained. “No changes are required.”
Naleria nodded. She glanced to either side, and after confirming that no Zaunites had slipped into the corridor, she asked, “Are you certain you don’t want me to soften the numbers?”
Cassiopeia shook her head. “The Zaunites must see we are serious.” Noting the anxiety on Naleria’s face, she added, “Felk need only maintain order for perhaps another two months. We will have what we need from Zaun by then. The risk is acceptable. We will simply have to monitor him, to ensure he does nothing rash.”
She paused, and smiled. “Bring me Talon. Tell him that House DuCouteau requires his services once again.”
Kesir forced open the cap of her last vial of Spirox, which she’d used two nights ago, the last night she’d slept. The faint chemical scent that escaped, and the subtle blue-green glow of the residual powder coating the inside of the vial, made her smile. It would be enough to get her through the night. Tomorrow, she’d get paid. She could get more. She could sleep a good long while. After that? Well, that would be something she’d leave to her future well-rested self to figure out.
She remembered. Lying in her bed. A figure in the corner. Eyes. And then it had raised its hand.
Stop. Stop thinking about it. Don’t let it inside your head.
She thought about her paycheck instead. She’d get paid tomorrow. She’d treat herself to a nice lunch.
She poured a little oasis-water into the vial, replaced the cap, and shook it until she heard it start to pop and hiss. She released the cap, and breathed in the pale blue vapor. She fell back on her bed, and was asleep in seconds.
But it wasn’t enough. The Dead Queen came for her again.
She awoke to the creaking of bones. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t see.
You have what I want.
The air thickened with the smell of decay.
She fought to open her eyes, to look toward the corner by the door, terrified she’d find the Queen there again. She pried them open, and her body jerked against the paralysis that bound it in place when she saw two glowing purple eyes. The Queen was not where she had been before. She was at the foot of her bed, gazing down.
She tried to scream. A strangled groan was all she could manage. Too quiet for anyone to hear. No one could hear her. No one could help her. No one would even know.
You have my blood.
Her eyes trembled shut. In the darkness, she prayed for this to end. Emperor Azir, be with me! She heard creaking again, getting closer. It was getting closer.
He does not hear your prayers. But I have heard them. I will answer them.
She fought to open her eyes, to throw herself off the bed and run, but every muscle in her body was stiff.
She felt sharp prods on her stomach. Fingertips, thin, and hard.
The voice was beside her.
Her eyes snapped open and she saw the Dead Queen’s face inches from hers. Leaning over her. Rotten cloth stretched over leathery skin and yellowed bone.
Kesir screamed from the bottom of her lungs. She felt the terror burning something away, burning part of her away. Making room for something else. She knew with certainty that she wasn’t herself anymore. Not just herself. Less, and more. More thoughts. Alien thoughts, skittering inside her skull.
Yellow eyes blinked in the shadows of her room.
She heard someone pounding on her door.
She closed her eyes, laughing.
Jovainus Yorksinson, the useless mage, arrived with an absurdly young woman wearing the armor of a senior officer.
“Governor Sorinius Felk, I bring greetings from the High Command,” she said, snapping off a salute.
“Alright. Tell them I said hello,” he said, and went back to his reading.
There was an uncomfortable pause as the girl tried to curl her lip, and furrow her brow, and turn up her nose, all in a way that said I am not surprised by your disrespect but wish to make it clear that I have contempt for your disloyal attitude. The final result was something you might see on a half-drowned cat pulled out of the bath.
Sorinius looked up, to Jovainus. “Captain Eshe resigned.”
Jovainus nodded, slowly.
Sorinius turned to the sublegate once more. He recalled her name from the briefing report: Velina Sesso. It had not mentioned that she was, so far as he could tell, about fifteen years old.
“Eshe was the captain of the city watch,” he explained. “So if you’d like to commit any crimes in Qa’hhar, now is an excellent time to do so.”
She twisted up her young face even further, into grimacing parody of premature old age. “You understand, Governor, that I will have to report this latest setback to the High Command.” She ratcheted her pauldroned shoulders back yet further, proving that it was, surprisingly, within the realm of physiological possibility to make her stiff posture even stiffer. “Your lack of progress has nearly exhausted their patience. The Eighth Legion is still not at full strength.”
She glanced at Jovainus, who looked distinctly uncomfortable, then back to Sorinius. “Perhaps you would prefer I deliver the High Command’s message in private,” she said, graciously.
Jovainus clearly did not want to be stuck between these two at this moment. “I’m sorry, sir, I was coming to bring you the report you, ah, requested, about my re—”
Sorinius spoke over him, eyes fixed on the sublegate. “I prefer it when the High Command’s messages are not delivered by teenagers.”
Her voice was cold, brittle. “Restoring the Eighth to fighting strength is to be your primary—”
Sorinius stood. “Give me the papers the grown-ups gave you, and get out of my sight.”
That set her off. “I am not a child!” she shouted back.
“So children often say.” He snatched the packet of papers from her hand, and slapped it down on the desk beside the stacks of signed orders from this morning. “Now you have your story about mad Sorinius Felk to share in the capital. I cannot conceive what else you might possibly hope to g—”
A guard appeared at the door. “Governor! Governor Felk!” He came to a halt, and threw a hasty salute. “Forgive my intrusion, sir, but you must see this.”
From a little patch of shade in just the spot where nobody would think to look, Talon scanned the crowd outside the capitol. This was ahead of schedule. He would need to find a way to stop it, soon.
Felk came out of the capitol with the High Command’s sublegate on one side and the mage Yorksinson on the other. A glance at Felk’s reddening face told him he that he would need to come up with that plan very soon indeed.
Felk bellowed to the crowd. “Do you not see how this will end? Are you such great fools as that?” He waved his hand dismissively. “Of course you are. Of course you are!”
Talon looked over the crowd for a leader. His gaze stopped on Ra’hum Jhi’marr, the warlord Felk had recruited to hunt down the bandits who pilfered water from the aqueduct. The soldiers respected him, certainly more than they respected Felk. He could exercise some control.
Jhi’marr was already talking, gesturing to those around him. His body language was calming, steadying. Talon relaxed. The crowd was under his control. Felk’s shouting and scowling would amount to nothing worse than embarrassment for the washed-up Reformist scoundrel.
Talon whipped his head toward the sound. A rock was still rebounding from where it had struck Felk’s breastplate. He breathed out and let the world slow.
The rock, in midair. Its trajectory. Follow it back. The crowd. Where. From outside the apothecary. A woman, thrashing as others tried to restrain her.
He let the other sounds fade out, and listened. One of the people holding the crazed woman pleaded with her. “Kesir! What are you doing?!”
In the edge of Talon’s vision, he saw the sublegate pointing at the woman, Kesir. “Bring that wretch forward! To assault the person of the Governor is treason against Noxus!”
Governor Felk, for his own part, did not seem so perturbed. But even from this distance, Talon could sense the subtle tension around his eyes that suggested he knew how dangerous this situation had become.
“And as Governor of this province, I hereby pardon her for it!” he shouted. He forced a laugh. “Whoever has the courage to hurl a stone at Sorinius Felk is fit for the legions.”
Talon’s internal musings that Felk’s trek toward total insanity had at last crossed the speaks of himself in the third person line came to a sudden halt, as his well-trained subconscious told him that something much more pressing warranted his attention.
The struggling between Kesir and her friends changed. They were losing their grip.
He slid a knife into his hand. Kesir burst free. She moved forward fast, too fast for natural movement. Magic. Like a Ghost spell, but not cast by any Summoner he could see.
Felk thrust his hand forward. Mana swirled into a vortex centered on him, then burst out at the charging woman. A tendril of shadow magic slithered out to grapple her, but slid off her aura and dissolved. That’s when he saw it, unmistakably: the slippery alien sheen of Void energy.
Talon raised his knife. It would strike true, where Felk’s antiquated sorcery had failed. You’re welcome, Governor.
Kesir seized Felk. He lost his balance, and began to fall backwards. Kesir’s hands went for his throat. Talon readied a stealth spell. He would vanish before his blade struck.
Holding the stealth spell in his mind, he channeled a killing curse into the knife, intensifying it to ensure no flicker of Void magic would turn it aside.
And then the sublegate by Felk’s side ripped her dagger from her belt and plunged it into Kesir’s back.
Talon felt the crowd’s rage rise up, hotter than the afternoon sun on his face.
He lowered his knife. He had been too slow. And now it would all happen too fast. Felk was fated for this end. His disloyalty had assured him of that. But now was not the time.
He cursed himself. If it had been a knife from the shadows, it would have been a mystery. But a sublegate of the High Command had stabbed an unarmed woman to death on the steps of the capitol. That was not a mystery; that was an outrage.
The Governor’s guards dragged him back into the capitol, and at least he had the sense to allow it. Ra’hum Jhi’mar had called his troops to his side. The crowd was backing away. They would disperse. But this was not over. Within minutes, a dozen little bands would be muttering to one another in their little corners. Their leaders would see their chance, and just enough of them would take it.
Talon’s mind raced, taking in every detail of the scene, searching for some sign that he was wrong. He found no such relief.
He turned and vanished back into the shadows.