Garen Crownguard was no longer a painter. His mother fed him steel and trained him with hard sticks until his hands had calloused into fists. But Garen Crownguard had a painters spirit. The brush became a sword, but he still painted in his own image.
He liked to think that it was so, but memories of Kalamanda haunted the minds of all who knew the truth. Jarvan's orders had been to take no prisoners. Garen still didn't know if he would have followed those orders. Had he been a piker and another man had tried to save their sister... he didn't know.
But that pressure tipped his paint, and now he had a series of splotches to organize into an image he wanted to create. His mother still supplied the paint. She had promised Gold and White. But the strangers who greeted him in the Crownguard entryway wore Red and Black trench coats from the Rune War.
Both men saluted, but one wore a liar's smile.
“Jonathan Mayfield,” he'd murmured.
His voice did not echo.
“This is Talon,” Mayfield added. Another Noxian trench coat, and another new face.
With a nod to Lilia, he finished, “and this is Garen Crownguard?”
That was Mayfield: Quiet; Controlling his information; An intense glare.
Talon had spoken a little more- shaken every hand. His expression revealed that he knew- or knew of- Garen. Lilia seemed familiar with everyone already. She had told Garen they were coming.
“There's a summit in Freljord,” she'd said. “We have an agenda that we can't negotiate openly. You will be leaving this week as part of an inter-state force.”
We. Interstate. “We” did not mean Demacia. He had been told only that he would be serving his country- That his orders would be given only by a superior he was to meet. Garen did not like the colors on this pallet.
But his mother's words chilled action to thought, and thought to obedience.
“Serve our nation well. Serve Valoran well. Oh and-”
“I love you, mother,” he'd predicted.
Their guests had picked up on his strained tone.
“Excellent,” Lilia answered. “But not what I-”
“Kill Noxians?” Garen interrupted.
Lilia's lips were tense, as were Talon's. So he was right. It offered no consolation as Lilia finished.
“No. Keep a journal of everything that happens. And be thorough, darling. You're very forgetful.”
She nodded, meaning that he was to take her words literally and to the death. Garen nodded back, and was suddenly on the road with two men he knew little to nothing about. The journal was not for him. His mother was demanding a report.
December 1st, 5 CLE
I recognize “Mayfield” from the embassy in Bilgewater. He killed the Noxian ambassador. General Laurent and I rescued him. Talon appears to be a Noxian himself, but has expressed no allegiance.
Our equipment includes Zaunite craftsmanship, but was delivered by a Demacian quartermaster. Our orders are delivered to Mayfield in envelopes sealed by black roses. Their contents are shared only by Mayfield's mouth. Talon knows me by some fame. Mayfield knows more. By virtue of knowledge- he is in charge.
December 2nd, 5 CLE
We have embarked on the road to Freljord. The sign reads: “Road from Freljord.”
A line of immigrants agrees.
December 3rd, 5 CLE
2 days north of Howling Marshes. Large construction on The Serpentine. A
Piker squad claimed the property belonged to the “Summoners' League” and demanded papers.
Mayfield had blank papers, but they were accepted.
December 5th, 5 CLE
Midday stop at Noxian checkpoint near Ironspike mines. Mayfield's blank papers are accepted.
Well guarded shipment passing south. Murmurs of Obsidian.
Garen sat squished under the tip of a ready pen. His mother's gaze was the hand holding it down on him. From the edge of a bed, he stared through the pane of a window into its closed shutters. Between him and her lay the furious ice-winds of freljord, the Serpentine River, the Howling Marshes- most of Valoran. But her gaze remained.
The journal was in his lap. His journey had passed through Noxian land, through several of their checkpoints, even. He had passed the Howling Marshes on his left, and the peaks of the Ironspike line on his right. There had been a brief interruption on a bend of the Serpentine river. Garen flipped back and reread the entry. He hadn't realized that the Summoners' League was purchasing real estate.
Why? Why not?
The journal closed and tucked into his tunic, releasing his mind to the present, to the wailing ice-winds of Rakelstrake, Freljord. He disliked when the name played in his mind or on his tongue. He disliked the weather. He disliked his companions.
In the lobby, an hour later, Mayfield was waiting for him. The lobby was an atrium with massive glass windows so the morning sun could glare. Every decoration was flanked by white banners with gold lining. They seemed like shining snow-banks more than an inversion of Demacia's colors. Mayfield and his shadow were the room's only darkness. He was standing by a couch under the windows, and glaring with the sun at a painting on the far wall. It spanned the same length as the three-story windows.
Garen's question went unanswered. Mayfield's posture did not shift to greet him, but his brow shifted into a question. Pause.
“We've been traveling together for a week,” Mayfield hummed.
His eyes stayed to the painting, but Garen was relieved to see Mayfield's stoic form finally shift. His jaw unhooked and began chewing thoughts. Garen pressed on.
“We're still waiting for Talon, then?”
He had to wait three chews for Mayfield to nod. The painting had his full attention. It was old, probably an important part of Freljord's history- somehow purchased by the hotel's Zaunite owners.
The two centers of focus on the painting were a woman and a god, both naked. The woman was gripping a black rose in her right hand, despite its thorns, and was crying out in agony as she fell into a pool of her own blood. The entire rest of the image was a pantheon of angry deities descending upon her. But one in particular stood out, holding that army at bay with his sword. Garen did not know the names of the Old Gods, or of this one.
So he sighed, feeling the fatigue of travel catch him, and turned to sit in the couch. Talon appeared a moment later, too quietly for Garen's taste. He wore a Noxian trench coat from the Rune War, just like Mayfield's, but his stature was far more fluid and natural. Garen nodded his hello, and was relieved to see that Talon had similar manners.
“Mayfield, right?” Talon asked.
Mayfield let the echo fade before nodding at the painting.
“So...” Talon pressed. “I still haven't been told what we're doing.”
He and Garen watched Mayfield's jaw stretch to chew over a particularly large thought before it finally locked into place.
“Garen will be attending the summit as our spotter,” Mayfield remembered. “You have credentials. You're a Demacian Diplomat.”
He handed them to Garen in an envelope, parting a black, wax rose to reveal Gold and White emblems. Garen could paint with that.
Mayfield turned away from the painting, finally, and turned to Talon.
“We're here for an international gathering called by the Summoners' League. The topic is the Rune War Concordant. After the Rune War, a large group of summoners decided that rules should be set on the use of magic- in order to save the environment. This summit has been called to revise the concordant that was signed at that one.”
“Yeah,” he heard Talon add. “We know.”
“Among the dignitaries are three locals: Mauvole, Ashe, and Sejuani. You've heard of them, I assume.”
Garen nodded. Talon's head shook. Mayfield stored an annoyed thought with a tilt of his head, then explained.
“Some time in the past, a woman named Avarosa died. Legend now holds that she was a goddess, and therefore rightful ruler of...” he gestured out the window into an inhosptibale storm.
“This,” he murmured.
“She had three daughters. Sejuani, Ashe, and Mauvole claim that they are the first borns of the direct descendants of those three daughters. That makes them distant cousins, but they call themselves the Three Sisters. There's some primitive belief about firstborns inheriting divinity. So their tribes like to who's-who about the holies. This makes international affairs unreliable. They vote just to spite each other. Talon, you and I will secure those votes. Garen, you will write down everything those three women do in-”
Garen's eyes shot up from the Demacian documents.
Mayfield paused, annoyed.
“Yes. Women- write down what they say and do. If everything goes well, we meet here every night.”
Mayfield checked their faces for comprehension, and was disappointed to see none.
“We knew all of that. Why not send diplomats? Why Garen Crownguard? Why me?”
Talon's arms folded, obviously unhappy. Garen nodded his agreement. Mayfield scowled.
“Here are a few, more valuable, questions. Why are Noxus and Demacia working together in international affairs while they're at war? Why are the gods involved? Why does the Serpentine flow inland? Those are questions that don't contain their own answers.”
Mayfield's scowl, and Garen's impression of him, sharpened as he continued.
“Now let's take a look at your question, Talon. 'Why have three assassins been assigned to a political task?'”
He let the thought sink in before turning to Garen.
There's a carriage out front on it's way to the summit.”
And that was all the explanation they had. The group split up, Talon with Mayfield and Garen with his journal.
December 7th, 5 CLE
Noxus does not like Yordles. Piltover does not like Zaun.
The assembly was hosted in a circular room of some historical significance. The sisters- Ashe, Sejuani, and Mauvole- had seats of honor at equal heights in the farthest corners of the room. An inner ring was reserved for each princess' younger sisters. The younger sisters, while not considered divine, were still important to politics. They formed triangular courts beneath each major throne.
Separating them, at the center of the room, was a square of tables, the seated dignitaries of Zaun, Piltover, Noxus, and Demacia. Garen was the only dignitary who sat alone. The other three tables were a constant motion of whispers between at least three dignitaries and five aides each.
The thrones around the outer ring were harried by aides, bodyguards, diplomats, sycophants, and hierophants. And the middle ring was a constant murmur of gossip. A thousand words passed his ears, and he still wasn't sure what to write.
The day had begun with an argument in the inner square after the Triarchs, three competing Princesses, agreed that the meeting should begin. Piltover immediately proposed that Bandle City be included in the international community. Noxus declared that Yordles are not people. Zaun's Trader Commission asked what would stop dogs from inclusion. Nothing productive or meaningful was screamed after that. It's a slippery slope.
The next argument had to do with trade restrictions. Every nation wanted more of these and less of those imported. Garen had missed how that argument transitioned from goods to people, but winter immigration was suddenly a topic. And from there, the discussion finally became the thing it was about: Winter. A chill streaked through the room when it heard its name.
Garen shifted his weight, hugging diplomat's robes closer to himself. It was only then that he noticed Mayfield was sitting next to him, still wearing the Noxian trench coat. A Noxian realized the same with a double take from across the room. But Mayfield's glare was focused on princess Mauvole, so Garen followed it, trying to find whatever had caught his interest.
Mauvole, like her sisters, had platinum hair and snow-white skin. Whatever differences existed, Garen couldn't spot. Royal-White dresses, makeup (was it?), and her expression. Garen hadn't decided yet which one was a goddess, if any, but each of them seemed to have the answer. That was the expression that she wore: Divinity.
Garen tilted his head to Mayfield and whispered under the din of murmurs.
“You said the gods were involved. You believe that?”
For a moment, Garen had expected that Mayfield would explain himself. The man seemed fond of talking, whenever prompted. But his lips were never so loose as to be useful. His glare left the Three Sisters for Garen, and became an incredulous scowl.
“Of course. The wind blew against us the whole way here.”
And his face was entirely serious.
“It's Winter. It does that. It blows south in Winter.”
Garen felt the way Mayfield looked, as if the other man was missing the common and obvious truth.
“Garen, we crossed the Serpentine twice. The bridges back had us traveling south. The wind was in our face no matter the direction. Does it usually do that?”
His scowl was holding some in reserve, waiting for Garen's response. He didn't feel a strong urge to argue religion with an assassin in the center of a political conference. Discretion is the better part of Valor. But just as he sat back in his chair to write what Noxus was shouting, Mayfield pursued.
“And when we hit the first snowfall, we picked up a shadow without a shadow.”
Mayfield was fond of either codes or puzzles. Garen couldn't tell if they were meant to be solved. He didn't care.
“Well, I didn't see her,” Garen grumbled.
“I suppose you don't remember what she handed you, either.”
Mayfield reached into his trench coat and revealed a thin, satin ribbon. Garen did remember, very suddenly. He had been left to unpack the carriage while Talon secured the hotel room and Mayfield presented his credentials. A woman had approached Garen, handed him a ribbon for Mayfield, and...
Garen flipped his journal back to that day. The woman had spoken to him. She had told him the most amazing truths- the very secrets of the universe- and here before him, in his very lap, was the evidence: An entire page of words covered by scribbles. The only unharmed information was a poorly drawn gear with math next to it that Garen didn't know. He had known it. She had explained it to him, but the knowledge was simply gone from his mind.
Garen turned back to Mayfield, remembering where he was, and feeling suddenly insecure in his sanity.
“How did I forget that?”
It was a demand, not a query.
Mayfield nodded, replacing the ribbon.
“You handed this to me, scribbled on your notes, and forgot... because a goddess told you to. So... Why are the gods so interested in our presence?”
Mayfield's gaze fell to Ashe, then turned over to Sejuani.
Garen caught his drift.
“You think one of them... really?”
“The stories came from somewhere.”
Garen's head shook.
“I'm not sure,” he mumbled. And he reexamined the Sister before him, Mauvole, as a deity instead of a woman. He saw light gleaming off of her in a way he would not expect from any mortal. He saw what her followers must see.
“Well,” Mayfield was about to say.
“-of anything,” Garen interrupted. “I'm not sure of anything right now.”
“No, no, no,” Mayfield whispered.
“One thing's for sure.”
Garen broke his observations to see that Mayfield's focus had shifted to another of the Sisters.
He finished, “Those... those are divine breasts.”
Garen had nothing to add, and instead scribbled the Zaunite diplomat's weather control proposition into his lap. Mayfield glanced down at the notes, then sneaked away as soon as Garen was busy. And so the week progressed. Arguments began daily with inconsequential topics, devolved into semantics, and were then discarded in favor of insane propositions. And daily, Mayfield would appear at Garen's side to check his notes, and would depart on the heels of a disconcerting thought about what was real, and what was divine.
A week of epistemology did not prepare Garen's mind for the madness of the coming politics.
December 14th, 5 CLE
Princess Mauvole's camp has rented an entire floor of our inn.
Down in the lobby of the Hextech inn, Talon and Garen gathered for a morning hello under the sun's glare. Like the rest of the week, the sun's rays blinded anyone who looked at the window, and cast sharp shadows of any guest. Unlike the rest of the week, Mayfield was missing. Talon's cautious worry was plain under his hood, and obvious in his posture through the trench coat. He looked how Garen felt. On any other day, Mayfield would be standing near them and staring into the painting's mysteries. Instead, they were huddling their gossip, trading notes- and avoiding the ears of a strange woman.
Her hair was Freljord-blonde, her features were Zaunite, and her robes were Freljord White- their color for victory. But her gaze was distinctly Mayfield, and her eyes were alternating between the painting and a book in her arms.
“Small thorns and a large mouth,” she declared.
Garen and Talon both turned to see they were being addressed. They had not learned to trust each other, but they trusted this woman less. An exchange of looks confirmed this.
“Tell him I said hi,” she added. “Or don't.”
Her book snapped shut over a red ribbon, saving the page, and she set it down on a table sturdier than its couch. She smiled, winked, and stepped into the sun's glare. Garen and Talon's eyes followed, and squinted in the mistake. When they looked again, she had vanished.
Strange. Familiar. The ribbon fell in to place in Garen's mind, and another clue struck Talon.
“'Shadow without a shadow?'”
He eyed Garen as if the question meant life or death.
“I don't know. That's what he said. 'We were followed by a shadow without a shadow.'”
Talon nodded. “She didn't have a shadow.”
The moment was broken by Mayfield's arrival.
“This is inconvenient,” he murmured. Garen and Talon were fast enough to catch him wiping blood from his hands as he entered.
“Someone's been warding our rooms. Talon, we have work to do. Garen. Summit. Go.”
Mayfield left the conversation at that and turned to leave, but stopped mid-stride as if sensing something. His gaze turned to the painting, bringing Garen and Talon in tow. The woman in the painting had changed, and was now a smiling mockery of the woman they'd just seen. Mayfield's eyes fell from there to the book on the table.
He held the bookmark, the red ribbon, in a finger's caress before dropping it and continuing out. His only comment was an observation.
“Eevie's Rose,” he murmured- The name of the book.
So Garen left for the summit, and finally had entries worth writing.
December 14th, 5 CLE
Princess Mauvole rented out the entire second floor of our inn and moved her party in. Someone warded our rooms. Mayfield killed someone. A strange woman was in the lobby, but disappeared. Princess Mauvole's younger sister Lissandra is missing.
One of the younger sisters, from the middle ring of thrones, was missing on Mauvole's side.
And for the first time at the summit, the “Three Sisters” made a contribution to the discussion at hand. What had before been squabbles over who was holier than thou suddenly became a motion. Mauvole's posture had been especially rigid for the proceedings, and her sentences were short with her breath. But she sat up higher and held a steady tone to interrupt a dispute about the reverse bidding that taxes had become between Zaun and Piltover.
“The squabbles of your nations are no concern of ours.”
Her words chilled speech for miles. But in the silence, she had drawn the curious attention of her sisters. Garen correctly anticipated Mayfield's appearance in the distraction. Mauvole set another record from the meeting when she added, “I motion to amend the Rune War Concordant.”
Again, silence. Her two sisters were now leaning forward in their chairs, incredulous.
“Patience is the mark of divinity,” Ashe sneered.
Sejuani scoffed. “Patience is easy when you hoard resources like a boar.”
“Foresight,” Ashe hissed, “is divine.”
The two sisters turned to Mauvole, waiting for her to complete the ritual with a nasty remark of her own. She would not meet their glares, and instead stared forward and reiterated, “I motion to amend the Rune War Con-” she gasped, just loud enough for everyone to hear, but recovered and finished.
“Rune War Concordant.”
The room was quiet enough for everyone to hear Mayfield whisper. But the words were directed into Garen's ear, so only he heard, “You second that motion.”
The connection was easy to make. Mauvole was pushing Mayfield's agenda while her younger sister was missing. No amicable thing could be painted with those colors. But Garen didn't see a way out.
“You dare propose a propose a motion without a full court?”
Her finger shot out to rudely point at the empty seat before Mauvole's throne. The reaction from the Freljordians in attendance was a bit odd to Garen- as if Mauvole was naked. Odd, but relieving.
“This is an international summit,” Mauvole whispered. “The traditions of Freljord.... shall not constrain... this attendance.”
Her eyes avoided everyone in the room. Her face betrayed no emotion. But Sejuani was doing her best to evoke it.
“Can't control your own fam-”
“Shut up, pig breeder!” Ashe.
She turned the attention she had gathered back on Mauvole.
“Where is your sister? Where is Lissandra?”
Mauvole did not answer. She breathed, quick, short gasps that she tried to smooth out. And again, Mauvole repeated her motion.
“I propose an amendment... to the Rune War Concordant.”
Sejuani had no interjection to save him now. Mayfield's whisper at his side carried a death sentence.
“What's the law on treason in Demacia?”
“I second,” Garen called.
He did not enjoy the weight of so many glares. But Piltover's reaction saved him.
“Third. Without objection, we should bring Summit Resolution 320 to a vo-”
The Piltover ambassador swiveled on his heels to see Ashe, behind him.
“Debate and a full reading,” she demanded.
Piltover sighed and turned back to his table. His eyes caught Mayfield's on the way, but only briefly. Garen assumed it was his imagination until the ambassador peeked up from his papers again. Mayfield shrugged.
“Fine,” the Ambassador conceded. He raised the measure and read aloud for all to hear.
“Summit resolution three-hundred and twenty, First Amendment to the Rune War Concordant, for the purpose of deciding City-State membership in the International Community. Article One: City-State definition. A City-State is any entity which creates and enforces laws, levies duties, and maintains order amongst its people. Article Two-”
Ashe spoke again.
“I move to amend the measure. That definition is unacceptable. Any government which does not have the consent of its people or does not provide for their welfare shall have no seat at a table with mine, regardless of how orderly it is.”
Her glare said her words were final.
Piltover sighed and caught Mayfield's eyes. Mayfield did something strange. No one but Garen caught that it was strange, but all eyes could have seen him. Mayfield turned from Piltover's question to the answers in his hand. A letter, in broken black wax and bleeding parchment. He skimmed the contents, then turned his glare up to Piltover. He shrugged.
“Without objection,” Piltover called. His voice echoed, and none responded. “To the ledger: Article one is amended by striking the period and adding the following to the end: 'and provides for the general welfare, and has the consent of those it governs.'”
Piltover waited for Ashe to nod before continuing with his full reading. What an hour. A section would be read, and Ashe would contest it, and Mayfield would check his orders and shrug. But the more she spoke, the more Garen wondered exactly what divine authority she claimed. No to border enforcement. Insert treasury restrictions. No to voting restrictions. Insert non-human rights. No arms restrictions. No building codes. When she argued against taxes being necessary for a nation, Piltover had had enough.
“Come on! Even Zaun has taxes!”
“Fees,” they grumbled.
And Mayfield did not shrug. His eyes grabbed Piltover. His head shook. She swallowed and spoke for him. It was then that Garen realized he had to make a choice.
“Where's Talon?” he whispered.
Mayfield's annoyed scowl rolled back to him.
“Volunteering at a home for the elderly. Oh, is it seven already? Never mind. He's probably working at the soup kitchen.”
Mayfield did not have an accent for sarcasm. Or perhaps he answered unsatisfactory questions with unsatisfactory lies. Garen was able to lock his eyes, and unable to discern any uncertainty.
“Piltover and Noxus object! Is there a third to overrule?”
“That means you,” Mayfield hissed.
The gravity of the situation had not struck Garen before. Here, he was expected to drastically change the lives of hundreds of thousands of strangers- to force upon them taxes, and to draw the ire of someone who might very well be a goddess. He wouldn't do it. Whatever Talon's excuses for extortion and kidnapping, he had not heard them, and doubted they would be correct.
“Do we have a third objection? Anyone?”
The desperation spilling out of Piltover was beginning to sully crowns.
“Obviously not,” Ashe hummed.
Mayfield's scowl deepened.
“You can talk here, or you can explain to Laurent why you neglected your duties to Demacia.”
Garen flipped his journal closed and stood from the table, sending Piltover beaming into relief.
“A third! Overtu-”
“No,” Garen interrupted. “If I might be excused, I have to contact my home office.”
Piltover's face fell to just short of horror.
“Not... no objection?”
Garen's departure was his answer.
He'd painted with Gold and White. He'd been heard.