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It had become a tradition.
It had started out as a joke, of sorts. A cynical tribute to a cynical warlord: I might have to acknowledge your strength but that doesn’t mean you’re the god-appointed savior or anything. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. None of them, in this world, particularly useful to the warlord.
The gifts rotated, the cynical, angry young subject aging, turning the theme on its head. Silver, sandalwood, and soapstone. Bronze, Benzoin, and baubles. Copper, cinnamon, and cardamom. The warlord, who had at first been annoyed, grew to enjoy these yearly thumb-biting gifts, and this subject became one of his favorites.
The gifts continued each year (Lead and labdanum, lockets with ladies’s locks. Steel and saffron and spikenard). The warlord’s now-loyal subject spend months out of every year combing the world for these things, rarer and rarer as the last remnants of civilization vanished, creating vast barter networks across what had once been three nations, the word going out: Canton wants incense, metal, and spice. Canton has things to trade, goods to sell and food to share. Come to Canton, and bring your goods. And Canton became a marketplace and a trade hub, where it had been a ruined wreck of a city in the shadow of a warlord’s castle. And every year, the lord of Canton brought his gifts to the Warlord. Tin and tea and topaz. Nickel and nutmeg and nasturtiums.
But they were human, and they aged, and they both brought children into the world. Their children grew up, knowing the tradition but not its origin, knowing the friendship, the camaraderie of liege to loyal minion but not the underlying tension. They knew that the Warlord led, and that Canton followed. And when the Warlord led them into battle, and Canton followed, they knew that they would take over from their fathers.
The son of Canton had heard rumours, here and there, things people had brought to his father that his father had ignored. Feeling clever and full of himself, he stretched the trade networks of his city to their utmost, and when Christmas tributes came due, he walked to the Warlord’s daughter leading three girls, lovely girls, whose hands were chained and necks were collared in gold.
“I bring you,” he murmured to the War-Lady, “a dryad of Commiphora,a dryad of Boswellia, and a nymph of or. From them, my liege, you may garner as much myrrh, as much frankensince, and as much gold as you wish.”
“Well, then,” the War-Lady murmured, for she’d never liked the son of Canton, “what use do I have for you?”
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