Threshold, Liyeland. Early Summer, Dragon’s Accord Year 303

 

“And furthermore, our scouting parties have reported economic activity preparing-”

“Scouting parties? Raiding parties! Shepherds complain there’s so many soldiers crawling around the borderlands that they’ve begun driving herds further north than they’ve ever needed to before. The only one who’s preparing anything is you, preparing for war! Again!”

Dalei Preben, Herald of the High King Howel of Liyeland, looked between the bickering royals and sighed to herself. She stood a dozen strides behind her king’s chair, but she could hear everything the five monarchs said at their oversized table. If only the common people could see how their highest nobility spoke with – or, usually, to – each other here, they’d be amazed. They’d have to identify them first; each of their assistants, like Dalei herself, were all dressed more formally than the regents themselves. In the Council of Kings, nobody ruled, as the saying went. That meant no crowns, no royal styles, and generally no politeness.

But her king was supposed to rule even here. He never even bothered to maintain order anymore.

“Dorin, you always think Isolde’s preparing for war. I wouldn’t be surprised if it occupied you every moment of the day. Arranging kernels on your dinner plate into pike squares and musket lines. You probably dream of phantom battlefields, scribbling the details in some big book of fictional war after you awake even as it fades from your mind.”

“Do you blame me, Seve? Three times Somark has marched against Plethin during my reign alone!”

“If you hadn’t been-”

“I don’t blame him,” a quiet voice said, from the smallest of the lot. She was the only one who used a volume suitable for inside the chamber, but she stopped the rest talking anyway. “Don’t try to say Isolde wasn’t the aggressor each time, Seve. And don’t think we hadn’t noticed Leroshrau’s maneuvers on his northern border, while he looks south.”

“Just routine practice, Marani. Besides, what do you care abo-”

“I don’t. If you two want to kill all your troops until only you two remain, beating each other senseless with clubs, I care not at all. Just don’t get your blood in my river.” The diminutive queen of Mahre rapped on the table, causing a bifurcated gold badge on her jacket to clink against it as well, an inset yellow gem catching the sunlight from the large window to the queen’s right. “But this discussion is irrelevant to our business here. Enough of your northern neighbor, Isolde. What’s going on along your southern border?”

The far more imposing queen of Somark shot her counterpart a severe look, but didn’t argue. “The Sunthravale Authority suddenly shifted some of their core formations and spread them out in defensible positions along their southern reaches. My commander in Rakement received a message from one of the Marshal’s closest officers that sounded like both a truce and a threat-”

“Now who’s jumping at shadows to their south?” Dorin cut in, earning his own look of displeasure before Queen Isolde continued.

“The message implied that whatever they were deploying towards was a greater threat than any we could mount. If we attacked them while their backs were turned, we would be dealt with accordingly.” She spoke the last three words in a sarcastic tone. “I have half a mind to call their bluff.”

“Should we?” Seve asked. Four heads turned towards the chair before Dalei, where her lord sat.

Who, as she expected, said nothing.

During the ensuing silence, she caught Dorin’s aide looking at her. The woman – the only other person in the chamber without a drop of blue blood – shot her a thin smile when their eyes met. Dalei gave the slightest of shrugs in response. That shrug shifted the crossed baldrics on her chest just enough that the silver disk pinning their intersection together reflected a spot of sunlight onto the Council’s table, and her eye caught stray sparkles from the flame-shaped sapphire at its center. She rolled her shoulders to readjust the straps, hoping she didn’t draw undue attention. The crown fastened to one of the baldrics clinked against a fastener on her thigh.

After several more moments of silence, Marani said softly, “I think not.”

“We should,” the rulers of Somark and Leroshrau said, almost simultaneously.”

Dorin chewed on the question for a bit before glancing at Marani. “I also say no.”

Seve sat back with a heavy sigh while Isolde banged a fist on the table. “This is the best chance we’ll have to end this threat!”

“Then learn to live with it,” Dorin growled. “As I have.”

“We’re not getting back into this,” Marani said, notes of exasperation creeping into her quiet voice. “That was the last bit of business we needed to cover, and I’m not going to sit in this room waiting for you two to call on your protectors to kill each other over some petty border dispute. Are we done?” She looked to the silent chair again, as did the rest.

Eventually, a shaky, elderly voice croaked, “This Council is adjourned.”

The Queen of Somark practically jumped out of her chair, gathering up what few papers she’d brought and stormed out of the room, the Lord-Commander she chose as her  bodyguard for this meeting scurrying after her. The King of Leroshrau let out another great sigh and also followed her, but in no particular hurry, his son asking some questions as they walked out. With those four gone, Dorin and Marani took their time departing, talking with each other in quieter tones than Dalei thought the King of Plethin capable of.

She strode up to the High King’s chair, placing her hands atop its back, and caught Dorin’s assistant’s gaze again as the other woman approached, Dorin’s crown tapping against an empty scabbard with every step. A nod, then, “General.”

“Herald?”

“Good luck in the coming battles.”

The general waved dismissively, disturbing the bundle of aiglets on her right shoulder. “We’ll survive this one just as we survived the last, and the one before. Though, I wouldn’t mind if you made a trip out to us to train some of our musketeers.”

“I have responsibilities to attend to here,” Dalei responded, lightly drumming her fingers on the back of the chair.

Dorin’s general looked down at the king briefly, and murmured, “I know.” Then she straightened and said more forcefully, “I know you will execute them faithfully.” She turned to join her lord, falling in alongside Mahre’s economic advisor as the four left the room.

Another long silence filled the room, broken by the wavering voice. “Herald?”

“I’m here, Your Majesty,” Dalei said, her hands tightening on the back of the chair.

“I think it is time to go,” the High King said.

Dalei slowly pulled the chair back, then moved to its side to offer the High King her arm. He grabbed onto it like a drowning man holding a raft, and she gently lifted him with it while her other hand helped his balance. Her only difficulty was making sure he didn’t fall; he seemed almost weightless.

“They never get along,” he finally said, once standing as straight as his sclerotic spine would allow.

“No, Sire,” Dalei responded, as she guided him around the table.

“My son will have his hands full.”

“Which one?”

“My heir,” Howel said.

Which one?

Once they had left the chamber, Dalei gently pulled back on the High King’s arm to stop him. As two guards closed the double doors to the chamber, she unhooked the crown at her side, and gently placed it atop the High King’s head. One of the guards handed her a large pouch containing paper cartridges, which she fastened in the crown’s place. The other handed her the ornate musket, her personal symbol. She rested the weapon against her left shoulder, and once more extended her right arm to help the High King walk.

They shuffled through the massive stone palace slowly, stopping several times when Dalei felt her lord start to falter. The elderly monarch said nothing during the journey back to his personal chambers. She wondered if the details of the recently concluded Council already slipped his mind.

Howel’s twin sons waited in the antechamber to the High King’s personal residence. Despite being young enough to be the High King’s grandchildren, they both showed their thirty years of age. Prince Munrad immediately went to his father’s side, freeing Dalei to give the two a short bow. “The Council has concluded,” she reported. Prince Harvralt stepped aside to let them continue onward.

“Where is your older brother, Munrad?” she heard the High King say as they entered the room beyond.

“He’s away, father,” the prince responded, before closing the door behind him.

She caught Harvralt’s slight wince at the exchange before he turned to face her. “Dame Dalei, may we expect a report this evening?”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“Good. You may leave.”

She bowed again, then turned and strode from the antechamber, back to the palace’s halls.

She only quickened her pace when she heard the doors behind her. Enough of this stone prison. She turned down one of the passageways that ran alongside the great hall, emerging into one of the large rooms behind it. Inside, a drake sat on his haunches, watching her approach through his unadorned helmet’s eye-holes.

“Walk and talk, Vetheltli,” she told him.

The young drake dutifully fell in behind her. “Is there anything the ambassador should know, from the meeting?”

“Nothing the Patriarch doesn’t already know, I bet.” Dalei angled towards one of the two stairways at the back of the room and started to climb. “Marshal A’tendat sounds like he might have kicked a hornet’s nest somewhere in the south, but I can’t imagine what.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time the Marshal’s jumped at shadows,” Vetheltli replied, over the tick-tack of his talons hitting the stone steps. When they reached the top of the spiral, she heard a faint sizzle behind her as Vetheltli opened the door with telekinetic magic. She stepped aside once she was through the door to allow the drake out, before closing the door herself.

The vaulted ceiling here mirrored that of the great hall below, but on this level there were no walls filling it out. It connected with the spire that continued upward behind them, but besides the rise to the Sentinel’s crystalline form above, this level was the top floor of the palace on Shrine Island. To the sides and opposite the spire, rooftop gardens bloomed, fed by a large fountain centered under the vault. The garden’s scents weren’t quite enough to overpower that of the surrounding bay

Dalei took a deep breath and smiled, walking – much slower now – towards the fountain. “We’re not going to do anything about it.”

“Another deadlock?” Vetheltli said, once more following her.

“Of course. They can never get anything done.”

“Nothing else?”

“Nothing concerning drakes, Vetheltli.”

“Well, thank you for telling me that much,” the drake said. He lowered his chest to the ground in a brief bow when she turned to face him. “Others hardly tell me anything.”

“I know the High King would want you to know. Just doing my job.”

“Others would rather spite us than do theirs.”

Dalei looked away from the drake, towards the mainland. “Most aren’t as polite as you…” She furrowed her brows, “You youngins. Whichever number you said.”

“Ninth,” he said. When she turned back to him, he turned slightly and dipped his chest and extended a wing, displaying an ornate band of feathers over his wing-shoulder and at his tail-tip. “But the Eighth are too.”

“Right,” she said as he stood again. “But not the older ones. They treat us with contempt, the ambassador aside.”

“Not all of them!”

“Oh?” Dalei sat on the bench wrapping around the fountain. “I haven’t met any that showed as much respect as you.”

“There’s Sefeldri. She’s a Sixth. The most important one! She still remembers the Code.” The young drake’s body bobbed from side to side, a gesture Dalei had come to associate with excitement.

“Never heard of her.”

“That’s because she-” Vetheltli broke off, looked away, then to the ground. “She travels a lot.”

After a long look, Dalei asked, “Doing what?”

“She… searches for things.”

Dalei laughed. “Vetheltli, I don’t know why more people don’t trust you. It’s very obvious when you try to hide something.”

Rather than take it as a criticism, the drake perked up with pride, earning another appreciative laugh. “We’re supposed to avoid lying to humans or reytra as much as possible. It’s in the Code.”

“And why don’t the older drakes follow this Code?”

“They’ve become ungrateful. Even the Primes, so nobody reminds them.”

“But you were reminded.”

He nodded vigorously. “Our teacher Dėlyeska insisted on it. She said it was important we were raised with it again. Sefeldri told her that.”

“I hope I get the chance to thank them some day.”

“You might! Sefeldri wanders around just about everywhere. Dėlyeska is still at Zidhizalye though, teaching hatchlings. The tenth generation should be hatching soon.”

“Tenth? Luchaine save us, there’s more of them.”

Vetheltli let out a strangely melodic hacking sound which passed for drake laughter. “Don’t worry, they should be as easy to see through as I am.”

For how he acted when he got eager, Dalei easily forgot Vetheltli was almost as old as she was. For a drake, though, he wasn’t even considered an adult yet. He still had a few years before he’d earn his full name. It’s probably easy for a race that lives centuries to hold us in as great contempt as the older ones do.

“I still have things to do before the ambassador wakes,” Vetheltli said, punctuating the remark with a yawn.

“Go get some sleep yourself. I’m surprised you were up at all.”

“You get grumpy when it’s late, and would rather not be bothered.”

“Oh, uh. Sorry?”

Vetheltli loosed a short laugh before turning for the palace’s spire. “I think I can read you as well as you can read me, Herald. I don’t want to stretch the goodwill you show me. Enjoy your time outside, before you have to return to your luxurious imprisonment.”

After watching him depart, Dalei walked towards the parapet above the front of the palace. On the other side of a robust bridge connecting Shrine Island to the mainland, the city of Threshold dominated the view. Split by a river named for the god-king Luchaine, each half of the city sported its own rings of fortifications, though it had long since outgrown them. Twin castles – one for either side of the river – featured tall towers atop which floated crystalline entities known as Sentinels, eternally guarding the city. A third sat above the spire of Shrine Island’s palace. Sometimes, when she couldn’t sleep, Dalei visited it. Easier to ignore the frightening height when it was too dark to see how high you were.

And this city is the heart of humanity. In a few years time, who will rule it?