Monday, January 28, 2013

16912--Child of Fire and Blood (Ch. 4)

The trouble starts over on the Theobroma page. I've decided to continue it out here with a few chapters for your perusal.  Enjoy a taste of Tarakk prior to indulging in the whole novel. Feedback or questions on the world, its people, their gods or whatever are equally welcome.



CHILD OF FIRE AND BLOOD


FOUR

All of the Charis’colia was represented, when not by the ultimate leadership of each noble faction, at least by those close to it through blood or rank. Likewise, there were several representatives present from foreign governments who had been in Crown City conducting business. Though presented as a palace gala, there was far more afoot than merely the return of Alban’s prince or even the bounty of desperately needed foods he had brought to save the people from starvation. Even with hearts made light by the abatement of the food crisis, there still remained an oppressive weight on the minds of the people of Alban.


“Mak Tares, there you are,” Duchess Cella of the Fifth Tribe greeted the Ling Mountain clan’s High Lord. “I’ve just been talking with the trade envoy from Zadiasam, that Kent Haleen person.”


“Pleasant enough fellow,” Mak Tares said, “but was he able to give you a better answer to when we would receive full food shipments than he gave me?”
“Sadly, no. His government complains of terrorist bombings on land and pirates at sea. I continue to hear rumors that insist little is being done in Zadiasam to rectify the loss of our promised shipments and some to suggest their government is the actual cause of our problems. Meanwhile, Alban starves and you and I are overdue for this year’s contract negotiation,” she told him, a glass of stout dark wine in one hand and a small plate of meats and fruits in the other. “Our commerce secretaries need to confer.”
“I would think you’d be more concerned about this plague that’s killing people off,” Mak Tares responded grimly. “I would think that that would hold a far higher priority than routine business issues, your grace.”
“The prices you charge for your transit routes may be routine to you, but--”
“What’s important to me right now is the safety of my loved ones,” Mak Tares insisted with no attempt to conceal his annoyance. “Holiday or no, there’s no need for my family to be here!”
“Stay calm, Mak,” Cella urged him as she gently drew his attention to the event recording team spread throughout the room. “You don’t want to get too loud and become noticed.”

Cella drew his attention to a small fire opal in her hand, prompting his silence. No matter what contentions existed between the two, his respect for her wisdom remained paramount. Truly, on a larger scale, as leader of Fifth Tribe, the only body of the Colia considered mighty enough to independently challenge the Crimson Throne, Cella typically drew a quiet reverence at state gatherings. Even among the Charis'colia, her status was that of a celebrity. Though it was not in her nature to trade upon the esteem in which others held her, Cella’s presence alone commonly instilled hope in those around her. Holstered at her side, rather than a revered family sword that was typical in the warrior culture, she wore the metallic crystalline scepter Adamantine, symbol of her position and focus of her formidable discipline. As Cella closed the gem in her fist, she concentrated and whispered a short incantation too low for Mak Tares to understand. The stone began to glow a bright red.

“Alright,” she said, looking him in the eyes intently, “people will ignore us for a few seconds. Go ahead.”

“We’ve had absolutely no trace of this mystery illness in the Ling Mountains,” Mak Tares continued, drawing nearer to her, “yet it was for some reason deemed mandatory that my family and everyone else’s be trotted into the most densely populated part of the country for the Crimson Throne’s glorification of the Lost Prince.”
“We’re celebrating our hero,” Cella clarified. “He has saved us from piracy and famine and survived years away to return taller and more handsome than ever. A little tribute is a small price to pay, especially for one’s future king.”
“Seven hells, look at the empty space by her majesty’s side. Princess Treutelaar isn’t present for this circus and she lives here.”
“You know siblings,” Cella said. “At least pretend to look at the monitors occasionally.”
“I’ll try to keep that in mind.”
“I appreciate your concerns, but try to calm yourself,” Cella said in her most soothing tones. “I don’t pretend to know much, but we haven’t had any solid indication that the disease is spread through contact or even proximity. It has resisted the efforts of both magic and medicine. That’s why the King’s Pale Pox is still a mystery and why it’ll probably be months before anyone can get another piece of amber through the Shadow Market at any price. King Tural has assured me personally that the situation will be one of tonight’s chief topics--sometime after the prince has finished yet another retelling of his pirate battles, I would assume. The rumors making the rounds say that the prince himself may have brought a solution to rid us of it.”
“Well, I suppose that’s slightly comforting…in its own way,” he said as her gemstone fell dark and crumbled into a scorched silica dust that she let fall to the floor.
“Good. Now, I don’t relish having my family endure these functions any more than you,” Cella assured Mak Tares, “but we can at least use the opportunity to introduce them to each other. You have little ones?”
“Yes, I do,” he smiled finally, “each one with a personal guard to keep them under control.”
“Clever,” Cella said. “I’ll have to assign some of those for my own hellions. What was their impression of the Nine?”
At their mention, both Duchess Cella and High Lord Tares looked upward at the vast throne room’s unique ceiling. Roughly thirty feet above the Crimson Throne, the stone ceiling sported a circular opening so wide as to take up two-thirds of the width and half the length of the great room. The large circle was ringed with polished onyx and gold, a gilded opening to the chamber above. There, they could see into the Celestial Temple where the mysterious Circle of Nine reposed in various meditative states. Beneath the Celestial Temple’s vaulted dome, sparkles and swirls of light played about glowing clouds and detached wizards, some sitting, some standing, others floating aimlessly.
“I haven’t visited here in months,” Cella said, still gazing upward, “but I must admit that the view is always astonishing.”
“Indeed,” Mak Tares said with a sigh, “though it might’ve been nice if those two had put some clothes on…at least, for the party.”
“Oh, I see,” she said, the two chuckling uncomfortably as they looked each other in the eyes once more. “Well, you know wizards.”
“A little better now than I would’ve preferred,” he said.
“They may not even know we’re all down here,” she said. “Now, you came in on that beautiful skyship, didn’t you?”
“The Emerald Star,” Mak Tares smiled, beaming at the thought of his gleaming, magically guided dirigible that proudly served as the flagship of his clan’s fleet. “Yes.”
“Your little ones must enjoy it immensely,” she said.
“Oh, they take great delight in every voyage,” he confirmed, “but not nearly so much as their father, I must confess.”
“Well, don’t keep them waiting,” Cella told him, urging him to continue on to his family. “I’ll find my brood and we’ll catch up with you directly. Perhaps, aboard your ship, we can speak more openly of…matters of concern to the Colia.”
Unnoticed by either noble, or by most anyone who was not supposed to notice them, agents of Clan Isharien moved smoothly among the scores of brightly garbed guests filling the palace’s sprawling throne room. Though some posed as servers, other Isharien agents played their roles as guests, subtly eavesdropping on virtually every conversation in the room for their masters. Mixing with the sounds of gentle music and chattering voices and their somber undertones were the scents of full-bodied wines, stout ales, fresh meats, succulent fruits and crisp vegetables which all helped to soften the moods and loosen the tongues of the assemblage.
Still, to any who had a sense of such things, the whole affair was obviously as much political as celebratory. The more adept navigators of the perilous waters of the royal court, like High Lord Tallas Vey of Ice-wolf Clan, never strayed too far from the vicinity of the royal family and the Crimson Throne. Rather than the king, though, it was the long-absent Lar Kwa who was the radiant star of the evening. Recounting tales of his celebrated travels, the heroically returned prince easily drew one enthralled listener after another into his orbit.

“Any great surprises you found awaiting you upon your return, my prince?” minor Lord Els Bardinn asked between sips of wine. “Or have the eastern pirates made you their king now that you have mastered them?”

“To be honest, one of my great surprises came at learning the profound affinity my tongue had retained for the tastes of home,” the prince proclaimed, hoisting his own glass to sniff at the rim before savoring another sip. “Foreign alcohols tend to be needlessly sweet.”

“To Alban,” one of the nobles raised her glass, prompting a wave of like murmurs and mimicked motions by others rushing to show their patriotism.

“What I do find nearly as eye-opening,” the prince continued, “is that a minor Second Tribe landlord would find within the purview of nobility the audacity to suggest that a prince of Alban would dare pretend cloak himself in some hollow mantle of foreign kingship.”

“I…my prince, I…”

“And within steps of the Crimson Throne, no less,” Lar Kwa added, draining his glass and shoving it into Bardinn’s trembling hand. “Bad form, Bardinn. Bad form. Perhaps it is time you withdrew to seek out your favorite tea. A happier tongue is less likely to betray you to treason and enable you to see another dawn.”

“Th-Th-Thank you, highness,” Bardinn stammered as he stumbled off through the crowd.

“Generous of you, my prince,” Lord Entouff said, offering the royal a fresh drink. “Refreshing.”

“Thank you,” Lar Kwa said, taking the glass from the corpulent noble. “You are Grand Otter of the Weasel Clan, so I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that a rude guest is better met with instruction and only by a rude response as a finality.”

“Clearly,” the black-and-red-draped noble said, “you’ve taken some time for study while roaming the world.”

“One way or another, minds and souls must be nourished,” the prince replied as the court listened on. “I took particular delight in the tales of Varen and Pokieri. They made many a night pass more easily.”

“Warriors of yours, Entouff?” Tallas Vey asked.

“The ancient founder of our clan and his companion, the symbol of our clan,” Entouff said.

“That six-legged beast?” Tallas Vey asked. “That’s supposed to be something real? Your founder’s pet?”

“Pokieri became the sacred symbol of Weasel Clan as the boon companion of Varen,” Entouff confirmed. “Where he came from we do not know. Some have guessed at sorcery, others at the work of the gods. The legends tell that Pokieri was a great grey wolverine that roamed the mountain forests of Charis. It was the size of a bear with claws that could rend stone. Its teeth and jaws could crush even the hardest gems. It ate rapaciously, a terror to those who dwelled in the valleys below its frigid home. Varen was the only man bold enough to seek it alone. He tracked the beast for months before he even laid eyes upon it. It was too clever for most traps and too strong for those that could catch it to hold.”

“He could not kill the creature?” Tallas Vey asked, his eyes darting between the smiling prince and the large storyteller.

“It’s fur was too thick,” Entouff said. “No spear or blade could pierce it any better than the bite of Arrecol’s winds. It wasn’t until Varen made camp and managed to build a fire where none should burn that he was able to draw Pokieri to him. The hunters solidified their mutual respect over cooked meat and survival.”

“Heartwarming,” Tallas Vey said.

“Isn’t it?” Lar Kwa responded. “I have a feeling you would enjoy reading those with your children. How old are they now?”

“Too old to sit still for story time anymore,” the Ice-wolf Clan’s high lord chuckled. “If I hadn’t brought them here, they’d have been likely to host a party of their own to rival this one. Thank you for sharing, nonetheless, Lord Entouff.”

“My pleasure, of course,” Entouff said, looking about for a server, “trading tales over such fine repast is no trouble at all.”

“Of course not,” Lar Kwa said. “We should revel in our traditions and celebrate our history. Come, we will refill our cups and plates as we talk of Alban’s glories.”

Stepping through a set of heavy cloth curtains to steal a respite from royal influence, a lone young woman carried her wine through an arch and out to an enclosed balcony, overlooking the frosted city through thick glass. There she found Tilo Isharien brooding in the dim light.
 
“Artaria,” he said, acknowledging her arrival. “Wine?” he offered, picking up the bottle of wine from the small table beside him. “This one is a ten-year-old red from northern Bentrci and I also have a seventeen-year-old Zadiasam vitarae that I haven’t even opened yet.”
“Oh, how strong and manly it must be. I certainly won’t envy you your head in the morning. Don’t you know you’re not supposed to mix your alcohols like that?”
“A vicious lie,” he protested, “spread by people trying to stop others from enjoying themselves.”
“Just the same,” she said, holding up her own glass and wine bottle for him to see, “I’m having the gold.”
“I should’ve known,” he said, refilling his glass before setting the bottle down again. “Sorry, it’s been weeks since I’ve seen you.”
“No, it was last year,” Artaria corrected him, “at the hot springs. I wouldn’t expect you to recall my favorite drink after so long.”
“That was the last time you saw me, yes.”
“Oh, of course,” she smiled playfully, “the eyes of the Isharien are everywhere. I suppose I should be flattered that I’m of such interest.”
Artaria performed a subtle hair flip and giggled as she smiled. Tilo pretended not to notice, then let his gaze drift over the untouched plate of food for which he was sadly finding little appetite.
“You worry your father,” Tilo told her distantly, pausing to sip his wine, “disappearing as frequently as you do.”
“Clan Isharien spies for my father?” she asked. “I thought Isharien pledged loyalty to the exalted Crimson Throne.”
“Don’t be so naive, girl,” Tilo admonished, waving a piece of cheese from his plate at her. “Clan interests are its own.”
“All others pay in advance,” Artaria mocked.
“Not so naive after all, eh?”
“If you’ve been watching me,” Artaria said, refilling her own glass, “then you shouldn’t need to ask.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “Anyway, no point in letting potentially useful information sit idle when it can find its way into the right hands for the right price.”
“Well, if you need to report in to him tonight,” she said with disdain, “Lord Daddy’s back in the main room with the cluster of other drones, hanging on every word of Prince Perfect.”
“Perfect,” Tilo scoffed. “There’s an adjective I never would’ve attached to that one. He really has come a long way, though. Why aren’t you in there with the others? Don’t you want to hear again about the masterful taking of Varga?”
“The less visible I am, the less chance my father tries to marry me off. Besides, I saw King Tural departing even before I did,” she told him.
“Sovereigns do as they will,” Tilo warned. “They aren’t held to the rules of their subjects.”
“I’ll settle for the standard of the princess, then,” Artaria said. “Even the king’s own daughter, pure Light of the People, is conspicuously absent, which is stirring up quite a few rumors around the room, by the way.”
“Must be tonight’s secret party theme: worried fathers and absent daughters. You’d think Lar Kwa’s exploits of adventure on the seas and in the realm of sunshine and rainbows would be entertainment enough.”
“And the video recordings. You can’t forget the video recordings,” she added. “They expect us to be happy and eat and drink while twenty-foot wall screens play recordings of his highness fighting pirates and feeding starving children and tending to the sick and preaching for peace. He may be our guide to the future, but it’s disrespectful to every warrior ever to stain our snows with blood. I mean, this is Father’s Day. Our fathers fought to provide all that we have. I do respect that no matter how much he aggravates me. So, though the idea of this party for the prince sickens me, I certainly didn’t want to end up onscreen trying not to vomit.”
“Oh, right, Mischa,” Tilo said, remembering the slight man directing the recording team that was weaving through the party while avoiding actual interaction with any guest, “the odd little man always hovering in the background near Lar Kwa. He produces all the prince’s promotional materials. He’s got cameras all over.”
“I couldn’t take any more. You could teach them how to be much less conspicuous.”
“Oh, certainly,” Tilo agreed. “Inconspicuous is what Isharien do best. Well, aside from my cousins--Kylo, who is likely hovering near the throne amidst a swarm of swooning girls, and Jono, who I’m sure is giving the palace guard all the adventure they care to handle with his imagination and his wooden sword. Beyond those two, even I don’t know how many agents we have in the palace tonight.”
“I’m imagining hundreds, mingling unseen.”
“Such imaginings are a powerful resource for us,” Tilo confessed. “In fact, it would violate clan law for me to confirm or deny your suspicions even if I could.”
“What a blessing for you that must be,” Artaria said. “People can say they didn’t see you at all manner of pivotal social events and you can take it as a compliment while building your mystique.”
“With the benefit of getting me out of some of the most tedious crowds you never wanted to see assembled, I assure you.”
“Plus, I heard all the really interesting people were getting together out here.”
“So they are,” Tilo agreed, managing a smile as he held his glass out to her. “A salute to full bellies.”
“It’s good to eat fresh food again,” Artaria said, holding her glass up to him in kind before taking another drink.
“Yes, long overdue, considering…”
“Considering what?” she asked from under a raised eyebrow. “What aren’t you saying?”
“Just…that there’s deeper truth regarding our food supplies than our prince has told,” Tilo told her even as he considered how much to reveal.
“Great Keemu!” she exclaimed, eyeing her plate with sudden suspicion. “You’re not going to tell me this is all…made from people or something gross like that, are you?”
“No,” he laughed, “of course not. Let’s just go as far as to say that while the prince’s bounty may be connected to piracy, it has little involvement with pirates.”
“You are full of secrets, aren’t you? As long as we’ve the city and the night and the stars, tell me…what the Hell are you doing out here getting drunk?”
“Just…pondering weighty decisions and their consequences.”
“Well, that told me…virtually nothing,” Artaria said. “Care to try that again?”
He sighed and after a thoughtful silence said, “I have the ability to affect the future of our peoples…perhaps all of Alban…perhaps even more. What may be worse, I can decide not to be a part of it, too. My shoulders labor under the great weight of choice.”
“No more wine for you,” she told him. “You’re starting to spout crazy talk.”
“Have you ever really watched the results of any of your father’s decisions? Does he discuss with you what it means to be among the Charis’colia?” Tilo asked his comely companion. “Alban’s clans and tribes are interconnected, you know, surviving because of their influences upon each other.”
“My father doesn’t consult with me anymore than he listens to…well, anyone he doesn’t feel he has to. Has High Lord Aolo begun to hand you responsibility? Is that what this is about? Has he begun to trust you with more responsibility and his most secret magics and you don’t know what to do with such precious treasures?”
“High Lor--My father…,” Tilo said, rubbing his eyes with a thumb and forefinger, then squeezing the bridge of his nose, “is a cold-hearted son of a bitch, raised by the same. If he weren’t home sick, you’d have a chance to see him in action.”
“I think I did once,” Artaria said. “It was just briefly, but he seemed pretty grim.”
“Having the fate of others in your hands is burdensome,” Tilo said. “My family teaches that the way to live with that is to truly commit only to self-interests, planning ahead and being willing to do whatever must be done to achieve your goals.”
“Ummm…I see…I think.”
“Drink up,“ Tilo said, refilling his own glass. “Hearing this is easier with more alcohol.”
“That part I’ve got covered,” she assured him. “Go.”
“A few generations ago, before the northern kings descended upon us with their wizard-priests, Suiala was--”
“Oh, what a pretty name.”
“Yes, delightful. I think it means ‘noble birth’, but it’s no longer spoken in polite company.”
“What?” she asked. “Why?”
“Getting to that. Anyway, she was a daughter of High Lord Tolis. She was, of course, a young beauty and her myriad charms made her an obvious selection to serve as a courtier maiden to Emperor Tophe.

“The imperial court was, of course, fraught with the usual dangers born of competition for the emperor’s favor. As such, and as is attendant to the power of the throne, the emperor was afforded the luxury of indulging his whims. Suiala wisely looked to the future, though, knowing that even her own considerable virtues could not ensure her position with the aging emperor.

“After a time, opportunity presented the patient and cunning Suiala with her chance to seduce the emperor’s son Konos, heir apparent. As a result, when the emperor finally died and Konos succeeded him, Suiala met with neither exile nor execution. Kept on at court, she remained secret counsel to the new emperor and even close companion to his new empress. Younger and less familiar with palace life, Konos’ spoiled bride became known for her fits of rage. Suiala however fawned affections on the empress, who came to welcome an experienced ally at court.

“Within two years, it was Suiala who gave birth to Konos’ first child. Soon after the birth, the empress visited Suiala and the new heir to the throne. Whatever went on during the visit, as soon as the empress departed, Suiala smothered the newborn.”

“What? Her own…?” Artaria stammered. “But the child would secure her position. Why…? I…I’m confused.”

“After the discovery of the murder, suspicion fell upon the empress, who was known to have been on the scene and to possess a jealous heart. Charged with the murder, the young empress was imprisoned, tried and executed with unprecedented speed. Almost as quickly, Suiala was crowned empress and handed the reins of power by a husband who had grown to adulthood more accustomed to debauchery than responsibility.

“From a position of greater power than she had ever known, Empress Suiala was well-positioned to watch enemy after enemy fall away. When in her forties, Suiala received a visit from her beautiful niece bearing tributes of their Isharien kinsmen. The enchanting visitor caught the eye of not only the emperor but the new heir apparent, Suiala’s second son, at that evening’s feast. By morning, both Suiala’s niece and son were dead, apparently having succumbed to food poisoning. After a swift investigation, her majesty had the entire kitchen staff put to death. The next-eldest heir, the emperor’s son by another courtier maiden, was killed soon after in a hunting accident. Suiala had the next of the emperor’s sons exiled on false charges of treason. Emperor Konos himself was next to die. With practiced ruthlessness, Suiala had her third son declared unfit to take the throne and thereby ensured that the empress, then one hundred and two years old, would continue to rule.”

“Impressive,” Artaria said, “but she’s still making me ill.”

“Over the next several decades, she met the challenge of numerous coup attempts with merciless executions for every fool conspirator who dared plot against her. She held the throne until the coming of the northerners and their magics, the mage kings with their Circle of Nine. Even then, one hundred and sixty-five years old when she finally surrendered the throne, Suiala was able to negotiate a return to Clan Isharien with land, title and bonded servants. She died at two hundred and eight, full of energy and dangerously intelligent to the end.”

“Oh, she did finally die?” Artaria asked. “So, a happy ending after all.”

“Lots of people who knew her attended the funeral to make sure she was put to rest properly,” Tilo went on. “There were persistent rumors of her involvement with…very subtle, potent magics and…service to dark and deadly powers.”

“With over a hundred years on the throne and such a body count, it’s no wonder,” Artaria told him. “Yet she was finally brought down.”

“After a time, when things seemed settled, the Crimson Throne swooped down upon her with magic and military might in concert. A theory exists that her third son, the one she had declared unfit for the throne, may have aided the northerners in moving against her--”

“Can we find a way to go back in time and help, too?”

“--but it was never known as a certainty for she surely would have seen him precede her to the afterlife in a bloody, bloody end if the rumor had ever been confirmed.”

“Well, of course,” Artaria said. “She sounds like a cunning woman, but lacking honor.”

“Still, leadership of Clan Isharien did fall to her son under the new king and to High Lord Aolo after that.”

“So, that…horrible woman was your great-grandmother?”

“Yeah,” he said. “That was one of my bedtime stories. Bloody Ala we called her. Hurry, scurry, get to bed. Bloody Ala wants your head…

“I take it back,” Artaria said with a chilled shudder. “You haven’t had too much. You need another bottle.”

“Thanks for the support,” he said, emptying his glass again, “but I’m not sure that’ll help me in my decision.”

“I’m not sure what to tell you,” she said. “Your family’s relationships obviously need work, but…”

“My choice of damnations remains,” he lamented. “Is it greater loyalty to my blood to cleave to a family of monsters or to betray them for my own benefit?”

“Whatever you decide,” she said, refilling his glass, “keep the memory of this night, these moments--”

“--the importance of searching my soul as I wrestle over the course of my destiny,” he concluded.

No, “ she said, poking him in the forehead, “remember who you chose to trust and open up to, fool. Ar-tar-ia. You picked me to be your best friend. That means you can never have me killed.”

“Well, technically, should it ever come up,” he said, “I wouldn’t be having you killed. I’d have been commissioned--”

“Never ever.”

He sighed and said, “I’ll still be spying on you.”

“That’s alright,” she winked. “It’s different when someone who cares is watching over you. It’s nice.”

“For money.”

“Just a nice bonus,” she said, raising her glass.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

16908--Child of Fire and Blood (Ch. 3)

The trouble starts over on the Theobroma page. I've decided to continue it out here with a few chapters for your perusal.  Enjoy a taste of Tarakk prior to indulging in the whole novel. Feedback or questions on the world, its people, their gods or whatever are equally welcome.


CHILD OF FIRE AND BLOOD 

THREE

As tall as the king’s arm and half as wide, the polished oval moonstone was mounted on its wall in the palace’s master suite less than a month after the royal wedding. Enchanted specifically for the royal couple, the shimmering blue-gray gem was capable of showing them the images they most wished to see. There were times, though, surrounding certain subjects, when it did not.

No matter how many times King Tural looked into the moonstone and no matter how fiercely he focused on the desire of his heart, the images remained the same. Over and over, stone’s magic showed a lean figure, cloaked in flowing black over a light armor. The snow-haired man crouched beside a trio of trembling children, wan from malnutrition. Conversely, the man was all but radiant with compassion and nobility as he tenderly touched the face of each child. Then, as they all smiled at each other, he directed his men to give the hungry peasants rations of food. Sending the children on their way, the slender man stood and the widening image showed more rations being distributed to grateful masses before fading into a luminous haze.

The monarch growled and lunged at the huge moonstone.

“Beloved, please,” Queen Kalaa entreated her liege, “do spare the gem your rage. It was a gift from my family, remember.”

“It refuses to show me what I wish to see,” Tural argued.

“You want to see what our son is doing,” the queen said. “It is showing you.”

“No, he has done something,” Tural insisted. “I want to see what he is doing because, now that he has returned after years at sea, he delays meeting with us. This is part of his evasion, the stone showing only what he wants seen, over and over. I am sure of it. These are the same sort of images he sent from overseas.”

“These have snow, beloved,” Kalaa said from across the receiving room. “Those are our people.”

“Yes, obviously,” the king agreed, “but he continues to use the same style of images now that he has influenced his way back into Alban. They are the same people each time, though. He has powerful magics in his employ, ensuring that the gem is blocked from anything current and shows only what he would have seen.”

“Magic would indeed be required to do as you say, my king,” she said. “That is, however, one thing for which he never showed ability.”

“I know,” King Tural told her. “That is what troubles me. He dabbles in it to gain control over others, but magic will control him far more readily than he will ever control it. People may respond to him the way he wishes, but you have seen as well as I how severely he has aged. Every feeling within me carries but one warning.”

“You believe he has the sword,” she said.

“To achieve all he has, I do,” he said softly, the color draining from his aged face. “Somehow, he was able to liberate it from its hidden vault.”

The king’s eyes narrowed, his face tensing as he focused his gaze once more on the moonstone. Silent for several seconds, he turned his back on the gem and began pacing about the receiving room.

“How long? How long? How long?” King Tural fretted as he paced. “How long has it had to influence him? What will this mean for the Crimson Throne?”

“Tural, please,” Queen Kalaa implored her agitated husband once more as he stormed about their elegant suite. “You must calm your mind. You’ll be no good to anyone by obsessing in this manner. Alban needs its king, now more than ever before. Remember your warrior’s mind.”

She followed him with her eyes and subtle shifts of her head, struggling to be both rigid and relaxed as a trio of dressers worked to fit their queen’s opulent new gown. Having served the royal family since childhood, the skillful women were sworn to both silence and secrecy. They also knew that even a minor violation of trust, spreading some rumor overheard behind palace doors, would result in no less than half their guild being rendered deaf and the other half being banished to the deadly embrace of Alban’s near-perpetual snowstorms. In three generations, there had never been a breach of their vows.

“We did not see. How could we have been so blind?” the king continued passionately. “We must face that he was able to hide the sword’s theft for twenty years. Certainly, he has hidden the truth of himself from us for longer still. Who knows how much we have yet to learn.”

“He was ever a secretive child, my king,” the queen reminded him, “even deceptive. We had that reality thrust upon us in no subtle fashion and we have had more than enough time to manage the consequences. With it hidden here in the palace for so many decades and then for him to take it with him when he left, he has possibly been under the sword’s influence his entire life.”

“It accounts for much,” he replied. “We have come late to this conflict.”

“When his evils were revealed, we chose to send him away from Alban,” she said. “We did what we could. What other choice did we have?”

“We had other options,” he said. “What we chose was expedient and…tolerable and perhaps even too civilized.”

“You would have preferred…?”

“Whether he found that damned sword or it found him, it has to have changed him,” Tural insisted. “Unfortunately, while distance protected this house for a time, it also enabled our son to deceive us with what our hearts longed to see and so we sought nothing else. He showed us a man grown into peace and compassion, charity and maturity. It seems now that it was a very convincing set of lies designed to manipulate any who might see it.”

“You’re seething again, beloved. I would normally encourage you to vent your frustrations, but we need to determine how to separate him from the sword of your fathers…and sooner rather than later, I would think,” Kalaa reminded him.

“My greatest ire may come in knowing that I have aided him,” Tural told his queen, “by wanting to believe that he had risen above the indiscretions of his youth, but--”

Indiscretions?” Queen Kalaa scoffed. “As long as my king is being so diplomatic, do tell us what he thinks of this dress.”

Despite the fa├žade of his resplendent garb, the agitated monarch’s weariness showed plainly. The king released a heavy sigh.

“Keep in mind,” she added, “it is unique and terribly expensive.”

“Oh. It looks beautiful on you, of course, beloved.”

The queen snapped her fingers at a valet who stood in a corner beside a serving cart stocked with both locally distilled and imported northern liquors. The valet reached for a pale northern wine, but she waved him away from it with a frown and a waggling finger, guiding him instead to a domestic vitarae.

“Our son was, at best, troubled to begin with. He never displayed the discipline or strength suited to either arcane craft or the leadership of Alban’s warrior people,” the queen said as she was brought a chilled glass of vitarae. “By now, based upon the tales you have told me, there’s no telling what manner of son the sword has returned to us.”

“That damned sword has been a blight upon the royal house,” King Tural lamented. “When will it have done enough damage to this family and everyone it touches?”

“When we find a way to rid the world of it, one supposes,” the queen said, swirling her glass to listen to the ice clink as it tumbled against the heavy crystal.

“If we can,” King Tural said. “It was forged by my family generations ago. Deepest knowledge of its powers died with my great grand uncle, who left no heir.”

“Perhaps consigning us all to icy damnation, if true,” she said. “Jarkadin, where is the princess?”

“Mistress was last seen in her chambers, majesty,” the aged manservant reported as he quickly appeared from the next room, “though she has likely repaired to her horror *ahem* hobby room.”

“Of course. Extend our invitation that she join us in a bottle of vitarae, Jarkadin,” Queen Kalaa instructed him politely. “Oh, and we will need another bottle of vitarae.”

“Yes, of course, majesty,” he said, the frail figure bowing deeply before turning to fulfill his queen’s wishes. “I shall send for the staff’s swiftest steward. It will be here in minutes.”

“There is little reason for either of us to drink alone when separated by just a few hundred feet,” Queen Kalaa told her husband. “Maybe I should have gone to her, instead.”

“A mother would,” King Tural responded, “but queens, even as mothers, have others come to them. You did exactly the right thing, of course, my dear. Good form.”

“Thank you, dear,” she said with a soft smile. “If only we might reach out to our son so easily.”

“Is that not a part of the dilemma, though? We have never been able to reach him,” King Tural admitted. “Have we truly ever even understood him? I fear he was lost to us long ago, long before he…he…” The monarch hung his head as his shoulders drooped and he let out a sigh before weakly mumbling, “I can not even bring myself to say it.”

“You need not. It was burden enough years ago. I, too, would banish it from my thoughts if I were able.”

“The point is a moot one, I fear. I believe we understood him best when we decided to send him into quiet exile,” the king said. “Now, since his return, he has kept himself skillfully occupied, showing himself to the Colia and the people as a returning savior. He basks in their adoration.”

“They have been wallowing in fear and despair, husband. Is there a corner of Alban that has escaped the pains of plague and famine these past weeks? Even Mother Keemu has withheld her bounties. Our son has given the people the first, best hope for a reprieve from Death’s touch their lives have seen, backed with ample food.”

“He brings promises of magic that will succeed where all else has failed,” the king said. “It must be a lie.”

“If it is, they will turn on him,” Queen Kalaa said, “but with their bellies full, his credibility will certainly be strong enough for people to give him a chance to fulfill his promise to dispel the plague.”

“And as our people continue to die from a sickness beyond even the power of the Nine,” King Tural said, “none will be able to oppose him without being branded a villain. Narrowing our options to execution or the mercies of a hastily arranged contract killer.”

“He has timed his return well,” the queen said, pausing to drain her glass. “Do you think the sword can be used to do as he claims? Can he take advantage of our troubles to solidify his standing?”

“That sword can offer much, I know,” King Tural said angrily. “I had no reason to think it before his return, but…perhaps with access to such magic, he could have even created the sickness.”

“But…so many have died…”

“We have to consider no lengths too great for him to attempt,” King Tural said. “Look at how he compelled his way back into this city. Our own once-loyal officers, defying the royal orders of quarantine, have committed treason with the ease of drawing breath and it fails to register with them at all that anything is amiss.”

“I see your point,” Queen Kalaa said. “The youth our son was would have been little match against such an insidious influence.”

“By now, he is likely little more than a puppet whose soul is being fed upon as he delivers even more to its endless appetite. In order to confirm the sword’s location and to fight its power, we will need to gather the strongest magics available. I will go with Araka to the Nine and--”

“Chief Minister Araka fell to the pale pox this morning, husband,” the queen said. “It will take time to replace him.”

“On the very day of Lar Kwa’s return. That can be no coincidence,” Tural insisted. “All this maneuvering must be part of a larger plan.”

“We will deal with it together. If nothing else, my king,” Queen Kalaa said, “married life has seldom approached boredom.”

King Tural forced a slight smile in response.

“With Araka’s demise, we will have to go to the Circle of Nine ourselves,” Kalaa said. “We have to communicate with them somehow.”

“I will go,” the king said, stroking his thick beard. “I have spoken with Araka on the practice before. I may be able to draw on that to get through to them, though it has been many years since I have been in their presence.”

“And it will have to be done with subtlety,” she warned him, “lest it be seen that their position as religious and spiritual figures is having too direct an influence on the Crimson Throne.”

“I will be lucky to communicate with them at all,” he said. “However they may seem, foremost, the Nine are so immersed in magical ways as to be nearly unfathomable, especially in regard to common doings.”

“Is that not why it was originally decided to keep them isolated?” Kalaa asked. “As I understand, anything they have to say is so strange that it can be freely interpreted and used for manipulation.”

“Especially when people are desperate. They will seek signs where there are none,” Tural said.

“I’ve heard that Lar Kwa’s arrival between storm fronts is a sign,” the queen shared, “as is his arrival from the east.”

“And that it was on an odd-numbered day. I do not want the Nine to become a part of such nonsense. They have been used as political tools before,” Tural said. “Thus, their words are kept guarded. I will be careful.”

“At the reception,” the queen said, “we will have to keep a very close eye on Lar Kwa.”

“And any of the Charis’colia he has contacted since his return,” King Tural said. “We need to determine who is still loyal to the Crimson Throne and move against him quickly once we focus the Nine on…any of this. Whether or not we can engage their involvement--”

“Majesties,” Jarkadin probed, bringing another bottle from the palace’s spirit cellar, “should I have brought an additional glass for his highness?”

“And more ice, thank you, Jarkadin,” Princess Treutelaar said softly as the lithe beauty entered behind the valet and approached her parents. “What are we drinking this evening, mother?”

“Jarkadin’s choice, dear,” Queen Kalaa said, watching the stressed and wearied younger version of herself through the sympathy of a mother’s loving eyes.

“Jarkadin?” Treutelaar probed.

“A forty-year-old vitarae, mistress,” their aged manservant reported, “locally produced.”

“Ah, liquid bliss,” Treutelaar said, anticipating the rich flavor. “Your talents never fail us.”

“Shall I pour?” he asked.

“Just leave the bottle,” Queen Kalaa said, dismissing him. “Go attend to final preparations. Let us know when the guests begin to gather so we can make an entrance.”

“Of course, majesty,” Jarkadin said, bowing deeply.

“Daughter, overlooking your choice to forego the beautiful gown I had prepared for you in favor of…what is that you’re wearing?” Queen Kalaa asked.

“A drab, gray, utterly unflattering bodysuit, mother,” the princess replied. “It is far more durable than delicate and you know full well it’s what I normally wear.”

“Holding out hope for the resurgence of your fashion sense, dear child,” the queen said, raising her glass to her lips.

“Of course. Don’t think me too crass in pointing out that commenting on my attire is the very opposite of overlooking it.”

“Certainly not, daughter, we have many drinks ahead,” the queen said, focusing on her daughter’s tightly bound platinum locks, “which will also give us time to discuss suggestions for your hair. The Light of the People must look her best.”

“First,” the princess said, hoisting her glass to Tural, “Happy Father’s Day.”

“Thank you, daughter,” the king said, “though I believe this day will be used to commemorate the deepening of Alban’s desperation more than anything else.”

“On that subject, majesties, I’ve certainly no argument with the drinking, but the only thing I came to discuss,” the princess said, setting down her glass as Jarkadin left them alone in the sprawling suite, “is what we’re doing about the return of your son. Quite frankly, if you’re not ready to have him executed, we all know that I need to leave.”