The king was furious.
His face was pale, his lips bloodless, his hands, which grasped the handles of the throne, white at the knuckles. His eyes sparkled with rage and his chest heaved up and down as he spoke.
“I want them caught,” he proclaimed. “All of them. I want them captured and executed in front of everyone, and I’ll have no proper burial for them, either. They will be given to feral dogs and carrion crows. Do you hear me?”
“I do, Your Grace,” Dankar said, “yet may I point out that getting hold of them might not be easy.”
Adrik let out an almost imperceptible snort. “Not easy? Almost impossible, I would say. A river of blood was spilled in just one day, and no one saw anything.”
“Nothing but a message, noble Adrik,” the king corrected him in a somber voice. “The same message up and down the country, in the north and south, east and west, in towns and villages, wherever my loyal men were slaughtered: Servants of the Shadow, written in blood. Or at least, this is what your lieutenants would have you believe... I, on the other hand, think that some men, at least, are bribed or threatened, rather than merely blind.”
“There is a pattern, of course,” Adrik said ponderously. “All the murdered men were those who showed undisputed loyalty to the throne... even if they were no longer directly involved in matters of the court.”
“Yes,” King Alvadon nodded gravely, “like the good man Derrien Mokkar. An old man he was, one who had given a long and leal service, and later chose the quiet life of retirement. He did not deserve to die in a bath of blood. I want his murderers punished.”
“There is talk of... sorcery,” Adrik ventured cautiously.
“Fear inflames the imagination,” Dankar contradicted him calmly. “Derrien Mokkar was my wife’s uncle, and I was one of the first to be summoned when the body was found. He was killed by steel, not sorcery.”
“It matters not,” the king said abruptly. “It makes no difference, whether those who conspire in the Emerald Mountains are warlocks and witches or merely rebels. People believe in the power they possess; thus, it exists in the minds of men, and that is what makes it real for all intents and purposes.”
“If only we could figure out,” Adrik said plaintively, “what they meant to achieve by these murders – ”
“To me, it is clear enough,” said King Alvadon. “They want to disrupt life in every place in Tilir. They mean to undermine my authority, to show that I am incapable of defending those who are loyal to me, to tell in the most blatant terms that it doesn’t pay off to be the king’s men,” his hands curled into fists; his eyes shot daggers. “But they are mistaken, oh yes. By the Great Spirit I swear, I will make them see their mistake soon enough.”
Later Adrik was dismissed, and Dankar expected the same; he was surprised when the king asked him to remain behind and sent the servants away after the wine was poured. He had never been one on one with King Alvadon before.
Minutes passed, however, and the king acted for all the world as if he were alone in the chamber. He sat pondering, his brows knitted together, his eyes staring into the fire that danced in the polished grate. Once in a while, he took a sip of wine, and Dankar did likewise, waiting. Finally, the king looked up at him.
“What do you think?”
Dankar put on a look of polite puzzlement. “I wish I had any advice to give you, Your Grace, but what can I add to your wise words? Yes, the culprits must be punished; only their deaths will atone for the murder of all those good men.”
King Alvadon looked faintly displeased. The crease between his eyebrows deepened. “Many things are told about you, Dankar Gindur,” he said, “and half of them are too despicable to be repeated.”
Dankar couldn’t suppress a smirk. “Indeed. Just as we were waiting for audience, a certain honorable man struck a conversation with me and attempted to find out whether it is true that I can talk to snakes... no doubt next he would have asked me whether I can turn into one.”
The king turned his empty goblet absent-mindedly. “Yes, many things are told of you,” he repeated, “but even if I might believe some of them, I do not doubt your loyalty. I wanted you to know that.”
Dankar inclined his head politely. “Thank you, Your Grace. I am greatly honored – ”
“You were the first these Servants of the Shadow came after,” the king spoke across him. “No message was written in blood that time, but we both know those were the same men. You fought bravely. You nearly died. You are a man of worth, and I want to know what you truly think.”
“What I truly think?” repeated Dankar, taking a deep breath. “In that case, Your Grace, I might humbly suggest that we are about as close to capturing those Servants of the Shadow as we are to bringing the Final Dawn. You can try to trace them down, offer ten thousand crowns for the head of each murderer... but we may as well lay down our swords and spears and embark upon the Quest of the Messenger, for all the good it will do us.”
“Thank you, Dankar,” said the king wearily. “Like a black cloud this truth has haunted me in all my waking and sleeping hours, but somehow, hearing you say it aloud makes me feel better. Something tells me that the fate of this land will be decided soon, but not here... in the Emerald Mountains. I am useless,” he finished bluntly.
“You are the rightful ruler of Tilir,” Dankar said diplomatically, “descended in an unbroken male line from King Alvadon the First.”
The king gave a smile that seemed a little weary and sad. “Unless a miracle happens,” he said, “I will be the last link of that chain.”
“You must not despair, Your Grace,” Dankar told him, “there are ways – ”
“My queen has the purest soul and the tenderest heart of all women,” said the king solemnly. “She was willing to sacrifice herself by besmirching her honor in the eyes of all and going to live for the rest of her life in exile and penance, shamefaced. This, she said, was the only way to give me freedom and the chance to beget trueborn sons, and she was ready to do it for me, because she loves me with all her heart. But I could never do that. Neither could I bring myself to sire a bastard and legitimize him later, making him my heir. Something tells me no good would grow out of secrecy and shame.”
“You are wise, Your Grace,” said Dankar, “especially considering that a bastard’s claim to a throne is always dubious at best. Tilir never had a bastard king, and the noble clans would find such a liege disgraceful. And pardon me for saying so, Your Grace... but it appears to me we have far more pressing matters to solve.”
“You are right,” the king said resolutely, “you are right. Shadows and sorcery or steel and poison, we must be prepared for whatever is to come. And it is a comfort to know that I shall have you by my side, Dankar. I am glad to see you so well recovered, because otherwise, the task I have for you would not have been possible. From this day forward, you will occupy a seat on my Council.”
Dankar was taken aback. “I am honored beyond words, Your Grace,” he began cautiously, “but I strongly doubt whether I am fit – ”
The king looked displeased by his lack of enthusiasm. “Fit for what?” he demanded.
For the daily tedium of council work, for reading petitions and endless sessions, for exchanging pleasantries with boring greybeards, for the begging of favors and for knowing that I am not doing anything truly useful. “It is too lofty a position for someone like me, Your Grace,” Dankar said diplomatically.
“You speak nonsense. You are a Gindur.”
“I am, Your Grace. But I do not have a reputation for excelling in the sort of work being on the Council requires. I am more inclined - ”
“I could not care less about your reputation,” the king was beginning to lose patience, “or your inclinations, for that matter. I say that I require your presence on the Council, and thus, on the Council you shall be.”
Dankar recognized a lost battle, and bowed his head in a dignified manner. “I am at your disposal, my king.”
When he came home, he encountered a peaceful scene. Kelena was at her needlework by the big oval window in the sitting-room, and little Emmet was playing with wooden blocks at her feet. For half a heartbeat, she did not notice him, and he quietly stood in the doorway, enraptured by the gentleness of her profile, the outline of her lips, both innocent and sensual, the long eyelashes that were downcast as she sat immersed in her work, the lush waves of golden hair, the delicate fingers that moved deftly, threading the needle... but then a draft of wind from the door made her look in his direction, and her expression instantly changed. She set her embroidery aside on the small working-table and got up, smoothing her skirts, as she faced him.
“My husband,” she said.
Damn you, Dankar thought with sudden brutality. Damn your courtesies and your lies, your beauty and your gentle words, damn it all... and me first of all.
He said nothing of the sort, of course. Instead, he approached her and the boy, and motioned for little Emmet to come to him. His son let go of his toys, somewhat reluctantly, and slowly came forward. Dankar picked him up and inhaled the sweet clean scent of the small boy’s hair. He bounced Emmet in his arms, a little awkwardly perhaps, but still Emm laughed – and then he placed his son down on the carpet again, and told him to run and tell the nurse to get him some milk and biscuits. He saw Kelena’s eyes following the boy as he disappeared from view, until they were alone together and there was nowhere else for her to look.
“How did your audience go?” she asked him.
“My private audience, you mean,” he corrected her with a half-smile. He was somewhat gratified by how her eyes widened slightly as she perceived his words.
“I did not realize it was supposed to be private.”
“I did not expect it... no more than I expected to be thrust headlong into the Council.”
“The Council?” she repeated. “Do you mean to say that – ”
“Yes. Daily attendance will be demanded of me from this day onward,” he shrugged. “Not a very thrilling prospect, I admit, but I will try to make the best of it.”
The look she gave him was calculating. “You do not sound pleased.”
“Why should I be? I am rich, I have a honorable position in society, and there is more than enough to occupy my time. I might consider myself a man of diplomacy, but I am not made for the company of court lickspittles. So why would I want to join the Council?”
“For pride,” Kelena said, “for power.”
He considered her words for a moment. “Once, it might have gratified my ambition,” he said. “Now, though... I have grown older, and perhaps a little less foolish. Other things hold more importance to me now.”
She hesitated briefly before asking, “Which things?”
He was almost tempted to reach out and touch her, but he knew it was no good. It will never be any good. “My freedom,” he said instead. “My peace of mind, the ability to say what I think without the fear of having my head roll.”
“Not many of us can boast of having all that,” Kelena pointed out. It stung more than he meant to allow it.
“But I do,” he said, “or at least, did until today. So why would I be willing to give it up?” he let the question hang in the air for a moment or two, then changed the subject. “Have you received no news of your brother yet?”
Kelena shook her head, and a cloud of worry shadowed her face. “None. It is as if the earth opened up and swallowed Kohir.” She paused, as if wondering whether she should say more, and finally went on, “Rani came too, asking about him.”
“I take it that she hadn’t found out anything either?”
“No,” Kelena said, “Although she did all that she could... and more than my father did, at any rate.”
Her voice was shaking with suppressed anger, and the distress upon her face was so evident Dankar found it hard to go on.
“I do not know whether I should say this at all,” he finally said in a slow, hesitant voice, very much unlike his usual manner, “but the South Watch patrols found a man’s body on the outskirts of Everdark Forest. Apparently, he was murdered.”
Their eyes met, and Kelena flinched. “You do not mean to say – ” she whispered.
“I mean to say nothing, so far,” he hastened to add. “He... the body was not in a state that would make immediate recognition possible.”
“It was not Kohir,” Kelena said firmly. “Kohir had nothing to do in the Everdark Forest. He didn’t go there. Why would he, unless – ” she stopped, and her eyes widened in horror, and she shook her head, silent. Dankar looked aside, allowing her a moment to compose herself.
“For now, there is no evidence that man was your brother,” he told her reassuringly, “chances are, it was just some poor wretch who accidentally – ” he stopped himself. He would not talk nonsense; surely no one in his right mind would accidentally wander near Everdark Valley. But what was the unfortunate one looking for, then? “I will make all inquiries,” he said firmly, “just in case. So you can be certain that was not your brother.”