Rising Vengeance

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Chapter 2: What Comes with the Morning

Taren rubbed his eyes and sat up. Though the dream did not frighten him as it once had, it still unnerved him. It reminded him, also, that no matter whom you are, fate can cut you down as easily as a seamstress can snip a thread. Though it was still early, the third bell had yet to ring, Taren groaned and forced himself out of bed and dressed in the clothes he would wear to that day’s council, though he did not yet don the amour that he wore to most sessions. Every year, the Morschcoda of the Ten Nations of Anaria met at Dishmo Kornara for anywhere from a week to two months of meetings in which trade, war, treaties, anything really, would be discussed in detail. Walking to the window, Taren looked out over the city of Dishmo Kornara in the yet weak early morning light. The ancestral home of the Morschen and the seat of the Morschcoda Council, the city was divided into ten districts, one for each of the Ten Nations, each with their own distinctive architecture proudly displayed in living spaces and other buildings: Drogoda’s flowing and graceful stone houses, Rista’s unmelting ice palaces, the massive towers of Meclarya, Eschcota’s network of caves, Torridesta’s imposing buildings made of threatening black rock that looked to be cloaked in shadow, Dothoro’s treetop houses, the burning red of Armanda’s stone structures, the light-radiating yellow of Caladea’s, the grand and impressive scrollwork of Storinea, and the quiet and unassuming grey of Noldoron which was adorned with intricate metalwork and carvings. The Ten Districts each had a gate in the outer wall and a road that led to the center of the city, where a single, massive castle-fortress in the midst of it: Pentailia Morschcoda, the Palace of the Ringmasters. It was a truly magnificent structure and one that embodied every aspect of the Morschen. People from across Anaria, and the few outsiders who were permitted into the ancient city, knew that despite its size and impressive architecture, it was merely a symbol of the power of the Morschcoda Council. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of men and women had dwelt within its walls, and now, Taren Garrenin stood, as a Morschcoda, one of ten, gazing out over a city that was as old as time itself. The Morschcoda of the land of Drogoda, Lord of the Mordak, Prince of House Garrenin, he was a powerful man.

As he exited his sleeping chambers, two Tai-Aren Coda of the Spear of Drogoda came to attention and fell into step behind him. It was their duty to guard him, and guard him they would, even in his own bedroom. A third man, slightly taller Taren, came over from the window where he too had been observing the city in the early morning.

“You could not sleep either, Morschcoda?”

“You don’t need to be so formal with me, Makret. Use my name, as you always have.”

Makret nodded in understanding, noting Taren’s appearance and knowing all too well what it meant. “The same dream again?”

He nodded, pouring himself a drink and gulping it hurriedly. “It’s getting worse.” He cringed as the alcohol burned its way down his throat. He poured another drink.

“How can it have gotten any worse than what it was?” asked Makret, taking away the bottle as the two men sat down.

“Almost thirty of The Spear fell before we even considered retreat. The gate didn’t hold as long as it used to, either. And Elich fell, fighting alone down some deserted side street.” He did not mention his own death, or Makret’s. He felt that it might make him seem weaker or more vulnerable than some of the other Morschcoda hoped for, and their spies could be anywhere.

Makret leaned in close to his friend. “Is this just a dream, or is it a premonition?”

“It seems too clear, too real, to be anything other than a premonition, but if it is, why does it keep changing? I have seen into the future before, and I know can’t afford to ignore what might be a glimpse at the weaving of time, but neither can I afford to let it affect me. Especially with The Councils starting today.”

Makret leaned forward even more, anxious to not be overheard. “You told me once that you believed that the enemies you saw in the dream were Deshika. Do you actually know that, or is it just a guess?”

Taren lowered his voice to match Makret’s. “I don’t know, but who else would even dare to invade Drogoda? None of the Morschen races, and it wasn’t them. No other race, not even the Humans, would march on Alquendiro, even supposing they had the armies to march, and if any of them have heard of our lands far beyond their reach … And in the dream it seems as though I have memories of others of the Ten Nations falling before the battle even starts.”

“So, you don’t actually know that it is an attack by the Deshika.”

“No. But everything I see points to them. The weapons, especially the arrows, are the same as relics from El Bendro Dakoia. I no longer doubt my guess.”

“The Eternal War was fought before the dawn of time. And uncounted millennia have passed since the founding of Dishmo Kornara, long after. Those relics might have been used by the first Morschen, or the Deshika may have altered their weapons and armour in the long years since any but the Morschcoda have even thought of them.”

“Hardly uncounted millennia. The Garrenin line has been unbroken since the end of the war. Three hundred and fifty generations or so. Two hundred and fifty thousand years. I know that the arguments you make have their points, but do you honestly think that I haven’t thought of them?”

“I assumed that you had, but I wanted to be sure. But you can’t be certain without having seen them, in your dream or out.”

“I have seen them though. There was an ambush. They were almost nine feet tall, and they had four arms.”

“Certainly not Morschen then, as you said” laughed Makret. Then he grew more serious. “Taren, that is just what our ancestors tell us through records of what they assume the Deshika to be.”

“I know all of this, Makret. But what if it is a premonition? I can’t afford to ignore it, but if I begin to muster the Drogs, well, Erygan is likely to be under pressure from the council for sending not even half of the Black Guard in the general direction of Rista. How do you think they will react if I marshal the entire army of Drogoda, twenty five thousand soldiers and ten thousand more which ride into battle astride Mordak, based on a dream that I don’t understand?”

Bells rang high above them, clear and unfeeling, tolling out the third hour of the morning. Both men were quiet for almost another hour. Taren took his bottle back from Makret and drank in silence, finishing the Eschcotan whiskey. It was widely claimed that Taren’s drinking habits could leave a Dwarf with a hangover, though no one had seen Dwarves since the end of The Eternal War. Seeing that Taren had finished what he sometimes referred to as his ‘liquid tolerance,’ Makret finally spoke again.

“Do you know anything that might be helpful going into today’s council? Or that you may be able to use later?”

Taren did not even pause to think. “Marrdin is upset about Erygan marshalling the Black Guard against his border. Xari is always in a terrible mood at the start of The Councils, and at most other times, honestly. Ranny will be after either my head or Erygan’s, as usual. Bloody woman, I honestly do not know who I hate more, her or Xari. Daken will not be of any help to me because he hates to be anywhere when he could be flying on that cursed dragon of his.” Makret started to say the name of Daken’s ‘cursed dragon’ but Taren cut him off. “I don’t know what its name is, and I don’t care what its name is.” Makret sat back in his chair. “And there are two new Morschcoda this year.” Taren shook his head, as much to clear it after the strong drink as to prepare himself to dive into the yearly quagmire of politics that would be the next few weeks. “It’s about bloody time in Storinea’s case. Garneth went over the mountains fifty years ago. We all knew he never planned on coming back, so he should have been replaced before he left. None of that is of any more use to me than anything ever is, though.” Contemplating the banquets and parties that various Guilds and Merchant Clans always planned around The Councils only made him less happy about the time he would spend in Anaria’s capital. The only annual parties he attended happily were held by the Anarian Guild of Brewers, for obvious reasons, and the feast that the chief members of the Merchant Conclave took turns presiding over, as the Merchant Princes each had fortunes to rival that of a small country.

“This might be of some use, then. Erygan has arrested three Dragon Riders for spying on Torridesta. Apparently the Riders claim that they were sent by Daken’s sister to invite to Lady Dalrey to Airachni. Daken doesn’t know that they have been arrested.”

“Lady Dalrey is Daken’s sister.”

“His other sister then. You know what I meant.”

“I would say that that is likely related to whatever Erygan has the Black Guard stationed so far east for.” He thought for a few moments, pulling out his pipe slowly, and searching through his pockets for his tobacco. He put his pipe away with equal slowness and more than a hint of disappointment in his eyes when he remembered that he had left the small leather pouch in his room, along with his supply of whiskey. They were too tempting to take to the Council Chamber, and there at least, he needed a clear head. “That may have a use later, of one kind or another, if I can confront Erygan with it before he says anything, or anybody else brings it up, especially if, as you say, Daken doesn’t know.”

“It might even be enough to start a small war. Then we can go home early.”

“Or it might finish one.”

The tolling of four silver bells high above them interrupted their conversation. Almost immediately, advisors, aides, servants, and messengers began running everywhere, hurrying to prepare for the beginning of The Councils. Taren and his two guards left Makret among the Drogodan rooms and went straight to the Council Chamber, where he did not doubt he would find at least one of the Morschcoda already. Makret would join him later, as would the other entourages join and sit behind their Morschcoda, representing their nation’s interests, while taking no part themselves. As he walked, Taren thought of the other nine Morschcoda, two of which he would be seeing in that role for the first time at this meeting.

Erygan Dalrey of Torridesta had a subtle mind, not unlike Taren’s own. He could often sense when something would turn out to be more important than it seemed to be, and based on his feelings would make, or break, agreements for what seemed like no apparent reason. Marrdin Redernin of Rista, who had sat on the council for the first time only one hundred and fifty years ago, though he was the oldest of the current Morschcoda, generally tried to make deals where he personally would gain something, whether that was influence on the council or protection from its major powers did not really matter to him. Daliana Marcarry of Dothoro, because of her country’s almost strictly economic existence, seemed only to agree with Morschcoda from the southern empires with any consistency. She could defend her country from any of the other Morschcoda, if not with ease. Meclarya’s Daken Calmi would take almost anything, unless it was abundantly clear that he or Meclarya would suffer because of it. The reason for that was simple enough. Meclarya was a small, narrow country, pushed up against the east coast of Anaria, largely ignored by the southern empires and removed from major trade routes, which stuck more to larger, richer countries in the middle or the west of Anaria, though that was slowly changing as more Merchant Clans set their sights on markets beyond Anaria’s shores. With its large coastline, Meclarya was developing into a center of the shipping trade, much to Taren’s displeasure, as his rivals in Drogoda were starting to speak loudly about their own country’s small coast. Xari Gundara would only sign treaties with certain Morschcoda, and Taren was not one of those few. On principle, the peoples of Armanda and Drogoda rarely cooperated, rarely of mutual respect and never out of trust. Caladea’s Morschcoda, Ranny Marsharin, always tried to manipulate agreements between other Morschcoda to improve her position on the council. She was usually unsuccessful, though she was getting more attuned to the ways of thinking that most Morschcoda shared. Norrin Shrevneer rarely agreed to anything. Eschcota was rich enough on its own without having to bargain with neighbouring countries, and its central position in Anaria meant that most trade passed through it at one point or another anyway. Dalasin Mectar of Noldoron, one of the new additions to the council, was likely in the same position as Norrin. His predecessor, the well liked Miliani Vora, had been in that position, but Miliani had also been a Morschcoda for almost three hundred years. Dalasin was new, and more importantly, Mectar was only appointed to be Noldoron’s Morschcodal House with Morschcoda Miliani’s death. His behaviour today would determine much about how long he kept his seat. Kallin Revdark was the other new Morschcoda, and he was starting with a powerful position. Storinea as a whole was a country of scholars, and the opinions of one of the Demosira, a high title applied only to certain Storinean scholars and one that could take as much as five hundred years to attain, carried weight throughout all the Ten Nations. Given the difficulty in attaining the lofty title, it was somewhat surprising that one as young as Kallin had been granted it. He was only two hundred and fifteen years old, after all. He was likely to keep his seat for what was left of his life. At the same time, the Storinean council seat had been vacant for fifty years. Garneth had abdicated, but the country’s law clearly stated no Morschcoda, whether they were the true heir or not, could sit unless they were Demosira. Taren privately suspected that the people of Storinea were not displeased at taking a break from the politics and shameless backstabbing of the Morschcoda Council.

The Council Chamber, like almost everything else in Pentailia Morschcoda, was a large circle. The crest of the Morschcoda Council, a Morschledu Ring emblazoned over a map of Anaria, was carved into the floor and surrounded by ten thrones, one for each Morschcoda, and a larger ring of chairs, slightly separated into groups, that sat farther back, against the wall. Taren had been right about not being the first to the chamber. Both Dalasin and Kallin were there already, whispering to each other as they tried to figure out where they should sit, and no doubt attempting to form a stable alliance before the first meeting of The Councils so that they would each have a stronger position, however slight. It was a tactic that was well used, even by the strongest of the council, and one that was certainly in play throughout the palace already. He did not doubt that Ranny or Xari or both, alone or together, were already plotting some supposedly crippling blow to either him or Erygan. It did not really matter. Ranny’s attempts to manipulate the Morschcoda were amateurish at best, even after one hundred years and more, though she was getting better, he admitted to himself with reluctance. Xari was a more distinct threat. Armanda’s Flame Weavers were justly feared in Anaria, and Xari, like many of her predecessors, would not hesitate to unleash them. Taren was hoping, most likely in vain, that this year The Councils would not degenerate into regretted threats and declarations of war. It had not for almost twenty years now, a record in Taren’s memory, but with Erygan marshalling the Black Guard against Rista’s borders, and his arrest of three Dragon Riders, war was a likely part of the near future.

As the other Morschcoda began to gather and take their seats, Taren studied them as they came in. He was not surprised to see Erygan and Norrin whispering to each other. Torridesta was practically controlled by the Merchant Clans, and after Norrin approved the building of four new breweries in Braldish alone, the Merchant Princes would be desperate for new trading rights in Eschcota. Nor was he surprised when Ranny and Xari walked in side-by-side, although it struck him as odd when they took seats opposite each other, rather than their usual places. Daliana speaking to Daken was a problem though. Daliana was not against Daken, she was one the few friendly with him, so she could be taking about anything, but Taren suspected that Daken likely now knew of his three Riders and their arrest. Taren now had to assume that that information was useless. Marrdin entered last, as was usual, and took a seat other than the one he was accustomed to use, grumpily sitting in the only available seat, beside Taren. A single chair remained unoccupied at the end of the room furthest from the doors, on a raised dais between the delegations of Caladea and Dothoro. Five silver bells rang to announce the fifth hour of the day, and one gold bell rang to announce the beginning of The Councils.

Taren studied his fellow Morschcoda intently while they all waited to see who would speak first. Custom dictated that only Morschcoda who had an interest in the current topic could speak while in the chamber, as having more than one conversation lead to confusion and, all too frequently, war.

Erygan sat across from Taren, tall in his carved throne. Heavy black hair was pulled behind his ears framing a thin, pale face with large black eyes under delicate eyebrows and a high forehead. A pipe was clenched between teeth even whiter than his skin, surrounded by a black goatee, precisely trimmed at the top, and rounded at the bottom, as though his constant chin stroking had worn off part of it. The effect of his dark clothing, soft leather and black fur, was one of wealth and power, both of which were important in Torridesta, controlled as it was by the Merchant Clans. A look of contentment crossed his face as he saw Taren’s annual study of the Morschcoda begin with him.

Taren looked to his right, at Marrdin. Marrdin, like Erygan, was tall and thin, but there, the similarities ended. Dark skinned, Marrdin’s complexion came from long days in the harsh northern sun, which shone from all angles as it reflected off of the icy plains of the country he called home. He was more powerfully built than Erygan also, with long, thick legs, and powerful arms, making him both incredibly fast when running and a strong opponent with a sword. Long hair, bleached white by the sun, hung over a high forehead, curling just before it fell into his eyes, and hung well down his back. His face was drawn with age, being over eight hundred and fifty, the oldest sitting Morschcoda.

Taren’s eyes went next to Daken, between Norrin and Ranny. Daken was a short man, and looked similar to the dragons he rode: large eyes and a long wide nose that hooked in over his thin-lipped mouth. His teeth, which he bared often thinking it was both intimidating and unique, not far wrong, were both longer and sharper than most. The two things that set him apart in the chamber, aside from his near constant sneer, were his complete lack of any hair, except his eyebrows, and his complete disregard for his appearance. In fact, he more often dressed like the Dragon Rider he had been than the Morschcoda that he was. He had pointedly ignored the many suggestions that he get rid of his beaten and scarred messenger’s satchel, even after several offers of his choice of a new satchel from Merchant Princes attempting to gain rights to Meclarya’s harbours. He claimed it was practical. Other Morschcoda shook their heads, but Taren, thinking of the supply of Eschcotan whiskey in his bedroom, as well as his caches of other equally potent drinks secreted throughout Pentalia Morschcoda, understood the desire, or maybe need, of something to help one deal with the various and often clashing personalities of the Morschcoda.

Taren’s eyes turned from Daken to Norrin. Norrin was built much the same as Daken, thick and heavy, but almost two feet taller. The giant Eschcotan towered over every other Morschcoda in the room, including Marrdin, though the Ristan was nearer than most to being his equal in height. One could see in his face that he was a stubborn man. He wore a perpetual frown underneath a thick black beard. He was black, something unique to Eschcota, though many Anarian races were tanned or darker skinned, and his skin seemed to shine as if it was coated in oil. Opposite his sword, which hung in his right hip, he had a long hammer and four sharp chisels tucked into his belt. The number of chisels represented his skill as a mason, not great in Norrin’s case, with ten chisels being the fewest that a master would have. They served another purpose on Norrin’s belt though. He was deadly accurate with them, never missing his target when he threw one. As for the hammer, he often preferred its blunt approach in combat to the finesse required by a sword. A long clay pipe rested in his hand, its stem sitting almost delicately on his bottom lip.

Xari, three seats to Taren’s right, caught his eyes next. As she was always dressed in bright colours, it had become her hair that got her noticed. It hung in thick curls along her neck and the sides of her face and well down her back, changing colour from a deep, almost blood red at the ends to a pale yellow near the top of her head. He was not the only one to believe that the colour was contrived, though it was actually fairly common throughout Armanda. Instead of the pants and shirt of most Morschcoda, or even the gowns and dresses that Ranny wore, Xari rarely clothed herself in anything but long flowing robes which worked well in Armanda to allow heat to escape the body, except for the armour she sometimes wore to The Councils, trying to make the statement that the other Morschcoda, namely Taren, did not intimidate her. A belt of woven yellow, red, and orange silk wound around her waist, holding the strikingly plain brown leather sheath of the sword Galdren, the Flaming Steel, the only sword in the room besides Taren’s that had a name.

Opposite from Xari, Ranny, in a long gown of pale yellow sewn through with diamonds and yellow crystals, was both difficult to look at directly and hard to avoid staring at. Her bright dress pained the eyes of light sensitive Morschcoda, such as Erygan and himself, but it also tended to draw one’s eye towards her, and it complemented her beauty well. Thin, with a narrow face, her long blonde hair fell on thin but strong shoulders. Though tall in her own right, she was still far shorter than Norrin or Marrdin. She was considered a great beauty throughout Anaria. Her face was angled sharply, with high cheekbones and almost feline eyes. Her ears were pointed more sharply than any other of the Morschcoda, and her hair parted around the tips to display them proudly. If Taren believed that Elves still existed, as Daliana claimed, he would have almost accepted Ranny herself as proof. Though she was adept with a sword, she was no master, and she preferred to use her tongue, believing it to be more civilized. Her manipulations were mostly ignored by the male Morschcoda and ineffective on the women, but in her own country they had saved her the Morschcodal Throne several times.

Daliana, sitting between Taren and Ranny, drew his eyes away from Ranny, for which Taren offered up a silent thanks. He did not want Ranny to spend the next however many weeks trying to manipulate him, thinking he had been smitten with her. Daliana was small and thin, reminding Taren of a willow tree. She looked like a typical Dothrin woman except for two things: her sea-grey eyes and her red hair, though it had faded to almost brown over the years. She was no warrior, but Taren knew that she could hold her own with a spear or a bow, or Dothoro’s traditional weapon, an Anshawl. She wore little jewelry, except for her Ring and a small golden crown that wound through her hair like branches in her native forest. Wearing shoes instead of the more favoured boots, she could move with grace and stealth easily, whether through the tangled forest pathways or the crowded halls of Pentalia Morschcoda.

Taren tore his gaze away from Daliana slowly to examine the two new Morschcoda closely for the first time.

Dalasin, sitting at Erygan’s left, looked different from a typical Morschcoda. He was stoop-shouldered, which seemed to compliment him in a way. He looked at ease with himself, something few Morschcoda ever accomplished, though he seemed, like Norrin, to frown constantly. His face, also sharply angled, though not as severely as Ranny’s, was already framed by iron grey hair despite his youth. His clothes also were atypical of a Morschcoda, though he was undoubtedly one of the richest people in the room. The only sign of his affluence was an intricate silver broach pinned to his left shoulder that he had likely forged himself.

Kallin, between Xari and Marrdin, a dangerous place to be, but a necessary one, was as different as it was possible to be from the others who sat with him. Even those who did not quite fit the stereotypes about the Morschcoda, like Dalasin and Daken, were far nearer to the mark than he was. Short and round, with wire framed glasses so that he could read the small cramped script of the texts and scrolls he worked with so frequently, he looked more like the scholar that he was than the rest of his peers looked like Morschcoda. A dark beard that came to a sharp point about three inches from his chin decorated his somewhat pale face, while long black hair hung straight from the top of his head and down his back, tucked behind his ears. He wore robes with wide sleeves and deep pockets, much the same as he had the first time Taren had met him, forty years before. Even then, he had been consumed with his studies.

For the first time, Taren included himself in his study of the current Morschcoda Council, trying to see what he looked like through another’s eyes. He saw a warrior, not a politician. He almost always wore armour to The Councils, polished so that it shone in the dimly lit room, and his famous sword, Mishdonkar, was always belted at his left hip. He saw a man with long, thick hair, so black that it was almost blue, and no beard. He saw that the Morschcoda of Drogoda was a man who also only had one eyebrow, the left, whereas his right eyebrow had been replaced by a thick scar where a sword wielded by one of his brothers had carved a bloody path long before. All told, he saw a soldier, not a leader. The people of Drogoda disagreed, however, and he was their servant and ruler. He returned to himself, not entirely satisfied with what he saw, tempered as it was because of what he knew of the man who sat in his chair.

Finally, Taren’s studying of the Morschcoda was finished, but still no one looked ready to begin. Almost another ten minutes passed before Marrdin cleared his throat.

Taren watched the two new Morschcoda as Marrdin spoke first, so he was only half listening when the old man looked right at him and said “I would appreciate your thoughts, Morschcoda Taren.” Startled, he tried to hide the fact that he had heard nothing of what had just been said, except for the word ‘Torridesta’ somewhere near the beginning. So he looked at Marrdin and spoke slowly.

“I fail to see the problem, Morschcoda Marrdin” answered Taren, his eyes flicking to Erygan. The pale Morschcoda of Torridesta was almost lounging in his seat, smoking a carved pipe of black wood. Hidden behind the pipe and his neatly trimmed beard was a smile that could hardly be read.

“You don’t see a problem? There are three thousand Torridestan Black Guards camped my border. How can you not see the problem?” asked Marrdin.

‘Ah,’ thought Taren. ‘So it has begun already.’ Aloud, he asked “Has the Black Guard crossed the Ristan border? Or made any effort to do so?”

“Well, no, but…”

“Then I fail to see a problem.” Taren saw Norrin fight to hold in a yawn. Dealing with any Morschcoda was tiring. Dealing with all of them together was beyond exhausting. Still, he had held out hope that at least some of them would make it through the first day. “Morschcoda Erygan is well within his rights to do with the Black Guard as he will in his own land. If they have not crossed your borders, then, while you are maybe right to be concerned about the possibility of a war between Torridesta and Rista, his marshalling of the Black Guard is not an act of war, and this council can do nothing about it.”

“Perhaps,” Kallin spoke for the first time, his voice deeper than Taren thought it would be from the small round man with the short, pointed beard and ink-stained hands, “Morschcoda Marrdin feels that although this is not an act of war, it is a threat of one, and should be addressed, whether or not the council actually can order the Black Guard back to Toredo.”

Turning to Erygan, Marrdin said “Perhaps Morschcoda Kallin is right. Perhaps I do consider three thousand fully armed elite soldiers practically on my border to be a threat. And if that threat is not removed quickly, Morschcoda Erygan, I will dispatch the Crystal Sword, if only to ensure that your men break no law by crossing the border.”

Erygan, his voice low and dark, almost a growl, shrugged and waved his hand as he answered. “Do what you will, Morschcoda Marrdin. I have done nothing wrong by ordering my men towards your border. I am, as Morschcoda Taren said, perfectly within my rights to order them where I will, so long as they remain in my lands.”

“I volunteer the Dragon Hearted,” said Daken quietly. Almost too quietly, it seemed, because only Norrin heard him speak. The giant chuckled softly.

“What about the Dragon Hearted, Morschcoda Daken?”

“I volunteer them.” He paused. Daken seemed to tense whenever he knew that he had been heard. His left hand flexed, and instinctively dropped to the worn leather satchel he always wore. “To mediate the border. If two countries each send their elite armies to the same border, an elite force from a third country must also be present to maintain the peace until such time as there is a formal declaration of war. Such is our law.”

“Well spoken, Morschcoda Daken,” put in Ranny. “But would your men be able to reach the border in time to prevent conflict? Braldish is the closest capital city to the border in question, and even Galzeen is closer than Airachni.”

“My men could get there in time.”

Taren spared a glance at Ranny. Her gamble had been subtle, but Taren did not doubt that it would reap its rewards. Attempting to pull in three Morschcoda at once was not one of her newer tricks, but Dalasin’s inclusion at the end was what mattered. Taren had to speak before Ranny could make another attempt. “The Black Guard is already at the border, and the Crystal Sword will move far more quickly than the Dragon Hearted will be able to. Perhaps we should consider the Stone Warriors. Would your men be willing to mediate the border, Morschcoda Norrin?” Taren asked.

“They can mediate the border, but stone cracks in the cold. The conflict would have to be resolved in one month, at the most.”

Erygan looked paler than usual at the thought of have an army of Stone Warriors within sight of his border, and especially within sight of his men. Marrdin also looked panicked.

“Then if the dispute is not settled within one month from the time that the Stone Warriors reach the border, we will dispatch the Dragon Hearted to replace them. If, after another month, it is still not settled, I will send the Brotherhood of the Mordak to settle it, one way or another.”

That announcement had the effect that Taren had been hoping for. Erygan, pale already, went dead white. Even Marrdin was slightly off-colour at the thought of several thousand of the Brotherhood of the Mordak within sight of his troops. Even one thousand of the Brotherhood could deal with the three thousand Black Guards. Three thousand could deal with almost anything he was willing to commit to the border, and many things that he was not. Erygan, trying to look less scared then he felt, spoke quickly. “I am certain that Morschcoda Marrdin and I could form some sort of agreement before it becomes necessary to involve any other countries, especially one as far away as Drogoda.”

“Morschcoda Erygan, come to an agreement with Marrdin, now. I think we all want this dealt with before midday.”

“I will withdraw all but five hundred of the Black Guard, Morschcoda Marrdin.”

“You will withdraw all of them, or I will let loose the Crystal Sword.”

Erygan hesitated. “I will withdraw all but two hundred.” He put up a finger to keep Marrdin from interrupting him. “After all, they are my men, within my borders, which I have a right to guard as I see fit.”

“You will get nothing better, Morschcoda Marrdin,” said Kallin.

Marrdin’s eyes darted to Kallin’s face. “Keep two hundred at the border if you must. I will keep the Crystal Sword in Agrista.”

“Now that that is settled,” said Daliana, exhausted, “perhaps we can move on.”

Few decisions were made in the council chamber that day, or the next. As The Councils wore on to a full week, without a Guild banquet or Merchant ball to break up the monotony, Taren wondered why neither Daken nor Erygan had brought up the three Dragon Riders. “Daken must know by now that three of his men are missing, and he must know where they were,” he said to Makret as the two walked back to the Drogodan chambers after the day’s session was over. “I wonder what Daliana told him.” His spies seeded throughout the various Morschcodal entourages could only tell him so much, and they were of limited use with what went on in private meetings between their masters.

“What are you going to do about it though?”

“There’s really nothing that I can do, but … If nobody says anything by the midday break tomorrow, I will confront Erygan with it. Daken doesn’t have the strength to succeed with an accusation like that, not before the full court of The Councils.”

Even as Taren, speaking quietly with Makret, walked back to his rooms, Xari, Daliana, and Ranny were all met together in the Caladean rooms of Pentailia Morschcoda. Daliana looked less than happy to be there, and Xari seemed furious.

“You told us that you warned Daken that Erygan was in motion against him, Daliana. Why has he not done anything?”

“Do you really think that Daken has the strength to stand up to Erygan, Xari? I did warn him, but I can hardly prevent the Black Guard from marching straight to Airachni. Why do you think that Erygan arrested those Dragon Riders? It was to prevent Rashti from hearing about the threat against Meclarya so that she wouldn’t intervene.”

“Daliana has shifted the balance, Xari, so there is no need to be upset. Not with her, at least.” Changing the subject quickly, she said “To have Storinea as an ally after all these long years would be exciting. We should concentrate on that. Otherwise this week has certainly gone well.”

Xari rolled her eyes at Ranny. The Caladean woman was young and seemed to radiate endless energy, bouncing quickly from one subject to another in no apparent order, her mind working tirelessly to make the connections that made the least sense. It made Xari, only three hundred years her senior, feel old and tired. She could only imagine how Daliana must feel when dealing with Ranny, as the Dothrin woman was nearly seven hundred. It slowly dawned on her that Ranny was trying to get all of them to relax, even and especially herself. “Somebody should tell that to Taren,” laughed Xari, reluctantly. “It has not been a good week for him. Aside from threatening Erygan with the Brotherhood of the Mordak, he has not really done anything this week.”

Daliana had been dealing with Taren and Erygan longer than the other two women combined, and she answered Xari. “That is not that unusual for Taren though. He is a patient man. At least, for a Drog, he is. He always waits out the first week of The Councils, and then strikes hard against whatever he feels like for no apparent reason. He is far too much like Erygan, though not as aggressive.”

“I think,” said Ranny, “that Taren may be the only Morschcoda who truly stands alone. He never seems to take advice, or even ask for it, from anyone on the council. He never seems to have meetings after the talks are done for the day. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I have held my seat for one hundred and fifty years, practically, and I have watched as Morschcoda gain or lose power through allegiances to each other. Taren keeps himself separate from the rest of us Morschcoda, so how does he maintain his power?”

“Allegiances may alter the power balance, but the true powers don’t rely on others. They use their own strength. Taren and Erygan contest each other so forcefully in the council chamber that sometimes I think the walls will fall and the roof collapse from the strength of their mental duelling.”

“You sound almost … scared, Xari.”

“You would also, Ranny, so do not seek to throw sand in our eyes by pretending to have courage that we know you lack. As much as it pains me to admit, I fear Taren. As strong as the Flame Weavers of Armanda are I know, when I take the time to think, that they are a poor match for the might of the Brotherhood of the Mordak. All Armandans will laugh in your face if you were to ask them if they fear Drogoda, and then they would tell themselves that of course they do, though they would never admit it.”

“Perhaps it is time we attempt to win over Taren as an ally.”

“The Drogs were once a true southern people. Warm, bright, happy, dangerous yes, but they are southerners no longer. Since the rise of House Garrenin, about fourteen thousand years ago, the Drogs have shifted their sympathies northwards. They have become colder, darker, more openly dangerous, more like raging firestorm, rather than the veiled and seductive danger of a camp fire. And Taren himself is more like one of the north men than most Drogs.”

“I might find a way to persuade him,” said Daliana. “If he is more like a northerner, he will be more likely to respond to a northerner.”

“Dothoro is hardly a northern nation, Daliana” snorted Xari.

“I am still the farthest north among us three,” Daliana shot back coldly.

Taren slumped in his chair as he took his seat the next morning. His nightmare was affecting him worse than ever. The Deshika, if that was even what the invaders were, as Makret had forced him to admit, had not even cared about taking Alquendiro this time. They had just burned as much of it as they could, killed everyone they could, and then they marched away, leaving the ruins of once mighty Alquendiro as a testament to the unmatchable power of the Deshika. Though Taren knew it was only a nightmare, it had still cost him almost a whole night of sleep. That morning had made a larger dent in his private supplies than he cared to think about, though he had managed to stop himself halfway through the second flask of whiskey, after two pints of breakfast beer, by directing his thirst towards an Armandan drink called Gafve. Its only downside, in Taren’s opinion, was that it was not some form of alcohol. Still, the night had not been fruitless, however short his sleep had been. Because of his spies, he knew much of what had gone on throughout the palace during the night. He knew that Erygan had met with Dalasin, hoping to win over the new Morschcoda while he was still untouched by the various plots that Taren was not least guilty in weaving. What he could not fathom, however, was why Daliana was staring at him with such interest. She had rarely shown any interest in any of the other Morschcoda, except for Daken and the other two women, as he now knew. His spies had been able to report to him that all three women had met last night. That alone was not unusual. Most of the real meetings took place at night. What was unusual about it was that his spies had been unable to find out what the meeting was about. Servants were rarely kept out of meetings entirely, especially since they were needed to perform the highly important task of refilling wine glasses. That alone was enough to make their meeting last night interesting to him. It also meant he needed to place more spies among Ranny’s entourage. Erygan was speaking about something, but Taren felt suddenly sure that if he waited any longer to confront him, it would only help Erygan’s cause. When the Shadow Lord finally paused to breath, he jumped in.

“That is an excellent point, Morschcoda, Erygan,” he paused to savour the unsettled looks from several other Morschcoda, including Daliana. “However, I must interject something which has been brought to my attention. You have recently arrested three Dragon Riders. I believe Morschcoda Daken has a right to be informed why messengers from his sister to your wife were detained and charged. I also believe that any arrest of an ambassador is considered an act of war.” When Erygan did not answer, Taren spoke again. “You of course have every right to deny this, though that would serve little purpose, as most of the council seems to know about the arrests already.”

“I do not have to answer to this council for everything that goes on within my borders, Morschcoda Taren. My country is my own, and I will rule it as I see fit, as you yourself said days ago.”

“Of course you will, Morschcoda Erygan. However, that still leaves us with the problem of you arresting three Meclaryan Dragon Riders without charge, or at least a messenger to Meclarya to inform their lord that the arrests had been made. You may rule Torridesta as you see fit, Morschcoda Erygan, but you still must rule it according to the laws of this council.”

Erygan looked around to see if he had any support on the issue. Dalasin looked mildly interested, but he had almost no power to help Erygan, even if the matter had been one that involved him. Daliana only looked confused. Erygan wondered if she had told Taren, or if Taren had just guessed that the marshalling of the Black Guard had not been meant against Rista. While Erygan was lost in thought, Daken believed his time was come, and tried to drive the knife a little deeper into Erygan.

“Morschcoda Taren, thank you for bringing this to my attention. Surely it slipped Morschcoda Erygan’s mind to inform me of the arrests. I will trust, Morschcoda Erygan, that any other such instances will not be forgotten.”

At this, Daliana’s lips lifted in a small smile, and then they dropped again just as quickly. ‘It will not do,’ she thought, ‘to appear too attached to this issue. If Erygan suspects my involvement in stopping his army, he may send it towards me.’ It was too late for such thoughts, however, as Erygan’s mind had already turned towards Daliana, marking her as the source of this failing.

“An explanation, I think, is required for how something potentially important slipped your mind until now, Morschcoda Erygan.”

Erygan’s lips twisted into a dark and cruel smile. “As I am sure you know, Morschcoda Taren, the three Dragon Riders were spies. I had evidence of this, and I ordered them arrested. There is nothing to explain.”

Xari leaned forward. “There must be a dozen Riders in Torridesta at any given time, Morschcoda Erygan. How do you pick out those three specifically? The evidence you had likely could have pointed to half of them.”

“I was informed of three Dragon Riders being seen several times near a training compound for the Black Guard just south of Toredo. When several of the Black Guard went out to meet with them to question them about why they were so close to a Black Guard barracks, the three Riders fled northwards. The three Riders that were arrested were the only Riders within two days of the city, which is the only likely destination along the northward road.”

“You could be a court jester, Morschcoda Erygan, inventing tales the way you do,” laughed Ranny.

“Enough,” said Taren. “Judgement must be passed on this issue, and because of that, we are required to dismiss both you and Morschcoda Daken from this chamber until we have reached our decision, Morschcoda Erygan.” He paused as both Morschcoda stood, glared at each other and everyone else, and departed the room. “Now, does anyone have anything worth saying, because I don’t want this to take forever.”

“I think that we all know” began Kallin, “that Rista was not the intended target of the Black Guard.”

“If Rista was not the target,” Dalasin countered, “why would he marshal the Black Guard against that border?”

“He only had one other option besides Rista,” broke in Norrin. “And if he had sent them south towards Eschcota, he knows I would not have hesitated to unleash the Stone Warriors. Marrdin is more patient than I am when it comes to war.”

As the arguments between the various Morschcoda about Erygan’s plans became louder and more violent, Taren suddenly knew that Erygan was not the one at fault. But he also knew that he would have to proceed carefully, because Daken had almost everyone’s support.

“Well,” he said out loud, when everybody had paused to draw breath, “Daken certainly has done his best to make a believable story for why his Riders were spying on Torridesta.” The silence that greeted his remark was deafening.

“I must have misheard you, Morschcoda Taren,” said Ranny, a little too hopefully. “It sounded as though you just said that Morschcoda Erygan was telling the truth.”

“Then I am not surprised you misheard me, Morschcoda Ranny,” her face lifted for a moment, “because what I said was that I believed Daken to be lying. I made no mention of Erygan at all.”

The chamber erupted. Taren was the only Morschcoda who did not at once begin to yell at the top of his lungs at anyone who so much as moved. All he did was sit there laughing at everything that crossed his mind. When all the other Morschcoda seemed to finally be out of breath, Taren was still laughing.

“What do you find so funny, Taren?”

“I find practically everything to be funny, Morschcoda Ranny.” His pointed emphasis on the title Morschcoda, which Ranny had neglected to use, caused her to shrink back into her throne of pale yellow stone. “Especially the fact that now everyone in Dishmo Kornara, let alone Erygan and Daken, know exactly what is happening in this chamber.”

“How does this give you a source for amusement?” asked Daliana, shocked.

“Because, the whole reason this argument about who is lying and who is telling the truth has occurred because neither Morschcoda Erygan nor Morschcoda Daken lied.” Stunned silence and blank stares greeted this statement. “The mustering of the Black Guard” he began before the argument could start up again, “was a distraction to divert the gaze of the northern Morschcoda away from Meclarya while a strong force of ordinary Torridestan soldiers marched through Eschcota. The three Dragon Riders were spies sent by Daken, but they did have another mission, which was to invite Lady Rashti Dalrey to Airachni, because Daken knows as well as any one of us here that Erygan would never give orders for his men to fall back across the border unless someone he cared about might possibly be caught in the confusion.”

“So what is to be done about this matter, Morschcoda Taren?”

“Have you no ideas of your own, Morschcoda Kallin?” When the Storinean shook his head, Taren continued on. “Well, the council really cannot do anything about it, since technically, no law was broken. Daken’s use of spies isn’t punishable because it was technically a period of war, and the use of spies is permitted in such instances. Erygan isn’t at fault, because the Black Guard didn’t cross the border, as we already determined. Since only a country’s Elite Force is forbidden from crossing borders without permission from this council, Torridesta’s ordinary army being in Meclarya is not against any law that this council has passed. The only offence, and it is a small one, is Erygan’s failure to report his arrest of the three Meclaryan Dragon Riders, but as we cannot prove that he willfully withheld the information, we can do nothing.”

“I think we could still try to do something, Morschcoda Taren.” Ranny ensured that she emphasized the title this time. The others looked at her, expecting her to come up with something, but she shook her head. “But I suppose you will have it your own way. Call in Daken and Erygan, and we can be done with this matter.”

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