Chapter 6: Mastery Revealed
Taren groaned audibly as Ranny and Erygan continued to shout at each other. He was tired, and comfortable as his chair was, he was sore from sitting for the ten hours the debates had already dragged on for. Kallin took the groan as a sign that someone had to interrupt Ranny before she said something everybody would regret.
“Is something wrong, Morschcoda Taren?”
“Yes, Morschcoda Kallin, something is wrong. We’ve been sitting here for ten hours and we have nothing to show for it. We don’t have a single name of a single person who any of us would be willing to call our king or queen. We don’t even have a country that we can agree a strong ruler might come from. I suggest that the Council adjourns and considers each of these questions privately. We can’t afford to waste the time that we already have wasted, and much less the little time we still have left.”
“I concur with Morschcoda Taren.”
“Thank you, Morschcoda Marrdin. Council is adjourned until the day after tomorrow.”
Taren stood and turned to walk out, but Ranny did not let him go right then. “If we cannot afford to waste time, Morschcoda Taren, why are we not meeting tomorrow?”
Taren did not turn around, nor even look over his shoulder. “Because, Morschcoda Ranny, I want to be able to think of reasonable people to take the throne. I do not wish to present the first name that comes to mind. And I want to sleep.”
Despite Taren’s desire to sleep after over two weeks of battle and travel throughout the north, he and Kallin met that night.
“So, Kallin, we know that maybe a handful of people actually have the strength or will to take Eliish Del Anaria. Do we know who any of those few people are?”
“You mean besides yourself.”
“I told you that I will not take the throne.”
Kallin sighed. “Well, then as I see it, there are three, maybe four, Morschledu who have strength enough to take the throne, but I would doubt that any of those have the strength to hold it.”
“The strength to hold the throne is not currently important. If the Morschcoda are divided in their choice, then no strength will suffice.”
“So, what do we do?”
“For now, we sit, we think, we eat, we talk, and we drink, though not in that order. Drinking comes first.” Taren ordered a servant to bring him Gafve. He found the strong drink more calming than any tobacco Dothoro’s famous plantations could grow. He had even begun to consider its lack of alcohol refreshing, allowing him to save his whiskey for occasions when he really needed it.
“Who could hold the throne, Daliana?”
“It depends on the Deshika, really.”
“What makes you say that, Xari?”
“Honestly, Ranny? The Deshika invaded, which means that they thought they had the strength to conquer what they attacked and to hold what they conquered. Because the Deshika will likely be back, and sooner rather than later, whoever takes the throne is almost guaranteed to be a southern warlord.”
“A warlord, yes. Not necessarily a southern one.”
“The north barely has armies. It barely has warriors. It doesn’t have warlords, Daliana.”
“I don’t think many people would bow to a warlord, and I don’t think many would willingly follow one.”
“People follow their leaders into battle.”
“If those leaders are actually used to being there, and wanted there in the first place.”
“Seeing their king or queen on the front lines against the Deshika might make our soldiers fight harder.”
“Seeing their king or queen cut down by Deshik swords won’t do anything for our people. The bloodline of the ancient kings is spent. The warrior queens of the first era are all dead. And it’s because they were all killed on the battlefield. The only Great Families with notable military lineages anymore are the Garrenins and the Eshtarins. Taren, Anyana, and Elich are the only living Garrenins, the Morschcoda, the Princess of Morieden by right, and the Morschcoda’s heir. None of them can take the throne. Gelinia Eshtarin though …”
“Gelinia Eshtarin has an overly high opinion of herself.” The way Ranny said it made Xari snort with laughter, which trailed off into a cough. Ranny ignored her. “But, I take it that you, Daliana, oppose a warlord taking the throne.”
“The term bothers me. Warlord. El Darnen is the only warlord that I know of. At least, he’s the only person I’ve ever heard the term applied to. But, if that is what a warlord is, I can’t stand for one.”
“It’s a poor fit in El Darnen’s case. It’s better when you apply it to Taren, or Makret Druoth.” Xari thought for a minute. “I wonder if anyone else thought what I just did.”
“Makret Druoth as King of Anaria!” Ranny sounded scandalized.
“It has merit, but not Makret. He’s Taren’s right hand. We would be putting Taren on the throne. But, he’s a general. Not a warlord. I wouldn’t disapprove.”
“He wouldn’t take it. He belongs to the forest, not to Anaria.”
“Well, you know him best, Daliana.”
“Yes, but it still leaves us with the problem of who to support.”
“Taren is going to try to take the throne, Dalasin.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Why did he push the Deshika back from Anaria’s north if not to try to claim the world?”
“I disagree. Taren obviously went north for a reason, but I do not think that that reason was anything to do with Eliish Del Anaria.”
“Really, Norrin? So you also do not believe that he forced the extension of the Garuthen trade route just so the El Darnen Greshida could raid it? How can you be so stupid about Taren?”
“We don’t know that that was his reason.”
“It does not matter. Taren himself is the only king that could come out of Drogoda, and the Morschcodal Houses cannot stand for the throne.”
“I wouldn’t say the only king.”
“Yes, I know. That one insufferable merchant, Enschiva. I already have to fight to not have to lick their boots. I’m not giving them any more power.”
“I was thinking Makret Druoth.” Erygan went silent. So did Norrin. They both just stared at Dalasin. “What? We’ll need someone who inspires confidence in the army, who makes the people believe that they can be protected. Aside from Taren, who can’t legally take the throne, the best we have is Makret Druoth. The man hasn’t lost truly lost a battle in centuries. He’s one of the best Drogoda has ever had.”
“I agree, it’s not impossible. But I don’t think that Taren would give up his High General, not even to let him become King of Anaria. And Makret has bowed to Taren for about seven centuries. He’s not going to stop any time soon, whether he becomes king or not.”
“Well, there isn’t really anyone better. One, maybe two Armandans, possibly a Caladean, and maybe two people from the rest of Anaria combined. We don’t have many options. Who do you think it should be, Erygan?”
“That’s exactly the question, isn’t it?”
“So, Kallin, we need someone who can claim the world and its throne. We have talked about the various countries, their Great Houses, the people who rule them, warlords, generals, and even, unfortunately, Merchant Princes. And we are still no closer to naming the next ruler of Anaria.”
“Taren, you know as well as I do, and should know better than me, that the Treaty of Anaria is at best already cracking. Something like Eliish Del Anaria is likely to shatter it and leave Anaria as little more than a stain on old maps, torn into a thousand bloody shreds by warring countries, too powerful to be restrained and too stupid and proud to yield. Even in spite of the Deshika having returned to Anaria, that may yet happen.”
“All that this means is that the only nations that could produce our next king or queen have to be strong enough that no one will move against them merely to seize the throne. Which means one of the southern empires will have to produce our ruler.”
“Well, that does not really have an effect on the few names I think I have been able to come up with and convince myself that I could bow to.”
“Well, I had better hear these names to see if I agree with you, that I could bow to one of them.”
“Somehow, the thought of you bowing to someone is one that I do not find plausible. But, the first person I thought of is Aleishi Mandrath of Caladea. The second I could bow to is Galeth Tendornin, of Meclarya.”
“I must say I am surprised that a stargazer would bow to a Caladean, much less one of the Rayed Sun. I think that I have to disagree with you about her. While the Rayed Sun does not lack for numbers, it lacks in almost everything else. Strength, power, influence, talent, and experience most of all. And Mandrath is small, especially for a Great House. Erygan may be weakened, but he will not stand for her either, if only on principle, and if you had not noticed, almost nothing happens here that neither Erygan nor I cause to happen or stand for if the time comes. As for Galeth, he is … weak. His only power, and House Tendornin’s with it, comes from his lordship of the Dragon Riders. His influence comes from that alone, but even if he had the strength to take the throne, few of the Morschcoda would stand for a Meclaryan. Meclarya is a largely ignored country. It doesn’t have the ability to fight a war to keep the throne. I will probably speak with Daken though at some point tonight. His thoughts, at least, are worth knowing.”
“My third choice is Guinira Estaleth, of Armanda. The fourth I thought of is Ren Enschiva of Drogoda.”
“Estaleth is a young House, and I often wonder if its head is not actually Guinira Gundara, Xari’s long-missing daughter and heir. Still, Guinira is strong, especially for an Armandan. Actually, I have been keeping my eye on her for years now, actually, since before she left the Flame Weavers. Still, I fear that Guinira has two points against her. Both are merely principles, but they will cost her here. Estaleth is far too small of a House, recently established, and though it is already prolific in Armanda, and rich, it has neither the numbers nor influence outside of Armanda to really be considered a Great House. If Estaleth was more established, then I could see her as queen, but not before. And as for the second point, though I have nothing against either Xari or Guinira, surprisingly, I can’t support an Armandan. Erygan won’t support her either, as Armanda stands for the things that he stands most against; heat and light, instead of cold and dark.” He took a long, deep draught of the Gafve that the servant had brought. Kallin had ignored his own mug, except to frown at the steam coming from it, which was fogging his glasses. “And as for Ren, he will get no support from me, nor would he from the rest of Drogoda, if he were king. He’s a Merchant Prince, and many Drogs feel that such persons have far too much power within Drogoda as it is. No,” said Taren firmly, shaking his head. “Ren will not sit upon Eliish Del Anaria. And, I can’t imagine that Erygan would be too pleased at having another Merchant Prince to scrape in front of.”
“Ren is strong” Kallin argued, wiping his glasses on his wide sleeve.
“Ren is rich. There’s a difference. He can buy people to be strong.”
“So you will bow to no one.”
“I didn’t say that. The person I am thinking of, you were not.”
“And that person is?”
“The Lord of the Dothrin Half-Elvin? I hadn’t thought of him. I assumed Dothoro was too weak to stand on its own without the approval of the southern empires.”
“I’m not saying Dothoro can stand on its own. I am saying Atalin can. Frankly, House Danalath should have gotten the Morschcodaship of Dothoro instead of House Marcarry. They are strong, independent, fierce fighters. I suspect it is their partial Elvin blood, supposing Elves really do exist as they claim, that makes them so different from others of the Morschen, even and especially their own countrymen. And Atalin himself is strong without being overbearing. He’s a warrior, not a warlord.”
“So you want Atalin to become king?”
“Actually, I would much prefer him as a Morschcoda. Then he would have the ability to exercise his strength. Whoever takes the throne will be at the mercy of the Council. So it has to be someone from a neutral country. Dothoro is really the only country that stands on its own.”
“Is Drogoda not neutral?”
“I am a Garrenin, Kallin. My House has ruled Drogoda for fourteen thousand years. Nobody has ever accused my House of being neutral.”
Kallin leaned back, distancing himself in case Taren got angry, and changed the subject. “I thought, and I am sure others of the Morschcoda did as well, that Dothoro existed at the mercy of the southern empires.” He picked up his Gafve, no longer steaming, and looked pointedly at Taren as he took a sip. “Especially Drogoda.”
“When it suits my purpose, yes, I put the fear of destruction into Daliana, the same as I do to everyone, though I do it less to her. It does no harm, and in some cases, is helpful to the rest of Anaria, like the extension of the Garuthen trade route.”
The two Morschcoda were interrupted by a messenger from Ranny, bidding the two of them come to her quarters.
“Tell Ranny that I have gone to sleep, as I said I would during our session. You go, though, Kallin.”
When Kallin left, Taren stayed where he was for another hour, completely still, hardly breathing. It was a technique developed by Dothrin hunters for trapping animals, especially Lurnax, which were sensitive to vibrations in the air caused by movement or breathing. With modification, a Storinean had discovered that it could be used to fully refresh the body and mind when there was no time for sleep. Taren often used it during The Councils so that he would be fully rested, even if he had been awake in private meetings all night. When he finished, he silently left his room.
“Thank you for coming, Kallin.”
“I wouldn’t have come if I believed that I had a choice to be here, Ranny.” Even in the short time that he had sat on the Throne of the Heavens, he had come to hate the political maneuvering and the desperate plots that the other Morschcoda seemed to revel in, and that Ranny especially was guilty of weaving.
Ranny did not catch, or chose to ignore, the veiled sarcasm, instead taking it as a slight compliment. She allowed herself a smile. “I cannot force another Morschcoda to do anything. I may have influence, but not that much.”
“It is good you know your place on the Council, Ranny. But I was not referring to you when I said I had been given no choice.”
Ranny was taken aback for a moment, her smile vanishing, but then she regained herself. “Well, it matters not why you came, only that you are here. We three” she said, gesturing at Xari, Daliana, and herself “have discussed at length who it is that we believe should sit on Eliish Del Anaria after so long lacking an occupant. We have reached our decision, but we would welcome your thoughts on the subject.”
Kallin thought for a moment. He could feel the trap that Ranny was weaving about him, and despite his debating skill, and his recent arguments with Taren, he was not confident that he could avoid that trap. Though so often to each other, the men who sat on the Morschcoda Council laughed at Ranny’s attempts to manipulate them as a whole, alone, they knew that they were far more vulnerable to her machinations. He looked down, as if thinking, dry swallowed once or twice, and then said “Well, Taren and I have also long discussed who it is that could sit on the throne, and there are few names that we could agree should be candidates, and fewer that we thought should actually sit on Eliish Del Anaria.” He looked up at her as he finished, trying to gauge her reaction to what he had said. Physically, she betrayed nothing. She was used to hearing such phrases as his, but he felt something. The mental trap he had felt her weaving, so structured and dangerous, was beginning to fray. He had thought that invoking Taren’s name would free him from this situation, but it had seemed risky. Now, he felt Xari starting to weave a trap of her own. He knew that Taren’s name alone could not save him this time, so he simply readied himself for a mental duel that, one way or another could only lead him into Xari’s trap.
Daliana said and did nothing as Xari wound her web ever tighter around Kallin. She needed no help, and though Daliana knew that they needed Kallin’s support, she did not want to be present while Xari was getting it. And then the growing tension in the room snapped like a dead branch. Kallin said nothing about who he would support for Eliish Del Anaria, instead saying, “Taren wants to name Atalin Danalath.” Daliana could feel the trap Xari had been weaving slacken. Kallin had cut the one thread that would not pull the whole thing down on him, but, judging from Xari’s expression, he would still be lucky to escape with his life. It had been a clever stroke, though. He all but declared, then and there, his allegiance to Taren and that he would abide by the Water Lord’s decisions. Reaching out with her mind, Daliana searched for Taren. The concentration required for such a search taxed her to her mental limits, but she found him at last. All she was able to say was “Caladean rooms, quickly.”
Taren felt a mind brush up against his. Tightening his focus instinctively, he did nothing until he could tell whose mind it was. He let his guard down just enough so that Daliana would know she had found him and heard her say, “Caladean rooms, quickly.” He knew something was wrong. Though all Morschcoda could communicate with their minds, few were disciplined enough to maintain the required concentration for more than a few minutes. He knew that Daliana was not one of those few, so for her to search for him as long as she had, it could be few things besides a life or death situation. Looking around him, he saw a small fountain of water. Looking again to see if anybody was within sight, and seeing nobody, he leaped and dove into the fountain. Swimming quickly through the underground lake that fed Pentailia Morschcoda and all of Dishmo Kornara, he emerged in another pool just outside of the Caladean rooms. No one saw him, except Daliana, who was looking out of the window, and he surfaced silently, so no one heard him either. He crossed the small yard to the arched window and waited in the shadows. He did not have to wait long. The argument between Kallin and Xari was rapidly getting violent. Finally, Kallin crossed the point of no return. Xari’s sword cleared its sheath and was already descending towards Kallin’s head before he even had a chance to react. In fewer than two seconds, Kallin Revdark would have been dead, had Xari’s red sword, Galdren, Flaming Steel, not met the immovable blue barrier that was Taren’s Mishdonkar, the Fountain of Death.
“To draw a blade on another here in Pentailia Morschcoda is a crime that has ever only had one penalty, Xari Gundara. And death would you earn had you finished what you started.”
“You cannot threaten me, Taren. Tai-Aran Coda you may be, but I am a master of the Dance of One Thousand Blades. I have no equal among the Morschcoda.”
Though it seemed to the others that Taren was or should have been amused by this, his voice and his face remained deadly serious. “I honestly pity your ignorance of those beyond your borders, Xari Gundara. I have known for three centuries now as much as there is to know about you, House Gundara, the Flame Weavers, and Armanda in general. I have long known that you are one master of the Dance. But consider this Xari. I have over three hundred more years of experience with a blade than you do. And five hundred years ago, I perfected the art of Blade Dancing. Fight me if you dare.” The whole time Taren spoke, Xari had been trying to force the blue blade to move. It had remained motionless. And now, with little more than a flick of his wrist, Taren had pushed Xari’s sword out of his way, and Mishdonkar was at her throat. They fought.
For over an hour, Xari fiercely hammered away at Taren. She threw herself into her attacks, desiring nothing more than to end her increasing frustration with him. She could not mark him. The closest her sword had come was passing through space only barely evacuated by Taren’s head or arms. But she knew, or assumed, that Taren had to be at least as frustrated as she, for he had not touched her either. Just as that thought entered her head, Taren changed tactics. He had been fighting almost solely defensively, making Xari believe that although she could not hit him, she was controlling the fight. Taren blocked one last cut, and then attacked so swiftly and forcefully that Xari, who before had slowly forced Taren backwards almost to a wall, was now being pushed not so slowly backwards herself. His sword was flying almost faster than she could see, yet she still managed to throw up a defense against every cut and slash. This lasted until Taren, with a twist of his wrist in a form that she did not recognize, one that left him facing the other way, ripped Galdren out of her hand. “To be a master of the Dance of One Thousand Blades is one thing, and a most impressive one, Xari,” he said, straightening and returning Galdren to her. “To be its creator is another.”