Fabius was escorted inside a large hall with Lord Tremane. The magnificence of everything in the city astounded him. The claims of the city matching upto Sen-Tian weren’t completely unfounded. If they had achieved this in a month, he was sure that they would overtake the Throdden capital in a year.
Tremane betrayed no emotion of astonishment. In fact, Fabius could swear cool indifference played on the face of the clean shaven old man. “Strange how every other building is made from the same black stone except this one.”
Fabius looked up. The walls of this hall were white and looked older than the shiny black walls of the rest of the city. How in Sucellok’s gray beard did he notice this? As much as he hated nobles and despised their politics, he couldn’t help feel overawed by the old Lord’s observations and deductions.
The hall curved upwards at the back with six chairs arranged in a semi-circle, with two stairways circling along the wall to a floor obscured to view. The chair at the centre was an ornate throne with colourful stones embedded all over.
“Gaudy much?” Fabius muttered to the Lord.
Lord Tremane didn’t react.
“My Lords, kindly wait here. The Council will join you shortly.” A stooping old man offered them two gilded chairs in front of the six kept a few feet away. Two other spares were carried away by servants.
They sat down and were immediately presented with trays of fresh cut fruits and wine laid on a table before them. Fabius picked up a juicy orange and waved off the servant who stepped forward with a peeling knife. He stole a look at Tremane who ignored both him and the food. He expected to be rebuked but none came. He placed the orange back. Something far serious was afoot.
The doors behind them opened and two women and three men strode in. They were all dressed in fine royal attire and carried themselves with an air of nobility; all except one girl in a red flowing dress. She barely looked twenty winters old and Fabius was surprised to see her as part of the council. Maybe she is not one of the council. Could be the daughter of one of them.
The old man spoke up again. “My Lords, we are honoured to introduce the members of the Council of Ianthine – Lord Falmus, Lord Nimlock, Lady Trianna, Lady Adaline and Lord Androl.”
Fabius held back his gasp. Even though, Tremane had told him of Falmus’ defection from the Throdden ranks, to see the man in flesh was surprising. He looked at his old advisor who had locked eyes with the man introduced as Androl. Both men betrayed no emotions but held each other’s gaze.
Lord Falmus spoke while seating himself on the far left. “I welcome you, Prince Fabius and you, Lord Tremane. We were not expecting members of the royal family so soon in our humble city but we trust our hospitality has not been lacking. Unfortunately, you may face treatment which may not be up to your standards but we are a young city and not all of us have been born to nobility. In fact, as you may have heard our Empress is herself from a most modest background.”
“Trust me, Lord Falmus, we don’t have any complaints about our treatment yet. We know about the ways of common people as much as you do. However, is not the Empress gracing us with her presence?” Lord Tremane spoke softly, yet Fabius sensed venom in his tone.
“She will join us…ah, here she is.” Falmus gestured towards the right staircase.
A lithe lady with brown curls descended down the stairs. Garbed in a plain sky blue dress which showed off her slender curves, her golden auburn hair sparkled as freshly extracted honey.
“Elena?” Fabius gasped, as his heart stopped for a moment and sprung back to life with twice the vigour. It cannot be. She had blossomed into an ever more beautiful girl than he had imagined and he felt himself swoon.
She stopped midway. Her face was pursed in a frown but Fabius had already been mesmerized by the beauty which had enamoured him ten years ago. He left his chair without realizing it and stepped past the table towards her, a broad smile breaking on his face. It really is her. Bless Sucellok’s beard, it is her.
Her face hardened as she stepped off the stairs. “So, even now, we are deemed too unimportant.”
“What? What do you mean? Elena, it’s me, Fabius.” Fabius advanced towards his long-time crush, half-wanting to lift her up and swing her around.
“I know who you are, Lord Throdden. And I expected your older brother here, if not your uncle. It would be too much to expect your father himself, wouldn’t it?” Elena sneered, her eyes narrowing as she sat down on her gilded throne.
“Lord…” Fabius shook his head. “I am no Lord. Elena, what is wrong with you? You know me. We meet after so long and you’re behaving like we are strangers.”
A flicker of softness passed through Elena’s eyes before she regained her steely demeanour.
Elena waved a hand almost like a backhanded slap in the air. Fabius flinched as the smaller blue gem on her bracelet glowed and the water kept in the goblet next to her jumped towards his face.
But the water never splashed on Fabius. Lord Tremane pushed him aside and the water spray turned away from him and fell on the floor.
“How did you…?” Elena’s face betrayed shock.
Fabius also realized he had been oblivious to the others. Lord Androl had drawn a sword and the rest of the Council was also on its feet. Evidently, he had stirred up a hornet’s nest.
“There is a lot about magic you do not know, Elena Tarbon. And you will do well to remember that you are still a subject of the Throdden rule, with or without magic. Throwing water on a king incumbent is still grave enough to land you in prison.” The old Lord stood tall and straight and with an authority that he’d only seen on his father on occasion.
“Tremane…”Fabius interjected. “She’s an old friend. She meant no harm.” He half-expected to be told off but Tremane moved back but his gaze was still fixed upon Elena
“Elena, we need to talk. Outside this council room.” Fabius stepped back looking at the Council who all looked at him warily. “We know each other from over ten years ago. Trust me, your Empress is a friend.”
“Fabius Throdden,” Elena growled. Fabius saw hatred burning in her eyes. “I am no friend to the tyrannical rule of your family. The city of Ianthine is independent and under my rule alone. I am not a subject of the oathbreaking king who sends no aid to his subjects. My father died in his service and yet no help came. I was stranded here among beasts. No, Throdden, your oppression with swords and spears is over. No more will you so called warriors invade our homes, eat the crops which we grow, feast on our women like vile pigs that you are. This is our time and you will acknowledge the rule of magic soon enough.”
Shock riled Fabius. How can she speak like this? This is not the girl I love. He stepped back, steeling his face. “Your words reek of treason, Elena. Do not overstep your bounds. I can relate to your loss and your hatred but do not force my hand. I am a Throdden prince and these lands have long been under our protection. Grievances will be redressed and you will have all the aid you require. But I will not tolerate rebellion. Not even from you.” He stood tall and upright, one hand on the pommel of his sword and the other open-palmed and relaxed, as his father stood.
“I should’ve known even you would be corrupted like all your other nobles. Do not show your lordship over these lands. The people of Maray have tilled these lands centuries longer than your pathetic line of rulership and we can take care of ourselves now. Go back to your golden halls of Sen-Tian and we may yet choose to leave your palaces to you.”
“Oh, I will. But only after your little city places itself under the auspices of the Throdden rule. I’m sure I don’t have to remind what we did to the Halans.” Fabius turned and stormed out of the hall, fuming.
Elena felt faint. She had prepared to meet Darius and she had steeled herself for hating the man and what he represented. But it was Fabius. Did they send him deliberately to throw me off guard? But he looked as surprised. He looks so good. Her throughts were almost overwhelmed with all the daydreams she had had about him. Some part of her wanted to chase after him and kiss him.
“My Lady, you were right not to trust that serpent. The Throddens think only of their own kingdom and how to keep us beneath their heels.” Lord Nimlock gleefully chimed. “You heard his threats.”
Elena snapped out of her thoughts. The man had threatened her city. “I know the Throddens well enough. They are no kings. We are the proper rulers of the northern lands and so it shall be. No upstart prince is going to take these lands away from us.”
“We admire your fiery passion, Empress Elena. However, the Throddens have a gargantuan army at their beck and call and not all the northern states are ….pro Ianthine. I do not think an open confrontation with them is advisable” Lord Falmus rose and faced her.
“They will come around soon enough.” Elena banged her fist against the chair’s arm. “And this is what we have been preparing for.”
Lord Falmus shook his head. “Empress, once that little whelp of a prince heads back to Sen-Tian, you can bet the Throddens will be here to crush us. Even with your great abilities, none of us have waged large scale wars, nor do we have a trained standing army. They have and believe me, the Throddens haven’t ruled for centuries because they were slouches in war.”
A part of Elena flared up at the comment. She was the most powerful sorceress of this age. I will smite their entire army. Elena took a deep breath. But she knew that was merely her ego talking. Her father had always told her managing any situation, whether in times of peace or war, required considering all possibilities and preparing for all outcomes.
“Very well, how do you suggest we handle this then?” she looked around at the Council
“Kill the prince. He doesn’t go home. Nobody gets to know.” Lord Nimlock broke out a toothy grin.
Adaline let out a small squeal but quickly shut up and looked at her feet.
Androl slapped his forehead. “And have the Throddens attack us for vengeance? Lord Nimlock, you are as daft as they say. They already know something’s afoot, otherwise the prince wouldn’t have been here. We cannot go after the prince.”
“Yet, if he goes to Sen-Tian, war will come,” Falmus added.
“We don’t let him leave then.” Elena spoke, a sly smile creeping up her face.
“Kidnap him, you mean?” Trianna chimed in. “That’s a great idea. We can use him as leverage then. Independence of the northern kingdoms!”
“Nobody touches Fabius. We will not bring war upon ourselves with some foolish thoughtless act. However, Lady Trianna makes a good point. We have to keep him here, atleast in the northern kingdoms, for a while at least. Till we raise an army strong enough to counter the Throddens and any other threat. All the northern states must unite, willingly or by force.”
“How do you propose to keep him from returning, Empress? He doesn’t even have to make it Sen-Tian. He has but to send a message and Throddens will start mobilizing their forces,” Falmus peered hard at her.
“That has already been addressed.” Elena declared, looking at the bewildered faces of the Council, all except Androl. “With magic. Nothing gets in, nothing gets out.”
“You can do that? How?” Lord Nimlock asked incredulously, but withered under Elena’s stern gaze.
“Yes, I can and I have. I sent two gemmers to Katak two months back. They have raised the Tarbon barrier all across the city. I only intended to seal off the northern kingdom but this is an added advantage.”
“That is genius, Empress. You astound us.” Lord Nimlock bowed down. “Then, why don’t we put it around Ianthine itself as well? We’d be safe from all threats.”
Elena bristled with frustration. If Nimlock hadn’t provided her military support, she would have never even considered putting the man on the Council. “Because we’d be trapped inside ourselves. When I say, nothing gets in or out, I mean it. Besides maintaining a magical wall at a pass is much easier than around an entire city. Only one point of entry. Fabius won’t leave the northern lands, not unless he plans to go through the mountains and bandits. And even if he makes it through, it gives us enough time for us to gather our full strength.”
Elena looked around at the Council. For once, she didn’t see any contempt, pity or sympathy in their eyes. Instead they carried admiration and an inkling of fear. Good, they are taking me seriously now. “Send out messengers to all the nobles across the northern lands, all the states. Let us gather support.”
Androl gave her a small approving nod. She stood up and climbed the stairs. A wave of nausea hit her again. Seeing Fabius had opened wounds and memories she thought she had finally moved past. Elena closed the door of her chambers behind her. Her breathing increased two-fold. It really was Fabius. He had actually shown up after ten long years.
She had built up hate towards the prince for abandoning their love. She had imagined slapping him when she met him but the moment she saw his face, all her anger and spite had melted away. She cursed herself for being unable to keep her feelings in check.
But the shock on his face, the concern and the love in his eyes…Did he still love her after all this while? And had she thrown all that away because of her ego?