One moon and three days since the Mark of the Other One blossomed.
His words were empty promises. Forge a new symbol of strength? Winter had arrived early this year, with plenty of snow and low temperatures. Keldin, however, could not feel the cold. He was sitting in Narisa’s garden, a part of the grand park that spanned all of Narris’ Citadel. Few people wandered to this corner of the park, Keldin had discovered lately.
He had just escaped the Grand Council, again. He had had an idea when talking to his father, but now, a few tens later he did not understand what he had been thinking of. Had it been like this for his father? Or was Keldin simply this inept?
Usually meetings of the Grand Council were held once a ten and urgently called together when necessary. These past moons the Council had exercised this right to hold too many meetings. The senators and warlords showed no sign of fatigue and every time continued with their requests, ridiculous drafts and proposals and demands from the royal bloodline.
Keldin had received the same teachings as his brother, they had the same teachers, but every time Keldin had stepped into the grand hall, he sat there, on the left hand of his father, stared, and listened. He felt utterly helpless. Seldin was wrong. Keldin and Seldin had both very different strengths and weaknesses. They were near opposites of each other. A bitter thought that made Keldin think back on the scene that had unfolded in that hidden attic-chamber.
Things had not been any better today. Another exhausting meeting had adjourned. The moment it did, Keldin had escaped to the quiet of this garden. The Grand Council had not been accepting of the idea that a voidstone in reach would be abandoned. The Emperor had vetoed the resolution. The Grand Council refused to recognise it, but the Emperor’s word is law, in the end, they had no choice.
Yet, when was the last time the Grand Council had refused to recognise the Emperor’s command, when had such a thing occurred? Many, many lifetimes ago, during a different ruler, a different Age perhaps, if ever. You could not deny it, the rumoured Doom of the Ebonveils had given way to doubt and rebellion. The rule of the Ebonveils was faltering, a sick and dying emperor, one heir a suspected queer and the other inept at his duties.
Keldin sighed and stared at the falling snow and sky. He wanted to disappear from this city. The worst part of the day had come when his father had given a speech about the approaching new Age and a new ruler. Worst of all, he had used the words Keldin had said. “If you feel I am old enough to rebel against, to discard the loyalty and oaths you’ve given to the Empire, to our bloodline! You plead for changes, yet do little to change yourself or your surroundings. Changes are upon us and that is the real reason you are scared! For the sake of the Empire, a new symbol of strength must and shall be forged! These changes should be a time of celebration! The crowning of an emperor who stands beyond many of his predecessors!”
Saying that, the Emperor took a few steps back and placed himself on Keldin’s left hand. He did not say, “My son.” or mention Keldin’s name, but a gesture like this. For the Emperor to place himself on the left hand of the heir in a public sitting! Keldin had stared at the back of the hall, with eyes of stone.
Now he was sitting in the garden, staring skyward at the falling snow. What was it that terrified him? Why could Keldin not rule? Keldin still did not like the idea of taking the throne. He did not want it. But more often now, he found himself asking. Why not? Sudden footsteps on the snow interrupted his thoughts.
“My Prince, Keldin.” A soft voice with a thick accent said.
Keldin quickly rose to his feet and bowed deeply. “Princess Sui!”
“No! No, do not bow. It is only me. Not the Princess.” The girl. No, the woman smiled. She was twenty-seven, the same age as Keldin. He looked at the woman, now standing in front of him.
She was out of breath, he noticed. Long black hair flowed around her neck, decorated with the simplest of trinkets. Colourful wood and stone rather than jewels and silver. Her eyes were smaller than those of people living in the Empire and that made them look even deeper and darker than they were. Against her pale skin and odd colourful clothing, the dark hair and eyes stood out. But her face was cheerful, bright.
She tried catching her breath. “I saw you, from up there.” She pointed to a pathway overlooking the Grand Council and the garden. “I hurried. I thought you might leave before I get here.”
Her entire face blushed a deep red and an even wider smile spread over her face. The Princess brushed a few stubborn strands of hair away from her face and tidied her odd mantle. She then casually walked up to Keldin and sat down on the same cold stone bench Keldin had been sitting on.
He was at a complete loss now. “It is cold outside. We might want to go inside.” He stammered. This sudden attack had left him defenceless.
She smiled once more. “I like the snow. And it is not that cold yet. On Falls under the Moon it is much colder already this time of the year.”
Keldin gave up and sat down next to her. “Where are your escorts, Princess?”
“I ran away from them. I think the word jailers would fit more.” Keldin laughed nervously while she let her smile fade a little. “They don’t guard me, they are holding me back.”
“It is annoying.” Keldin agreed. “But it is their job, my Lady.”
“You do not need to be so formal with me.” She was looking straight into Keldin’s eyes. And something sincere yet overwhelming was showing itself inside her eyes. “I was watching the meeting of your Council.” Keldin’s nervous smile vanished and he looked away. “Are you not feeling well?”
“No. I have other troubles on my mind.”
“It is difficult to accept what you must become?” Keldin looked into her eyes again, surprised. “It is easy to tell what you are thinking. I have trouble sleeping at night. Trouble accepting what I must do.”
“I thought you had a choice. It was not as if your parents told you had to marry the heir of the Empire. You had a choice.”
“Yes. It was a choice between staying in a prison for the rest of my life or making a small sacrifice to gain freedom. It has been hard to find a chance to speak with you honestly. Please do not misunderstand. I find you intriguing, but I am not sure.” Her voice died off.
“It will take time to learn how to love an emperor. Or an empress. You are unique, beautiful in a way you do not find here.” Keldin felt his face flush red saying that.
“I could say the same about you. However.”
“Exactly.” It was a little comforting knowing she was in the same situation.
“Then, why choose this? Why choose a man you had no way of knowing anything about and who you might not learn to love for the rest of your life?”
“I cannot stand my family. Women are little more than display pieces. The only time this was different, was during the wars with the Draig’yar and Alyar. I read legends about women whose husbands had been killed in battle and how they rose to be heads of the family and even about those who led armies into battle.” She sighed with a dreamy expression on her face.
“I would hate to ruin your mood, but adventure is the last thing in the life of a ruler.”
“I know. I was dreaming. I like dreaming. But in our lands, more often than not, women are even denied the teachings about the arcane. I was fortunate. I was born with a flow beyond all of our people. If left untrained, I might have awakened one day, just like that.” She made a small clap with her hands. “It was a simple choice. I know I will not lead the life I wish for, but here I can know freedom. I will not have to worry about my family controlling my every move. I will be the one leading by example not blindly following age-old traditions.”
“I imagine that is a simple decision. To go through with all of that, it requires strength of will. You are like the opposite of me. I can not decide what I want to do or if I am fit to do what I want to do. I know my brother could do it if he wanted to.”
“Is your brother not.” The Princess suddenly burst out. “I mean does he not like. Fond of other men like him?” An odd expression lingered on her face.
Keldin stared a few moments before saying anything. “How did you know?”
“There are many men like him back home. I was not entirely certain but I can tell the way he looked at me and how he behaves. There are those little queer signs.”
“He is my brother.” Keldin’s voice had turned ice-cold. He had not intended it like so but he could not stop. “He is smarter, stronger, better at everything than me. He should be the heir, not me.”
“I have heard little things about you, Prince Keldin. You like an easy life.” A pang of guilt ran through Keldin. “Maybe it is time you try to step out of your brother’s shadow. You have been able to leave all the difficult things for your brother. It will take time to get used to them, but I believe, it is not impossible for you.”
“There are times when I feel that I want to rule yet I do not know where to start.”
“You are not used to work.” She smiled a crooked smile. Keldin looked at her for a moment and then turned his gaze into the bushes. That was not right, but she was right damn it. Damn it all to the Eternal Gloom. “You still have time. Take it slow, you can start by figuring out what is most important right now.”
“No. The one thing I do not have right now is time. Winter is here and Ironcourt is ready to fall into slumber. If the Council spends the entire winter worrying about the heir, then things will be even more difficult for me come spring.” Keldin stood up and paced around.
“You can do little about it. There are no miraculous ways to solve all problems at once. It is better to take your time and prepare, take things slowly. A rash act might be taken as desperation and it will have the opposite effect of what you hoped it might achieve.”
“Strength rules the Empire.” Keldin said with a determined yet quiet voice. “What they want is the Pureblooded Emperor and his Empress.” The Princess looked at him with a wary expression on her face. “They have the Empress, I need to convince them I am cut from the same cloth as you.”
“Don’t.” She was suddenly upset. “I know what you’re thinking of. I reclaimed an ancient relic of our bloodline. It is not true. Not all of it. It is something I regret.”
“What exactly...” Keldin started.
“The details do not matter. It was out of anger, my emotions got the better of me and I released something long forgotten. Broke its seal. I cannot use the item in question. When emotions take a hold over your flow.” She paused for a moment. “You should know this well. It is the basis of the flow within us. Strength may rule your empire, but one should wield it with their mind, not the heart. Our hearts swallow us whole.”
Keldin was about to argue when someone interrupted them. He could not understand a word that had been said and only when the Princess opened her mouth to argue with the newcomers, did he understand. Her escort had caught up.
“It seems, another time, Prince Keldin.” She stood up and bowed for Keldin.
“Another time, my Princess.” Keldin mumbled and lowered his head in response. Keldin watched her walk away through the snowy garden and she kept turning her head and throwing smiles at him. Was it her looks? The way she looked at him? But she was an arranged marriage. She had other reasons for coming here, there was no way she was really interested in him.
Or was it the way she had talked to Keldin? She had been sincere and compassionate, but she did not coddle him. She had spoken the truth. Yet Keldin was convinced, she was wrong about their powers, wrong about how the Empire was ruled. There was no way, which would redeem all of his shortcomings at once, but there would still be a chance to show the Empire his mettle. The strength and will of the Pureblooded Emperor.
The art of forging his own weapon had captivated him ever since he had been a child. And lately he found himself thinking back on those childhood fantasies. They gave him hope, something to hold on to. The more he thought, the better this ludicrous idea sounded. To take a piece of metal, wood and leather. Forge the metal, finish it with the wood and leather, decorate it and then pour every single ounce of his power and will into it.
It was an art long forgotten and forbidden. It involved not only infusing the weapon with the flow but also allowing it to feed on the creator’s blood and sacrificing a piece of their soul. The weapon would become a pure reflection of the person who made it. Nearly a sentient being, but not a living one. It would possess a will, but would not own any ideas or wants of its own. Only the person who made it could use it to its full potential.
Would he be able to convince his father to arrange such a thing? No. He would not need to tell anyone, except maybe a couple of servants. In fact, he should not look for aid. He knew where Furos kept his archives and other valuables, it would be easy to find the needed materials and scrolls for the forging.
The biggest problem was where exactly would he carry it through? It would have to be on the day of slumber, that one extra day that marked the end of a year and the beginning of a new one. The last big event in Ironcourt before the entire city would fall asleep for the winter. Balls, banquets and celebration would last all day, he would have to prepare a location beforehand. Somewhere everyone would gather.
As Keldin was contemplating his grand plans, a gathering of voices drifted into his ears. They were close by, but Keldin had paid little attention to the conversation. It sounded like senators of the Council.
“So it is certain then? Var’adiel has noticed our efforts?” An imposing voice demanded.
“Yes, Lord Sool. There is little doubt at this point. The most recent Alyar ambassador came from Falls under the Sun.” Another answered.
“It was about time. She arrived a moon ago, didn’t she?” The first voice commented.
“I am still not convinced. I told you about the rumours surrounding Var’adiel. The Alyar High King is missing!” A third voice joined the conversation. This one with a slight accent that reminded Keldin of the eldertongue dialects used in Ildar and Dorwald. He turned his head towards the conversation. A thick evergreen hedge made it impossible to see who was talking. He sat down on the bench and tried to make himself as comfortable as possible. He might learn something of the Council.
“Rumours!” A fourth voice, a man with a raspy voice, laughed. “I forget, you lot in Whitefall.” The man kept chuckling as two other grunts of laughter sounded beyond the hedge.
“Rumours always hold a grain of truth. If we want to succeed in our current endeavours, I suggest you listen to what I have to say.” The third voice sounded stern and irritated.
“And I suggest you remember where you are.” The first voice rumbled once again. That was Senator Sool. Keldin recognised his voice now. A successful merchant Lord who held a position in the Grand Council. “This is not Whitefall, you are here only because I allow it!”
“Mind what you say, Lord Sool. It would be beyond foolish to throw away our help.”
“You begged us to be included in this.” The raspy voice chuckled once more. “The Crux came to us, on their knees. I am sorry to say, but your value to us has been insignificant. I will admit, it helps to get word from the opposing side of Tavran but we can afford to ditch you whenever we feel your employers are getting too troublesome. You bring us little more than their ridiculous demands.” The man hacked a cough. “We are wasting time. Airik, the elf! Tell us.”
“She is definitely trying to find the people who asked to get in contact with the Alyar High King.”
“Listen to me.” The Whitefall person was not giving up easily. Keldin did not understand. What was going on here? Should he interrupt the meeting? Why would a human seek the Alyar High King? And why was the Crux mentioned? “She is from the Brilliant Dominion. To you, all three Dominions may look as one, but they are still separate entities.”
“Get to the point.” Sool sounded impatient.
“The High King is a verdant one. There is little chance that the personal trustee of the High King is from another Dominion.”
“A little chance is enough to gamble.” The man called Airik laughed.
“This is no laughing matter.” The guest from Whitefall was getting more and more upset.
“The seat of Alyar power lies in Falls under the Sun. Not the Resting Shade. I do not see the problem here.” Sool sounded irritated.
“You want word from the opposing side of Tavran. Listen! One thing is certain, all the Alyar key figures behind the trade treaty are from the Verdant Dominion. The treaty will not be between the Empire and the Three Dominions, but the Empire and the Verdant. She is the only ambassador from the Brilliant Dominion.” The man from Whitefall was growing desperate by the sound of his voice.
“But that much has always been clear. My dear Jarral that is why we are trying to get in contact with the High King. He wanted this treaty, not the Alyar. He must have a reason and I believe that will aid us in our endeavours.”
“My lord! If you understand then why do you trust this elf from another Dominion?” The third man insisted.
“She bears a sigil only the closest Alyar to the High King have received. No matter her birthplace, if the High King gave her that sigil, there is reason to trust her.” The man named Airik was speaking.
An audible sigh sounded beyond the hedge. Someone was pacing around the place.
“Would it hurt to be prudent?” The man named Jarral hissed. “You say you can afford to go without outside help yet you are doing everything you can to bring all the biggest factions outside of the Empire into this mess.” Silence followed that statement.
“The Archmage. That man is beyond human.” The third voice laughed in response to Sool’s statement. “Laugh all you want. If we do not dispose of him, he can turn this entire coup upside down. Right now there is no man in the kingdoms of man strong enough to oppose him.”
A cold sensation ran down Keldin’s face. This could not be true. He needed to interrupt this meeting, seize all four of them.
“Please. From what I’ve seen both of the Ebonveil heirs hold a much stronger presence of power than him. Let us help in this, let us bring the Magnus here.” The man named Jarral chuckled still.
The man with the raspy voice said something, but Sool interrupted him. “I considered that. But the biggest problem was not your outrageous demands but the fact that the Magnus cannot wield his own staff. He does not hold enough power to face that man.”
“And presence of power is not the only problem.” The man with the raspy voice said. “Above all else the Archmage has spent years in Shadowwatch over Tristen. He has decades of real combat experience against foes much stronger than him. That has earned him not only the title of the strongest but also the respect and fear of many senators and warlords. If Furos is out of the picture that will even the scales in our favour.”
“If you kill him out in the open, then those who respect him will oppose you. I cannot believe your logic.” The man from Whitefall said with a disbelieving voice.
“The logic is sound.” Sool said. “Strength rules the Empire. Show the members of the Council that one can defeat their unfaltering source of faith and you will shatter their resolve. The strongest rule the Empire and all will follow the strongest. As Lord Roden said, taking him out will even the scales in our favour. We have been preparing for this for years. What is holding some back from joining our cause is the fear of Furos.”
“You already hold a substantial amount of votes in the Council.” The man from Whitefall muttered.
Keldin had been sitting on the bench, listening. He felt powerless and numb. This had to be a dream. A nightmare. Maybe all of this was the daily plotting of the Council. Keldin would take the throne and he would hear no news of rebellion or coup. Lord Ilander Sool and Warlord Ander Roden. And judging by the name Airik, the third man was Lord Roden’s son. Who was this person from the Arcane Crux?
“I take it your plans have reached a critical point now? Because this is the most talkative I have ever heard you, Even like this, us out in the open not meeting in some undisclosed location but right in the backyard of the Empire.”
“There is no better time.” Lord Roden hacked a cough. “If we wait any longer, we will lose our momentum.”
“Well, if there are any issues gaining allies among the Alyar, then dealing with Furos will be that much more difficult. Damn near impossible even.” Sool was growling. He was clearly upset. “But if we let the brat take the throne now, then we risk letting him grow his support. The Emperor’s actions today were unforgivable. That he would dare stand on the left of that man-whore. The boy is nothing, a pampered brat. I would have been far more worried if Seldin would take the throne, despite his queer habits. But with that little gesture the entire Council is buzzing.” Sool breathed in. Even on this side of the hedge, Keldin could hear it.
“Maybe there are hidden qualities about him.” Airik finished Sool’s sentence. “We cannot let him sway the Council’s mind and weaken our support. Everyone knows relations between Naivir and Keldin are complicated, hostile. However, this small act, showing utmost trust and positioning his troublemaker son as the strongest. It caught many by surprise and already did damage.”
“As I said. We will lose our momentum if we get caught up in a war for support.” Roden growled. “No one who is still loyal to the Emperor can accuse us anymore. Even that would only further our goals and cause a bigger rift in the Council.”
“I see. It does not change the fact it sounds foreign for me. You northerners are strange.” The man from Whitefall said coolly. For a moment it sounded like the person from Whitefall was about to continue, but Sool interrupted him. “That is all. Let us worry about the Alyar, this is the Crux’s chance to be of use to this cause.”
A small silence ensued, but Keldin heard quiet footsteps in the snow, walking further away. Should he slaughter all three of them right here and now? He closed his eyes and forced himself to breathe slowly.
“Annoying shadow-spawn!” Lord Roden rumbled.
“Not much of a piece to be bargained over. The Crux will expect us to get rid of him.”
“That much was expected, Airik.” Keldin wanted to strangle Sool. “They are getting too arrogant.”
“Was that ever going to be a surprise?” Lord Roden growled.
“Regardless. We need to keep the outside factions busy with us. As much as I would like to do this alone...” Sool coughed again. “If we share crumbs from the pie, then maybe we can gain their favour. We can’t give them a reason to turn their armies immediately against us once the coup succeeds. Thankfully, the Pelesi gave us a gift we can return to them with the pretext of sending her back to safety. This small act will guarantee us their support. And might prevent a war on the continent.”
“Is this finally it?” Lord Roden growled, clearly jubilant.
“Sool laughed a wheezing laugh. “Finally, after all these years what my father and his father started is coming to a close. Send word to all our allies. Once winter has passed those in the border provinces must be ready to protect the borders of the Empire at all cost, do not allow the warlords to turn their armies into the heart of our homeland. Next year a new era will dawn, the time could not be any more suitable. The great void has sensed our great intentions and granted us its blessing. It’s finally time to be rid of those loyal to the Emperor.”
Keldin had had enough. It did not feel right to barge in on them and cause a scene. No, this would be his personal war. Anger flared through his entire body, the temptation to let loose every single shred of his flow was all too intoxicating. He stood up and slowly walked away from the garden, leaving those three behind the tall hedge to argue among themselves.
This was not the right time. He would show them who exactly Keldin Ebonveil was. Nothing! If the dark nothingness beyond held everything, then he would show those scheming bastards exactly how much of everything the nothing inside him holds. If they think they can be so arrogant that they can discuss overthrowing the Ebonveil bloodline in broad daylight right in the Emperor’s garden then he would take their palace from them.
The Grand Council was the right size, enough room to create a nexus strong enough to feed the blade and enough room for all the spectators up in the balconies. A gathering in the Grand Council was a tradition on the day of slumber. A series of gongs signalled the start of a new session of meetings of the Council. Good. That meant Furos would be out of his temporary living place. If he wanted to prove himself to them, then the correct way would be to answer this challenge with his own might.