The supper was modest. The conversation polite. The music soft. All in all the first hour stood as uneventful.
Dishes were cleared and glasses refilled without much noise. Dawkin noted not one fell to the floor. When was the last time that had happened? he asked himself. Though Dawkin had been in the War Hall before – for brief introductions with heads of state or to review written allegiances from barons – the night was already by far the longest he or any of his brothers had spent in the famed meeting space. So many more conferences had occurred in the hall that had shaped Marland’s history, affairs that at one time demanded his father or grandfather’s seclusion with generals for days or weeks at a time. Dawkin had heard tales of such gatherings, the last of which dated to when he was but a lad, as the Century War wound to a close. Since then, the affairs of the nation had paled in importance, to the point that the War Hall had scarcely been used in the nearly twenty years Dawkin could remember.
That is, until tonight. Though an extension of his home, Dawkin found himself admiring the transformation the War Hall had undergone. Before the evening, the room appeared more as a place for forgotten items than a place worthy of a convention, much less a regal one. However, in a matter of hours, a small company of servants had turned the drab quarters into a chamber worthy of the Most High in Afari themselves. Velvet tapestries draped the stone walls, displaying scenes of battles, hunts and landscapes, a tableau of Marland’s long and rich history. Many more chairs had been brought in, all of the finest aged oak, birch and elm, that the guests may not forget Marland’s rich resources. The tables had been cleared and set with gold and silver holders armed with tall candles, the light of which complimented that of the braziers in between the tapestries. The dishware and goblet reflected craftsmanship as well, as Audemar had allowed his own private collection to be used for the night’s gathering. The only remnant of the War Hall’s military usage was the vellum map, which remained front and center on the east wall, displaying the Marland, Afari and the Farflung Lands for all the guests to see.
Though the décor came off as pleasing, Dawkin knew that the food and drink doled out would be anything but, for important matters of state meant that neither king wanted themselves or their invitees to indulge too much. The meal was intended to satisfy hunger and thirst and nothing else, that all may stave off the fatigue of aftermeal and retain their focus. As a result, the conversation in the War Hall proved lacking, save for the occasional pleasantry here and there. Xain, sitting beside his uncle at the other end of the head table, avoided eye contact with most everybody. Felix, always a man of intrigue, simply ate and drank, nodding every once and a while whenever Audemar or a bishop or baron offered a word.
Dawkin, though at the center next to his father and in full view of all, remained detached with his thoughts. Centuries of history – of Marland, Ibia and the rest of Afari – flooded his consciousness. He could nary take a bite or a drink without another fact creeping its way into his head.
To his surprise, such a torrent of information did little to tire him. On the contrary, each detail recalled goaded his pride, invigorating his senses to the point that he wanted to stand and lead.
Patience, Dawkin had to remind himself. Patience. The night is young. The matters of state have yet to be started. Father will speak first, as is his duty as host. Then King Felix. Perhaps the Grand Duke, if the mood of the evening turns out to be courteous and generous. My turn will come though. And when it does, my voice will be heard, my words will be engraved as edicts for generations to come.
Marland will know its future king tonight.
A quick clap from his father garnered his attention. “Clear everything,” he commanded the servants. “Then leave. We fill our own cups from this moment forth.”
The servants swarmed in to remove what was left of the food, dishes and cutlery with haste. Half-empty carafes were replaced with full bottles as one by one the attendants withdrew. The last closed the doors behind him, the huge antique oaken doors creaking, leaving the room full of only nobility and sovereigns.
The creak, made louder by the sudden silence that followed, sent a shudder through Dawkin. For he knew what it meant. The shut doors stood as a barrier to exit or entry, one that would remain until the talks within the War Hall had concluded. Once done, only a king could give the command for them to open. It would be up to his father, or King Felix, to determine when the dialogue had ceased.
Such responsibility, Dawkin thought. Such burden. How has my father dealt with it all these years?
With that thought, his father stood. “King Felix,” Audemar began. “Tonight we make history.”
“History,” Felix repeated, raising his glass.
“What happens here will cement the terms we already discussed, with letters aplenty, and will outline much more than we could hope to imagine. Now, we create an alliance that will see Kin Garsea and Kin Saliswater through the ages.”
Dawkin raised his gaze to find Baron Ralf of Har-Kin Furde, Sir Everitt’s father, at the table in the far corner. Though a man of modest wealth, his support of their kin never wavered, a fact not lost on Audemar. So enthused was Ralf at the prospect of taking part in the treaty talks that he arrived a night early, choosing to sleep before a cook fire in the yard due to the absence of proper quarters.
Seeing the old man, his allegiance beaming, brought a grin to Dawkin’s face. If more barons were that enthused, this hall would be in danger of bursting, Dawkin mused. He looked over his shoulder to his Right Captain, Sir Everitt, to find the knight clenching his jaw as the color of his cheeks turned red. He stands embarrassed, he realized. He believes his father an old fool. An idealist. Loyal to a dream. If only more like his father filled this hall, perhaps my kin would not have to hide as we have.
Audemar, his enduring tone serious, nodded in the baron’s direction. He sat, turning again to Felix as he extended his hand to him. “My dear king, is there anything you wish to say before our scribes begin with the line items?”
King Felix, clearing his throat, rose. “Only this. Our two houses are grand. They have withstood the trials of history, most notably the Century War, to emerge as the hallmarks we know them today. That is due in no small part to the many manors that support us. A handful are with us now, those most loyal to each Crown. To you, I say welcome and thank you.”
A polite applause rose from the tables. Dawkin and Xain joined the chorus, allowing the two kings to indulge in the moment. Dawkin took a moment to survey the hall, picking up on the various facial cues and side whispers throughout. On one side sat the Marlish barons along with a few bishops, while on the other rested those of Ibia.
Sideway glances. One baron leaning in to another. Whispers shared from one ear to the next, even as the clapping continued. Dawkin caught sight of it all.
The proliferation of such gestures troubled him. Though loyal – the Ibians to Felix, the Marlish to Audemar – Dawkin doubted their willingness to adhere to whatever would transpire in the course of one night. Despite their rich heritage as a seafaring nation, too many Marlish were set in their prejudices towards foreigners, a byproduct of the hundred years of conflict. Through counsellors’ and servants’ whisperings, Dawkin had learned of such voiced protests at the Conclave, even from barons who voted in favor of the alliance. Such tensions now stewed in the hall, where Dawkin could feel the resentment across the aisles.
The applause simmered as the men in the War Hall took their seats, leaving the sovereigns the last to stand. Audemar bent back, about to sit, when Felix cleared his throat.
“Your Majesty, may I?” he asked, his hand sweeping toward the audience.
“Of course, my dear King Felix,” Audemar replied, a bit off guard yet still on his best manners. “Speak your mind.”
“Thank you.” Felix faced the audience of two nations. “My friends, both new and old, I very much appreciate the warm welcome our hosts have extended to us. I look forward to many years of banquets, hunts and fine companionships.” Felix clapped Audemar on the shoulder, who smiled in response.
Felix then stroked his moustache before his hand descended to caress the line of his scar. Almost instantly, his tone darkened as he stepped away from the Marlish sovereign. He tilted his head higher, his voice booming. “For all our talk of peace though, we should never forget all that it took for us to arrive at this moment. A century of war. A hundred years of conflict that saw Kins from both lands robbed of sons and daughters!”
This proclamation stirred the barons. Both sides of the hall burst spouted shouts and the pounding of fists. The Ibians erupted louder at first, but the Marlish, never wanting to be outdone, matched their pitch and volume voice for voice.
Felix, emboldened by the passion he had stirred, rounded the head table to come front and center. “Yes, yes, brothers. Our past is stained by blood, doused with brine and tears, and weathered by regret and bitterness. Even as allies through much of the Century War, our hands never embraced one another. For sailors cross sailors every day on the water. Marlish pirated Ibian ships. Ibians set afire Marlish vessels. Such is the way of the sea.
“But no more! From this day forward, we enter a new pact. One of fellowship . . . no! Brotherhood. An alliance that stretches across the ocean, joining two powers from now to the Judgement of Mar!”
The audience, nodding all throughout Felix’s speech, applauded. Dawkin even spotted a Marlish baron or two grin across the aisle. Perhaps this may end well, Dawkin thought.
Felix extended his hands. The uproar quieted and he clasped his hands together. “I have a confession. The confidants of my Court, my closest advisors, cautioned me on coming here. They said that Marland had much to offer – to another nation – but had no concessions so great as to woo my daughter and the rest of my family to your shores. I listened as they named many a great kin on the continent who could offer terms and unions far stronger than this island nation could.
“After hearing their concerns, I took a moment. It was then that Mar, in His benevolence, struck me with a fervor, one that I knew could only be divine. In my enlightened state, I admonished my fellow man - those I had known since childhood - as being short in sight, devoid of ambition. I dismissed them all, so as to collect my thoughts and center my soul on Mar Himself.
“At first, with no others to cloud my mind with opinions and comments, I felt alone. The Voice of Mar went silent. I considered perhaps that my command to dismiss the Court was in haste. Then it dawned on me. Me. We. I. I had accused my Court of being too consumed with the present, while I lacked any true vision to see beyond my years. My friends,” King Felix stepped away from the head table, to take his place in the center of the War Hall. “What we do here today, our intention, is not only for our benefit. Yes, some intend to line their pockets through trade and exchange, as is their right, while others want to voice discontent and protest change, as is theirs. Yet for all our motivations, with this alliance between us, those who will reap what we build, the nets we construct to harvest the sea . . . that will not be us. Truly, it will be our children, and our children’s children, and their kin for a thousand generations to come!”
Affirmations from both sides of the aisle, in the form of clapping, cheers and the pounding of fists, met Felix as he raised his hand. He turned to Audemar, who had raised his goblet to Felix in an act of approval. Others responded to Felix in kind. Dawkin stood, himself applauding. He threw a sideways glance at Xain, who also rose, consciously clapping faster and louder than he.
Though reveling in the mood of the hall, Felix motioned for all to hear him once more, reaching for his scar again as he waited for the audience to quiet. “With the future of our Kin and Har-Kin at stake, the treaty we seek to secure tonight cannot be done without first setting our differences aside. The whispers and asides must stop. Some in this very hall have heard of one more recent than most. You know of what, and whom, I speak.”
With that, Felix swung around to gaze upon both his nephew and Dawkin. Murmurs stirred at the onset of the look. Audemar, stroking his beard, came up out of his seat to lean forward on the table.
“My good king, what is the meaning of this?” Audemar asked. “I trust this is no plisky.”
“On the contrary, King Audemar, on the contrary. I never joke when it comes to matters of both family and state. Do not tell me you are ignorant of what transpired between my nephew and your son.”
“I have heard rumors, varied and unfounded.”
“As have I. Be they rumors or hard truths, the fact remains that there is some animosity between our kin, however exaggerated or understated.” With that statement, King Felix narrowed his focus squarely on Dawkin. “Son of my host, Prince Jameson, do you have anything you would like to add?”
For an instant, Dawkin forgot his lifelong ruse, thereby not identifying with the one name he and his brothers shared. He glanced at his father for guidance and support, to find his patriarch looking back, a tinge of concern and warning to his otherwise stern demeanor. The stare served as a reminder to Dawkin, who at once left his seat to address King Felix.
“My dearest King, as always, you are correct in your observations and judgment. There has been a bit of a . . . well, shall we say, spirit of competition between the honorable Grand Duke of Almata and myself. At first, the banter betwixt us was gentlemanly. It was hardly a matter of discussion. However, such as is to be expected of young, bold men, the amicable sport we shared escalated. As you know, he bested me at the hunt. It was my fault truly, for never before had I hunted with a man of my own age with skill comparable to mine, and in seeing a match to my princehood, my guard faltered. He succeeded in the hunt, fair as Mar can judge.”
Dawkin moved from the head table to join King Felix in the center of the War Hall. He kept a respectable distance that he may honor the monarch’s personal space, while staying in the focus of all, especially the Ibian Grand Duke, whose glare he could sense was burning a hole within his skull.
“In return, jealously overwhelmed me. I sought to even the score, so as to remind the Grand Duke of the bloodline that rules this island. In my resentment, I overlooked my responsibilities as a host and a friend. I stand here now, having been identified by my error by a foreign sovereign, to ask forgiveness for my transgression.”
Dawkin bent at his waist to bow before the Grand Duke. His gesture, long and deep, was more than necessary, as were his words. No sooner had he bowed to one lower in rank than he did a tide of murmurs swirl from the barons and bishops of both nations. Dawkin, undeterred in his public act of humility, remained prostrated. Even his gaze remained fixed on the floor, so that he stayed ignorant of the goings on around him.
“Now, that is a royal!” exclaimed Baron Ralf, whose outburst was met again with queer looks and backtalk until another Marlish lord voiced his support.
“Aye, every bit a sovereign as his father,” Baron Thybalt insisted. “I have been at our king’s side since his princehood. When he needed to, our King Audemar showed humility and restraint, as our Prince Jameson displays now. I am proud to call him my Prince, and when the day comes, I will welcome him as my King!”
“Here, here!” interjected another baron.
“Aye!” yelled another.
Many more Marlish, some who Dawkin could see and many more he could not, stomped their feet on the floor and beat their meaty fists against the tables in a show of support. The Ibians, urged on by the nodding and clapping of their own sovereign, applauded politely. A few even mirrored their Marlish counterparts in their gestures and shows of enthusiasm.
Dawkin breathed a sigh of relief. His olive branch – or the modest display of one – had worked to win over his regal guests. It had even gone so far as to impress the most sympathetic of Marland’s barons, who his father had purposefully invited to the treaty discussion. Dawkin could only guess that Felix had brought a similar like-minded retinue of nobility with him. Had vocal critics of my father, or King Felix, been in attendance, Dawkin considered, then these talks would be proceeding very differently. Best not to think of such matters though. The truth is that this is going well. Best to continue to steer the course in the right direction.
Dawkin slowed his clapping noticeably, sending a clear signal to the barons, who followed his lead in kind. As the applause died, he extended his palms to King Felix. “King Felix, know that any goodwill I show tonight, any manner of good manners and modesty, is due to my father, the Father of all of Marland, King Audemar!”
At that, the hall roared with support from Marland’s barons. Even King Felix, accustomed to zeal and fervor, jolted a bit at the sudden wave of enthusiasm. Dawkin and all the rest waited a full minute before the noise died enough for him to continue his dialogue, which he then directed to Audemar.
“Father, I believe you have your own thoughts on the discussions of this alliance?”
“Indeed. King Felix, you and I have spoken at length, have we not?”
“We have,” Felix confirmed.
“Your words tonight, as always, have moved me. I too agree that what we do here will affect our kin for generations to come. So, rather than wait to see how our blood will handle our legacy, why not offer them the chance to run it for themselves?”
Bloody hell, Dawkin cursed to himself. Bloody, bloody hell.
Murmurs ebbed in from both sides of the aisle. Felix stroked his moustache before his fingertips traced his scar again. Audemar, seeing his counterpart dwelling on his proposal, sat back in his chair, stoic and patient as ever. Dawkin, facing his father, glimpsed out of the corner of his eye the Grand Duke studying the whole measure of him.
Felix withdrew his fingers from his scar. “A bold proposal, my King.”
“A new way of thinking, I will admit. Not an unseemly one, though.”
“And your heart is set on this course of action?”
Audemar looked to his son. “I am.” He then glanced at the Grand Duke, who had remained in his seat throughout this exchange, before resuming his dialogue with Felix. “What of you?”
“My nephew is capable. But he, like your son, has much to learn.” With that, Felix ushered Xain to the space beside Dawkin. “And he will grasp such lessons with experience.”
All eyes turned to the Grand Duke, who stood and rounded the head table to take his place beside Dawkin, albeit without haste. Felix, seemingly satisfied with the arrangement, returned to his chair, where he reclined alongside Audemar.
The two kings looked on at the male descendants of their bloodline, as did the rest of the members of the two Courts in the War Hall. Dawkin sensed their relative ease, for the burden of decision had for once been lifted from them altogether. They rest, he told himself. Nay, it is more. They nearly slouch. For the weight of rule has been alleviated from their frames. To be placed on us.
Even as the words flowed through his consciousness, for nary a moment, Dawkin knew too much time had passed. The audience in this room will take any further delay as indecision, he realized. I cannot hesitate. Nor can Xain. This is our moment in the sun. To shine. To prove ourselves. Be it for better or worse.
So this is how it feels to be a king.
Dawkin pivoted to face the Grand Duke. “Your Grace.”
“Your Highness,” Xain replied.
“My father had the prudence to review with me some of the terms he and your uncle discussed. Would you be so gracious as to let me begin this exchange?”
Good. That is done with, Dawkin told himself. Now comes the difficult matters.
“The alliance proposed between two nations – Marland and Ibia – must be true and pure, without hyperbole or secrets, as our good King Felix has said. So let the terms of this arrangement not be bogged down with fancy talk or shady undertones.” Dawkin paused to allow the grunts and calls of approval from his people ring through the hall. Not only did he like the sound of such affirmation, but he was counting on the positivity to motivate the Ibian Court to mirror their responses. “Let our proclamations today be bold! Straightforward! And clear! Always clear!”
A few hearty claps and jeers erupted. Some even from the Ibian barons. Dawkin, not wanting to waste the opportunity, even a small one, continued. “First,” he resumed. “Let us acknowledge what we all suspect will be the cornerstone of this treaty. No tariffs between the two nations.”
A smaller applause followed. I am losing them, he thought. Not yet, damn it. Not yet.
“Now this is a prickly point, to be sure. As an island, we Marlish have relied on trade for nearly the entire course of our existence. However, due to our isolation from the continent, we have also come to rely on our own works, and as such, we are able to produce nearly everything we need, from ships to garb to food. Many barons have long opposed tariff-free trade, believing that it will stifle the consumption of home-made goods.
“To those concerns, and the barons that voice them, I say: you are right. Trade free from tariffs will flood goods to both shores. The cheaper products from afar will outsell those made here on the island that cost more, to be certain. Merchants will see reductions in profits. Some will lose more.
“If all the prospects of such a deal were to be so dour, I would stop here, and end these talks myself. As would my father, and any Saliswater of my kin, living or deceased. Yet here I remain, speaking, so convinced of the returns of this alliance that I beg your ear a while longer, to tell of the advantages this treaty will create.”
Though subtle, and not large in total, Dawkin caught sight of barons and bishops on both sides leaning forward. One even cocked his head toward him, perhaps to listen more carefully.
Dawkin, not wanting to hurry ahead of himself, fought back a grin and continued. “My trusted audience, a hundred years of conflict have left us bitter and opposed. We forget that before the Century War, the shores of both our nations could not hold the wares and treasures from foreign lands, that which came from afar to flood our homes and manors. Why the remnants of that age still affect us to this day.” Dawkin, craning his neck, found the patriarch of Har-Kin Furde. “Baron Ralf, do you remember how your family and I, when we were in our boyhood, used to search for buried treasures along the Welkin River?”
“Aye,” said Baron Ralf proudly, beaming at having been called out by the young prince. “You and Everitt, with his cousins, and his oldest brother, Adequin, Mar rest his soul, used to scour the banks of the Welkin for remnants from our older trading days. Tis a hard task too, for the Welkin bears river stones that reflect the sky, like a thousand mirrors with water overflowing–”
“Thank you, Baron Ralf, for such a remembrance. I, too, hold onto such memories fondly.” Dawkin returned his attention to the rest of the nobles. “You see? Our land still teems with treasures from over a century ago. How much richer do you think our kin were back in the day, when they actually had such articles in their hands? We can have that again by resuming trade with not just any power, but an ally. Consider the wealth. Your children will made aware of wares from a hundred towns and ports. Their children will run the shores of our rivers and harbors, finding treasures and tokens, just as I did with my friends. And you, noble men from both nations, will reap your own rewards.”
Dawkin paused again, to be greeted by the sound of cordial chitchat and murmurs. He scanned the width of the War Hall to see several heads nod approvingly. Even the hardest of the men seemed to cast their doubts aside as they leaned back in their seats and rubbed their chins.
“The wealth will flow both ways, dear barons,” Dawkin continued. “As will the goods. Cedar from Ibia to our dry docks and quays. Metal ore from Marland to Ibian ports. All will share. All will be welcome.”
Dawkin pivoted to find the Grand Duke incredulous, with his brow raised as he slanted back ever so slightly.
“Prince Jameson, I mean no disrespect, but I feel compelled to correct an error when I hear one.”
King Felix sprang from his chair. “Nephew, your tongue!”
“Uncle, forgive my candor. I intend not to dishonor your sovereignty nor the manor of kin Garsea. I only speak because you appointed me ambassador to this island, to represent our family and our homeland in these matters.” Finding the concentration of the nobles firmly upon him, Xain stepped to the center, sweeping his arms in an arc. “I have no doubt that the men in this chamber have come to make progress, and not to slight the ambitions of their kings. That is why we have stayed. That is why I am here.
“Cordialness and formality have their limits, though. Real progress involves casting manners aside, so that real men may discuss what is on their minds without fear of reprisal. Is that not correct, Your Highness?”
“You have the right of it, Grand Duke,” Dawkin conceded, a tad concerned for what would follow.
“Treaties, like swords or ships, are created with much effort, with sweat and strength. The terms we iron out shall be no different. We will not satisfy everyone. We will, however, come away bettering both nations.”
“Your Grace,” Dawkin interjected. “You had concerns with my last statement?”
“With my reference to ‘welcome.’”
“Aw, yes. It struck me, as . . . contradictory to my own experiences with foreigners. Those, you say, who will welcome us to their lands if we do the same in return.”
“You doubt my sincerity?”
“Mar, no! Never. Your word is as firm as a boulder in storm. Your people, however . . .”
“You leach!” shouted Baron Gale. A sailor from birth, with a figure to match a ship, he leaned over the table as he pointed at the Grand Duke, nearly tipping it over in the process. “How dare you come to this hall, drink our wine and insult our people!”
Other Marlish barons rose in protest as their Ibian rivals pointed back at Gale, who by then had to be restrained by his countrymen.
Dawkin snuck a look over his shoulder. His father remained seated, as did King Felix. The two glanced at each other, eying if either would rise to the aid of their kin. However, neither budged.
They mean to have Xain and I settle this to the end.
Knowing he had to take the lead, Dawkin rushed to the far side of the head table, where Mage Wystan eagerly awaited to be addressed. “Mage, would you be so kind as to quiet the room?”
“At once,” Wystan replied.
Dawkin then waved Sir Everitt to his side as he stepped to his father’s Right Captain. “Sir Lijart,” he beckoned. “I require your services for but a moment.”
“Of course, Your Highness.”
Lijart fell to his left. As Wystan slipped his hands into the sleeves of his robe, Dawkin commanded both Captains. “Small shields, at the ready. When the Mage does his duty, clamor away.”
“Aye,” they replied.
Wystan, having meandered to the middle of the hall, withdrew his hands from his sleeves. In each, he held a small bulbous sack, the outer layer of which appeared soft and powdery. He raised both above his head before looking to the ground.
“Look away!” Dawkin warned the Captains.
They raised their shields as Dawkin cupped his face. In a flash, the War Hall filled with a brilliant, white light, one that hung in the air like a flash of lightning suspended by Mar Himself. Aside from Mage Wystan, who somehow remained unmoved, those closest to the burst fell to the ground, their hands over their eyes. Others sank to their knees as more turned their backs or wrapped their surcoats over their heads. Xain fell over the nearest table, colliding with a Marlish baron whose goblet of wine splashed over the front of his doublet.
As quickly as it occurred, the flash ended. Mage Wystan slipped his hands back in his sleeves as he strode quietly back to his seat. The barons, shocked and embarrassed, climbed to their feet to brush themselves clean. Xain, on the other hand, swung around to Dawkin, fuming.
“What the hell was that?!”
“A silencing, of sorts,” Dawkin replied calmly.
Xain took a step toward Dawkin. In response, Lijart and Everitt raised their shields a tad higher, though they remained by their prince’s side. This defense did not go unnoticed by the Grand Duke, who recoiled. Spotting the distaste on the faces of his Court, though, he smirked. Extending his hand to an attendant, who came to his aid with cloth in hand, he nodded to Dawkin.
“Prince Jameson, Your Highness, you are as clever as you are handsome. Your trick has calmed the room, as you intended, but it has also proved my point.”
“If we proceed with the supposed terms of this treaty – as alluded to by your father and my uncle - freeing both people and goods into our land, and vice versa, then we will enjoy peace and comfort. For a while.”
“I sense a ‘however’ in your tone.”
“The scale of such a deal, however, is one-sided. Yes, my people will be able to travel your island. In turn, your people will leave your island to travel our land, which they will use as a gateway to the continent.
“It is no secret . . . Marland’s territorial ambitions are well-known. That is part in part why your country entered the Century War. Why, after a hundred years of conflict, the other powers sued for peace. Why you annexed part of Colinne. Why Kin Guillen has been reduced to little more than a Har-Kin, and why Prince Denisot’s Promise to my cousin – your supposed future wife – was dissolved, leaving him to wander Afari as a beggar.
“No, no, my sweet Prince. Freedom for all will not be granted so freely. Not unless we have assurances. Concessions, if you will, to equality.”
Dawkin did not flinch as Xain quieted and murmurs rose from the Courts on both sides to fill the void. In the name of Mar Himself, I can hardly take much more of this back and forth, Dawkin thought. How has my father managed to survive such talks all these years and keep his sanity?
He forced a grin. “What is it that you would call far, Your Grace?”
“An island is so little land to travel, compared to the ground we would provide your noblemen to tread. If, say, we had more . . . well, more . . . then we would come closer to calling this treaty-in-progress even.”
“More? Of what?”
Xain turned to the vellum map that hung on the east wall. “As our part to keep the peace, we currently pay the Devout an annual tribute. You are familiar with the Devout, aren’t you, my Prince? Like your country, they are hungry for territory. Unlike yours, they can march overland to ours.”
“Outrage!” Baron Ralf shouted. “These talks are an outrage!”
“Father!” Sir Everitt cautioned. Dawkin shot a look at both men, who tightened their lips. The baron, at once apologetic for his folly of cutting off the prince, reclined in his seat. The knight turned his head aside, though in his obedience he glanced sideways, remaining ever watchful.
Dawkin returned his attention back to the Grand Duke. “A tribute to you to pay the Devout is not too objectionable, in theory, depending on the amount, which we can discuss in full later.”
“Very good, Your Highness. Very good. After all, what is money between families?”
“We should share that. And more.”
More? Dawkin ground his teeth. These shrewd games were wearing on his patience. Any longer, and his displeasure would burst forth, embarrassing his Kin and leading to a breakdown of conversation.
“My Prince?” Xain urged.
No, Dawkin told himself. No. No more. No more games. No tricks. No clever words or fancy sentences. No constructions of dialogue meant to impress. Only silence. Let the fool spill is guts, say the wrong thing. Let cunning speech be the better of him, to reveal the vulpine character within.
Dawkin heard his father. He felt the stare of his patriarch and king bore itself through the back of his head. Yet he did not swing around to face him. His stare, undeterred, stayed fixed on Xain, and would continue to do so until the Grand Duke finished his piece.
“It is all the right, my King,” Xain said, raising his palm to Audemar, his own gaze meeting Dawkin’s. “Your son is only extending to me the floor to me out of courtesy, not spite, which is beneath him. No doubt, he wants me to finish outlining the conditions of our nation for this historic treaty we are negotiating.”
Xain. Felix. Audemar. All the barons and bishops from two kingdoms. Every one of them stared at the young Prince, waiting.
Dawkin, unrelenting in his silence, knew he had to concede something. So he nodded. Once.
“Marland’s library. Not of books. Of maps. Specifically, those of the Northwestern Waters.”
Of murmurs and uproar, there was none. Only silence.
Dawkin took a step, his heel clapping the tile, shattering the hush. He took another, then one more, followed by others, his trajectory taking him around Xain, whom he eyed with suspicion and malice. “You would have Marland, my country, release all of her treasures, to satisfy your greed?” he asked as he came full circle to face the Grand Duke.
“A fair exchange is all I ask, my dearest Prince Jameson.”
“Greed,” Dawkin repeated.
“Come now. I will admit to our differences, but for the sake of our kings, let us not abandon the goodwill we initiated.”
“Goodwill? You are asking for the very treasures of Marland that have been heavily guarded for hundreds of years, perhaps as far back as, as before our written history began. The maritime maps of Marland are responsible for the state of our country today. They are why our fisherman return with nets full when other seaside villages on the continent struggle with low catches. They account for the speed of our ships while sailors from Afari complain of dead winds. They even accounted for our victories at sea during the Century War, for those times when our ships were driven back into waters no other nation had charted, but ours.”
“Your treasures are impressive, to say the least. Much as your people have, we intend to treat them with secrecy and respect.”
“You ask for too much.”
“My Prince, there should be no secrets between family.”
“Is that so, Grand Duke? No secrets whatsoever? What of secrets that bring shame? Say, secrets of the night? Last night?”
Dawkin paused. His last quip had stirred the blood within the Grand Duke, sending it rising to every stretch and crease of his face. As close as he was, Dawkin could see the rivers and streams of red beneath the contours of his jaw, cheeks and forehead. The shift in appearance was not lost on others, as Everitt and Lijart edged closer to their prince.
Suddenly, Xain’s rage vanished. The blood from his face drained as his skin turned pale. Looking past Dawkin, he pointed.
Dawkin twisted to find his father bent over the head table, clubbing his chest with his meaty fist. Over and again he beat the area above his heart as Felix wrapped his arm around him for support.
“Mages!” Felix commanded. “Mages!”
Wystan and his two Ibian counterparts brushed past the rest of the audience, who had risen from their tables out of concern. Dawkin, seeing his path around the table blocked on both sides, jumped onto the wooden surface to kneel before Audemar.
“Father! Father! What is it? What is the matter?”
For his part, Audemar could not respond vocally. Though ajar, no words escaped his mouth. Nor cough. Nor gurgle. His eyes, desperate, answered instead. They bulged outward, the whites of the outer spheres invaded by veins of scarlet that sprouted and stretched. The color of his irises faded while his pupils contracted.
He reached for his son as he collapsed onto the table. Dawkin took his hand and knew at once that the strength he had known from his father all his life was slipping.
“Wystan!” he shouted louder than needed, for the mage was at the king’s side. “Do something!”
“My laboratory,” the mage answered. “He needs herbs. Potion. Medicine.”
“Open them!” Dawkin commanded, pointing to the exit. “Open the doors!”
From outside, no response came. Dawkin, though not wanting to part from his father, nonetheless released his hand and pushed his way through the panicked crowd to the doors.
“Open the door!” Dawkin shouted, pounding on them. “I, Prince Jameson, command it!”
From the other side he heard nothing. Aghast, Dawkin stepped away from the oaken giants, his hope for help fading. Will no one help?
A lone voice from within the War Hall, through all the bustling and shouting, answered his unspoken question. “The guards on the other side. They will not open unless told by a king.”
Dawkin tore his gaze from the doors. He looked first to his father, who remained slumped over the table, before turning to Felix. “Your Majesty, give the command.”
The moment could not have lasted more than a second. Hardly enough time for a man to utter a sentence or step away. Long enough, though, for the king to reach up and touch the line of his scar.He withdrew his hand from his neck. “Open the doors,” he commanded, making no effort to strain his voice. “By order of King Felix, ruler of Ibia. In the name of the Great Audemar of Marland, open the doors to save your king!”