Shadows to the South

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Prologue

The study was blanketed in darkness except for the odd flickers of candlelight upon the desk and the sconces near the entry doors and archways. For Daganus, the black of night usually inspired a sense of emptiness; the world slept, and time seemed to stop. All of the productivity, planning, and enjoyment that came from the day was traded out for stillness and silence. It was during those moments, under the cover and quiet of the night, that you were reminded of your insignificance and mortality. However, here in the study, there was an overwhelming feeling of warmth and familiarity. It was hard to say if it was the study itself that created that atmosphere, as the advisor had many fond memories of candid conversations in this room, or if it was as a result of the person who currently inhabited it. The study walls were painted in warm rich tones, shades of umber, cherry, and chocolate, and the woodwork in the archways and bookcases were exquisite and detailed. There was no denying the craftsmanship of the room or the items placed within it; it was fit for a King, and it was a King that was currently occupying it.

Silvanos Araheraod, the High King of Leriso, was an imposing figure. None would deny upon meeting him that he was anything less than nobility of the highest class. His mere presence commanded the attention of a room; his charisma, intelligence, and sense of righteousness earned him the respect of many, but it was his warmth and his compassion that earned their loyalty, love, and admiration. His title of High King had not been inherited, it had been granted by the people, and he wore it well. Silvanos appeared, for all intents and purposes, untouchable. He was the epitome of everything that a great leader or monarch should be.

Tonight, however, it was painfully apparent that he was still merely a man. Fatigue and grief etched his features and created deep furrows across his brows. He brushed his long pin-straight chestnut hair over his shoulder with a sigh of irritation, and his lithe frame was slumped gracelessly over pen and quill while he meticulously scanned the letter he was composing for errors. With an aggravated groan, he pushed himself away from his work and cradled his head in his hands. Both Daganus and the Imperial scribe stood nearby, watching him with equal parts concern and curiosity.

“Your Majesty?” Daganus questioned with a quirk of his brow. “We do not need to finish this in one night. While I appreciate your sense of urgency, the situation is not that dire.”

Silvanos sighed mightily and stared at Daganus, his frustration evident. “If I stop now, I won’t start again. This is the one thing that I cannot procrastinate on, for the sake of my people, and the future of my children. I stand to gain nothing personally, nor do I wish to. I have every material item I could ever want. I wish that I had the luxury of waiting, that I could afford to be selfish. I cannot wallow, and I cannot afford to set this aside. I...” he paused for a moment, and anguish passed briefly across his emerald eyes. “I know that there is political unrest. If I maintain the status quo, I know that my title will likely evolve into that of merely a figurehead. It’s becoming hollow at best, and I need to protect the family that I... have left. Tarisae and Silen need stability and a solid future. My people need to be reassured; the realms need to appear to be a unified front, and their confidence in me was shaken when we... when we lost her. I cannot afford to continue to look weak and be undermined by him. I also cannot let her death go unpunished. My people need closure. I need closure. And if this is merely a means to an end, then so be it.”

Daganus had never seen his King, and friend, look so haunted and haggard. Silvanos was rarely openly emotional, but the last few years had changed him. His unshakeable determination was wavering in the face of his grief, and for a time it had utterly consumed him. His staff of advisors had taken over many of his roles while he had sequestered himself in an attempt to find some semblance of purpose without her. His children were one of the few things that kept him afloat in the wake of her loss, but he had begun to distance himself from them now, knowing that his decision would only serve to cause them more pain. Silvanos had isolated himself, only really letting down his guard briefly with him, his oldest friend. Daganus wanted to comfort him but he resisted, knowing that it would not be appreciated in the presence of his scribe, Pann. Even though Pann had been in his service for several years and was friendly with the High King, this was the most vulnerable he would allow himself to be in his presence.

Daganus nodded in understanding and tried to convey his emotions through his expression alone. Pann politely averted his gaze while Silvanos composed himself.

“Read it friend. Tell me if I’m missing anything. If not, I’ll have Pann draw up the copies this evening, and the ravens can carry them out at first light.” He held the parchment out to Daganus in a silent plea for assistance, and Daganus took the letter without hesitation. His eyes skimmed over the words and phrases, knowing full well that Silvanos would flawlessly articulate what was required from his vassals. Daganus read it merely to reassure him, and to give him a few moments to clear his thoughts.

“It is fine,” he said. He stroked his beard thoughtfully, a nervous tic that he had acquired, one that he knew Silvanos would immediately recognize. “Are you sure, Your Majesty?”

Silvanos nodded again, and within moments, Daganus witnessed a shift in his friend’s demeanor as he quickly began to compartmentalize his emotions. Silvanos had always been particularly adept at maintaining control, but he wasn’t sure if it was a skill or a curse. He was a private individual, and rarely ever permitted himself to be completely transparent with others.

“Atilleh is dead,” he declared bluntly, almost coldly. Daganus knew what that statement had just cost him, but it was as if he needed to say it aloud to remind himself. “Each day I waste I become weaker in the eyes of my people. Pann, you are to send a copy to the three realms; Kuvaqite, Nivern, and Silkamolus. The water, wind, and fire elementals are loyal to me in name only, but it’s time that we were bound by blood. Familial alliances run deeper, and their loyalty will be uncompromised if I were to marry one of their daughters. The Elves require their assistance if we are to bring war to the humans.”

Pann bowed low and retrieved the parchment from Daganus before exiting quietly to make copies of the letters. Silvanos stared after his retreating form, deep in thought. Although his friend looked no more than thirty to the average mortal, his eyes showed his age. The weight of the world was reflected in their depths. Elves, or earth elementals, aged gracefully; truthfully, his friend was approximately 300 years old and had spent about a third of his life with his late wife. He had watched his King marry, and had seen them through the birth of their two children who were now young adults themselves. No one in their right mind would ever say that Silvanos was past his prime, but today he resembled a man beaten.

Silvanos’ eyes were fixated on the closed door as if he could will Pann to return with the parchment and erase the words within them. When Daganus laid a hand gently on his shoulder he startled and whipped around to regard his advisor.

“You do not agree with this, I can tell,” he said quietly. “What would you have me do Daganus? Follow a ghost to my own grave?”

Daganus frowned before shaking his head slowly in response. “No Silvanos. I do understand the political reasons behind an alliance. But I worry about you, as your mentor and friend. I worry that you are so consumed by your grief that you won’t be able to let yourself love again. I worry that you are trying to play the martyr by putting the needs of your children and people before your own. But I also worry that you might be doing the exact opposite of that; that your need for revenge will impair your judgment in times where a clear head would be best. I think that, emotionally, you are nowhere near ready for this.”

For a moment, Silvanos bristled at Daganus’ blunt observations. He could feel the tension in his shoulder beneath his hand. Daganus watched as emotions played across his features before he closed himself off again, his face an impassive mask that he had witnessed one too many times as of late.

“So do my advisors just expect me to sit here in mourning for years while he chips away slowly at my kingdom and murders my people? Will that earn me the love and loyalty of the common folk? Time will not erase her memory. She was beloved by many, most of all myself, but I have spent as much time as I can be locked away with my grief. This will be a marriage of convenience, nothing more.”

Daganus grimaced a bit at Silvanos’ last statement. The King had never been one for advantageous marriages and had gone against the advice of many when he married his late wife. Atilleh had not been of noble birth- he had married her for love, not for political gain. He knew his friend, however; those vows were sacred to him. Even though he believed he would be content in a loveless marriage, Daganus knew that it wasn’t in him to commit to someone so fully if he did not feel strongly for the individual. He was fooling himself if he believed that he could keep himself at arms reach to achieve his goals.

Silvanos noted his friend’s pause and nodded, understanding that this was a subject that they had differing opinions on. They knew each other well enough to know when to let something lie, and when to pursue it.

Silvanos shifted to stand at the study window that overlooked the courtyard. His expression was pensive and wreathed in candlelight.

“If you were in my position, who would you choose? If this was merely an advantageous marriage, who would be the best candidate?”

“Silkamolus would be the obvious choice. The fire elementals have the largest army and are positioned strategically between you and the humans in Caracalon. Both Kuvaqite and Nivern are too far removed, and their armies are not as significant. Silkamolus has a clear advantage. Plus, I question how lenient the Arundur family has been with the humans that cross their borders. A marriage with Silkamolus would cement their ties to you and allow you to destabilize the human army’s hold at their border.”

Silvanos nodded in agreement, his eyes thoughtful. “I grew up around the Arundur family before I took the throne. Siva is no stranger to me, although we spent more time around one another when we were young. We have seen less of each other into adulthood. Vulcanus always hoped that we would marry, and even tried to offer Siva to me shortly before I married Atilleh, but when I declined he made fewer appearances at court. If I was concerned about familiarity, Silkamolus and Kuvaqite would suffice. Erua-Nixie has made many trips out here with her father as well. They often spend a good majority of their winter in Comeltum to avoid the bitter cold in Kuvaqite. Erua is sweet and sincere, a genuine pacifist much like Atilleh was...” He trailed off at the last, and his expression shuttered again.

Daganus cleared his throat, attempting to break through the King’s melancholy and bring his attention back to the conversation at hand. “Nivern is a bit of an unknown. Levanteran is a prickly character. Rumor is that his daughter is betrothed to his high mage, Borelas. Although Levanteran seems like the sort that would break off their engagement simply to improve his social standing. Zephyra has never been to Comeltum if I’m not mistaken?”

“Correct. Levanteran used to make frequent trips with Assirra before she passed, but their son always accompanied them and not their daughter. Levanteran always was chauvinistic.” Silvanos sighed softly before continuing in a murmur. “My children will hate me. They’ll feel that I’m replacing their mother too quickly. Silen will see the logic behind it, but Tarisae has her mother’s fire and passion. She’ll think I’m being insensitive. I can’t bear to lose them too.”

“They will understand in time. Even Tarisae will see your reasoning eventually. It may be challenging at first- Tarisae is indeed her mother’s daughter- but give them time. Be transparent with them. All you can do is continue to be honest about your plans and intentions.”

Silvanos scrubbed his face in agitation, which drew Daganus’ attention to the dark stubble lining his face. Silvanos was always kempt and clean-shaven; yet more evidence that he had been letting himself go, bit by bit.

Daganus gripped his shoulder firmly. “Go to sleep. You’ve been burning the candle at both ends, which will not help you, your family, or your people. You’ve done your duty for tonight, so rest.”

Silvanos flashed him a wan smile in acknowledgment. “You are far too kind to me, my friend. You have no idea how thankful I am for your council, and I’ll heed it now. You’ll see yourself out?”

He dipped his head in response, and with that, the High King exited through the antechamber that led to his private quarters. Daganus doubted that Silvanos would sleep tonight; he could only hope that he had done enough to assuage some of his doubts.

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