Jackal Among Snakes - Chapter 347
Galamon opened the door for Argrave and stepped through it ahead of him. Argrave followed after warily, keeping his eye on the knight-commander as though searching for a reaction. Within, Rowe and Dras sat on pristine purple couches that looked out of place in the battered and worn stone palace. They had been talking, but with Argrave’s arrival their exchange stopped.
“There he is.” Rowe turned his body and rose to his feet, leaning on his staff. “I see you had to upstage me by bringing a bigger lizard to the meeting.”
“Lizard? That’s my grandmother you’re talking about. Be respectful.” Argrave rubbed his palms together, making way for Anneliese to enter. “Rowe. Dras. It’s good to see you.”
Rowe scoffed. “Look at him. He wins a war, now suddenly he’s ordering me about in front of everyone and forgetting the patriarch’s title. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re the tallest among the short. I forgot how small everyone was here… and before you think otherwise, I’m not speaking of height.”
As they spoke, Dras rose from the couch and stepped around it, walking up to Galamon. The knight-commander took off his helmet and looked down at the slightly shorter Dras.
Galamon said simply, “Patriarch.”
“Over a decade, and that’s all you can say?” Dras stared at him stoically, then he smiled. “Haven’t changed a bit, have you?”
“I have.” Galamon looked to Argrave. “I’ve… been liberated.”
Dras frowned for a moment, then looked to Argrave for explanation. To demonstrate to the patriarch, the king tapped his teeth.
“What?” Dras whipped his head back. “You’re serious?”
Argrave pointed to Galamon. “He doesn’t joke often.”
“But that has never been done before.” Rowe stepped forward, looking upon Galamon. “Smile, would you? You know how to do that, right?”
Galamon slowly brandished his teeth. He had sharp canines still, but certainly not to the point of vampirism.
“I…” Dras closed his eyes. “By Veid. This…” He ran his hand across his mouth. “When you came to me, I thought you nothing more than a messenger liable to die months after our ships delivered you home,” he said, turning to gaze to Argrave as he spoke. “I have more to say to you, but… Rowe, please brief Argrave on the details. As for Galamon… can we talk? Alone.”
Galamon said plainly, “I am knight-commander to His Majesty.”
“And you are defenseless as knight-commander before me, so go,” Rowe waved his hand.
Galamon did not move at all until Argrave said, “You can talk with him if you want to, Galamon.”
The elven warrior took a deep breath. “Then… thank you.”
Dras put his hand on Galamon’s shoulder, and the two moved to the door so that they might speak in private.
Once the door had opened and shut, Argrave turned his head to the remaining guest in the home—Rowe the Righteous, S-rank spellcaster. “Shouldn’t you make sure your patriarch’s safe?”
“What am I, his father?” Rowe stepped away, heading back for the purple couches. “He’s got enough magic-imbued jewelry to kill an army, and a trick or two besides. You should have seen what happened after enchanting was introduced to my lot. All the wizards of Veiden lined up, bent their knees, and demonstrated their latest enchanting craftsmanship while delivering their best brownnosing compliments.” Rowe plopped down on the couch, then fixed Argrave and Anneliese with an icy look. “Either way, don’t you have control over your troops, Your Majesty? No harm will befall my glorious leader, surely.”
Argrave walked over to the couch opposite Rowe and sat. “It’s not my troops I’m concerned about.”
“Ah yes, the little rats in this granary of yours. There’s something to be said about your kind’s ability to be self-interested even when the sky threatens to fall on their heads,” Rowe set his staff down and put his feet up on the couch just beside Argrave.
Argrave only smiled. “It’s only some of them. I gave them the push, and I think they’ll bend. They don’t know the extent of what’s coming, not really. Even that little vision imparted to them by the stone disc Castro got is insufficient. Should you whip a child that misbehaves because of ignorance?” Argrave held his hands out, eyeing Rowe. “Don’t answer that. I forgot who I was talking to.”
“A child? No one there was younger than you,” Rowe said as he laughed, watching Anneliese as she sat. “Speaking of children… the two of you, hmm? You can’t actually like humans too much, judging by your choice of partner.”
Argrave put his arm behind Anneliese on the couch as they both only smiled, saying nothing further on the subject.
Rowe’s expression slowly soured into a grim stoicism. “Neither of you died.”
Anneliese quipped, “You were always quick to grasp the situation, Rowe.”
“And both of you exceeded what I thought would happen, be it magically or…” Rowe waved to the palace and everything around them. “Materially.”
Argrave nodded. “Hard times create strong people.”
“Nothing is more maddening than seeing someone I think far dumber than me doing far better than me,” Rowe stared at Argrave. “What is it with you? Did you eat magic berries? Was your mother some kind of mutant? You should not reasonably advance so quickly on the field of magic.”
Argrave chuckled, then pointed his thumb at Anneliese. “She’s the real giant among pygmies. Anne’s at A-rank already, you know.”
Rowe looked at her. “Eh. I expected her to do great things. Sometimes you talk to people and you just know they’re going places. But you…” Rowe stared hard, the cynical wizard replaced by Patriarch Dras’ loyal servant doing his duty to his tribe. “Assuming you consolidate this uselessly large and fertile kingdom of yours… what next?”
“Prepare,” Anneliese said on his behalf. “Spread word among the people. Change their way of living to adapt for what comes before necessary. Build the fortifications needed to hold and defend. Position all loyal to us to capitalize on benefits, and ruthlessly crush opposition spurred by Gerechtigkeit.” She entwined her fingers. “All of that was Argrave’s idea, not mine. I would appreciate it if you did not disparage his talent.”
“His idea? That would explain the inadequate reasoning,” he said, taking his feet off the couch and planting them down firmly on the floor. Seeing Anneliese glare at him with fiery amber eyes, Rowe added in annoyance, “It’s a joke, girl. That one was, at least. I meant what I said earlier.”
Before things got out of hand Argrave interrupted, “Dras said he had something he wanted you to debrief us on.”
“Well, things in Veiden haven’t been easy. While we don’t think it’s to the point of asking for help… we would like to ask for advice.” Rowe said those words bitterly, and then hesitantly continued, “He Who Would Judge the Gods is unfond of allowing us time to sharpen our blades and work our spells. And I think the same will be true for you, too. We have an interest in working together. I won’t wring you dry, either, unlike your loyal subjects. Don’t you just love elvenkind?”
“I never thought we’d speak again,” mused Dras as he and Galamon walked down the battered halls of the Dragon Palace. “We said our goodbyes.”
“We did.” Galamon nodded, then looked to the patriarch. “My wife and Rhomaden…”
“Not a thought to spare for me?” Dras scratched the top of his bald, scarred head. “They’re fine, as far as I know. Things keep me too busy to check on them more than once a month. Perhaps you’d like to come visit them for yourself.”
Galamon stopped walking, and Dras looked back.
“What?” the patriarch asked.
Galamon stared with his cold white eyes. “I was exiled.”
“You’d be tested in the old way—tied to an iron pole and left there for three days in the sun.” Dras stepped closer. “And if that’s done in the view of all… no one would protest if I lifted your exile. You’d clearly be free of the stain of vampirism.”
“The exile was done before Veid.” Galamon looked down at Dras unaffectedly.
Dras stared back. “Exiles have been undone.”
“Undone for the innocent. I was cursed, incontrovertibly.” Galamon reminded him.
“You were,” the patriarch nodded, then stepped forth. “Your homeland needs you, Galamon. Stopping the Veidimen conquest of Berendar has not come at an easy price. A swung sword suddenly stopped hurts the arm; you taught me that.” Dras looked around, then stepped closer. “I’m not complaining. I did not err in heeding Argrave’s warnings. But I cannot teach men and women as you can. I cannot instill that sense of duty and pride to the army.”
“Tens of thousands were dying of starvation before you came and made what changes you did,” the knight-commander defended his former master. “You unified us and built an enviable empire.”
“No.” Dras shook his head. “We did that. You don’t need to prop me up, old friend. I have pride enough for the both of us, but I know my limits all the same. I could not have won that war without your ferocity and strategy. And now… I need it once more. He Who Would Judge the Gods is not idle, and now that we know of him, he is bold. I’m half-convinced he aided me in conquest and the subsequent invasion of Berendar to destabilize this continent, but I fear that might be my paranoia.”
Galamon closed his eyes and clenched his hands together until the metal gauntlets he wore creaked in protest. “You know I want nothing more than to go home.”
Dras nodded. “But you have obligations.”
“Yes.” Galamon looked off to the side, where a window let in dim light. “Argrave needs me. If I built your army back then, I must do the same here. And our foe is not so simple this time. You saw what Rowe’s attack did. I saw that same spell remove the top from a mountain in our battles of old, yet that thing’s body held firm. That is what we fight.”
Dras tilted his head. “Even if the Ebon Cult has resurfaced?”
Galamon’s heavy and quick steps shook the ground, and Dras took a step back as Galamon towered over him. “Do not toy with me by bringing up that name.”
Dras chuckled nervously, hands hovering near Galamon’s chest. “There’s no damning evidence, but I swear I’m being honest. I would not mention your brother’s killers without having ample evidence to believe it’s so.”
Galamon ground his teeth for a few moments, then turned away as quickly as he had come. Dras rubbed his chest and muttered, “Still scary.”
“I… apologize,” said Galamon after a few moments.
“Well, how sorry are you?” Dras questioned cheekily.
Galamon walked to the window and looked out across Dirracha. “We should involve Argrave in this conversation,” he finally said.
Patriarch Dras took a deep breath. “Alright. I guess it was inevitable.”
“I’ve heard some strange mutterings from the southern nobles.” Galamon turned around. “If you want my cooperation… I think you have a daughter, now.”
Dras blinked in confusion.