Jackal Among Snakes - Chapter 348
“As it turns out… I was right the entire time,” the brown-haired Duke Sumner said with dignified triumph as he looked out across all the nobles of the south arrayed before him. “Argrave was allied with the Veidimen.”
“But wrong in all the ways that mattered.” Margrave Reinhardt, who was standing across from the duke, rebutted. “The snow elves come as our allies, not conquerors.”
A great many sat and parsed through documents, some Veidimen in origin, and many others brought by those in the Order of the Gray Owl. They looked confused and disturbed, as though what they read was some sort of abominable horror fiction. They feared. And the more they read, the more that fear felt justified.
Count Delbraun ran his hands through his ashen hair as he suggested, “That woman behind the king… she must be that dragon rider’s daughter. It explains how the invasion of Mateth ended.” He looked between all present.
“You’re already calling him king.” Duke Reichard of Birall looked up from what he read. He was a rather unassuming and shrewish man that seemed out of place amongst great warriors and spellcasters that comprised the southern nobility.
“Do you think we can afford not to? These snow elves are fierce warriors. As a mage, I can attest that the spell cast was powerful beyond belief.” Delbraun rebuked as he stepped away to the window. “But even despite that alliance… that’s not the extent of his forces.”
The count pranced about the room as he thought aloud. “Making Relize fold, destabilizing Atrus with his brother Levin’s help, and winning all of the far north to his banner… it was masterfully executed. This bid for the throne was probably years in the making. And all for this prophecy. I never thought myself superstitious, and yet… perhaps the great serpent Vasquer chose him.”
“This outcome may have been more organic than that. Why not simply tell his father?” Duke Reichard suggested.
“I heard a rumor,” Elias of Parbon spoke up, his one good eye jumping between the two of them. “That the creature in the throne room… that was King Felipe’s true form. That would explain the drastic change in personality, the years of misrule… and why Argrave couldn’t trust his family for this. His father had already succumbed to Gerechtigkeit.”
Margrave Reinhardt frowned. “Why would Argrave not simply say that?”
“I can think of a dozen reasons why a son wouldn’t want to portray their father as a demon.” Delbraun shook his head. “And it’s beside the point. We have a new king… and a queen, an elven princess of sorts.”
“I’m not sure…” Margrave Reinhardt closed his eyes. “I met them once before. He loves her, I’m certain. It did not seem an arranged marriage.”
“He’s sensible,” Duke Sumner nodded. “Incredibly talented, pretty enough, and of high pedigree; can you ask of more from a woman? Anyone with decent sense would realize the good hand they’ve been dealt and avoid mucking that up. Our new king is sensible.”
“But they were on a dangerous journey,” Reinhardt pointed out.
“We’re speculating from ignorance.” Delbraun turned to them. “Our new king is poised to be the most powerful monarch in Vasquer’s history. That was my point.”
“But he’s been even-handed,” the previously reticent Duke Marauch spoke up.
The room grew silent, all staring to look at the duke. Some of them didn’t recognize the man: they remembered the Duke of Elbraille being a fat and battered husband, nothing more.
“He’s right.” Duke Sumner looked around. “And… he doesn’t want to position the crown as an absolute power forevermore. That’s what this parliament of his is: ensuring that what happened with Felipe can never happen again. And ensuring that we, the people of Vasquer, can confirm the monarch… what is that if not a tacit display of goodwill towards the kingdom?”
People slowly agreed. Elias of Parbon said plainly, “Gerechtigkeit or not… I’m in full favor.”
That sentiment was echoed more than it was not. Eventually, someone raised a drink.
“To Argrave,” the woman suggested.
“The even-handed.” Duke Sumner retrieved his own glassware and clinked it against hers. “May the gods save us all from whatever comes…”
Some people joined in cheer, but it did little to dispel the gloom of learning of the approaching calamity. Margrave Reinhardt stepped away, moving to the window. His son joined him.
“Thinking about Rose?” Elias asked. “I want nothing more than to break down the door and find Argrave, but…”
“In time. He made a pledge before all. That will not be forgotten.” Reinhardt nodded. “And yet… Duke Enrico still languishes in Whitefields.”
Elias joined his father in peering out across the city, the two of them lost in the silence of unending worry.
“You would just fold before him?!” Artur angrily accused Castro, leaning forth on his billowing throne of cloth that floated in the air.
“Fold?” Castro replied, remaining calm. “I applied as much pressure as I could in this situation. I pressed for what the council wanted, to the word. And His Majesty refused.”
Artur leaned back. His eyes seemed to shimmer, moving between colors as the light danced across the room unnaturally. Castro narrowed his eyes, almost daring the small man to do something.
Eventually, Artur gripped his mantle tight as he claimed, “You said more words in support of Argrave than words in support of the Order.”
“Are you implying I didn’t act in accordance with the Order’s interests?” Castro took a step forward. “Say what you will of my personal allegiances, but never let it be said that I do not heed what the Order votes upon. I have done things I found undeserving for the Order, and I have passed edicts I found distasteful for the Order. But I did all of that in service of our organization, because I fully believe that this institution serves as a force for good in this world.”
Artur closed his shimmering eyes and took slow, deep breaths. The other Magisters looked between them—the only ones that did not seem to be paying attention were Vera and Hegazar, who muttered in the corner while looking at the cracks in the walls and ceiling.
“You’re right,” the dwarf finally conceded calmly. “You invited Argrave to your room because of your adherence to Order neutrality. You visited Mateth to see him because of that adherence. And you made Magisters heed his directions because of this strong commitment to this organization’s principles.”
“Once again, you imply my personal beliefs are influencing the way I represent the Order. If I had, I would not have even mentioned the greedy practices we voted for.” Castro shook his head, then popped his neck as though this conversation was inconsequential.
“The effect is the same as though you had,” Artur pointed out, laying down on his mantle by this point. “The option is off the table for us.”
“You act as small as you are,” Moriatran stepped forward until he stood beside the Tower Master. “I hate Castro more than anyone, but I don’t think he’s acted out of turn as a leader. There’s only you. I am near positive most others would not have voted for this foolish initiative if not for you, Artur. They all feared to lose access to your enchantments. They all feared making an enemy of you.”
Artur lifted his head up, utterly incensed at the insult Moriatran levelled. His eyes wandered, looking around at the other Magisters. They refused to meet his gaze, he found. No matter where he looked… he found no support anywhere. They all looked at him like an arrogant fool… those few that did look at him, at least.
“I…” Artur closed his eyes. “Hah. I see. Now that Argrave’s made promises, you think I’m useless to you. You won’t care if my services are blocked to you, because you’ve found someone else to offer sweet things. You’ve been waiting for a moment like this to finally toss me aside.”
“If you cooperate, you can learn all you need to advance with us,” suggested Castro. “You know enchantments better than anyone. You can learn what Argrave offers first and change with the times. Whether the tide is high or low, you must keep swimming. You must know this, having endured all you have.”
“You’re wasting your words on an egomaniac,” Moriatran pointed out as Artur opened his mouth to respond.
“Moriatran…” Castro put his palm to his face.
“Forget that. Let him taste his medicine,” Hegazar called out from the back, standing up. “The moron’s been wearing stilts long enough that he’s forgotten he’s not really ten feet tall. It’s about time he knows where he stands, I’d say. And that’s a couple feet shorter than the rest of us.”
Vera and some others laughed, and many others were amused and did not bother to hide it.
“Hegazar.” Castro’s voice echoed out powerfully.
“I’m just kidding about,” Hegazar stepped a little closer until he came to stand with the rest of them. “Look. Argrave—he’s a devious guy, but if you do right by him, he’ll do right by you. He trapped my lady friend over there in a vault: she got over it. Don’t be too upset you got the short end of the stick. Cheer up, little guy.”
Hegazar tried to pat him on the knee as people shook their head at his puns, but Artur’s mantle moved the man aside. When he looked upon Hegazar, Castro, and the rest, his once light-filled eyes were completely dark.
“Don’t get all mad,” Hegazar said, holding his arms out. “You’re just a little more down to earth than the rest of us. No one’s looking down on you, you just have a little growing up to do.”
Vera laughed rancorously, and some others joined her in catharsis. Artur’s eyes scanned the room, unblinking in their stoicism.
When things died down, Artur’s voice spoke up, quiet and monotone. “I’ll accede to Argrave’s request, then.”
Castro stared at the man with dwarfism. He was one of the few who had not laughed. Then, he gave a slow nod. “It’s the right thing.”
Artur only stared. He watched Castro and all others in the room, as though burning them to memory.