Prince Nenvari Esreth marched down one of the elegant palace corridors, this one trimmed with gold vines and studded with diamonds. Every now and then he’d pass a statue, a painting or a mirror. One such mirror caught his attention as his countenance within it appeared flushed. On his forehead, a vein throbbed making his most regal face a study in anger. Like this, he couldn’t confront his father and stepmother. He took several moments to hide his fury, and decided on how to best make an entrance. Using spells he created a massive cloud around himself and threw open the doors. He stepped through the cloud and fog billowed out in front of him as he paced to the center of the room and presented himself. A few of the queen’s fairies-in-waiting fluttered off to the side. He sent them a discreet wink.
The private council room was warm and scented lightly of persimmons. The white marble floors had recently been waxed. Several comfortable sitting pillows had been arranged with decadence in mind and a few of the more trusted courtiers lounged upon them. The only chairs were two crystal thrones where the king and queen sat.
Apparently, his entrance bored them since his stepmother leaned in and whispered to his father. The king laughed and she ran a finger down his cheek. He kissed her gently.
Nenvari could tell, by how his father didn’t immediately stop and appear regal that she had him enthralled. How she’d done it when the palace was on a constant vigil for any nefarious use of charm spells or other mind-altering magics, he had no notion.
It took a moment longer than he preferred but he curved his lips into a polite smile as if he wasn’t raging within. He clenched his fist but hid it behind a fold of his robes. When he opened his mouth to speak his father held up one finger. Further proof of enthrallment.
Too fast that he almost didn’t pick it up a sour scent wafted through the room and disappeared.
No, he had only imagined it. The sight of his father kissing that woman made him want to regurgitate and could have easily accounted for the scent. Instead of a spell, despite how disgusting he thought it, they might share true love.
King Zoichenrei finished the kiss then turned forward to face him.
“We shall activate Project Cold Steel. It is decided.”
“That project is an abomination that should be cast into a rancid ditch. Earlier this month, you agreed.”
“That is in the past, my son.”
“Shall I further convince you to desist with this inappropriate mission? If you give me enough time I believe I can.”
His father sighed, probably at his use of questions. “Other countries have created and succeeded with similar plans in the past.”
“Never to the extent Queen Fedreicio has requested! I cannot let our kingdom be responsible for thousands of—”
“We need thousands of mages if we’re to survive the next attack from the light fae.”
Nenvari had a moment of doubt. But only a moment. “Regardless, taking this many children from their homes who will not understand what will inevitably happen to them? It is fundamentally wrong.”
Queen Fedreicio shot him a too concerned smile. “Don’t worry, son. The game I propose—“
“Nothing you propose—”
King Zoichenrei tapped his nail against his armrest. A very quiet sound but it commanded attention from all around him, even Nenvari.
“You shall listen to your mother.”
Nenvari clenched his teeth ever so slightly. She wasn’t his mother.
Fedreicio nodded to her husband and continued. “The game I propose shall keep the children safe in their world. It will challenge their perceptions, intelligence and their ability to discern for themselves so only those with sufficient aptitude can reach the unbeatable last obstacle.”
“Nothing is unbeatable.”
“We have our ways to guarantee this.”
Zoichenrei nodded happily. “If we give them all infinite chances to defeat the game, it will allow us to send in an overpowered opponent for the final challenge.”
“And what in that statement makes stealing children and forcing them to fight for us sound like a moral thing to do?”
“We’re not asking them to fight while they’re children. We’ll need to spend years training them. And human children grow fast.”
“That does not change the facts.”
Fedreicio scratched her black nails down her crystal armrest. “Prince Nenvari, Fae have always enjoyed a changeling child every now and then.”
Zoichenrei patted her hand. “Let him be. He has a fondness for humans.”
The queen’s eyes darted to the king briefly, which was as much of an expression of shock as he’d ever seen on the witch’s face. She had good reason to be surprised since his father never hinted at Nenvari’s human mother.
“You think you’re correct because our kind has taken children in the past? Can you say even one thing that sounds like a fine idea?”
His father glared at him. “My spies have seen movement from the Light Fae leadership in Seirei Vohinthaslan. We have maybe 10 years before they attack us and start another war. And we’re still recovering from the last conflict. If you have a solution that is better than Project Cold Steel, state it now.”
“Why can we not hire mercenaries from the kingdoms that we have alliances with and post them along our kingdom’s entrances?”
The king's eyes sharpened. “Hiring mercenaries will show our weakness to other kingdoms. We also lack sufficient funds to hire the forces we need.”
The queen frowned. “Even if 10 years pass we will still have inadequate coinage. But Project Cold Steel will solve both of these problems.”
Nenvari stopped himself from narrowing his eyes at his stepmother and instead stared at the heavy emerald necklace that coiled around her long neck and rose a telling brow. “It is curious how impressive coffers could be depleted in such a short amount of time.”
Her eyes flashed with anger and her lips turned upward into a false smile. “It has gone to rebuilding the nation.”
His father cleared his throat, a warning to Nenvari if he’d ever heard one. “Son, the time for your daily training arrives.”
He knew when he was being dismissed. “I take my leave. But I ask that you reconsider or as the heir I shall call upon the Law of Optimal Design.”
The queen sucked in a breath.
“To use your thousand year veto… But they’re only human. And we’ll treat the children far better than what they receive within their world.”
“Only for a short amount of time. Then we’d force them to repay our kindness with their lives. Can you truly not see how unacceptable this is?”
The king frowned. “We’ll discuss this further, later.”
Nenvari bowed deeply to his father and barely to his stepmother before he left the room.
Nenvari, now dressed in lightweight robes with minimal armor used his sword to bash through 10 wooden dummies. He cast magic to repair them, a spell similar to the one reapers used to bring people back from the dead, and used the magic spell Cleanliness to remove the sweat and dirt from his body. A long-legged messenger, dressed in red and gold livery scuttled up to him and handed over a letter with the queen’s seal. He broke it, frowned at the message calling him to a meeting and nodded to the courier. It bowed and crawled away.
He hadn’t expected to meet her so soon, but he should have. By saying he would use his veto power, he had thrown her an ultimatum.
Nenvari changed for the occasion into white robes that had magic flowing through them. They were half aesthetic and half a defense against charm based spells. At this point, he was certain the two merely doted on each other, but suspicion was what kept him alive this long, so he planned to heed it.
Since these were private chambers and not a council room he nodded to the herald statue next to the door. It melted like liquid gold and flew into the room through the cracks.
Five minutes later he still stood behind the door. This was an obvious ploy to show the Queen’s power over him. He refused to let it affect him and instead used the time to decide his opening moves.
The door swung inward and he strode into the middle of her receiving room as if he owned it.
The queen sat in a comfortable chair and gestured for him to take the opposite seat. After scanning the room magically for traps he did so.
“And when have I ever given you permission to call me that?”
Hurt crossed over her eyes, a subtle manipulation.
The metal herald appeared by her side and whispered to her. She nodded and the door opened once more to a maid wheeling in a tea cart. The girl served them both tea, bowed and left.
It smelled of suspicious herbs. He didn’t dare touch it.
With his lips turned up in a practiced smile that held a tinge of anger, he stared at her. She could have waited for the tea to arrive, but instead purposefully had it interrupt their conversation to keep him from getting too comfortable.
She took a sip of her tea.
“We haven’t always seen eye to eye, but we both want what’s best for this country.”
“It’s no secret that I adore my kingdom, and wish it the best. You, on the other hand, seem to keep your love well hidden.”
“You must understand, I too wish this country well. It is my home now, and the most beautiful place Under the Hill. That is why I think we can find some common ground if we talk out our issues here and now. If by the end of this conversation you don’t agree with me I will drop the project and work towards finding some other way to save Goraitheshselan.”
He stopped himself from narrowing his eyes at her offer. It smelled of schemes and ploys. “And in return for this conversation loaded with obvious pinecone presents?”
Her brow twitched. “If you keep an open mind to the possibilities you may not even need to use your veto.”
What must have been hours later, Nenvari returned to his almost bare chambers. He rubbed his temple. His head pulsed with pain but that was the side effect of the mind-blowing conversation he’d had.
How could he have been so wrong? Her exact phrasing was lost to him, but essentially she’d pointed out that doing a wrong for the few was right if it helped the many.
She also had received some disturbing news from her spies that the Light Fae might come a few years sooner than expected. If they did, Goraitheshselan needed those mages and soldiers to fight for them. The only way to do that would be to start training immediately. If he could turn back time by several years he would do so!
He regretted it, but Project Cold Steel was their only way forward. To prove his commitment to it he’d even agreed to become the game’s last enemy. This also gave him the noble goal of being his nation’s first line of defense if their foes found the way into the kingdom through the mine. He should have agreed to meet her much sooner. To think of all the time wasted!