The cold winter following the solstice held Middanhal in its grasp. There was no market at the Temple square; anyone forced to be outside spent no more time on the streets than necessary. Despite the frost, the Citadel was as busy as ever, especially in the dragonlord’s wing. The antechamber was full each day of people seeking audience. Eolf, servant to the dragonlord, entered the room from deeper inside the wing. “Master Edwin, his lordship will see you now,” he announced. Groans could be heard from the rest as the rotund alderman got on his feet and followed Eolf.
Entering the dragonlord’s study, Edwin found Konstans sitting behind a desk with his head buried in papers. “Sit,” the latter commanded without looking up. The alderman, his face exhibiting his usual anxiety and discomfort in these situations, did as directed. Hearing the chair crack under Edwin’s weight and still not looking at his visitor, Konstans reached out to turn a small hourglass around. Putting it down on his desk, the sands quickly began flowing through. “State your case swiftly.”
“Yes, milord.” Already, droplets of sweat were beginning to form on the alderman’s brow despite the cold weather. “We – the merchants, that is – are concerned about scarcity.”
“Of what?” Finally, Konstans turned his head level.
“Salt, first and foremost, followed by meat. Since we cannot cure meat as we normally can, it will soon become scarce. Especially as the same must be taking place in Korndale, and we cannot expect them to sell their cattle to us as usual.”
“Because they will keep theirs rather than risk hunger,” the dragonlord realised, nodding his head slightly. “Have you not taken precautions? This is your responsibility.”
“We have, milord,” Edwin hastened to claim. “We are rationing our stores and seeking other means to avoid any shortage of food.”
“So why have you come to me?” Konstans glanced at the hourglass by his side, which had deposited a quarter of its sand.
“Milord, if the law on meat prices is kept in effect, we will have to sell at a loss.”
“I doubt that,” Konstans spoke with a scoffing sound.
“We will only be able to buy it at exorbitant prices,” the alderman continued his claim. “Furthermore, as we cannot salt it, we must sell it as swiftly as it is butchered. If we are allowed to raise the sales price, we can both afford buying more animals and also delay butchering.”
“Not to mention allow for a tidy profit, I am sure.”
“Milord,” Edwin exclaimed in a protesting manner.
“Allowing the price on food to soar is not lightly done,” Konstans declared. He eyed the hourglass that was more than halfway through its journey. “Do you have no other avenues to explore?”
“The royal treasury could reimburse the merchants for selling their goods at a price,” Edwin suggested cautiously.
“What would that cost?”
“Who could know for sure?” The alderman attempted an anxious smile.
“You would not mention it unless you had calculated the cost to the last copper coin,” Konstans claimed coldly.
“Nothing above thirty-five crowns, I assure you, milord.”
Edwin licked his lips. “A week.”
Konstans raised an eyebrow. “I want you to write those calculations upon paper and deliver to me.”
“Of course, milord. I should hope to leave today with a decision, however,” he ventured to say, eyeing the hourglass on the table. It would not last much longer. “Surely there is no harm in allowing the price per pound to be raised by two eagles? Only in case it becomes necessary,” he hastened to say.
Konstans also glanced at the hourglass. “For the next month only. The price return to the fixed amount once the Raven Days have ended.”
“Very well, milord,” Edwin acknowledged with a bowed head.
The hourglass dropped its final grain of sand. “Deliver those numbers to me and seek another audience a week after that. You are dismissed.”
“Yes, milord.” The alderman rose and gave a bow. Konstans already had his head in the pieces of parchment before him and paid no further heed as Eolf led Edwin out.
Although the jarl of Theodstan kept a house in Middanhal as behoved a man of his position, he and his entourage dwelt at the Citadel in spacious rooms that almost constituted a wing of the castle on its own. This time a year, a strong fire burned merrily in the hearth of the parlour, where the jarl’s sister held court with her friends and attendants. Most of them sat busy with embroidery, in particular the handmaidens, though one of them was reading a book aloud to Theodwyn, who sat with her eyes closed. Arndis was an exception, playing chess against the jarl’s servant, Holwyn, who was dressed like any other female servant. Eleanor with her customary veil was fiddling with a needle, though not making much progress and constantly pulling up the threads she put in.
Theodwyn raised a hand to silence the servant reading to her. “If that needle does not suit your purposes, dear, I am happy to lend you another,” she stated, afterwards opening her eyes to look at Eleanor.
“No need, my lady,” the other woman replied subserviently. “The needle is fine.”
“Then I pray you put it to proper use.” This was spoken sternly as an admonishment.
“Of course, my lady.”
Holwyn sent a raised eyebrow at Arndis sitting across her. “There should be post arriving today,” the latter explained in a hushed voice. “Dispatches from Hæthiod tend to arrive on the second and fourth Hamarday.”
“Personal letters are given lowest priority and distributed last, however,” Eleanor exclaimed, biting her lips immediately afterwards and glancing at Theodwyn.
“Patience is a virtue,” the jarl’s sister remarked without looking at anyone in particular. “It is not becoming for a lady to chase correspondence either. It will arrive when it arrives.”
“I am no lady,” Holwyn admitted with cheek. “I could walk to the hall of records and enquire after the latest dispatch.”
A smile appeared on Eleanor’s face, visible even through her veil, and vanished as she glanced at Theodwyn. “That will not be necessary,” the Hæthian lady spoke meekly.
“I wish a handsome knight was writing letters to me from the front,” a young handmaiden said with a dreaming voice.
“You wish nothing of the sort, Alyssa,” Theodwyn corrected her. “Perhaps if your mind was more disciplined, your horse would not resemble a bloated sheep.” The reproached handmaiden quickly glanced down at her embroidery with flushed cheeks while the other women hid their smiles and giggles.
“I would not mind a letter from a knight such as Sir William,” Holwyn declared brazenly, making Eleanor blush.
“That is because despite my best efforts, impressing manners upon you was like trying to dye black wool. It simply would not take,” Theodwyn told her pointedly.
“I am happy to be a black sheep,” Holwyn grinned.
“Besides,” the jarl’s sister continued, “there will be no news of interest from Hæthiod as long as it is winter. War is like a bear. It hibernates. Nothing will be happening until it is spring again.”
“And then the bear goes in search of bees? Do bees mean knights in this image?” Holwyn asked with an innocent look.
“Do not be silly, girl,” Theodwyn scoffed.
“I suspect that in this gathering, knights are more like honey,” Holwyn mused.
“Enough,” Theodwyn exclaimed, though there was no real edge in her voice, and her servant did not look chastised. “It may sound like a pretty tune, knights in war, but the truth is they are doing nothing but sitting in camp and whiling away the time. If you need further encouragement to think of something else, let me tell you that an army camp is a breeding ground for vermin.”
This immediately made several of the women look uneasy, in turn giving Theodwyn a satisfied expression. Holwyn immediately seized upon this new topic. “You refer to rats scurrying around inside the tents? Lice on every man’s head? Or is vermin another of your images and it really refer to the camp followers, the women of dubious –”
“Thank you!” This time, Theodwyn’s voice was sharp enough to cut steel, and any signs of mirth upon her companions’ faces evaporated. “Instead of entertaining silly notions or making a mockery of our soldiers, you should pray for them. The outlanders are ten times as many as the Order, and we should be happy that winter prevents any battles from being fought. No news is good news.”
The mood became sombre. “But surely,” Alyssa spoke cautiously, “our knights will win no matter who they fight?”
“Of course,” Theodwyn reassured her. “They need only await reinforcements, and victory is certain.”
“Therein lies the problem,” Arndis remarked absentmindedly, her hand hovering over a chess piece.
“What do you mean?” asked Eleanor.
“All available Order soldiers are already in Hæthiod. Sir William and my brother cannot expect any further.”
“Levies can be raised among the noblemen, surely,” Eleanor argued.
“Any left have been sent north against Jarl Isarn,” Arndis countered, moving her hand to another piece. “None of the southern lords will commit troops to fighting in Hæthiod as long as Adalrik is caught in war as well.”
“What of the mercenaries hired by our lord protector? They’ll finish the war against Isarn swiftly and afterwards, they can be sent south,” Holwyn suggested.
Arndis shook her head. “They are too expensive for Jarl Vale to use against the outlanders. Once Jarl Isarn is defeated, they will either be dismissed from service or remain here in Adalrik to strengthen his rule. Why use his own gold to fight the Order’s battles?”
“You think he would abandon Hæthiod?” Eleanor sounded shocked. “He is the lord protector, ruling on behalf of the prince. When the prince is king, Hæthiod will be his subject. Thus, Hæthiod is the responsibility of the lord protector as well.”
“Perhaps, but it is not the responsibility of the jarl of Vale, which I think weighs more heavily,” Arndis replied, finally deciding which piece to move. “Game end.”
Eolf, servant to the dragonlord, appeared in the antechamber once more. As before, the sight of him raised eyes and hopes. He extended a gesture towards an old man in undyed robes, who rose to follow the servant, leaving disappointment behind.
“The quartermaster has come to see you as bidden,” Eolf told his master.
“Have a seat,” Konstans offered, adding a few scribbles to the paper before depositing his quill in its inkwell. “I have summoned you to discuss the execution of your duties. Or rather, the dereliction of same.”
The quartermaster of the Order, well into his seventies, gave a sardonic smile. “At least you offered me a seat before hurling insults at me. I may be old, but my mind is stronger than my knees, and neither need any rest.” He remained standing with a defiant expression.
“In other words, it is not because you misunderstand your duties,” Konstans spoke coldly. “You simply refuse to attend to them appropriately.”
“I have served the Order in my position for nigh on twenty years.” The reply was spoken with an icy tone equal to the dragonlord’s. “In that time, I have not let one bag of flour go missing, one dagger be unaccounted for. If there is the slightest discrepancy with the men or material supplied for any campaign of the Order, it will not have happened at the Citadel.”
“Yet supplies are not going north the siege camp at Grenwold, but south towards Hæthiod. Even though you were specifically instructed to do so.”
“I serve the Order and its marshals. You have no authority to instruct me.” There was sneer in the old man’s voice.
“You give me no choice but to have you forcibly removed from your position, as you are not fit to fulfil it,” Konstans threatened.
“Who will remove me? Your sell-swords and hired brigands? An attack on me is an attack on the Order itself, here in its very heart. I cannot imagine you would be so foolish.” The quartermaster gave an impatient sigh. “I have duties to attend to. I take my position most seriously, Lord Konstans, as does every one of the Order’s soldiers in the Citadel.”
Konstans watched with frustration as the other man left, anger leaving a mark on his face. “Eolf,” he called out curtly. The servant quickly materialised. “Tell the captain of the Citadel I wish to see him tomorrow. No more supplicants for the next hour.” The servant bowed and made himself scarce again.
Unlike the permanent quarters for the dragonlord, there were no such provisions for the position of lord protector, being so rarely needed. Instead, the jarl of Vale had been given chambers that a guest of his prominence would typically receive at the Citadel. In another contrast to his brother, Valerian was not receiving petitioners; any seeking the lord protector were told to request audience with the dragonlord instead. This allowed the jarl solitude for the most part, surrounded by his books and ledgers. The only other people in this wing of the castle were his family, the most trusted servants, and a strong contingent of his personal guards.
The jarlinna, pregnant for several months now, had on numerous occasions expressed her desire to live elsewhere than the cold walls of the Citadel. As the jarl’s house in Middanhal had been nearly destroyed during Isarn’s occupation, it was not a possibility. While Valcaster would be more pleasant during the winter months, Valerian had expressed his fervent wish that his wife give birth in Middanhal and not in Valcaster, where news would take weeks to reach him. As a consequence, Alexandra made her discomfort known to her surroundings often, thereby ensuring they shared her plight and further prompting Valerian to seclude himself in his study.
Seated in that room, the jarl’s quill was scribbling away, as it was on any other day. Numbers were compared, added and subtracted, underlined and finished with a swirl. Sometimes the jarl was humming to himself, sometimes his face made a frown as numbers and figures did not initially align, but they always yielded to him once he finished his calculations.
There was a knock on the door. “Enter,” Valerian called out; he enjoyed his solitude to such an extent, there was not even a servant in the room with him to attend to his needs or answer the door. A young woman entered. In terms of facial features, she had little in common with the man sitting behind the writing desk, taking after her mother instead. Despite the dissimilarities, they were father and daughter. Valerian looked up. “Yes?”
“How are your numbers?” Valerie asked, slipping inside and closing the door behind her.
“Bigger than last year,” her father replied with uncharacteristic dryness. “But you came here to ask me something else. What do you need?”
“I was considering taking Alexandra to the Temple. See what the greenrobes have left in their stores. The winter is making Alexandra look pale, and a little red mixture for her cheeks would brighten her appearance. If you approve?”
“Fine by me,” the jarl muttered, his head already bent over the papers again.
“A change of surroundings might be beneficial for her as well,” Valerie continued.
“Take a carriage. It is too far for her to walk,” her father instructed her.
“We shall,” she promised, opening the door to the study. Although her query had been answered, she remained in the doorway, however, hesitantly. “I was wondering, Father.”
“What will happen to the Isarn prisoners?”
The sound of Valerian’s feather pen scratching over paper ceased. He looked up. “They are traitors and rebels. The only punishment is execution.”
“For all of them?”
“Perhaps leniency will be granted to those of lesser status. Those who captained this rebellion will lose their heads,” Valerian stated with a flat tone of voice as if discussing his calculations.
“I see.” Valerie’s voice was equally toneless.
“Is something the matter, my child?” He deposited his quill into its inkwell.
“Are you nervous about the wedding?”
“There is no shame in that. You will not only become a wife, but a queen. This is the best possible match I could ever hope to secure for you.”
“I know, Father.”
“Good.” Valerian smiled, taking hold of his feather pen again, soon scribbling numbers again.
A youth in rich garments walked brashly into Konstans’ study, almost pushing Eolf out of the way.
“Prince Hardmar, milord,” the servant quickly muttered, stepping aside. “I will inform the envoy he must wait.”
Konstans raised his head but did not have time to speak before the prince did. “I make this appearance as a courtesy, which I will not repeat. I am your prince, and you will not summon me in this fashion again.” Hardmar’s voice was swinging like a pendulum between angry and icy. Behind him came his guard, Berimund, captain of the kingthanes.
Konstans sheathed his feather pen in its inkwell. “I made a polite request, my prince, that you would see me. I am attending to matters pertaining to your kingdom, after all, and in service to it.” In contrast, Konstans spoke with politeness, although tinged with distance.
“Precisely. My kingdom. In the future, you will come to me.”
“Of course, my prince,” Konstans conceded. “If you will allow me to address the matter at hand.”
“Yes, be swift about it.”
Nothing about Konstans’ demeanour revealed that he was affected by this show of condescension. “I thought we should determine the date for the wedding.”
“Between yourself and my niece,” the dragonlord explained patiently. “The end of the Raven Days seem a fitting time for a celebration, and we can formalise the union between our houses.”
Hardmar frowned. “That is far too soon. We have not even announced it at the Adalthing.”
“The Adalthing is six months away,” Konstans pointed out. “We can have the town criers announce it within the next few days. That gives an engagement period of almost three months.”
“Three months,” Hardmar scoffed. “I am the future king! You would disgrace me with such a short engagement?”
“That was not at all my intent to imply,” Konstans argued calmly. “A wedding between the two most powerful houses will signal stability and bring to mind thoughts of a prosperous future.”
“I will announce my betrothal to your niece at the Adalthing, as is proper,” the prince declared. “If she cannot wait that long, she is free to marry a man of lesser worth,” Hardmar added with a sneer before turning on his heel and marching out. Berimund avoided looking at Konstans and followed his master in leaving.
Konstans watched the prince leave. Taking a deep breath, he dipped his quill in ink and continued writing.
The number of Order soldiers in Middanhal was considerably below full strength, having yet to replenish its ranks after most of the men marched south to Hæthiod for the campaign. The garrison still manned the Citadel and walked the streets of Middanhal, but the sentinels on the walls were spread thin, and the patrols were infrequent.
This left plenty of room in the barracks for soldiers wearing tabards of other colours. Some had the golden spirals on red that signified the House of Vale. Others wore colours and symbols hitherto unseen in Middanhal, such as a green surcoat upon which a crimson bird of prey spread its wings. These men were the mercenary company known as Red Hawks. Such companies whose only loyalty was to gold were viewed with disdain in Adalmearc, and the Hawks had sailed from as far away as Alcázar to serve the jarl of Vale and bolster his forces. Despite their base being beyond Adalmearc, many men of the company hailed from the Seven Realms, however, making for a motley band, and the Nordspeech of the Realms was heard among them as often as the trade speech of Alcázar.
Most of the Hawks, including their captain, had been sent north for the siege of Grenwold Castle, but a few hundred remained in Middanhal to support the lord protector. They spent their time as all soldiers did, exchanging silver for beverages, games, and company. The cold weather might temper their desire to leave the Citadel in search of these distractions, but it could not supress their boredom indefinitely.
In one of the barracks belonging to the Red Hawks, three of their colours returned in the afternoon after such an outing. “Blast this weather!” one of them exclaimed, shaking his cloak. Already, the snow was melting into their clothes, prompting them to quickly remove their outer garments to hang them by the fireplace. All three of them had the appearance common to natives of Alcázar and warmer skies.
Deep, rolling laughter was heard from one of the tables. “You southern boys wouldn’t last a day on the isles.” This proclamation came from a man carving a piece of wood in an almost idle fashion. His skin had an earthly tone to it, much like the men he addressed, but with several coloured markings, which along with the gold ring in his right ear revealed him to be a Dwarf; his other notable features were a neatly combed beard and a missing left ear.
“The isles,” repeated the first soldier while making a face. “You keep running your mouth about how tough life is there, yet I never see you step one foot away from the fireplace.”
“Of course,” the Dwarf laughed on. “That’s what life on the isles taught me. Don’t go outside in bad weather, you fool!”
“It’s going out into the snow or staying in here with you, Jorund,” one of the other soldiers pointed out.
“Fair point,” Jorund admitted, placing his woodcarving on the nearby table and collecting some of the shavings on the ground to throw them into the fire. “Say, while you lads were out, did you get some proper brew to bring back?”
“Just get some from the kitchen,” someone suggested, warming his hands as Jorund began feeding the flames.
“That’s weaker than the milk I had from my mother’s breast,” the Dwarf retorted with a sour expression.
“You remember the taste?” This was spoken with mild surprise and almost no hint of mockery.
“You’re right, Gawad, that does sound odd,” Jorund assented. “Maybe it’s your mother’s milk I remember.”
The other soldier, same height as the Dwarf but with a thin, black beard and both his ears intact, gave a vague smile. “Keep talking that way, and I’ll keep this small keg of ale to myself that I brought back from town.” He spoke Adalspeech with a strong accent yet otherwise flawless.
“Knowing you, that beer was brewed by a horse, I bet,” Jorund grinned.
“Close,” Gawad admitted. “Apparently, it was brewed by a bull.”
The Dwarf’s grin lasted a moment longer until he caught on. “Bull’s brew? You got this from the geolrobes?”
“If that’s what they’re called,” Gawad spoke with a shrug, acting as casual as Jorund was getting excited. He pulled away his cloak from where it was hanging, revealing a cask underneath it. A bull’s head was branded into the wood of the small barrel.
“Gawad, you glorious creature. I’ll pay you one silver a mug,” Jorund promised. He was already licking his lips.
“Maybe it’s all for me,” the other soldier considered. He was quickly surrounded by several men, however, joining the Dwarf’s in demanding or even begging that the keg be opened without delay. Soon, every tankard in the room was full.
Jorund let out a long sigh of pleasure after the first sip. “Now this is how you brew it,” he smiled. Everyone else agreed.
“Did you hear any news?” someone asked of the men who had gone outside. “How’s our boys faring?”
“Siege is slow,” came the reply. The man speaking was thin, but looked lean and tough; along with Gawad, he had organised the acquisition of ale, and currently he sat counting the silvers this had brought him. “I’m guessing our new masters don’t want to pay us for our dead, so they’re not going to storm them, but starve them out.”
“Sieges are the best,” came a content sigh. “We get pay for being employed, but don’t have to do any fighting.”
“Yeah, right until our employer gets tired of waiting and sends us all up on the walls to die in an assault.” This was spoken with a derisive snort by the coin-counting soldier, and several other Hawks followed it up, giving their assent.
“Jerome is right. I’d rather be here,” Jorund declared, “even if we’re not getting active pay. If you think it’s cold here, imagine lying in those tents with just the rats for company.” A handful of murmurs voiced their agreement.
“We heard other news,” Gawad weighed in. “About your home, wasn’t it, Jerome?”
The lank soldier stopped his counting, putting his silver away in a pocket deep inside his tunic. “That’s right. Those Order lads took Tothmor. All the town criers are yelling it.”
“Tothmor? I didn’t know it was under siege,” the Dwarf frowned.
“It wasn’t,” Jerome shook his head. “It seems the boys in black got themselves a good captain.”
“Not as good as Captain Bassel,” someone declared loudly, making everyone raise their mugs in cheers.
“I’ll drink to that!”
Gawad looked at Jorund, whose ale remained motionless in front of him. “Something troubling you?” he asked.
“Cities like Tothmor don’t fall without a siege,” the Dwarf muttered, barely audible through the clamour of the other soldiers’ voices. “Things are going to change now, one way or the other. Question is if they will change for us or pass us by.” He finally looked at Gawad, gave a shrug, and emptied his mug.
Towards the end of the day, Eolf entered his master’s study. “Milord, the envoy from Ealond is still waiting.”
Konstans looked up abruptly, muttering to himself and stroking his forehead. “Send him in,” he finally declared, pouring a cup of wine for himself. As the door opened, he turned the small hourglass on his desk before looking at his visitor.
The man entering was clad in bright colours describing intricate patterns. He was a stark contrast to the highborn drakonians or their servants, whose garments were typically a single colour with an emblem upon it.
“Master Guilbert, milord, servant to the duke of Belvoir,” Eolf announced and retired.
“Have a seat, Master Guilbert,” Konstans offered. “You have come a long way to see me.”
The envoy made an elaborate bow. “It is but a short distance for an audience with a man of your import.” He remained standing with a smile; having waited all day did not seem to have dampened his spirits in any way.
There was a moment of silence, where Guilbert looked at the dragonlord expectantly, while Konstans glanced at the hourglass swiftly disgorging grains of sand. “What brings your master to send an emissary to Middanhal?” he finally asked.
“My master, Duke Gaspard of Belvoir, sends his cordial greetings and wishes to convey his deepest pleasure at your ascension to your current and most rightful position,” Guilbert declared with a fluent stream of words as if reciting a poetry from memory, adding another small bow. The smile had so far not faltered from his face for even the briefest of moments.
“His courtesy is appreciated,” Konstans replied. “I assume that is not all he wishes to convey?”
“Most astute, my lord,” Guilbert remarked, finally sitting down. “As the rest of Adalmearc, the duke has been watching events unfold in Adalrik and Hæthiod with anxious eyes. The Order must fight two wars, and their strength is greatly weakened in Ealond, for instance.”
Konstans’ eyes narrowed. “The Order will be victorious, as it always is. Besides, the lord protector has added his own forces to theirs, including the renowned Red Hawks. The war in the North will come to a swift conclusion, I assure you.”
“Yes, the Red Hawks,” Guilbert repeated contemplatively. “Order soldiers, Vale soldiers, mercenaries. All the warriors you could possibly gather to fight these wars. There cannot be any left,” he added with a smile.
“The coffers of the jarl of Vale are deep,” Konstans retorted. “Add the treasury of Adalrik to this, and you will find we have enough gold to fight twenty wars.”
“Gold, I do not doubt,” the envoy assented. “But soldiers can only be hired if there are soldiers to hire,” he continued, and his smile seemed a challenge. “If the lands are empty, no one can fight for you.”
“As long as there is gold in this world, you can find a man willing to swing a sword for it,” the dragonlord replied dryly.
“Perhaps. Even so, allies willing to fight by your side, not for gold but for friendship’s sake, must be welcome.”
Konstans gave the other man a scrutinising gaze. “Is Duke Gaspard offering his aid?”
“In more ways than one. It grieves my master to inform you that you cannot trust King Rainier to uphold the high king’s peace.” Guilbert’s smile was dropped in favour of a concerned expression.
“What proof does Duke Gaspard have of this?” Konstans’ voice was steady, but his eyes stared at the envoy.
“The king has told his vassals to make certain preparations. Prepare the stores of war such as filling the armouries, ensuring food supplies, making a count of able-bodied men and so forth,” Guilbert listed. “Unless King Rainier has arranged this with your lordship, and you are already aware of what is happening in Ealond?”
“It is not by arrangement with me,” Konstans admitted, barely moving his lips. “Does the duke have any material proof that King Rainier plots war?”
“Nothing in writing or similar, alas.” Guilbert’s face was appropriately regretful. “Every one of the king’s subjects knows it to be true, but unless someone dares speak up first, none of them will risk being singularly disloyal.”
Konstans took a deep breath and exhaled through his nose. “Does the duke know exactly what King Rainier intends?”
“On this, the king has revealed nothing. However, both Herbergja and Tricaster have been targets for the kings of Ealond in the past, and either city seems likely.”
“Tricaster is across the border from Belvoir,” Konstans pointed out. “If King Rainier seeks to expand his lands to include that city, he might add it to your master’s duchy. I can only imagine a man as shrewd as your duke has considered this.”
“My lord, I am shaken that you would insinuate Duke Gaspard would take advantage of such an unlawful situation.” Guilbert’s voice was indignant. “Breaking the peace of Adalmearc in order to seize the lands of Korndale and bring them under his own rule, it is unthinkable for an honourable man such as the duke!”
“But not unthinkable for King Rainier,” Konstans added with a sardonic smile.
“Indeed not.” Guilbert’s face quickly became sorrowful.
The dragonlord licked his lips. “You may inform your master of my gratitude for delivering this intelligence.”
Guilbert inclined his head. “Duke Gaspard is prepared to do more. As the foremost noblemen of the realm, he feels it is his duty to take action.”
“What sort of action is he planning to take?” Konstans’ expression bordered on suspicious.
“The duke is bound in loyalty to King Rainier, of course,” the emissary began to say. “However, both dukes and kings are bound in loyalty to the Dragon Throne of Adalrik above all. If the king has broken his fealty, it is the duty of those still loyal to amend the situation.” Each word in the last sentence was spoken with the utmost care.
Konstans carefully stroked his chin. “Only the Order has such authority. I cannot condone or command your master to take such drastic steps.”
“In normal times, the Order would be strong enough to dissuade King Rainier from even attempting. Yet the lord marshal is dead and cannot intervene, and there are none others to command the Order to action.”
“What of the marshal of Ealond? If he is made aware of this, it is his duty to step in.”
A sarcastic smile made a brief appearance on Guilbert’s face. “All of Sir Martel’s forces in Fontaine have been sent east except for some hundred. There cannot be more than a few thousand Order troops in all of Ealond. The good marshal is powerless to stop King Rainier.”
“Moving against the king,” Konstans spoke slowly, each word chosen with care, “especially when our cause could be considered insubstantial, is an extreme measure to take. Should the duke do this, he will be seen as a usurper.”
“The alternative is worse,” argued Guilbert. “King Rainier is ambitious, and he is young. If this attempt at expanding his power is thwarted, but nothing else is done, he will simply wait for the next opportunity. And the next, and the next.”
“Even so.” Konstans tapped his fingers on the table idly. “Without the proper authority, without real evidence, any action taken could cause as much harm as it would prevent. Merely by sending this message, Duke Gaspard is risking the wrath of his liege.”
“Which is why, should any ask, I am here to propose a union between your son and my master’s eldest daughter.” Guilbert’s smile swiftly made its return.
Konstans displayed a brief, emotionless smile. “The House of Vale is flattered and will consider your master’s proposal.” The dragonlord gave Guilbert an inspecting glance. “He must place a great deal of trust in you to convey such a proposal.”
“I am proud to carry out the duke’s tasks, though I am the most humble of emissaries.” Guilbert gestured towards himself. “A simple servant whose father’s name is not his to speak and the least worthy member of his lordship’s household. Thus, should I reveal anything spoken between my master and your lordship, my testimony would hold no value. You are both noblemen of the highest birth, whereas I am lower than commonborn.”
Konstans leaned back in his seat, his fingers playing the stem of his wine cup. “What exactly is your master asking of me?”
“A pledge between your house and his. If not symbolised by union through marriage, then through other means such as a treaty,” Guilbert explained.
“What would this pledge entail?”
“Duke Gaspard pledges himself to your cause and your wars. As you pledge yourself to him.”
“Such a treaty might be misconstrued as our approval of any unlawful actions taken by the duke,” Konstans pointed out. His eyes, formerly resting on his cup, rose to meet Guilbert’s.
“Surely none would be so crass as to assume that. My master merely requires your written pledge to prove to the nobles of Ealond that Adalrik is our friend.”
Konstans began tapping his desk again. “This is not a matter lightly decided.”
Guilbert nodded. “I will remain in Middanhal until the Raven Days have ended. It will not be pleasant to travel until the new year, regardless.”
“I will summon you once a decision has been made,” Konstans declared and rose.
Guilbert stood up as well. “Very well, my lord.” The envoy paused before he spoke again. “Remember, Lord Konstans, that if you agree to lend your support, in return you gain not only the assistance of Belvoir, but all of Ealond.”
The dragonlord merely gave a brief nod and rang a bell standing on his table. His servant quickly appeared. “Show Master Guilbert the way out,” Konstans told Eolf, who did as ordered.
Once alone, Konstans sank down into his seat. He glanced at the hourglass by his side, whose sands had long since run out.