Beyond the Price of Gold
“We need the remaining Hawks to be put to active duty,” Konstans said firmly. He was sitting in his brother’s study in the Citadel.
“You have access to the royal treasury same as I,” Valerian pointed out. He was seated at his desk, adding pen strokes to his accounts.
“Other expenses can be paid by the treasury, but not the mercenaries. They fight under the banner of those that pay them. We do not want them to consider Adalrik rather than Vale to be their patrons, should loyalties ever become conflicted.”
“I have already sunk a hundred crowns into buying their contract for the siege,” Valerian complained. “It will cost at least ten, maybe twenty more to retain the remainder of the Hawks.”
Konstans glanced at the ledgers on the table between them. “Your books seem full. I wager you can afford it.”
“I do not see your reasoning. Despite dwindled numbers, the Order can garrison Middanhal without help.”
“The issue is not whether they can, but whether we wish it so,” Konstans argued. “This city and this castle is defended by soldiers who are not loyal to us. We narrowly avoided disaster when Isarn seized the city. Should the Order turn against us, our position will be even worse with our armies becoming trapped in the north.”
Valerian wore a sceptical look. “We are the rightful rulers of the realm as confirmed by the Adalthing. Why would the Order ever turn against us?”
“Their leadership is in tatters with both the lord marshal and the knight marshal dead. Captain Theobald is headstrong and unlikely to take orders from us. As for the Order’s commanders, one has already committed treason, and the rest may not be more trustworthy.”
“Athelstan was a traitor, true, but in chains he can cause no further harm. As for the others, we have no reason to doubt their loyalty or honour.”
“Alwood is impulsive, unreliable – who can tell what goes on in his mind? The Arnling boy clearly has grand designs, given how he has the town criers announce his victory at Tothmor. With the realm weakened, what if one of them decides to march against us?”
“Konstans, you see enemies where there are only shadows,” Valerian claimed.
“Better than closing my eyes until the enemies are at our throats,” Konstans retorted. “Arnling is dragonborn and a successful commander. That combination holds great sway over drakonians. Or what if some old veterans still hold fondness for Athelstan and decide to free him? I do not fear Isarn led by Isenhart, but this war could be prolonged tenfold if Athelstan were allowed to return.”
Valerian gave a sigh. “Very well. But I will negotiate the price myself. These Hawks have fleeced me enough.”
There was a quick knock on the door, and a servant opened it without waiting for permission. The breach of etiquette made the jarl frown, but the servant spoke before he could be reprimanded. “The jarlinna is in labour, milord.”
Alexandra’s bedchamber was nearby. As Valerian and Konstans hastened down the hallway, they found the door closed, but muffled sounds of agony could be heard; in front of the room, several servants had gathered in excitement or in concern. Most knew how the previous jarlinna had met her fate.
“Has the sibyls been summoned? Away, you imbeciles!” Valerian shouted as he approached, parting the servants like a ship through the sea. He was about to throw himself against the door when his brother seized him by the shoulder and held him back.
“Collect yourself!” Konstans commanded. “The sibyls have been here for days already in anticipation of this event. They are already attending to your wife, and your presence would only disturb. Your place is out here. Now sit.”
Valerian gave a bewildered look at his brother until the latter’s words sank in, and the jarl found himself a seat. “Of course, the sibyls are already here. I forgot.”
“You,” Konstans told a servant, “bring a bottle of brandy. Someone fetch my son. The rest of you, be gone! This is no spectacle for you to gander at.” Quickly, the servants dispersed, either before Konstans’ harsh tone or to do his bidding.
“I forgot about the sibyls,” Valerian mumbled. “I have not been thinking about Alexandra for days. My own wife.”
“Be calm, Brother. This is not like last time.”
“I should have seen her, spoken with her,” the jarl muttered to no one in particular. “It could be too late.”
Konstans glanced down the hallway in the direction of the servants he had dispatched. “A strong drink will help you.”
Konstantine arrived first, staring at his father and his uncle. “What am I supposed to do?” he asked meekly.
“Sit and wait,” Konstans told him. The brandy arrived soon after, and Konstans put a cup in his brother’s hand. “This will keep you steady.” He gave another cup to his son, took a third for himself, and tasted a small sip.
Konstantine smelled the liquid, frowned, took a sip, and pulled a face. By his side, Valerian emptied his cup absent-mindedly, keeping his eyes on the door to the jarlinna’s bedroom.
No clock measured the hours. The passage of time was punctuated by outbursts of pain reaching the men outside the bedchamber. At some point, Valerian paced in circles before resuming sitting down with a blank stare, his reverie only broken by another cry beyond the door. Konstans sat placid, neither words nor expression revealing his thoughts. Konstantine was gnawing on his lower lip, shifting his gaze between his father and his uncle.
The door burst open, preceded by an infant’s cries. Sister Adilah stood in the doorway, looking around the room until she located Valerian. “My lord, you have a son,” the norn declared.
Valerian leapt to his feet, followed by his relatives. “My wife?” he asked with a croaking voice.
“She is well. Come, see for yourself.”
The norn stepped back into the room, allowing Valerian to stride past her. Inside, he found Alexandra in her bed, looking exhausted. Other women were present as well. Valerie, his daughter, seemed pale but smiling nonetheless. Mathilde, his brother’s wife, had a blank expression. Two other norns were also present, an acolyte and an initiated priestess. The latter had just emptied a small flacon, and she held a bundle in her arms.
“Born to rising sun, gold in hair and hand, the fountain will never dry,” the priestess spoke with half-closed eyes. Peering in from the doorway, a servant heard the birth words and quickly scribbled them down on paper kept ready for just this reason.
Sister Adilah crossed the room and snatched the baby out of the other norn’s hands, putting the newborn child onto the ground. Everyone looked expectantly at Valerian, who did not hesitate to pick up the boy and thereby acknowledge him as a member of his house.
“Valerius,” the jarl spoke with gleaming eyes looking at his son, “I give you this name after your grandfather. Valerius, my son, be welcome to the House of Vale!”
The room erupted in cheers. Konstans placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder, congratulating him. Same sentiment was expressed by Konstantine and Valerie.
“How blessed you are,” Mathilde told Alexandra. Despite the nature of her remark, Konstantine’s mother had little fondness in her expression as she watched the jarl place his child in his wife’s arms for the first time.
Holwyn slipped inside the quarters belonging to her master. He was engaged in a game against his sister, who for once was not surrounded by her usual attendants among the court ladies. “Milord, news you should hear,” she spoke. The jarl looked at her expectantly. “The jarlinna of Vale has given birth to a son. The boy seems healthy and strong.”
“Interesting,” Theodoric remarked, stroking the thin beard on his chin. “That should leave Valerian busy.”
“More importantly, the same goes for Konstans. His son is no longer heir to Vale,” Theodwyn added.
“Perhaps a chance to sow discord,” the jarl muttered. “We will need to break their stranglehold over the Adalthing sooner or later. This might be the first rift.”
Holwyn poured some ale for herself and sat down. Theodwyn glanced with an irritated look at Holwyn’s smudged clothing touching the furniture, but restricted her comments to the topic at hand. “Even better if we could drive a wedge between the prince and his lord protector.”
“That will happen on its own, I am sure,” Theodoric said confidently. “Four years with House Vale putting their own needs above those of the kingdom is sure to gall our young prince. He seems headstrong and thus bound to come into conflict with his regents. Once the prince is finally crowned, I bet he will have had enough of Vale.”
“Still, it would not hurt to help such conflict along,” Theodwyn declared pointedly.
“Holebert feels confident he can recruit one of the prince’s chamber servants to be our eyes and ears,” Holwyn told her master.
Theodoric gave an affirming grunt. “Good. It is too soon to approach Ingmond while he grieves his family, but I feel certain that eventually, he will see the wisdom in restricting Vale’s power. We need to wrest the Adalthing from him by the time a new jarl of Isarn is to be appointed.”
“Who do you think Jarl Vale will seek to make the new Isarn?” asked Holwyn curiously.
“If I were him, I would elevate one of my margraves with strong ties to me,” Theodoric contemplated. “A blood relative would be sure to spark outrage. I cannot imagine the Adalthing ever agreeing to that. But someone almost as close to me as a member of my own house.”
“Lord Jaunis,” Theodwyn remarked. “He is Valerian’s margrave and his brother-in-law. Young, hot-headed, and enraged against the northerners responsible for the death of his father. He will always favour the South in the Adalthing and be easily swayed by the powerful husband of his sister.”
“Valerian would have an iron grip upon the realm even after our prince is crowned and he steps down as lord protector,” Theodoric muttered in agreement. “Fortunately, it takes both king and Adalthing to raise a new house to the rank of jarl. We have four years to undermine Vale’s hold over the Adalthing before he can make anyone jarl of Isarn.”
“Or four years to make our future king suggest another to be the new jarl,” Theodwyn added.
“Four years,” Holwyn reiterated, raising her cup as if making a toast.
The most luxurious chambers in the Citadel were naturally reserved for the royal family. With the ascendance of House Hardling, this meant three boys in their teens occupied these rooms; their mother and sister had remained at Hardburg to oversee the family’s lands.
“You fret like a boy, Inghard. I fail to see what that child means to us,” Hardmar remarked with indifference. The heir to the realms sat in a soft chair, drinking diluted wine. “It is not our house.”
“Hardmar is right.” The second of the brothers, walking around the room, voiced his agreement. “Vale is loyal to us. What does it matter if he has a son or not?”
Inghard, the youngest, looked at the other two. He sat in a corner with a book in his hands. “What if it causes a rift between Jarl Vale and his brother? Now that Lord Konstans’ son is no longer heir to the jarldom.”
“If it does,” Hardmar replied with a shrug, “that is their problem, not ours. In fact, perhaps it would be to the best.”
“How so?” asked Gerhard.
“I have my doubts about how loyal Vale is. He was swift enough to arrange the legalities that I can marry that daughter of his, yet he refused to do the same that I can be crowned before time.”
“Those are two separate matters,” Inghard interjected. “Anybody can receive royal permission to marry before they are of age, but the laws regarding succession are set in stone. Nobody may be crowned before they are twenty-one. It is impossible to make exceptions.”
“Impossible,” Hardmar scoffed. “Or he simply lacks the will.”
“I find your doubt misplaced. Vale is only lord protector until we take power,” the second brother began to speak.
“Until I take power, Gerhard,” Hardmar inserted, emptying his cup.
Gerhard shot his eldest brother an annoyed glance. “If Vale wants to be dragonlord after you are crowned,” he corrected himself, “he needs to stay loyal to House Hardling.”
“Which explains why he wants to delay my coronation as much as possible,” the eldest prince said with contempt.
“What should concern us,” Gerhard continued with a pointed look at his brothers, “is this upstart, Adalbrand.”
“He is older than any of us, a knight and a commander,” the young Inghard interjected.
“So?” Gerhard asked irritated.
“How can you call him an upstart when he has proven himself more than any of us have?”
“Be silent. What is important is that he is clearly trying to ingratiate himself with the people,” Gerhard claimed, resuming his pacing.
“He is? How?” asked Inghard.
“You have not heard?” Hardmar spoke up. “He had the town criers announce the conquest of Tothmor all over the city.”
“I have been at the library most days of late,” Inghard mumbled, looking down into the book in his lap.
“I sent this Adalbrand to Hæthiod to be forgotten,” the crown prince sneered, “yet he presumes to spread these tales of his victories. He insists on being a thorn in my side.”
“He must be dealt with,” Gerhard demanded. He had ceased walking around in order to pick up some dice on a table, left behind from a game. Now he played with them in his hand with restless motions. “He must be stripped of command before he can do any harm.”
Hardmar nodded, filling his cup. “True. I will inform Vale to take of it.”
“That is beyond his power,” Inghard pointed out. “He has no authority over the Order.”
“He is lord protector, king in all but name,” Gerhard scoffed.
“In the realm of Adalrik, yes,” Inghard clarified. “But the Order serves all of Adalmearc. It cannot be commanded by any with the power of the king, only by someone with the power of the high king.”
“But they are the same,” his second brother argued. “The king of Adalrik is also the high king of Adalmearc.”
“Yes,” Inghard replied patiently, “but the lord protector only serves in place of the former, not the latter. I suspect this is on purpose, ensuring the Order is a counterweight to the lord protector. Regardless, would it not be best to let Sir Adalbrand continue to win his victories against the outlanders?”
“It should be me winning those victories,” Hardmar considered. “The Order should be obeying me.”
“The outlanders are of no concern,” Gerhard interjected. “The civil war to the north is all that matters!”
“Tedious sieges against scoundrels,” the crown prince snorted. “The real glory obviously lies with defeating these outlanders, invading our realms. But do not worry, Gerhard. I will deal with both rebels and invaders.”
Gerhard, looking unimpressed, threw the dice on the table. Inghard resumed reading.
All through the Citadel and the city, the news spread of the birth of Jarl Vale’s son, providing a welcome excuse to interrupt work and share the excitement. Despite having been near the centre of events and personal attachments, the dragonlord of Adalrik did not shirk his duties; soon after, he resumed his labours. As the day came to a close, the latest person summoned by Konstans entered the study.
“What have you learned?” Konstans questioned him.
Arion, chamberlain to the jarl of Vale, inclined his head quickly and began his report. “Our merchants and reeves have noticed increased traffic in both the duchy of Belvoir as well as near the capital. My specific enquiries will not be replied until another week or two has passed, so it is impossible to say whether this traffic is of military nature.”
“Your best guess?”
Arion licked his lips. “Milord, there could be any number of reasons. Even if the king of Ealond or the duke of Belvoir are arming for war, we have no intelligence to suggest their target.”
Konstans let out a deep breath. “Inform me as soon as you know anything.”
“Of course, milord.”
“What have you heard from Hæthiod?”
“The tidings seem genuine. Tothmor is in the hands of the Order,” Arion confirmed.
“A surprise assault by Sir Adalbrand, much like how Middanhal was taken earlier this year.”
“How does that keep working for him?” Konstans asked with incredulity. “War is not that easy!”
“Apparently, it is for the knight lieutenant,” Arion remarked dryly. “But is this not a good thing, milord? If they can close the campaign in Hæthiod, the Order army can be used against Jarl Isarn afterwards.”
“That depends on who they will take orders from,” Konstans pointed out. “If this Adalbrand has designs of his own, we may have another Athelstan on our hands, only somehow, this one is even more dangerous.” He paused for a moment. “Find out all you can. We cannot be blind to any danger from Hæthiod, simply because we are staring at Ealond or Isarn.”
“Of course, milord,” Arion assented, taking his leave with a short bow.