Cards on the Table
The following morning just as the sun rose, Jerome of the Red Hawks returned to the dragonlord’s atrium and was immediately admitted into audience. “I did as you commanded, milord,” he told Konstans. “There’s been no sign of anything amiss so far. Nobody suspects anything.”
“Nor will they,” Konstans declared. “There was only water in the vial. At worst, my brother will find his wine a little diluted this morning.”
Jerome frowned. “Water? But I thought…”
“You thought I wanted my brother dead,” Konstans stated. “Never mind the chaos this would cause for me, including the election of a new lord protector.”
“So what was this for?”
“I needed to know if I could rely on you. If you are willing to kill my brother at my behest, the most powerful man in the realm, I expect you will carry out any other task I give you,” Konstans explained.
The Hawk gave a scowl. “I don’t like being tested.”
Konstans took out the coin purse from last night and slid it across the table. “You did as I asked. Here is payment as promised. You will find me a generous master.”
Jerome’s face turned from displeasure to satisfaction. “Anything you ask, milord.”
“Good. I have another task for you. And this one, I assure you, is of the utmost importance.”
The jarl of Theodstan sat in his parlour, playing cards with one servant when another entered hurriedly.
“Milord,” Holwyn exclaimed, short of breath. “I have just been told that the dragonlord is calling for assembly out of time.”
“Are you sure?” Theodoric’s voice was deeply sceptical.
“Completely. I believe the Quill has already been told to send out the summons.”
The jarl threw his cards on the table. “What is so urgent they cannot wait until summer?”
Holebert gathered up the cards, shuffling them together. “Maybe they want Jarl Isarn officially declared a traitor sooner rather than later.”
“Isenhart is safe in Silfrisarn now, which will not have changed when the Adalthing convenes at midsummer,” the jarl said dismissively. “If anything, it is the Isarn prisoners they want executed.”
“Maybe they fear an escape attempt?” Holwyn suggested. “The guards in the dungeons are no longer Order soldiers but have been replaced by Red Hawks.”
“Could be,” Theodoric considered. “Or they have some agenda we cannot guess.”
“I will listen for any whispers. See what we may learn,” Holwyn declared.
“Good.” Theodoric glanced at the table and his missing hand of cards. “Holebert, did you take my cards?”
“I thought you were done playing,” the servant said in excuse.
“I had king and jester,” the jarl complained, followed by a sigh. “Deal us a new round. I need better servants,” he grumbled, to which the others only laughed.
“Milord? Your son requests an audience.”
Konstans looked up at Eolf. “My son? Are you certain?”
“I know how his lordship’s son looks,” the servant sniffed. “Shall I show him in?”
“I admit to some curiosity,” Konstans confessed, turning the hourglass on his table to let the sands fall. “Let him enter.”
With almost timid steps, Konstantine entered his father’s study, glancing around. “Father.”
“Of all the men waiting outside, I did not expect to see you.” Konstans’ voice was almost amused. “What brings you here?”
“I thought we should speak,” the young man spoke.
His father glanced at the hourglass. “By all means, but time is short. What do you need?”
Konstantine cleared his throat. “I know you are disappointed that I am no longer Uncle’s heir.”
“Have I expressed any such disappointment?”
“Not directly –”
“Then why would you assume such a thing?”
Bewilderment spread across Konstantine’s face. “But I thought –”
“I was born the second son. Do you think I have ever let that hold me back?”
“I guess not.”
“Let me share some fatherly wisdom I received myself when I was young, from your grandfather. He was a clear-sighted man,” Konstans told his son. “He kept me out of the Order, knowing it would be a waste to make me a knight. He explained to me that that there are two kinds of value to possess.”
“What are they?” asked Konstantine interested.
“Resources and respect. The former is land, gold, soldiers, and the like. The latter is titles, honour, authority, and so forth. It is important to know that they are interchangeable and never constant.”
“You mean, land can be exchanged for gold, gold can be exchanged for soldiers?”
“Exactly,” nodded Konstans satisfied. “Similarly, a title in itself is of little value, except for the power and authority it can be exchanged to. It does not matter whether the jarl of Vale is my brother or me. The title belongs to our family, and I may use its authority when I need it.”
“Just as you have used it to become dragonlord.”
“Indeed, which offers further possibilities. On the other hand, the Red Hawks are loyal to our gold, not our title. Or take Jarl Isarn, who will soon have lost all right to that title. Yet his vassals will remain loyal to him because they have sworn to be. In that case, honour has its own value.”
“So you are saying I should not care about titles?”
“I am saying,” Konstans explained with patience, “that titles are but one form of commodity. As long as the title remains in our family, we have access to its value, and your time should be spent pursuing something else. To borrow some wisdom from your uncle, it is a poor merchant that stares himself blind on one commodity.” The dragonlord smiled at his own words.
“Thank you, Father. I understand much better now.”
“I am glad you are sensible enough to listen.” Konstans looked at the hourglass on his table, which had run empty. “I must press on with today’s affairs. Tell Eolf I need a brief while before I see anyone else.”
“Of course, Father.”
“Do either of you know the lady Arndis?” asked Hardmar.
“She is Sir Adalbrand’s sister,” explained Inghard.
“Obviously,” sneered his older brother impatiently. “But what do you know of her?”
“She is a confidante of Lady Theodwyn, I think,” Gerhard told the others. “I have seen the two of them together, along with the veiled woman.”
“Lady Eleanor,” Inghard inserted.
“Never mind them,” Hardmar snapped. “I have heard that the king of Korndale seeks to marry her.”
“Odd. She brings no wealth or alliance with her,” Inghard contemplated.
“On the contrary,” Hardmar retorted. “She will strengthen his claim on the Dragon Throne, my throne, and tie Adalbrand to his cause. Treasonous lot!”
“I suppose there would be danger no matter who she marries,” Inghard continued. “Her children will have the same blood as us, even if it is matrilineally.”
“A shame if she leaves for Plenmont,” Gerhard spoke up, drumming his fingers on a table as customary. “She is quite beautiful, unlike that company she keeps. An old hag and a scarred woman.”
“Does that matter to you?” Hardmar asked his brother with a hint of contempt. “You will be pleased to know I have decided you should marry the daughter of Lord Marcaster.”
“Unless he has other daughters, that would be the one,” Hardmar jeered.
“Why that one?” asked Gerhard, whose face seemed to struggle with finding an appropriate reaction.
“He will pull several other landgraves to our side. It is a favourable alliance,” the prince explained.
“You could have asked me,” Gerhard pointed out with a sour disposition.
“Fine. Pretend I asked you beforehand.” Hardmar waved his hand dismissively.
“You will not get an exception for me as well to marry early, will you?” The question was asked with a suspicious voice. “I am in no hurry.”
“Fret not, little brother,” Hardmar reassured him. “I only intend to announce your engagement at the Adalthing. Unlike Vale, I do not rush these things.”
“Perhaps you should,” Inghard interjected from his corner of the room. “A lot can happen in the next several years. Maybe Jarl Vale is wise to make sure you marry his daughter before you have a chance to find a better match.” With this said, the youngest Hardling brother resumed reading his book, leaving the crown prince to contemplate his words.
In the dungeons, Arndis sat with an empty coin purse and a chessboard inside Athelstan’s cell. The knight raised one hand, careful to avoid his chains accidentally knocking any pieces about, and moved his thane to threaten Arndis’ jarl.
“I knew it,” she smiled, moving her dragonlord forward into the vacated space. “I believe that concludes the match?”
Athelstan stared at the board in disbelief. “How long did you say you had been playing?”
“Brand taught me the game last summer,” Arndis replied, looking both shy yet also pleased with herself.
“Impressive. It took him years to beat me the first time, though granted, he was only thirteen when we started playing.” Athelstan continued staring at the pieces, tentatively moving a few about to examine the different positions. “I will excuse myself with not having played the game in several months now.”
“I am glad we can remedy that,” Arndis smiled. “I am sorely lacking for worthy opponents among my friends at court.”
From his tattered clothing, Athelstan pulled out a small wooden carving. It was a king piece. “I gave this to Brand the first time he beat me.”
She nodded. “I recall you told me.”
He extended the piece towards her. “It seems fitting I give it to you.”
“Oh, thank you.” Hesitantly, Arndis accepted the gift.
“It is just a piece of wood,” Athelstan told her with a joyless smile. “It is all I have at present, however, and perhaps it will remind you of me in the future.”
“I shall cherish it for that reason,” she promised.
He began arranging the pieces on the board to their starting position. “Another game?”
As evening arrived, it was Konstantine seeking out his mother and not reverse. She gave a look of surprise upon seeing her son in her chamber, but it was quickly replaced by disappointment. “I suppose you have come to offer excuses?”
“I spoke with Father.” Mathilde’s expression turned blank. “In general, I have given it all some thought,” Konstantine continued. “Should anything happen to my little cousin, it would be a tragedy to our house. I cannot imagine Father would want that.”
“So now you choose to think,” Mathilde sneered, but there was little bite in her voice.
“In fact, I cannot imagine Father would condone what you told me last night.”
“What happened to obedience?” she hissed. “How dare you question me!”
“I threw it away, that little flask,” Konstantine told her. “I do not intend to ever think about it again. I do not think you should either.”
“Are you presuming now to tell me what I should do?”
“As long as Valerius is healthy and safe, I see no point in dwelling on last night,” Konstantine told her. “But should something ever happen to him, Father will know everything in detail.” He stared at his mother.
“At least you show some backbone.” She returned his gaze and found him unwavering. “As you wish,” she finally declared. “Last night is forgotten.”
“I am glad. Goodnight, Mother.” She did not return his well-wishes.