Where Power Presides
In the study belonging to the dragonlord, the ruler of Adalrik toiled away daily. While the common people assumed that power resided with the lord protector, Jarl Valerian of Vale, most residents at court were wise to the truth; his brother was not only the Kingmaker, but also the man making all decisions of import. Because of this, there was a crowd every day outside his wing in the palace, and even in the long summer days, Konstans worked from dawn until nightfall.
The only man working as hard as the dragonlord was his servant, admitting people into audience according to strict rules of rank and the importance of their errand; some jested that this made him the second most powerful man in the realm. Despite this, even he could not prevent the lady Mathilde from storming into Konstans’ study.
“I am sorry, milord,” the servant muttered.
Konstans waved him away; this had happened before. “Dearest wife, I am not opposed to seeing you, but some advance warning to set aside my current affairs would be preferable.”
“This cannot wait.”
Konstans returned his feather pen to its inkwell. “What is it?”
“I have found out why my missives to my father’s steward has gone unanswered. The fool is trying to locate my useless brother!”
“That would be his duty,” Konstans remarked dryly.
“If Damien has not died in a ditch somewhere, he is certainly drunk in one of them! You have to intervene!”
“What exactly is it you imagine I should do?”
“Send Konstantine with me to Montmer! I will have him declared baron within a day of our arrival, and our son can finally have at least one title he deserves!”
Konstans gave her a look. “Dearest, your father and brother died in battle as vassals to King Rainier, who not only is losing a war against his own subject, but also has designs on Thusund, from what I hear. And you wish for our son to become his new vassal?”
Mathilde dropped into a seat. “I had not considered that.”
“Clearly. If you feel idle and want to help our son, make preparations for his wedding,” Konstans suggested.
“How soon should it be? I assume the sooner, the better.”
Konstans shook his head. “I only just announced the engagement, and we should observe tradition. I would say sometime next spring. The beginning of the year is an auspicious time for weddings.”
Mathilde frowned. “You have never been one for observing tradition before. Would it not be wiser to have the marriage done with expedience? We want Konstantine and the Hardling girl to have a son as swiftly as possible.”
“I would agree, but with the war dragging on, we need something to raise people’s spirits. A wedding with all the traditions observed is both a guarantee of the past and the future,” Konstans considered.
“Very well. You shall have a celebration that Middanhal will never forget,” Mathilde promised.
“I have no doubt.”
“This would suggest you are not optimistic that the war will be over any time soon,” she continued.
Konstans had been reaching for his quill; he abandoned the motion and leaned back. “Isarn has strengthened his numbers, in particular with archers. I suspect he is hiring foresters to fight for him.”
“Just as we are hiring mercenaries against him.”
Konstans nodded. “It is becoming a contest to see who has the deepest coffers.”
“Surely we shall prevail, in that case.”
“I believe so. I have plans in motion to speed matters along,” Konstans revealed.
“I am sure you have, dear husband. I shall leave you to your plans, but I would urge you to join us all for dinner in the hall tonight. You do not eat enough, and it will be good for the court to see their dragonlord.”
“I shall endeavour to find the time,” he promised; he reached for his quill once more and was not interrupted again.
Although he left many tasks to his brother, the lord protector had taken a keen interest in one aspect of ruling the realm. The court kept meticulous records of all income and expense, and true to his ekename as the Bookkeeper, Valerian was poring through the materials. He did so in the company of Edwin, alderman of the guilds.
“Even a child would notice the Crown’s falling revenues,” Valerian began by saying. He was seated behind a desk with numerous ledgers in front of him, opened at various places. “The challenge is deducing why.”
“Forgive me, milord, but is it not explained by the expenses of war and no taxes from most of northern Adalrik?”
“Ah, but that only covers the last few years.” Valerian moved his fingers across the ledgers. “The decline started long before. Thirteen years ago, in fact.”
“If you say so, milord. It’s not my place to inspect these books.” He licked his lips.
“When did you become alderman, Master Edwin?” Valerian set his eyes on the guildsman; suddenly, his face was cold.
“I confess, I can’t recall the exact year –”
“Thirteen years ago, master alderman. I already checked.”
“Very wise. Knowledge is the fountain of wealth,” Edwin mumbled.
“I have gone through the books, comparing all the sources of income. The decline is most prominent in taxes levied upon the guilds,” Valerian remarked.
“We have fallen on hard times,” Edwin confessed, breathing quickly. “Disruption of trade hits our people twofold. It impoverishes those who would be our customers and robs us of the materials we need for our crafts.”
“What disruption?” Valerian scoffed. “Other than the last years of war, trade has been flowing as ever. My caravans have only increased year after year.”
“Your skill as a merchant is only exceeded by your nobility as a jarl, milord,” Edwin said subserviently. “I fear not all have your skill. More than a decade after the highlander war, stone and marble is still far more expensive than it was before. Many of our stone cutters and artisans have been forced to give up the trade.”
“Ah, but see here,” Valerian exclaimed, paging through one ledger. “The artisans’ guild did indeed contribute only half as much in the years during the war, but two years later, the amount rose, only to sharply decline in the next three years. There has not been war in Heohlond since then to my knowledge.” He looked at the alderman expectantly.
“Indeed not, milord, and thank the gods for that. I shall make enquiries to the guild master of the artisans on your behalf,” Edwin promised. “I will do so immediately with your leave.”
Valerian raised a finger. “Not yet.” He began moving books around until he found his quarry. “The weavers are paying one third of what they did twenty years ago! One third! If there is one thing people always have to sell, it is wool, and if there is one thing people always need, it is cloth! Can you explain this decline to me?”
On the other side of the desk, Edwin sweated nervously.
Valerian was not the only person in the Citadel going through ledgers, but unlike the lord protector, Arndis inspected her own books. Compared to those of the kingdom, her finances were modest and fit into a few ledgers; compared to landless nobility, she was a wealthy woman. She had managed to grow the coin from Brand’s spoils as an Order commander, and as she sat writing her accounts, she looked the part of a merchant except for her dress; it was meant for life at court, not work at a desk.
She looked up as Eleanor entered her room. “Anything of interest?”
“Not much. Jarl Theodstan is leaving the Citadel soon, apparently.”
“He has lost his stomach for politics,” Arndis remarked as her eyes returned to her ledgers.
“But one of the girls overheard Lord Marcaster tell his wife they would be staying for the time being. She thinks the landgrave hopes to marry his daughter to the prince,” Eleanor related.
Arndis’ lips curled upwards. “He came close with the previous prince.”
“The jarlinna Alexandra made mention of you in passing.”
She looked up. “What did she say?”
“Simply expressed her dislike of you, I believe.” Eleanor looked apprehensive. “I was unsure whether to tell you. It seems of no consequence, and I do not want to remind you.”
“You do no harm in telling me,” Arndis reassured her.
“It is a shame she is so disinclined towards you. She would make a powerful friend.”
“She would,” Arndis assented, “but as long as she blames Brand for her father’s death, I doubt she will show me any hospitality.”
Eleanor shook her head. “Nothing. You should come along tomorrow. The girls would be excited to have your company, I am sure. It has been many days.”
Arndis gave a small nod. “Why not? With solstice completed, my books are in order until the fairs beyond Middanhal are completed.”
“Will you have good fortune selling on the fairs?” Eleanor asked.
“I expect I will,” Arndis smiled. “Enough talk of trade for now. Let us take a walk,” she suggested. “I need a change from these stonewalls.”
Outside the entrance to the royal library, two kingthanes stood guard. The heavy door silenced most noise, but on occasion, they could hear faint laughter. Upon seeing a shape ascend the stairs to reach the corridor, they both adopted expressions of contempt. One of the thanes opened the door, stepping inside the library. “Forgive me, my prince. That Dwarven mercenary is here again.”
Three faces turned towards the door. One belonged to a scribe, the second to a servant girl, and the third to a prince. “Let him through,” commanded the latter.
The kingthane nodded and returned to his post; he and his companion glared at the Red Hawk upon the Dwarf’s surcoat, but neither spoke. With a grin and open hands to show himself unarmed, Jorund walked past them to enter the library, closing the door behind him. “My prince, my scribe, my scullery maid,” he laughed, adding a bow to his greeting.
“It is a pleasure to see you returned, Master Jorund.”
“It’s good to be returning! Only thing better would be to never leave!”
The youths laughed. “What would your commander say about that?” asked Egil.
“He’d have my hide and send me bleeding out on patrol,” Jorund grinned.
Kate was next. “What did you see out there? Did you fight any rebels?”
“The scurrilous bastards – pardon my choice of words, my prince – don’t dare come this close to Middanhal. I spent weeks walking on dirt roads and through fields, meeting no enemies but stray dogs trying to steal my supper!”
“I am glad there has been no need of bloodshed,” Inghard declared, “though it makes me wonder how this war will ever reach an end.”
“Once these noblemen get tired of throwing coin out the window, I bet they’ll be ready to negotiate peace,” the Dwarf told them with a wry smile. “Until then, me and my company will be standing outside that window, filling our purse! What about you young rascals, what have you been up to?”
“Jorund, you cannot speak to the prince that way,” Kate scolded him.
The Dwarf laughed. “Very well! What have you two rascals and our esteemed prince been up to?”
“We found an old tale about the Brothers Swordsmen,” Egil eagerly explained.
“It was curious,” Inghard admitted. “From what we could tell, the famed swordsmen were cousins, not brothers. If not even their name is true to circumstance, it casts everything we know about them into doubt.”
“Most curious,” Jorund assented. He patted the short sword by his side. “Perhaps they were Dwarves!”
“That seems fanciful,” Inghard frowned.
“Where’s the old man?” the mercenary asked.
His young companions shared looks of apprehension. “Master Quill’s in his room,” Egil finally replied. “He hasn’t left it in a while.”
“Jorund, won’t you tell us a story from your travels?” asked Kate.
“Again? If stories were coins, you young marauders would rob me blind!”
“Jorund, please!” pleaded Egil.
“But what if I have none left?”
“If so, we will be satisfied with the retelling of a familiar story,” Inghard granted.
“Hah! I see that I am in the claws of ruthless brigands. You’ll never let me be, will you.”
“Very well, seeing as I have no choice.” Jorund threw his hands up in surrender before sitting down on a bench by a desk. “Have I ever told you of the time I met a jinni?”
Inghard sat down next to him, while Egil and Kate positioned themselves on the floor in front of him. “Tell us more!”
“They are devious creatures, full of trickery and not to be trusted! Much like Elves in that regard, except the jinn are creatures of air and fire, and they live in the desert.”
“Like dragons,” Egil inserted. “They are also born of air and fire, I read.”
“Really?” asked Inghard. “Where did you read that?”
“The old codex we found. After the story of the Brothers Swordsmen, it continued to talk about Sigvard, dragons, and the Great War.”
“You’re interrupting the story!” Kate’s voice was indignant.
“Keep your sails up,” Jorund grinned, “we’ll get there soon enough. Now I imagine facing a dragon is not a tale most live to tell, and the same goes for meeting a jinni! This was many years ago, you understand, back before I joined up with the Red Hawks…”