Flowers brought Veil comfort where most things failed. She insisted that her servants maintain the garden behind her enclave, and they pruned and weeded it daily. She loved to walk down the narrow paths, gliding through a sea of colors. The beauty of them almost allowed her to forget. Almost.
Clasean dutifully followed her, maintaining a distance of ten paces, his eyes as alert as ever despite their age as he kept watch for any threats to Veil's person. She wished he would walk beside her, but even if ordered, he would only do so in uncomfortable silence. Where once he had viewed her as the most beautiful flower in the garden, now he saw only the sharpness of her thorns.
"Clasean," Veil said, turning toward him, "please have the women prepare a bouquet for me. I would prefer blues and whites, and I would like it delivered to my office."
"Will you be meeting someone in your office today, your Grace?" Clasean asked neutrally. "Please forgive my question, but you usually only decorate your office if you plan on having guests. I was unaware of anything on the agenda."
Veil nodded. "That is normally true, but I was hoping to do some work there today. I just thought it would lighten my mood."
"Will you have need of a scribe?" Clasean asked.
"No, that will not be necessary. My own hand will be good enough for writing, don't you think?" Her soft features narrowed into a glare. "Do you think me so delicate that I can't do my own work?"
Clasean blinked once, but his face remained otherwise blank. "Forgive me, your Grace. Usually when you dictate matters of state, you use a scribe. I was asking, not insisting."
Veil sighed heavily. She had been hoping for more of a reaction. What would it take to get him to love her again? Would he ever see the flower again? "Thank you for your concern, but I will not be needing a scribe. Forget about the bouquet as well, I'll keep my dark mood."
"As you wish," Clasean replied with a bow.
Veil gritted her teeth and turned away, resuming her walk. Before she'd gone more than a few steps, a young page arrived at the edge of the garden and hastened toward them. He bowed low to Veil before speaking. "Oracle, we were just notified that King Neredos is on his way to see you."
"Is that so?" Veil asked, raising an eyebrow. It was unlike Neredos to pay anyone a visit, but Veil especially, despite their long history. She wondered what could've possibly roused him. "When will he arrive?"
"Soon," the page replied, flushing in embarrassment that he could not offer a more concrete answer. "He did not state a time."
"That means he could be here any minute," Veil said. "Clasean, I changed my mind about that bouquet, I'm going to need it after all. Boy," she said, returning her attention to the page, "I want you to have the guards direct Neredos to my office."
The page bowed again and took off at a run. Veil walked quickly as well, toward the outer edge of the garden, where one of her servants knelt beneath a rosebush of white blossoms, weeding its roots. Veil paid no heed to the gardener, but heard Clasean exchange a few words with him, delivering her request for the bouquet before hurrying after her.
Veil made her way straight to her office, hoping she would beat Neredos there, but the door was already open when she arrived. The Shining King paced the room in front of her large oak desk, his rich clothing disheveled, his eyes and hair wild. He glanced toward her, and Veil's eyes widened in shock. Neredos appeared to be sweating for the first time in eight centuries.
His siphoning link with the demon generals granted him immortality, or at least a near likeness of it. It prevented him from any damaging effects of exertion or heat, it repaired his wounds, and made it so he needed neither to sleep nor eat to sustain himself. It prevented him from aging. He had not needed to sweat for any reason since becoming King.
Was something wrong with the link? Veil composed herself quickly, hoping this was the case. Perhaps she would be able to finish this after all.
"I'm sorry for my delay," she said as she strode into the room. She closed the door behind her as Clasean took up a protective position outside. As Neredos watched her in silence, she circled around the desk and sat down in the large comfortable chair on the other side. "Are you all right, Neredos?"
Neredos shook his head. "No, I feel I may have made a mistake. I haven't been quite myself. I keep running into things, and I feel like I'm losing my mind."
"We both know that was already true," Veil said guardedly. "Do you mean to say that your condition has worsened of late?"
"No, not that," Neredos replied. "I . . . I have betrayed one of my friends. Two of my friends, actually, now that I think about it. I have grown so accustomed to not having friends, that I forget what they mean to me."
Veil hesitated to answer, giving Neredos the appearance that she was merely listening intently, though in truth she had no idea what he was talking about. She waited for him to continue, hoping he would elaborate. He did not disappoint her.
"Prism came to me, telling me my people were in danger, and I didn't listen," he said plainly. "Why didn't I listen? Many of my people died, several demons were freed, and Prism . . ." He shuddered. "And Prism died as result of my choice."
Veil knew how to answer this one. She'd prepared for it nearly a week earlier. "It was probably the result of your condition. Also, you trusted my judgment, and I am also at fault. It was I who recommended we wait, thinking it would be better. We both failed to trust Prism's judgment."
"Yes, but I know things of armies, and so did he, but still I failed to listen," Neredos countered. "I killed my friend. My pride killed him."
"Before you end up repeating yourself," Veil said, "you said you betrayed two of your friends? Who else?"
Neredos gave her a blank look. "For all our disagreements over the years, you know damned well who I mean. Grim, I saw him atop that demon, riding Ibrix into oblivion like a hell steed. He was killing Ibrix, and I sealed them up together. I consigned him to the same fate as his husband had just escaped, when all I had to do was let him finish the job."
This declaration surprised Veil. Neredos and Grim had rarely seen eye to eye over the years, even long before the centuries separated their ideologies with an irreparable rift. But she also knew that Neredos longed for the old days, the adventure of traveling with the capable people he had come to call his friends. For the longest time, Neredos had thought that only he, Veil, and Grim remained.
"Perhaps seeing Prism alive reminded you of how much you cared for Grim at one point," Veil suggested as she pondered this change in Neredos' mentality. A moment later, she realized a potential opportunity. If Grim had been so close to killing Ibrix, then perhaps he could still do so, and open a hole in Neredos' immortality. "If you feel guilty, perhaps you should free him?"
But Neredos shook his head and replied, "it is too dangerous. I cannot free a demon for any reason."
Veil sighed. She'd expected this. This was the result of Neredos' brain condition. He had it firmly set in his mind that there were several things which could not be disputed. Freeing the demons was too dangerous. That was the most important one, though there was another which also stood in her way. And, though she knew without a doubt what his answer would be, she decided to try one more time to end everything.
"Well, you could always follow through on the original plan," she said slowly, "you have the power to kill the demons within their prison. Once they're dead, you can free Grim and not worry."
Neredos was shaking his head long before she finished. The second incontrovertible truth of Neredos' dogma left his tongue as predictable as the sunrise. "You know I can't do that, Veil. The world needs a champion, the world needs someone to protect it, and if I do that, I will no longer be immortal. Then who will look after the world? No, it is nonnegotiable. It's pure madness, actually."
Veil nodded. There was no use arguing. Neredos simply could not see reason on those two issues. His brain, frozen forever in the condition of madness by immortality, refused to yield. "Then what is there to do?" She asked helplessly.
"I don't know, I guess I will have to live with this guilt," Neredos said. He mumbled something unintelligible and then added, "For the good of the world, I will suffer."
"I suppose that's all that can be done," Veil muttered, defeated.
"Indeed," Neredos replied, nodding as if it made complete sense. "Thank you, Veil. I appreciate your willingness to listen."
"Of course, Neredos," she replied. "For you, my time is always yours."
"I suppose I am lucky you managed to store enough demonic life force during the war to keep you still alive," Neredos said. "It will be sad for me when the years finally take you, and I am forced to carry this burden alone."
"May that day be long distant," Veil replied with a tightlipped smile. "Is there any other way I may help you today?"
Neredos shook his head. "No, but if I think of anything to do, I will come and let you know."
Veil bid him farewell shortly after that, and as soon as he left the office, she turned to Clasean and said, "do not let anyone disturb me for the next hour. I have a lot to think about."
"Your bouquet arrived, your Grace," Clasean said before she could close the door. He bent down and picked up a vase filled with a mixture of blue and white flowers. She took it from him.
"Thank you." She closed the door and set the vase in the center of her desk, staring at it for a moment. Water droplets clung to the pedals like dew, making them look as vibrant as if they remained in the garden. Vibrant. Alive. How long had it been since she felt that way? How long had it been since Neredos felt that way? Did he really suffer as much as he let on? Did he—
Sweat. Memory of moisture on Neredos' face came rushing back to her and brought a theory with it. If it was possible to kill the demons within the pillars, perhaps Grim had succeeded after all. Perhaps, Neredos was no longer as immortal as he seemed. Could he now feel heat? Could he now feel exertion? Or was it the cold sweat of someone denied sleep? If any of these were true, then she finally had a chance.
She eagerly moved to her desk and slipped a key from around her neck, opening the top drawer. She withdrew a small device from inside, one of few such devices remaining in the world. A communications device from ancient Oligan, Neredos' homeland. It had a small screen and could be tuned to various frequencies, though the latter hardly mattered anymore. As far as she knew, only one other such device still existed.
She turned it on and waited for her signal to be received on the other end. As soon as the screen flickered to life, she said, "Fasha, we need to talk. I think I know how to kill Neredos."
Maxthane rushed through the halls on the heels of the soldier, wanting to confront Krythe but knowing he had to deal with the intruder first. An Elrok had arrived unannounced and gone immediately to see Kubriss. What this meant, he didn't know, but hopefully it would finally be something other than bad news.
He strode into the mess hall and immediately took stock of the situation. Three Elroks occupied Kubriss' corner, including the patient. One Maxthane recognized as being in his service, while the other carried a bow with a full quiver of arrows, a backpack, and enough tattoos to rival the mosaic on Maxthane's skin.
Maxthane slowed, realizing he needed to handle the situation delicately. He took a second to compose himself, working out several contingencies should he need them. He had no reason to believe that these people were threatening, but something about the one with the bow told him they were capable of causing him harm if they saw a reason to.
There were three tattoos on Maxthane's body which could be used as weapons if he needed. One could create fire, another could transform his fingers into wicked claws sharp as glass and hard as diamonds. The third turned his saliva into venom. He had never had a reason to use the latter two, but these were dangerous times.
With full control of his grace and posture, Maxthane advanced on the Elroks. "Porak," he said, hoping the use of the Elrok tongue would put the newcomer at ease. "Welcome to my home."
The Elrok with the bow turned toward him and smiled easily. "King Maxthane thulu'Khant, thank you for your welcome. I am Gobrak, Fletcher of the Clan of Serpents, though I represent the honor of all clans on this day. You honor me by speaking our tongue."
"Porakum," Kubriss interjected, looking at Maxthane and nodding toward Gobrak.
"There's no need for that, Kubriss," Gobrak said, continuing in Maxthane's language though Kubriss could probably not understand all of it. "Maxthane is a King, and he need not raise his speech for me."
Maxthane coughed to hide his embarrassment. "Kubriss has been teaching me, but I'm afraid I haven't grasped the different levels of speech yet. If you could explain the difference to me, I would greatly appreciate it."
Gobrak smiled. "You honor us further, King Maxthane. Porakum is used when speaking to someone of distinguished rank. As a Fletcher, it is what Kubriss would use for me. As a King, however, you do not need to offer me that distinction. I am below you in our terms of understanding."
"Porakum," Maxthane said, bowing in greeting. "I do not believe anyone is below me, and certainly not a distinguished member of Elrok society. Now, I hope you'll forgive my rudeness, but why have you come?"
"If we could speak in private, I would appreciate it," Gobrak said quietly. "It is a matter of great importance to the clans, and not something for idle conversation in the open. He who speaks to the open wind invites it to share his secrets."
Maxthane nodded in understanding. "Yes, there are several rooms we can go to. If it's urgent, we can find one nearby. Or, if you prefer, we can go to my father's study."
"It is not urgent, but it is important. Whichever room is most secure would be my preference," Gobrak replied.
"The study it is then."
As Maxthane left the mess hall with Gobrak in tow, he signaled for two soldiers standing guard there to follow him. He hoped Gobrak would not be offended by the extra security, though Maxthane felt it a necessary precaution. No matter how pleasant the Elrok seemed to be, Maxthane had to ensure his own safety.
As they made their way toward the study, however, he grew less secure with this choice. Gobrak did not make a single threatening move and carried himself with utter dignity and professionalism. He was no more dangerous than any other diplomat, though that simply meant the soldiers would do little to protect Maxthane from the dangers Gobrak presented.
As they entered the study, Maxthane ordered the soldiers to stand outside, and then motioned for Gobrak to take one of the large chairs near the fireplace. He'd always wondered why his father had kept such large chairs in this room but now understood. Salidar had received annual visits from the Elrok clans in the past, and though Maxthane had never sat in on any of them, he saw that the chairs were of perfect size. Salidar knew how to host his allies.
Maxthane took the other chair, and though it dwarfed him, he didn't mind. He'd always enjoyed sinking into the soft confines of the cushion. It reminded him now of a paternal comfort he would never have again.
"You may speak whenever you wish, Fletcher Gobrak," Maxthane said when he had settled.
"My sources tell me of your recent loss, King Maxthane," Gobrak said immediately. "My condolences on the loss of your father. He was a great man, well regarded by the Elrok clans. It is unfortunate he did not succeed on his quest."
Maxthane considered a diplomatic response, but the word shocked him so deeply that he couldn't help but say, "It is unfortunate that he did not succeed? Are you serious?"
Gobrak looked puzzled. "Did you not share your father's dream of freeing The Shade from the oppression of the Everbright City?"
"I thank you for your condolences, but no, he and I had a great disagreement on that matter," Maxthane replied. "The thought of unleashing demons upon the world just for such a petty reason . . . It makes me sick to my stomach."
"I see," Gobrak replied, "just to clarify, I did not mean to offend. The Elrok clans support the thulu'Khant rebellion as a whole, not necessarily the specific methods used in that rebellion. We are opposed to Neredos as surely as you are. Though I agree the demons are better left undisturbed."
Maxthane breathed a sigh of relief. "Good. I was beginning to like you, Gobrak, and I didn't want that to stop. Now, I hope you'll forgive me for being short, but what is the pressing matter you wish to speak about?"
"Not pressing, important," Gobrak clarified. "First, I wish to formally thank you for taking care of Kubriss. I know two other Elroks died while fighting the fire demon. I will mourn their loss, and though the clan leaders will ask about their dead, I'll tell them that the current leader of The Shade continues to rule with honor. Kubriss has made it clear that you are a benevolent ruler."
"At least someone thinks so," Maxthane said dryly. His eyes widened as he realized he'd voiced his doubts. "Please pretend you didn't hear that."
"As you wish, King Maxthane," Gobrak replied. He went on as if Maxthane had never spoken, "Regarding the dead, I assume you will want replacements? I can have two more Elroks here and ready to serve you within a few days. I need only send a message."
"That would be . . ." Maxthane began, but then shook his head. "I'm sorry, Gobrak, but I don't feel justified using Elrok labor without giving you something in return. I've never known my father to give you anything, but yet he has always had your support. Why?"
"Working for the thulu'Khant family has long been a good way for our young to get valuable experience," Gobrak said. "We are not people who are well loved in the world at large, but here our young can have an opportunity to see more of how the world works. We believe in harmony, and that does not come without understanding. We send them to you for education, and they come back to us ready and able to contribute to the growth of our society."
"And that is worth it to you?" Maxthane asked. "Are you sure there isn't more I could do?"
"The clans are satisfied with this arrangement. We would normally send you two, to replace those who fell, but if you could make use of more of us, there are many young Elroks eager to prove themselves worthy of the opportunity."
Maxthane let out a bewildered laugh, "send as many as you'd like, then. I think I'd prefer their company to those currently around me."
Gobrak nodded appreciatively. "There is one other matter, if I may . . ." He hesitated, "make a request?"
"Certainly," Maxthane replied. "Anything I can do to help after your generous offer, I'll do."
"Kubriss said you know a Fedain man named Grimfaeth, is that true?"
Maxthane regarded Gobrak curiously. "I know a Grim."
"They're one and the same," Gobrak confirmed. "We are looking for him. Kubriss said she last saw him fighting the fire demon. Can you confirm this?"
"I'm afraid I can't," Maxthane said. "We separated as soon as we reached Pentalus. I went to my father, and he went elsewhere. But I'm sure Kubriss is not mistaken. She could probably draw you a picture, if you gave her the time."
Gobrak nodded solemnly. "I'd hoped you'd have more information. But I suppose I will have to take what I can get. The hunter can't afford to give up the quail because he wanted the deer."
"I suppose not," Maxthane said, "I guess we should be grateful for what we have. That reminds me, I have to apologize to someone. Hopefully it's not too late."
Gobrak rose to his feet and bowed to Maxthane. "It is an honor to meet you, Maxthane thulu'Khant. I must take my leave, but I'll be sure to send you reinforcements. Be forewarned, now that you said I can send as many as I want, you might find out you have more than you can handle."
"I'll take my chances," Maxthane replied. He stood with a smile and added, "safe travels, and I hope you find Grim." His eyes lit up as he remembered a detail from his conversations with Styx. "Actually, there is one piece of information I have. Someone told a friend of mine that Grim is imprisoned somewhere. That someone is dead, unfortunately, but perhaps simply knowing that may help you find him."
"Thank you," Gobrak said, smiling warmly. "That could end up helping a great deal."
"I hope we get the opportunity to speak again," Maxthane said warmly. "I'd like to—" his words were cut short by the thunderous sound of footsteps heading toward the room. Raised voices communicated outside the door, and the door then slammed open, a dozen soldiers filing into the room.
"What is the meaning of this intrusion?" Maxthane asked as he saw Krythe arrive at the back of the group. The soldiers circled Maxthane and Gobrak, pulling out manacles for each. "You're trying to depose me?" Maxthane asked incredulously.
"No," Krythe said, "Not me. There is nothing to depose." Before Maxthane could respond to the absurd statement, Krythe turned to Gobrak. "Fletcher, I have been instructed to allow you your freedom, as long as you do not make any trouble."
Gobrak's stony face regarded Krythe without emotion. "I have no authority to interfere directly in the internal politics of The Shade, only to negotiate the terms of my arrangement with the King."
"All your prior agreements will be honored, I'm sure," Krythe said. "You may go now."
"I would like to visit Kubriss first," Gobrak replied. "I told her I would stop by before I left for the surface."
"Fine, but you will go under escort," Krythe said. Gobrak nodded and moved to leave, and the soldiers parted to let him pass. Maxthane watched it all in silence, not wanting to jeopardize Gobrak's freedom. As much as he wished the Elrok could help him here, against so many men it seemed unlikely.
"What is happening, Commander Krythe."
"That is Captain Krythe now, Prince," Krythe replied, spitting the last word venomously. "And your authority over the soldiers of The Shade has been suspended until further notice."
Maxthane's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Those loyal to me will not stand for this. You will not succeed in the coup."
"It isn't a coup, Maxthane," a dreadfully familiar voice said from the doorway. Maxthane's knees shook and sweat poured from him as his father—Salidar thulu'Khant—limped into the room, his face contorted in pain and sadness. "No more coup than yours was, at any rate," Salidar said thickly. "We'll have time to sort that out. For now, I have to decide what to do with you until that happens."
"You're dead . . ." Maxthane said. "I saw you die. I saw your body."
"I don't know what you saw, son," Salidar replied, "but I am alive. It took me a long time to get back here, because of my injuries. Unfortunately, we have to deal with the murder of Fasha. You killed him at Sabreeza's estate. Perhaps the trauma of that day caused you to hallucinate."
"But Rega saw you!" Maxthane protested. "Rega . . . where is Captain Rega."
"I'm told he left under your orders to dispatch a demon nearby," Salidar replied dismissively. "When he returns, we'll get his statement. Until then, you will be confined to your rooms."
"Fa . . ." Maxthane had been about to say father, when he started to piece it all together. "Fasha. You're not my father. You're Fasha!"
"He has clearly been stricken with madness," Krythe said, shaking his head in false dismay. "Take him to his chambers before he can cause further damage."
Maxthane reached for the tattoo that allowed him to emit flames, but before he could activate it, rough hands pulled his arms back and slapped him in manacles. He glared at his father's face, peered deep into his eyes, and knew the truth. This was Fasha wearing Salidar's face, and Maxthane would find some way to prove it.
Fasha knew it too, and he nodded slightly to Maxthane, imperceptibly to anyone else. "I'll come and see you later," Fasha said in Salidar's voice. "We have much to discuss."
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