Ared leaned against the railing, gazing down at the rooftop gardens below. The neat lines of the gravel paths cut esoteric patterns among the orderly rows of greenery. Beneath the verdant blanket the purling streams hid from his view as they snaked their way across the wings before leaping to the courtyard below.
So much effort had gone into creating this beauty.
He lifted his gaze to the glittering lake, watching the ships in the harbour for a time. A century of his life had gone into creating the tranquil scene unfolding before him. A lifetime of carefully encouraging the society to grow. It was true that he had been forced to prune it from time to time, but never excessively and never-
Never by destroying those who threatened his vision? Never through fear? Or force? Or murder? An image flashed through his mind, the memory of a bloodied sword in his hand. Was he a tyrant, then? No better than the ones he had opposed in the past? He looked at his tented hands, examining the stark contrast between the white of his gloves and the dark skin of his fingers. The sunlit fabric stung his eyes. Was that what others saw him as?
A shining beacon of overpowering light, blinding all who dared look upon him in challenge?
“We are approaching a pivotal moment,” Moreth’s voice drew his attention into his office, to the source of his recent concerns. The man’s excited tone belied the calm facade on his face. “Yet something is wrong upon the Isle!”
Ared arched a silver eyebrow at the Vizier. This was the first Ared had heard Moreth mention of anything significant not going according to plan, unlike the reverse.
“Someone has interfered with the Nexus, attempted to break the siphon,” the Vizier explained. “They failed, obviously, but they may try again. And each time they do…”
Moreth nodded, his gaze locking on the glass sculpture serving as conduit between the Nexus and the Master. Ared admired the smooth curves of its twisting form for a brief moment, before striding over to the desk where Moreth was seated.
“Do you think the return of the Adventurers’ Guild will cause problems?” Moreth asked at length, apparently having torn himself away from admiring his divinely inspired masterpiece. Though the muse seemed less and less divine each time Ared looked hard upon events.
Ared considered the issue, studying the man silently as he did so. It was a reasonable concern, given how serious a threat the Guild had posed in the past. “No,” he replied at length. “It would take the Prince Regent, or perhaps the Saint.”
“Good, good.” Moreth leaned back in his chair and gazed out the open balcony doors, taking in the glittering opulence of the inner city beyond. “Governing bores me, and the Master’s…” He paused, searching for the right word. “Whispers grow more insistent.”
Ared scowled at the man.
“My mind is quite whole, Chancellor,” Moreth stated indignantly, thinking he had caught on to Ared’s point. He shifted slightly, the unconscious movement revealing the Vizier’s fear that answer would not always hold true. “Besides, unlike your predecessor I am not about to surrender my will.”
Silence blanketed the room, broken only by the faint noise of the city, as the pair both lost themselves in thought for a time.
“If only the Master would let us end his pitiable life,” the Vizier added at length.
Though Ared had sympathy for Shylith he doubted Moreth’s comment was driven by anything other than pragmatism. And the desire to be rid of a reminder of what fate may yet befall him.
When Ared had first met the former Chancellor, he had been a brilliant strategist. Much of the modern kingdom was possibly only because of his plans. And yet he would never understand the results of his labours.
Ared had been the one to wake the Master from slumber, but Shylith was the first true disciple. Years under the Master’s direct influence had worn away his mind and it would be a mercy to end the poor man’s life, that death might cure the madness afflicting him.
“Have you had any luck finding him?” The insistent tone revealed it was not the first time Moreth had asked that question.
Ared drew a deep breath and let it out in a long, exasperated sigh.
“How could he have escaped?” Moreth glowered irately out the window, though what he was looking at Ared could not say. “That twit from the Thieves’ Guild lacked any magic, much less enough to build bridges or bypass the half-dozen wards. So how did someone get in? And why would they feed him magic?”
“The Prince is growing suspicious,” Ared cut the Vizier’s contemplation short, hoping to steer the conversation in a more useful direction.
“So soon?” Moreth sounded genuinely surprised. “Bah, no matter. He is a buffoon, what harm can he do?”
Ared shrugged. “Throw us in the dungeon while ransacking our quarters for evidence?”
“Based on what? If the Regent were to have two loyal members of his Court, who have served the kingdom faithfully for generations, arrested simply because he suspects them… Why, the entire court would turn on him. No, without evidence-”
Ared was shaking his head. “Without evidence, he is still the Regent. As well as the nephew of the Duke of Brighthill, who is even now marching an army through the land. Purportedly to cleanse corruption from this very city. Enough Guilds would support him that he could get away with it.”
“Why Ared, I had no idea you were such a shrewd politician.” The snide comment was wasted.
“You may console yourself that by the time he figured out why you murdered his mother-” Ared paused to lean onto the desk, a pointed reminder of his opposition to the Moreth’s actions. “It will be too late to stop the Master. Especially with him out there, trying to speed things up and push them too far.”
“It is a pity we have no heir groomed yet,” Moreth lamented, his callousness unusual even for him. Though well in line with how Shylith had grown emotionally barren in the early stages of his dementia. “Otherwise, perhaps we could arrange for an assassination at the hands of the ‘Sollim’.”
“Perhaps a convenient accident will intervene, as with the Adventurers’ Guild?” Ared moved forward, towering over the wrinkled visage of his long-time confederate. From outside came a growing murmur as the daily throng of foreign dignitaries and guild representatives began to gather.
Ared longed for the days of his youth, skulking through alleys as a rebel against an oppressive regime. The thrill of danger, the chance to face enemies in battle, and not having to waste his days listening to endless negotiations with pig-headed emissaries. A righteous cause to guide the future, instead of this uncertainty regarding the past. His past.
Moreth chuckled, either too intent on the city to notice Ared’s looming presence or simply choosing to ignore it. “That was quite the achievement, ridding ourselves of them.”
“You had them all murdered? Dozens of people?” Ared slammed his hand against the desk, causing the Vizier to jump in his seat and turn to look at him with a startled expression. “Half the Adventurers’ Guild?”
“Murdered is too strong a word,” Moreth replied, clearly not understanding Ared’s objection. “I merely tipped the scales of battles they sought for themselves. Just enough to deal with certain key members Shylith had identified years before, prior to his… retirement. It was the most efficient solution to multiple problems. They posed a significant threat to our agenda, and were by no means innocent people. Though being able to use Silverblade to divert suspicion was purely luck.”
Ared scowled down at him. “Everything is falling apart, Moreth. His grandson is determined to find out the truth, and has already revived the Guild and begun reconnecting with his ancestor’s allies. Shylith is gone, escaped from your so-called ‘magicless’ prison and out there-” He waved at the city. “Doing who knows what, with goals that are definitely not aligned with ours. At best, he is crawling through back alleys in search of scraps to eat. At worst, he is the troublemaker in Wyrm’s Edge.”
“Calm down, old friend.” Though he tried to retain his composure, it was clear to Ared that the Vizier was quite afraid. “He was still in his cell by the time we heard from-”
“How much have we sacrificed, Moreth?” Ared’s expression grew stern and his tone serious. “We have lied, manipulated, imprisoned, and even murdered. What have we become? And for what? Power?”
“Ared, my dear friend… We have done only what was necessary to protect the kingdom, to prevent turmoil and even civil war. To gain power, yes, but not for power’s sake. We did it for peace.”
“Necessary?” Ared scoffed. “The Queen, perhaps. Shylith, certainly. But the adventurers? And what of the Guild of Magic-users?”
“They attempted magic beyond their control. That is hardly our fault, is it?” Moreth’s eyes darted about, making him look like a trapped animal seeking escape.
“I have studied the accounts of that night, Moreth. I know what their ritual conjured. Do you expect me to believe one of the Master’s servants appeared entirely by coincidence?”
Moreth snorted derisively. “Even Shylith knew better than to let something like that loose in the city. Entirely by coincidence? No. Did it get out of hand? Yes. No one was supposed to die; just enough damage to the Guild that the Crown would be justified to ban the practice of higher magic and dissolve the Mages’ Guild.”
“Instead, nearly a hundred mages, students, and servants were consumed by the Master. At least you got what you wanted.”
The Royal Vizier let out a long sigh, a pained expression on his face. “That was when I first realized what was happening to Shylith… Their deaths were not in vain, Ared.” He looked up with a pleading expression. “Had it not been for that fateful night, I would not have known to stop many a plan of Shylith’s over the next few years. The death toll could have been many times higher.”
Ared moved back onto the balcony, sweeping his gaze once more over the city as dawn became full day. A runner made their way down the avenue from the Gilded Gate; gardeners busily tended flowers; the spectre of death hung over the ruins of Raven’s Nest.
It looked like any other day, and yet…
“Should we send the Prince Regent away?” He asked over his shoulder as Moreth, with much effort, made his way out of his chair and moved to join him.
“No… The boy may be a dandy, but he is not an idiot. Sending him away in the middle of a crisis would make him even more suspicious. Though perhaps if we could get him to suggest going on a trip… Perhaps to the Anurans or the Isles, to negotiate for military support in the event of an invasion?”
Ared looked at the wrinkled man. He was limping and frail, what was left of his hair was little more than thin wisps, and his skin was mottled and pale. He looked barely a hundred, though in truth he was more than two decades past.
His extraordinary longevity was ascribed by the locals to some unusual ancestry, but Ared knew the truth. Communion with the Master allowed Moreth to… “slip outside of time”, as he put it. For him, large portions of the past hundred years had gone by without him. As far as Moreth was concerned, he was perhaps in his seventies. A venerable age, but not nearly as old as he looked.
Ared looked back at the Gilded Gate and the city beyond, wondering if they had truly done what was right. ‘We did what was necessary to preserve the Empire!’ He had said shortly before Ared had stuck a blade through him.
Had they now fallen into the same trap, only to realize far too late what they had done? Or were their choices just and necessary for the greater good?
A sudden knock on the door had both of them looking back at the study. It was time for another day at Court.