Diarmid II watched the map half-heartedly, barely paying attention as Moreth blabbered on about trivial matters. The Royal Vizier had been keeping him very busy the past few days. It was almost as if there was something going on he did not want the Prince Regent to discover.
Equally telling was Ared’s absence. The duo seldom split up for any significant length of time, yet Ared had not been present in the Royal Halls for days. At least as far as Diarmid could tell, though the spymaster’s prowess in stealth was well known. Either way, the Prince Regent found it to be cause for concern.
“I trust you understand the implications of such a decree?” Arcald’s voice drew Diarmid back to the council meeting.
“The Guilds may well openly rebel,” Comtesse Banow agreed.
“The Guilds?! He wishes to bleed the entire nobility dry!” Baron Nurim was livid, though the chorus of support he earned from his fellow nobles seemed to calm him somewhat.
“Aye! How are we to afford fielding an army if we cannot charge more to balance the reduced production?” Lady Fairgrove was looking as ravishing as usual.
“If we could buy peace, we wouldn’t be having this meeting.” Comte Sweetarrow had a point, if war came it would not be about resources. It would cost the Sollim far less to trade for those.
Moreth patted his hands in the air, trying in vain to get the crowd to quiet down. Diarmid took a certain pleasure in watching the old man sigh in frustration before doing his best to speak above the noise. “I am not suggesting that the Royal Guild not provide compensation, certainly the Royal Guild owes as much to its loyal vassals. However, it is the belief of the Prince Regent that it is in the best interest of the kingdom to place certain restrictions on the price of goods to avoid long-term damage caused by profiteering in a time such as this.”
“It is?” Diarmid was confused. This was the first he had heard of such a notion, one which he could easily see leaving the Royal Treasury empty. Which, in turn, would make it very hard for the Royal Guild to rule effectively. Moreth was forcing his hand. With everyone staring at him and waiting for him to pick a side, he hardly had time to figure out a good way to keep up his charade while opposing the potentially ruinous idea. “We do not believe that this suggestion has been brought to Our attention previously. Why is it We believe this to be in the kingdom’s best interest?”
Moreth glared at him, anger flickering in his eyes. It lasted only a moment before he composed himself, but it was there. “Apologies, Your Highness.” He offered a curt bow. “ I would of course never presume to speak for Your Highness without first ascertaining and seeking approval. It was my impression that we had arrived at this conclusion during our discussions yesterday.”
Diarmid vaguely recalled a lengthy conversation he had with Moreth during the banquet last night, though he had perhaps indulged a touch more than prudent during the festivities. The hunched man gestured at the map, using his cane to point at the desert barely visible on one side. “Regardless, the Sollim are continuing to gather their forces no more than two days’ march from the pass at Solmuth and we must make haste to prepare for the inevitable invasion.”
Diarmid let out a mental groan at the thought of yet another day devoted to a war no one had any real evidence was coming. The Sollim had been gathering around the oasis west of Solmuth, this was true, but reports suggested it to be less an army than a gathering of lords with their retinues; attendant civilians and bodyguards. It did not seem like much cause for concern, though what reason they might have to converge there in such numbers he did not know.
Diarmid lay across his throne, staring at the elaborately painted ceiling. Ever since he was a child he had loved staring at the scenes above, searching for new discoveries among their myriad details. The hall around him was silent and empty, aside from a handful of guards standing vigilant at their posts.
The room smelled faintly of sweet incense mixed with the faint citrus of the soldiers’ perfume. That had been his idea. As a kid he had always hated going on outings because it meant being surrounded by sweaty, stinky bodyguards instead of the sweet perfumes of court. He wondered if they still wore it to humour him, or if it had been adopted as part of their uniform.
There was probably a Silver Cloak around, as well, protecting the Prince Regent. ‘Or spying on me on the Grand Chancellor’s behalf,’ Diarmid thought to himself, blowing out a long sigh before pulling himself up.
He always had an uneasy feeling when his was alone in this room; like something bad had happened here long ago. As a child he had imagined it was haunted by the ghosts of his great-great-grandparents, but now he knew the palace had been built decades after King Diarmid had vanished.
It was still strange being here when the room was void of its regular inhabitants; no entertainers performing on the stage above the door; no courtiers crowding the balconies lining the walls; no fawning emissaries kneeling on the carpet below the dais holding the throne.
He felt as though the room itself was burdened by the loneliness, denied its purpose as the members of the Royal Guild caroused in the rooftop garden or attended matters of state in the back rooms. Or maybe he was just projecting his own feelings of uselessness upon its muted state, with its dimmed lights and empty spaces.
Moreth was no doubt furious at having been undermined during the meeting, but Diarmid had not been able to resist the chance. He could almost hear the old coot now, going on how he had kept Diarmid’s family on the throne for five generations. How Diarmid should trust and support him, because he had kept this kingdom from falling apart for a hundred years.
Diarmid looked up at the ceiling again, wondering if any of his forebears had really done the things chronicled in its patterns or if was all just part of Moreth’s efforts to keep power where he could control it.
“I remember you laying on the carpet, right here, staring up at those paintings for hours when you were a boy. Trying to run away from your problems by dreaming your way to another world.”
The entire room seemed to light up, as though the small flames of the oil lamps had suddenly doubled in size. Diarmid grinned as he lowered his gaze to find the smiling face of his great uncle; Duke Arcald of Brighthill. The old man had somehow managed to open the heavy door and sneak all the way up to the base of the stairs without making a sound.
“We- I really need to get someone to remove that carpet. Clearly it poses a threat to the Royal life.” Diarmid’s jest earned him the slightest of chuckles before Arcald’s expression turned serious.
“There is a darkness over the valley. Something far worse than a raven is nesting here. You know this. You told me this. And now you are pretending it does not exist. Why? What have you learned?”
Diarmid looked around the room, unable to meet his uncle’s gaze. “I wonder if we could commission someone to replace the columns with statues… Perhaps the Royal family?” he mumbled, pretending not to hear Arcald.
“I plan to leave for Brighthill tomorrow. I need to prepare for the garrison’s march to Solmuth, and brief the Knight-Commander. Might I not persuade you to come with me? The garrison could take the South Tradeway through Malqish on its way west, should you wish to exorcise these halls.”
“Oh, come now uncle! You speak as though I am at risk of being eaten alive by some vile monster!” Diarmid snapped his gaze back to the Duke and stared at him silently for a few moments. “I assure you, I am perfectly safe. Moreth may be a scoundrel, but Ared is an honorable man and they know their way around running a kingdom. Even if Ared wishes he did not.”
“You have no idea…” Ared lamented from just inside the door, drawing the attention of both men. “Where is Moreth?”
“I- uh, I do not know,” Diarmid stammered, still shocked to find Ared standing there. He wondered how much the Chancellor had heard. “I believe he mentioned needing to go over some maps in his study after the Council meeting. Perhaps he is still there?”
Ared bowed his head politely, then stared down Arcald for a few moments before leaving as silently as he had arrived.
The Duke turned back to the Prince Regent, but his expression was pensive and he seemed lost in thought as he stood there in silence. When finally he spoke, he did so with a stern voice and unyielding expression.
“That man may be honorable, but make no mistake. If Moreth wants you dead, Ared will not ask why.” He half-turned, never looking away from Diarmid. “The Dawn guide your way, my child. I do not wish for you to join my grandfather in whatever darkness has claimed his soul.” He swept his hand across, the sign of the sun. “May the Light guide us and ward us from evil. May the Illustrious chase the shadows from our souls that we may be delivered unto the Heavens as shining stars.”
Diarmid shuddered, feeling the magic suffuse him. It was always a strange sensation, being blessed by Arcald. It was like a warm fire ignited within, burning in his spirit and promising to burn any that would bring him harm.
He watched the old cleric back out of the great hall and then waved over the closest servant. “I want this carpet removed. Immediately!”