Arquina Hillbreaker stared out over the city below Hillbreaker Palace. In the dead of night, the city was alive. Torchlight flickered in the streets as frantic yells echoed up to her as guards swarmed the alleyways and avenues, shifting into ever-smaller platoons and search parties. They were covering as much ground as they could. From the palace to the lake, Cilasia was swelling with activity.
She knew it was fruitless. The person the guards were seeking out would either be long since gone, or worse, still in the palace, hiding in plain sight. The thought would have given her a chill, if she weren’t so numb. She would never be able to tell who had done the deed. Only those that participated, and without proof, exposing them would be futile.
She slipped a cautious hand into the slip of her nightgown and pulled out a purple ribbon. She looked down to it, tearless. What tears she might have had were already shed. Nadus had given it to her when she was a girl of only fourteen. Before she’d even known it was the man she would marry, she’d felt something strong between them. On the day Arquina’s sixteenth year began, they were wed. She had never regretted it. Not once. And Nadus felt the same way. He’d proved that to her time and time again, even when they’d both discovered that Arquina would never be able to provide an heir to him.
It was common for Halish Nobility to sue for divorce on those grounds. But Nadus refused, even after Arquina had insisted, for the good of the Hillbreaker line. Through all the years, the secret was kept.
Now, Nadus was dead. Arquina tightened her grip on the ribbon. She’d woken in the middle of the night, her husband absent from their bed. She knew that Nadus was apt to visit his study when he couldn’t sleep, and half expected to find him there, reading a book, or dozing off in his reading chair.
When she found him limp and leaned over to one side, she knew. She felt the panic well up within her. He was dead, his neck twisted at an unnatural angle. It had been broken. The King of Halen had been murdered in his reading chair.
No matter who performed the deed, no matter how quickly they had managed to hide, Arquina knew that they were merely the tool. No King had suffered such a fate for as long back as anyone could remember, but her Nadus was not like any other King. He was kind, fair. He believed in freedom and justice, regardless of what he was told to do.
The High Magus Council had not been pleased about his decision to lend aid to Dunsmith. They had not been pleased to learn of Izon Dueck’s execution. He was their man in Halen, and now he was no longer.
But they had others, and Ianto had warned him of it.
Nadus chose to ignore his warnings. Perhaps he knew that this would happen. Perhaps he even knew it was to happen that night, and that’s why he left Arquina alone in their bed, to save her life.
Arquina would never know.
“Lady,” a voice called softly from the doorway. Arquina turned around and saw a bleak, yet familiar face looking back at her.
“Ianto,” she said. “Thank you for coming.”
Ianto Indetae was a tall man, a patron of the Indetae clan and an Elder of the Cloudstalker Enclave. He looked to be a man of about sixty, but he was the type to loathe revealing his age to anyone, even family. He kept his silver hair tied back in a ponytail and wore a thick, yet close-cropped beard. He walked into the room and reached for Arquina’s hand. “Of course,” he said. “We have failed you and our King, Lady. For this—“
“You’ve failed at nothing, Ianto. Nadus knew this was coming.” She reached into her nightgown and pulled out a small envelope. It had been torn open hastily, but the letter inside was still intact. She handed it to Ianto. “He kept it from us,” she said. “We underestimated the Council.”
Ianto took the letter from the envelope and unfolded it. He read it in silence, and then looked up to Arquina, his eyes expressing confusion. “Lady, is this true?”
“For better or for worse, yes,” she said, her eyes downcast.
“But this, Lady. The Enclave is meant to protect the bloodline. Why did we not—“
“He had his reasons,” she explained.
“But Lady, the Enclave swore an oath to–”
“You swore an oath to obey and protect the Crown,” she said. She looked at him. “I’m certain the Council’s dogs are already circling the Palace, seeking to control just that. With Nadus now gone, the crown goes to me. For how long, however, depends on how long I can maintain it without angering the Council. I fear it will not be long at all.” She looked to him. “Ianto, you have been our friend for as long as I can remember. Will you take my command as though it were his?”
“Until my dying breath, Lady,” Ianto said, bowing before her. “As of this moment, you are the Crown of Halen. The Enclave exists to obey and protect you.”
She reached out and pressed Ianto’s hand, closing his fingers around the letter. “Then carry out Nadus’ final request,” she said. “And ignore any further orders from me, or whomever stands in my place.”
“But… Lady, can we truly trust these people? We know so little of them.”
“Your son seems to trust them. And Nadus trusted them. Trusted them enough to willingly turn against the Council. Trusted them enough to forfeit his life.” She levelled her gaze on Ianto. “That is enough for me.”
Ianto remained in silent thought for a moment. “Then it is enough for me,” he said. He placed a hand upon her shoulder. “I will complete his request… your command. On my life, Lady.”
“I know,” Arquina said. “You are among the last of Nadus’ trusted friends. You know the importance of this, the importance of secrecy in this.”
Slowly, Arquina shifted her gaze back out toward the city. “Time is wasting, Ianto. The sooner you leave, the better our chances. I must begin mourning.”
“I wish I could relieve you of that burden, Arquina,” Ianto said softly.
“I am not Arquina,” she said. “I am Hillbreaker, Queen of Halen. Now go. Leave, before you’re spotted.”
Ianto nodded, then slowly bowed out of the room. He had a mission to complete, and it would take years to complete.
The city of Dey, sprawled along the southernmost tip of the great Nation of Shavi, was a sight to behold. Looking out over the city from the peaks of the Woven Mountains to the north, one could see the Seat of Shavi, the home of Her Majesty, Mystra Windchaser in grand form within the harbour. A grand, ornate bridge made of sculpted marble spanned the distance between the Seat to the Shoreside district, Dey’s center of commerce. Spanning outward to the east stood rows of homes, and further away stood the menacing form of the Tear, the silent prison. Westward, the fishing and agricultural district of the city lay along the shore and flat plains as they moved up into the northern lowlands. Directly north of the city lay the Academies, spread out upon a hilltop looking down upon the city below.
The academy grounds were built in a roughly triangular pattern. At its base, thirteen gates allowed entry into the Academy grounds. The thirteen paths would congregate as they moved up toward the northern tip of the Academy, and meet just before a large, circular building trussed with ornate pillars and a craftsmanship that left its onlookers in awe.
The interior of the building was one few had seen. Even among the students, the warning was well-known; stay away from the Eye. Not in jest, not out of curious meandering, not for youthful mischief, not for anything. It was for the Council alone, and that was how it would stay.
Even if the students weren’t terrified of the Council already, the dozens of elite guardsmen protecting the area from all but the Council and their welcomed guests was enough of a reason to keep a distance.
Especially in times like these. It was late in the afternoon when the Council met. Each Council member was taken by covered coach dispatched earlier in the afternoon. None of the members knew why the meeting had been called; only that it was a dire circumstance.
Within the building’s center was the Eye. A circular room fitted with nine seats, all facing the center of the table. The ceiling was high, supported by pillars in a type of architecture rarely seen in the Pactlands. The building had an ancient history. It was said that even at the time of Rasshauer Flenn, the Academy grounds and the Eye itself had been left standing, a relic from an earlier era.
The nine seats eventually earned sitters, and the Eye was shut off from the rest of the world, an artifact near the center of the room, crafted through magic long forgotten prevented sounds from escaping the Eye..
“The wager has been met,” a short, chubby man with balding gray hair said. His name was Vato Cirrus. He had long been an accomplished member of the High Magus Council; his age was evident of that. He was in his sixties, and it was rare for a member of the Council to survive as long as he had. “Soor Lai’s action was the final blow. My network tells me that Nadus Hillbreaker drew his last breath late last night.”
“Just as well,” another Council member said. “Was not Dueck your man, Soor?”
“Fools serve their purpose,” Soor Lai said. He was also an older man. Besides Cirrus, he was the only member over the age of fifty. “After all, if not for Dueck, we’d not have known of this new Seer.”
“If not for Dueck, we wouldn’t have lost the sway we had with Halen in the first place. You’d do well to remember that,” said Morgan Sabare, the youngest, and one of the few female members of the Council. She swung her head back to Vato. “What news from Halen now, then?”
“Hillbreaker’s wife will rule in his stead, but we’d known that. She is sympathetic to him, but she is not so stupid as to go against us,” Vato replied. “Not now. My man is not far from her.”
“Then the unpleasantness with this force in the Disputed Lands may be manageable,” Morgan said.
“It is far too early to say,” Soor Lai commented. “We would do well not to underestimate them. The last force to come from the Disputed Lands was stronger than we’d anticipated. These ones, I fear may even be stronger than them, if the stories are to be believed.”
“Of this supposed techknowledge?” Morgan said. “I do not believe a word of it.”
“The stories are spreading across the borders even now,” Vato said. “That they have machines capable of dropping screaming fire from the sky. It’s how Vector lost their settlement in the Disputed Lands. Even as a rumour, it is a sobering thought. Even we would be unprepared for an assault from the skies.”
“Do we have eyes yet?” Morgan asked. “Can we verify these claims for ourselves?” She shook her head. “I think they’re no more than stories. Freemen, perhaps, that have gone beyond our notice and gathered a force.”
“Freemen are barely literate, you expect them to organize? Remember where we come from, Sabare. Remember our histories. That of Maer and Flenn and Becca, of the Saveurest Accord?” Soor explained.
“A myth from a time when we understood little,” she said with a flick of her hair.
“You are supposing we know everything now?” another voice rang, one that had been remaining quiet until then. It was Alistair Tremblay, one of the more ruthless members of the Council. He was a handsome man, with long blonde hair and a face that betrayed no emotion who had earned his place on the Council by doing what few others dared to. Few trusted Tremblay, but everyone respected him. “Fool. We know nothing. Still, I am inclined to disagree. This Dunsmith should bear our attention. Any place that boasts a new Green Seer must bear our attention. Why we do not have men there already is beyond me. Were these people not responsible for our losing control of the Halen situation? Was it not they that facilitated the unfortunate end of Hillbreaker? Did they not interrupt Vector’s lawful claims within the Disputed Lands. Need I remind this Council that we voted to support Vector’s claims?”
“Not all of us did, Tremblay,” Sabare corrected.
“Regardless, it was a vote of majority,” Alistair said with a wave of his hand.
“I submit a challenge,” Soor Lai said.
“Another? You aim to break us, Soor Lai,” another member said.
“A challenge on what terms?”
“An end to any threat from the Disputed Lands,” Soor Lai explained. “To whomsoever should effectively bend these Dunsmithers to the will of the Pact, by whatever means they deem justified.”
“A vague gamble, Soor,” Alistair said. He remained silent on it for a moment. “I will accept.”
Sabare leaned back in her seat for a moment. “As will I.”
There was a moment of silence. “Very well, then,” Vato said. “I too shall join in this wager.”
There were no other speakers.
“The four of us, then,” Soor Lai said. He smiled. “Shall we discuss the stakes?”