The faces around him gazed on, awaiting his orders. Ser Ulthan stood rigid on the opposite side of the table. From his twitching and careful gestures, the monarch could tell the knight desperately needed a break. But a decision had to be made.
“The Auzixians are no doubt wondering if they’ll receive another shipment of goods from Souhal soon,” the king began. “A ship hailing from Solyvaan recently docked, after battling with customs for three days. They weren’t members of the church, thankfully, just Vainyri merchants. They’d even docked here prior to sailing eastward.”
Tyrdun scratched the fuzz on his chin. “Why haven’t you made the embargo official yet, Your Grace? Let your allies know about Auzix?”
King Aldariak’s eyes shifted away from the dwarf. Tyrdun’s home city of Aljorn had suffered the worst from the undead hordes at the behest of the westermen. And now, with a new threat looming on the horizon, the dwarves had been left in the dark. Tyrdun bore the weight without outward complaint, but it was clear he wished for King Thorstan to be aware of Auzix’s intentions. Unfortunately, for the good of Gandaraar, their ignorance had to remain a little longer. “If it were only so easy. We need more information about Auzix. We need to know what we’re up against, and to do that, we need them to believe we’re unaware of their disposition.” The dwarf accepted that with a nod. King Aldariak’s eyes shot to Ulthan for the quick flicker of a moment. The monarch’s plans wouldn’t work without the former paladin’s help, as news of his new … outlook hadn’t yet spread beyond Souhal. However, the king knew asking that of the knight was a step too far.
But he didn’t see another way. Red Watch was known in Solyvaan because of Ulthan. If any of the others went, they would recognize his absence. King Aldariak shut his eyes tightly. “Ser Ulthan, I had you in mind for this task.”
The knight’s head didn’t move. His visage didn’t fade from its stony countenance that had marked the entirety of these proceedings. His voice, however, did waver. “As you command, my king.”
The monarch replied with a solemn, strategic nod, hiding his own despondency from the assembled. “Your Grace,” Joravyn said, “I’ll accompany Ulthan to Auzix.”
The king heard the knight’s quiet sigh of relief and bowed his head. “Very well. I will have one of my kingsguard join you as well – Ser Rodrik. He will meet you by the docks in a day’s time, aboard the Queen’s Reprisal, and sail with you to Solyvaan.” They nodded at the orders, the tension easing.
“Did ye want us to go with ’im too?” Tyrdun asked.
The king shifted back into his chair, sitting upright. “No. For the rest of you I have a few other things in mind.” The dwarf bowed his head. King Aldariak hesitated, frowning. “Our allies are struggling to recover from the invasion. We need to secure more forces if we’re to survive this coming war. Tyrdun, how would you feel about journeying to Frost Hearth?”
He frowned. “Could be dangerous, Your Grace. But I can make it.”
“Good,” the king said. “King Nyorvar has requested we see his soldiers back home – the White Blade orcs are raiding the lands around Frost Hearth. Do what you can, and ensure they’ll aid us when Auzix comes.”
“Aye, Your Grace.”
“If I may,” Lytha said, “I’d be glad to go with Tyrdun. I’ve always wanted to see Frost Hearth.”
King Aldariak nodded. He turned to Ellaria and Torvaas. “We’ve also received a request from Warchief Inaru for Red Watch’s assistance. As we can’t afford to send you all, you two will have to do.”
Tyrdun frowned. The dwarf had made no secret of his wish to see Stormhold and Inaru, but Ellaria and Torvaas would never have been welcomed into Frost Hearth. King Aldariak had something in mind for that, though. “I also thought to seek Queen Alezia’s aid. Perhaps your groups could reconvene there.”
“Then head south through Stormhold,” Ellaria said, giving Tyrdun a winsome smile.
The dwarf grinned. The king couldn’t deny his own joy at the plan. “Good. It’s decided, then. Tyrdun, I’ll have the northmen meet you and Lytha at the stables tomorrow morning.” He eyed the map again, scanning the surface.
“Is that all, Your Grace?” Ulthan asked.
“One more thing,” King Aldariak said. “A nobleman, Darixus Vakalik, has been asking to speak with you.” Silence filled the room as confused faces stared back at him. “Forgive me. The Vakaliks are a relatively small family. Darixus is the heir to the barony of Vakal’s Ridge. He’s forgone the use of the family’s ancestral winter abode in Kual’apir. He’s been asking for an audience since the end of the battle. He arrived shortly after you all.”
Ulthan shrugged. “We’ll meet him.”
The king nodded. He gestured for the gray-haired castellan to show the nobleman in. The man returned soon after and escorted Darixus inside. King Aldariak had met the boy once and was surprised to see he was a boy no more. A young man of at least twenty-three stood before him, wearing a long-sleeved silk tunic. Embroidered on his chest was his house sigil, a snake’s head, maw gaping open to proudly display its fangs. The outline of the iconography was sewn with golden thread, in a showing of wealth some would consider arrogant – an apt description for most of the Vakalik family. Whether such an assumption fit Darixus, King Aldariak couldn’t say. His dark skin made his imperial heritage obvious, though the king knew him to have been born here in Souhal. Darixus’s deep brown eyes were narrowed by the edges of a smile as he entered. The nobleman wore a close cropping of dark curly hair with a trimmed goatee to match.
“By the Pent,” he said, “It’s an honest honor to meet you, Red Watch.” He offered his hand forward to Ulthan, who took it and gave a firm shake.
“What did you have for us?” the knight asked, his eyebrow arching.
“An offer,” Darixus said, his smile broadening. “Your name’s grown to new heights since you defeated the westermen. In the last month I’ve heard it pass the lips of half the people I’ve met.” He paused, eyeing them all. “For better or worse. Some claim to be your friends, seeking to absolve themselves of mistakes or crimes. All the smithies down King’s Way claim to be your preferred stop for arms and armor.”
Ulthan and Tyrdun exchanged a glance. The dwarf asked, “What’s that got t’do with us?”
“I’d assume you’ll be leaving Souhal soon on business?” he asked, his tone revealing the question as rhetorical. “You need someone here to keep your name attached where you’d rather it be. To ensure your fame does not turn to infamy – that the favors you’ve incurred are not squandered. That’s what I’m offering.”
“And why should we trust you to do that?” Ellaria asked, watching him through narrowed eyes.
“Did you have anyone else in mind?” Darixus asked. She pressed her lips together and answered him with silence. “I’m volunteering – I want to do this for you. I want to help Red Watch—in what small ways I can.”
“And what do you want in return?” Lytha asked, eyebrow arched.
The nobleman paused for a time, his gaze shifted downward. Only the very edges of his lips curled upward, forlornly. “Just the chance to work by your side. To do something worthwhile with my family’s influence and wealth. That’s all.”
King Aldariak offered a placating hand when he noticed their wary glances. “I can vouch for Darixus, his family’s been in Souhal since my grandfather ruled. They’ve been nothing but model citizens.”
The six of them exchanged glances, all settling on Ulthan. The knight pursed his lips, then nodded, turning back to the nobleman. “Very well. Welcome aboard.”
Darixus’s smile spread across his face, his teeth bared in pure joy. He clasped his hands together before his face. “Thank you! Excellent!” His excitement was palpable. “What’s our first undertaking?”
“Walk with us,” Joravyn said, “we’ll fill you in.” With that, Red Watch walked from the chamber, and King Aldariak sat alone until the castellan reentered.
“Your Grace,” the aged man bowed as he approached.
King Aldariak signaled him to rise with a wave. “What is it, Duncan?”
“We … received a response from Freton and the Jaddock Isles. They refused to aid the Gandari Kingdoms, claiming the vagueness of the message was too much for their liking. Jarl Barjulf sent some insults I would prefer not to repeat, but the Eyjan of Jaddock promises to hear the request again once you are more direct about what the kingdoms face,” Duncan explained.
King Aldariak grunted. “Unsurprising. Has the Jarl’s efforts on raiding our northbound ships increased?”
“Somewhat, Your Grace. They seem to remain focused on King Nyorvar’s forces.”
“Have Tanner send a few ships from the fleet. Remind the Fretons why Souhal’s navy is a force to be feared.”
“At once, my king. Will that be all?” Duncan asked.
“It will. I’ll be in the study should anything arise,” King Aldariak rose from his ornate chair and made for the door.
“Your Grace, there was one other concern. The matter of succession continues to leave the court uneasy. I have a few potential matches in mind if you’d like to …”
“No, Duncan. Not now. We have a war to prepare for.”