King Dane Rathburne, the lightbringer, sixth of his line and ruler of Hithlinde, was gardening. A kind-looking man in his early thirties with a long, straight nose and brown, braided hair currently looped upon itself and tucked beneath a cloth cap. Colorful beads and shining coins were woven into his elegant braid, glinting in the sun. He was covered to his elbows in mulch from his personal garden, placed on a high balcony overlooking the sprawling urban complex of the capital city, Edhellon.
He hummed cheerfully to himself as he patted soft loam into a new mound, working slowly and deliberately. The garden around him was a teeming maze of greenery; bushes of herbs growing next to twisting vivid flowers, red and green tomato plants winding along taut lines of twine suspended from the ceiling, soaring over rows of blossoming ivy that snaked amongst the roots of crown-o’-ivory flowers, smelling heavily of sweet rain. Small birds fluttered around, twittering merrily. The king was wearing rough canvas overalls, heavily stained with dirt and a work shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His state robes and crown were slung onto a side table set near the towering double doors that lead to his study. It was a beautiful autumn day; the sun hovered overhead in the cloudless azure sky.
The king’s chief advisor and childhood friend Olivaar was standing a safe distance away from the dirt of the garden, holding a stack of papers and looking slightly annoyed. He was clad in flowing robes of green and yellow silk, and his braided dreadlocks were bound by a silk ribbon whose end flapped in the slight breeze that blew over the balcony.
“If you had stayed for the rest of the meeting–”
“Olly if I had stayed I would have listened to Breyny berate me about the state of the army for another hour and a half.” Dane spoke calmly without looking up from the orange and green shrub he was tucking into a hollow he had smoothed into the loam. “I know what the state of the army is, I let him badger me for a solid three-quarters of an hour yesterday about it.”
Olivaar huffed slightly but let it go, flipping through his stack of notes. A tall man with wide-set cheekbones with skin the color of rich amber ale, his intelligent eyes flicked over the lines of scrawling text quickly.
“We’ve gotten several complaints from the Tower Ward about thefts in the area; apparently some of the local gangs are getting a little rambunctious. People have gotten hurt.”
The king nodded, sitting up to his knees and wiping a bead of sweat from his brow despite the slight chill in the afternoon air. “Who do we have that we can give that to?”
Olivaar looked out over the balcony for a moment in thought.
“We can’t go to Anton; we used him last month when that little boy went missing. He’ll start being suspected for cooperating with us. We can ask Plutone, with the Daggerboys. He’s expressed interest.”
Dane pulled a face before turning back to his shrub. “The Daggerboys? Where do they come up with these names? Do they just randomly pair up words?” He looked up with a grin, but Olivaar blinked impassively. “Ah come on Ollie that was funny.”
“If you say so, your majesty.”
“What’d I tell you about that ‘your majesty’ stuff when it’s just you and I?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about. Your majesty.” Olivaar said with a perfectly straight face.
The king snorted with laughter. “How long have we been friends, Ollie?” He brushed soil from the leaves of a brilliant green fern.
The dark-skinned man sighed and looked up at the arched ceiling, counting silently.
“Twenty-three years this winter, sire. I was sent to the palace as a page a little after your twelfth birthday.”
“And in all that time, how many times have I asked you to call me by my name when no one else is around?”
Olivaar flashed a set of pearly white teeth in a wry smile. “I’ve lost count, majesty.”
“Are you going to make me ask again?”
“It would seem so, your majesty.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” Dane asked accusingly.
“Not a bit, majesty.” The corner of the advisor’s mouth twitched upwards.
The king rolled his eyes. “All right, if you trust this Plutone character, that’s fine.”
Olivaar licked a pencil and made a note on the corner of a piece of parchment.
“What news from Styhill? Has Exard made any progress?”
A shadow passed over Olivaar’s face but the king didn’t notice, too busy gingerly tucking the roots of the shrub into the dirt. The advisor ruffled through the papers in his hand before replying.
“The good general says the situation is a mark worse than originally thought. Now about your birthday parade–” The advisor hurried on.
“Stop.” Dane stood, brushing loam off the knees of his overalls. “Give me the details.” The sly smile slid off his face.
Olivaar lifted a single eyebrow, but deftly removed a sheaf of parchment bound in red twine from the stack in his hands. The curled paper was covered in straight, bold writing. “General Exard says that the beasts are better-organized and more dangerous than originally thought. A dozen villages have been attacked, and the rest are emptying as the peasants–”
“Commonfolk.” The king corrected, eyes glinting. He folded his hands behind his back and listened intently, looking out over his garden.
“Commonfolk.” Olivaar amended deftly. “–are retreating to the relative safety of Styhill. A shantytown–his words, not mine–has been erected along the north-northwest wall of the city to attempt to house them all.”
Dane nodded thoughtfully. “Do they have enough food? Water?”
Olivaar pursed his lips as he scanned the parchment. “Mmm…water, yes, the general seems to have set up a distribution system using water from the Aavas river. Food, he says, is the issue. Styhill can’t produce enough to feed that many people. He writes that he’s promised the city’s bakers three gold pieces a day to remain open through the night, firing loaves of bread.”
“We can send him flour from Gahea.” Dane mused, eyes flickering to the map of the kingdom dominating the wall leading to his study. “They’ve had a bountiful wheat harvest this year, the mills are overflowing. Breeford doesn’t have the supplies to feed that many people on such short notice. How much money does Vyncent have? Paying the bakers that much is going to get very expensive very quick. Can he support the brunt of these charges and we can pay him back?”
“The baron’s coffers were light to begin with.” Olivaar tapped the quill against his lips thoughtfully. A shaft of sunlight pierced through a wall of ivy, falling on the advisor’s red skin in a burnished glow. “The peat harvest from the swamps has been slower than recent years. He won’t be able to keep up. I’m honestly surprised we haven’t heard from him already, asking for help.”
“Do we have enough in the bank to deal with this on our own?” Dane took his cloth cap off and shook his hair out with a hand. It reached down to his mid-back, a tight, elegant weave of chestnut hair, coins and beads shining in the bright sunlight.
Olivaar shook his head. “Not right now. Tax collection is starting in a few weeks, we’ll have enough coming in then to absorb most of the cost, but right now we don’t have the funds to support an entire populace for however long it takes the general–” The advisor’s mouth curled in disdain. Dane’s eyes narrowed in irritation, but he didn’t interrupt. “–to deal with the lizardfolk.”
Dane rubbed his hands over his face, smearing it with dirt, groaning. “Migo’s left toenail, I really don’t want to go to Anton with this. Is there any other option? Can we go to Sasha, at the Jade Assembly?”
“She won’t have enough.” Olivaar said. “Reports coming out of the southeast have spoken of an increased number of foul beasts crawling out of the Rift. The Assembly is keeping them contained to the canyonlands for now, but if we start lifting from their treasury…”
Dane shut his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Fine. Send a letter. Make it flowery, King Dane blah blah, first of his blah, requests the assistance of arguably the most arrogant blah blah in all the land.”
“I’ll be sure to antagonize the good Duke before we ask him for money.” Olivaar said smoothly, not looking up from scratching notes on a piece of parchment. “Sort of the one-two punch in politics.”
Dane scowled. “I don’t particularly care about keeping his highness happy. If I have to listen to him tell me about how his ancestors founded Breeford I swear to the sun god I’ll–”
“Listen carefully, nod and hum politely?” The robed advisor asked lightly.
“Yes but I won’t like it.” The king said petulantly.
“Your patience will be sung about for hundreds of years.” Olivaar said wryly.
Dane grunted sourly. “Anyway. Write Exard back, tell him about the flour. Have a unit of Geoffry’s riders take it from Gahea. They’ll make good time, have it in Styhill within the week’s end. Tell him about going to Duke Anton with mounting expenses, Vyncent will have his hands full as it is. Does he say anything about venturing into the swamps, going on the offensive?”
Olivaar bit the end of the quill, quickly shuffling through his growing stack of notes and papers.
“Ah, here. He’s made several forays, but the terrain is treacherous and the beasts are excellent trappers. It’s been slow, dangerous going.”
“How many men lost?” Dane frowned.
The king turned abruptly and eyed his chief advisor. “Only?”
The amber-skinned man shrugged. “They’re soldiers. It’s dangerous work.”
“So their lives are worth less?” Dane’s nostrils flared delicately. Olivaar, sensing perhaps that he was treading on dangerous turf, shook his head.
“No, of course not. I merely meant that the esteemed general–”
“First of all, don’t pretend you feel anything for the man but contempt.” Dane interrupted, gesticulating abruptly. “Second, the safety of this kingdom and the people in it comes at a price paid in blood.” Despite his stained canvas overalls and dirt-smudged face, he radiated a grave intensity. His words were suddenly clipped and his attitude polished, cold and hard as cut diamond. “Casually dismiss it again and I’ll send you into those swamps with a sword in your hand to find out exactly how dear that price is.” The king’s face was drawn into the icy, unreadable mask he used at court.