Thunder rumbled overhead like a distant battering ram, pounding at the hasp of heaven. The harsh grumble was muted in the stone-walled room, but the waterfall sound of pounding rain came through the single open window on the windy breath of the chilly spring night. Half a dozen richly dressed men sat around the large wooden table's polished surface. Three of them nursed ruby-hearted wineglasses. Two more quaffed beer from elaborately ornamented tankards. The sixth leaned back in the larger, more heavily ornamented chair at the head of the table. A small glass of Dwarvenhame whiskey sat before him, warm amber in the light of the oil lamps, and he squinted through a cloud of fragrant smoke as he used a flaring splinter to relight his pipe from the lamp at his end of the table.
He waved out the flaming splinter and replaced the lamp chimney. His pipe hissed softly as he drew upon it, then exhaled a single, perfectly formed ring of smoke. More thunder rumbled, a little closer this time, and the darkness outside the window flickered to the distant dance of lightning, far away on the edge of the rainy world.
"I agree that the situation is intolerable, Milord," one of the beer-drinking men said into the calm stillness created by the comfort of a fire on a night of storm and wind. His hair was the golden red often seen among the oldest of Sothōii noble families, and his expression was unhappy, to say the least. He took another swallow from his tankard, raised hand flickering with the dance of golden rings and reflecting gems. Then he set the tankard back down and shrugged. "Still, we seem to have no option but to accept it."
"I'm afraid Welthan is right about that, Milord," one of the wine-drinkers agreed sourly. "It's an insult to every Sothōii ever born, but as long as Tellian is prepared to swallow it himself, he can force it down all of our throats, as well."
"And as long as the King is prepared to allow him to," another of the wine-drinkers reminded them all darkly. "Don't forget that, Garthan."
"I'm not forgetting anything, Tarlan," Garthan replied shortly. "But does any man at this table believe that His Majesty hasn't been . . . poorly advised in this instance?"
"Ill-advised or well-advised, the King is the King," the pipe-smoking man at the head of the table observed. His voice was well modulated, his tone almost but not quite mild. There was also a faintly dangerous set to his handsome face, and Garthan stiffened slightly in his chair.
"It was not my intent to suggest anything else, Milord." His own voice was deferential, but cored with stubbornness. "Nonetheless, there isa reason His Majesty has a Council, and you are a member of it. Is it not the function of a councilor to counsel? And who is more valuable? A councilor who offers his own wisdom, even when it may not be the most popular advice? Or one who will not disagree when he believes that other, more . . . expedient councilors are in error?"
The night outside the chamber was on the cold side of cool, and the breeze blowing through the window was a bit stronger than it had been a moment before. No doubt that accounted for the chill which breathed through the room.
"You're correct, of course," the man at the head of the table told Garthan after a long, still moment, stroking his golden beard with his left hand. "Yet so is Tarlan. And while I may sit on the Council, I'm certainly not the only one who does. Prince Yurokhas also sits there, for example. And at the moment, King Markhos seems prepared to listen to the prince and give Tellian the opportunity to pursue his useless attempt to 'peacefully coexist' with the hradani."
More than one of the men seated around the table looked as if he wanted to spit on the polished stone floor, and there was a low mutter of thunder-washed disgust. Yet none of them could disagree with what their host had just said.
"Well, yes, Milord," the second beer-drinker agreed after several seconds. "We're all aware of that, as I'm sure you realized before you called us here tonight. But I trust you'll forgive my possible bluntness in observing that you didn't choose us for this meeting because of our ardent agreement with Prince Yurokhas' position."
His tone was so droll that more than one of the men at the table actually found themselves chuckling, and even the pipe-smoking man smiled.
"For my own part," the speaker continued, "I readily admit that I have personal as well as patriotic reasons for detesting the present situation. My kinsman Mathian finds himself little better than a beggar, a pensioner in my house, supplanted by a jumped-up, common-born knight without a drop of noble blood in his veins." His tone was no longer droll, and his eyes were dangerous. "Leaving aside the insult to my entire family—and to every true noble house among us—there is such a thing as justice. We have a bone to pick with Baron Tellian, and I, for one, refuse to pretend we don't. Nor, I think, are you prepared to do so, Milord."
Some of the others suddenly seemed to find the contents of their glasses or tankards deeply absorbing. They stared down into them as if consulting fermented auguries, but the man at the head of the table only looked steadily at the one who had spoken.
"I have never pretended I didn't have many bones to pick with Tellian of Balthar, Lord Saratic. I do. And you're quite right to point out that I invited all of you to join me this evening because I felt confident each of you do, as well. Yet it behooves all of us to remember that to openly assail him over this matter risks presenting the appearance of defying the King. Before we may deal properly with Tellian and his pet hradani, we must bring King Markhos to realize that, as Garthan says, he has been poorly advised in this matter. Once he withdraws support from Tellian, we may become more . . . direct in our methods. But for the present, as loyal subjects and vassals of the King, we must lend his policies our firm public support."
"Of course, Milord," Saratic agreed. "I would never suggest—and it was never my intention—that we do anything else. As you say, it is our manifest duty to the Crown to make our acceptance of the King's policies clear. And public."
"Precisely." The pipe-smoking man blew another smoke ring while rain pounded down, heavier than ever, outside the window. Burning coal seethed on the hearth behind him, hissing as the occasional raindrop found its way down the chimney and through the flue. He picked up his whiskey glass and sipped with slow appreciation, then set it back down very precisely.
"Still," he said, "just as it is the duty of any subject of the King to accept his policies and abide by his decisions, so it is also the duty of his subjects to consider all the ways in which they might further the true object of those policies. Which, of course, is the peace and security of the entire Kingdom. And, as all of you, I cannot convince myself that Baron Tellian's present actions can ultimately pose anything but a threat to that peace and security."
"I see, Milord," Saratic said. "And I agree with you." Other heads nodded around the table, and if most of the nods seemed less enthusiastic than Saratic's, none of them seemed the least hesitant. "Yet bearing in mind what you've already so rightly said about our responsibility and duty to support the King's policies, it would seem there's little we can openly do to stop Tellian."
"You've fought as many battles as any man here, Lord Saratic," the pipe-smoking man said. "As such, you know as well as I that the most obvious and open tactic is seldom the most effective one. Understand me, all of you. I will not openly oppose His Majesty in this matter, or in any other. I will, as I always have, express my own views before both the King and the other members of his Council, and I will strive to convince him of the wisdom of my arguments. But beyond the limits of debate and the duty to advise which comes with my seat on that Council, I will raise no hand and no voice against His Majesty. It would be not merely wrong but foolish—and perhaps even foolhardy—to do otherwise.
"Yet what I can do to change the factors and limitations which constrain the King's options I will do. And if it proves possible to create circumstances which will make the wisdom of my own views and recommendations apparent, then I will do that, also. Nor—" he let his eyes sweep over their faces in the lamplight "—will I forget those who help me to create those circumstances."
"I see," Saratic murmured once more. He and Garthan looked at one another across the table, and then Saratic turned his gaze back to their host. "And may I ask, Milord, if you've given thought to the best way in which we might aid in the creation of those circumstances to which you just referred?"
"Well, no," the pipe-smoking man said mildly. "I mean, certain possibilities seem obvious enough. For example, this 'Lord Festian' who Tellian convinced the King to install at Glanharrow in place of your kinsman Mathian is scarcely likely to be equal to the sorts of challenges any lord must expect to face and master in safeguarding his lands and the people consigned to his care. Surely it would be appropriate for those in a position to demonstrate his incompetence to do so."
He bared his teeth in a smile any shark might have admired, and equally toothy smiles came back to him from his guests.
"And," he continued, "there's always the matter of this so-called champion of Tomanāk, 'Prince Bahzell.' Perhaps you may have failed to note that while His Majesty is prepared to acknowledge the existence of a chapter of the Order of Tomanāk among the hradani, and even to treat this Bahzell as one of the War God's champions, he has not expressly granted Bahzell ambassadorial status. While I feel certain King Markhos would be horrified if some evil mischance befell Bahzell, it wouldn't be the same as if that mischance had befallen an accredited ambassador from a civilizedland."
"Nor does he enjoy the legal immunities of an ambassador," Tarlan said slowly. His thoughtful voice was little more than a murmur, but the pipe-smoking man nodded.
"Obviously not," he agreed. "There is the matter of his supposed status as a champion of Tomanāk, of course. But with all due respect to His Majesty and his other advisers, how can anyone honestly believe Tomanāk would choose a hradani—and a Horse Stealer hradani, at that—as one of His champions?" He snorted contemptuously. "If this Bahzell wants to claim the privileges and powers of a champion, I think it would be only fair to give him the opportunity to prove he deserves them. And since Scale Balancer's courtroom is the field of battle, there's really only one place he could do that, isn't there?"
One or two of the others exchanged glances of varying degrees of uneasiness as they listened to his last couple of sentences, but no one disagreed. After all, the mere thought of a hradani champion of any God of Light was far worse than merely ridiculous. It verged all too closely upon outright blasphemy, whatever others might think.
"I, for one, agree with you completely, Milord," Saratic said, and Garthan nodded firmly. Tarlan also nodded, only a shade less enthusiastically.
"Thank you, Lord Saratic," the pipe-smoking man said. "I value your support. And it has always been the tradition of my house to remember those who have lent us support when we most needed it."
More than a hint of avarice flickered in Saratic's eyes. It didn't supplant the anger and vengefulness which already filled them, but it honed and strengthened those preexisting emotions, and the pipe-smoker hid a smile of satisfaction as he saw it.
"It seems to me, Milord," Saratic said after a moment, "that if we really put our minds to it, there ought to be some way in which we might both demonstrate this Festian's inadequacy as Lord Mathian's usurper—I mean, of course, successor—and simultaneously provide 'PrinceBahzell' the opportunity to prove his status as Tomanāk's champion once and for all."
"I'm certain there is," the pipe-smoking man agreed. Then he put his hands on the tabletop and pushed to his feet, smiling at the others.
"However," he continued, "I fear the hour has grown quite late. I have a full and demanding day waiting for me tomorrow, and so, with your permission, I will bid you all good night. No, no," he said, shaking his head and raising the palm of one hand as two or three of his guests made as if to stand, as well. "Don't let my departure interrupt your conversation, gentlemen. It would be a poor host who expected his own early retirement to cut short his guests' enjoyment of discussions among themselves." He smiled at them again. "Stay where you are as long as you like. The servants have been instructed to leave you in peace, unless you summon them for additional refreshments. Who knows? Perhaps your discussions will suggest some way in which we might all further the Kingdom's interests and prosperity."
He nodded to them all, and then walked softly out of the room.