“Father, what a pleasant surprise,” Alexander Luthoro said without looking up from the papers that littered the heavy oak desk that he sat at as the double doors to his chamber were swung open and a tall stern man entered the room.
“And why shouldn’t it be a pleasure for a son to see his father,” Gaius responded, his tone cold, though is words courteous. “After all, the bond between father and son is something that transcends even to the gods themselves. But of course, I don’t have to mention the gods to you, do I?”
Alexander looked up from his papers then, and leaned back in the richly upholstered chair, staring deep into his father’s eyes. He saw a man who was dressed in a thigh-length white tunic. An ornately carved breastplate, both made for fashion as well as combat, was fastened around his powerful torso. Finely polished steel greaves graced his arms and equally polished steel shin guards covered his lower legs. Fastened to his left shoulder was the crest of the city, and from it flowed the majestic scarlet color of his cloak, which billowed behind him as he walked.
Gaius looked at his son and saw that he wore black linen trousers tucked into calfskin boots, also black, and a purple cotton tunic was fastened around his trim waist by a silver belt flecked with onyx. It was summer in Tharovace, and the weather was hot and humid, and Alexander dressed for the heat.
“While I enjoy your company as much as even a Citizen Soldier might, I’m sure you didn’t come here to discuss the nature of the gods?” Alexander asked somewhat ironically.
“Citizen Soldier? My son, ever the stoic,” he retorted with a grunt. “Yes…refusing his traditions and turning his back on our heritage and culture, as well as the people and the very city that nurtured you and gave you life, eh?” He raised his hand to forestall a reply from his son, though. “But yes, you are correct; I did not come here to discuss the nature of the gods, or to bandy words with you on matters of… theology. Instead, I’m here to remind you of your duty and the arrangement we agreed upon when you refused the test of citizenship.”
“My birthday is yet three days from now. Isn’t this meeting somewhat premature?” Alexander queried, somewhat blandly, reaching for a decanter and pouring himself a small glass of brandy.
“Oh I know that we agreed that I would allow you access to the estates and your ancestral home until your eighteenth year, while you pursued this religious nonsense of yours. But it’s become clear to me that you’re not interested in the real… opportunity, that our great city offers us,” Gaius responded, a touch of impatience in his voice as he turned to the window and stared down to the waters that flowed east to the great bay “and I doubt you will be motivated to cast aside your years of foolish behavior in a matter of days if years have not made a difference.”
“A fair observation,” Alexander said, sipping the brandy, his voice remaining neutral and calm. “You don’t believe I’ll change my mind in the next several days, eh? Well, why should it? Tharovace is truly a magnificent place, and yes, I’m grateful to its bounty, and the success of our family and the power of the house Luthoro. But just like the city our house has walls and limits, and both of them fence out the world.”
“Alexander…” Gaius said with a slow shake of his head “by now you would be nearing the end of your training, and could easily negate your annual service to the city if you became a Patron and helped to enlarge upon the limits of our house. And while doing so you would be free to continue your spiritual training, unhindered; and in fact helped by the greatest minds this city can offer. Instead, in three days time, I’m afraid I will have to forcibly evict you from our lands until you see the error of your ways. For of course, naturally, it would not be politic of me to harbor such un-patriotic elements in my home.”
“Naturally,” Alexander said flatly, then quaffed the rest of the brandy. “But I presume the final three days of our agreement still stand?”
“Oh of course, my son. Let it not be said that I don’t honor my word.”
“Excellent, that will give me enough time to pack my possessions, then, and move them into my new home.”
“New home?” Gaius asked somewhat sharply, turning from the window. “What do you mean new home? Are you leaving Tharovace?”
“Not at all, father. But as I have other business to attend to, perhaps this may serve to answer your questions,” he said with a small sardonic smile. Then, he extended a heavy parchment with the royal seal of Duke Antaris stamped on the bottom across the desk to his father.
Gaius turned to the window and moved quickly to the desk, snatching the parchment from his son’s hand, his gray eyes scanning it quickly, then, lifting it closer, he examined the seal of the Duke, checking its authenticity. The slow rage that broiled for a moment behind his eyes was quickly extinguished as if steel shutters had been slammed behind his gaze and his face suddenly relaxed, becoming equally calm and neutral.
Placing the document on the desk that stood between father and son, he inhaled slowly through his nostrils and let out a deep sigh.
“Well played, Alexander, well played,” Gaius said quietly, with a slow deliberate nod. Reaching for the decanter and a spare glass he poured himself a drink. “I salute you; chief diplomat for the Endrelian elves. I presume, then, that you’ll be moving your residence into the diplomatic chambers in the city proper?”
“That’s exactly my intention, father. On my eighteenth year, as the acting diplomat between Endrel and Tharovace, I will be quartered and housed within the city proper, as you suggested. And, naturally, I will be free of all responsibilities of a Citizen-Soldier, as well as the… constraints, of acting as a Patron. And during what leisure time I may have, when I’m not mediating between the elves and the good members of The Council in our fair city, I’m sure to have all the greatest minds that the elven nation can offer me in my studies.”
“You realize, of course, that this position only lasts seven years, What will you do then, after your little farce has been played out?” Gaius said, staring at his son intently, watching for a chink in his armor, a weakness he could use or exploit.
“Well, at the very least, I’ll take what meager possessions I have and wander the earth seeking adventure and preaching the good news of my goddess,” Alexander threw back, somewhat drolly.
“Well, let’s hope it won’t come to that; a son of mine roaming the wastes like some beggar in the wilderness.”
Alexander’s eyes flared for a moment, and Gaius caught the look, smiling inwardly.
“Oh I assure you, father, besmirching your name is the farthest thing from my intentions,” Alexander said, leaning forward slightly, regaining control of his emotions quickly. “The Lutharo lineage is a proud one, but I intend to make something of it more bold and worthy then a simple city politician.”
Gaius turned to the window again, but really it was to hide his expression. Alexander was growing wise, and cunning. It wouldn’t do to let him know he could be read; he may become too cautious too soon.
“So tell me, my son, how did you, a human, acquire the position of chief diplomat between Endrel and our city? I understand that typically that post is filled by someone of elven blood; preferably an Endrelian elf. Not that artic waif in wolf-skins you cavort with from time to time, hmm?”
“Leave Lilliana out of your plots and schemes,” Alexander shot back coldly. But his emotions had been riled, and he stepped into the trap. In effort to distract the conversation from his recently adopted ward, he made a critical error and revealed a sliver of information.
“I earned the post upon saving an elven nobleman from an attack near the swamps,” he barked, then winced inwardly at his blunder.
“An elven nobleman? Really?” Gaius asked. “Well, how interesting I should say,” he added, pursing his lips. “But tell me, Alexander, how is that this good nobleman needed your help, and that you were so coincidentally nearby to offer it? And all of these most excellent accomplishments to be completed at such a convenient time to be rewarded with this prestigious post?”
Alexander poured himself another drink, his face calm, though his hands were shaking somewhat.
“I resent your implications,” he muttered.
“Oh I imply nothing, my son,” Gaius said, turning back from the window, a smile of rich satisfaction on his face. “I’m sure it was good fortune alone that happened to bring an elven noble into a dire ambush by foul beasts that lived in the swamps that border Endrel. And it was just bad luck that such an ambush that spilled forth was just large enough to overpower both him and his guards, but, gods be praised, happened to occur just in the time and place for you to ride forth and save him at the last moment from his terrible plight. And again, it must simply be mere happenstance that, after you did indeed rescue this good fellow, that you were appointed this post by his people in thankfulness for your heroic deed only days before you would be forced to leave my lands.”
Alexander quaffed the brandy and leaned back in his chair, staring up at his father.
“Are you done here, father. I have things that need attending too,” he rasped.
“Yes, I’m done here my son, “Gaius said with a cold smile. “And I must say, I apologize. I thought your little whims and fancies following your goddess clouded your good sense and prevented you from seeing the truth of things. But I stand corrected; you learned a great deal in this house. Your political maneuvering is admirable, and I can say that I’m truly proud to call you my son.”
“We are nothing alike,” Alexander hissed from his desk. “I am my own man, and no one will change that; not this city, not the laws that govern it; and not your damnable reputation.”
“Ah, ah, my son… temper, temper. You’ve been doing so well, staying so calm. Well, have a good afternoon, and I look forward to hearing your opinions at the next Council meeting,” he said and turned with arrogant flourish, leaving his son to smolder at his desk.
As his father shut the door behind him, Alexander threw the empty glass at wall, letting the shatter echo in the room.
Then he counted to twenty.
His father guessed much, but not all. His suspicions were close to the mark, but he was wrong at the intent. Alexander knew it would be best to let his father continue under the misconception that his son perpetrated murder simply for political gain. That was a safer assumption, for he knew that Gaius could respect that motive, and would not interfere with son overly much, provided Alexander did not fail to continue to be successful.
Alexander thought back on the day that he earned his title. The noble in question was secretly a member of a fanatic religious order; dedicated to the elimination of the Green Dragon of the swamps, and anything connected with the “arcane pollution” that vexed the elven people for so many years.
This noble had taken many artifacts and valuable treasure over time; but now, under the persuasion of the cult of the Golden Spear, the elf, with other members of his brethren, would bring these artifacts to a sacred grove and destroy them in some perverted rite vaguely dedicated to Correllon Larethon. Though dark arts and hidden conspiracies may not been in accordance with the will of the elven god, to the somewhat insane religious fanatic, anything could be excused if it fulfilled a higher, nobler destiny. And to these fanatics, anything to do with the arcane, and magic, was their especial enemy.
In that determination, then, the noble had made an enemy of Wee Jas, the goddess of Death and Magic, and Alexander’s own patron diety.
His usual spies within the elven nation and the city had gotten wind of the plot against this, and with a small band of men and women equally sympathetic to the cause of ruining this noble’s ambition; some of them followers of his deity, others rogue magi who saw the elven lord’s presence as a threat, moved to stage the ambush.
During the melee all of the noble’s guards had perished, and most of Alexander’s own companions as well. But in the fracas Alexander had made a choice, and with the aid of an acolyte to the temple of Baccobb, they had decided to spare the life of the noble.
But he had not been a fool about how he went about it.
In the end the noble had truly believed that Alexander and the girl had found him by coincidence. Fanatics, were, of course, so easy to manipulate in the mind, if you knew what to say and when to say it. And when the two of them led the noble to safety, he had proven his gratitude after some subtle suggestions by Alexander, leaving him in the position of power as an honorary diplomat from the elven peoples to Tharovace.
A neat bit of work that day, but it was not the full accumulation of his lawful earnings from that ambush.
Which reminded him…
Standing, he made his way from his desk to a place on the wall. There, in a niche, was the dagger of his order, a silver blade etched with the runes of Wee Jas on the pommel. He picked it up and kissed the hilt reverently, and replaced it back in its resting place. He had earned this blade from the high priest when he accepted the mantle of follower to the Dark Lady and would often think of that day with pride and honor. But now, he had other business.
Sighing softly, he turned from the niche and then slid his hand across the wall. Muttering a soft word of command and the wall slid open into a gray mist.
Alexander passed through the shadowy vapors, and stood in the private chambers that were his inner sanctum. It housed his official records, documents, private notes and ledgers which were filled with ancient mysteries and texts, as well as business ventures, payments to spies and contacts in Tharovace, Endrel, Sartarus and Ruddicks Pass. He had chests of gold he had collected from private business arrangements that he had made over the past several years; bolts of cloth, urns of spices, artwork, gems, and jewels.
But now, he was most interested in his latest acquisition; and he stared at it intently.
On a pedestal was his chief claim to the booty that had been salvaged from the swamps without the elven lord’s knowledge. It was a shield, not so remarkable, except that it was fashioned by a mysterious wood that not even the best paid alchemists had been able to comprehend.
Silver spikes jutted from it, and on its face was carved a heraldic device not recognized by even the best paid sages he had revealed it too. Two moons, coming together, over a bear’s paw could be seen. The moons of his world, it would seem; or perhaps not? He didn’t know, no one who had studied the shield truly knew or its mysteries.
All he knew was that the shield had the symbol of his goddess writ on its face inside the paw; and so he had claimed as his rightful property in serving the Dark Lady during the ambush.
He had not killed for it alone, or to find it alone. It came to him, it was meant for him… his own, yes. He had earned the shield by fulfilling the will of his goddess; by bringing death to her enemies; by ending the power of a corrupt and evil cult who claimed to worship a noble god, though of course they were clearly blasphemers; by showing mercy on an insane elven noble so that he might one day be healed of his palsy and made whole and healthy.
Surely it was meant to be, then, that he would receive the title of diplomat so that he may do great things on behalf of his goddess in the city and the elven nation? And clearly the meager gift of the shield was a simple token, a surer symbol of divine favor from his goddess when he staged the ambush, slaughtered the blasphemers and redeemed the artifacts.
Not even Knights of the Last Stand could argue with such good and pure motives, nor could any of true heart dispute the results of his actions. And indeed, those results had clearly proven his actions to be honorable, else he would have failed his Dark Mistress, and that could not have been borne.
No, he had done the right thing, and this was proof of it.
Alexander touched the shield gently, almost reverently and nodded to himself, a slow smile gracing his lips.
It felt good to do the right thing.