Prologue: Blood

11th day of Emmanir, 551 MR
THE FLAGSTONES WERE damp from the river, and cool from the chill of the late hour, but still the blood sizzled where it pooled as if they were coals on a fire. The smell of ozone made the air thick, more than the wildest storm. And the very air in the cellar-dock of Caer Endier hissed and sparked and bent under the power unleashed.
Jaw set, teeth clenched, and fists balled in the remains of forgotten fury, the young man stood now in shock. His right hand slowly slackened, and with a silvery peal a pewter-dull dagger dropped to the floor. He was lean, most would agree beautiful, with dark hair and chiselled features. His dark doublet was splashed with blood, and his right arm soaked with gore well past the elbow, and were the light better it would be obvious that his face was drained of all colour, and his expression blank despite tightly drawn muscles. Sculpted cheeks were coloured by arterial spray. Long limbs trembled, but the midnight-blue of his courtly finery invited the shadows to conceal his nerves.
On the floor lay two limp bodies: one of a plump old man, clad in fur trimmed robes of outstanding quality, mercifully face down to hide his raggedly torn chest, in a steadily growing pool of his own life. The other - heavier set, broader of shoulder, with coarse hair and beard, lay by the lapping water, head thrown back with a triumphal cry forever frozen on bloodless lips, and a ruinous wound burned into his heart.
Lightning still played about the youth's brow and arm, as the divine blood stolen from both fallen men settled into new veins. The work of that evil dagger. And of the equally evil benefactor from whom it came, in a box lined with Khinasi silk, that even now lay at the foot of the stairs.
The cellar dock of Caer Endier replaced the dungeons of the blocky palace. A long, deep trench leading through a man-made cavern under the palace, past a number of gates and fortifications, to the waters of the Maesil. Prone to flooding, it was often used by the Counts of Endier as a covert meeting place under cover of night, when the river gates could be opened, and a visitor could slip in and out without ever passing through the city.
It had been easy for the youth to lure the elder man - Jorain - here under false pretence of sensitive and secret news. Easy for Ghorien Hiriele, the bearded man, to hide in the shadowy recesses of the vaulted underground dock, under a small boat. But it had been hard, so hard, for the lanky youth to plunge the cruel dagger into the heart of his adoptive father. His hand had been slick with sweat, as had his brow. It stung his eyes. His feet felt like stone with every step down, down, down the ancient stair to the watery bowels of the palace. His velvet doublet and fine jewels were suddenly heavy. So heavy. They chafed him, and dragged on him like lead.
And when the time came, his nerve failed him. He couldn't recall exactly what course of events brought him from the angry confrontation with Hiriele, who revealed himself, to standing alone in this shadowy chamber, with the blood of both men thrumming in his veins. All he knew was that it would be a matter of moments before the sound of heavy boots would resound from the stairs as the guards came searching for their Count. Who lay dead on the floor. Deaf to the gentle lapping of the river, and the drip, drip, drip of his own spent life's blood dropping into its murky depths.
And he, Dael Terhoene, was the last who remained to claim the title Count of Endier.
He felt drunk. He felt on fire. He felt like a god. He felt like a murderer.
Dael staggered, his boots nearly slipping on the blood- and water-slicked stone of the secret pier, but some uncanny agility keeping him upright, leaning gracefully to keep his balance – physically, at least. Emotionally, mentally, he was a puppet with his strings cut, dangling uncontrolled, lurching between fear and grief and rage with no hand to guide him. Shivering, even though the energy that burned through his veins like lightning filled him with a strange heat, he felt his eyes begin to hurt as if they were twisting in their very sockets and blinked hard, reached up and wiped his hand over his face – then jerked it away as he felt the sticky red wine of his crime on cheeks and brow.
As his hand came away the shadows seemed to recede in the room, removing the veil of darkness from his deeds, from the two men he had killed – one with his hand, one with his treachery.
An unmanly sound came from Dael's lips – a plaintive, whining cry like a child's. And why not? He had never had a father when he was a child, had never grown watching one age ahead of him, never prepared himself for the idea of losing one. He fell to his knees, the keening wail continuing as he scrabbled along the pier to Jorain Endier's body. “Father!” he cried, pulling the old man's head into his lap. “Jorain! Father!” In a cold panic, Dael ran shaking hands down his wounded chest, feeling out the extent of the wound. —Maybe it was not so bad. Maybe the Caer Endier physicians could bind it. Maybe the priests of Sarimie or Haelyn could heal him…
“Guards!” Dael screamed, salt tears mixing with salt blood down the contorted lines of his face. “Father! Guards!”
The cavernous dock echoed with Dael Terhoene's cries, redoubling them back to him, until the very stones of the palace were screaming in a dozen voices that he no longer recognized as his own. In his desperate grief Dael scarcely noticed steel-shod feet on the winding stair behind him. A stair of narrow stone, designed specifically to impeded armoured attackers. The irony was not lost on him, that at present it impeded only the defenders, as he felt Jorain's hot blood, now a dark, rich chestnut in the wan light reflecting off the water, spill over past and over his fingers. The old man's chest was still. His eyes rolled back. And, of course, the divine gift that was once Jornain's still thrummed in Dael's veins, tightening his temples and making his eyes ache.
Dael already knew the old man was dead.
Gazing down at Jorain's face, the youth saw only a smile. Pleasant, welcoming, proud. The Count of Endier had not even had the time to register surprise or confusion before he was gone. Only the warm welcome of a father meeting his only son.
He was faintly aware of heavy, leather hand closed on his left shoulder. A gruff voice he did not know told him to stand. Turned him around. Led him to the now-blazing portal to the winding stair. Up, into the light of the corridor above, like a return from the underworld. Dael tried to look back, to lay his eyes a final time on the face of his father, and its vapid smile, more damning than any accusation of betrayal.
The he realized he was seated, and a crude wooden tankard of steaming cider was in his hands, and people were talking to him.
A long, bearded face, lined with concern and not a little fear, blurred into focus from out of a twisting nightmare.
"Dael, what happened? What happened to the Count? What happened to Jorain?"
They rose out of the cellar's depths, and Dael felt as if the great weight of the castle was lessening above him. Now only the numbing, crushing weight of guilt and shock hung over his head. When the mug was pressed into his hands he drank, and gagged at the sourness – then drank again, feeling the warmth flood his body gratefully.
As the pieces of his cunning, quick-witted mind began to fit themselves back together he looked up at the face of the man who spoke, dimly recognising the captain of the night watch. “G…Ghorien Hiriele,” he said weakly. “He wanted to speak to father and I in the cellar-dock. There was… he drew a knife. He stabbed… he killed…” Dael's throat clenched violently, and fresh tears stung his eyes. “Then I killed him,” he added with some savage satisfaction.
The best part was, none of it was even a lie. Dael was almost sickened by how easy it was to cast his mind ahead, testing the words for implications before they reached his mouth, even in the midst of his pain.
He looked up suddenly, dropping the tankard with a warm apple-scented splash and grasping the captain's shoulder hard. “Have you called for the court healer? For a priest who can bespell wounds? Did you find the knife? It's dangerous… an evil thing.”
The man shook his head sadly "The Count is beyond a healer's skills my lord. His life is spent. The chaplain was summoned, but there was nothing that could be done. Jorain of Endier has gone to Sarimie's side. Of a knife, I do not know. I suppose it has been left wherever it fell my lord. But do not fear mere steel. It was the hand that wielded it that stole the count's life, and that hand is forever stilled now."
He gave Dael a sympathetic look. "You slew an assassin, and though it was too late to save the count, you still avenged him. You can rest with that upon your mind. Now drink, settle your nerves, there are others who wish to question you. This night will not end quickly I fear."
The captain's words did not strike Dael hard. In his heart, he knew that the man's words were the truth, that Jorian had been dead or doomed to die the moment the dagger had pierced his heart, spilling his life-blood and Brenna-blood alike. Thinking otherwise, acting as if there was still hope were actions born of a lack of anything else to do.
Dael shook his head at the captain. "Not steel. Bloodsilver. Have a man bring it to me - and there was a box Hiriele had it in. Please." Then his head fell against the back of the chair as he slumped in his seat. The kitchen was warm, and the smell of baking bread just put in rose pleasantly from the great ovens, washing out the bright, copper reek of human blood – at least temporarily. He stared at the bunches of rosemary and parsley that hung from the rafters, and tried to think of nothing at all. But the insidious part of his mind was restless. If they have questions, you had best have answers prepared, my young catspaw.
Whether the implication of the count's death finally hit home on the simple warrior, or whether it was the mention of Bloodsilver, he blanched and scurried out of the dim kitchen, and for a blessed moment Dael was alone, and things were calm again. The ovens were stoked - for breakfast? The servants must have been turned out when the bloody-soaked Dael was brought in, or else fled. The raw timber of the stool he sat on felt like a down bed, so bone-tired had the night left him. And he began to realize, in the warm kitchen, just how cold it had been in the cellar-dock, with the frigid waters of the Maesil intruding into the palace's heart.
It occurred to him, in the back of his mind at first, that these were his kitchens. His bread. After all, he was the sole claimant to Jorain's throne. A direct blood descendant of the old count… maybe… as far as anyone knew in any case. It was strange to think of the palace as his domain. It was strange to think of it without Jorain.
And what would happen when Kalien learned that the plan had failed?
Dael was no fool. He made a powerful enemy, and there was no talking his way out of it.
Yet as count he was easily as powerful.
Still pondering, Dael heard a footman enter, doublet and surcoat awry. Long nose twitching with distaste at having been roused at so late an hour. His expression turned from irritation to horror at the sight of Dael. "My Lord!" he gasped "I am to take you to the western audience chamber to speak with the lady Duniere, but first I must send for water and a copper!"
Without waiting for a reply he scurried off.
The idea of Caer Endier as his was like a hand-me-down coat that was too big; try as he might, Dael could not imagine himself fitting properly inside the luxurious castle, let alone the county of which it was the ruling seat. The great halls that had been the most comfortable and welcoming home he had known these past months now seemed hollow and misshapen, full of haunted corners and hostile shadows. With Jorain's… death… it was as if a warming fire had gone out in the heart of the castle.
And now he had to face life here without that presence, to face advisors and lieutenants full of suspicion as to his role and doubt as to his ability; to face enemies outside the walls and outside the realm who knew his worst secrets, and would want him dead or exposed and deposed – who would want the whole city-state and its rich guilds at their mercy. It was almost too much to bear.
Dael removed his face from his hands only after the footman had hurried out, sighing. And yet he was relieved to have somewhere to go, something to do, to distract him from the looming shadow of impossible responsibilities and intolerable scrutiny. So he stood, and found a basin on one of the kitchen benches, which he filled with water from the pump. Rolling up his sleeves and loosening his collar, Dael began to give himself a quick wash. He rinsed his face and wrung his bloodstained hair through his fingers over and over until it was passably free of gore, then began to scrub the blood from from his hands and forearms with his fingertips. Watching the water turn red he stopped, and gazed silently at his quick, long-fingered hands. The blood washed off his skin easily enough… but in another sense, Jorain's blood, his Blood, the mark of his murder flowed through Dael's veins now, via the intermediary of Ghorien Hiriele.
And it felt… perversely good? Though the great kitchen was gloomy, lit only by its crackling hearth and a lantern left by the guards, he could see with remarkable clarity. Though tired, he felt light on his feet, and he knew, somehow he knew, that there were words that could make men do as one wished, that it was simply a matter of finding out what they wanted, playing on their fears, desires, preconceptions, knowledge and ignorance… and making them dance to your song. Was this how the blooded lords of Cerilia felt, all the time? No wonder they felt themselves entitled to rule.
Once presentably clean Dael took a calming breath, and walked out into the corridor. Not waiting for the footman's return, he made his way to the audience chamber, his expression melancholy but steady.
Finding the double doors to the small audience chamber, through the far door of the kitchen, open, and seeing it lit within, Dael crossed the corridor and entered. Inside he found a hurried assembly of worried faces. Alieyn Duniere, Jorain's new guild second, attired in a long furred coat that doubtless covered a nightshirt, flanked by the hamer sidhe, Cieron, Endier's spymaster in greys and blacks, and the wild-bearded commander of Endier's armies, Viscount Raymond Vailere, similarly clad in his nightware, but with a nasty cudgel sitting on the table before him. The guild second looked overwhelmed, but the other two had a calm determination about them.
There was no agitated conversation, no argument about the course forward. They merely waited.
When Dael entered the light spilling from the room Raymond, every inch the professional soldier, even in a linen nightgown, rose, and ushering him in, closed and barred the doors, manhandling the youth into a chair firmly.
"Listen lad, I don't know what happened in that cellar. I've seen it, and I don't know if you killed two of the Outfitters' ranking agents, or if you walked in on something, and frankly I don't care. The fact is that whatever happened, it is already passed, and we have very little time to move forward. Already word has spread to the city, and it will be beyond the borders by morning. And the reality of it all is this: You are count, for better or worse. We have a choice between you, and chaos, and we three here and now choose you."
He sat back at his place at the long table, looking meaningfully at Dael.
"You have little enough choice in the matter, so if your design all along was to take the throne, then well played. We have too few options before us to dwell on events. All we assembled here need to know from you is, are you with us, or are you an agent for another?"
Under better circumstances, Dael might have taken his time to enjoy the sight of Alieyn in that gown and imagining what lay beneath it, but these were not better circumstances. Despite that, though, he had difficulty suppressing a chuckle at the sight of the Viscount Raymond, bristling in his night shirt. And Cieron Elvenshadow… well, Elvenshadow unnerved him, just a little.
He did not bristle at the way he was pushed into his seat, though he was taken aback by the nakedness of Vailere's suspicion, and the thin veil of his accusations. Dael's mouth opened a little as the viscount spoke, and he flicked his gaze to the other two in the room, assessing their opinions on the matter. Well. This was unexpected, and even somewhat refreshing. No minced words, no careful tip-toeing around the issue. Just are you a traitor?
Dael quickly assessed his options. Vailere was a soldier through and through, and would not respond favourable to the sob-story, he suspected. He respected strength, and liked his men to obey orders – so Dael would see whether he was ready to do the same.
“Choose,” Dael mused, quietly, looking at the table. “Choose? Choose. That seems an odd word, my lord. Jorain had a choice, certainly – to recognise me, or reject me. He chose to recognise me, and appoint me his heir. Thus, it would seem that the men and women loyal to him have no choice but to respect his command. So do you choose to heed his wishes?” His voice sharpened as he spoke, and he rose and fixed his gaze on Vailere. His newly embodied blood thundered in the back of his head.
Dael placed his hands on the council table, the wood smooth and somehow warm beneath his palms, and stood, looking across at the viscount with steel in his words and patriotic love in his eyes. “My father told me often of your skill and valour commanding the armies of Endier, my lord Vailere. I may need those virtues once again – if Hiriele had co-conspirators outside the realm, now would be an opportune time for them to strike. We must have reports from the scouts, and orders of readiness to all the commanders before daybreak. I trust you can accomplish this with the efficiency and alacrity Jorain had come to rely on.” He did not make it a question, but rather an expectation he hoped the viscount would strive to match.
“Master Elvenshadow,”Dael turned to the eerily quiet half-elf. “While the trail is fresh, you must find out Ghorien Hirele's secrets: who he was in contact with, how far back this black deed was planned, and who his cohorts are – if any.” Part of Dael's mind screamed at him: 'you have just set the bloodhound on yourself, you fool!' But he needed to display his determination to hunt down everyone and anyone who had a hand in Jorain's murder before these councillors.
“Alieyn,”he managed a warm but tired smile for the fair-haired woman. “It is your help I need most of all. How can we break the sad news to the people of Endier that the man they loved as much as I did is dead? How do we keep our creditors and debtors from panicking at these tidings? Jorain had naught but praise for your wit, your diligence, and he treasured your insights. I will need all of them in the days to come.”
As he finished, Dael felt like taking a breath and holding it. There was a reason they called them 'confidence tricks'… nine-tenths of the swindle lay in acting like you were in the right, in the know. Would they let him get away with it?
For a moment the three looked at him, not gaping, but not defiant either, trying to decide quite what to make of the youth's outburst, and more still, how they felt about taking orders. But Dael was relieved when the tense silence was broken by Valiere "Alright, you have my support, and that of Endier's army. That alone should ensure your succession as Count. We will no doubt have cause to discuss the events leading to it at length when we have the luxury of more time."
He turned to Alieyn "What of the Count's guild interests?"
The young lady looked flustered "Oh, er, well I suppose if he is Count then he must take the mantle of the Outfitters also."
As she spoke, the half-elf Cieron had risen and, pulling a strand of unruly hair over his pointed ear made a shallow bow "If I am to follow the traitor's trail, I haven't time for politics. It seems you are to be Count lord Dael. That is the only decision that I need be privy to."
Without waiting for leave, he slipped out the door.
"Well, it's settled then-" Valiere sat back with a sigh, watching the pale spymaster leave "We must announce news of Jorain's passing, and your acclamation, before rumour spreads. I will assemble the Endierien Council tomorrow, and make sure the guard say nothing until we can acclaim you Jorain's heir and successor, at least over Endier. Lady Duniere, when can the merchant's council be assembled?"
"It would take some days - perhaps I should consult with Lord Dhugal?"
"Do what you must - let us hope to Sarimie that with Endier go the guilds."
The general turned his bristling gaze back to Dael "You would do well to court Thorne's favour lad - Jorain may have ruled the Outfitters in name, but Thorne built it from nothing, and I have little doubt that, should he support you, they will cleave to his judgement. But should he oppose you, the Outfitters, and by extension Endier, will suffer greatly."
Alieyn nodded quietly, eyes downcast in thought. "I shall request his presence here tomorrow." she looked up at Dael "Have you any further matters you would see dealt with?"
Now Dael felt like releasing the breath he hadn't taken as a whoop of relief. Rather than talk an almoner out of a few coppers, or con a tradesmen for silver, he had bilked a nobleman, a spy and a guild secretary out of a nation! How more absolute a mark of the tricksters art could there ever be? He was surprised Eloele didn't pick him up in her gloved hand there and then an elevate him to sainthood in the pantheon of thieves and liars!
As quickly as it had come, the rush of triumph turned to sour ice in his stomach. Oh, gods. What had he done? He had stolen Endier… but for what? For Jorain's memory? For Hiriele and Kalien? For himself? For the realm's own good? He had the Gorgon by the horns, and no idea of how to start riding – let alone how to get off.
Yet he mustered a firm, authoritative expression over the roiling fear and grief and shame within, and gave Vailere a grateful nod. “I will heed your advice, my lord viscount, and thank you for it. Do not let me detain you further.” He waited for the general to leave, before slowly walking around the audience chamber's table to where Duniere sat. He had to duck under the glowering head of a stuffed elk to reach her – this room's theme seemed to be hunting, judging from the many horned, tusked and crested things that stared down glassy-eyed at the room's occupants. Even a spider than must have been the size of a pony, worryingly enough.
“Nothing of state, Lady Alieyn. But, personally… how do you fare?” He placed his hand comfortingly over hers. There was something fragile about the woman – or maybe that was just Eastern Marcher reticence – and Dael was concerned for her wellbeing. And, though he hated himself for thinking it, concerned how it would impact her performance of her duties.
“I know you and Jorain are… were friends, and you were his confidante. I can only imagine if there is someone who will miss him as much as I shall, it will be you.” He tried to keep his tone free of insinuation. There were rumours about Alieyn's methods of advancement, after all.
The young woman looked drained. Now that the tension was leaving her body she seemed lost. Her pale skin was soft and supple to the touch, but the muscles in the hand remained taught, and her autumn hair, tied in a loose braid, smelled of lilac. Dael felt oddly on-show under the glassy gaze of a dozen lifeless heads.
She withdrew reflexively at the new Count's touch "Oh! I - ah - no. That is to say, he was your father. And we only worked together for a few years. And then, well, he seldom involved himself in the activities of the guild. I shall - ah - miss him I suppose." she looked up at Dael "He was a kind man, you father." it was an unrelated offering, one meant to conceal the obvious criticism that Jorain had little, if anything, to do with the rule of Endier or her guilds.
Dael judged that perhaps she had the same quiet, tolerant disdain for the later Endiers that most who worked closely with them shared, and it perplexed him that a woman rumoured to be so 'close' to the late count should be no more moved by his passing than his other advisers. But then perhaps she was just waiting the be safely back in her own chambers, away from prying eyes, to mourn the old man properly. That was usually the way of women.
Her eyes darted around the room, and she bit into her bottom lip.
"I had best go and fetch a messenger, dawn must be close at hand by now. Master Thorne had best be informed of what has passed quickly, or he will be most upset."
Alieyn rose to her feet, and like a startled doe, sprang across the room.
She turned in the doorway, remembering an awkward curtsey "With my lord's leave, of course?"
'I shall miss him, I suppose.' Those words stung Dael's raw wounds of grief like salt. Was Jorain truly so little loved, so little respected, even by his closest advisors that that was the best that could be mustered in his memory? He had been a good man, the kindest Dael had ever known, and the memory of his own aborted betrayal and assassination revolted him. But perhaps it was the closeness Alieyn Duniere and the others had with Jorain that diminished their respect for him. In knowing him, they had known his flaws and foibles.
In time, would they come to know Dael's own faults so well? There were so many. That might take a lifetime.
The young man let the woman withdrawn her hand and her presence from the room. “Of course,” he said, sinking into the lush velvet cushions of his chair as he watched her go. Alone with his thoughts and his ghosts, Dael stared blankly at the dark, ruddy grain of the fell-wood table, and slowly placed his face in his palms. He shuddered, and his shoulders were wracked with silent, dry sobs for a few moments before he mastered himself and stood.
He thought for several moments. Had his mother been woken by all the activity around the palace? She was usually sensitive to such things. That was not a meeting he looked forward to. Dael did not think he would sleep tonight, so instead he resolved to find the captain of the night watch and retrieve the hateful blade, Éadóchas, to ensure it could spill or steal no more blood… least of all his own. After that, he would retire to Jorain's study – his study, soon enough – and go through the late count's papers to familiarise himself with the latest affairs of Endier.

WITH A JERK Dael awoke to a gentle tapping. He lay, face down, on a pile of soft parchment, the ink smeared when he had laid his head upon it. He did not remember falling asleep, scarcely recalled making his way up to the study. Mercifully remembered none of the nightmares he doubtless suffered.
He lifted his face, and saw sitting a few feet from him across the ancient table, the familiar box, with the sliding top and the Khinasi silk lining.
For a moment Dael had an inkling that it had been watching him sleep. Which was absurd. But the menace of the dagger was palpable. Horrific to his new blood, and his veins rebelled against its very presence.
Rising stiffly, his clothes twisted and creased, he was groggily aware of sun streaming in the high windows, both of which gazed out south-east, over the city. Dael judged it must be mid morning. A tray of cold cuts had been left beside the door with a jug of wine on a cluttered sideboard.
Parchment made a poor pillow, and Dael realised he still had some blood in his hair as he rose from the desk with a sheet stuck to the side of his head. Catching a glimpse of his reflection in the window, he thought he looked a fright; the ink left marks on his face like some cheaply forged Vos barbarian with tattoos of evil magic from a tavern-hearth bard's tale, the clotted gore made his sleek hair rough and tangled, and the sleep that had stolen over him was not enough to keep his eyes from looking bruised and tired.
And yet, the glimpse of the city through the glass was somehow refreshing and inspiring. Thousands of honest folk, and thousands more not so honest would have heard the news of Jorain's death by now. They would need a firm hand on the tiller of the ship of state, reassurance that tomorrow would be much like today, that business could proceed unimpeded. He had… responsibilities. Responsibilities. The word tasted odd, and he washed it down with another cup of wine, but no more. He would need all his faculties today, as he no doubt defended his claim to the seat of Endier from those who called him unworthy, unproven and untrustworthy. Dael vaguely wished they were wrong on at least one of those counts.
Setting his cup down as he read the note, he gingerly closed the lid of the dagger-box and placed it into the top drawer of Jorain's – his – desk.
Anyone could have easily come in while he slept and, furnished with the bloodsilver dagger, taken Dael's divine heritage the very night he had won it. The thought made him bone-cold despite the cool light of a clear winter morning.
He locked the drawer with the keys that had been left on the desk as he glumly considered how quickly the count's quarters were being prepared for him to occupy. There would be little time for adjustments of any nature, it seemed.
So. The tailor, then. But first to his new quarters, just down the hall, for a quick bath to wash off the evidence of his crimes and his long night. Perhaps the tailor could do his measuring while he washed, saving some time.
Though the suite of royal offices, those of the exchequer, clerks, and secretaries that did the work of the guild, and the stores where goods of great value and records and notes of credit were kept, must be busy, Jorain's small study at the rear of the space, was eerily quiet, behind its thick stone walls.
Looking out of the window, Dael could see attendants busy in the winter gardens, tending the hardy flowers most struck by the frost of the morning. And beyond that, over the garden wall, he could see smoke rising from the many chimneys of wealthy homes surrounding the palace. And beyond, a glittering glimpse of canal with a goods barge drifting by, all framed by leaden clouds advancing from the east.
Like an inexorable ocean of molten iron flowing out of Ghoere.
Pouring a cup of wine to cleanse his mouth of the stale flavour of sleep, Dael saw a note in a clipped, feminine hand: My Lord. Master Dhugal has been summoned to the palace and awaits you at your leisure. The nobles and towns councils meet today to vote upon your acclaim. In anticipation of their decision, the servants have moved your things to the Count's chambers, and the royal tailor awaits your pleasure. A.
Stepping out of the royal study, he crossed a bustling corridor, full of servants hurrying to and from the royal suite, with wooden chests and piles of linens, and clerks laden with rolls of parchment and cases of ink. Heralds in often garish surcoats waited on a long bench under the windows, while the chamberlain's most senior staff did their best to direct traffic.
Despite his new found authority, Dael struggled to push through the crowd. When a maid with a bundle of bedding, or a guild clerk (a mere pair of legs behind his burden) did bump into Dael, they quickly realized their error, and backed away, bowing repeatedly and shedding their load as they did, but few even noticed one more body in the press.
When he did pick his way to the royal apartments he found them in equal chaos, with everything, from the bedding, to the wardrobe, to the furnishings and wall hangings being changed under the studious eye of Jorain's majordomo.
Longing for the solitude of the little study again, rather than endure his own chamber being busier than town square on market day, Dael pressed on, and made his way to the count's bedchamber, where he found things quieter. The room had been entirely redressed already, and neither the bed nor the dresser, nor the velvet divan were familiar to him. He may as well have been in a completely different room to the one he had roused his father from only hours ago.
And that was good.
By the fire a footman had drawn a steaming bath, that he was refreshing as Dael entered, but the roaring fire used to heat the water made the room close and stifling. On the bed, and any other clear space, fabrics of all texture and colour were spread, and the royal tailor smoothed bolts of cloth with slender fingers.
As Dael entered both servants straightened and bowed, and the tailor ushered him in, and closed the door on the din outside.
When that door opened for Dael again quite some time later, the room outside was not the same one he had passed through to enter.
Like the bedchamber, the main room of the royal apartments was utterly transformed, both in its contents, and in its new-found stillness, for it had but two occupants: Alieyn, now in a demure taupe gown, sat on a padded chair at a low table, while Dhugal Thorn, in mustard silk doublet, sat by the fire, with one long leg resting laconically atop another.
Both rose as Dael entered, in only a furred gown and felt slippers.
Alieyn curtsied gracefully, while Dhugal gave a shallow bow, a mocking light in his eyes "Greetings lord Terhoene. Or will it be Endier now?" he smiled "Calm yourself, I am here as an ally-" he pre-empted any offence his tone may have caused "I have been merely a citizen of Endier these past years after all." he glanced wryly at Alieyn "And an advisor in times of need, to ensure my guild is well managed. As such I cannot imagine you need either my acclaim or my support. The benefit of my experience, however, may serve you in such a chaotic time. And, of course, my fee is of such generous nature that I am always pleased to receive Endier's summons."
"Ah-" the guild second interjected in a small voice, eager to interrupt the momentum of Thorn's banter "I thought that perhaps, as the merchant council will take some days to assemble - long after the other councils have met and voted - that perhaps lord Dhugal could appraise you of the state of the guilds. Lord Valiere sits over a meetings of the nobles council below us as we speak, arguing that you be named as Jorain's successor, while the towns council will meet after the nobles signal that they have reached an agreement-"
"But this is a new Endier." Dhugal cut in "And it is not the nobles, nor the mayors who will hand you rule. With the guilds at your back, their opposition is meaningless. And without the Outfitters' support, little comprises Endier. You must become accustomed, my lord, to the idea that the greater share of this domain you would rule is not measured in people, or places, but in coin. Divine blood might rule Endier, but earthly gold rules the Outfitters, and should the men to whom I dispatched messengers this very morning choose another candidate, Endier will likely be ruled by them."
Alieyn cast her eyes down, she had promised Dael the guild's support mere hours ago, and already her words were being proven hollow.
"Now-" Thorn continued "You may not like my impertinence. I can see in your eyes that you are waiting for an opportunity to silence me and remind me of my place. But you are not count of anything yet, and I earned my right to be prideful long before your dubious conception. So put aside your indignation until I have returned to my home - my time costs Endier too dearly to squander it reprimanding me - and tell me your story Dael Terhoene. And in return, I will tell you how to be count of Endier before month's end."
So. This is what it was like to be on the receiving end of the kind of verbal assault he had laid about the council with. Dael did not like it. Maybe he would have to have Thorn's tea poisoned. No sooner had the thought framed itself in his mind than the young man felt acid bile rise up in his throat, searing. Gods! Solving problems with murder was not something he wanted to become accustomed to.
Dubious conception. Then again, maybe he would kill Thorn. Personally.
Dael concealed the burning in his throat by raising his fist to his mouth and coughing. He looked up from the table, mustering his best arguments and finest words, planning to meet Thorn's eye and convince him through main charm and flattery that it was in his, Thorn's, best interests to support him… but he couldn't. Dael's heart pounded against his ribs. He was suddenly sure that if he met Thorn's gaze, all his secrets would spill out, like, like…
Like blood on a wet stone dock.
Instead, Dael hesitated, flicking the briefest of glances at Thorn's more comely replacement. “Lady Alieyn, would you leave us for a moment?” It chafed to dismiss her so… the last thing he needed was for the already meek woman to start to thing she was being elbowed out by the overbearing personality of the man she had succeeded, but Thorn was being honest to the point of disrespect, and neither could he afford to look weak before one of his lieutenants. As the copper-haired young woman left, Dael took another moment to collect himself. Maybe he could play the simpering boy, bring out Thorn's avuncular side – if he had one. It was a good ploy, but more than that Dael found himself with an irritatingly genuine desire to appease the former Guild Second.
“'Coin rules Endier',” Dael said quietly, running his fingers absently over the finely lacquered table. “You say that as if I do not know it well, Lord Dhugal. As if you are not telling a fish the river is wet. I know the power of coin, from having none. From risking my neck in the hangman's noose to acquire it. You know my story – at least, I assume you do?” He glanced up demurely. “I was not born a wealthy man, nor an honest one. But by the grace of the man who turned out to be my father, and by Sarimie,” he rolled his eyes towards the ceiling, “I have been given the chance to become one. I know Endier is a land of merchants, my lord, and that the Count must be a nobleman and a guildmaster both. A fisherman on the Maesil, catching the gold that flows up stream and down. Are we not in the Free City, where a man may seek sanctuary from his past deeds and forge a new future? I would forge a prosperous one for the Merchant's Council and the people alike. And I know I need your aid and guidance to do it, my lord. In fact, I have some notions I would like to discuss with you on that very topic – when the time is more meet, of course.”
The former guild second studied Dael for a long moment, and the lean youth thought for an instant that he saw a glint of danger in Dhugal's eyes - or was it mirth?
Then one corner of his mouth curled into a smirk. "Well then, my Count, it is clear to me that you do not require my council. You have obviously already mastered your new office. I will return to my home. May Sarimie smile upon your reign Dael Terhoene, she will no doubt make a fine counsellor."
With that he turned, and strode from the room, but he paused in the doorway and glanced back.
"A piece of advice I will not charge for - let us call it a gift - you are not count until your investiture. Take care to remember that."
And then he was gone.
Dael had taken a breath to reply to Thorn, to ask him back, but before he could utter the words the door was swinging closed, and he released it as a sigh instead. Damn touchy fool! Did he want his boots licked, or did he want to be useful? Clearly the former. Dael placed his face in his palms and scrubbed briskly, cursing under his breath. If - when - if he was count, Dhugal Thorn could be damn sure he wouldn't walk out of a meeting without being dismissed again.
The young man stood and composed himself, smoothing down the front of his tunic (and nearly dinging his head against the chin of some sort of elk). Dael stepped out of the chamber, and waved to Alieyn. "Well, Master Thorn was decidedly less than helpful. Thanks be that I have you instead. I hope he didn't trample you on his way out, mid-huff." Dael favoured her with a smile, then set off down the corridor.
"Walk with me. Tell me what the thousand other courses in the banquet of state I have to sample today are, on the way to see the Elvenshadow. It just occurred to me I have something to tell our master of intelligence."
With an awkward trot the young guild second fell into step just behind Dael, and for a moment she reminded the count-apparent of a stork - all flailing legs and no real momentum. "Yes lord - ah - well at this moment lord Valiere is in a meetings of the noble's council, and he has assured me that he will do his utmost to persuade them to acclaim you count."
"Mmm," Dael expressed non-committally at Alieyn's assurance that Valiere would advocate him to the Noble's Council. Could he trust Valiere to do so? Thorn had rattled him, and he was starting to see treachery, or at least unreliability, in everyone's shadow.
"The towns council met this morning," she continued "and I am glad to say that they have named you their choice, after only a short deliberation. The merchant's council will convene two days hence - with the exception of the traitor Hiriele of course. Ah-" she paused, as if choosing her next words carefully "it is a great pity master Thorne did not tarry longer. Endier will be yours upon the word of the nobles, as their verdict will give you the majority, but the Outfitters have no such obligation to cleave to Endier's decision. He may have been valuable in swaying their choice. Still-" she brightened "-there is no other contender to match your claim, and I am confident that I can persuade them that you will lead the guild well."
Dael glanced back, utter surety shone in her blue-green eyes. He paused mid-stride. "The Town's Council? Already? Huhm. Well. Well, good." Some good news at least, though the situation with the merchant's council made him grimace. "Endier without the Outfitters is like a pauper; the Noble's Council is a silver beggar's bowl in one hand, the Town's Council a wooden beggar's bowl in the other," he said sourly. "We shall have to appeal to the magnates of the guild directly, circumventing Thorn. Or would that just nettle him more?"
Dael mulled over this as they trekked through the gaudy labyrinth, enquiring after the spymaster with the first servant they passed not utterly overburdened with furnishings and fabrics. And after the man's heaving direction they found master Elvenshadow leaning laconically against the western wall of the count's audience chamber, idly watching the large squad of guardsmen obstructing the door to the council chamber with his strange gaze.
As Dael approached the hamer sidhe offered a polite bow "Lord Dael, how can I be of service to you?"
"Master Elvenshadow," he inclined his head. "Something occurred to me this morning which slipped my mind in the… haze… of last night." His throat clenched, and he swallowed hard. "We must lock down communications crossing the eastern border. Hiriele was an agent of Ghoere - or an agent of an agent - and word of what happened may have been sent, failure or no. We must not let Ghoere receive word of our disarray just yet. And conversely, we cannot let Hiriele's paymasters issue orders to any other pawns they have here."
The eerie spymaster gave a low bow, with a lightly mocking air about it, though perhaps that was just his manner "Ghoere you say? My information had not pointed so, but I'll not ask your source. I'll send riders east at once to watch what passes the border, and find some pretext to waylay known informants."
With another languid bow he loped away into the rear recesses of the great hall.
Dael turned his attention from Ceiron to more pressing matters. The town's council had come down in his support - that was good. The nobles may follow in kind - equally good. But what influence did Dhugal still have with the merchants? Taladas Moere of Anuire, the Outfitters' true powerbase, was a close personal friend of Thorne's. Raenal Foerd the exchequer could not possibly be partial - he saw the consultation fees Thorn drew after all, but Caral Nowelion, Lalie Haliel, and Halmied Saebian each owed their position and livelihood to Thorn's efforts, leaving only Vaesil Adun and Boran ibn y Molari in Alamie with cooler relationships thanks to their recent addition to the guild. And Davin Oenwen, Ghorien Hiriele's second, had to be of doubtful loyalty, though Dael had no reason to implicate him in Kalien's plot, and every cause to know if he were.
But then, what other candidate could their be? Thorn himself clearly had no ambition to rule, he had distanced himself after all. Was there a better puppet he might put up? Or perhaps his departure, petulant dignity intact, had been the last of the former guild second's involvement.
Somehow Dael doubted that.
Could Thorn perhaps use his connection with Mirae Macceln to teach the would-be Count a lesson? Dael knew better than most who ruled Endier the city, and who they answered to.
Still, he must be the best candidate. After all, blood was not common in the ranks of the Outfitters as it was in older, more historic guilds, and without the divine right to rule, all knew it would quickly fall from eminence. And without Endier… well. The land was an asset if nothing else.
Perhaps the best course would be to lobby the guildmasters who resided in Endier personally, and allay their concerns. Dael felt sure he could win them over, with his quick wit and easy charm as much as his strength as a candidate. Correction, the candidate.
Guessing at his musings, Alieyn cleared her throat, a meek sound "There is Caine lord. He has had a pact with all Endiers, back to Richard. Were he to back you, it may carry a great deal of weight. That of tradition, certainly, but I know your father relied upon him for Endier's security also. I know you never had cause to meet with him, and he is…. difficult… but…" she trailed off.
As they discussed the disposition of the Merchant's Council, Dael constructed a web of allegiances, enmities and debts in his head. The Exchequer and Moere were good friends… Haliel of the Shipwrights and Sabien of the Fishers were natural collaborators in the river-trade, whatever their personal feelings… Thorn had more in his pockets than a halfling cutpurse… Simultaneously, he watched Alieyn speak, his eyes lingering on her lips, the way she moved her delicate hands, the unconscious brushing back of her copper hair. And while he appreciated that, it wasn't her attractiveness that caused the mental map he was making to crumple up and collapse. Perhaps he was still tired… or perhaps Thorn had shaken him more than he thought.
"Pfaugh," Dael said at last, waving the words away with a flick of his wrist. "This kind of politicking is too much like hard work for me. I won't win the Merchants by buying them piecemeal - this calls for a grand gesture. A takeover. I'll make them flock to me like a bazaar barker selling diamonds for coppers." He gave the guild second a dangerously charming - and charmingly dangerous - smile.
"Thank you, Lady Alieyn. If there is anything else that Endier… or you… need, please, do not hesitate to come to me. For now, however, I must see the master gatekeeper of the City. I presume he will be in the Customs House at this hour?"
The guild second blushed prettily, took a moment to compose herself, and managed "Pneurng." and a curt nod, before scurrying toward the spiral stair at the rear of the great hall, toward the security of her offices.
Satisfied that he had made an impression, Dael wound his way back through the bustling halls of Caer Endier, to the northern gates. Of course, in his days as Jorain's heir, the lean youth had learned that he could not pass through the city unescorted as once he had, in those days when food and shelter were of greater concern than ascension, and the streets held marks rather than subjects.
But that seemed like long ago now.
In another life.
With as small a company of guards as he could manage - a dozen good men - he made his way through the bustling streets of the City of Endier. Crowds that once hid him, parted as he passed, and murmurs of rumour or muttered shows of respect replaced the unintelligible roar that was the voice of the city.
It was as if the living city itself was cowed by his passage, and though he had grown accustomed to the deference of folk who once spat on him, and called him 'rat' and 'thief' this was something different, something new. This was not forced respect, cloaking contempt, or envy, or dismissal. Was it fear?
The cobbles felt different through a Count's boots.

THE CUSTOMS HOUSE of the City of Endier was a squat, expansive brick affair, with a façade that managed to look conceited - as much as bricks and mortar can (perhaps more) - with its polished windows, and iron-bound doors. The warehouses at the rear were a filthy mass of narrow alleyways, splintered crates, sleek rats, and river stink. But that was this smug building's secret, and it held it firmly behind its back.
After some confusion as to exactly who he was (confusion that Dael himself shared, given the morning's events) the young Endier heir was ushered into the generous office of the chief exciseman, cluttered with chests of goods, and sheafs of paper and parchment, rolled and bound, and scattered about. A heavy table at an unnerving angle dominated the centre of the room. Clearly of the finest quality, it was marbled with ink, but in perfect order, in razor-sharp contrast to the rest of the room. This patch of calm, this eye of the storm, made the place feel cramped, like the walls were closing in.
If the keeper of Endier's gates, an aging guardsmen with salt and pepper moustaches and a gaudily plumed helm, shared Dael's impression of the place he made no show of it, though its erstwhile owner, who awaited Dael's pleasure without, seemed relieved at the prospect of a moment's reprieve. The keeper entered, with a low bow, sweeping his helm gracefully from his head.
Though he wore his largely ceremonial breastplate loose, to accommodate his paunch, he had the look of a man who could handle himself. And Dael found this impression of competence encouraging.
"My lord Terhoene, may I express my deepest regrets at the passing of your father. The news only reached me this hour, but it is truly tragic that Count Jorain has passed into Sarimie's care. May I ask, was his passing comfortable? It must have been sudden."

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