”Will you be victorious? ”
The emperors voice broke Durans concentration – the same concentration that he had maintained for a good two hours since the break of dawn. A concentration that couldn be mended after being shattered. He reserved his sigh, and turned to his grandfather with a hasty, half-assed greeting, before returning his gaze to the board before him. Searching – in vain, he knew – for where his thoughts had been rudely interrupted amongst the pieces, it took him no time at all to admit defeat.
”The beauty of challenging yourself is that you never lose, ” Durans spoke, allowing his subtle tone of displeasure seep ever so slightly into his demeanor. ”Still, you can never win with certainty, either. ”
Something his grandfather had just proven to be the case.
”This is true. ” The emperor crossed the threshold and approaching the table, taking a seat beside his grandson.
”Youve returned from Siligo sooner than expected, ” Durans noted, leaning back in a relaxed position – with the interruption came a relaxation he did not know he needed. But that was always the case – deep intuitions and musings always had a way of twisting up muscles until they screamed for relief. ”I assume Rens is already en route to Castle Mechi for the inevitable usurpation of the feral child. ”
”This is a time of haste. ” There was something oddly calm in the emperors voice. Then, Durans concluded, he was not trusting Rens, alone, in this endeavor. He had a stately face, his eldest brother, but he was as dense as a building stone. Perhaps his time in the Mad Lands would teach him a thing or two about true, cutthroat diplomacy.
”Quite an understatement, ” he murmured, picking a marble piece from the far side of the board and placing it a square diagonal. ”Then, as I suspected, your visit was not simply about Rens duties to the north. Youve heard knew regarding our dear half-brother. ”
It was about time the old man shared. It wasn like Durans didn have eyes of his own throughout the land, but it was always beneficial to know if those around you were more equipped.
”Nikolais entire state of affairs is proving rather perplexing, ” the emperor sighed as he studied the game board.
Durans watched where his old, yellowing eyes flicked, trying to read his strategic ponderings, before shrugging.
”Of course, it is. Bozhidars marriage to Katka of Vukland was purely political. The existence of Nikolai was specifically prearranged. He was not a product of a union but a goal with the sole purpose of breeding a superior secondary plan should the primary fail – which it did. ”
Emerentius considered him as he lifted an onyx piece and twisted it between his fingers thoughtfully, analyzing the board.
”Bozhidar may have been mad in his later years, ” Durans continued, capturing a marble piece and replacing it with the onyx. He then looked up to the emperor. ”But he was not born that way. He was sired by a man just as fearsome and brilliant as he. He was raised under the tutelage of a Kazbirati and a Roamer, mingling the ambition of Kazbirati supremacy in the winter lands with wild folk savagery and inhuman survival instinct. When you took us from Rodakrov, Bozhidar knew we would be back the moment he died – if not sooner – like vultures to a lonesome carcass. He knew wed shed the Kazbirati name in favor of the one that protected us from him. He knew if that happened, the Aquiladessi legacy would rise to power in the Mad Lands. ”
He paused for a moment, giving his grandfather a point of entry into the conversation. When he remained quiet, though, Durans continued.
”The death of our mother was not the watershed, but rather the ultimate decision, made by you, to bring us to the empire. He didn need a wife – he needed an heir. Your choice sparked the need for a second wife merely because you took every son of his away. ” In other words, Durans pondered, this entire shitshow was his grandfathers fault. Still, providence wasn something that could be altered. ”He had several potential options for a second wife. Princess Jasdear of Vishya had celebrated her coming of age that very year. Khan Ganzorig of the east continent wouldve gladly married one of his five daughters to Bozhidar. Uniting Khamgi and Rodakrov wouldve been a devastating match for the rest of the west and east continents. Of course, the most terrifying union wouldve been that of the Mad Lands and Eurakos. Luckily for us, Praxicles was still without heir at the time. ”
”Lucky indeed, ” Emerentius grunted, the very thought of it bringing a disgusted scowl to his face.
”And then, there were the Odimars to the west. ” Durans held back his smirk. There was once a time that his grandfather was a master statesman, but age was a cruel master to all – noble or peasant. Even the Emperor of Casteria could not run from time. ”Vukland was, and still is, an enigmatic nation. Ive studied our accounts on the Wolf Land. Louis Hitarius, a spy of Emperor Cesare Lotum, claims he ventured to Vukland through Olavis Fjord. ”
”Rodakrov was still hostile under Lotums reign, ” the emperor remembered with a nod. ”Olavis Fjord wouldve been his only option for access. ”
”And a dangerous one, at that, ” Durans supplemented. ”Olavis Fjord is known for unnaturally treacherous waters. Hitarius set his sails so as to land directly north. The waves, however, had pulled him into deeper waters. He ended up in the furthest coast of mainland Vukland where he encountered a tribe he refers to in his journal as the Oculudus. ”
”The bright eyes. ” Emerentius eyes fell to the board as he picked up a marble game piece, setting it forward, initiating a game suddenly.
”Immediately, Hitarius writes of their uncivilized nature. They had no stone structures, they sat around massive fires for warmth at night, their very houses were made of wood and barely passed for livable. They relieved themselves just beyond the border of the camp. Children would indulge in their sweet wine. ” Durans studied the board before decisively moving his crowned piece forward. ”Still, they welcomed the summer land foreigners with open arms. They offered him furs to keep warm, a foster family to feed him and offer him quarters, a man he refers to simply as Car, even attempted to teach him their language. ”
”Where is your pith, child? ” The emperor pressed.
”With accounts of another explorer, grandfather, ” Durans answered, eyes on the game, since he knew damn well, he was drawing out his explanation in a derisive manner. Rens or Ciro wouldve let him speak for hours, but he supposed his grandfather managed Casteria successfully for decades, now. He couldn have easily been mocked unknowingly. ”Gianni Brevi, employed during the occupation of Emperor Emerentius the First, read Hitarius journals and attempted to make contact with the Oculudus. He traveled north, the same path his predecessor took, but the fjord had other plans for him. He landed farther east than he intended and encountered what we now know as the Arafa tribe. They were far from congenial to Brevi, operating in a vastly different fashion than that of the Oculudus. The Arafa cast the foreigner out with flying spears, or so he dramatizes. He returned to Casteria with three less toes and only one earlobe. ”
Inhaling, Durans sat back in his chair, shifting his golden eyes to his grandfather.
”The numerous tribes of Vukland maintain their independence – possess their own cultures and ways of life – and care little for foreign affairs. Because of this, no nation has ever realistically considered them a viable threat. The story of Brevi, however, was enough to keep fear alive in the nations with minds to colonize. Enough to keep them safe from invaders – even their closest, Rodakrov. ” Which Durans, in retrospect, knew to be a falsehood from his biased Casterian history books. Rodakrov had never been – and never planned to be – an invader. ”Bozhidar, despite his madness, managed to unveil a mystery of Vukland that was well-kept from the greedy eyes of the civilized summer lands – a uniting chieftain. Petrov Odimar, Master of the Wolves. ”
The emperor narrowed his eyes at Durans, his intrigue piqued. ”You share with me stories that you learned when they fell from my lips, child. What point are you trying to drive home? ”
”As Im sure you know, Bozhidar married Katka with the distinct knowledge that Vukland and Casteria had a tottering history. And, of course, ” Durans continued on his course, not bothering over the old mans prompting. ”With the hope that, should we Aquiladessis overstep our bounds, Petrov would swiftly check us with his hordes of barbarian tribes. ”
”A hope that was utterly destroyed the moment Katka fled from Castle Mechi, ” Emerentius supplemented.
His grandson grinned wickedly.
Had the emperor not watched the brilliantly understated lad grow with his very own eyes, he wouldve assumed he was raised by Bozhidar. He had the same wolfish smile. But that was exactly why Emerentius was here. They had no choice, now, but to unleash him upon the world.
”Precisely, grandfather. ”
When the emperor returned his gaze to Durans, he was met with a waiting gaze – as if the boy could read his thoughts.
”With Katka, herself, fleeing from Bozhidars madness, Chief Petrov would have no choice but to sympathize with the situation of the Aquiladessi children. Foolishly enough, though, the dumb bitch left behind her son, fearing the same sickness infected him. Because of this horrendous error on her part, a third wife wasn necessary. In all possible ways, the Kazbiratis are more beast than man. Bozhidar didn need the flesh of a woman in his bed, he needed an heir that he could mold. ”
Durans sighed. ”From what youve told me of him, grandfather, I couldn agree more that the predicament we face is… delicate in nature. With Petrov nearing his end and his son not a man where it counts the most, Nikolai will become the heir apparent to the Vukland chieftainship – much to the Odimars despondency. Still, if Rens successfully takes the throne of Rodakrov- ”
”You think he won ? ” Emerentius intervened, brow creased.
”You think Nikolai will step aside so willingly? ” Durans countered, cocking his own brow. ”That throne, grandfather, is his, no matter what angle you go about it. Legally, yes, the Aquiladessi have a claim, but Rens knows nothing of the winter lands. He is not fit to rule over them. ”
”The people will not know that, ” the emperor pointed out.
”No, ” Durans agreed. ”And that will be his only saving grace, along with strategic relationships formed with the provincial families, god willing, but no amount of strategy or forethought will harbor him from Nikolai. ”
”You think the boy would kill him? ”
The urgency in the emperors tone made it seem to Durans that he hadn thought this through, which was an odd prospect, since the old man had been keeping tabs of the feral child since he was born.
”He killed his father, didn he? ” Durans spoke.
”Yes, ” the emperor affirmed. ”Or his alchemist. ”
The ex-Praefectus? How strange, he thought, unprecedented, even. Then was it truly not the case the Vitale Sicarius was blackmailed into remaining in the Mad Lands? Otherwise, if one had intentions of doing such a thing, why wait so long to execute it?
”Curious, ” he mumbled. ”Still, the notion stands. It wouldn be beyond the son of Bozhidar to kill his estranged brother, not where the throne of the kingdom is concerned – nor would Rens death be frowned upon by the provincial houses. Kazbiratis are known for their lack of mercy. ”
The emperors gaze fell to his leathery hands.
”Ironically enough, ” he continued, seeing just how much anxiety he could produce from his grandfather. ”That would probably be the most merciful of Nikolais options. I know little of the boys nature, so I couldn possibly predict his thought processes, but if he truly was behind the snuffing of the Bulls Rebellion, I couldn imagine hes dull. ”
After a moment of consideration, Durans decided. ”He won kill Rens. Hell be too suspicious of your ulterior motives. ”
”He wouldn just step aside, either, ” Emerentius refuted.
”No. ” Obviously, but since when did the Emperor of Casteria need the tactical aid of his otherwise useless cripple of a grandson? Still, playing along was always a smart decision – at least until all of the pieces were set. ”But the arrival of Rens will catch him off guard. It would disallow the ability to retaliate with the full might of the Kazbirati. Hell withdraw from the initial battle in order to return to the final with all the force he can. As of this moment, grandfather, with little intelligence on the boy, I couldn definitively tell you what he would plan, but I will tell you this: send message to Petrov before word of Nikolais abdication reaches him. Pose an arrangement with Vukland – one that would protect the chieftaincy from Kazbirati usurpation, even with his impotent son. That way, should anything… well, dubious… happen to Nikolai – god forbid – there will be no hostile misunderstanding from Vukland. ”
The emperor brought a thoughtful hand to his chin.
”Very well, ” he conceded. ”And this dubious occurrence – what, exactly, do you predict it will entail? ”
”Poison, ” Durans spoke, reaching for the onyx crowned piece before toppling it to its side. Feral creatures innately knew what they could and could not consume. Such an asinine attempt would not end his life, but what a veritable opening move it would make. ”That would be my most educated deduction. ”
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