Kaelyn, Queen of the Caerdann, entered the cozy little room alone. While the apartments the Empress had offered her guests were spacious, Dorgann had not invited her here for their conversation to be overheard. Most of Travan’s guests had made for the road, but some few remained, including the sons of Kharshe within this apartment. The thick stone walls were built as a bulwark against the chill winds that cut across the central plains of Annaria’s winter, but they were equally effective at ensuring privacy. Let her men and women think what they would.
The broad warrior before her waited waited pensively, seated at a small square table in the center of the room. His hands were clasped in thought as he sat in the dim light of a single wall sconce, though a broad candle sat unlit on the table. If he were another man, he might be shaken by the loss of Innoken. Likely he was communing with Akhor, instead.
Kaelyn gracefully placed herself opposite the Chieftain, meeting his glance with a measured smile. She placed her fingertips around the cold wick of the candle on the table, pinching it as if to extinguish it, and a small flame winked into being. For some reason, she never tired of these little gestures.
Dorgann’s face softened in almost imperceptible amusement, and lifted his eyes to hers. His voice was deep and smooth, unmoved by emotion, but heavy with his presence. He had a way of filling the room that left men and women both overwhelmed. “Thank you for coming, my dear. I wanted to hear your thoughts about recent events in person.”
The Queen’s lips firmed into a thin smile. There were few men in the World who could challenge her own presence, and in this moment, it was a pleasure to meet with one of them. A Sorceress had complete control of her own body: every feature of her face, the strength of her muscles, the quality of her skin, even the color of her hair. Kaelyn had sufficient self-awareness that every aspect of her appearance was as much an aesthetic choice as the shirt she wore; it would be unconscionable for her not to make of it a work of art. The result was an imposing beauty, one she used to intimidate as much as to entice. She had brought men and women nearly to their knees with her pale green gaze. Dorgann noticed, of course: he noticed everything. But he looked roughly as moved by her display as by a well-crafted pair of boots. His regard was for the thoughts of an equal. Occasionally that was pleasant.
“I think,” Kaeylyn replied slowly, “that Jacob is a dangerous man. The Accord was all but done, and now it is in turmoil. He threatened the Compact itself, and that is not good for us. It will be difficult to reveal ourselves as Gods when one of us has already fallen to a mortal.”
Dorgann nodded slightly in agreement, his piercing brown eyes not leaving hers. His own appearance was rugged: just handsome enough, and just hard enough, to encourage respect without drawing attention away from the intensity in his eyes. His body was a vehicle of thought and action. “The Compact will hold. Akhor even indicates Heaven will accept an amendment to prevent Sorcerers from creating weapons against each other. But as you say, the Accord has been delayed. Still, you lay the blame for this on a mortal, not on the failure of the so-called neutrality of Heaven?”
Kaelyn’s cheeks pulled her lips into the ghost of a smile. “Shakath was about to slaughter the town Thomas had founded. We expected he would take any opportunity within the Compact to oppose that. He left part of his own soul with Ironwood in his last human life, so it was arrogance to think there would be no consequences to killing those people. Still, Shakath was almost right: without a man like Jacob, Thomas’s hands would have been tied. But now Ironwood has a champion capable of facing a Sorcerer, even if Thomas does not intervene again. That is a dangerous precedent, Dorgann.”
Dorgann’s steady gaze did not waver, though he offered no argument. “Unfortunately so, and his mistake has been costly.
Halvar indicated to Innoken that Jacob would have been willing to give up Ironwood, as long as his people were allowed to live. Shakath’s failure to accept those terms turned his heart against us, and gave Jacob his strength. Now, we have lost Sarronen’s leaders, and I am loathe even to punish them for it. After all, we betrayed them first, with dishonor, foolishness, and weakness. I will do what I must. Sarronen must be recovered, Ironwood must be dispersed, and yes, Jacob must be dealt with. As dangerous as the man is, neither Ironwood nor Sarronen can stand against us.
Shakath was right about one thing: war creates heroes. We should handle Jacob carefully, diminish his surety and influence before we eliminate him, or he may be as dangerous dead as alive. If we kill him now, he is likely to Ascend.”
The queen returned a bare nod. Dorgann was right, of course, about the threat. He was far more careful than Shakath: there was a reason he was paired with Akhor, the Rock. While he was the more thoughtful of the pair, carefully examining every angle before making a decision, he was indomitable when he chose to act. If she were to influence him, it must be now, before he had made up his mind. Unfortunately, she was divided in her own thoughts. Akhor’s plan to destroy Jacob made sense, but it did not appeal. “It does seem such a waste, though. I know it’s Heaven’s talk, but if Jacob can Ascend, deliberately preventing it seems almost like murdering an Ascended. From that perspective, it may be kinder to kill him. But we have a more deadly enemy than Jacob, or Heaven. If we approach this indirectly, we could use the boy. He hates Shakath, but not us: not yet.”
Dorgann grunted. “I could swear you had a fondness for this young man. That is unlike you.”
“And why not?” Kaelyn responded breezily, a warm amusement softening her fierce gaze. “He’s capable, and handsome enough. You know well there are so few men worthy of my attention.”
The flame-haired queen paused for effect, casting her emerald gaze upon the Great Chieftain of Kharshe until he returned a thin smile. “All joking aside,” she continued, “I do hate to see a potential tool wasted, but we must deal with Jacob, and Ironwood, one way or another. That does not mean we need make Shakath’s mistake, creating formidable enemies where there were none, and underestimating the ones we have.”
Dorgann tapped his finger once on the table, deep in thought. Kaelyn’s words were considered, and Vallaton did not hesitate to ally itself with strength. On the other hand, he was a Warlord of Vallaton. He did not shirk from a fight, and he did not wait for someone else to solve his problems. “There is much in what you say, but I do not fear Jacob. Innoken was no swordsman; in fact, Jacob was several times better with the blade. Yet he barely survived, and through the use of poison and trickery. Even a Sorcerer with weak combat skills, who spent this life falling into indolence and overconfidence, was nearly impossible for a mortal to defeat in combat.
I, on the other hand, am not weak. Jacob may be impressive for a mortal, but I have seen his skills, and he is not my equal. Nor am I afraid of what one neophyte Ascended could do against us in the Spirit world. I am not inclined to alter my plans any more than necessary to accommodate one man, whatever Shakath’s failures, and it would please me to face him. Still, I will think on what you have said.”
“Of course,” Kaelyn murmured. “With Shakath defeated, the Council follows Akhor, and Atha and I follow the Council. You did ask for my thoughts on the matter, and you have them. However, we have more serious matters to attend to. In Shakath’s absence, unifying the sons and daughters of Kharshe falls to us, and yet we have no Accord. How long until the Council allows us to move?”
Dogrann responded with a cool impatience not directed at his fellow Sorcerer. “I’m done waiting for formalities. It is over-generous, but if we take Sarronen in Shakath’s name, I think we can count on the Council to back the boundaries we were asking for.”
The Queen inclined her head slowly. “Yes, it could be useful for Shakath to owe us a debt, and based on Innoken’s performance, he will be more help in Vallaton than here.”
“Good. How soon can you ride?”