About twenty miles east of the Bull’s Horns lay Briga, the western-most fortress of the Talfar Kingdom. It wasn’t nearly so large as the Horns, as in the vast plains of Talfar such fortifications were an easily bypassed waste of resources. That being said, it was still a formidable location—built on a hill, two layers of walls, six gatehouses, and numerous isolated baileys.
Due to the location, most of the fortress was made of black trap rocks taken from the Border Mountains, giving much of the architecture both in the fortress and the small city half a mile away a distinct hexagonal pattern. Just about the only building that didn’t follow this design aesthetic—hexagons and black trap rocks—was the palace at the center of the city.
The palace followed more conventional Talfar architectural styles, with a circular base and a wide conical roof that shone a brilliant white in the afternoon sun. The palace had been built on a base of grey limestone, was completely encircled with marble columns, and had been heavily enchanted both for the comfort and security of its occupants.
The man who currently ruled from that palace was Prince Owain, the thirteenth son of the previous King of Talfar. Unlike most of his other siblings, Owain had an interest in politics, and so didn’t renounce his claim to the throne, even after the King had declined to nominate him as successor.
The doors to Prince Owain’s office burst open and an aged sixth-tier woman wearing extremely fancy robes of green and gold walked out with a scowl on her face.
“Please wait, Elder!” Owain cried out as he followed this woman outside, his classically handsome face contorted in anger and his long perfectly styled blue hair starting to fall apart.
“We have nothing more to discuss!” the old woman responded as she descended the grand stairs leading from the palace to the rest of the city. Her horse and force of one hundred personal bodyguards were waiting for her at the bottom, decked out in the best armor that her money could buy, all shining steel trimmed with silver, adorned with sapphires and blue war paint, and with the shoulders covered in a layer of grey wolf fur.
Owain continued down the stairs after the Elder, but she didn’t listen to a word he said. She simply pulled herself up onto her horse with an almost ethereal grace that her obvious age belied and turned to begin her ride out of the city, but before she did, she glanced at Owain one last time and said, “Queen Andraste has just defeated your elder brothers, the Third and Sixth Princes, who both revolted in an attempt to press their claims. Now, she defends the Eastern Border from the Han Kingdom, who wants to take advantage of our weakness and seize control of the Disputed Lands…”
As she spoke, Owain looked like he wanted to say something, but a single angry look from her shut his mouth.
“… Let me make myself clear, Your Highness, no one wants another civil war. Even if we weren’t being invaded, that wouldn’t change. You’ll find no support for your claim! Andraste is our Queen, and that is final!”
With that said, the Elder spurred her horse on and led her guards toward the city exit, leaving a furious Owain standing alone at the bottom of the stairs.
As they rode away, the captain of the Elder’s guard sarcastically said, “So, that went well.”
The Elder, who enjoyed letting her immediate subordinates take a more relaxed tone around her, responded with a scowl and had to fight the immediate instinct to spit on the ground in disgust. “That little boy thinks that just because his father made him a governor of a province that he’s suddenly more qualified to be our ruler than any of his siblings! If he truly were so deserving of the post, then the Elder Council would’ve made him King, instead of Andraste!”
“That doesn’t really tell him anything, though, just that he’s not as popular with the Elders as his sister,” the guard captain replied. “In any event, it’s probably prudent to keep an eye on him. Since he lost any hope of support from the Elders with your denial of his claim, I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes advantage of the Queen’s absence from the capital to try and seize the throne by force.”
“If he tries that, then he’ll prove himself to be an idiot without a lick of common sense! If he tries, then Andraste will only turn her army back west and in no time, he’ll be on the same executioner’s pyre that his brothers were on only a few months ago!”
“Do you intend to tell Her Majesty about her brother’s machinations?”
“Of course! If he does try something and it comes out that I knew about it, I would be joining him on that pyre! No, Andraste will be informed, as will the rest of the Elder Council and the High Priests! I will make sure that he finds no support in Pretani!”
Owain stood at the bottom of the wide stairs of his palace staring at the backs of the Elder’s guard for a long time. Even when his servants caught up to him a few seconds after the Elder left, he stood there; even when the Elder and her entourage vanished from view, he stood glaring in the direction that they had ridden off in. None of his servants dared to utter a single word, as the look on his face was dreadful, and they knew that if they interrupted his thoughts then they would be arrested and probably tortured.
Suddenly, a loud voice called out from the palace.
Owain turned and saw standing at the top of the stairs a middle-aged man with the silver and blue armor of a Talfar Marshal. With no small amount of bitterness, Owain glanced one last time in the direction of the Elder before ascending the stairs towards the Marshal.
Marshals in the Talfar Kingdom were the rank equivalent to the Bull Kingdom’s Consul, but there were fourteen Talfar Marshals to the Bull Kingdom’s seven Consuls. However, Talfar had no equivalent to the Paladins, making the effective magical strength of both Kingdoms about equal. Consequently, in past wars between the two Kingdoms, victory or defeat had been decided by more conventional tactics and strategies.
“Marshal Arthwyn,” Owain snarled as he reached the top of the stairs, “what do you want?”
Arthwyn smiled pleasantly at the Prince in spite of the rude tone, and asked, “I simply wished to inquire as to how Your Highness’ meeting with the Elder went.”
There was barely a hint of smugness in the Marshal’s voice owing to his long years of service to the Talfar King, but Owain could hear the self-satisfaction clear as crystal. ‘You know exactly how badly that meeting went, you arrogant bastard,’ the Prince thought.
Out loud, however, Owain merely said, “Not well.”
“That’s a shame, I was truly hoping Her Honor would be able to see Your Highness’ clear and legal right to rule,” Arthwyn replied. If anyone else had heard the Marshal speak with that tone, they might have thought that he was being genuine, but Owain had known him long enough to pick up on the subtle sarcasm.
The Prince refused to lower himself and respond to the Marshal, so he walked back into the conical palace with the Marshal following closely behind. They silently made their way through the richly decorated halls and open and inviting rooms until they arrived at the Prince’s personal study. Within, the decoration became comparatively simple, with the dark redwood walls bereft of tapestries and murals and the marble floor bare. Even the furniture was rather subdued and simple, if luxuriously comfortable.
The Prince didn’t sit at his surprisingly small desk and instead chose to sit down in front of his fireplace in one of only two small couches. The Marshall sat down in a nearby armchair—drawing a dirty look from Owain due to the lack of invitation to sit—and stared at his Prince expectantly.
“Why are you staring?” Owain quietly asked.
“I’m waiting to see what you intend to do, now that you know exactly how little support you have in Pretani,” Arthwyn responded. “The Elders don’t support you, the nobility doesn’t support you, and you lack support from the common sectors as well.”
“What is your point?!” Owain demanded, his fury rising. He had to catch himself from formally reprimanding Arthwyn for insubordination; the Marshal was his only real support in the entire Kingdom, after all.
“Well, you only have two places left to look: The Primal Priests and the army…” the Marshal said with a smirk.
“Those damned priests are in my sister’s corner…” Owain bitterly grumbled.
“Well, you could try and get married to one of the Primal Virgins—both the Earth and Wind Temples have female Primal Virgins, as I recall.”
“Not going to happen. The Primal Priests guard their Virgins like dragons guard their hoards.”
“In that case,” Arthwyn said as his smile grew bigger, “Your Highness’ only option for support is the army.”
Owain scowled again, as he knew that Arthwyn was aware that any requests he was legally allowed to make to the army had to go through the Marshal. In other words, if Owain truly wanted to raise enough support to become King before Andraste had ruled for long enough to consolidate her power, then he was entirely dependent on Arthwyn.
“What do you want?” Owain demanded of the still-smiling Arthwyn.
“For Your Highness to listen to me. In all things,” Arthwyn stated.
“Be specific,” Owain countered.
“If I must,” Arthwyn said. “I want to be named to the Elder Council!”
Owain leaned back in his sofa and silently contemplated the matter. ‘I need his support, but he isn’t nearly old enough to be an Elder…’
To be an Elder, a citizen of Talfar had to be at least of the sixth-tier and two hundred years old or older. Arthwyn was a powerful sixth-tier mage, but he was only in his one-hundred-forties.
‘I would look corrupt if I were to name him as an Elder upon my ascension to Kingship, especially since I would have to remove one of the Elders already on the council…’ Owain thought with some dejection. But there was another thought that crept into his head that prevented him from outright refusing Arthwyn. ‘But that is only a problem if the Marshal lives long enough to see me on the throne…’
“Very well,” Owain said out loud, “once I am King, I promise to name you as the newest of the Elders.”
Most legislation within the Talfar Kingdom was written by the Elder Council and merely approved and enforced by the reigning monarch. The Elders even decided who among the previous monarch’s children would succeed to the throne after the monarch’s death. Owain understood Arthwyn’s desire to be on the council, as there were only twenty-one Elders at any one time. This meant that Arthwyn could wield significantly more authority over the Kingdom as an Elder than he could as a Marshal bound by the King’s regulations.
“That means a lot, Your Highness,” Arthwyn said with a sly smile.
“Now, how are we going to go about this?” Owain asked, deferring to the military specialist; his own skills lay in administration, not martial affairs.
“At this moment, I can raise one hundred thousand peasant levies from this province, in addition to the fifty-thousand professional soldiers stationed here. I can also call favors from Marshal’s Bran and Gwen and add about a hundred thousand more soldiers to those numbers.”
Owain shivered a little when he thought of the pale and creepy Bran, but since half of the other Marshals were with Andraste in the east fighting the Han Kingdom, Arthwyn’s contacts would have to do.
“Additionally,” Arthwyn continued, “we should not march on Pretani.”
“I must take the capital if I wish to unseat my sister!” Owain protested.
“I understand that Your Highness, but the Han Kingdom’s invasion isn’t going to stop just because Your Highness wants to be King. To march on Pretani now would be to invite criticism from every corner of the Kingdom! No, it would be received much better if Your Highness were to alter the target to a foreign state…”
“I assume you have one in mind, then?” Owain asked. From their location, they could march west to the Bull Kingdom, south-west to the Samar Kingdom, or south to the Kingdom of Asturias, with each providing their own benefits if the conquest was successful.
“I do indeed…” Arthwyn replied. “The Bull Kingdom has long held the city of Ariminium, and so controls the point where the Tyrrhenian River joins the Gulf of Discord! If we were to take that city, then we would gain access to the western oceans!”
“Our two states have warred many times for that little bit of land,” Owain mused. “Even when we’ve managed to take it, we’ve never been able to hold onto it. Our last invasion eighty years ago failed miserably…”
“I’m well aware of how badly we failed back then,” Arthwyn cooly remarked. He absent-mindedly rubbed his left shoulder, where Owain could just barely see the edge of a scar peeking out from under his armor. But before Owain could comment on his behavior, Arthwyn continued, “Taking that city and the fortress beside it would be an enormous mark of prestige, as Your Highness would’ve taken the prize that has been coveted by dozens of Kings and Queens before Your Highness! And in a state of war, Your Highness proving himself by conquering new territory would be more than enough to convince most in Pretani that Your Highness would make for a far better King than Andraste, who even now struggles in the east with the armies of the Han Kingdom!”
Owain felt his heart rate accelerate as the plan took shape before him. He would conquer Ariminium and become a war hero to the Talfar Kingdom in the process. He would then use that prestige and wave of support to become King. It was a far more practical plan than any he’d had before.
After several minutes of thought, he asked, “How long will it take to assemble this army you speak of?”
“A month or two,” Arthwyn immediately replied, telling Owain that he’d put quite a bit more thought into this than the Marshal had initially let on.
“Can it be done any sooner?” Owain inquired. “I don’t want to give the Bull Kingdom time to notice our gathering army and make their own preparations…”
“I can have the levies raised and supplied by the end of the month,” Arthwyn confidently stated. “My fifty thousand soldiers are always ready for battle, and Marshal Bran can be here in a matter of weeks. It’s Marshal Gwen that we’d be waiting on for most of that time.”
“Get to work, then,” Owain said. “I want your army raised as soon as possible and have the other two Marshals begin their march here. We’ll wait for Bran, but Gwen will have to serve as reinforcements after the invasion has begun.”
Arthwyn smiled and rose from his chair. With a bow, he left the Prince’s study. His smile grew wider as he walked to the communications room; the glee he felt at the invasion he’d been planning for decades couldn’t be overstated. After eighty years of living almost within spitting distance of the border, he was finally going to invade the Bull Kingdom!
The Marshal’s smile grew cold and hateful as he rubbed his shoulder again. A more level-headed commander would never have recommended invading another Kingdom while his own monarch was already fighting a war on the other side of the realm, but he had old business with the Bull Kingdom, and he was going to settle it any way he possibly could, regardless of the harm it brought to the Talfar Kingdom.
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Efflorescence - Kyle J Smith
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