CHAPTER THREE: THE RETURN OF THE KING
King Aquilan Fairlynn–Ruler of the Aravae Empire and Star of his People–tipped his head back and closed his eyes. Sunlight rained down upon him. Its warmth caressed the bare skin on his face and neck. The rest of him was thoroughly covered from his golden breastplate to the matching pauldrons, gauntlets and greaves, not to mention, the enchanted flowing white shirt and crimson cloak.
The armor was heavy.
It was also very hot.
And not even practical.
This armor wasn’t for protection. There was nothing and no one that could harm him here under the blazing afternoon Sun anyway. It was purely for pomp and circumstance. He was to look appropriately kingly on his way to the Eryas Palace.
I am no longer a king at war. I am a king at peace. And I need to look the part.
At least that’s what his elder brother Vesslan had suggested. He enjoyed fine clothes, but he longed mostly to be cool at this moment. But this outfit was a concession he’d made to Vesslan in exchange for there being no parade waiting for him upon his arrival in Tyrael.
Do I even deserve a parade? He grimaced and tried to shake that thought away. What if the war was all my fault?
His chest felt tight as now that the exigencies of the war were no longer occupying his every waking thought and the old guilt was starting to fester and grow again. Rhalyf was sure that he wasn’t to blame. But Aquilan didn’t believe in coincidences. Yet how could he have known that slaying their ancient enemy on his own soil would cause any danger to mortals planes away? But ignorance had never saved anyone from consequences.
His lips pressed tightly together. It had been easier to push this feeling away when he’d had a battle the next day. But now? Peaceful days and nights spread out before him like an unending bolt of gray cloth. He would have to find a way to distract himself by making things better for the newest people–the humans–to join the Empire. But could one ever make up for the near extinction of a species?
He let his magical senses spread out all around him. Thankfully, he sensed only wildlife and a lone farmer in a far field. No crowds. Even though Vesslan had agreed to no formal parade, Aquilan wouldn’t have been surprised if people had “accidentally” found out about his location, lined the sides of the road, waved at him, threw flowers at his feet, and praised his name. Because of that possibility, he’d been purposefully vague about when and where he was going to arrive just to make sure that such an “accident” wouldn’t happen. There would be a grand party at some point to welcome him to his new home, but it would–thankfully–not be today. He adored a good party, but this homecoming was a mixed bag for him.
He loosened his already light grip on his horse Erendiel’s reins so that even the backs of his fingers were touched by the Sun’s golden rays. The sunlight caused him to see orange and red fires behind his eyelids. From the Sun, his people got their colloquial name of the Sun Elves and he obtained his greatest powers to create and to destroy.
And, hopefully, now just to create. The war is over, he reminded himself again. The enemy is vanquished. Destruction is done.
“Nude picnic,” his best friend, Lord Rhalyf Neres, suddenly muttered, interrupting his thoughts.
“What?” Aquilan’s eyelids shot open as he turned his head towards his riding companion.
“What?” Rhalyf feigned innocence.
“Really, Rhalyf?” Aquilan lifted an eyebrow before he dropped his voice so that their third riding companion, his niece Lady Elasha Fairlynn, didn’t hear him and repeated, “Nude picnic.”
“I was merely speaking out loud what you were thinking, your majesty,” Rhalyf said with mock solemnity.
“Me? I believe those were your thoughts, Rhalyf.”
“I am most certainly speaking about yours, my king,” Rhalyf’s tone was semi-serious despite the topic. “You’ve been gazing around at these fields of wildflowers and thinking that we should gallop into them, strip off our armor, fling ourselves into the most fragrant patch of flowers we can find, and then have a nude picnic!”
Aquilan’s voice was dry as he responded, “My eyes were closed.”
“Only just now. You were thinking this before you shut them.” Rhalyf nodded sagely. “And when you closed your eyes, you were imagining how pleasant a nude picnic would be.”
“I see.” Aquilan’s lips twitched. “Do you have wine? It cannot be a picnic–nude or otherwise–without wine.”
Rhalyf reached into his saddle bags and produced a wine skin with a broad smile.
“Food?” Aquilan questioned.
Rhalyf patted the other side of his saddle bags. “Cheese, bread, dried meat and apples. Not to mention I’ve seen quite a bit of small game around here. I’m sure I could rustle up something for us to eat if what I have does not satisfy.”
“Nude hunting?” Aquilan chuckled. “Nude cooking?”
“Nude everything. But even without the hunting, we have more than enough in my saddlebags for a picnic right now.”
Rhalyf offered the wine skin to Aquilan who took a mouthful. The wine was crisp and clean. It was a particular kind of stony white wine called Chelios that Rhalyf was very fond of. His best friend had spelled the wine so that it remained perfectly chilled. Maybe Aquilan should do that to his armor. The war was over. It wouldn’t be wasting magic now to cast such a spell. And it would make the ride that much more comfortable.
He let his magic stir within him and a wave of frosty air swept over his skin, which immediately dried the sweat that had been running down his spine and collecting behind his knees and at his elbows. He let out a sigh of pleasure and took another mouthful of wine. There were definitely some benefits to peace.
“I’m surprised you have any of the Chelios left, Rhalyf. In fact, I don’t know how you managed to always have a supply wherever we were during the war,” Aquilan laughed as he handed the much lighter wineskin back.
“I am always prepared.” Rhalyf flashed him one of his irrepressible grins. “So what about it, my king? Shall we have a nude picnic?”
A thrill went through Aquilan. A picnic would delay their arrival to Tyrael for a few hours. Maybe he could even stretch it out to an overnight camping trip in these flower-filled fields. Getting to Tyrael tomorrow would surely be soon enough. He could still pretend they were on the road, that the weight of the aftermath would not fall on his shoulders like anvils the moment they arrived in Tyrael.
Aquilan smiled broadly. “I would not be adverse–”
“Father is expecting you at the Aryas Palace tonight, Uncle. We’ve already been delayed by your interesting choice to come through the Selanar Gate rather than the Tyrael one. So no nude picnics today,” Lady Elasha broke in without taking her eyes off the white stone road in front of them. “We do not have the time.”
“I did not realize you heard all that, Elasha,” Aquilan murmured.
Nor that you noticed I chose the gate that was farthest away from the palace, he added silently.
“You mean you hoped I didn’t hear all that,” she smiled.
“Perhaps you are right,” he smiled back.
She nodded in amusement. She had their family’s honey-colored hair though she kept hers cut short to her skull, which had her long pointed ears poking out prominently on either side of her skull. She was built solidly along the lines of her twin brother Darcassan. That had bothered her for a time, he knew, but now she seemed to relish her powerful frame.
“What does the king have to do at the palace, dear lady, that cannot wait until later today or even tomorrow perchance?” Rhalyf spread his arms wide, using magic to hold his horse Silveril’s reins. His best friend had clearly decided that peace meant that no amount of magic use was reckless any longer. “The war is over. The Sun is bright. The sky is clear. What could be a better way to spend the day than a picnic?”
Silveril tossed her head as if to agree with Rhalyf’s comments. Rhalyf and Silveril hadn’t always had such a special connection. She’d been skittish around him in the beginning. Strangely, many animals were afraid of Rhalyf despite the fact that his best friend was always gentle with them. Now, like most others, Silveril had been charmed by the rakish lord.
“Father was quite clear that I have to get the king to the palace before sunset tonight,” she answered primly. “I do not question my elders, Rhalyf. Perhaps you should do the same.”
“You are not my elder, dear lady. But, personally, I have always been willing to hear anyone’s well-reasoned arguments–no matter what their age–but I have not heard one yet as to why our dear king cannot do as he pleases,” Rhalyf retorted.
“My father is Emissary and–”
“Still does not make him my elder. And he was appointed by Aquilan. The king. So Aquilan can disappoint him as much as he wants. Elder brother status notwithstanding,” Rhalyf pointed out with an arch look at Elasha.
She straightened in her saddle and said with a touch of disapproval in her voice, “Father has worked very hard to provide the king a proper welcome! We have been planning this for months and–”
“Peace, Elasha, Rhalyf was only teasing.” Aquilan gave his best friend a stern look to stop whatever was about to exit Rhalyf’s mouth to belie his words. “I know that Vesslan, Darcassan and you have done your best to make Tyrael home for me and I thank you deeply for it, Elasha.”
She settled back down on her saddle, looking slightly mollified. “Everything has been prepared specifically for your pleasure.”
“If that was true then you would have provided time for him to have a nude picnic,” Rhalyf muttered.
Her head shot towards him and she opened her lips to say something in her defense, but she must have thought better of it, and merely shrugged. “We’ll arrange one for tomorrow. But tonight, the king has many people to meet with. Though the war is over, the true work of restoring this world has just begun.”
Her zeal for him to start this work was all too apparent and Aquilan stiffened. Ruminating on why this war had started was only superseded in his distaste for dealing with the big Houses who would want their payment for supporting his intervention to save humanity. He’d made them promises and now he had to deliver. Elasha glanced over at him with worry in her eyes.
Not understanding what he’d had to do to secure support for the war, Elasha clearly assumed he was balking at the amount of work that awaited him as she offered, “I assure you, Uncle, that Father, Darcassan and I–or, at least, Father and I–have taken care of all matters that absolutely don’t require your overview. We’ve narrowed the things you need to review down considerably so that it will only take a few hours!” His look of horror–maybe he did object to the amount of time–had her swallowing and amending, “An hour or two–at the very most–of your precious time to look at.”
“An hour or two? On the first night Aquilan returns? When you said you had prepared things for the king’s pleasure, I thought you meant some dry as dust party was in the offing! But no, you actually mean to have him work.” Rhalyf’s outrage was not hidden.
“Only the tasks that must be done by the king have been reserved for him–”
“Fairy spit!” Rhalyf lifted a disbelieving eyebrow at her.
“Such language, Lord Neres!” Elasha cried.
“Fairy spit offends you?” Rhalyf shook his head. “Dear lady, you’re in for an education now that the elves who fought in the war are returning to your precious peacetime halls.”
“Perhaps from the common soldier such language is appropriate, but not from you, Lord Neres. You are a lord of the Empire and King Aquilan’s closest friend! Your behavior will be scrutinized and copied. You must set a good example,” she insisted before adding, “if you can.”
“Then ‘fairy spit’ will be used by every courtier in the realm!” Rhalyf turned to Aquilan before Elasha could object. “We all know what work Vesslan has for you: solving political squabbles and discussing pointless minutiae, Aquilan. The moment you set foot within Aryas’ sacred halls, countless advisors will want to fill your ears with whatever bit of nonsense that is obsessing them.”
Aquilan’s lips twitched. This was, undoubtedly, true. And there was no one better at arranging those meetings than Vesslan, but there was also no one better at getting him out of those meetings than Rhalyf.
“Whereas before when the war was on, you could push aside all of those miserable requests by Advisor So-and-So who has a list of fifty-three bullet points of things that must be decided by you–and only you–even though it’s all about what sort of hoe is to be used in–in harvesting cabbages!” Rhalyf waved his hands wildly as he searched for something sufficiently ridiculous. He’d found it. “Now you will have no such excuse to ignore them.”
“I don’t think cabbages are harvested with hoes,” Elasha muttered under her breath.
“I admit I am not an expert on harvesting cabbages, but neither–I dare say–is our dear king. But he will be required to opine and approve whatever method is used, no doubt,” Rhalyf pointed out. “That is what you have waiting for him this evening. Tell me I’m wrong.”
Elasha pinked. Rhalyf, evidently, was not wrong.
“I do have the power of delegation, Rhalyf, so I will simply command you to answer those requests for me,” Aquilan said in a dry-as-the-desert tone even as his mouth ached to form a grin. “You will need to dust off a few books on agriculture so you know exactly how cabbages are harvested, not to mention rutabaga, carrots, peas, potatoes and so forth.”
Rhalyf’s mouth was opening and shutting in a display of silent horror while he reached for the front of his tunic. His hand closed around the chain of the ruby and gold amulet in the shape of the Sun that he always wore. “My king, I will, of course, do whatever you command of me, but I really think since–as Elasha so aptly pointed out–that since I do not even know how cabbages are harvested I am hardly the best man for the job. Not to mention that the learning curve will be too steep for it to make any logical sense for me to even try.”
“So maybe you are the one that wants a picnic to avoid arriving at the palace on time and merely attributing it to the king,” Elasha pointed out with a sly grin.
Rhalyf bared his teeth at her before he smoothed out his expression. “All right, perhaps our king is not dreading the delegation of these tasks as much as I am dreading having to field them. At least, Tyrael is a beautiful place. And Helgrom has opened a rather wonderful inn there. It’s called The Sudden Dawn, I believe. I’m sure you haven’t been, Elasha.”
“That dwarven tavern in town? No, of course I have not.” Elasha tossed her head at the absurdity of her visiting such a low class place.
“Then you have missed out on what is, undoubtedly, the best wine in the region. And Helgrom always sets a prodigious and delicious table,” Rhalyf informed her.
Despite his evident annoyance at her snobbery, Rhalyf’s gray eyes flashed with good humor and likely a lust for Helgrom’s wine. His best friend was almost always in a good mood unless Elasha or Vesslan were present. Regardless of the company, he was always in the mood for wine.
Even in the middle of the bloodiest of battles with the Leviathan, Rhalyf had a smile on his face as he used his unparalleled magic and martial skills against their dread enemy. Watching Rhalyf fight was like watching a beautiful–if deadly–dance. And when he wasn’t fighting, he put to shame even the most joyous–or some would say debauched–of the Aravae in his love of food, wine and sex. Hence his particular excitement for Helgrom’s new establishment.
“I am sure my uncle is perfectly at peace with the idea of his own table, Rhalyf, rather than one amongst a crowd of drunken fools,” Elasha scoffed.
“Peace? Ah, who cares for peace!” Rhalyf laughed.
“Quite a few people after all this war,” Elasha said with a purse of lips. “Again, you attribute all your own feelings to my uncle! I am sure he does not want to go to the Dawn!”
“You would be wrong to take that bet, Elasha,” Aquilan interjected.
She blinked. “But surely, Uncle–”
“Helgrom is a good friend of mine. By bloodline, he is the King of the Draesiwen Dwarves,” Aquilan said.
“He’s a Dark Dwarf?!” Elasha’s eyes widened.
“Yes,” Aquilan did not expound as to why he would befriend Helgrom though the dwarf was more than worthy of friendship.
“Elasha, your uncle does not have your prejudice against everyone who has come from the Under Dark!” Rhalyf grinned wider than usual at her discomfort or maybe Aquilan’s support. It was unclear which.
She gave a shudder. “I suppose not all who avoid the Sun are–are unworthy of our succor and pity, but… but didn’t you also say that Helgrom runs an inn?” Elasha blinked again.
“That does not matter to me. Prince or pauper, he is my friend,” Aquilan said with a frown at her. “I am looking forward to spending many evenings at the Dawn in his good company.”
“Thank the gods,” Rhalyf muttered.
In response to a sharp look from Elasha, Rhalyf tossed back his long dark, silky hair. It hung in glorious waves to his mid back. Despite the many rumors of Kindreth blood in the Neres family, Rhalyf was nearly their opposite in terms of typical looks at least. For while the Kindreth were known for their silvery white hair, Rhalyf’s could not be more different with its dark lustrousness and copper highlights. And where the Kindreth were known for their ruby red eyes, Rhalyf’s were a glittering gray filled with intelligence and mirth more often than not.
No, it was not his looks that made people whisper about Rhalyf’s ancestry. It was his magical prowess. The Kindreth were, among many other things, known for their powerful magic. So maybe it really was true that his best friend was dreading arriving at Tyrael, and maybe his happiness at Aquilan’s friendship with a Dark Dwarf was more than just objecting to Elasha’s snobbery. The exigencies of war would no longer occupy the many nobles’ attention and they would turn to gossip and scandals to occupy themselves. Speaking ill of Rhalyf’s ancestry would crop up in spades because of it.
I will see to it that such talk is silenced, Aquilan thought loyally.
“The king, dear lady, knows what life is truly all about and it isn't reports, bullet points, or, gods forbid, cabbages,” Rhalyf informed her with a shudder.
“And he also knows that it is not all wine, food and sex at a dirty dwarven tavern!” Elasha tossed her head. “There is duty, honor, and leadership by example.”
Rhalyf clutched his chest again. “Oh, just the thought of those things hurts my heart. Life is not life without fun, indulgence, and… love.”
“Love?” Elasha tossed her head. “The king has no time for love! If he does choose someone to sit by his side, they must be the right choice for the Empire. Love doesn’t come into it.”
“Let me guess, you and Vesslan have a bullet-pointed list of names for the king to marry?” Rhalyf asked.
Rhalyf pretended to flop over dead in his saddle. Aquilan couldn’t help the burble of laughter that escaped his lips. Elasha looked alarmed.
“It is quite a serious list, Uncle!”
“I’m sure it is, Elasha. But I have no need for it.” Aquilan shook his head.
“Why? Do you–you have someone in mind already?” she asked, studying his face closely as if to find answers there.
“But you must marry–”
She blinked rapidly. “Because–”
“The rulership of our people does not go by bloodline, Elasha. No matter what your father may have said to you about it,” Aquilan said firmly. “So I don’t have to marry or have heirs. I can be as I am right now until the Sun chooses another to lead our people.”
“Yes, but our family has ruled–”
“It does not matter, Elasha. Do not count upon the Sun choosing another in our line,” Aquilan said firmly.
“Of course, I heed your words on this, Uncle,” she said almost mechanically and he gritted his teeth as he knew that she heard, but was not listening.
“You might not know it, but being king means you have both more power and less than a normal person. Sometimes a lot less,” he muttered the last.
That less part had been rearing up more and more now that the war was over. Politics–as Rhalyf so aptly pointed out–held no joy for him. All of the back door deals and whispered discussions made him feel vaguely filthy. Owing and being owed favors was how things worked in the Empire and even the king–perhaps especially the king–had to be involved in all of that. The purity of war with its more clear cut decisions–even the hard ones–was far better in his opinion. But he did not want another war. He would need to find a purpose for his rule. Re-establishing humanity would be a worthy goal.
It is just a little of what I owe the humans, he thought with a touch of moroseness. He shook it off. But what’s done is done. I can only go forward.
They rode in silence for a time, the miles being eaten up all too quickly beneath their horses’ hooves. He felt Rhalyf’s eyes upon him. The faint purse of his best friend’s lips told him that Rhalyf was worried about his dour moods these days. He tried to smile back, but he knew it was not believed.
“When I said love I wasn’t really talking about marriage, you know,” Rhalyf suddenly said.
Aquilan did smile genuinely then. “Weren’t you?”
Elasha rolled her eyes. “Of course, he wasn’t! There’s no chance in all of the planes that you’ll ever marry, Rhalyf! Who would put up with you?”
Rhalyf put a hand on the center of his chest. “I am a very attractive marriage prospect, I’ll have you know!”
“Oh, really? What do you have to offer? A wandering eye and a sharp tongue?” Elasha shook her head in dismissal.
“What you call a sharp tongue others recognize as scintillating wit. Not to mention my skill in the bedroom, on the battlefield and in the kitchen,” Rhalyf pointed out. “Countless people would marry me!”
“If you say so.” Elasha rolled her eyes, clearly unconvinced.
“But that is the problem,” Rhalyf went on as if she’d said nothing. “There are so very many to choose from. And who wants to choose? Better to just have them all!”
“I’m sure you will have them all, Rhalyf,” Aquilan chuckled.
Few could resist his best friend’s considerable charms. Aquilan had many lovers in his time himself, but, like everything else, it had become more complicated since he had ascended the throne. Anyone he even showed semi-interest in was presented to him on a platter regardless of their own desires. No one could deny him if he wanted them and many might only want him for his title and not his person. And that left him cold as a long dead hearth. Better to remain single. With his friends and family, he was hardly alone in any case. Romantic love was something that he’d be fine doing without.
“I will find you someone at the Dawn, too, Aquilan,” Rhalyf assured him. “Many someones! You’ll see.”
“You will not!” Elasha cried. “If Uncle wishes some companionship, we will find him someone discrete and–”
“I am looking for no one. Both of you may rest at peace at that,” Aquilan cut in.
Truly, he could not imagine being interested in anyone at that time. His thoughts were clouded. He needed to be busy rebuilding this world not catering to a single individual. They rode in silence for a few more moments. Elasha was chewing her inner cheek and Rhalyf was fussing with the wineskin.
“Why did you choose to come through the Selanor Gate rather than the Tyrael one, Uncle?” Elasha asked softly so that his Protectors–over two dozen mounted Battle Mages that had served him in the war–could not hear. “Was it to delay coming to the palace?”
Yes, it was. But he could not explain why. His guilt over the start of the war would haunt him no matter where he was or if it was logical or not. But he was, especially, not looking forward to returning to Tyrael because of someone there. And it wasn’t Vesslan.
Or it wasn’t only Vesslan.
It was in that city where he had first faced off against the Leviathan. Even though there had been little delay in coming to Earth, almost all of Tyrael–or Lightwell as it had been called by the humans–had been destroyed and everyone had died before they had arrived.
Not everyone. Three people survived.
He remembered seeing those three. For a moment after his light had washed over the land for the first time, a darkness had risen up. It was so strong that, for a moment, he had thought it would push his magic back. He’d turned in the direction of that growing darkness, expecting some Leviathan king or queen to be standing there, but instead, he’d found only three humans.
A young man and a much younger girl had been crouched down on the ground, but a second young man had been standing tall. The only darkness there had been was the standing man’s shadow. Nothing else. But humans had no magic so it couldn’t have been any of those three who had affected him yet he named the standing man the Shadow in any case.
The memory of the Shadow had stayed with him. The Shadow had been like a sketch in black and white. All black clothes, a shock of black hair cut short on the sides, but long on the top, and a pale face set with startling green eyes. He’d had an ordinary kitchen knife in his right hand as if that could have done anything against the Leviathan. Yet the black-haired Shadow had not looked afraid or defeated. No. His expression was a mixture of awe and something else.
Disdain. That’s what it was. His look seemed to ask me why it had taken us so long to get there. Why had I allowed so many to die?
This likely was an interpretation that had come from his own guilty heart. Yet he irrationally believed that the Shadow had somehow intuited his failures and reflected them back at him.
The Shadow was, undoubtedly, still in Tyrael. Humans rarely left the Aravae cities they’d been assigned to at the beginning of the War. Travel was getting much less dangerous, but it was still much safer to remain within the magical domes. So with him and the Shadow both being in Tyrael, they would likely run into one another.
Aquilan yearned to meet him and feared to do so all at the same time. The Shadow was like a talisman for him. The night before every big battle with the Leviathan, he would dream of the young man. The Shadow would just be standing there, staring at Aquilan, that study in black and white. The bone white moon would reflect in those burning green eyes.
“Iefyr,” the Shadow would whisper, but it would sound like a shout.
It was a Kindreth word, which no human would know. It was one of the few Aquilan understood. It meant “to the end.” It was a battle cry that the Kindreth shouted before attacking forces much greater in strength or number than their own. When such a word was spoken, they would not stop fighting until their enemy was destroyed or they were.
We drove the Leviathan back to the Under Dark. It was not an utter rout. Not Iefyr, but we won nonetheless.
The thought of meeting the Shadow’s eyes, of hearing him speak for real, and perhaps having him put that disdain into words was perhaps the deepest reason that Aquilan didn’t want to go to Tyrael. It was absurd, of course. This young man would be a normal human, not some augur of the Sun’s approval or disapproval of his actions or inaction. Yet his heart beat harder as he pictured those green eyes in his mind. Sometimes they shifted to red…
I should seek him out to put my heart to rest, in any case, Aquilan thought. But, also, to see if he is not only surviving, but thriving. He deserves that and likely much more from me. I will find the Shadow and assure his future. No matter what.