Nothing could have prepared Rokian for the sight of what the mad king had done to Calsley castle. Once one of the most beautiful structures on the mainland, it now sat in ruins as far as he was concerned.
Rainier had demolished the delicate spires and replaced them with turrets crafted with rough-hewn stone that didn’t even match the remaining structure. The arboretum and gardens along the north and east walls were now surrounded by thirty-foot barriers, murder holes had been added to fend off attackers, and arrowslits were carved only a body-length apart on each level.
As Rokian stared at dozens of other grotesque modifications, bile rose in his throat. So, he took a deep breath and pretended he was somewhere he had never been. The high elf glanced up to the alure and shielded his eyes from the sun to count the guards walking between each turret. He paused at the sight of so many and held out his arm to stop his party from advancing.
“Do we need to consider this a threat?” Olog asked.
Kai projected a thought to all of them. He always runs this castle as if preparing for a raid.
The cleric smiled at the sound of his mate’s voice in his mind. Kai had been working as staff for an entire season to learn the inner workings of Calsley and develop a plan to extract the youngling they’d been sent for.
I have missed you. Rokian projected back. Are we okay to proceed?
Would I send you into a lion’s den? Kai asked.
Rokian snickered and tucked a curl behind his ear. Yes, my love. You definitely would.
A guard dressed in gray escorted them inside and left them in a sitting room. Rokian’s escorts stood a body length behind, as they waited for a castle ambassador to arrive.
The king decorated the welcome room to the left of the atrium in deep purples and blues. These were very common colors for conceited men like Rainier, as those shades of dye were rare and expensive. Although the palette in the room was very telling about his personality, the amount of iron spread throughout was even more so.
Many humans believed iron protected them from magic. Even if Kailu hadn’t already sent a message warning him of this king’s fear of the gifted, he would have known the second he stepped inside. Every handle, furniture leg, and picture frame was cast of the metal, and most of the decorative pieces scattered around were as well.
However much the king hated magic users; it wasn’t strong enough to reject the business offer Rokian made a month ago. A small male clad in bright red swept into the space and bowed by way of greeting.
“I am Magister Brem. My apologies for the delay.”
The spindly fellow had a smudge across his cheek, and his robes were wrinkled. No respectable ruler would send an emissary dressed like this to greet an esteemed guest. But at least he sent the right man. They were here under the guise of needing their alchemists to make an elixir in exchange for the seeds of a very rare plant. This would give them a reason to inspect the laboratories. And the magister could give him the tour himself.
“I am sorry if we pulled you from your work.” Rokian gestured at his own face, and the alchemist turned toward a mirror. He chuckled and wiped away the blemish before turning back to the cleric.
“I imagine it has been a long journey. King Rainier has invited you to join him for his mid-day meal.”
The little male shouted his thoughts into Rokian’s head. He was so loud, the cleric couldn’t ignore him even if he wanted to.
If I bring these orcs, the king will be furious. Brem thought as he looked over Olog and Thalla, checking for weapons; though he would find none. Because, as magus, their gifts provided them with weapons that only they could conjure. So often, they carried no more than a dagger.
Rokian leaned into his line of vision, breaking Brem’s nervous gaze away from his bodyguards.
“Where I go, they go. If it is going to be a problem…”
Brem bowed again. “I was only making certain they are not armed Cleric. Certainly, you understand.”
“They are my advisors,” Rokian said. “What need have we for weapons here? I know they look scary, but they are scholars, not warriors.”
“Of course, sir,” Brem said.
The alchemist straightened and led them to the end of the main court before turning down a long corridor. He pushed against a heavy set of oak doors using his entire body, and they slid open to reveal a gallery covered from ceiling to floor with royal portraits.
The Blackburn family had ruled Erysall for so many generations, that they named the woodlands surrounding the castle in honor of them. Rokian clasped his hands at the small of his back and studied a life-sized canvas of a pair of Erysall’s previous rulers. The queen sat on the throne, in a gown of emerald green, her head held high. Her king stood beside her, a hand tenderly placed on her shoulder, wearing matching garb, lined with furs. The mad king’s thoughts drifted down the hallway, and Rokian rolled his eyes when the doors open and closed behind him.
Aiuna grant me patience, he prayed.
He plastered a smile on his face and pivoted before nodding his head in respect. The king bristled that the high elf hadn’t dipped lower in greeting, but Rokian didn’t even bow to his own Goddess.
“I’m glad to see you arrived safely,” Rainier said before gesturing to the table at the far end of the room. “Please, sit. The servants will bring refreshments in a few moments.”
Rokian took a moment to gaze at the portrait again before turning. “Your grandparents were loved by so many. I was sorry to hear of their passing.”
The king shrugged. “I never met them. Did you know them personally?”
He and Rokian walked together toward the ornately carved walnut dining table, ignoring Olog and Thalla—the way they preferred.
“Not well. But the few memories I have are good,” Rokian said.
It was a complete lie. Although not Aiunite’s themselves, a large percentage of their kingdom was inhabited by elves. So they concerned themselves with the needs of the gifted and supported the order. There used to be a temple in Erysall, a large one. Rokian himself lived there for about five years until they found a cleric appropriate for such a large delegation. But Rainier’s father burnt it to cinders almost a century ago, leaving the cleric no need to return.
The two of them sat, while Olog and Thalla stood behind Rokian against a wall, hands folded in front of themselves.
“Would your advisor's care to sit?”
Rokian waved his hand in their direction. “At the kings table?” He laughed and glanced over his shoulder before rolling his eyes. “Hardly. What must you think of us?”
Rokian’s stomach flipped at the need to treat two of his most trusted council members with such utter disrespect. But as expected, Rainier smiled with delight. And for the tenth time already, Rokian hated being able to hear the beast’s thoughts.
“Mr. Sylrel, how is—”
“Cleric,” Thalla said sternly. Both males spun in shock that she’d commented.
Rainier stood, his head tilted to one side. “Excuse me, female? Did you… just interrupt me?”
She nodded and took a step forward.
“I did. The Cleric should be addressed by his title. It is a mark of disrespect to do otherwise.”
Rokian was glad that the king had his back turned to him, or he would have seen his smirk. If there was anything the lout despised more than magic, it was disrespectful females.
Rainier lifted his hand, summoning a guard. When a brute lumbered past the head of the table and reached out with a black gloved fist to grasp her, Thalla jumped away. But before he lunged for her, Rokian snapped to his feet, glad that his magus still contained themselves. He’d let himself get distracted reading Rainier’s thoughts for too long.
“Thalla!” he shouted. “I have trained you better than this!” He turned and pointed to the guard. “You will keep your hands off her. She is in my thrall, and I will handle her insolence!”
The human’s eyes flashed to the king, who nodded. But Rainier eyed them, forcing Rokian to continue a charade that made him ill. He stomped over to her and grabbed her bicep. And when she opened her mouth to speak, the back of his hand struck her, knocking her head to the side.
“Hold your voice!” Rokian shouted as he pressed her against a wall. Her tongue flicked out to prod the split corner of her lip. If they hadn’t planned this, the thoughts running through her mind would have sent him running in fear for his life. Even still, Olog vibrated in anger at the disrespect towards his mate, and Thalla’s green skin turned gray as heat rose into her face. Rokian wished he could communicate with them, but they understood what to do.
“Olog! Take her elsewhere and be sure she remembers her place before you return. I’ll not have you making a mess here. We are visitors for the gods’ sakes.” He tossed her towards her mate, whose nostrils flared in an attempt to maintain control.
Olog’s eyes flashed, and a wide grin crossed his face before he gripped her by the nape as if claiming her. She grunted, then growled at him in response. He loomed over her, glaring. When her gaze sank to the floor, he ogled her body without shame, as if glad to finally have permission to take her.
“Yes, sir. It’ll be my pleasure,” Olog said before shoving her out of the gallery. Rokian’s gut flipped again. If he were going to cast a play, these two would star in it.
Rainier’s grin was wide, so ready to believe the disgusting stereotype. Some of the best people Rokian knew were orcs, but he wasn’t here to conquer the king’s racism. He’d rather the king be dead, but he had too many allies to simply eliminate.
When Kai told them how to best proceed, not one of them believed the king would be this easy to manipulate. But based on his behavior, and the erratic and hateful chain of thoughts, he’d gone as mad as everyone said. The cleric sat and pressed his fingertips against his forehead before meeting Rainier’s gaze.
“My sincerest apologies your highness. This is what happens when you attempt to turn an animal into a scholar. Choosing her to join me was a mistake that I will rectify after we conclude our business.”
The king hefted a pewter cup filled almost to the brim with red wine so dark, it looked like blood. “That is why I do not keep females as advisors,” Rainier said. He clucked his tongue before gulping half the chalice. “They are too emotional to rely on for anything important.”
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