The vault door opened, casting a ray of light into the glittering piles of gold crowns. Near a sturdy wooden table the piles were organized around an incomplete ledger; Elsewhere they lay in haphazard mounds.
Lady Ashinka Drusia smiled as she beheld the glittering gold. She placed her candle on the table, breathing in the dusky smell, wafts of sulfur still in the air. For now, she was alone, surrounded by no-one. She could finally bask in the fruits of her labor.
The last highmonth had been a hectic one. The glorious ruler’s death came as a quite the surprise to everyone. This, of course, was a great opportunity, as everyone were too confounded to make any decisions. Even if it meant figuring it out as she went, Ashinka took the risk. And now she could rifle through Khariss’ hoard at her own leisure.
Ashinka took a gold crown in her hand, turning it over and looking at the light reflecting off its surface. The hoard could pay for a lot of services. She would need those. After Lord Erinak refused her designs, she needed Lady Tuire in order to win the central provinces. And to win Tuire, she needed the road. It was unnecessary due to the river connecting Drusia to the coast, but that was the only way to reduce Tallbridge’s importance. If Kolmhaag didn’t want to support the new order, she could justify the road as an investment in Winden’s mines and get Duskport to pay for part of the labor.
The dragonborn was deep in her plans for the future when she realized that she was still holding the coin. She wasn’t looking at it, she was looking into the web of promises, debts and loans she had woven. And she found more enjoyment from those thoughts, than from the wealth gathered here. Ashinka allowed an amused chuckle. All this time she had thought she was doing this for the silver. For the chance to become wealthier than ever. But now, as she possessed more wealth than any previous noble in a long time, she knew that it wasn’t why she plotted and weaved.
It was because she liked it.
She liked the challenge, the rush of excitement that came from seeing an opportunity and seizing it. She liked to see her plans and designs come to action more than the outcome of those plans. That was the reason she tolerated the long, arduous coach rides, sore backside and poor food. She could have easily sat in Duskport and orchestrated these via proxies and messengers. But that would have taken the enjoyment out of it.
Ashinka flipped the coin to the pile, dutifully observing the side it fell on. It was all just a means to an end. And for now, that end was seeing that the Heroes of Dusk Coast, as some started to call them, found the dragonslayer. The fact that such a force was out there, out of her reach, was infuriating.
The dragonborn took the candle and stepped outside. She wanted to ensure that her reward would arrive on time and she had time to prepare. While she wanted them to be awed, Ashinka knew that she wanted to give it to them more out of gratitude than any other motivation.
Kerach slid beside the door soundlessly. Using a dagger point, he parted the door and peered inside. Beside the bed where Alexha rested was the frame of a bearded halfling. Timothy. What was he doing here? The dragonborn spy observed the scene wordlessly. Timothy was seated on the stool next to the bed. His hands were on her, and he was leaning forward. A part of Kerach wanted to believe the halfling was ensuring that Alexha didn’t wake up, but the rational, observant part in his mind said that it didn’t seem that way. He wasn’t moving, or doing anything. And he didn’t have anything with him, save for the ornamental dagger on his belt. Then again, he carried that everywhere.
Eventually Kerach closed the door and snuck back to the other end of the hallway. Then he walked back to the door, ensuring his footsteps were audible. He wanted to see if he could catch the halfling out of a lie, or anything. He breathed out and opened the door.
The halfling was still sitting on the stool, but was now looking at Kerach with that hard gaze of his.
By the divines, the halfling infuriated him.
”I’m surprised to see you here. Shouldn’t you be out there representing Arry?”
”Do I barge in and tell you how to do your work? I’m waiting for the messengers to bring back news from home. Can’t do decisions for something if I don’t know if the place is still up.”
Good answer. Kerach walked to the other side of the bed and sat down on a chair. Alexha seemed peaceful, despite the lighter scales where the cleric’s healing magics had healed scars. But then again, Alexha always looked peaceful.
”Here to plan the future, then? You have the lordship over Arry now. Must be happy about that.”
The halfling looked at Kerach. For a moment he had that fire in his eyes, but then Timothy just exhaled.
”No. I’m not here to fight with you. I’m just here to see her.”
That surprised Kerach. He looked at the halfling and then at Alexha. Then he realized where his hands had been; They had been holding hers. Kerach looked back at Timothy. They both knew what they were thinking.
”Oh.” was the only thing Kerach managed to say. For a moment the men sat in silence, as a spike of jealousy froze the spy’s blood. But it was Timothy who broke the silence.
”Do you know why Arry worked? It was because of her. Alexha is the epitome of Arry and the surrounding areas: Kind, open and willing to help. She had a vision for Arry, and that vision carried us through the difficult times.”
The halfling tapped his chest with his hand.
”Whatever you think, I believe in that vision. But I know that when it collides with reality, it will be ugly. That is why I do this. I bear the ugly truths so that she can focus on her beliefs.”
He paused and looked at her. Kerach felt the ice in his veins melt.
”I always tried to make her see that it is not possible to please everybody. That she can’t help everyone. That she shouldn’t help everyone. That sometime she would need to breathe and bite. But she never did. While it was maddening, it was also a bit of a relief. I knew she would never compromise. And I would always facilitate that, no matter the cost. I would sacrifice everything or anyone to allow her to be who she was.”
Again, silence fell. Kerach felt like he should say something.
”I’m sorry. I didn’t know…”
”No you’re not. You’re the one who lost more”, he said bitterly, jumping down from the stool. With a final gaze on Alexha, Timothy spun around and headed towards the door.
”Are you going to lead Arry, then?” Kerach asked, ”If no-one else worthy shows up?”
”I’m not”, the halfling said, ”I only see enemies and weaknesses. Arry needs someone who can see friends and potential.”
With those words Timothy left.
Lady Anthea stepped out of the carriage, deciding not to breathe in the air. Even a couple of days in Melenne got her used to the fresh, strong air of the estate, after which Duskport’s odor of waste, smoke and all-permeating salt felt horrifying.
Yaris was waiting for her. It was somewhat unexpected, considering the situation, but not altogether surprising. Anthea walked to her husband and exchanged a brief embrace. ”Good morning, dearest. How was the trip?” He asked after instructing the servants to handle her luggage.
”A relief. I’m pleased to be here.” Indeed, it was. Before her divinations bore fruit, Anthea’s mind was filled with dark scenarios on how the events would play out. But her daughter had performed admirably. It was the moment Althea had been trained her whole life. Still, she would have to learn the details.
”That is good to hear. I take it you wish to see if the garden requires any measures?” Yaris asked, turning to escort her to her garden.
That moment gave Anthea a pause. The mention of the garden was a focal point in the surrounding veil of secrets and knowledge. It allowed her to glimpse a vision… no, a mere feeling of a fact that was hidden from her. In the past that moment would have sailed her by, but after she started studying the secrets of arcane divination, she started seeing those moments. They did not offer much, but a keen mind could use that one thread of information and unravel its secrets.
This thread led Anthea to her husband’s mind. It was the peak of a mountain of suspicion, brought on by a confirmation of some sort. Yaris knew about her hobby. He had learned of the most recent scrying… But from where? Anthea only told her daughter…
Ah, of course. Rhodonna, her niece. She had keen ears, and probably boundless curiosity. She eavesdropped on their conversation and relayed it to her father, who then told Yaris.
Well, she knew she wouldn’t keep it a secret from Yaris forever. He was a keen man, not to let details slip by. And Anthea was more careless than usual, due to the circumstance.
”Yes. Escort me there, would you dear?”
Yaris nodded and they walked to her garden, keeping to general small-talk and gossip until they were in the privacy of her den’s secret entrance.
”So, I trust it was your brother who told you?” Anthea asked as she sat on a bench. To her surprise, Yaris shook his head as he sat beside her.
”No, Rhodonna came to me directly. She wanted the glory and reward to herself.” Anthea allowed an amused chuckle. Rhodonna had taken to Bade, truly.
”Well. I suppose I should bow myself to your judgement, then.” As the head of the family, Yaris ultimately had the final say over any broken laws within the family. Having had used family fortunes for her laboratory and magical materials, Anthea had broken many laws about wizardry.
”Before any accusations are thrown, may I ask how… extensive have your arcane studies been?” The way Yaris asked it betrayed his feelings on the matter: He didn’t really care. Almost every noble elf in Dusk Coast had dabbled in wizardry at some point in their life. Yaris probably knew a spell or two, but had not cast them in a long time.
Still, it was time to be honest. Anthea did not want to lie to her husband.
”I discovered a book about scrying before Althea was born. It detailed methods that could be used to spy on other beings from a distance away, without them being aware of it. The thought interested me, so I invested in more texts. When my abilities became the limit, I further trained myself more spellcasting.
One day when I was doing divinations, I foresaw this tribute. It had significance that I could not comprehend, but also danger and irrevocable changes. I concentrated on it, tried to find out details or anything, to no avail. I was getting desperate, but then I saw Althaea tapping into her bardic talents. Seeing that she was courageous, well-spoken and now wielding magic, I decided to prepare her for this moment. Through her I could perhaps do something about it.”
Anthea went silent, giving a moment for her husband to comment.
”You used our daughter as a pawn?”
Suddenly Anthea felt cold claws grasping at her heart. Yes, that was exactly it. She had looked at her daughter and seen a solution for her obsession. How long ago was that? Five decades? The cold feeling spread. Had she let her obsession, her concern eclipse Althea’s wellbeing? Would she had pursued her bardic talents if Anthea had not pushed her?
There were no words. Anthea tried to form a defense, some sort of explanation, but the only thing she could manage was:
”I’m so sorry…”
For the longest moment they merely sat there, in her garden, feeling the slight wind shake the leaves in the flowerbeds. Then Anthea felt Yaris’ arms around her, in a warm embrace. He spoke.
”I promised to love you for eternity.”
A momentous boulder fell from Anthea’s heart. She returned the embrace.
Lady Tuire Winden looked on as the Heroes left the palace, towards the eastern gates. Soon they would return with the latest word from Kolmhaag, and finally all the pieces would be in place in the great dragonchess board that was Dusk Coast.
Kolmhaag. If Lady Tuire had a rival, it would be the city. Kolmhaag was nearly comparable to Winden, but in all ways more significant. Kolmhaag’s historical significance as the guardian of the Haag river was more important than Winden’s fortifications, its dwarven mines were deeper and more valuable than Winden’s iron-rich hills, and it was easier to access with the river and the roads. Kilns had a position in the Baron’s council, while Windens had to practically beg for prestige.
Lady Tuire turned from the window to look at the furnishings. She had brought Winden’s colors to the room to make it more homely. Her gaze drifted to the books on her table. Military strategy. She had already read most of them back home. Back when she had endeavored to become more than she was. More than Winden was.
Her thoughts returned to Lady Ashinka, and she felt the familiar pang of jealousy. While Lady Tuire had been improving herself, learning strategy, etiquette, history and more, Lady Ashinka had been scheming and dealing. Improving her position, making contacts. Planning a coup. And Ashinka had asked Lady Tuire only after she had exhausted all other nobles.
And now her lackeys were riding towards Kolmhaag to get them to join the new order.
Lady Tuire felt the self-pity rise up again. But this time she remembered the sight of the flaming tent tearing to pieces and the Heroes of Dusk Coast fighting the Baron. They had fought the most powerful sorcerer in the coast, and won.
This time, Lady Tuire did not allow the self-pity to rise. She looked at the window. Now her own nemesis was clearly in some sort of trouble, and this was her moment to take initiative. The keys to Winden’s relevance were in her hand.
Her aide appeared in the door. Lady Tuire enjoyed Travis’ company, mostly because the human did not have the prideful attitude most dragonborn tend to have. Ironic, but what can you do.
”Arrange a meeting with the mining guild of Winden. Tell them I wish to invest in the mines’ activities. Also, take a message to the keeper of the Dragon Knight’s stronghold. Tell them that if they need more space or land, the Windens will provide.”
”Bold move, milady. Do you require anything else?”
Lady Tuire thought about it.
”Best wine you can find in the cellars.”