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King Olafur surreptitiously rubbed his damp palms against the sleeves of his silken robe. A lesser man might have shown his impatience by fidgeting, or given in to the urge to pace, but Olafur was beyond such temptations. The blood of great rulers flowed in his veins. Thorvald, his father, had conquered Duncaer and expanded the reach of the empire from sea to sea. Olaven, his grandsire, had brought glory to Jorsk as the hub of a trading empire. And his great-grandsire was King Axel, whose brilliant diplomacy had enabled him to forge an alliance with Emperor Jeoffroi of Selvarat, ending two hundred years of enmity between their peoples. And King Axel's skill at diplomacy had been equaled by his prowess as a war leader, for the combined might of Selvarat and Jorsk had crushed the Nerikaat alliance that had threatened both their realms.
His forebears had left him a mighty kingdom, along with the responsibility to preserve it. Since his father's death, Olafur had done what he could, in the face of nearly insurmountable odds. But Axel had faced only one enemyand the Nerikaat alliance, for all their viciousness, had been an honorable foe who attacked openly. By contrast Olafur had been fighting a series of faceless enemies who melted away as soon as they were confronted. Border raiders, pirates, and internal unrest had bedeviled him, along with crop failures, plagues, and a host of monsters that had claimed the lives of the Chosen Ones with depressing regularity.
Olafur knew that no other man could have held the Kingdom together so long. But even he could only do so much. Help must be had, if the Kingdom was to survive. It was time to call upon the ancient alliance once more and ask Selvarat to honor its promise of friendship and mutual aid.
His eyes swept the receiving room, ensuring that all was in readiness. On his left side stood Lady Ingeleth, the leader of the King's Council. Ranged beside her were a half dozen high-ranking nobles, carefully chosen so that each region had a representative. If this had been a formal reception in the great throne room, his entire court would have been in attendance. But a mere ambassador did not rate such an honor, regardless of the importance of his mission.
Standing on his right side was Marshal Erild Olvarrson, who now led the Royal Army in the absence of the Chosen One. While the Marshal would never command the strong devotion that Devlin inspired in his followers, his loyalty to the throne was unquestioned. As was his obedience.
And while no one could question the Chosen One's loyalty to his oaths, Devlin had yet to learn the value of political compromise. He continued to see matters in the most simplistic terms. It was for the best that Devlin's journey to Duncaer had taken longer than expected. His presence here would only complicate matters.
Not to mention that it would give Olafur great pleasure to be the one who ensured the security of his kingdom. He and he alone would be hailed as the savior of his people. Devlin's heroics and his strange ideas about the place of the common people would be forgotten.
Once the Kingdom had returned to normalcy, Olafur would see about making other changes in his court. Devlin had served ably as Chosen One, and such he would remain until his inevitable death. But it might be time to appoint another as General of the Royal Army. Olvarrson, perhaps, or another scion of a noble family who owed him a favor.
But those were considerations for another day. Now he must focus all his energies on meeting the ambassador and the negotiations that would take place in the days to come. Only in his private thoughts would he admit how relieved he had been when word was brought that Count Magaharan and his party had arrived in the city. He had expected them for some time, as the ice on the Kalla River had been clear for nearly a month. But it would not do to give any hint of his impatience, so in a show of politeness, Olafur had given instructions that they be welcomed and shown to their quarters to refresh themselves after their long journey.
Having given them a chance to bathe and dress in their court finery, he could welcome his guests. A nervous man might have resorted to a formal diplomatic reception, trying to overawe his visitors. But Olafur was too subtle for such tactics. He did not need to wear a heavy crown or be seated upon the royal throne in order to demonstrate his power. Instead he could greet the ambassador as a friend, setting the tone for the discussions to come. He would treat with the Count as an equal, not as a beggar. Misfortune might have plagued Jorsk in these last years, but he was still the ruler of a powerful kingdom. The aid he sought had been paid for tenfold by the blood Axel's forces had shed on behalf of the common alliance.
Indeed the last letter he had received from Empress Thania had been a carefully worded assurance that she was prepared to assist Jorsk in defending itself against the foreign aggressors. Now with the return of her ambassador, he could negotiate what form that aid should take. Devlin, along with the barons of the coastal provinces, insisted troops were needed to stave off a possible invasion. He argued that last year's landings in Korinth had been but a feint, and that their enemies would strike Korinth in force before the summer was over.
A few of the army officers shared Devlin's views, but Olafur himself was not convinced that they faced a land invasion. In his opinion the sea raiders from the Green Isles were as much a threat as any possible invasion. The raiders destroyed coastal villages, but they also wreaked havoc on the shipping that was the lifeblood of the Kingdom. A few well-armed ships from the Selvarat navy might be worth more than a regiment of soldiers.
He wondered just how generous Thania was prepared to be. His earlier requests had fallen on deaf ears, but it seemed last summer's aborted landing in Korinth, and the events surrounding Duke Gerhard's execution, had convinced her that Jorsk was indeed in need of assistance. It chafed to be put in the position of supplicant, but he reminded himself that the aid he asked for was no more than his rightful due, promised by long-standing treaties and paid for by years of mutual alliance. If Selvarat had been the one to fall into danger, he himself would have done no less.
Still he knew better than to suppose that the help would come without a price. Treaty or no, there was always a cost. He would have to rely upon his own cunning and skill at diplomacy to ensure that the price of salvation did not beggar his kingdom.
His musings were cut short as two guards swung open the doors, then clicked their heels and bowed their heads in respect.
Count Magaharan was the first to enter. Tall and lean, he had an ascetic look, even in his brightly colored court robes, more suited to a scholar than a veteran courtier. The Count had been Selvarat's ambassador to Jorsk for the past two years, and he appeared completely at his ease as he strode into the receiving room.
Following Count Magaharan was his aide Jenna, a young woman who called herself a commoner, though rumor claimed she was a bastard offspring of the royal house. Behind her were two men whom he immediately dismissed as minor functionaries by the plainness of their dress.
Then, just as the guards were getting ready to close the doors, a fourth man stepped through, trailing so far behind the others that it was not immediately clear that he was a member of the ambassador's party.
Perhaps he had deliberately chosen to make an unconventional entrance. Olafur's eyes narrowed as he studied the newcomer. The man was plainly dressed, his court robe showing only a narrow band of silver brocade, but he carried himself with utter confidence. As he approached the others, Olafur noticed that the Count's aide stepped aside so the newcomer could take her place.
The ambassador bowed deeply, extending his right hand in a flourishing sweep. His companions followed suit.
"Count Magaharan, it is a pleasure to welcome you and your companions, and to offer you the hospitality of my court."
The ambassador drew himself erect. "On behalf of myself, and in the name of the Empress Thania, whom I have the honor to serve, I thank you for your courtesy. The Empress sends her greetings to her friend Olafur of Jorsk, along with her wishes for your continued health and the prosperity of your kingdom."
"Empress Thania is gracious indeed, and we count ourselves fortunate in her friendship," Olafur replied.
"May I present my companions? You already know my aide Jenna, and this is Vachel of the house of Burrel, and Guy from the house of Saltair."
As they were named, Vachel and Guy each stepped forward a pace and made their bows, which Olafur acknowledged with a polite nod. Burrel and Saltair were midrank houses in Selvarat, and this confirmed his impression that the two were mere advisors. Worth keeping an eye on, but they would defer to Magaharan in all matters of importance.
"And this, Your Majesty, is Karel of Maurant."
"Your Majesty," the late arrival said, with a deep bow and an even more elaborate hand flourish than Magaharan had made. His manners showed that he had traveled little outside his own land, for while this might be the fashion in Selvarat, here such a display might be taken as mockery.
Although new to diplomacy he might be, the man was not one to be taken lightly. Maurant was not just any noble house, it was the house of Prince Arnaud, the royal consort of Empress Thania. And while he could not quite remember the intricacies of the imperial family tree, it would be wise to err on the side of caution. Simply because no title had been claimed did not mean that this Karel was without rank.
"Lord Karel, I welcome you to my court," Olafur said. "I would make known to you my chief councilor, Lady Ingeleth, and Marshal Olvarrson of the Royal Army."
Karel acknowledged the introductions with studious politeness. As Lady Ingeleth introduced the remaining Jorskian nobles to the ambassador's party, King Olafur took the opportunity to study their visitors. He thought he saw a certain resemblance between Karel and Jenna, in the shape of their noses and their unusually small ears, which gave further credence to his belief that Karel was a member of the royal family.
Olafur had been disappointed when his equerry had reported that there was no senior military officer among the ambassador's party. If the Empress intended to honor the treaty, then surely she would have sent along a general or a marshal at the very least, someone who could discuss the makeup and disposition of the Selvarat forces and how they could aid in the defense of Jorsk. But perhaps his disappointment had been premature. Sending a member of the royal family, however distant his connection to the Prince, must be taken as a sign of favor.
Whatever their intentions were, he would have to wait. He knew better than to expect that Count Magaharan would immediately reveal the messages he had been entrusted with. There were certain rituals to be observed. And it would not do to give the impression of desperation. Need, yes, but desperation would be taken as a sign of weakness and exploited accordingly.
"A feast has been prepared in your honor," King Olafur said. Though feast was perhaps too strong a word, since the royal kitchens only had hours to prepare for their guests. Still, whatever was served was bound to be better than journey fare. And he had ordered the remaining Myrkan red brought up from the cellars, so there would be no cause for complaint there. "If you would join us?" Olafur asked.
"It would be our pleasure," Count Magaharan replied.
Captain Drakken buckled the scabbard of her sword over her dress tunic, then tugged at the hem of her uniform until it hung straight. Seldom used in the winter months, a musty odor arose from the garment and she made a mental note to have words with the servant who oversaw her quarters. With the court about to commence its annual session, she could not afford to find her dress uniforms moth-eaten or rotted from neglect. King Olafur was known to be a stickler about such things, and her place in court was tenuous enough without incurring his wrath over such a trifle.
He was also insistent on punctuality. A glance at the sand clock showed that she needed to leave soon if she was to be on time for the dinner honoring the Selvarat ambassador. But she did not want to leave before Lieutenant Embeth had made her report.
Just as she had resolved that she could wait no longer, there was a sharp knock and the door to her quarters swung open before she could respond.
"Captain, your pardon." Lieutenant Embeth paused to gasp for breath. Her face was flushed and she was panting.
"Wait. Breathe," Captain Drakken said. There was no sense in listening to a report made incomprehensible from lack of breath.
"Report," she ordered, when Embeth had gained control of herself.
"Captain Drakken," Lieutenant Embeth drew herself to attention. "As you know, Ambassador Magaharan and his party arrived by ship just before the noon hour. They were met by a royal equerry who escorted them to the palace. In addition to the ambassador, there was his aide Jenna, two noblemen named Vachel and Guy, and a man called either Karel or Charles whose status I could not confirm. He was accorded his own chamber, so he may be another aide."
Strange that Count Magaharan would have brought not one but two aides, along with a pair of advisors who had never visited Jorsk before, but then again this was no usual visit. Drakken knew full well that King Olafur was hoping for a renewal of the ancient alliance and for Selvarat to supply troops to defend Jorsk's borders. The dinner tonight would serve to introduce the ambassador's party to the court, but it would do no harm to check also with Solveig, to see if she knew anything of their visitors.
"There were also four clerks, a priest, a half dozen servants, and the ambassador's personal honor guard."
"Is that all?"
"That is the party that arrived at the palace. But we kept watch on the ship that carried the ambassador, and at dusk six persons left the ship and took rooms in the old city. They were dressed as sailors but they had the gait of landsmen, and at least one of them was wearing a sword under her cloak."