"Elyna," Veljorn greeted the woman but did not rise from his chair. His voice was calm and he sat with two fingers pressed to the left side of his face, his thumb hooked under his jaw. The crown on his head looked as heavy as his weary shoulders, and dark eyes seemed to see without seeing. Though the man was here physically, his mind was far away, on the battlefield where this day he had lost thousands of men storming the city, and taken hundreds if not thousands of innocent lives to claim ground within the walls of Lowtown. If this war was successful, he would have to work hard to win back the hearts of the people he was leaving without fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. The usurper had brought war to Andaris, and for every man who hated Cassander, two more now despised him.
At the mouth of the tent the horizon was burning, black smoke billowing from the city walls to mingle with the mauve painted sky. Night was falling, and with it new stars set the sky ablaze, "one for every soul lost," a young man mouthed, his hands shaking, even with the wine jug he held to anchor them.
"Wine for my niece," Veljorn summoned the servant, and when the boy did not heed the Dragon King's request, Veljorn picked up his goblet and tossed it at the boy. "Wine, slave!"
Shocked into action, the man quickly made his way to the King's left side and pulled out a chair for Elyna before pouring her a glass of wine. Marcus was permitted to sit beside the woman, the head of the table now a united front with noble's from Burhan, Venora, and Krome. Veljorn shoved the slave and pointed to the mats positioned along the left wall, where he and Faith were expected to kneel until they were needed or summoned.
"The trials grow short, dear niece, and Marcus informs me that you refuse to marry? Need I remind you that you have no say in the matter, and as your father is still recovering from what those filthy, backstabbing Warricks did to him last season, when your wedding takes place in the morning, I will send word informing him that his wishes were finally met." Veljorn held up his hand to stop the woman from speaking and sipped from his fresh goblet before he spoke again. "You will have his child and together the two of you will run the north for me."
The slave boy knelt beside Faith stitched his fingers together across his belly. His digits were dirty and his clothes smelt as if someone had died in them. The young man had dark, copper coloured hair and sharp features, with eyes that didn't know where to look, and a thin, lanky form which made him appear underfed. Quickly he moved his hands behind his back before positioning them in the same manner Faith did; it was clear he had not been trained for the role, and was more than likely taken from the streets against his will to serve the Qe'Dreki forces.
The tent shook as something flew overhead and the men stationed outside called and pointed to the sky. "Dragons!"
Veljorn got his feet and was swiftly assured by one of his advisors that their numbers were fewer than a handful. A horn in the distance announced that King Cassander's men had finally moved into camp, and filled with nervous energy, Veljorn sat down again and tried to appear at ease, even if he failed to still his right leg, which he bounced beneath the table. He had the upper hand, Cassander was coming to him, not the other way round; that gave him power, it made him the stronger of the two in the eyes of his people. Cassander had everything to lose while Veljorn could only gain.
An ear-ringing screech declared the touchdown of the Jacadon riders, as four large dragons flanked the King's entourage. Beautiful black horses carried seven riders gilded with gold, the masks of their helmets tooled to resemble the faces of those long passed, echoing the long-lived legend of the sacred seven. Beside the main rider, a saddled horse with no rider approached to stop in front of the tent and rake the earth with his gold plated shoe. The stallion shook his head and snorted, set on edge by the close proximity of the Jacadons.
The seven riders were summoned forwards after dismounting, while the four dragon riders stood guard from the backs of their mounts. One of the dragons made a low, rolling sound and raised his head as hot, thick steam curled skyward in long, silver ribbons from the gaps between his teeth. Veljorn's men gave the dragons a wide berth and flinched whenever they felt the creatures eyes on them.
"Cassander," Veljorn smiled slowly. "Sit, drink, we have a meal prepared and enough wine to sink a galleon."
"That's King Cassander to you," a woman to the man's right spoke up as she stepped forwards and sank into a chair at the round table.
"And who may I ask resides behind the mask of the famed Cyrene Venora?" Veljorn inquired.
The young woman lifted her helm and set it down on the table, revealing herself as the Empress of Rynmere. "Emerson Sands," she looked Veljorn up and down as every man in the tent bent a knee. Emerson was the most beloved woman in the country, married to their religion. She was holy and pure. All men were forbidden to touch the Empress and dare not look her in the eye, even those born above her status, including the King. A black snake with gold markings curled itself about her neck, strangling the dark veil cast over her face. The tips of her fingers looked to be painted black and she placed her weapon down in front of her helm; a golden quill, whatever was decided tonight would be set in ink by her hand.
Veljorn averted his gaze momentarily and squeezed Zvezdana's hand under the table. "We're honoured by your presence, Empress.
The rest of the Cassander's men removed their helmets in sync, some of them recognisable to Veljorn, others complete strangers. Behind Henry Warrick's mask stood Victor Warrick, second born son or the duke and duchess of the Warrick region. So Warrick was in Cassander's pocket again, Veljorn thought to himself, perhaps his queen had not managed to convince their heir of her sincerity.
A well known lord and war expert by the name of Komodo Enthor had donned the face of Oron Endor, Veljorn knew him well. Fredrick Gawyne, the region's baron, took off Warren Gawyne's mask. Gerrard Krome and Rahiko Burhan's helmets were both worn by wealthy war lords he didn't recognise, and that just left the King...
"Ser Verne Andaris, rather big shoes to be filled by a boy don't you think?" Veljorn smirked, it seemed he had rediscovered his confidence. "Why don't you take off your helmet and join us?"
The King sat down beside Fredrick, leaving an empty chair between himself and Emerson Sands. He waved for one of the Jacadon riders to bring their wine and summoned both of the slaves to their feet to pour it fresh from the bottles.
"What, you don't trust my wine and hospitality?" The Dragon King almost laughed. "If I had wanted you dead, my men would have captured you as soon as you entered my encampment. Poison is too quick, little lord, I want your death to be much, much slower." Perhaps he did not mean the words, but Veljorn wouldn't mind Cassander thinking otherwise.
The slave boy got to his feet and apologised to Faith for knocking her shoulder as he had risen, darting quickly around the table to pour the new wine.
"Now that everyone is comfortable, let me introduce you all to the future Queen of Rynmere, my beautiful rose, Zvezdana. Joining us for the negotiations tonight are my commanders, Yoreth Blackwood, Marcus Krome, his wife Elyna Burhan, and two of my most trusted advisors, Wezley and Ryan Endor." While the last two names he had stated were correct, the men themselves did not hail from titled region, but the more support Veljorn appeared to have, the better the deal would be for him. "Shall we begin?" Veljorn looked at his wife, it was time for her political prowess to shine.