“Running a kingdom is akin to entering a burning house and hoping to walk out alive.”
- Kadi Jabbar, 1540 GD
“I would exchange all the wealth in the world to be rid of the banal existence of bladders.”
The statement hung in the air, pointedly ignored by the seven other members of the Imperial Council. The Grand Vizier was late and nerves were stretched tight – or in the case of the esteemed military judge, Kadi Alshan, bladders. Thrice, Malek the Treasurer, had helped the man lift his portly weight from his chair to go relieve himself. The Kadi was seventy years old and very adept at his job, not that it mattered to the needs of his decaying body.
Yet again, Malek assisted him in rising and shuffling away. Behind them, a sigh of relief rippled through the air.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
“Lord Khalil, your wine flask is leaking,” Priya said with a snide glance in his direction.
Six pairs of eyes turned on him and he promptly reached down to lift his flask onto the table. He was the youngest out of the five Viziers of the Dome present – named so for the glass dome built over the council chamber – and had inherited his place on the Imperial Council. Priya Zuhama, a self-made merchant, could hardly disguise her contempt.
“Not on the table,” she sighed, tartly smacking her tongue against the roof of her mouth.
“Priya, let the boy have his wine. Odin knows he’ll be needing it,” General Ingmar said.
“Do not utter the name of your false god under this sacred roof!” Lord Asav spat from the other side of the table.
“I’m surprised you tore eyes away from our sweet Chancellor long enough to notice what I’d said!” Ingmar guffawed.
Asav’s hard mouth hardened into an even thinner line, turning his face towards the front with a hiss of “Norse infidel.” Beside Khalil, the Chancellor stared at the back of his head in surprise and a tinge of horror. She glanced at Ingmar and mouthed ‘me?’ He nodded pointedly and jabbed a finger at her.
“Worry not, Ahlström, you’re far too scatter brained for his liking,” Priya smirked.
“Not to mention the filthy Norse blood in your veins, am I right, half-breed?” Ingmar said with a wink.
“You would know all about filthy, Eriksson,” Asav said, not turning around.
“I’m sure there’s still more I could learn from you, my lord.”
“Khalil, would you put away the damned wine – “
“I would have emptied that flask by now, lad – “
“My lord! It’s going to – “
Too late. In his haste to wrap up the steadily deteriorating state of the flask, it tipped over. Amita’s carefully made copies of the Regent’s decree on public showers were ruined. She sat frozen in her chair, failing to comprehend what her eyes were seeing as Khalil frantically tried to salvage the documents.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he stuttered, shaking the papers and getting droplets of wine all over himself.
“You’ve done enough,” Lord Afzal drawled, speaking for the first time from his corner of the table. “Sit down and shut up.”
Though the order was directed at his clumsy nephew, a lull settled over the room. Amita sat down and simply gave up. The Regent would smack her cheek red raw when asked to write her decree out again. These were all the copies she had had, including the original.
The Grand Vizier arrived half a minute before Malek and Kadi Alshan returned. Jarak observed the state of the table, the Chancellor’s watery eyes and Lord Khalil’s red cheeks. He chose not to ask.
“Please rise,” he said.
As one, the other eight members of the Imperial Council stood. Up above on the wall behind Jarak, a grilled window was fitted into the bricks, leading into a private chamber. In the hush, the soft rustle of skirts was heard. The curtain in the window fluttered and the Regent’s face was just about seen in the soft sun light streaming in through the bigger windows in the west wall. And with her arrival, came the overpowering scent of ylang ylang flowers and patchouli. She sat down and gave a little nod to her Grand Vizier.
“Please be seated,” Jarak said. “Chancellor, the minutes please.”
“My lord, I’m afraid they – “
Amita broke off as she held up what was remained of the minutes: a soggy flap soaked in red. Jarak took a deep breath, a vein jumping in his temple. Afzal watched with amusement.
“You were late. You missed all the fun,” he said.
Jarak slammed his hand down on the table and stood up.
“Right, first point of order,” he said tersely, pacing back and forth behind his chair, “The Blood Sea trade routes. Over the past week, two new pirate ships have made an appearance to add to the original three. Four Han, two Norse. Neither kingdom has shown willingness to aid in their captures. I suggest a pre-emptive strike from our side. All in favour?”
“Pre-emptive by what standards?” Ingmar said.
“By the standards of keeping the number of casualties at zero,” Jarak answered. “They are more than capable of violence and it will not stop at looting.”
“A pre-emptive strike requires a certain number of casualties first.”
“General Ingmar, are you perhaps concerned for your Norse brethren?” Asav cut in.
“My lord!” Ingmar exclaimed, “I am a Nirayani by allegiance and a Nirayani I will die, regardless of what physical features I may share with the natives of another kingdom! I demand that you apologise.”
“I will apologise when your words are less stained with the slime of hypocrisy – “
“Silence!” Jarak roared, slamming his fist down on the table. Ingmar scowled, and Asav’s expression was sullen, his fingers fiddling with his many rings.
The Grand Vizier took a deep breath, briefly turning to bow to the Regent in apology.
“If I may,” Kadi Alshan lifted a hand briefly, “I am afraid General Ingmar’s words bear some truth. In The Book of Nirayani Law, at 16:8 it is explicitly stated, “In the case of covert seditious factions and all such acts of mutiny against kingdom and ruler, let trials be held for each offender and a chance given to defend their actions. In the case of – “
“Pirates would be deemed as seditious against any state. And these ones are not peaceful. In favour,” Priya announced, lifting her hand. She was sick of hearing the old man drone on.
Kadi Alshan scowled and continued in a louder voice. “And in the case of openly seditious factions stirring up violent revolt against the authority of the state or monarch, should the number of innocent deaths caused by this rise above seven, hunt out the offenders and cut them down where they stand.”
“Seven. That’s an awfully specific number,” Jarak said.
“It is an auspicious number,” Kadi Alshan said, wheezing and wincing as his bladder began to fill up again.
“There is nothing auspicious about death. Read me the laws on piracy.”
“I’m afraid there are none, my lord. Instance of piracy in the past were never widespread enough to merit a law being drawn up.”
“In that case – all in favour of drawing up new laws on piracy? With the pre-emptive strike taking pride of place.”
All hands went up. Jarak turned to the grilled window. The curtain was still open. The Regent nodded briefly and the meeting continued.
The matter of the traveller from the Golden kingdom was discussed. He was a rich madman who had been wandering the slums for days on end, wearing nothing but a potato sack and muttering nonsensically about finding portals into new worlds. He would have been thrown in jail and problem sorted had his identity not been confirmed. He was a danger to himself and was in fact labelled as a traitor against the Golden kingdom. Rather than warrant immediate execution for not having the correct travel papers, the council voted to keep him in his cell until the Golden ambassador arrived with the Pharoah’s decision. War with the Golden kingdom was on no one’s agenda.
“The Norse King desperately seeks mage reinforcements to aid his armies in suppressing a large rebel faction,” Jarak announced, cutting off the intense discussion over the Golden madman. He waited until all eyes were on him, before continuing. “This is the same faction that believes the legend of the sword in the stone. They swear they will accept no ruler but he who would succeed in drawing it from the rock.”
“Well, aren’t they special,” Afzal muttered.
The Grand Vizier eyed him sharply. “Respecting the beliefs of others is a given, not an option, Lord Afzal. And for them, the sword in the stone is no laughing matter. They believe it was welded by the great djinn lord, Merlin and destined for the one who will lead their kingdom to greatest. I am sure we all can share the sentiments of loyalty and love for one’s own land, to the point of believing anything.”
“It appears you are quite sympathetic to their cause, Grand Vizier,” Afzal sneered. “I would not let it become so obvious if I were you. Wouldn’t want to be seen as supporting treason, would we?”
“On the contrary, I wish to send the mage reinforcements the Norse King has asked for,” Jarak said coolly. “All in favour?”
He lifted his hand. Khalil did the same without glancing around. Then, he met his uncle’s eye and his smile faded. Quickly, he shoved his hand back into his lap. Two thick eyebrows shot up as Jarak waited for an explanation.
“He looks like a dumbfounded eagle with that expression,” Priya whispered to Amita.
The younger woman promptly sneezed in an attempt to hide her laugh.
“Why are we against this?” Jarak said wearily, leaning on the table with both fists and a vexed expression.
“You are the Master of the Mages’ Guild. It would of course be in your favour to form a friendship with the Norse King,” Afzal spoke up.
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
“Simply that as the magic-wielding leader of the only magical faction of humans in the world, you must be wary of whom you show support for, Grand Vizier. Because you are also Grand Vizier.”
This last was said with no little vitriol. It was well known the younger Jarak had beaten Lord Afzal to the prestigious position by the skin of his teeth. It had been a vicious competition and the loser would always bear a grudge.
“You are aware that you are accusing me of treason against the Regent and the Crown Prince?” Jarak’s voice became deathly low, his teeth clenched behind hard lips.
“If that’s what it takes to make you aware of your actions, then yes, I am accusing you, Lord Jarak,” Afzal smiled grimly.
Kadi Alshan wiped his face with a handkerchief and muttered “Oh dear” as he shot a surreptitious glance up at the grilled window.
“I agree with Lord Afzal, though I would have worded it differently,” Priya said, “No one is accusing you of treason, Lord Jarak. But Nirayana was chosen by the Goddess for a reason. Nowhere in the world are magic wielders born amongst humans. Nirayana is special. And its high status amongst the four great kingdoms of the known world must be preserved.”
“So, we must submit to a superiority complex rather than aid our neighbours and friends in a war they did not incite? Understood. Let us vote once more. All in favour of sending mage reinforcements?”
Again, Jarak lifted his hand. And again, no one else did. He nodded, his face blank. He had not heard the rustle of the curtain behind him. A small part of him wished he had, though it was implausible that he should.
“Finally, we come to the matter of Princess Sitara.”
A palpable sense of disquiet spread over the congregation. Even Jarak hesitated, twisting the signet ring on his fourth finger. He envied the position of the others. They were facing the grilled window. Perhaps they could make out her face and any minute changes in her expression. All he could feel was the incinerating stare of her venomous green eyes on the back of his head.
“The people are on edge and quite rightly so,” he said carefully. “though she is not of the Royal House of Houwen, she is a Jalal, the only descendant of the last Nirayani royal bloodline and the daughter of Darand Jalal, may he rest in peace.”
“May he rest in peace…” the murmurs ghosted around the table in accordance.
“The public’s anxiety is understandable. It took the military three months to retrieve her from the clutches of that vile monster they call the Demon King,” Kadi Alshan spluttered, his face reddening with indignation.
“In the face of the Demon Realm, an army of humans is just that – humans,” Asav said sharply.
For once, General Ingmar agreed with him, blue eyes flashing.
“Then what of the mages sent to retrieve her?” Afzal countered.
“The Guild suffered more casualties than we could afford,” Jarak replied. “But the princess is back and – “
“For all your talk about Nirayana’s ‘specialness’, Lady Priya, what do you have to say about this?” Afzal raised his voice in order to drown out Jarak’s. “Before the Demon, Fae and Goblin realms we are nothing! What is the power of the zodiac mages before such might, isn’t that what you are implying, Grand Vizier? The people are right to be angry! Our western borders have always been under attack by those foul creatures of hell and yet we only turn our eyes North, South and East – far lesser threats!”
“I suppose it is quite fortunate you are Admiral of the Nirayani fleet and that there is no sea between the Demon Realm and Nirayana. You would rid us of this threat in an instant, wouldn’t you?” Asav sneered.
“Hear, hear,” Ingmar muttered.
There was a discreet clearing of the throat from behind the grilled window.
“Enough,” Jarak said sternly. “We are not discussing the war with the western realms but what to do of the problem at hand.”
“I suggest that the Princess be married to the Crown Prince in time for his coronation as King,” Kadi Alshan said, “It would be a healing balm on the sentiments of the people and soothe their fears over the stability of the kingdom.”
“I second that motion,” Asav said.
“He wouldn’t mind their half-breeds, eh?” Ingmar nudged Malek, who was busy sorting through the documents on his lap. He gave the General an unamused glance and continued to rifle through papers.
“I also second the motion,” Priya raised her hand. “Never in the history of the land has there been a union between the old Nirayani bloodline and the new one. It would certainly help in soothing any ill-will the Norse King might bear us for not sending help.”
“We may get our own rebel factions,” Afzal shrugged. “On account of some not believing a pureblood Nirayani royal should marry into non-Nirayani blood.”
Jarak winced, clamping his lips together as he fought against himself to keep from punching Afzal. The searing heat on the back of his head was suddenly far stronger.
“It shouldn’t be a factor,” he growled, “Not if everyone wants to keep their head attached to their necks. All in favour of the marriage of the Crown Prince before the coronation?”
All hands rose.
The curtain was yanked shut with such force, it almost tore off. Jarak closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The rustling of the skirts was loud now, and was soon followed by a door slamming. He opened his eyes to see the Imperial Council staring back at him.
“She does not agree. To the audience chamber, ladies and gentlemen,” he muttered. “And for the sake of all that is holy, don’t try to argue with her. Not on this. Suppress, and move on. Malek, the treasures report in my office after the meeting with the Regent is adjourned, if you will…”