Conflicts of Interest
Mystia sat upon the pillows in the window seat of her chambers and stared listlessly out across the city of Nolhol. The great temple of Balor, with naught but the swirling sea behind it, stood dark and imposing against the evening sky. Although her eyes were turned toward it, she seemed not to see it but instead to look through it. Thus had she sat for two whole days, neither eating nor drinking during the whole of that time. She had wept much and slept little; though the slaves spoke to her, their words fell upon deaf ears.
Finally, in desperation, the Dark Sorcerer was called for.
He entered and sent all the slaves away. He stood for a moment, looking down upon the princess. Whether she was aware of his presence he knew not, for she continued to stare, unmoving, out at the temple of Balor.
"My magic has restored your strength, Princess," he said, at last breaking the silence. "But if you don’t eat, it will soon abandon you again."
"Think you that I care?" she asked dully, not turning to him.
"Few have ever willingly given up their lives."
"But I do."
"And why are you willing to throw away as good and noble a life as the one you possess?"
"And what would you know of my life–whether it be good and noble or false and crass?"
The Sorcerer sighed. "I’ll not argue over whether you’re good or evil. I wish simply to know why you’re so willing to kill yourself."
It took a moment for Mystia to respond. Then, even as she opened her mouth to speak, the long, low, mournful sound of a horn rose up from within Nolhol and spread out across the whole of the stretching city. She gave a bitter smile. "The city answers for me." She touched her hand to the cold glass of the window and looked again upon the temple of Balor.
"Every day that horn sounds," she said softly, "once in the morning, once at mid-day, and once when the sun sets. Tell me, what is that horn and why is it winded?"
"'Tis the Horn of Balor," answered the Dark Sorcerer. "And it’s sounded whenever a sacrifice is made."
"And tell me, what is it that’s sacrificed to Balor?"
"And what else?"
The Sorcerer hesitated but finally answered. "The people of the Shallee."
"And what am I?" she demanded as she turned to face him.
He did not answer.
"A Shallean" She provided the answer herself as her voice began to tremble. "I may be a princess who’s lived but seventeen years upon this earth, but this much I know: my blood will join the blood of the countless Shalleans sacrificed upon that altar, unless I do something to prevent it." There was a look of determination in her eyes. "I will not let Balor find a good and pleasing sacrifice in me. Escape is impossible so I can but kill myself."
She turned away and looked back out the window, and the Sorcerer silently stared down at her and tried to think of an answer.
"I may be a soldier who’s had few dealings with women," he finally said, "but in battle I've learned never to give up too quickly. Kozan will not...sacrifice you until the Day of Chanar. Much can happen between now and then."
Mystia cast him an angry look. "What do you take me for–a fool? Do you think I’ll so easily forget it was you who kidnapped me and brought me here in the first place? Speak not to me as one who’d comfort a friend; you’re a captor."
Losing patience, the Dark Sorcerer growled, "Then as the captor I command the captive to eat."
"No," Mystia answered, her black eyes sparking with anger and determination.
"Princess, I will warn you I am no noble man," he said, anger growing in his voice. "I was born a child on the streets, and I respect no man or woman. Now eat."
Tears began to fall from her eyes, but she still glared defiantly up at him.
"Listen to me, little wench!" he cried, taking her by the arm and shaking her roughly. “In this chamber, I am king!”
Mystia screamed and tried to wrench herself from his grasp.
"Let go of me!" she cried, slapping him hard across the face with her free hand. He released her arm, and she fell sobbing to the floor. For a moment he stood and glowered at her, then suddenly grew calmer.
"Through all of this, you’ve thought only of yourself," he said, a threatening tone to his voice, "but there’s another that you’ve forgotten."
She looked up in confusion.
"Even now he lies in the dungeon."
A horrified look of realization appeared upon her face.
"The torture Orion has suffered up until now is like Lothiel compared to what I can make him feel." His strange and foreign accent only leant malice to his words. "I know methods of torture that are beyond your ability to comprehend, and I’ll not hesitate to use them unless you stop acting the fool and eat."
For a long moment she was silent. Then softly she replied, "You leave me no choice."
He said nothing more but turned to walk away. He paused and looked back when he heard a sob escape Mystia's lips. She looked up at him, her black eyes filled with anguish.
"How can you do that to him?" she sobbed. "How can you treat any man the way you treat him? How can you live with yourself?"
He did not answer. He looked hard at her a moment longer then turned and strode from the room.
* * *
Deep within Kozan's dungeon Orion lay, still chained to the wall. He had long ago given up struggling against his bonds, for he could not break them. The pain which consumed him was more terrible than anything he had ever known. He had screamed his throat raw, but the pain had not ended. He had wept in agony, but the pain did not stop. He had lashed out against those who tortured him, but they had only beaten him more. There was nothing he could do and no one he could cry out to. The pain was too great to let him sleep, yet he was too exhausted to remain awake. So he sat against the wall with his eyes open yet not seeing, his mind unconscious yet not dreaming.
The door to his cell creaked open, and a woman walked in. Orion raised his eyes and stared dully at her. How he longed to see the black eyes and beautiful features of Mystia, but the woman who stood before him had blue eyes and blonde hair, and her face, though beautiful, was not the face of a High Elf but of a simple human. He recognized her as Lareina, the second of Kozan's wives. She approached slowly and knelt before him. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she gazed into his blue eyes and reached up to touch his bruised and broken face.
"Orion," she said, her voice quivering, "I knew it was you. The moment you passed me in the corridor I knew it was you. I wanted you to escape, but now...here you are. Please, is there something–anything–I can do to help you?"
He groaned. Turning his face from her he whispered in a voice hoarse and filled with pain, "Don’t look at me that way; I never looked upon you like that."
She reached out and gently turned his face back to her. "What care I if you’ve never looked upon me as I look upon you?"
"Lareina," he said with a groan, "go away. There’s nothing you can do. Forget me. I loved you not then. I love you not now, and I won’t love you in the future. Leave me. You serve only as a reminder of all the wicked things I've done."
"Nay, it was not wickedness; it was a thing of beauty. You treated me as no man ever treated me and loved me as Kozan could never love me. You were the one bright star in my world of darkness."
"Lareina..." he began.
"Orion," she cut him off, "let me help you escape; I can do that, I swear by Joretham. Let us return to what we once had."
"Do you not remember what it felt like?"
She pressed her lips to his.
He started and turned his face from her. "Has Kozan sent you here to torment me more? Leave me alone. I love you not, and even if I did, escape would still be impossible; even you must see that."
She was silent for a long moment as she gazed upon him, her blue eyes filled with tears. "Is there nothing I can do for you?"
"The one thing I would have you do," he answered softly, "is the one thing you never would do. Leave me alone and let death take me. Once Mystia’s gone I’ll have nothing left."
She looked at him a moment longer not knowing what to say. When the sight of his agony and the depth of her sorrow became too great, she rose and walked quickly from the cell. With a hollow boom, the door slammed shut, and Orion was left once more in solitude.
* * *
Provenna and Tnaka sat alone in a spacious, well-furnished room. The morning sun streamed through a large glass window, flooding the whole chamber with light. In the middle of the floor sat an ornately carved table upon which was set all manner of fruit, bread, and drink.
Both Aeneas and Eagle had been invited to break their fast with Provenna and Tnaka, but both had politely declined. Perhaps this was good, for it allowed the queen and the elven king to talk about things they would otherwise have not been able to speak of–Kozan, insurrection in Lairannare, and the many other problems they were facing. As they were finishing their meal, the topic turned to Eagle.
“So tell me,” said Provenna, “how goes it between you and Eagle?”
Tnaka’s whole body sagged. Though he tried to smile, weariness and frustration were evident on his face. “As well as it has ever gone.”
“Nothing has changed?”
The elven king stared down at the table and shook his head. “Not a thing.” He played with his silver fork. “There was the briefest of times when I thought perhaps she harbored some fond feelings for me…or at least did not dislike me as much as she had in the past, but that was wishful thinking on my part. She’s as distant from me as she ever has been.”
Provenna was silent for a moment as she thought. “Are you certain the fault is solely with her?”
Tnaka looked at her blankly. “What?”
“You cannot deny that the last two months have been particularly strenuous where ruling the Realm is concerned. A person could easily find himself ignoring the people most important to him. ‘Twas an arranged marriage–a marriage she wanted no part of. I know that if I were married to a man I wished not to be married to, ‘twould take time for me to even think of liking him. And if I did finally start to love him–only to then find him so caught up in affairs of state he had no time for me–that would certainly cause a resurgence of coldness on my part.”
“Do you truly think that’s all that’s wrong?” Tnaka asked.
“It makes sense, does it not?”
“Yes.” He sounded doubtful. “Yet, still, ‘tis not you we speak of, or any other woman, but Eagle.”
Provenna reached out and placed her hand over his. As she opened her mouth to reply, a knock sounded at the door.
“Enter,” she said, straightening.
The doors to the chamber opened and one of the chief servant-women walked in. She curtsied low before Provenna. "Forgive me, Your Majesty, for this interruption, but a messenger has just arrived from Delovachia. He claims that his message is of the utmost importance and must be delivered immediately."
"Very well," answered the queen, "show him in."
The servant-woman left and quickly returned, ushering in a grimy, sweaty man who had obviously ridden a long way very quickly. He bowed.
"Y’r Majesty," he said with an unmistakable Delovachian accent, "I bring a message from th' Dark Sorcerer." He produced from a pouch a piece of paper, folded and sealed and, bowing once again, handed it to her.
Provenna opened it and silently began to read. Her expression did not change, but, as she read, her face suddenly flushed.
"Bring me a quill and some paper," she ordered the servant-woman softly, her green eyes sparking with anger.
The servant left and quickly returned, bearing with her all that was needed to write a letter.
Quickly, and with cold efficiency, Provenna wrote, signed, folded, and sealed her letter. Handing it to the servant, she said, "Take this to Gareth. He’s to take the fastest horse in the stables and ride as quickly as he can to Nolhol; there he’s to put this letter directly into the hands of Kozan. To any who would stand in his way he’s to give the message that he’s been sent by Provenna herself, and the consequences will be dire to any who interferes with the fulfillment of her commands."
"Yes, Your Majesty." The servant curtsied then turned and walked from the room.
"You," Provenna continued, turning to the messenger, "will stay here and rest, and tomorrow you’ll begin your journey back to Delovachia."
She clapped her hands together and a slave entered.
"See that he’s properly quartered," she ordered.
"Thank ye, Y’r Majesty," said the messenger. After bowing, he turned and followed the slave out of the room.
Only when the door was safely shut did Provenna's cold expression melt into one of complete rage. She rose from the table and turned away from Tnaka, her whole body trembling.
"Provenna!" Tnaka exclaimed as he rose to his feet, "What is it?"
Her voice was cold and soft and filled with barely contained fury. "Kozan has Orion."
"What?!" Tnaka cried as he snatched up the letter from where it lay upon the table and began to read it.
"I swear one day that pig will pay," Provenna hissed.
Tnaka walked through the gardens of Provenna's palace. It was a beautiful, early-spring morning, but he did not notice it. His mind was filled with dark and troubling thoughts such as he had rarely entertained before.
"My Lord, whatever is troubling you?"
The king started as a voice broke into his thoughts. He turned to find Eagle sitting upon a bench nearby.
"Eagle," he breathed, "you nearly killed me."
"Please, Your Majesty, forgive me," she said as she rose. "I meant no harm."
"No, Eagle, there is no need to apologize," he told her as he took her hands in his.
He looked down at her. Her long blonde hair was bound up in the most elaborate of braids and wrapped tightly around her head. A few strands had escaped and now fell fetchingly over her forehead. Her cheeks were rosy from the crisp, cool air.
“No,” he said again, “there is no reason to apologize. Had I been paying attention but a little I should have noticed you.”
There was a troubled look in her eyes as she gazed up at him and genuine concern in her voice as she spoke. "Lord, you look troubled. What is the matter?"
He looked upon her with a smile and sadly thought, Must I always be this troubled in spirit to elicit a response from you?
He sank down upon the bench, drawing her with him as he did so. Taking a deep breath, he proceeded to tell her the whole tale.
* * *
Kozan stood atop the walls of his palace. The city spread out in all directions from the palace, but the magnificence of the view was lost to him as he stared down at the letter in his hands. The Dark Sorcerer stood nearby and watched as his master's face twisted in rage.
"The shrew!" Kozan cried as he crumpled the letter. "Meddling woman! Pig!" He snarled more insults, most of a vulgar nature, then growled, "If she thinks I’ll do as she commands then she’s sorely mistaken. I captured Orion, and I’m not about to let that woman take him from me! Nor will I give her the Soul Stone."
"Your Majesty," the Sorcerer broke in, "I think it not wise to contradict Provenna at this moment in time."
"What care I what you think?" snarled Kozan. "For sixteen years Provenna’s lorded over me, but no longer! What makes her think she can rule me? She was born nothing more than a peasant. I was the Emperor of the Seas!"
The Dark Sorcerer hesitated then spoke. "Your Majesty, permit me to speak."
Kozan calmed slightly, then gestured for him to continue.
"I know not why you dislike Orion so; truth to tell, before he was captured I didn’t even know you knew him. What I do know is you have spent more than sixteen years planning the destruction of Provenna. Are you willing to risk throwing all that away simply so that you can kill Orion?
"I see not how or why you have anything to fear. If she kills him it merely accomplishes your own intentions. And if she does not, you can simply wait until all is in place and then sweep down and destroy her and Orion as well."
Kozan's fists clenched and his face distorted with rage as he looked out across his dark city and searched to find some reason, no matter how small, to disregard the words of the Sorcerer.
"Orion is a determined man," he said haltingly. "He could, perhaps, find a way to escape during the journey to Leilaora."
"I myself can take him to Leilaora," the Sorcerer answered calmly.
Kozan looked darkly at him. “You’re full of answers today.”
“Am I not your advisor?”
“Yes.” Kozan returned his gaze to the city and the ocean beyond. “And yet, I cannot help but think you sometimes give advice based on your desires and not on what is best for Delovachia.”
“Take Mystia for example.”
A puzzled look crossed the Sorcerer’s face.
“On your advice I let you heal her,” the dark king stated. “Yet I can’t help but see that you’ve shown great concern for her ever since you first brought her here. Balor's Law is very lenient, but there are sins even he’ll not forgive."
The Dark Sorcerer looked at him blankly for a moment before realizing what his words implied. "Are you accusing me of harboring feelings of love for this woman?”
Kozan looked intently at him. “I am.”
“I assure you, Lord, my desire is only to keep her alive and healthy that she might make a better sacrifice. If you wish, I can return her to the dungeon, but she‘s a royal princess who is unused to even minor hardships and will only get sick again.
“And even if my judgment in that matter were faulty, it does not mean the advice I’ve given you on this issue is also lacking. I haven’t told you to throw away your plans for Provenna. I urge only patience and circumspection, for there have been too many men who have seen all their designs fall apart because they gave in to impulse.”
Kozan turned his face back to the city and did not answer.
“Your Majesty,” the Sorcerer pressed, “do you find anything wrong with my advice?”
“I wish I did,” he growled. He took the chain with the Soul Stone and handed it to the Sorcerer. "Go.”
"Yes, Your Majesty.“
* * *
Orion looked weakly up as the door to his cell was thrown open and two guards walked in. He groaned and turned his eyes away as the cell was filled with red torchlight. He was too weak to struggle against the guards as they came and unchained him and tied his hands tightly in front of him. They dragged him out of the cell–he had not the strength to walk–but, instead of taking him to the torture chambers, they took him up from the dungeon, through the twisting corridors of Kozan's palace, and out into the courtyard. Orion blinked in pain, for, though the sky was gray and overcast, the light, at least to his eyes, was still far too bright.
He was taken across the courtyard to where the Dark Sorcerer stood beside two black-winged horses. At a command from the Sorcerer, Orion was placed upon one of them. He blinked his eyes and struggled to breathe as he clutched the horse by the mane, concentrating with all his might to stay in the saddle.
The Sorcerer mounted the other horse and, taking his own reigns in one hand, and those of Orion's horse in the other, began to walk from the courtyard.
Orion looked in confusion at him. "Where are you taking me?" he asked. His voice so hoarse he could barely speak.
The Dark Sorcerer glanced at him and answered, "Perhaps to death, perhaps to life. We shall see presently." He led Orion from the courtyard, through the gates of Kozan's palace, and out into the streets of Nolhol and the country beyond.