Father Before King
The Sword of Sa Riik was an heirloom worthy of the descendants of Orakio. The sword was five feet long from pommel to point, a monster of a weapon that intimidated as easily as it existed. The hilt and guard were covered with gold and engraved with symbols and patterns that displayed the true genius of the original craftsman. The niello, the black metal inlay used to fill in the designs cut into the cold, provided the perfect contrast to bring out the full beauty of the work. In lieu of a ricasso, the dull section of blade just above the guard of a normal sword, the hilt had been expanded upward into a triangular wedge of beauty, set with precious blue starfire gems. The hilt joined the blade at the fullers, the grooves dug into the metal to lighten the weapon while allowing it to retain its strength and stiffness. The Sword's blade was inscribed with arcane glyphs that no one in the modern day could read, but the whole of its design combined to create a rare, deadly beauty. It easily weighed as much as a healthy child.
They have tried to take the lives of my children!
Immolating rage filled him as Nial's hands tried to bend the hilt of his sword. The heavy ceremonial weapon ignored the fury of his crushing grip. He loathed this sword, an ancient ornament that had long since forgotten the meaning of battle. It was as empty of purpose as the courtiers he silently watched.
When Jos Arl had come to Landen over a generation ago, he had done more than reactivate the old automatons and factories from the Devastation War. He had also brought online most of the dormant systems within Orakio's Keep, a fact that was kept a secret.
Concealed cameras in the throne room transmitted the current scene to the large monitors of the remodeled room. Landenian soldiers in their gray armor and black clothes were unobtrusively stationed throughout the room, as unmoving as pillars. Each of them was armed only with short-range weapons, as Nial had issued explicit orders that none of them carry their needlers. These were supposed to be the most loyal of his warriors, but that remained to be seen.
They have tried to take the lives of my children!
Nial gritted his teeth as he continued to watch. The gathered nobility of Landen was also in the room, secure in the haughty dignity of their birth as they paid no mind to those born far below their station. The men wore the traditional long black cloaks and golden spaulders of their rank, their outfits beneath a mystery, but sure to be as foppish and expensive as could be found. The noblewomen wore their elaborate dresses of silk and cloth of precious metal, inlaid with precious gems and other decorative conceits.
How he loathed them.
THEY HAVE TRIED TO TAKE THE LIVES OF MY CHILDREN!
Long fingers slowly, gently rubbed his arm as a familiar weight settled onto his shoulder. The Sword of Sa Riik clattered to the floor as Nial fiercely embraced Laya and roughly kissed the crown of that precious head. His arms tightened around his wife as his nose was filled with the smell of her.
"I'm fine, I'm fine," she murmured.
Anger surged through him again. Through base treachery, his castle had been infiltrated, his children and wife threatened. If he had not sent Wren to keep an eye on the children, if his wife had not chosen on a whim to check on them, if any of a hundred things had gone just a hair differently, he would have lost what was most precious to him in this world.
Two small faces formed in his mind's eye: his proud son Adan, his mischievous daughter Gwyn. Golden-haired and handsome children who, thank Orakio, favored their mother in looks and coloring. They had even inherited their mother's beautiful otherworldly eyes. They were their mother's in any of a thousand ways, but they were his in as many: Adan's strong jaw was pure Sa Riik, while the shape of Gwyn's eyes was the same as his mother Lena's. The twins were his pride and his joy.
"Do you truly believe this will work, darling?"
Laya gently pushed herself away from his chest, but remained within his embrace. As he did every morning when he awoke to her face, Nial marveled at the beauty of his wife. The perfection of her fine, delicate features created a face that could only have been crafted by divinity. Where other women kept their looks with thick mountains of makeup, his wife was as fresh, unsullied, and luminous as the day she had awakened below Aridia's waters. There was no woman in the seven worlds who could rival her.
More importantly, Laya avoided the usual trap beautiful women fell into: she was not her own temptation. She did not care more for herself than she did for her husband or children. She had no use for the station of queen; she focused far more on her role as leader of the Layans than she did on the petty power games of Landen's nobility.
That was the source of the problem for his courtiers: his children, heirs to his throne, were half-Layan. Nial understood the millennium-old resentments that drove them, sentiments only exacerbated by Lune's sack of Satera in the Champions' War; he still held a grudge against Lune for the death of his grandfather, something he had been forced to pass over in the name of politics.
That comprehension was miles away from tolerating attempts on the life of his wife and his children. The anti-Layan faction had gained strength and influence at court, and had been behind many conspiracies aimed at his family. In the first year of Nial's reign alone, his wedding had been the site of an assassination attempt, and months later, they had attempted to induce a miscarriage during Laya's pregnancy.
"I am not sure," Nial said finally, his voice sharper than he intended. "It's something that's never been done before, but I have no more patience. I will have no more threats to my children."
"Don't you snap at me, Nial," Laya said, her temper flaring as she broke the embrace.
Instantly contrite, Nial caught her hand. "I'm sorry, beloved. I wasn't snapping at you. It's just... the more I think about how I almost lost you and the children, within the walls of our home, the angrier I become."
Laya looked at his hand for a moment before she sighed. "I'm sorry. The strain is getting to me as well."
Nial held her hand as he stooped to pick up the heirloom weapon. "I suppose we've kept them waiting long enough. Shall we go?"
His wife nodded. They exited the room, hand in hand.
Wren fell into step behind them as they traversed the hallway. Nial silently handed the loyal android the Sword of Sa Riik. Wren served as Swordbearer, an honored position that used to be a court dignity doled out as a reward. The android's infallible loyalty made him far more suitable to the role than any grasping noble, so Nial's father had given him the job.
The colorful tapestries on the walls and the woven rugs on the black marble floor all demonstrated his wife's indisputable good taste. The elegance was subtle, an unspoken message that the King and Queen were too powerful to need to overwhelm with gaudy trinkets to make an impression.
As they walked, something occurred to him. "Have you forgiven me yet for going along with Adan's decision?"
"I am still not thrilled with it, Nial."
Her unhappy tone meant he was not yet out of disfavor. Cautiously, he observed, "It means a great deal to his pride."
"I know it does, and I know he lives by his pride. I just don't like having my son carrying around battle scars at the age of seven. No, forget that. I don't like my son being scarred at all."
Truth be told, it did not make Nial happy either, but he had been incapable of refusing his son's request. How many seven-year-olds could stand before their fathers and ask with such quiet dignity to retain scars honorably earned defending his sister and a guest? No, before that, how many seven-year-old boys could face three far larger, far stronger, and far better armed enemies and emerge the victor? As awful as his fury over the attacks was, Nial could not help but be proud of his son's strength. When his time came, Adan would be a truly great king.
"I also detest it, but I admire our son. He is far stronger than I was at that age," Nial said before he smiled. "Must be your side of the family showing."
His wife cast him a sidelong glance. "Flattery will get you nowhere, darling."
Nial relaxed a little at the unspoken forgiveness. They continued in companionable silence. Their arrival at the closed doors of the throne room put them on notice that they were about to enter battle. The two guards and royal herald bowed low to him. Nial wished Mieu could be with them, but the redheaded gynoid had been sent to Dahlia with the twins weeks ago. Whatever his grudge against Lune, his children would be safe in the Layan warlord's domain.
A casual gesture sent the pair of guards to opening the door. The herald preceded them, his stentorian voice slicing through the murmurs of conversation.
"His Majesty, King Nial Sa Riik, first of his name, King of Landen, Suzerain of Divisia, Prince of the Blood, Lord of Orakio's Keep, Overlord of the East and of the West, Supreme Commander of the Armies, Warlord, Knight of the Order of the Mountains."
There was a brief pause before the herald continued. "Her Majesty, Laya, Queen of Landen."
He suppressed a wry smile. It had been incredibly difficult to convince Laya to accept the title of queen, let alone the honorific of "Your Majesty." Someone whose sister was a goddess was neither impressed by nor interested in mortal honors. She tolerated the title of queen and rejected the rest.
It had also been a struggle to force his people to call her as such. Centuries-old protocol insisted the queen's dignity be lower than the king's, but what worked for Orakian noblewomen did not work for Laya. The anti-Layan faction had been the most recalcitrant on that score.
They walked toward the dais that held their thrones together, hand in hand. That had been another change that had not gone over well: in procession, the queen was supposed to be three steps behind the king, but that had gone out the window when Laya was not only perfectly able of protecting herself, but also possessed standing equal to, if not greater, than his.
There was another reason they walked together like this, one not rooted in stuffy rules about rank and status. Simply put, Laya liked it. While she was the leader of all the Layans, the most powerful sorceress, and a master archer, Laya was surprisingly domestic. She liked to cook meals for the family and would chase the cooks out of the kitchens on a weekly basis to do so. Unlike other royals, who typically slept in different rooms unless the queen invited the king to her chambers, Laya slept in his bed every night.
Of course, his nobles scorned her for what they deemed peasant customs, but Nial often wondered if the nobility as a whole might not be happier if they behaved the same way.
They made their way up the dais and turned toward their audience. He watched as the doors were closed shut. Wren handed Nial the Sword of Sa Riik. He set the blade, tip first, before him, both his hands on the hilt. The assembled nobility of Landen had been summoned here on short notice without word as to why, but they had all come. Nial had every intention of making sure their very bones would remember what he told them this day.
"Our lords and ladies, we would welcome you to our keep, but this assembly is not a social one. We have grave news. Some of your number have committed treason."
The news sent ripples of shock through his audience, as it had been intended to do. Treason was a very touchy subject, and for their king to be so open about it made them uneasy.
"Four mercenaries in the employ of noble lords entered into our service some time ago. These men cunningly subverted several of our war machines and used them to attempt the assassination of not only our royal heirs, but of our guest, the innocent Princess Kara."
As Lune was still a touchy subject in Landen, Nial had deemed it politic to avoid mention of his name and to focus on the more heinous aspects of the crime, the targeting of children and the violation of guest right. He plowed on. "This treason was snuffed by the intervention of our wife, and the traitors were captured. They have been most informative as to the details and backers of this plot."
The plot had been impressive indeed. His guard had been infiltrated by an unknown number of traitors, who had spent over a year secretly reprogramming Robomen to obey their orders over all others, including his. When the time came, they would kill his children and wife in what would look like a malfunction. Ultimately, the death of his family would simultaneously discredit Landen's Chief Engineer and the royal army.
Jos Arl was already at work removing the Robomen and creating a safeguard to prevent a similar treason in the future, but it had been a near thing. Ultimately, Kara's arrival had saved the lives of his family: presented with such an opportunity, the plotters acted prematurely and were thwarted.
"We have investigated to our satisfaction that our traitors speak the truth. Lynx Le Gaede, Vid Li Alder, Isri Go Tiru, and Neg Ji Wina, step forward."
From the foremost ranks of the nobility, those who stood closest to the throne, strode the four men who led the faction most strongly opposed to him in particular and Layans in general. All four of them wore arrogance like a second skin as they defiantly stared at him. They varied widely in looks, ranging from tall to short, light-haired to dark, but were brothers in hauteur. And treason.
Before he could continue, Le Gaede spoke. "Your Majesty, why are we, your loyal servants, singled out? Surely you do not believe the pained ranting of simple commoners."
Clever, clever. Make it sound like they were tortured into confessing your names.
"You were not given leave to speak," Laya said calmly, her voice as clear as glass, her aura of dominance as heavy as a mountain.
Le Gaede flicked Laya a contemptuous look. A firestorm of ire ignited within him, but Nial ruthlessly grinded the impulse down to ashes. "We find it interesting that you speak of treason when nothing was said, Lord Le Gaede."
"It's obvious, is it not? You speak of treason in one breath, and then name us immediately after." Le Gaede shrugged. "This is a farce, Your Majesty. If we are truly traitors, then put us to trial and have done with it."
Do I look like the Divisian King? You won't be given the chance to woo supporters with a contrived show of innocence and bemoan how you've been wronged. It's time to put this farce to an end. "You insult us, Le Gaede. Your mercenaries did not need to be tortured to reveal how they were paid. They complained at length about how a work of art of great value was no use to them."
Nial watched the treacherous lord as he suddenly began to sweat. Satisfied, he continued. "It was sold in Yaata for a princely sum. Our investigators did not encounter difficulty in finding the buyer. An examination of our records revealed that the piece was stolen from Orakio's Keep several generations ago by House Le Gaede, but was never returned."
Le Gaede moved. Nial did not flinch as the traitor pulled a needler from the concealment of his cloak. As the guards were supposed to make sure no noble went armed in the presence of the king, it was obvious they belonged to his enemies.
The other conspirators also drew their weapons, but even as they pulled the triggers, Laya spoke. "Warla."
A wall of orange-colored glass appeared before him. The deadly needler flechettes harmlessly bounced off of Laya's magic barrier even as panic seized the throne room. Noble ladies shrieked as they threw themselves to the ground; their noble husbands sometimes screamed louder than they. The ones closest to the exit pounded their fists helplessly against the immobile doors.
Soon enough, the needlers exhausted their ammunition. Even as the traitors scrambled to reload, Nial leaped into action. Moon Drop sliced Le Gaede's hand off cleanly with its downward cut. Rising Moon's upward slash with the Sword of Sa Riik was harder than he expected, but sent Li Adler's hand to join Le Gaede's a heartbeat later.
The smell of burned flesh confirmed that Laya had personally dealt with the other two traitors. Nial nonchalantly took his place on the dais once again as Laya restrained the traitors with her magic. He gestured to Wren.
The black android emitted a loud sound that silenced the panicked nobility. All eyes focused on him as he deliberately abandoned the royal we. "These men are traitors who have attempted to murder their rightful sovereigns. I hereby pronounce sentence. I strip them of all titles, estates, and possessions. They are eternally banished from Landen. Additionally, I strip Greck Le Gaede of all titles, estates and possessions. Lam Le Gaede is to inherit all of the ancestral dignities of House Le Gaede. She will be a ward of Laya, Queen of Landen."
"You can't do this!" Le Gaede shrieked as he thrashed against Laya's magic. "I am your cousin!"
He had been waiting for that. Nial's grandmother had been a Le Gaede, which meant he was closely related to the traitor in front of him. Ties of blood were supposed to be respected. Even when crossed, family was supposed to be spared. Truth be told, it was that inconvenient tie that spared Le Gaede execution.
"My children are also your cousins, yet you and your swine of a son still attempted murder. I cannot name you kinslayer, as your attempts were foiled, but in your soul, that is all that you are," Nial said icily. "I have rendered judgment, but I have not finished. You and your mercenaries will be sent to Lune Kay Eshyr. As your crime involved not only the family of your king, but his daughter, you will be sent on to him for judgment for your offense against him."
Bedraggled men and women stared at him mutely as they hung onto every word. His rage poured over as he nearly snarled out the rest of what he had to say. "Nobles of Landen, no more attempts will be made on the lives of my family. I have issued an order to Mieu and Wren. Should any harm befall my wife, my children, or myself, they will take command of all of the war machines in Landen. You understand what that means, do you not? Neither of them can be stopped. They are machines and have no compunction against killing. None of you shall be spared."
Nial took his wife's hand before he continued. "Pray for our good health, noble friends. It would be a tragedy if an accident befell us and Landen were left bereft of its nobility. Our lords and ladies, you have our permission to withdraw."
The double doors opened. His courtiers flooded out of the throne room as his loyal guards seized the erstwhile lords. Nial looked at his reliable android bodyguard. "Wren, have the two who were supposed to disarm these traitors tossed in with the rest."
"Yes, Master Nial."
Wren and the guards took their charges to the dungeon. Nial continued to hold his wife's hand as they waited for Wren to return. "Do you think it succeeded?"
"It's possible," Laya said. "I suspect fear of death will motivate them to plot to preserve our lives instead of taking them. It may cause problems in the future, but for now, I think they'll understand you are not bluffing and will do their best to leave us alone."
Nial scowled. "I didn't want to do this."
Laya drew close to him and rested her head on his shoulder. "I know, darling. If this were a story, our marriage would have been enough to bring peace to all of the Alisa III. It's not your fault it didn't work out that way."
Nial let go of his wife's hand and put his arm around her. "I hope an honest historian points out that I did this to protect the lives of my family, not to be a tyrant or whatever other lies that lot will come up with. Why are you laughing, Laya?"
"It's entirely possible I know the historian we need," his wife said between giggles. "We'll have to wait for her to grow up first to be sure, though."