Istere and the King stare at each other, a cold and distant face off from across the throne room. The King only has one visible guard near him. Istere has both Briareth and I, and a couple of PPG members guarding the door outside.
I study the guard by the King’s side more closely. He’s older, wizened, but still nervous. Beads of sweat drip down his forehead. His hair looks messy. Why is he the only one by the King’s side? Why didn’t the King bring more? Yes, the palace is in chaos right now, but I would still think the most important priority amongst the guards would be the King’s safety. A small frown touches my face.
Istere ignores the sweating guard, the lack of a second one, and strides across the room towards the raised throne. As I follow her –Briareth is somewhere else, in a hastily donned servants’ disguise– I realize that by forcing us to approach while he remains seated, the King already has an advantage. But both that and the fact that we’re in his territory, the banners with the symbol of the royal house and the army on the walls confirming it, don’t seem to rattle Istere at all. She’s probably gotten used to his mind games by now. Well, it’s either that, or her anger is so overwhelming that she just doesn’t notice the attempts to distract her, subdue her.
After Uggard’s head was delivered, she grew cold, calculated. She instantly started setting things up, adjusting our plan, claiming that, “He’s trying to throw us off our game with this threat, and disrupt our plans by putting the meeting only thirty minutes from now. He’s scared.”
I wasn’t so sure of that then, and I’m even less convinced of it now that we’re here. The King doesn’t look desperate. Yes, he’s glaring at us. Yes, his fists are clenched around the throne’s arms. Yes, the whole meeting feels like it’s designed to impress, to scare, almost a little too much.
But that almost, combined with his arrogant aura, makes me doubt Istere’s certainty. How can a man– a King –that holds himself that pridefully, that confidently, be scared? Just being in the same room with him makes me feel pitifully small, reminds me of how easily he had brushed Faladel, Briareth, and I aside when we came as a diplomatic mission.
If it is a mask, it is a very impressive one. One that must have taken years of practice to perfect to such a level.
“What do you think you’ve been doing, Son, working behind my back like this for so long? Did you think I wouldn’t catch on to your plans?!” The King asks, coldly. The question stops Istere in her tracks. Her measured gaze flits up and down the King’s seated figure, judging him.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Dad.” Her voice isn’t nearly as cold as his, it’s filled with repressed anger. “Here I was, just minding my business. Then you declare me a traitor, have my guards arrested, and execute the one I sent to ask about a meeting so we could discuss this nonsense.” She takes one more step forward, but stops at his command.
“You shall not approach the throne any further!” His command is accompanied by him finally standing up. “You spit nothing but lies! You know exactly what you’ve done, and you’ve gone and twisted my accusations against me, making my mind appear feeble and broken! Even my own soldiers are turning against me now!” He sweeps his hand in a broad motion, towards what I don’t rightly know, but it knocks a crystal wineglass off a nearby table which falls and shatters, shards nicking his legs. He doesn’t even appear to notice.
“You are plotting something! You’ve been plotting against me for years now! And now that my castle is falling down around my ears, you arrange this meeting to come and gloat!” He shouts, losing any semblance of confidence. It’s perfectly clear now that Istere was right, he was scared. That was a mask, old and weakened. Denial was all Istere needed to break it.
Istere switches tactics now, gaining confidence, and likely unable to resist a chance to needle her hated father even more. “Dad, you really should sit down. It’s undignified to stand there shouting at me, when you’ve yet to prove I’ve done absolutely anything that deserves this level of vitriol. Besides,” She grins. “I do believe you’re scaring your guard.” She shoots a glance his direction. “What, are you starting to believe the rumors? That the King lost his mind ages ago? I mean, I wouldn’t blame you. I’ve believed it for years, personally. Did he kill all your friends too?” The guard pales, and I realize that she’s hit the nail on the head.
The King confirms it, his voice quieting a little, but no less fierce. “They all deserved it. They were questioning me. Harboring treasonous thoughts. I could see it in their eyes. They no longer believed in the Cause.”
“Oh?” Istere’s eyes widen a fraction. Is this new information to her? “What might this cause be, that it can allow you to execute twenty men just on a suspicion, and leave you with a clean conscience?” Her voice hardens. “That allows you to attempt to kill both your children” A half-seconds hesitation as she channels her Yaluda personality, “One of whom was completely innocent of all wrongdoing? That justifies kin killing, and leaves you free to sleep at night.”
“Istere had no place here.” The King says, settling himself back in his chair. “She was just a daughter, expendable. You had corrupted her, so I disposed of her.”
I gulp, shocked at the King’s blunt unfiltered opinion of his daughter. Istere’s eyes narrow, hatred and anger coursing through them. She opens her mouth, probably to issue a scathing retort, but he doesn’t seem to notice.
“The reason I can sleep at night, the Cause for which I fight so stridently, is so simple you will never understand it.” The King says, arrogance and confidence returning. “I fight for destiny. I fight for the right way of the universe, the only way of the universe. Everything I’ve done is necessary because that was the way I saw to get things done. Killing Istere, attempting and failing to kill you, it was all necessary because I made it so by doing it. Without it we would never have been here.”
“I don’t understand, ” Istere says, staunchly. “I’m not sure I want to, and I don’t think I ever will. But at least one thing you said was true,” She smiles bitterly. “Without your actions, I would never have been here. My brother would be.”
I gasp. The whole room sucks in a breath as she reaches up and yanks off her fake beard.
That wasn’t part of the plan.
I stare at her, shocked. What is she doing? Why is she revealing herself like this!? She’ll be in danger. Now we have to kill that guard too!
Both he and the King are standing there, faces distorted by shock, and, in the King’s place, rage.
“Now.” Istere says, marching straight up to the throne, grabbing a chair along the way, and setting it down and sitting in it, directly in front of her father. “Let’s talk, like civilized people. I want you out. Out of power, out of this palace, out of my life. What do I need to do, to get you to do that? To relinquish the reins, like all the people in the streets will soon be screaming for.”
“They won’t be screaming for it once they realize who you are.” The King spits. “Who ever heard of a girl on the throne?”
“Who ever heard of an insane man keeping power for long in this palace?” Istere asks. “We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way. You’re lucky that after all you’ve made me suffer, I’m still giving you the right to choose.”
I’m not sure if she’s serious or not. I don’t think she’s being honest, but I can’t be sure. After all, revealing her identity wasn’t part of the plan. Has she decided to toss out the bit about killing her father too? Or is she trying to salvage the plan, after revealing her identity in a fit of rage? Will Briareth still come in, bearing the poisoned wine?
Slowly, uncertainly, I approach the throne as well. I’m not sure where Istere wants me, but it’s probably better to stay nearer rather than farther.
Although they’re both sitting on equal ground, somehow maintaining civility this time, they’re still spitting fire.
“So, how long have you been alive?” The King asks coldly, curiosity probably driving him back to the topic of Istere’s identity.
“Ever since I was born I believe.” Istere says just as coldly, shutting down that avenue of conversation. “How long have you been losing your mind? Blix and I have a bet, and I want to know who wins.”
“Did he help you survive? Convince you to carry on Yaluda’s cause?”
“I chose my cause for myself. Just as you claim to choose your destiny.” Istere waves her hand dismissively. “We have more important things to discuss, Dad.”
“You call me Father or My King.” The King says, instantly. “And that’s not how that works.”
“I do not.” Istere replies immediately, ignoring the other comment. “I call you Dad.”
“The ability to refer to the King without formality is reserved for the eldest heir.” The King scowls at Istere. And I suddenly realize why she’s always called him that. It’s a form of resistance. Of rebellion.
“Which I am.” Istere says, scowling back. “You killed the other one, remember? Or are you losing your memories now as well as your mind?”
“Heirs can only be male! This is how it has always been!” The King shouts at her, even though we’re quite close. I wipe some of his spit off my cheek. The guard near us shivers nervously. He hasn’t said a word all this time. I wonder, briefly, what he thinks of all this.
It’s too bad we’ll have to get rid of him now too. Knowing Istere’s identity? It’s too dangerous to let him live. If I was him, I’d have guessed this and run ages ago. Although, Briareth would probably have taken care of him. He should be outside the door right now, waiting for the signal to come in with refreshments.
“You don’t understand, Dad. To everyone else, I am male, I have always been male, and for a brief time after my coronation, I will continue to be male. And by that time, it will be too late. Nobody will be able to stop me.”
“You can’t do this!” The King hisses. “You can’t break thousands of years of traditions simply because you want to!”
“And why not?” Istere says coldly. “Tradition is the values of the dead. The living have better things to attend to. Like a revolution if you’re not careful.”
The King jumps on this topic. “They will revolt against you! They won’t allow this!” He hisses.
“They will, with time. I will be a better ruler than you ever could be, Dad.”
“You have nothing! You are nothing!” The King says desperately. “I have your men! I have your true identity! I have proof that you’ve been a lying scoundrel for years!”
“My men have escaped.” Istere says firmly. “The only one who knows of my identity are you, me, your terrified guard, and Balderk here. Basically, it’s my word against the word of a person people are starting to think might be insane. Who do you think they’ll trust, Dad? They already view me in quite a positive light.”
The King stills suddenly, probably realizing that Istere is right. There is no way he can win this. No way that he can stay in power. Suddenly, his face hardens, twists into something ugly. I see intent a split second before he acts.
Fear twists my gut. “Istere!” I shout as the King suddenly yanks his guard’s sword out of its scabbard, and swings it at Istere wildly.
Istere ducks, the sword narrowly missing her black waves of hair.
“It is my destiny!” The King shouts, “Mine alone! You shall not wreck centuries of tradition! Decades of hard work!” Each of his shouts grows progressively louder, each matching swing wilder.
Briareth bursts through the door, but I barely notice. “Istere!” I shout again, tossing my sword to her. She catches it. But in the brief second of distraction, the King notices an opening, and lunges at her, thrusting his sword in a deadly overhead arc.
There is a clang, and then a screech of metal on metal. Istere had brought her sword up in time. Just in time.
“MY DESTINY!” The King shouts in her face, spittle flying as his eyes flicker into madness. “A LITTLE TWERP LIKE YOU WILL NEVER WREST IT FROM ME! NOT WHEN I’M SO CLOSE!”
Istere shoves him off. “I will take everything from you, Dad! No matter what destiny has to say about it!”
He stumbles back, as if the force of that statement actually shook him, physically. Istere sees an opportunity and takes it. I watch, feeling as if I’m observing a scene from far away as my sword snakes up and slices a clean, deep gash across the King’s gut.
The King falls back onto his haunches, or perhaps collapses is a better term to describe it. His red blood stains his formerly pristine robes, leaking through to pool silently onto the floor. Somewhere behind me I hear a muted thump. Voices swim through the air to reach me, but I don’t hear them. All of my concentration is solely on Istere and the King. The woman I think I love, and the man I once swore loyalty to.
He coughs once, twice, blood flies from his lips. “Who’s the kin killer now?” He asks, one last spite of malice remaining in him. “It must run in our blood. One day, when your castle turns against you from the inside out, you will suffer, child. Madness will leak into you too, twisting destiny and wrenching it from your grasp! You will curse your blood with your own breath!” It’s clear he’s attempting to shout, but it only comes out as a hoarse rattle.
He’s dying. I realize, and cold seeps through me. We’ve done it. Istere’s done it. It’s nearly over now. We’ve won.
“Maybe, maybe not.” Istere says, somehow calm despite the malice in his words. “My destiny will never be like your’s. Mine is to live happily, and usher in an era of peace to both elves and dwarves. I will break tradition, I will choose my fate, and you won’t have any hand in it.”
Something in her confidence, her calmness, rings hollow to me. I walk up beside her, and lay a hand on her shoulder. “I’ll be there to help.” I add on, “However and wherever you need me.” She turns to look at me, startled.
Gratefulness buds in her beautiful golden eyes, and I feel my neck heat up, but I don’t break our gaze.
“She’s right, you know.” Briareth comes to stand beside us, fake beard gone and a dagger splattered with blood held loosely in his hand. “We’ve already made arrangements, as soon as she’s crowned, the war will end. And not,” He adds significantly, “In the way you wanted it to.”
The King stares at him blankly, and then understanding dawns in his once sharp gaze.
“I knew it! I knew you were allied with those damned elves!” He gasps, chokes, and the life fades from his eyes.
We watch his body a while longer, and then one of the members of the PPG– they must have come through the door when I was distracted –calls out “The King is dead! Long live the King!”
“Long live the King!” The rest of the men shout out in reply.
“Long live the King.” I add on, instincts kicking in a fraction too late. I stare at my former monarch as Istere and I get up. It’s quite anticlimactic, to see his corpse piled there like that. Just like any other dead dwarf, limp, lifeless, mute. Death, the one great equalizer, has rendered him just as broken as all those who never came back from his war.