The days that follow the former King’s death are chaos. Istere plays it off as self defense from a madman. But some of the nobles are obviously dubious of that story’s legitimacy. However, they are soon silenced. After all, Istere has the power of both the people and the church behind her. High Priest Diemut Kajat doesn’t like his new role as one of her foremost supporters, but it’s not like he can do otherwise. Not with all the blackmail we have on him and Briareth’s death threat. He’s been forced to accept Istere’s former offer which she– in my opinion far too generously –left the same.
“It’s better to be generous when I can, and then use that generosity to pull some strings later as if calling in a favor.” She’d explained when I pointed out my doubts. “I have lots of plans for the church in the future, the people listen to them. I’ve already worked it out with High Priest Kajat so that the church will ‘find’ documents that say the war wasn’t destined, and that the two founding gods actually had a better relationship than we previously thought. Although arrogant and prideful, he knows how the public works, and understands that it is currently impossible to turn them against me. What he wants is respect and power. He saw my challenge to him earlier as a disrespect, that’s why he pulled that chaos with my mother. Now he sees me as above him, albeit only slightly, so he won’t attempt anything nearly so blatant. Especially if I don’t attempt to tear his almost cult-like following away from him.”
“What does this mean for your mother?” I’d asked her, gently broaching the sensitive topic.
She’d frowned. “I don’t know. I guess we’ll go our separate ways for now. She doesn’t approve of me, but I think she loves me enough not to attempt to sabotage me. At least, she never told my dad about my identity.” Shaking her head, she’d finished, “I really don’t want to think about that right now, I have so much on my plate already. I’ll talk to her when things have calmed down a bit.”
And it’s true, she does have a lot on her plate, and even more piled on her in expectations. ‘King Yaluda’ or ‘His Majesty’ as Istere is styled nowadays, is praised by the people as being able to spot corruption with just one look, to be able to root out bad eggs with a single wave of his hand, and being able to calm even the most violent dissenters to his reign with a smile from his devilishly handsome face. The papers claim he will bring peace and return the soldiers to their homes by midsummer at the latest.
When I read out one of the multiple reports on the table in front of me to Istere, a choice article praising her ‘handsome and elegant features so unlike his father’s roughshod approach’ and calling her ‘the most eligible bachelor in the land’, Briareth bursts out laughing, and even Faladel cracks a grin at all the nonsense.
He hasn’t been the same since the King died, obviously wrestling with his own doubts as to our story’s validity. But he hasn’t said anything, hasn’t asked a single question for any more details.
Istere herself chuckles, she’s out of one of her endless meetings and has come to her old study to relax. Since Faladel, Briareth and I are no longer in any immediate danger, we’ve moved back here. Technically, we’re still escaped prisoners, Istere will have to grant us full pardons when she’s crowned. In the meantime, she’s busy stabilizing the castle and the nobles after all the riots, and also making small trade bribes when necessary to soothe ruffled feathers and buy allegiance. Blix and Kat have been her go-betweens. Blix, because he owes allegiance to her, and Kat, because she’s apparently Ludgera Tirades ‘bestest friend and chief gossip collector’ in Kat’s own words. Basically, from what I understand, it means that Ludgera trusts her to make sure we hold up our end of the bargain in granting the Tirade family what amounts to a monopoly when handling imports.
Although Istere doesn’t say it, I can tell she’s exhausted from it all. She’s been preparing to take the throne for years, but we’d all hoped that it would be under different circumstances. As it is, the coronation is less then a week away and Istere is still dealing with members of the nobility trying to force members of the public, who they claim were part of mobs, to pay for the damages suffered to their manors and their persons. To keep the image that she fights for the people, Istere obviously has to side with the peasants– not to mention they’d not be able to pay for a quarter of the damages they caused if they worked all their lives and never spent a copper. This, however, makes the nobles upset, and it just goes on and on.
With all the work to do, the days speed by. I’d expected to be bored out of my mind in the study, like we had been when we were waiting to assassinate the former King, but Istere puts us to work signing official documents and going over pieces of proposed legislation for her, and then giving her summaries. Faladel is obviously the best at this and can color-code, annotate, and write up a summary of the pros and cons of a ten page suggestion letter in ten minutes. It takes me nearly forty minutes to do the same work, and Briareth takes two whole hours if he can mostly stay on track while doing it. And there are simply hundreds of these to get through. Istere had made it an open submission when she had announced– the same day the late King died –that she would be happy to look through the requests of the people and listen to their suggestions to decide what she would focus on during her rule. It stunned me when I realized so many people knew how to write, even if their handwriting and spelling is illegible to everyone except Faladel. And because of the mountains of paperwork that threaten to swallow our tiny team whole, I don’t even realize when day goes to night and then back to day again.
So, it comes as a surprise to me when Blix announces that it’s the day of the coronation already.
Technically, we’re not allowed to attend. But Blix already knows what I want, and has prepared a costume for me. He sneaks me into the crowded commoners section, where I have to push and shove my way to a position where I can actually see the raised section of the floor, where the High Priest stands, holding a crown.
I didn’t even realize the room had been noisy, it had all been background sounds, but the sudden silence is deafening as Istere walks in. Her fake beard is on, her purple robes are resplendent, and the gold edging highlights the proud shine in her equally golden eyes as she goes on one knee, not towards the priest, but towards the people.
I hear gasps surrounding me, see more than a few nobles and court officials whisper behind cupped hands. I’m not sure of the proper protocol, I wasn’t even alive when the last king was crowned, but I get the feeling that the King normally kneels towards the priest, not towards the people, so it would be easier to put the crown on and whatnot.
However, High Priest Diemut Kajat only sighs and goes on with the official speech, as if this was something he knew was going to happen. As if it was planned, and Istere had briefed him beforehand. I’d more than half expected him to blow up at her in front of everyone for what could easily be considered blatant disrespect towards the church. But instead he ignores it, probably because, from the whispers around me, people love it.
When the crown finally slides onto Istere’s head, I breathe a sigh of relief. Somehow, I was expecting something else to stop us. Another crisis to crash through a window and demand to be dealt with right now. But it’s done. Istere is King, and as she raises her head and slowly climbs to her feet, she stares out into the cheering mass before her. Dwarves around me are shouting, jumping, screeching their joy and delight that someone so noble is now in charge. Someone who is on their side and who won’t let them down like so many others have. I feel adrift from it all, and Istere notices. Her eyes zero in on me, a leaf in the storm that is this celebration, and a shocked twitch jolts her face into a lovely smile, even as her eyes widen with surprise. The smile transforms into a real one which we share for a few seconds. I’m delighted, overjoyed by her success, even if I’m not part of the screaming masses, and I think she feels it. But then someone jumps up in front of me and breaks our eye-contact. By the time I’ve found a better spot to observe, she’s back to practical and purposeful Istere, and the whole room has quieted down to hear her first speech.
“This Kingdom has been through many trials as of late. You’ve faced hunger, wars both internally and externally, massive loss of life on a such a scale that it loses almost all meaning, but also deeply personal losses that make it feel like it is impossible to go on. Everyone, rich and poor, noble and farmer, has lost something, some have lost more than others, and some have lost everything.” Istere pauses, lets that sink in. “We cannot take away these losses,” I start at the usage of the royal We, and then realize that it is a formal setting. Of course she’s using We. “much as We wish We could. We cannot promise to wave our hands and suddenly fix everything, because that’s not how Kingdom’s work. They do not leap nimbly from one reign to the next, where a new ruler can suddenly make all your wrongs right again. However, We can promise that We will start the change. That We will do our best to see it through, as quickly as We can. So that eventually, maybe not our lifetime, and maybe not yours either, but your children’s, or perhaps grandchildren’s will never have to deal with hunger, war, or the terrors that our Kingdom has felt, ever again.”
“The reason We kneel towards you, instead of to our all venerable High Priest, is because We don’t give our loyalty just to the gods and demons in the sky. We give it to you, my people, and to the future we shall together create for the benefit of all dwarves. As a King, We swear to do our best by you. To bring you and your descendants the best future We can provide.
The problems that face us dwarves are huge, and it will take ideas from all of us to find the best path forwards. Because of this, We want to hear from you. We want to collect your suggestions and thoughts. Although We cannot commit to acting on all of them, We will carefully pour over them, finding the best and brightest ideas, and letting them shine.
“My first major focus is to stop a source of pain and loss for all of us. Everyone here knows someone who has lost a friend or a relative to the war. Perhaps you yourself have lost someone. We know We have. Therefore, We plan on ending it. Not the way our father wanted, with a dangerous weapon that could kill all dwarves, but in a way that will not cost any more lives. We speak of peace. Of the elvish diplomats that our father locked away before their escape. They risked their lives to come here once, and We intend to invite them back so that we can work something that will be favorable to everyone involved.
“We know,” She says, as murmurs sweep across the room. “That many of you hold hatred towards them. After all, so many dwarves have fallen on their swords, arrows, and strange sorcery. However, they have lost loved ones too. Their sons and brothers have also died on battlefields, and yet they were still willing to reach out first, putting their own prince at risk in a vague hope for peace. To ensure our kingdom doesn’t lose anymore of our beloved family members and friends, we can at least agree to civilly talk about what peace would take. We will not go in blindly trusting, We will not go in begging or from a point of weakness, We will go into this with strength and steadfastness, as dwarves have always done.
“Others will protest this choice on spiritual grounds, saying that the creator gods destined us to fight to the death. That dwarves would be the conquering race in the end, if only we continued this ‘noble fight’. However, recent discoveries in what We believe was a cave in the very mountains surrounding our glorious city of Abahak, have revealed these previous assumptions to be unfounded.”
Gasps, excited chatter, even a few shocked squawks of protest break out from the nobles on the walls and the crowd of commoners. Istere turns to look at High Priest Diemut Kajat, who takes over at this point.
“I was expecting this sort of reaction, that is why I told King Yaluda that I needed more time before we announced these things.” The High Priest sighs, an obviously faked sigh but one that the public eats right up. “But he is right, and you hear it from my very lips now. This war was never holy to begin with, one of my forebears must have made a mistake, or perhaps he was tempted by the material gain into lying and hiding the truth of how this all began. It doesn’t really matter now, what matters is that the damage was done, and only one of his subordinates– my ancestor in fact– was the only one brave enough to document it all.” The High Priest pauses for the appropriate gasps and murmurs of appreciation for his ancestor to finish before continuing. “I found his secret letters in my ancestral home only three weeks ago, and the cave His Majesty speaks of not even a week hence. There it contained the only untainted versions of the Tales Of Old, our most perfect scripture, that remain in existence. To protect them while they are recovered and more fully deciphered, I cannot reveal the cave’s location, but it is safe enough to say that the Sky brothers had a far better relationship than we have known. Even if the elves were made from the demon Anark’s laugh– which is itself a question right now –that laugh had certainly not come from his brother Burek’s misfortune, like the church has believed for centuries.”
The High Priest steps back at this point, letting Istere have the final word to the roiling masses that are eager to break out of this room and share the news with their families and friends.
“Besides peace, my reign will focus on providing a new age of prosperity and an end to hunger and dire hardship. I cannot guarantee my success in these endeavors, because for me to succeed, I will need each of you to do your part. I need you to work with me to help me bring us into a bright future!”
As the last words leave her lips, the room erupts into applause, and I’m among it, grinning like a madman as around me people cheer and swarm out into the streets. By tonight this speech will have spread to all the presses, and by the morning will be the topic of almost all the households in the Kingdom.
It takes less than a week to arrange Faladel and Briareth’s ‘arrival’ back in Abahak. In the chaos, most people have forgotten that there was a dwarf traveling with them when they first arrived. So I can stay out of the limelight and near Istere’s side this time around. She’s appointed me as a royal advisor, which the public likes. ‘An ear for the people’s worries.’ is how Istere puts it, which means I’m also permanently in charge of dealing with all their suggestions. I’m not sure if she gave me this position so that we can spend time together in a way that won’t seem strange, or because she just wanted to get rid of the responsibility for all that paperwork permanently.
When I ask her this, one night as we study the stars above the clear sky inside the castle walls, she smiles and says, “Can’t it be both?”
I snort at her. “No.” I say, just to be a little petty. We share a laugh, gazing upwards as a comet streaks past. We’d snuck onto a roof, Istere doesn’t have much time to herself anymore, especially not time that is free for her to use as she wishes. So scenes like this have become a lot rarer. Still, they’re important to the both of us. I’ve now expressed my feelings, about forgiving her for lying about her identity, what feels like ages ago. She apologized for that again. And now, I’m getting to know new things about her. Stories told from her perspective, instead of just Blix’s or what she imagined her brother’s would be.
“It’s sad.” She murmurs, breaking my musing.
I turn to stare at her face, and see the stars reflected in her eyes. I’m frozen for a second, and then manage to ask, “What’s sad?”
“That so many will never see this.” She gestures towards the brilliant sky above us. “The smog blocks off the entire city. It drives dwarves into an early grave and it prevents people from viewing this masterpiece, which should be their right.”
I sigh softly, you can take the King away from her throne, but you can’t take the throne out of it’s King. “Actually, I’ve received a couple of letters about that.” I admit, not wanting to make the mistake of keeping this knowledge from Istere. However, I fidget, staring back up at the sky, not sure of how to continue. “One was unsigned, but there was a return address. And the spelling was more than good, it was perfect, the author has either studied or been taught. They were asking for funding to create a device that they believe will clear up the atmosphere above the city. They’re from outside the capital, but they heard about the problem and wanted to help solve it. They included a diagram, and although I couldn’t make out how exactly it would work, they seemed to know what they were talking about and admitted that they are still missing a powersource. I don’t think it is a scam.” I pause, and Istere senses my hesitation.
“What makes you question them then?” She asks.
“I don’t question her sincerity or her capabilities. I question whether it would be right to give her the funding.” I say sitting up and staring over the castle walls below us. We’re on a tower rooftop, accessed through a skylight in the room below. Blix guards the entry to the room. Far enough away to give us privacy, but still close enough to respond in an emergency.
“Her?” Istere asks, slightly coolly, I hurry to explain.
“It was in my youngest sister, Gidora’s handwriting. The one who always wrote me letters in the army. But the drawing, that wasn’t her. That was Klyndia, I’m almost sure of it.”
Istere’s eyes widen, she gets it almost immediately. “You don’t want anything you do to be seen as favoritism.”
“Yes, that won’t look good. But Klyndia’s idea sounded like it could work. I don’t want to hold her back simply because it could look bad to outsiders.”
“Nobody even knows that you’re the one intercepting these letters. That you’re deciding which ones get to me and which ones don’t. She never provided her name either…” Istere frowns, thinking as we watch another shooting star pass overhead. “I have an idea that might work. I’m going to announce the peace treaty at the state dinner this Saturday. If I take a couple choice suggestions from the public, and announce that they’re going to receive imperial funding, it wouldn’t look bad at all. Opinions would continue to rise because I’m making it clear that I listen to people who reach out to me.”
“What I hear is that with one speech you’re going to up the literacy rate in this Kingdom by ten percent because suddenly everyone has a great idea that deserves funding, and more than double my workload.” I shudder, only half jokingly. “I’m going to need more help sifting through all this mess. You took Prince Faladel away from me, so I’ll need more helpers.”
“You know to any outsider’s perspective it would seem like I stole you from Prince Faladel, right?” Istere smirks, teeth twinkling beneath her fake beard. I lean it a little closer and press my lips against hers softly. She smells sweet from this close, but I immediately take control of myself and lean back, more than a little apologetically.
I shouldn’t have done that. I think she likes me back– but I should have asked first. Still… “You can steal me from him whenever you want.” I say seriously. “My heart and loyalties belong to you alone.”
Istere stares at me, golden eyes wide with a mix of surprise at my forwardness and something I can’t quite be sure of, but that I hope is delight.
“Was that okay?” I ask hurriedly, “I want to know how you feel. I mean, my feelings are probably quite clear now, b-but—” I stutter, feeling the familiar burning sensation rush past the back of my neck and cover my entire face in what I’m sure is a hideous blush. I can’t think of anything more to say, but Istere opens her mouth immediately.
“That,” She says smiling at me, “was a terrible kiss. You and I will have to work on that in the future.”
I gape at her, not fully understanding until fireworks go off in my head in celebration. You and I.
“We should go down now.” Istere says, flushing a little at her own forwardness. “Practice can wait till tomorrow I think.”
Everyone is there at the state dinner and ball, Beni and Lutti, Ludgera and Agnark –who’s now taken over his father’s position as Lord Yamat since his father is imprisoned and awaiting trial– almost all of the random nobles I had followed around as I had skulked around the castle dressed like a servant are here too. Some of the attendees aren’t even nobles, although they wear nice clothes and have dressed well, the absence of a house crest makes their common origins completely obvious. Although some of the nobles cast glares at them, resenting their presence, the rich commoners walk by with their heads held tall and I cast a smile in their direction.
When Faladel and Istere walk into the room from separate directions at the same time, I’m slightly surprised. I thought they’d come from the same door, but I suppose this makes their meeting in the center of the room, and the subsequent shaking of hands, much more symbolic. They come from different places and different backgrounds, but they can still get along.
Faladel then presents Istere with a rolled up sheet of parchment. Istere apparently studies it closely before reading it aloud, but I already know the contents by heart. I helped create it after all. It lists the specific terms and conditions of our treaty, but it basically boils down to an end to a centuries long war, and how we will begin to build relationships with each other. Diplomats, embassies, foreign exchange programs. A school of magic in dwarvish territory, and a list of goods that dwarves will bring over.
Both Istere and Faladel are smiling when the list ends, along with almost all of the people in the room. Ludgera is actually bouncing on her toes a little, and Agnark sweeps her off her feet in a kiss in front of everyone, delighted by her happiness. I guess that cat’s out of the bag.
After the ceremony Faladel and Briareth have to head home, practically immediately. Our parting is sad, but not unexpected. Briareth will be back, he’s been given the post of diplomat according to the peace treaty, and Beni will be heading with them since he’s been appointed the dwarven diplomat. Lutti was upset, she had wanted to be included as well, but when Istere explained it saying, “Changing the law isn’t that hard, but changing the peoples’ opinions isn’t so easy. I could make you an official diplomat, but although the elves would have no problem with it, dwarves wouldn’t accept you for years.”
“And that should stop me, why?” Lutti asked. “I don’t care about an official title, rumors will ignore that anyway and just say I’m running off with Beni into a life of degeneracy. Just let me tag along. I want to see more and hear more than vaguely interesting rumors all my life. Besides, you know Beni and I work better as a team.”
“We have the provisions for one more.” Faladel offers quietly, taking her side.
“Alright. It will be annoying not knowing what people are saying about me inside my castle…” Istere trails off.
“Better to know what the elves are thinking about you behind your back.” Lutti says, “Besides, you can always have Balderk wander around. Once he learns to remember people’s faces, I feel like he’ll make a very decent rumormonger.”
“Thank you, but I’m eyeing a more official title.” I say laughing slightly.
“Oh? Head Consort?” Lutti asks, and I flush beet red. Even Istere’s ears go pink.
“I was thinking Minister of Internal Affairs.” I say, embarrassed that our relationship was so obvious to her. “Nothing more.”
“Not for a while at least.” Istere says smiling. “We need to wait till things settle down before revealing too much.”
“Of course, have fun living like degenerates in the meantime!” Lutti says and runs off to jump on a spare horse Briareth had just brought to the caravan. We wave as they head out of the castle and into the bustling city. From beyond the walls, I hear cheering as they pass by. People are pleased by their presence. Pleased by the dwarves going back with them.
My quest for peace might be complete. But our work will never be fully done.