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When the table was set in order after the meal and everyone had taken their places again, it was Talishi’s turn to state her piece. She said, “Mastema is Lord of this world. That no one denies, and House Gerash has always been especially devoted to him. And yet humans are not native to Barbelo. Long ago we were grafted in from Earth, where El Shaddai and Bat-El reign. Perhaps this is why House Sala have cast their lots with the God of the other world, and why the other houses of Barbelo, and even the inhabitants of the city of Salem in the Middle Land, have varying degrees of devotion between the two deities.

“This is tolerable to El Shaddai, I can assure you, since El Shaddai has always called human beings the Students, and one of the most important thing a student can learn is how to think, not what to think. But I can also assure you that this state of affairs is not tolerable to Mastema. I’m quite certain that he has already begun to make his move, and you will soon discover why he has maneuvered to keep the other four house off balance and at each other’s throats. For he does not call human beings students, but rather servants.

“I will not attempt to influence the decision of this council, but I do offer a warning that if you decide to present a united face to House Gerash that afterward you move with supernatural speed, for Lord Kirodiel will then be presented with no choice but to attempt to take out each one of the four houses one at a time. And now I would bid good King Arman Bellon to tell his tale.”

He stood up and said, “Thank you Lady Talishi. Your worlds are weighty and to be pondered deeply. We here in Rumbek have also played the fool for the arms merchants of House Gerash, despite the formidable water barriers which protect us on three sides, and the Nine Mile Wall which protects us on the fourth. At times during the last century we have campaigned often against the Red Beards and even crossed the Ice to assail House Larund. But for the last twenty years, with only one recent exception, the unfortunate incident with Count Zelus, we have been at peace with the rest of Barbelo. That is why when High Lord Patriarch Kirodiel came to me with tidings of House Antero building many portable pontoons designed to bridge the straits north and south of Magodon, I was not panicked into buying the catapults he was offering to repulse the supposedly immanent attack.

King Brogan Antero said, “Kirodiel did offer to sell us the prefabricated pontoons, King Arman, but I was never tempted to buy any of them.”

“So you said, King Brogan, through your ambassador, and thus we both knew Kirodiel to be a liar. It brought to mind a state visit to the Middle Land I had made some time prior, when I crossed the Ice and passed through Salem to Ganelon and thence to the city of Mastema. In Ganelon I saw some of the finest bottom land I have ever seen, better than around Saharad perhaps, with soil so deep and rich it was nearly black, yet there were no crops, save weeds.”

“The Middle Land has a manufacturing economy now,” said Lord Kirodiel with obvious pride, “not a primitive agricultural one like the other four monarchies.”

King Arman replied, “Your land is indeed a manufacturing economy, High Lord Patriach Kirodiel, but it manufactures weapons of war. Solely. Noble ones, let that fact sink in for a moment. Everyone who makes a living in the Middle Land is either employed to make weapons directly, or they support those do. Their livelihood rests on keeping us at each other’s throats.”

“I will tell you what our economy purchases for us,” Kirodiel countered. “In a legal sense even my guards are on the same level as myself, with the same rights and obligations to the state. Can any of you noble born say the same thing about yourself and any one of your servants? A lowly apprentice could rise to attain to my seat on the State Council. Blood counts for nothing in the Middle Land, only ability and loyalty to Mastema. We have a theocratic meritocracy.”

Queen Aurra smiled at this. “Not just individuals but kingdoms, too, may form republics after a fashion, Lord Kirodiel.” She stood up and raised her voice. “At this time I propose the creation of an entity I choose to call the Union of Kingdoms. Within each individual kingdom, we royals shall maintain our absolute sovereignty. Yet decisions which have an effect outside of our respective borders, such as concluding treaties or going to war, shall be thrashed out in council chamber with every kingdom represented.”

“I second your proposal, Your Highness,” said King Brogan Antero, standing up again as well. “At this moment you may consider House Antero to be joined to House Sala in a Union of Kingdoms precisely as you describe.”

After Brogan vowed to join Queen Alodra’s new Union of Kingdoms, Arman Bellon announced his decision to add his land to the Union as well, followed by Belen Larund, whose conflict with the Queen had accelerated this Council of Royals, and whose assent now at the end completed it.

Lord Kirodiel remained sitting. He was perceptive enough to know the White Beards were not and never would be invited into this Union. Without looking at any of the nobles he said, “Review your own history, O privileged ones. Can you remember a single battle between your kingdoms and House Gerash? Or even hearing about one? You cannot, and if you scratch a little deeper you will find that it was not for lack of trying. We clipped your little seedling attacks before they could proceed beyond a simple skirmish and take root. How were we able to do this time after time, you ask? Very simple. House Gerash, you see, always retains the newest and best arms for its own defense.”

“Yet there are unintended consequences to becoming makers of arms rather than customers,” King Arman countered. “We have a continuous warfighting tradition which you lack. Take extreme care, then, lest your attacks sputter to nought in confusion and your forces become prisoners.”

“No doubt your fathers of old weighed that very thing in their calculations as well,” Kirodiel countered. “The wise ones refrained from assailing the Republic. The foolish ones made their sorties and were repulsed. So this can be no new warning to you: If ever House Gerash should find your so-called Union of Kingdoms standing at cross-purposes to our interests, beware.”

Princess Kari Antero stood up then, drawing the diamond sword Dragonthorn from its jewel-encrusted scabbard strapped to her back. She was moved to say, “Lord Kirodiel would also do well to remember that the Middle Land is not the only realm which can bring unmatched weaponry to the field of battle!”

“Nay, daughter!” King Brogan admonished Keri sharply, “Your King now commands you! Stand down and restore the sacred blade to its place!” And the King was very wroth because Kari was the only person allowed to be armed in this chamber, and that only on a ceremonial basis.

“I begin to wonder for what reason I was really summoned to this Council,” Lord Kirodiel Gerash moaned in a parody of lament when a chastened Kari obeyed her father the King and stowed the diamond blade. “To receive threats, and weapons brandished in my face, it seems.”

“My daughter’s action was rash, but there was some truth to her words,” King Brogan warned. “The meaning of the creation of our Union of Kingdoms is that we shall never fight among ourselves again. But that must not be construed to mean we shall never fight again. And there are some mighty ones here who are worth many times their number in Gerash soldiery.”

Queen Aurra Sala also said to Kirodiel, “We could have made this a secret Council, and let your people be caught off-guard by a sudden and inexplicable loss of their livelihood. I invited you here for one purpose, Lord Kirodiel. The people of the Middle Land must till their earth again, and make things once more that serve life rather than end it. They will need a huge head start to begin to make the necessary changes before starvation sets in. So you witnessed the creation of the Union of Kingdoms to bring that news to your people in your so-called republic and give them that head start.”

Kirodiel had been holding back his mounting anger for the entire duration of the Council. Now his wrath was taken off the leash, and he launched into a long-winded screed against the monarchies of the Land that held nothing back. As he ranted, he skirted dangerously near to revealing Kari Antero’s awesome secret, yet without actually crossing the line.

As Kirodiel anticipated, the Princess rose from her seat and approached him with Dragonthorn drawn once more, in defiance of her father the king. It was pointed directly at his heart. So unusual was this sight the other royals were struck dumb at the spectacle, even Brogan Antero.

When Kari Stronghammer was near enough to threaten Kirodiel, she said, “The High Lord Patriarch must give account for the loved ones each one of us have lost thanks to his lies!” And she raised Dragonthorn to strike. Aliwe Halil froze in the act of filling Lord Kirodiel’s flagon with wine.

King Arman was furious and found his tongue first. “Hold! I gave my word to grant Lord Kirodiel safe passage to Rumbek for the purpose of attending this Council, and my word holds firm. Stand down, daughter! Put away your blade. Lord Kirodiel shall be sped to the border with all haste, and I promise that no harm shall come to him.”

“Noble ones of the Council,” said Kirodiel, “I believe I know precisely what it is that is really disturbing the Princess.” But before he could continue to speak, Kari assailed the unarmed man with Dragonthorn, the legendary blade that, it was said, could not be turned by mail nor even the hardest stone.

Instinctively, Aliwe Halil brought up the silver platter she was using to carry the wine as a pathetic shield to protect Lord Kirodiel, knowing it would just be demolished by the awesome blade, but her impulse was to act in such a way that would carry out the stated will of the King. And to everyone’s surprise the Dragonthorn shattered against Aliwe’s makeshift silver barrier, and glittering broken diamond shards of the ancient blade fell to the ground at Kari’s feet.

Everyone in the chamber (except Lord Kirodiel, naturally) was horrified, Princess Keri not the least of them. Baron Bayard marveled that this Aliwe girl seemed to always be exactly where she needed to be, exactly when she needed to be there.

Only Lord Kirodiel found his voice. He said, “You have been remiss in your education as well as in your duties, Antero Princess. It seems they did not tell you that when the spell is broken with the loss of your virtue, Dragonthorn becomes nothing more than a diamond in the shape of a blade. Beautiful, yes, harder than anything known, but as brittle as glass! My own body mail would have done as much as that servant’s silver plate.”

More astonishing to Kari than the destruction of Dragonthorn was Kirodiel Gerash breaking her spell commanding him to be silent about her seduction of him, and Kirodiel correctly interpreted the shock of this development on her face. “Foolish girl, you never had the power to persuade anyone to do your least bidding, and if King Brogan thought to make you believe so that your life might be a little more pleasant as you waxed in your spinsterhood, then more fool he, for it was the undoing of you both!”

For none could withstand the pure white fire of Demonstroke and live. Keri was rapidly consumed where she stood as the dragon hovered outside the chamber on great strokes of his wings, harnessed by the sorceress will of the mysterious woman named Joy who rode upon his shoulders.

It would have been a simple thing for Kirodiel to command Joy to reduce the chief Peers of the Land to ashes, not the least his chief foe Talishi, yet Kirodiel had determined that Kari alone should die at that time. By this act he showed contempt for King Brogan’s earlier claim that some of the nobles assembled there were worth many Republic soldiers. But he deemed it more important to leave them alive, that their minds might encompass the fullness of his triumph and fall into despair.

Later some of the royals thought Lord Kirodiel had done this thing out of a greater kindness, that Princess Keri would not suffer the eternal penalty of her abomination, and certainly that peculiar tradition of the monarchies filled even Mastema with disgust.

With Demonstroke’s smoking open mouth menacing the royals none could stop the hysterically laughing Kirodiel Gerash from joining his lover Joy on the back of the dragon and making good his escape by air.

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