The council rose as the door to the war room opened, and a tall man, dark skinned with close cropped hair and beard and wearing an elaborate breastplate, entered the room. A long red cloak flowed behind him.
“Baron Mondracon.” The assembled councillors bowed their heads.
Francisco waved a hand and his council sat. He crossed to the head of the table, unbuckled his cloak, and laid it over the back of his chair before seating himself. “Very well. What news?” His accent was thick, with a melodic lilt.
The councillors looked at one another, each unsure who should begin. The Baron watched them all. “Start with the coffers.”
An elaborately made up woman, clad in deep blue robes and an abundance of jewellery, cleared her throat. Alathor’s Mistress of Coin. “My lord, things are holding steady, for now. The barony is…stagnating somewhat. The threat of war looms large over the common folk I believe. The uncertainty breeds caution.”
The Baron raised one hand, palm stretched flat as if weighing something. “No change then?”
“Nothing significant, sir, no. Diamond production is up slightly this month, but spending is down a little.”
The Baron pursed his lips. “Very well. General?”
General Radan, a short, elderly gentleman with snow white hair, adjusted his seat as he began to speak. “More of the same. The Sarrancian Front remains…tense. I grow uneasy about some of our borders. The diversion to the Estran border is necessary, of course, but I would advise caution, my lord. We must not leave Al-Badezaar’s garrison too thin, else the Wastemen may press an advantage. Nor Karim’s Stand. The Scalelord becomes a more volatile threat with each day.”
Francisco Mondracon scratched his beard idly. “Interesting. He is a…prickly one, it is true.”
“And he will grow no less prickly given the Clearmont situation, if I may speak candidly, sir,” said Radan.
The Baron sighed. “Yes, it is true. But if they will station in Clearmont…it will be a boon to us. They inspired a lot of courage in Rell’s people.”
“And now a lot of distrust. They are too…unpredictable, my lord, we cannot—”
Mondracon waved a hand, stopping the general. “It is done. They defended the city, exposed…” the Baron gestured to the single empty chair at the table, “the Clearmont land has already been granted, I will not go back on my word.” He turned to address a dark-haired woman, clad in leather and with striking green eyes. “Has anything begun there?”
The spymaster shook her head. “Not on the land you granted them, no, sire.”
The Baron looked confused.
“The, uh, Fortress-Temple, sir. They have reclaimed it,” said a middle-aged man on the table’s left, enrobed in a priest’s vestments. The spymaster made a gesture towards the priest.
Mondracon looked between the two before speaking. “Interesting. The knight, isn’t it? That makes things interesting indeed.”
“Yes, sire. He’s overseeing the repair of the fortress,” said the woman, “the sailor’s vessel has been a fixture in Clearmont recently, and the temple itself is manned with military forces.”
“And what do we all think about that?”
Radan was the first to speak. “Preposterous. Marching an army into our lands, yet paying no service to us in a time like this?”
“The Fortress is a site of pilgrimage for Belarians,” said the priest, “it is a noble thing for him to do.”
“With pilgrimages being open once more, there could be economic benefits,” said the coinmistress.
“And what are the economic benefits of a wildcard independent army being loose within our borders, Amra? Hmm?” said Radan, waving a hand wildly.
“The economic benefits of endowed adventurers being resident within Alathorian borders? Rather a lot of taxes, I should imagine,” she replied with a smile.
Mondracon turned to his spymaster. “Samara?”
Samara flashed one eyebrow then spoke. “Good points, but recall, sire, that Valasar issued a decree that to harbour the Scalars is to declare war on Scale.”
The priest, Gabriel, interjected. “Holy sites like the temple are considered neutral territory under Imperial laws. We are not harbouring them.”
Radan scoffed. “I do not expect the Scalelord is overly fond of ‘Imperial laws’.”
Samara raised both hands slightly. “That is not my department, though I should think it at least a plausible deniability. All I will say is that I’ve had reports already of a drake rider travelling to and from the direction of the Fortress. Valasar is already well aware of their whereabouts.”
Francisco sighed. “So what are our options? As Gabriel says, we are bound by Imperial laws and cannot remove them from the Fortress. Where are they presently, do we know?”
“Last I was aware, they had travelled to Stormguard, sire,” said the spymaster.
“Stormguard?” the Baron said, confused, before working it through in his head. “Ah, the dwarf, of course.” He paused, coming to a realisation. “They did mention something about that, now that I think of it.”
“Mm. The Greythunder Temple, I should think. You’re in contact with them?”
“Yes. The wizard, she gave me a…pebble, after everything with Yvena. She can send a…mind message through it. I thought it might be useful to keep an eye on them.”
Samara shrugged. “Not my department.”
Mondracon stroked his chin. “Mm. It certainly seems as if they’ll be a rather more permanent fixture in any case.” He tapped on the desk a few times as he thought. “Not an issue that can be resolved today, I should imagine. Keep closer tabs on them. If Valasar has a problem, for the moment it’ll mean taking it up with the whole Empire. When war comes, I don’t suspect it should matter. Do we have numbers on their forces?”
“They’ve a whole legion,” said Samara, “Scalars. The 8th. Led by Balax Gaur.”
“A whole legion? Sire, allowing them to gallivant around our lands unfettered is sheer—”
Radan was silenced with another wave. “At least we know what we’re dealing with. Is there anything else demanding my attention? What other news?”
“Rell and Estrath continue to posture. The garrisons at both Frostreach and Verium have increased substantially. The Sarrancian Front, we have mentioned already. The Rellics have increased reinforcements in Oran Keld slightly, though I don’t imagine they consider the dwarves much of a threat,” Samara said.
“Doubtful,” said Mondracon, “Gromm and Amelia always got on well. Cut from the same cloth.”
“Mm. Scale remains…difficult to crack. The last report I had from the men over there was weeks ago. The elves are similarly enigmatic.”
“Meriden is…Meriden. Still as much machination and bureaucracy as ever. Sparax still have the docks in their hand, the Iron Legion investigation is still getting stalled on all fronts.”
The Baron scoffed. “Agh. Everyone knew it’d be a cover-up anyways.”
“Mm. Still difficult to follow the cover-up to it’s source, though.”
Samara raised an eyebrow. “Not really. I doubt it’s Imperial, honestly.”
There was a murmuring from the other councillors.
“Not Imperial? But surely Estrath have the moti—” said Amra.
The spymaster rolled her eyes. “No,” she said, shaking her head, “I mean, maybe. I doubt it though. There’s forces in that city bigger than the Empire.”
Mondracon narrowed his eyes. “Like what?”
“Oh, where to even begin. The guilds, the cults. The secret societies. Maybe The Gate,” the spymaster said.
“Or The Nine.”