Stormclouds Over Meridell: Part One
It rang out through every darkened corridor, rising to the crests of the tallest towers and echoing through the depths of each dusty dungeon. Nobody could recall a time it did not rouse the Citadel each morning, overpowering the general background din of a functioning society and imposing its mastery over the citizens; it was as much a part of Citadel life as the chill draught that filled the damaged halls or the lingering presence of King Skarl's "peacekeepers".
Lord Kass was shouting at the council again.
Sweeping calmly through the cold corridor from his chambers the Darigan Draik could feel laughter bubbling deep inside, longing to be free and regale the oblivious oppressed with its joyous sound. There was no mirth in the thought, however, as no matter how blind and stupid the citizens of the Citadel were, he was still doomed to share their fate, and no amount of irony could save him from that. Such a thought almost made him want to laugh again, but he kept his peace. There would be plenty of time for laughing soon.
The charred doors of the council chamber drifted into view, Kass' preferred Eyrie guards flanking it stoically. The Draik just rolled his eyes at their blank expressions and motioned to the Darigan Aisha tailing him. Obediently his bodyguard fell into place in the waiting antechamber, and stepping past Kass' guards the Draik could feel their anxiety at the Aisha's presence. He suppressed a small, satisfied smile and swept into the waiting council.
More Eyrie guards lined the hall, their blank expressions fixated upon the circular table where sat the six waiting lords of the Citadel, representing the affairs of the Darigan realm's most important families. Despite their concession to allow the common folk a say in the succession of the late Lord Darigan after the war the council had relinquished no ruling power since then, creating just the illusion of listening to their people. Or such had been their hope at the time, a hope the smug Draik had seen dashed by the rise of the conceited Eyrie standing opposite him across the table, separate from the ruling council but more powerful than all combined.
'You are late,' Lord Kass snapped angrily, ruffling his pristine purple feathers irritably. 'Perhaps you no longer feel the affairs of the Citadel are worthy of your oh-so-precious time, Lord Quai?'
The Draik simply bowed low to his ruling master, directing his disdainful smirk to the stonework floor. His features were frozen in a look of deepest regret as he rose to face Kass again, noticing how the vain fool was once more garbed in a resplendent suit of gold-trimmed black fresh from the tailor. As the rest of the Citadel stood destitute and broken by the defeat at Skarl's hand he still felt the need to spend lavishly on his own pride.
'My most sincere apologies, Lord Kass,' Quai replied in his oiled tone, 'I am afraid a situation arose that required my presence. I assure you, however, I have listened keenly to every word you have spoken thus far, along with the rest of the Citadel.'
Kass snarled at his words, and Quai could almost see the wheels turning behind his eyes as he tried to think of a retort. Against his breast the ugly charm pulsed brighter for a fleeting moment before fading back to green. Quai quickly averted his gaze from it; something about the unnatural object made him uncomfortable.
'Perhaps while you spend the morning thinking of a retort, the rest of us should attend to business?' the Draik suggested politely, slipping into his vacant seat. Most of his fellows pointedly looked away, a few trying to conceal grins at Kass' incompetence. Only the young Darigan Gelert glared back at Quai, exuding a venomous hatred that had only intensified as the months passed. The Draik just shrugged it off.
'Listening to Lord Kass' animated cries,' he began calmly, 'it sounds as though we are still on the topic of the Meridellians within the Citadel. I would like to remind you all that I am firmly against the plan to evict them and ship them back to Skarl at the first opportunity. We could still use their help repairing the damage we suffered during the conflict, not to mention that while they are here it is more difficult for them to tell Skarl our plans.'
'And how exactly do you propose they would know our plans?' Kass spat, regaining his voice at last.
'With all due respect, Lord Kass, pitiful though that amount may be, every other pet within our halls knows everything we discuss in here, so surely the Meridellians do too.'
Kass slammed his fist against the desk, the sudden movement making the council members jump. 'Perhaps if my council were less incompetent I would not have to waste my breath shouting at you all day?' he roared, his red eyes burning with a fiery rage. Quai felt his eyes drawn to the charm once more, as if the thing were watching for his reaction to the outburst.
'With all due respect,' Quai began again, but Kass cut across him, 'Your opinion is noted, Lord Quai, and with all due respect you can keep it to yourself next time! Unless you have forgotten that fat king in Meridell is forcing my hand back to war, so unless your next words are going to help us to win this one kindly spare me the hassle of listening to your unnecessary views and keep quiet!'
Quai bit his tongue. This was not the Kass he remembered from the last time he had dared attend a council meeting; the mad fire burning in his eyes sent a shudder through the Draik's spine. He felt an odd sensation in the pit of stomach as he met Kass' glare, and knew any humour at the Eyrie's incompetence was at an end. Fear was all that now remained.
'As you wish, my lord,' Quai found himself saying, uncomfortably aware of the incredulous glances from his colleagues.
The remainder of the session passed in eerie sedation, even Kass lowering his voice to a civil tone that filled the Citadel with a silence that sent terror through the populace faster than the Meridellian attack had managed during the war. Alone and vulnerable in his seat, Lord Quai sat meek and silent, allowing the discussions to pass over him without ever taking his eyes off the charm around Lord Kass' neck. He swore he could feel it mocking him. Relief washed over him when Kass finally left, his guards falling in behind him to leave the rest of the council alone and adjourned.
Quai could not bring himself to meet their eyes as he rose from his seat and swept from the hall at last, devoid of the grace and elegance he had displayed during his grand entrance. His Aisha bodyguard resumed pace behind him as he hurried past, retracing the steps back toward his chambers faster than he normally would have allowed. The chill that permeated the Citadel suddenly clawed tighter about him, the distant echoes rushing through the corridors making him twitch nervously with each new sound. He needed his chambers. He needed to compose himself again before anybody else saw him this way.
'Leave me,' he muttered as he finally reached his polished wooden door. Behind him the Aisha gave a curt nod and took up his preferred vigil outside, leaving Quai to enter the familiar surround alone. His winged chair beckoned to him, and gratefully the Draik sank deep into the plush velvet seat and allowed it to swallow him whole. Joyous relief filled the room with a long, satisfying sigh, expelling the heavy weight of his burdens if for just a minute.
Slowly Quai opened his eyes and stared into the frail afternoon light seeping half-hearted through the open window. He did not know how long he could continue like this, struggling from one moment to the next against Kass, waiting for the hammer to fall and the Eyrie's guards to come for him. Kass had never been fully stable, but since the election he had been growing more troubled and unpredictable, filling the Citadel with rumours of his deeds that filled both lords and common folk alike with dread. One wrong word was all it took to turn Kass against you, and then it was only a matter of time before Master Vex found someone new in his dungeon. There were rumours Vex himself was destined to fill one of his cells soon.
How Quai still walked freely through the Citadel, he had no idea.
'You seem troubled, Lord Quai.'
The Draik leapt from his seat, one clawed hand reaching for the sword sheathed by his side. He froze at the sight of the hag sitting at his desk, half-concealed by her dirty brown cloak and shawl in the gathering gloom, leaning back casually in his seat. Time had done nothing for her looks; if anything the past months had left her uglier than before, but Quai knew better than to say such to her. For all her faults, Morguss was a powerful sorceress still and an influential force within the Citadel.
'I am so sorry, my dear, I did not mean to startle you so,' she rasped. 'I just thought that perhaps I might be able to help ease your burden?'
'Alas, it would appear you cannot,' Quai replied stiffly, fighting the urge to collapse into his comfortable winged chair again. 'My burden is too great to be removed so easily.'
'And yet you lift it many times a day, easing your thoughts upon that chair,' she retorted with a knowing smile that twisted her features still further. 'If a chair can work such miracles, imagine what I could do.'
'We all saw what you could do during the war, my lady,' Quai said, forcing the last words across his silken tongue, 'and I will admit to having been truly enamoured by such mysticism. However, as I am sure you aware, we are on the cusp of another war and such a burden it has already become. I fear lifting that is beyond even your ability.'
Morguss laughed, the foul, strained rasp grating painfully on the air. 'Have you ever been known to tell the truth, Quai?' she asked bluntly. 'Kass is what troubles you, as we both well know, and you blame me for putting him there instead of you. Do not try to deceive me Quai, you know it will not work.'
'As you say then, Morguss, I will be frank with you. Kass is a buffoon at best, and the doom of us all at worst. I had everything that was needed to defeat him at election and return the Citadel to some form of recovery, but you came along and cast this moron into my path like some pile of dung from Meri Acres. The only reason I have not already abandoned the Citadel to his ravages is the love I hold for my people, who are my people, my birthright, and shame upon any pet who abandons his people in their darkest hour. Instead I do what little I can to undermine Kass and strive to aid the Citadel, all the while looking over my shoulder for one of his... goons to come for me. Now which part of this do you feel you can help alleviate, Morguss?'
The old Moehog looked up at him, unfazed by his words. Calmly she produced a scroll from the deep recesses of her robe and placed it upon the desk before him, nodding encouragingly. Without taking his eyes from her own, Quai unfurled the scroll and quickly read the contents, his eyes lingering over the elaborate signature at the bottom.
'Orders from Kass? This is meant to be your help?'
'Yes, it is,' she answered politely. Finally she rose to her feet and met his disbelieving gaze, despite her hunched form still only reaching half his height. 'As you say, I helped Kass to take the throne from you, Quai. Your grandfather may have been the ruler once, but Lord Darigan left no heir and the people wanted a change, so I gave it them. Now you have a duty to those very same people who did not want you ruling over them, and the only way to do that is to obey the grand scheme. Lord Quai, you are astute enough to realise this grand scheme means you obey my orders. I put Kass on the throne as he is so much more useful than you at a time like this, and we need to punish Meridell.'
'As I have said many times, hag, another war will be the death of us all!' Quai snapped back, relishing the word "hag" as it slipped from his eager tongue.
'Only if we go unprepared,' she retorted calmly, ignoring his insult. 'You want to do the best you can for your people, Quai, and I commend that. As such, you need to ready us for war. Only one path lies ahead for Darigan, and this time we will not be stopped. Kass will sign anything I put in front of him, so consider these orders from the highest authority. You will aid your people, and be out of reach of our Lord Kass so you will have nothing to fear. Excluding your issues with my own person, I believe that resolves these burdens that weigh upon you.'
The Draik glanced back down at the letter clutched in his claws. 'Nothing to fear, you say? You are sending me to Meridell on the eve of war, and you say I have nothing to fear? How foolish do you take me for Morguss? Is it my assassination that will ignite the flames of conflict once more, or will Kass simply begin the invasion whilst I am in Skarl's castle?'
Morguss shook her head sadly and adjusted her dusty shawl. 'It appears I was mistaken about you, Quai,' she said quietly as she stepped past toward the door. 'I was led to believe you an intelligent individual. I already told it was not Kass who gave this order, but I. He is a necessary evil for now, but an expendable pawn in our game. I had hoped you would be a valuable piece.'
Her grubby hand closed about the door handle when he called her back. 'Morguss. I offer you my most sincere apologies for any offence I may have caused during this exchange. Dealings with Kass have this effect on me, and I am afraid to say I am not thinking straight. Not a day passes when I do not get at least three letters from Kass threatening me in some way, and it has perhaps left me a trifle paranoid. Truly, I am very sorry for my words.'
She smiled at his back. 'I understand, Lord Quai. After all, you did not even notice me as you came in, despite looking me square in the eyes. I accept your apology, but would caution you to be more careful in future. One day saying "sorry" will not be enough.'
He heard the door fall shut behind her and breathed easily again. Both Kass and Morguss in one day was too much for him to bear, but perhaps it had worked out for the best. He could no longer trust himself around the deranged Eyrie, and now his puppet master had given an escape. A few days in Meridell away from Kass and his endless tirades and threats would do him good, give him a chance to recover some semblance of the Lord Quai he had been before Darigan's madness.
And if it meant crippling Meridell before the Darigan soldiers set foot on their lands again, then all the better.
To be continued...