The world was ending.
Figuratively, but very possibly literally as well. For months now, things had been strange. Off. Once familiar aspects of the world, constants as unchanging as granite, were now twisted.
Decorous clasped his hands together, staring. He didn’t stare at anything in particular. The room was the Lords’ Dining Hall of the palace. An exclusive area reserved for only those of the highest standing in society. And an intensely familiar place for Decorous. He had spent many evenings within, eating, communing with his fellows of higher standing. He knew its intricacies like he knew his own hand. From his table made from the finest marble, carved by craftsmen so skilled that its surface gleamed like a mirror, to the elegant tapestries of the twelve great houses adorning the walls. At the head of the room, one more tapestry hung, larger than all the others. A deep black banner. Golden filigree adorned the edges, outlining a shield. In the center of the shield, a great depiction of a column held two ravens aloft. It was by far the most ornate of all the thirteen tapestries. The largest as well. Expensive gold-violet thread drew out detail in the shield, the filigree, and the ravens while the pillar had been woven of spun stone.
House Yora’s red banner emblazoned with eight swords, three pointed straight upward and five pointed down, fanned out in an arc beneath, stood proud in the prestigious spot to the left of the royal family’s tapestry. It was one of only three house banners with actual gold inlaid in the thread. A symbol of his house’s great quarries and mines. Of the service that they could and did provide. One of the main reasons, aside from the large population of Yora, that he could sit within the opulent chambers.
Normally, a number of other lords, ladies, and their sons and daughters could be found feasting within during evening time. It was rare that the actual leaders of the lands would gather all at once. But there was always a representative at each table. Usually, that came in the form of children. Occasionally cousins or some other family relation. In the rare case when one of the leading families couldn’t spare anyone, they would appoint a steward to take their position in case some vital piece of news needed to be communicated when a Message wouldn’t suffice.
The Lords’ Dining Hall served as an informal communications platform.
But that communication broke down with so many missing.
Decorous could count the nonservants in the room on one hand. Even House Yora lacked anyone apart from himself.
Part of the problem was that a few houses had pulled out of Lyria almost entirely in protest of some of the Pharaoh’s recent decisions. His interactions with monsters being the hot topic of debate over the past while. There was always some controversy or another. No one could hold power and not have their decisions criticized by someone. But monsters were a sore subject with most people. Sons, daughters, and even regular peasants who signed up for a shot at a more noble lifestyle—too many good soldiers lost their lives to monsters, usually at the Fortress of Pandora. Though there were plenty of communities of monsters north of the border. Those ones at least tried to keep a lower profile to avoid extermination. If they didn’t… then they would have to be fought. Large scale fighting always involved casualties.
But even among those who had pulled out in protest, they would still leave a steward behind to remain in communication with allies and, if necessary, the royal family. However, as part of their protest, they were ordered to skip functions such as these meals. That alone reduced the numbers in the hall by more than half. Even still, it couldn’t account for the desertion tonight.
Not every house had pulled out of the city. Some even supported the Pharaoh. Depending on location, some houses wound up quite friendly with local monsters, usually through trade and little else; even then, they kept such relations quiet. Even they were mostly gone. Still living in their manors within the city, but cowering from the events of two evenings ago.
Or, at least, that was what they would say if questioned. Decorous admitted that there was a minor issue of safety. Very minor. It was true that several city guardsmen had been murdered. But that had been on the outskirts of the city. Most manors inside the city were well within a five minute walk of the palace. And half the nobles took a carriage anyway.
A part of it might have been the other incident of that night. The one that practically the entire city had seen. Decorous still didn’t know what that had been about. Rumors were abound. The Pharaoh had waved it off, citing it as something that wasn’t worth investigating further at this time, so he didn’t even know which rumors were true. Most agreed that Tenebrael had been involved in some way. Especially those familiar with the Princess Irulon. Some of those shapes in the sky had reflected the tattoos that adorned Princess Irulon’s face. And if it truly was something related to Tenebrael, it wasn’t hard to understand why the Pharaoh would have waved it off. The Pharaoh, despite unpopular policies, was the intermediary between Tenebrael and the people.
But Decorous doubted that the state of the hall was thanks to that in the slightest.
His eyes drifted off, focusing on one of the furthest banners from the head of the room.
A blue banner with a chevron. Three yellow—not gold—roosters, each clutching a spike of grain, were arranged around the chevron. At the tip of the upward facing chevron, an armored helmet looked out over the dining hall. The emblem of House Worx. It was something of a surprise that it was still hanging up.
That house was the real reason why no one had been attending the various court functions for the past few days. No one wanted to be associated with them. No one wanted to show their face and risk someone remembering a conversation between them and someone of House Worx.
To anyone not wanting to be accused of treason, House Worx was more toxic than gorgon venom.
The eldest son of their house had been captured the night everything happened. And had confessed everything. The family’s plan had involved unleashing several demons in the city. While the hellhound hunted them down, they were going to orchestrate or outright fabricate the hellhound going insane to further unrest among the people. They had carried a fairy into the city with the intent of getting the hellhound under their control, at which point it was to go on a rampage, destroying homes and killing people. They somehow managed to get the support of the Juno Federation to help use the monsters. Some control magic that the Pharaoh was keeping quiet on.
Everyone named as a conspirator who was in the city was currently in the darkest dungeons that the Pharaoh could find. The rest of the family was blacklisted. If any dared to show their face nearby, they were sure to find themselves imprisoned as well. Decorous had even heard talks about marching the city guard to Worx to install new leaders in the relatively small yet wealthy fishing hamlet. Though that wasn’t likely to happen anytime soon. Not with the city guard at the lowest count in ten years.
And yet, despite that, both those loyal and dissenting were currently vying for favor in an attempt to get their sons, daughters, or other relatives installed as the head of Worx.
Even Decorous had considered trying to curry some favor to get himself a more prestigious position. Although he hadn’t been involved in this particular incident, he knew of several individuals who had aspirations for the royal seat. Selling them out might get him his own lordship. As the third son of House Yora, he wasn’t likely to get anything better than he had already.
Of course, betraying his conspirators would only mark him as untrustworthy, potentially putting a hamper on his own aspirations. He would be left with no choice but to bow to the Pharaoh’s law. Which might just be what the Pharaoh wanted.
Quite the conundrum.
A servant finally brought about his meal. The great clock on the wall, elvish make, said that he had been waiting for a full half hour. It was completely disrespectful to be served so slowly. The servant didn’t even offer a word of apology, simply setting down the large plate of roast duck, garnished with garlic and carrots, with a steaming fresh bread. Decorous, however, did not complain to the servant as the young boy filled his goblet with fresh wine. It could have been an accident, coincidence, or simply poor timing. Complaining wouldn’t turn back the clock and get him his meal faster. Besides, he couldn’t be sure that the servant hadn’t been ordered to make him wait.
All the servants in the palace belonged to the Pharaoh. Criticizing the Pharaoh’s servants at a time like this was sure to get eyes turned in his direction.
So he ate in peace and silence, rather enjoying the lack of people. It wasn’t often that he got to eat a hot meal within the Lords’ Dining Hall. The servants always delivered the meals hot from the kitchen, of course. It was just that so many people used meal times as conference times that he often wound up talking until the chill set in.
He quickly realized that today would, once again, be a day of cold meals.
His elder brother entered the room, looked around once, then casually made his way over to the table of House Yora. He wore a tight-fitted suit in Yora’s particular shade of red with a deep violet inverness cape draped around his shoulders.
“Decorous,” he said with a nod, idly waving a hand to catch the attention of one of the servants.
“Hello Val. Surprised you came today.”
“Please. As if any grime from this unfortunate incident could possibly rub off on us.” He took a seat, looking around the empty room with a smile before looking straight at Decorous. A dangerous glint crossed his eyes. “Nothing will rub off on us, will it, Decorous?”
“I had nothing to do with it, if that is what you are insinuating. Having a hostile force cross a gate and murder the guards is a blight upon my personal honor as the captain of the city guard.”
“Of course. Of course.” That dangerous glint left his eyes as Val leaned back in his seat. “And you would never do something that would harm your reputation in the eyes of your peers.”
He hadn’t so far. Not to his knowledge, at least. There would always be those who would dislike him, of course. He couldn’t help that. And he didn’t want to be liked by everyone. Respected, yes. Liked? Optional. “If you can’t believe that,” he said slowly and quietly. There was no one around. No one who would overhear. Most tables in the dining hall were enchanted specifically to block eavesdropping attempts anyway. The enchants were extremely expensive, but most viewed them as completely necessary. “If you can’t believe that, at least believe that I remember our conversation the day the hellhound joined the plague containment teams.”
“Oh? And your opinions on it now?”
Setting down his fork, Decorous considered his words carefully. His elder brother had advocated for the hellhound, though not publicly. They both, along with several other houses, had been waiting in the wings for an incident to arise in order to condemn the Pharaoh for his decisions.
Yet none had.
“Although plague incidents remain high, and likely will increase after the incident the other night, casualties are low among the city guard. In fact, while the plague containment teams are outside my domain of management, I believe the incident a few nights ago was the first death since the hellhound joined the team. Compared to previous high plague infections over the same period of time, that is quite amazing. Civilian deaths are also drastically lower than normal.”
“Those are all facts, young Decorous. What are your opinions?”
Decorous picked up his fork and knife, sliced a sliver of meat, and ate it while trying to decide what answer his brother wanted. Did he want him to double down on the idea that the hellhound would be a menace to the city despite all evidence to the contrary? Or did he want him to answer more honestly? Would Decorous even be being honest with himself if he said that the hellhound wasn’t a problem? That was probably the real reason he was hesitating. His instincts screamed that it should be chained up and publicly executed. At the same time, it had undoubtedly saved human life.
“I think,” Val said before he could answer, “that we should rethink our objectives. The Pharaoh wants to bring in monsters like that and use them to help humanity. We already use slaves in the workforce, mostly in construction. The Black Prince and his pet lizards did fend off the Juno Federation last year with an ease unseen before.”
“You’re saying we should switch sides? Agree with the Pharaoh and support his decisions involving the monsters?”
“Oh no. No. Of course not. The Pharaoh still needs to go,” Val said just a little louder than Decorous would have preferred. A quick glance around showed no one close enough to breach the eavesdropping countermeasures. Thankfully. “But the Pharaoh is setting a precedent. Open association with monsters is acceptable. The public won’t be pleased. We would obviously rather not have riots around Yora. However, what the peasants don’t know won’t hurt them, right? Who are they to say what is best to do with our own standing knights and soldiers.”
“Soldiers? You… are saying that you want monsters among the Yora guardsmen?”
“So long as we select the right monsters, of course. Carefully controlled and monitored as well. But otherwise, why should we not?”
“For one, they’re monsters. I don’t think I need to explain any more, but since you brought it up, the Yora guard tend to be in charge of exterminating monsters that spring up, whether through slipping past Pandora or simply because they lived elsewhere. I can see a monster being happy to slaughter the odd brigand and highwayman, but we have hardly any of those around Yora as is. They well know our zero-tolerance policy for such ruffians. So a monster wouldn’t be much use for that. Setting them against their own kind won’t work.”
“Are you so certain? I’ve been doing a great deal of research since all this business with the Pharaoh went down. I’ve been in and out of the Observatorium as well as convinced the Knights Solaris to allow perusal of their vast treatises on monsters. As it turns out, many monsters only band together because of humans, how numerous we are, and our well-known disdain for their entire kind. If not for us, I doubt they would get along with each other all that well.”
“So you think giving some species safe harbor will make them turn on their fellow monsters? It won’t be that easy. You’ll be inviting the enemy into our safe and protected lands. What kind of monster would you even try to… court? Surely not a hellhound,” Decorous said with a shiver.
He considered himself quite experienced with disturbing things. It came with the job. As captain, he had a duty to his men, even those who fell in combat. In seven years of being a guardsman in one form or another, he had fought against plenty of inhuman creatures. But… hellhounds… there was something about them. The way they looked at people, their eyes burning with demonic flame. The Observatorium said that there was nothing demonic about hellhounds, but why name them that if not?
The one time he had seen a hellhound—before the Pharaoh’s pet, that was—had not turned out well. A pair of them had decimated twelve strong men before being put down.
“Perhaps,” Val said with a placid smile. “A hellhound seems to be working out well for the Pharaoh, after all.”
Decorous slumped, giving Val something to laugh about.
“You shouldn’t worry so much,” he said, patting Decorous on the back. “Nothing will happen right away. Yora keeps the territory clear of all threats. Convincing any species of monster that we’ve had a change in heart will not be a simple task. Nor a quick one, I imagine. Besides, you’re stuck here in the city. All you have to worry about is what new monsters the Pharaoh will bring in next.”
“Please tell me you haven’t heard some rumor.” The last thing he needed was more nonsense going on. The draken, at least, stayed out of sight. If more monsters popped up and started running around like that hellhound… if more hellhounds appeared…
“Well,” Val said, standing. “Just thought I would get your thoughts on the matter. I’ll keep you informed if things change.” Without any further words of parting, he started heading out. He hadn’t even received a meal, let alone eaten. Then again, given how long Decorous had waited for his food, Val might have been waiting all night.
Decorous found himself glancing off to the banner of House Worx as Val wandered off. It would be nice to get away from everything. To run his own territory as he saw fit. No monsters. No Rank Six arcanists who scuff the moon. No princesses throwing their weight around.
Well… he really wouldn’t be that free of everything. Even if he did manage to curry enough favor to even be considered—and he fully admitted that he would likely be starting far behind individuals from several of the other houses—he would still be required to attend court, visit Lyria, and otherwise interact with the Pharaoh and the people of this city. Even if he appointed a steward or had children, he would still have to make appearances on occasion. And children took far too long to grow to a useful age.
There just wasn’t a victory condition no matter what he did. Even if they got rid of the Pharaoh, Val’s plan might still come to fruition. It wasn’t like Decorous couldn’t understand the benefits of throwing monsters into the grinder over humans, but…
Could hundreds of years of animosity really be swept away just because a few armies wanted to use them as fodder?
Groaning, Decorous reached for his wine.
Only to find it completely empty.
Sighing, he waved over the servant once again.
He had a feeling he would be drinking a lot tonight.