While the nobility in other parts of the Great Kingdom of Aerdy were looking forward to Needfest and the end of year celebrations, the atmosphere in the South Province court was decidedly tense.
Herzog Chelor personified that tension. His stubble had grown into a full, unkempt beard, his eyes were bleary and had dark circles under them, his hair was filthy and and he reeked of a pungent body odor. He looked like a dead man walking, seeming only to wonder whether the executioner Ivid sent for him would be a human or a devil. While lesser Naelax nobles like Caradoc and Xeravho carried out the plot, it was originally Chelor's idea and responsibility for its success or failure rested with him.
The nobles who'd been in Rauxes when Ivid V learned of the Naelax cabal's failure reported that Ivid flew into a screaming rage. Ivid even went into one of his dramatic soliloquies, which he delivered whenever the mood struck him and which no one dared interrupt. In that rant, Ivid asked the gods whether he should have Chelor killed on the spot for dishonoring House Naelax and thinking too highly of his own life. Ivid gave a similar performance before purging Chelor's father, and when news of the Overking's newest performance reached Chelor he was sure he was doomed.
Xavener heard all about it from some of his House Darmen kin who saw the Overking's tirade. In the last week of Ready'reat, he visited the Herzog's court. He planned to return to Kalstrand in Sunsebb to finalize some of the details of his ascension as House Darmen's leader, but he had some important tasks to perform before he left Zelradton.
When Xavener saw Chelor, he wisely hid his smile at how completely cowed the Herzog was. From now on, Chelor would be terrified at any dispatch that came from Rauxes, fearing that it would be his death warrant. He would eagerly comply with any grand ideas Ivid had, always keen to stay on the Overking's good side.
Despite Ivid's anger, Xavener didn't think he would kill Chelor. Instead, he'd hold the threat of purging over Chelor's head. The Great Kingdom had long been fractured, with Rauxes forced to give great leeway to the Kingdom's different provinces, but under Chelor South Province would be tightly bound to the Malachite Throne.
Still, Xavener knew that Ivid might decide to purge Chelor later on. Xavener couldn't prevent that, but he could help Chelor make it less likely.
Xavener joined in the game of poker that Chelor organized, knowing that the Herzog was always in a better mood after winning at gambling. Whatever his other faults, Chelor was an expert gambler with a lucky streak a mile wide. He tripled the wealth he had on hand, and was particularly proud at drawing to an inside straight against Xavener.
That was the moment Xavener was waiting for. When the other two nobles who'd been playing with them walked away, Xavener requested a moment of the Herzog's time.
"My lord, I understand that you may be preoccupied with the recent…'difficulties' of late," Xavener said, choosing his words carefully, "but I must insist on restitution against those of your kinsmen who accused me of colluding with those Cranden maidens who caused so much trouble. It's pure slander, I tell you!"
Chelor's eye twitched at that, and Xavener knew he had the Herzog would be receptive to his suggestion.
"It was them and them alone who caused the failure of your otherwise flawless plan!" he said. "Restitution on my behalf would be an ideal means of emphasizing that!"
Chelor's eye stopped twitching at that. Instead, both of his eyes started burning with rage as his temper exploded and he screamed for his guards.
The surviving members of the Naelaxian cabal were arrested over the next few days and brought back to Zelradton. Chelor publicly blamed them for the failure of his scheme, and emphasized in his report to the Overking that he was not at fault.
Most of the Naelaxians screamed in agony as the Herzog's torturers worked them over. They were subjected to burning brands, rats trapped in heated boxes, stretchings on the rack or flayings, depending on the torturers' sadistic whims.
Out of all the prisoners, Xeravho was the only one who did not scream. Despite the torturers' best efforts, he kept his mouth firmly shut, except for occasionally showing the tip of his tongue. One of the torturers commented on how Xeravho looked like he was impersonating a snake, and made a joke about it to his fellows.
It was anything but a joke to Xeravho. Every moment wracked his body with burning agony, and soon pieces of his skin littered the floor around him. In the few moments of respite he got, he smiled to himself when he considered that fallen skin. He knew all about how serpents shed their skins at important times in their lives, growing wiser and stronger in the process.
Xeravho was outwardly silent, but he was boiling with anger on the inside. He hated Xavener and the Cranden maidens for ruining the cabal's plans, hated them for making him lose status within House Naelax. He tempered his hatred, though, knowing he had little chance of ever getting revenge on Xavener if he survived. Xavener was now one of the wealthiest men in the Great Kingdom, and even in the entire Flanaess. He was also affiliated with Reydrich, who had nearly twice Xeravho's power as a wizard and who Xeravho would never dare to cross.
The Cranden maidens and their friends were another matter. Xeravho seethed at his defeat by Seline, a wizard not only nearly two decades younger but lesser in power. She'd outwitted him despite her tender years, and he was determined to make her pay.
Xeravho kept silent, containing his anger and hatred.
He contained them.
And let them grow.
As Xavener sat in the study of what was once his father's and was now his primary mansion in Kalstrand, he was quite satisfied with his work of the last two years. As part of the 'restitution' he collected from House Naelax, he acquired the late unlamented Caradoc's colletion of art objects, which he would sell back to everyone Caradoc had taken them from…at market rates, of course.
He smiled as he swirled the Celenese claret in the jeweled silver goblet he held. The goblet was a beautiful piece of dwarven craftsmanship, decorated with the images of lions and owls. A couple of his guests had commented on it, and Xavener claimed that it belonged to his late mother before she was foully murdered two years ago.
The goblet did belong to Xavener's mother, albeit indirectly. Xavener noted how his mother Eloine enjoyed a cup of fine wine before she went to bed. She and Norreck often slept in separate rooms, as their marriage was not a happy one, and Xavener was their only offspring. She typically locked her room from the inside when she had her evening drink.
Xavener commissioned a dwarven silversmith to craft the goblet as a gift for his mother, and she used it to have her evening drink every night. What no one else knew was that Xavener also commissioned the silversmith to create a second goblet that looked exactly like the first, except for one deadly addition.
When anyone drinking the second goblet tilted it towards their mouth, they caused the goblet's handles to turn, releasing a blade in the base of the goblet that plunged into the drinker's throat. A particularly clever gnome assassin had first created the device. It was used more than once by ambitious Aerdi nobles, particularly during the Turmoil Between Crowns.
Xavener knew his mother's habits, and he was above notice in their manor home. It was easy to enter his mother's room and switch the normal goblet with the deadly one. Once the deadly goblet cut his mother's throat, all Xavener had to do was use a potion that turned him into a gaslike form, a concoction of the grateful alchemist whose business Xavener saved.
Once he was in gaseous form, he exited his bedroom through the gaps in the shutters and bars of his bedroom window. From there, he could enter Eloine's bedroom the same way. Their rooms were next to one another, so it was a quick flight. Once he was in Eloine's room, Xavener simply switched the deadly goblet for the safe one and then used a second gaseous potion to return to his own room. So it was that Eloine appeared to have her throat cut, despite the door being locked and the shutters and bars bolted from the inside, and despite there being no murder weapon and no apparent intruder.
Norreck investigated, of course. He thought of everything from disguised assassins to intruders using passwall or teleportation spells to enter to kill her, and had divinations cast to find the killer. The divinations found nothing, since Xavener did not technically enter his mother's room to kill her, but rather to take back the murder weapon. Eloine's death was never solved, and Xavener persuaded Norreck that some other Celestial House was likely responsible. Just as Xavener anticipated, Norreck would never suspect him.
Xavener took no pleasure in killing his mother, but the wealth he inherited from her was critically important to his ambitions. It helped him acquire further resources, resources he needed to deal with his father.
Xavener took a drink of claret and then set the goblet down on his desk. He then looked at the ring of coral and hematite he never removed, and smiled.
Gemstones had many uses in sorcery and alchemy. Some gems were better suited to some purposes than others-peridots were said to ward off enchantments, while diamonds were used to protect against the undead. Gems such as coral and hematite were said to be good at treating physical injuries, which made them ideal materials for a ring that regenerated a wearer's physical wounds.
The regeneration ring Xavener commissioned took considerable money and effort, both to make the ring and keep its creation secret, but it was worth every copper piece.
Norreck was always concerned someone might try to poison him, so he'd commissioned a magical crystal that made its owner completely immune to toxic venoms. He knew that Xavener didn't have such a crystal, and so he felt secure against any attempt by Xavener to poison him. They ate many of their meals together, and Xavener would also consume any poisons in their food.
Norreck didn't realize the crystal's limitations, however. It was only useful against toxins, and did nothing against non-fatal drugs or other substances. Xavener realized this, and that made all the difference.
The 'colored spices' Xavener often added to their meals were in fact shards of multicolored glass, a favored assassination tool in the Hold of the Sea Princes. Normally, anyone eating food containing such shards would instantly notice them, but Xavener laced the shards with another concoction from his alchemist friend. The alchemist's potion deadened any pain the eater might feel, and also caused the shards to break down after they'd been in the eater's innards for a time so they didn't appear in his excrement.
Norreck couldn't feel the glass shards as they tore at his insides, slowly killing him bit by bit. Xavener ate the shard-treated food too, but his magical ring healed any injuries he suffered from the glass.
Now, at just sixteen years old, Xavener was one of the wealthiest men in the entire Flanaess, and the head of one of the Great Kingdom's most powerful Celestial Houses.
Xavener smiled as he turned his gaze from the ring on his finger to the painting of a castle on his wall. It was the same painting he'd done at the Darmen estate in Zelradton, when Norreck confronted him about going into the estate's wine cellar.
That castle, after all, was the reason Xavener used those adventurers-the Company of the Silver Wolf, he'd heard some of the Crandens call them-to ruin the plans of Chelor and his cabal. Conquering the Iron League would have brought Chelor great wealth and honor, but it wouldn't have brought him closer in line with the Malachite Throne. North Province, Rel Astra, Medegia and Ratik would also all be as independent as ever. Ivid would have been pleased at the conquest, perhaps enough to change his plans.
That, more than anything, would have been Xavener's ruin.
Most people dismissed Ivid V's dramatic soliloquies as the ravings of a madman, but Xavener found them absolutely fascinating. Ivid frequently waxed eloquent about escaping his cursed fate, or going down in a final blaze of glory, where he would take his enemies to the Nine Hells with him.
That, along with Ivid's love of the theatre, made Xavener suspect that the Overking was setting the stage for a grand play of his own. Little by little, he was casting his nobles in certain roles, and using the different parts of the Great Kingdom as settings. In the process, he was drawing the different parts of the Great Kingdom back under control of the Malachite Throne.
The Great Kingdom would be united as it had not been in centuries, ready to follow Ivid's depraved script. By thwarting the cabal's plot, Xavener helped ensure that Ivid would not change his plans, and that the fear of death would force Chelor to obey Ivid's every command.
Xavener knew he might be wrong about Ivid's goals, and that the Overking's ravings were nothing more than what they seemed. In his heart, though, he was convinced that he was correct.
One notable scholar Xavener held dear to his heart wrote that intelligence and willpower were not the only virtues a ruler needed to succeed. A ruler also needed to adapt to sudden changes in fortune, whether his own or others. The ruler had to be ready to seize fortune and make himself its master, so that he might use his own gifts appropriately.
The inferno Xavener suspected Ivid of planning would be a perfect example of that fortune.
And when it came, Xavener would be ready to seize it.
Dedicated to Gary Holian, Erik Mona and Fred Weining, the Three Wise Men of Greyhawk.
I needed a lot of help to write For Crown Or Country, particularly in getting information about aspects of medieval life that I wasn't aware of. A list of the people who provided this information include:
· Gary Gygax, who listed the reputed magical properties of gemstones in the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide;
· Anna Meyer, whose beautifully detailed maps of the Flanaess helped me plan the journeys of the characters and keep an appropriate timeline;
· Lane Taylor, Robert Hughes, Len Lakofka, Chris Wellings, Ed Kearns, Olaf Bjornbakken, Nathan Irving, Drew Griffiths and Francois Terrida on medieval ventilation or a lackthereof;
· Josh Popp, Jukka Sarkjiarvi and Rodney Hart on the weather patterns in Idee and the Azure Sea;
· Rob Gruder and Jason Zavoda on naval ship-to-ship combat in a D&D world;
· Patrick Vander Reest, Rob Sagris, Dave Fairbrother, Joe Stevenson, Tom Roberts, Tommy Jon Kelly, Joshua Roumonada and Andrew Veen on the impacts of heavy drinking; and
· Lenard Lakofka, Matt Kandoll, David Russell, Dane D. Whalen, Michael Brown, Xaviar Fideli, Ed Kearns, Jerald Dughler, Glyn Dewey and Andrew Veen on the makeup of medieval stone walls.