Ghyll came to the throne room and then stopped on the threshold. ‘You, there – Lodar, aren’t you?’ he said to a servant. ‘Will you please remove that chair from before the throne?’ Vavaun seemed a haughty type, and Ghyll wanted it clear from the outset what their relative positions were. Grimly determined, he sat down on the throne, and laid his hands on the armrests. Nothing happened. No light from the sky, no fanfare, no angry ancestors, absolutely nothing. He laughed at his own foolishness. Then Mo entered with his sister, and raised an eyebrow when he saw Ghyll on his throne.
‘You understood our friends from the mountains quickly,’ he said approvingly. ‘Vavauners think modesty a sign of weakness.’
‘I know Uwella,’ Ghyll said with a broad smile. ‘If she’s like her father, I’ll need a strong position.’ He looked around. ‘Where is our wikke anyway? I expected her here.’
‘Eh, she’s having a long talk with Damion,’ Torril said, who had entered behind Opit. ‘In her room.’
Ghyll looked at his squire. ‘Oh?’ Then a grin slid over his face. ‘Oh! She finally did it?’ He saw Mo’s questioning face and said, ‘Uwella has had her eye on Damion. More than an eye, I might add. It looks like she caught him.’
The doors to the throne room swung open and a loud voice announced, ‘Venric, Duke of Vavaun and DeGry.’
Elegant in his black-and-silver armor, Uwella’s father walked to the throne, with Asharte right behind him. The old duke’s face was red with suppressed anger, and Ghyll suspected that Vavaun’s trick of not having his rival’s name called stung like a poisoned dagger.
Duke Venric halted before the throne and bowed as equal-to-equal. He was a reigning duke, but not a king, and this was close to being offensive.
Ghyll remained seated and returned only a polite nod. ‘Welcome to my court, Duke of Vavaun. Did you have a good journey?’
Vavaun’s face lost some of its color, but he answered affably. ‘Excellent, Highness, thank you. The skyboat connections over Opit are very good, very comfortable.’
Hmm, Ghyll thought. No ‘Royal’ Highness? He really wants to play games.
‘I’m overjoyed, Duke,’ he said, using in turn the lower title. ‘And who is your companion?’
Vavaun seemed to realize that the young king was neither fooled nor impressed, for his smile was suave as he presented the older man. ‘Highness, this is Cymrian, the Duke of Asharte.’
Damion’s grandfather stepped forward and bowed with old-fashioned courtesy.
Ghyll gave him the same inclination he’d spared Venric. ‘Welcome, Duke of Asharte. How do you do?’
‘Excellent, Royal Highness. I must congratulate you on your upcoming enthronement. A memorable event for Rhidauna, I’m sure.’
Ghyll smiled. ‘Thank you, Duke.’
This finished the protocol and after exchanging a few halfhearted pleasantries, Vavaun and Asharte retired to the guest apartments DeGrathain had reserved for them.
Ghyll snorted when they were away. ‘A funny fellow, that Vavaun. What does he think to achieve with such behavior?’
‘He tried the same with me, the first time,’ Mo said with a shrug. ‘His throne is shaky; maybe that makes him uncertain. Why do you think he has taken Asharte?’
‘I had not thought of it,’ Ghyll admitted.
‘He won’t dare to leave the old man behind in Vavaun, for fear of a coup. Probably he is right.’
Ghyll chuckled. ‘The Wolf and the Bear, both hungry.’
‘Yes, they chose their family crests well. Besides, the duke doesn’t like Rhidaunans. His wife was one and she led him a pretty dance, if all the stories are true.’
Ghyll wanted to say something, but at that moment, the doors to the throne room opened again and the lord steward announced the landscommanders of the three Ordelanden. Loud in their steel armor, the commanders marched through the throne room. As exactly timed as if they had rehearsed it, they halted before the throne and bowed stiffly, each with his helmet under the arm.
Ghyll looked at them one by one. Razadour, of the Order in Stiphet, was a large, white-haired man in blood red armor. He had the angry eyes and contorted mouth of someone with a merciless mission. Vurenhain of Batabor was haughty and well fed; he looked more like a rich merchant than the ruler of a militant order, despite his shining white armor and blue tabard. The third, Tretzkil-Kramm of Okinaul, was small and skinny, with a big nose and nervous eyes. His blue-and-green armor made him look ridiculous. A strange trio, thought Ghyll.
With a loud clatter of metal, the gray Landscommander brought his clenched fist to his shoulder in salute.
‘Live with the Three, King of Rhidauna,’ he boomed. ‘May Aranauviz Rauthar lead your war path.’
‘Be well, King Ghyllander,’ Vurenhain said with a stiff bow. ‘That Ezondar Stormbringer blows away your enemies like leaves in the wind.’
‘Congratulations on your enthronement, King of Rhidauna.’ Tretzkil-Kramm sounded nervous. ‘Let Hergdis Oeralt give you the power of the forest.’
Ghyll bowed from his throne to each of the three landscommanders. ‘Thank you for coming and for your blessing, Your Excellencies. Rhidauna welcomes the Commanders of the three Militant Orders in her territory. I hope the accommodations available to you will be to your satisfaction.’
Razadour brought his free hand down in a chopping motion. ‘No need, King of Rhidauna. We have our own tents and we will sleep with our Orders. Our brothers become restless if we don’t hold the required services. They need every edifying word in their searching lives. With your permission we will retire, as it is almost time for the Rite of Arrival.’ Again, the deafening military salute, whereupon the trio turned and marched out of the throne room.
Ghyll sighed. ‘Such barbarians.’ He looked around. Olle was in his rightful place near the throne. Bo sat between the court officials, a chair behind his official superior, magister Barleym. Damion and Uwella were not back yet from their, uh, discussion. Ghyll chuckled; he wished them luck.
Upstairs, Damion gently closed the door to Uwella’s room. She was asleep and he didn’t want to wake her, but he had to get out. His thoughts milled about in his head. Had they been good together? He had no idea, but Uwella seemed satisfied, so it must be. For her. For him? It was a lot harder than he’d expected. Finding the right rhythm was difficult. Only the third time had it felt like something. Without that kiya technique of the Gray Temple, he would never have made that third time. Kiya was a great help. It had saved lives, that time in the Gisterwoud and later under Nadril, and now it had spared at least his constitution. Still, he was exhausted.
In the courtyard, he saw Asharte come towards him. Instinctively he thought of his father. The old duke seemed just as biased and inflexible. That irritated him beyond measure.
Asharte grabbed him by the arm and Damion suppressed the impulse to pull away. The old man looked at him. Asharte’s gray eyes were bloodshot and his veined skin covered with the brown spots of an elderly man. His grip, however, was still hard as steel.
‘Boy, we need to talk. Where in this miserable warren can we be alone?’
Asharte colored slightly. ‘Palace,’ he growled.
Damion looked around. The door to the porter’s room was ajar and the room seemed empty.
‘This way, Duke,’ he said.
‘Close the door,’ the duke said, and dropped down on a wooden bench while Damion obediently shut the door.
Silently, Asharte looked at him from head to toe, like a horse-coper inspecting a nag. His eyes were hard and his nostrils quivered slightly, as if he weren’t very impressed by what he saw.
‘So you’re Caerch’s son,’ he began slowly. ‘Do you know who I am?’
‘You are the father of my mother,’ Damion said, deliberately avoiding the word ‘grandfather’ and everything it implied.
The duke clenched a fist. ‘You are my grandson,’ he said. ‘You belong in Vavaun, not here in this cursed palace. And certainly not with that slut DeGry.’
‘That what?’ Damion felt a surge of anger rise and his cheeks glowed.
The duke saw it and snorted. ‘The Valvodjara,’ he said in a tone dripping with contempt, ‘is an enemy of our house. It is impossible that you, a prince of Asharte, should have anything to do with her. After the coronation you’ll go back to Vavaun with me, so I can make a man out of you, a real Asharte!’
‘That’s what my father always said. No, Duke, under no circumstances.’
The old man turned red with anger. ‘I’m Asharte,’ he roared as he jumped up. He grabbed the front of Damion’s tunic and shook him. ‘You’ll do what I say; I’m the head of your family!’
By reflex, Damion called up the image of his alter ego. A few seconds later, there stood the large black and white tiger.
Asharte paled and staggered back. Damion laughed, but on a tiger laughter looked very different; his lips bared in a hungry grin and showed two rows of deadly teeth. He put his front paws on the duke’s shoulders and licked Asharte’s face with his big, rough tongue. Then he growled and returned to his human form.
‘I’m sorry, grandfather,’ he said. ‘My answer is still no.’
The old man sank back onto the bench and suddenly he looked defeated. ‘A beastmaster,’ he said, dazed. ‘My grandson is a beastmaster.’ Then he sat up and looked straight at Damion. ‘This changes everything. You must come with me; I need you. Asharte never begs, so listen well: Asharte needs you.’
Damion slowly shook his head. ‘King Ghyllander has my oath, grandfather. I can’t just let him down now.’
‘You’re an Asharte!’
‘I am a Luyon-DeAsharte, grandfather. I have given my oath. But I promise you; as soon as it is possible, I’ll come to Vavaun.’
‘Without… without the Valvodjara,’ said the old man.
‘That’s my affair, grandfather. Uwella is no enemy of mine. And now you must excuse me; Ghyll is waiting for me.’ With a respectful bow Damion left the porter’s lodge.