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Glint: Chapter 39

KING MIDAS

In the corridor, I straighten my robe. It’s thick, but so is the draft in this ice castle. It doesn’t matter that the weather isn’t battered with blizzards here. The cold seeps inside in a different way.

I look back at the closed door once. The wood is thick, the walls thicker, so I can’t hear if Auren is still shouting, but I sent an entire contingency in there to guard her.

My shoulders are tense, jaw sore from how hard I clenched my teeth. I do not enjoy handling her by force. Not at all.

She has always been compliant, trusting. It’s one of the things I admired about her. That she had the capability of being soft and malleable, despite her circumstances.

Auren has never looked at me the way she looked at me just now, and I don’t like it.

I shouldn’t have lost my temper with her, but she caught me off guard. I expected to get her back broken and afraid, ready to crawl behind her bars where it’s safe.

Instead, she’s…changed.

But that’s a worry for later. I’ll fix things with her, resettle her. She just needs time. I failed her, and I need to prove to her that she’s still safe with me. She’ll be her old self again, and then we can get to work on this drab, icy castle.

Not a moment too soon either, because the nobles of Ranhold are becoming impatient.

I subdued them with the promises of gold, but promises are the debts of demands, and demands can quickly become the clamor of unmet discontent.

They want wealth lining their pockets and filling their coffers. I want to sit on the throne uncontested and merge the borders of Fifth and Sixth.

It’s all within reach, and when she understands that, she’ll come to heel. I’ll be the ruler of not one kingdom, but two.

But first…

I start making my way down the corridor and across the castle to where I’ll be meeting that bastard King Slade Ravinger.

I had the servants prepare the throne room rather than the meeting room or even the war chamber. A calculated move, of course. He’ll be forced to speak with me while I sit on a seat of power.

I’m giving him a message. That I am not cowering from the shadow that his army has cast or trembling from this display of power. I rule here as acting monarch, and his intimidation tactics will not work on me.

After years of plotting, everything is falling into place.

But first, I have to purge the rot.

As I walk, guards follow behind me, a golden procession in a castle of glass and iron and stone. It will be so much better once it’s gilded. It will take Auren weeks, if not months of constantly draining her power every day, but it will be worth it.

Gold is always worth it. No matter the cost.

I enter the throne room expecting for Ravinger and his men to be waiting for me. Instead, the only people inside are a mix of Fulke’s guards and mine standing against the walls.

With a scowl, I make my way across the giant space.

Blue crystals from the chandeliers cast rivers of light along the floor where I walk. There are frosted windows along the back wall behind the throne. Probably a calculated consideration when it was built. A vision of light spilling in to shine on the Divine-blessed monarch. Or to force people to squint at the king’s seated splendor.

Once across the room and up the white marbled dais, I turn and take a seat on the throne. Made of pewter and iron, there’s an amethyst stone set into the center of it—only one, but I’ve already spoken to a blacksmith for him to add five more.

Six is the superior number out of all the kingdoms.

At the back of the room, my main advisor, Odo, comes bustling in. Several others follow, about half of them my own, the other half having served under Fulke.

A few of them are loyalists, so they haven’t fully joined my cause yet. Especially since they have Fulke’s son, Niven, to consider. They’re priming the boy to take over when he comes of age.

Unfortunately for him, that’s not going to happen. Taking over or coming of age. A mercy, really. I can already tell that the boy isn’t cut out to rule.

While I sit on the throne, eyes straight ahead, I tap my finger against the pewter armrest six times. Then a break. Then six more taps.

With every minute that passes, my impatience turns to offense, and offense is my cornerstone for anger.

My advisors settle on the bench seats to the left, behind the banister built to separate nobles from commoners. Ravinger’s people though, they’ll be kept standing in the common galley.

Another calculated move.

Minutes go by. Then those minutes are doubled.

All the while, I wait, tapping. My irritation rises with the temperature of my temper.

My guards are too well-trained to shuffle on their feet, but my advisors are growing impatient, muttering amongst each other, sniffling, coughing, moving in their seats. The noises make my teeth grind.

Still, I sit and wait, enough that the light reflected off the blue chandeliers has moved a few inches across the marble—a re-routed river flowing through the floor.

“Where is he?” I bite off, the words as hard and dry as jerky.

Odo jumps to his feet, scrolls and quills sticking from the wide pockets of his coat—for note-taking. If the bastard king ever shows up.

“I’ll go inquire, my king.”

“Hurry up.”

He nods quickly, balding head rimmed with a halo of gray hair curling around like a topless hat. As Odo departs through the back door, my foot bounces, knee jumping.

He’s playing mind games, of course. For every move I make, so will he. Still, I could be in my rooms right now, comforting Auren, helping her to settle.

My mind flashes to the flare in her golden eyes as she spewed anger at me like dragon’s fire. Never. I’ve never seen her look like that.

I don’t like that, either.

I’m not sure what happened to her out there, unprotected. But I will find out. I will get every possible detail from the guards, the saddles, everyone. And then I will extract vengeance.

I’ll start with the Red Raids. They only had her for hours, but I’ll make them pay for each one, right down to the second.

King Ravinger, though. His army had her for days and days. No wonder she’s so out of sorts.

My finger taps six times.

Good faith. He returned her back to me out of good faith. I didn’t actually believe he would do it. It was a test. The result of which tells me the most important thing of all—he doesn’t know what she is. What she can do.

Once I knew that, I was able to breathe for the first time in weeks.

So long as that secret is secure, the rest can be managed.

I feel my lips curl with a self-satisfied smirk. What a fool he is. He gave away the most valuable treasure in the entire realm, for free.

I’d laugh in his face if I could, just to rub it in.

But the secret is much more valuable than my ability to gloat. It’s why I’ve learned to do so in private. Every time Auren turns something gold under my direction, I gloat. Every time someone else marvels at my power, or calls me the Golden King, I gloat.

I’ve fooled the entire world of Orea.

And now, I’ve claimed two kingdoms for my own. I just need to ensure that I keep them both, which is why this meeting is so important.

If the meeting ever actually happens. The tapping starts up again.

Six more minutes. I’ll give the bastard six more minutes, and then I’ll go down there to his encampment and drag him out myself.

No one keeps me waiting.

My fingertip counts the seconds. One minute. Two. Three minutes. Four. Five. When I hit six, anger is thick in my chest, like viscous mucus I’m unable to clear.

I get to my feet, shoulders set with vexation, the corners of my eyes creasing with stress.

“I’ll go after the bastard myself,” I bark out.

Just as I’m about to take my first step, the door to the throne room is tossed open like a wayward wind tore through the wood as it slams against the wall.

Three sets of footsteps echo in—no, four. One of them has a tread too light to hear. All of them are in full black armor and helmets, but even without being able to see their faces, I can sense their arrogance.

The one who walks quietly is small, both in height and in stature. But the next one is massive, a brute no doubt chosen as guard for his size alone.

The third one on the end appears of average size, with the same black armor and leathers as the other two, same crude tree branch sword hilt.

The emblems of Fourth Kingdom are displayed on their chest plates—a bare, crooked tree with four craggy branches and its roots full of sharp thorns.

Yet my brows pull together as I watch the fourth member of the quad walk toward the dais. This one, I’ve heard of.

The commander of the army.

It seems the sharp points depicted on their armor’s emblem have been brought to life in him, because black thorns jut from the armor along his arms and back like sinister barbs yanked from the soils of hell.

He’s a walking message made by Ravinger himself, if some of the rumors are to be believed. The king corrupted his commander into something to be feared and reviled.

He is the vicious thorns that root the wicked tree.

The quad stops in front of the dais with identical postures. Feet spread, arms loose, helmets facing straight ahead. None of them say a single thing. So silent you could hear a pin drop.

Instead, I hear an easy, unrushed gait.

My eyes lift to the doorway just as King Ravinger himself walks inside. Despite myself, I find my body going rigid. He seems to step with the same rhythm as my tapping fingers.

Calm and collected, he comes forward as though he were the one to win this kingdom, rather than me.

My eyes track his every movement as I take in the infamous King Rot for the very first time.

No kingly robe for him—he wears the black and brown leathers of his army men, only missing the armor and helmet. But coming up from his neck and extending over his jaw and cheeks are some kind of lined tattoos.

No. Not tattoos.

As he gets closer, I realize these are under the skin, not on top. Something like veins, though they’re as dark as crow feathers. A quick glimpse down confirms that the smooth, reaching lengths even wrap down his hands like coiled stems embedded into his skin.

I look between him and his commander.

Between the roots and the thorns.

It’s not until the king reaches his guards that I realize I’m still standing. I drop down into the throne, but it’s moot, because the bastard strides up the dais without pause, only stopping once he stands directly in front of me.

My soldiers stiffen, but his are still relaxed, not bothered at all. I, on the other hand, am seething.

Instead of me looking down on him, the opposite is true now.

Green eyes and a sickly-gray pallor bear down on me, and yet somehow, he’s a vision of strength. “King Midas, I’d say it was a pleasure if I wanted to lie, but it seems I can’t be bothered today.”

I stand again so that I don’t have to keep looking up, but the move only makes the prick smirk.

His crown is slightly tilted on his head, like he’s put it on without a care. It’s a ring of tangled branches, thorns like spires at the top. There’s nothing regal or handsome about it. It’s raw and rough and twisted, so much like his tainted power.

My eyes are flat, my tone even more so as I regard him. “You’re late.”

He glances around lazily. “Am I? Pity I kept you waiting.”

The way he says it lets me know he doesn’t think it’s a pity at all.

“Shall we get started?” he asks, as if he has the right to take control and direct this meeting.

Without waiting for me to answer, he turns and strides confidently off the dais, toward the door at the back. All four of his guards follow him, while I blink, stupefied.

Odo appears in front of me, panting, like he ran all the way back here. “It seems King Ravinger has arrived and proceeded to the meeting room, Sire.”

“Obviously,” I snap.

Stalking for the door, I then cross the threshold while my advisors and guards quickly follow after me. One look around the space has my blood ready to boil.

Ravinger sits patiently at the head of the long table, his guards a wall of silent menace behind him.

It takes all of my practiced mannerisms not to snap at the audacity of this man. The tic in my jaw is the only slip-up that reveals my irritation.

Even so, somehow, the bastard sees it. As he relaxes back into his chair, a smirk curls his lips. It’s a look that says, your move.

My advisors share a glance between them, but I move around to sit at the far end, the other head of the table. Damn it all to the Divines, I don’t care if it does put twenty-four feet between us. I refuse to sit at his side like I’m lesser.

After I take a seat opposite him, my soldiers stand at the wall behind me, backs against the plum-colored wallpaper. The light is dimmer here, only a single window at my left, the panes covered with starburst frost.

As soon as I take my seat, I begin to speak, cutting off his chance to do so first. “It appears we have a problem, King Ravinger.”

He dips his head. “On that, we can agree.”

He’s right—because we aren’t likely to agree on much else.

“You sent rotted corpses to my borders.”

That smirk comes back. “And which borders would those be? You seem to have accumulated more since last I knew.”

I tap my finger on the armrest of my chair to keep myself calm.

My borders at Sixth Kingdom, as you well know. I am simply acting monarch here until Fulke’s heir can come of age.”

His green eyes gleam. “Indeed.”

I bristle at his tone, at his very lackadaisical demeanor.

Ravinger leans forward, the markings on his neck and face unnerving. For a moment, I think I see them move, just as the rotted fissures outside slithered across the ground when he was showing off his magic.

“If you’re looking for a formal apology, you won’t get one,” he tells me. “They weren’t even your soldiers, they were Fifth’s. Yet I thought it best to deliver them, considering your alliance with this kingdom has been so vocal. I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea, King Midas.”

“And what idea would that be?”

“That I am someone you can cross.” His statement lands bluntly, a strike of strength without even moving.

“And I’ll remind you that I haven’t crossed you. Sixth Kingdom has no qualms with Fourth.”

Ravinger lifts a hand and glances around the room. “And yet, here we are, in Fifth, right at the center of a qualm.”

If I could only reach across the table and choke off his miserable throat, rot-filled veins be damned.

“King Fulke was dealt with,” I say, not letting him ruffle me. “Unless you want to murder an innocent boy for his father’s sins, Fifth Kingdom is no longer your enemy. It was a last-minute attack from an eccentric king who’s now dead. I had nothing to do with it.”

“I have reports that say otherwise.”

All previous amusement is gone from his face in a blink. In its place, there’s something dark. Deadly. I’m reminded in an instant of how powerful he really is, which is exactly what he wants.

Despite myself, I feel a chill raise the hairs at the back of my neck.

“Your reports are inaccurate,” I reply steadily. I don’t dare look away from his eyes, no matter how much I want to.

One mustn’t look away from a predator.

“Are they.”

Not a question. A demand. To prove it.

I hold my arms out, the calm gesture of a benevolent king. “Surely we can come to an agreement. I want no battle from you, King Ravinger.”

“That’s unfortunate, since my army is already poised and at the ready, and as you said, you’re the acting ruler here.” The unnatural lines on his face remind me of war paint, marks of aggression created from his malignant magic. “The fact is, Fifth’s army attacked my border, and I do not let such offenses go unpunished.”

My rising worry is sharp. I feel it like rigid corners that dig beneath my skin, threatening to pierce through.

I’m close. So close to securing my hold here. I can’t afford this battle, because we would lose.

“Some would point out that there have been reports indicating you have been encroaching upon territories that are not your own. Perhaps that’s why Fulke attacked. He was protecting his borders,” I put in carefully.

Ravinger grins, but it’s not a smile, not even close. It’s a baring of teeth, and all that’s missing is the snarl.

He leans forward. “Prove it.”

I can tell his four soldiers are watching me, though I can’t see their eyes through the slits in their helmets. I look at the thorned one, my eyes flicking over the sharp points on his armor. He looms, as dark and heavy as the rest, his presence meant to remind me of the army outside.

My eyes drag back to the king. “As I said, I want no battle with you.”

“Then it seems we are at an impasse,” Ravinger replies with a shrug, as if deciding to wage a battle is of little consequence.

But really…it is of little consequence to him. I’ve observed Fifth’s soldiers. Ravinger’s army will obliterate this kingdom. He wouldn’t even have to use his power to do it.

“Surely we can think of something else, in order to spare innocent lives,” I offer with a placating smile. “Reparation for the attack on your border, for instance.”

Ravinger steeples his fingers together, watching me over the top. “I’m listening.”

Finally.

I pretend to contemplate for a moment and then say, “Move your army back to your kingdom without attack, and I’ll pay your reparation in gold.”

Nothing.

I get nothing in return. No reaction, no excited glint in his eye. It doesn’t even seem as if he’s heard me.

Desperation crawls down my back. “Name the weight, Ravinger, and then we can be done with this business of war and you can return to your kingdom.”

Still, he looks. Says nothing. Letting me sweat.

He is toying with me, intimidating me. Flaunting. Has been ever since he arrived.

He flaunted his army by bringing its might to Fifth Kingdom’s doorstep. They don’t even appear to be disgruntled or weakened, and they just marched across the Divine-damned Barrens.

And they went the long way. Came right up to the palace and bypassed the mountain pass where I’d had a contingent to head them off. Not to mention the fact that the soldiers I sent to infiltrate their camp and grab Auren never returned. I have a feeling they won’t.

Ravinger didn’t stop there. He then flaunted his magic in front of the city, letting rot spread through the ground as a warning, a threat to intimidate.

And again, since the moment he walked in the throne room and stepped up on the dais, and then chose the seat at the head of this table.

Flaunting. Because he can. Because he’s an arrogant bastard.

My impatience plucks at my tongue. “Well? How much, Ravinger?”

“None.”

I lean back against the chair in shock. “What do you mean, none?”

Surely, I misheard him. Gold is what everyone wants. It’s the only thing that everyone wants.

“I mean what I said,” he replies evenly. “I don’t want your gold.”

I’m at a loss, and I have a creeping suspicion that he’s steered this whole conversation from the very start.

“What do you want then.” It’s my turn to demand now, my tone unable to pretend otherwise. He’s frayed my countenance like splitting hairs.

“I want Deadwell.”

My brows pull together a second later as my mind creates a map in my head. “Deadwell? The strip of land at the edge of Fifth?”

He tips his chin. “The very one.”

I look at him suspiciously. “Why?”

“As you said, there have been rumors that I have…encroached on territories outside of my own,” he says, shoulders back and proud, tone unwavering. “To appease such rumors and to pay restitution for Fifth’s unprovoked attack on my border, I will now take that border, which, as acting ruler, you will give me as your sign of good faith.”

A pause.

Ravinger leans in, and an ominous feeling leans with him, like a brittle tree being blown by the wind. “Otherwise, my army attacks by nightfall.”

I regard him. He regards me.

Thoughts and questions come up one after another.

He wants Deadwell.

But why does he want Deadwell? I rack my mind, trying to recollect what’s there, but I’m not as familiar with Fifth Kingdom as I am Sixth. Still…I’m fairly certain that it’s just a strip of land between his kingdom and this one, with nothing there except ice.

He’d rather have that than his weight in gold? I can’t make heads or tails of it, because I know there’s a catch. There must be.

It’s on the tip of my tongue to ask him why he wants it, but that’s not how these games are played. We say what we want, without saying what we actually want.

“Deadwell,” I repeat, an edge of question in my tone.

Ravinger inclines his head again. “Sign Deadwell over to me, King Midas, and my army leaves.”

I narrow my eyes. “Just like that?”

He gives me a benign look. “My army has been traveling for weeks. Surely, you’ll extend an invitation to me and my soldiers in your newly acquired city so that they may rest and celebrate the avoidance of a war.”

My mouth presses into a firm line. Like hell do I want them in Ranhold. “I do not think—”

He cuts me off. “Of course, you’ll already be hosting another kingdom in a few weeks’ time, won’t you? I’m sure you can see the advantages of having not just one kingdom, but two, to join in your celebrations.”

I go still.

Behind me, I feel my advisors tense, no further scratch of quill against paper.

How the hell did he find out about Third Kingdom’s traveling party?

I grin through gritted teeth. “Of course. You and your army are more than welcome to rest and replenish yourselves.”

Ravinger grins, the polished teeth of an animal used to chewing on those he defeats.

The chill down my spine is all the confirmation I need. I may have prevented his army from attacking Ranhold, but while I bent to his whim to get them to stay out, I think I may have invited the true threat in.


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