Chapter 16: Ambition
29th of the 7th Month, 1551
"We need to consider what we will do if he does not live," said Minister Hammand Monty.
The man's voice was powerful, even in an undertone, and his words carried with them the heaviest sense of urgency. Of course, considering the fact that they were locked away in the Council Chambers, such a whisper was unnecessary, but Monty's poorly veiled eagerness was something that could easily be interpreted as treason.
The hall was brilliant with sunshine, weather that defied the grim purposes of the emergency assembly. After all, it had only been four days ago that King Viaalkar had suffered the nearly fatal heart spell, and he had said no more than four complete sentences since that episode. The physicians attending him were the best Kandar had yet birthed, but even they could only give the Ministerial Council modest estimates as to how long they could preserve Viaalkar in such a state without a miracle.
"He has no wife, and no heir," Monty continued pointedly, shifting his gaze around the room to address each minister at the table. His tone was even and without emotion, but none of his contemporaries were unaware of why the Minister of Defenses was so keen on the matter. And despite the fact that Monty was a rational thinker and genuinely level–headed, none of his contemporaries desired to see the man on the throne of Kandar – even temporarily.
After all, Thatrica Hymyr thought to himself, a weed can take root overnight.
Hammand Monty was decidedly a weed in the rose garden of Kandar's political sphere. He was a zealot, an ultra–conservative, and unfortunately for the other members of the Council, he was also next in line to succeed the throne after Viaalkar – due to the king's lack of family. To make matters worse, Monty had the military of Kandar to back him, a considerable force that would not question his orders. But it wasn't as though any of the other Ministers would fight him: there was little they could do to legally usurp Monty's rise to the throne.
The worst part was that he knew it.
What we need is a way to pull the throne out from beneath him before he has a chance to sit.
Because a silence had fallen over the council, Hymyr raised a finger. "Minster Monty, your motion – which is forthcoming, I am sure – is premature. King Viaalkar is still alive, and he is coherent."
Monty's pointed face hardened. Clearly, he had not expected such frank resistance, and that was where the other ministers had the advantage. The man acted without fully considering all matters, therefore opening the door for unforeseen particulars to surprise him.
"Minister Hymyr, have you spoken with King Viaalkar recently?" he asked, perhaps revealing more of his incredulity than he would have liked.
The elf arched an eyebrow. "This morning," he replied honestly. "I asked him how he was feeling. I believe his response was something along the lines of... 'Better, knowing that so long as I live Hammand Monty cannot assume my throne'."
It was a decidedly liberal interpretation of a nonverbal conversation, but Viaalkar's eyes had told Hymyr everything the king's tongue had not.
Monty narrowed his eyes dangerously at the same time the blood drained from his cheeks. His hands were suddenly gathered into fists on the tabletop. "Careful, Hymyr."
The elf raised an eyebrow. "Minister Monty, let's not play games." He indicated the other ministers, who all appeared guardedly amused by his deadpan sarcasm. "We all know that this has become a power–grab, and while each of us appreciates your ambitious nature, not to mention your leadership capabilities, it is your greed that we wish to address."
Monty shot to his feet, hands balled tightly. "How dare you?"
Hymyr kept his face impassive. For a moment, he let Monty's words echo in the vast Council chamber, then indicated the chair from which Monty had risen. "Minister, please. We wish to discuss this maturely – as equals. You may be closer to the throne than any one of us, yet in our current ranking, you are still in the same strata. Don't tell me you've forgotten that."
Monty's jaw tensed and his eyes flashed, but slowly he sank back into his chair. He said nothing.
The elf thinned his lips grimly. "Thank you. Now. The issue remains: King Viaalkar's health. I am in agreement with Minister Monty in that I believe emergency measures must be taken, in order to preempt unnecessary chaos in the undesirable event of the King's passing. However, I move for a more temporary approach to this situation – what some will possibly consider a more dramatic altercation – instead of electing a new family to the Throne. You may know where I'm going with this."
Jimmen Holt raised his eyebrows. "Are you suggesting we draft a constitution, Minister Hymyr?"
Hymyr pressed his hands into the tabletop, ignoring the uncomfortable looks the other Ministers were sharing. "A temporary measure, Minister Holt. From a quick synopsis, I can tell immediately that this plan both entices and worries you all. First, let's discuss objections. I concede the floor."
Minister Asahm Yung was the first to raise a hand. Her weathered face was drawn with concern, somehow more lined and haggard than usual. Of course, the stress Viaalkar's condition had put on all of them was not making any of them younger.
She said: "I believe I state the obvious concern, Minister Hymyr, when I say a constitution would violate the monarchy perhaps irreversibly."
Hymyr leaned forward in his seat. "Explain, please," he said, not because he didn't understand, but for the purpose of clear discussion.
"Certainly," Yung replied. "While we certainly do have the power to draft a constitution – even temporarily – let us first consider matters from the common viewpoint: the King falls ill, and his Ministers immediately draft a document to temporary govern Kandar purely bureaucratically. Even if we took extreme caution to render such a constitution strictly temporary, that isn't going to change the people's changing perspective of the government – for two reasons.
"One, they will truly see the weakness of the authoritarian state and possibly move for demolition of the throne. If the Council holds more power than the King himself, then what is the point of even having a king? And why take a king's orders if the Council can check him? Currently, the people don't fully understand who runs Kandar's government; if they do learn, then the knowledge might drive them to political uprising.
"Two – and this ties directly into the first reason. If we don't play our cards carefully, what's to say the people won't prefer bureaucracy to monarchy and revolt when it is changed back?" For a moment, she let the question hang in the room, like a rampant secret fresh out of the bag. "No matter how hard we attempt to keep things running like normal, there would be significant differences. I would fear the potential ramifications of changing the people's lifestyle so dramatically, Minister Hymyr."
As Yung fell silent, the other Ministers were nodding their consent. Both points were valid and not a little disconcerting. Granted, Kandar's reigning monarch had powers the Council did not, but the veto – which the Council did possess and could utilize via an internal vote – boasted the potential to quite literally negate anything the King could do – that is, if he did not have opposing ministers removed from office beforehand. However, Viaalkar had not yet done anything that had even warranted suggestion of the veto, and if such an occasion arose, there would be much deliberation before it was applied, to which Viaalkar would be privy.
Hymyr cleared his throat. "Thank you, Minister Yung." He folded his hands on the tabletop and looked around at the rest of the Council. "I would certainly agree on each of those matters. They are valid points and should be esteemed as such. However, my thinking is that in a time like this – when our King is incapacitated – the people will be looking for strong leadership. They need stability."
"Which is why you should not interfere with the system," Monty snapped abruptly, landing a fist on the table. The sharp combination of sounds brought all heads around. "Let me get this straight. Because you don't personally trust me, Hymyr, you're going to rock the very foundation of Kandar – just to keep me from the throne?"
Hymyr licked his lips, quashing a surge of frustration. "Minister Monty, were this merely a personal issue, I would not bring it to light – certainly not before the Council. You should know me better than that. This issue runs much deeper."
"And it has everything to do with the crisis overseas," Geoff Nanyr interjected, drawing Monty's livid stare.
"How so?" Jimmen Holt asked before Monty could.
Nanyr studied the tabletop, almost nervously. "No disrespect intended, Minister Monty, but we all know you would use your position as King to immediately dispatch the navy to obliterate any threat in the New Lands – without so much as waiting for the Vionna to return."
Monty's mouth hung open for a moment before he spoke. "You don't know that."
"No, but it's a distinct possibility." The younger man's head came up, and he met Monty's hard stare evenly. "That's a risk I personally don't want to run – for the sake of avoiding unnecessary bloodshed, spending, and civil unrest. You and King Viaalkar have had your share of disagreements over the matter, and we all know you've been pushing for more invasive action, Hammand."
Monty threw up his hands. "So I think it would be better to take war to a foreign front than wait for a fight here at home. That makes me a poor applicant for Kingship?"
"But that's not what you're trying to do," Jimmen Holt replied. "We would fight as a last resort, only when diplomacy and custom have failed. You would jump to action without even waiting to see if conflict is necessary."
"Dammitt, I hold to the same values and customs as you all!" Monty shouted, sweeping the other Ministers with his violent stare. "Diplomacy has failed, Jimmen! Don't you understand? We are dealing with an unknown race that does not hold itself to the rules of government and diplomacy to which Kandar does! War is inevitable, and I merely want to keep our people safe. That is my ultimate goal, and nothing more. I may be more impetuous than Viaalkar in this respect, but as King, I will value this Council's decisions as much as any other man would."
But all the Ministers in the room knew that was a blatant lie, and perhaps Monty knew it too. Hymyr, like his contemporaries, could easily see through the Minister of Defense, because his reputation and history betrayed him. Monty's first action as King would be to dissolve the Council permanently. Using the Throne and the public concept of Kandar's government to push true monarchy on the nation, Monty would drive the people to rectify monarchy as the true governmental structure and vest in him – by popular approval – full power over Kandar.
And in so doing, they would create a tyrant.
It was something that could not happen without serious repercussions for them all. And it was something that Hymyr intended to prevent. In fact, he intended to take away even the possibility.
"So a constitution would temporarily give full power to the Council," Minister Ian King said, redirecting their thoughts. Ignoring the way Monty threw his head back in frustration, the younger man continued, speaking directly to Hymyr: "Particulars will have to be discussed, obviously, but I'm assuming matters would be decided via a vote, correct?"
"Our vote," Asahm Yung specified.
Hymyr nodded. "To me, it seems that would be more natural and simplistic than incurring outside parties."
"But there are six of us without Viaalkar," Jimmen Holt pointed out. "In the event of a tie, how would the decision be made?"
"You would need a seventh party," Monty said, eyes flashing triumphantly. "You cannot elect another minister – only the King can do that."
"Before we get into particulars," Hymyr said loudly, "I believe we should vote on whether or not to actually begin drafting such a constitution – before we waste any more discussion on the matter. I must warn you: should we begin such a process, it will be lengthy and tremendously involved. We must be extremely careful not to leave out any particulars or disregard any loopholes, because once Viaalkar is back on his feet, the constitution must go away forever. Shall we?"
Nods from all around – excluding Monty, who folded his arms and set his jaw.
Ignoring the man, Hymyr raised his hand. "All in favor?"
Jimmen Holt, Asahm Yung, and Geoff Nanyr all raised their hands almost simultaneously. After a moment's hesitation, Ian King joined them – pointedly avoiding Monty's gaze.
"This is ridiculous!" Monty exploded before anyone could say anything else. "Because none of you trust me, you are willing to shake the very foundations of Kandar to prevent me from holding power!"
"Hammand, were we playmates, I would be perfectly content to be on your side," Asahm Yung said calmingly. "You are ambitious, smart, not a little ruthless, and extremely self–seeking. They are qualities that make you a leader amongst men. Yet, for those same reasons, I can't allow you to be my King."
"Besides," Minister Ian King began, "Bringing an entirely new family to the throne would be almost as dramatic as a temporary shift of governmental power. Viaalkar's blood has resided in the Throne since this nation's origin."
"But that's how things work in Kandar," Monty snapped. "Understand something: just because you want to change the rules to get your way doesn't mean that strategy will always work. You speak as though Viaalkar will undoubtedly recover. Well, what if he doesn't? Eventually you will have to put someone on the throne. And that someone will be me."
The man had a point, a solid one, and Hymyr shivered involuntarily. Indeed, it suddenly seemed they were merely stalling the inevitable.
No, he corrected himself. We're buying time until we can think of an alternative solution.
"Thank you for your concern, Minister Monty," the elf said, keeping his face impassive – to conceal his concern. "Now, we wish to begin drawing up the preliminary sketch for a national constitution, and we all greatly desire your input."
Monty stood in preparation to leave, shaking his head. "You don't want me on the throne but you want my opinion?"
"Hammand, this Council needs you," Jimmen said, almost incredulous at the man's immaturity. "Viaalkar selected you for a reason. We need someone like you who will motivate action as well as stiff principle when it's needed. You are an essential dynamic to Kandar's government, no matter if it is bureaucratic or monarchical."
Hymyr spread his hands. "Monty, you must realize that by acting this way, you prove once and for all that you strive only for yourself and not the people of Kandar."
Monty stood there for a moment, considering their words. His hotheaded nature was what had promoted success in the past, and Viaalkar had heavily relied on Monty for executive decisions concerning military actions – even in peacetimes. The council did need him, and he knew it. Perhaps that pride was what touched his heels and turned him around.
As he spoke in parting, he moved across the massive room toward the towering chamber doors, never looking back at his former compatriots. "You know that you will need Viaalkar to sign your constitution for it to take effect. And if he dies before he gets that chance, then we will move along as we normally would. That's the law. That's the way it always has been, and that's the way it should be."
Without waiting for anyone to say anything further, he put his weight against the door and heaved it open. The pressure in the room loosened momentarily as he slipped through, then tightened again palpably as the door slammed shut in his wake. However, now there was more tension in the atmosphere to fill the vacancy left behind.
"He's right, of course," Yung said quietly.
Hymyr nodded grimly. "The nobles will revolt if we do anything radical without Viaalkar's consent. Drafting a constitution outside the reigning monarch's authority is against the law, after all – even if the King is incapacitated."
Had he still been in the room – and in agreement with them – Monty would have said vindictively, "We make the law." Without him present, there was no hothead to fill the brief silence with such abrasive comments. If the council would survive without him was something left to be seen.
Jimmen Holt pursed his lips grimly. "We must move quickly. Viaalkar will undoubtedly support us if we finish a constitution for him to approve. He will understand the situation."
Thatrica Hymyr smiled. There was light at the end of the tunnel, and although it was distant it was certainly not out of reach.
"Let's get started," he said.
Night drenched the castle with shadows. Torches lit hallways sparsely, but a thick covering of clouds kept any moonlight from illuminating Weinstein's sprawling corridors. Somewhere outside the west corridor of the king's suite, an owl sleepily kept the time.
Flanked by two of Viaalkar's elite, Thatrica Hymyr swept down this hall, clad in his nightrobes. His jaw was clenched so tightly that the lower half of his face had begun to grow numb, yet he could not relax if he tried. Roused at three hours past midnight by the pounding on his door, he was understandably disheveled, but his mind was not dulled from sleep – or lack thereof. His escorts had not offered any information, but with the context of Viaalkar's failing heart and the direction in which they were heading, Hymyr had quickly determined the situation for himself. His own heart was pounding, but even its incredible speed could not match the racing of his thoughts.
Monty will be on the throne by morning light, maybe before. He'll address the people just before abolishing the Council, to reassure them before upending their entire political system. The navy will embark for Delathat by mid–afternoon. Nevig and Mansin, none–the–wiser, will mobilize their militaries against us as a precaution. Gods, we needed more time…
He felt guilty for wishing Viaalkar's soul had lingered in the world just long enough for the Council to finish drafting the constitution and present it to him for approval. Hymyr's mind told him it was optimal, but his heart told him he was wrong to wish any amount of suffering upon another living being for any discernible reason. And now, as a result of his callousness, Viaalkar had slipped into eternity, drawn home by the gods who clearly frowned upon the fate of Kandar's government.
Hymyr's slippers whispered on the stone, but the knights' booted feet clanked with each step, echoing down the passage ahead of them. They turned the corner together, and there were the king's chambers, the dead end of the hallway. Torchlight flickered from the interior because the doors had been pulled wide, spilling the glow into the corridor. And there, two of Kandar's elite lay prostrate on the pavestones, one with a black–fletched arrow protruding from his breastplate, the other with a dart in his neck. There was blood on the floor beneath them and splattered on the walls where they'd originally fallen, but someone had carefully rearranged their limbs into postures of rest and pulled their bodies to the sides of the hall.
Instantly, Hymyr's heart thudded against his ribs with renewed veracity. This had nothing to do with Viaalkar's condition. "What happened?" he whispered.
His lengthened strides carried him the remaining distance at the appropriate pace of urgency. As he stepped across the threshold into the king's chambers, he felt the temperature change. It was much warmer inside than in the hallway, almost too warm to be comfortable, but Hymyr's blood preferred a cooler climate than did his human contemporaries.
Standing beside the bed, two of Viaalkar's personal physicians waited. Their snow–white robes were tinted orange by the dim torchlight, and the grave expressions on their faces were deepened by the shadows. And there before them, Viaalkar lay in his bed. Through the gauze which had been strung around the four posts of his bed to keep out any infections, Hymyr saw that the King's eyes were open and watching him approach. Relief poured into the elf's guts, sapping the strength from his knees, and he sank to them on the carpet at the foot of the bed.
"Highness, I feared the worst." He knew Viaalkar could not respond, so after a respectful moment, he raised himself and stood. "It brings me great joy to see you alive and well."
Viaalkar smiled thinly. He had lost a tremendous amount of weight for being bedridden not even a full week. The hollows of his cheeks caught shadows from the unsteady lighting, rendering his appearance skeletal and gaunt.
One of the guards who had followed Hymyr into the room cleared his throat uncomfortably. The elf turned to face him. Unaccustomed to speaking, much less directly addressing anyone in the presence of the King, the man dipped his head in respect.
"Minister Hymyr, would you like to speak to the intruder?"
The elf blanched. "You caught him? Of – of course. Bring him here."
Clicking his booted heels together smartly, the knight nodded once. "He's being held in a room just down the hall."
As the man left the chamber, Hymyr turned back to the bed and his king. "I will discuss commendations of bravery with the Council for your personal guard immediately, Highness. They have proven themselves worthy of your service tonight."
Viaalkar's face betrayed none of his thoughts, although Hymyr got the distinct sense that there was something the King wanted to say – something too abstract for expressions.
A door closed somewhere behind Hymyr, and then the sound of footsteps from the hall turned him around. Standing at the foot of Viaalkar's bed, he saw the trio approaching – two guards with the would–be assassin between them. The clank of chains matched footfalls on the cold stone, and although the man did not seem to be resisting, he was not fully cooperative either.
They entered the room, and as the torchlight fell over the entourage, Hymyr found himself breathing shallowly through his nose. "I may have thought you irrational, but I never would have suspected you to be capable of this."
Crucified between the two guards, Hammand Monty glared up at him. The Minister's face was smeared with his own drying blood – stemming from a severely split lip and purpled nose. The deep colors on his otherwise pale face rendered, by contrast, the electricity in his eyes all the more vibrant.
He drew in a deep, shaking breath. "I love my country, Hymyr. Viaalkar may be my king, but he is not Kandar. I'm no traitor. I'm a believer."
Hymyr shook his head sadly, disbelieving. "Breaking a law to maintain another is attacking one's own foundation. Hammand, I wish you could see what you've done."
"Funny." The other Minister inhaled sharply, painfully. "I was going to say the same thing to you."
Viaalkar's voice was nothing more than a whisper, but it had the power to raise the sensation of hope in Hymyr's chest.
"Highness." He turned his back on Monty and crossed the room to kneel beside the bed. Through the gauze, he could see the king's eyes following his movement and the labored rise–and–fall of his chest. "Don't speak. You should rest. Your physics will have me thrown out."
The king rocked his head on the pillow, beckoning feebly with his hand.
Hymyr came as close to the gauze as he could without touching it. "What is it, Majesty?"
"Thatrica... You. You are..." Viaalkar sucked in a deep breath, one that rattled in his chest like pebbles down a cliff face. "You are..."
Out of the corner of his eye, Hymyr saw the physicians exchange grimaces. He could not find fault in their displeasure – the king was very, very weak. Biting his tongue, he waited patiently, struggling not to wince at the congested sounds of Viaalkar's breathing.
Abruptly, the king raised himself up on his elbows, grunting at the effort. The veins in his neck and face bulged beneath his skin like vines swelling under the earth. Gasping, he fixed Hymyr with his fervent gaze, ignoring the sudden protests of the doctors.
"Hymyr," he said haltingly. "You are king of Kandar."
The elf sank back on his haunches, the blood rushing in his ears. As Viaalkar collapsed onto his pillows and the physicians ducked beneath the gauze to administer their medicines, Hymyr found himself too stunned to think, much less speak.
He heard Monty's sardonic hiss from across the room. There was venom in the man's words, the product of bitterness and disgust. "Congratulations, Majesty."
Hymyr dragged the back of a hand across his mouth, unnecessarily because it was suddenly as dry as the Synathet Wastes. He could not decide for himself if congratulations were in order or if this was the gods' way of manifesting their displeasure. If Hymyr's intentions in rising to the political sphere of Kandar had been to preserve the nation's identity and principles, then what would be the appropriate action now to maintain that creed? Never in the country's history had there been a nonhuman monarch. In becoming the first, would Hymyr be violating his own moral standard? It would certainly be a violation of tradition and societal norms. But on the other hand, would declining Viaalkar's promotion be hypocritical in his servitude to the royal family?
But really, was there any other option?
Suddenly, Hymyr truly understood what it was to be king. Dilemma was synonymous with the rank.
Slowly, the elf gathered his feet beneath him and stood. The constitution was still a possibility, but it was no longer a necessity with the throne safe from Hammand Monty. And drafting a constitution, as his first act – more importantly, as the first elf king of Kandar – would be an even more dramatic and a decidedly anti–monarchical motion than Hymyr would desire for the future of the nation. There was simply no other decision to be made than the one which would set the best precedent for future generations and preserve the system of a nation which could realistically boast of being the strongest in the world.
Hymyr pressed a closed fist into the open palm of his right hand and tucked his chin into his chest. With his eyes closed, he inhaled slowly, envisioning the expansive forests of the Bestothel Province of South Elfland, the home of his forefathers which he had left in order to build his own.
"With hope, with grace, with humble devotion to the future of this nation, I pledge my servitude to the people of Kandar. May the gods find me worthy of this honor, and my blood worthy of continuance, that this nation may forever be strong beneath my throne. With my life, I shall protect, guide, and cherish this Kingdom."
Though his eyes were closed, Viaalkar's lips were split in a wide grin when Hymyr raised his head. The magnitude of the words had not been lost on him, even in his weakened state. Though it had been nine years since he had stood on the ceremonial balustrade of Weinstein Fortress and delivered the same creedence to the Ministerial Council, with the population of the capital in attendance, not a word had he forgotten to uphold.
And not a word shall I.
"The throne has not yet passed from your family, Highness," Hymyr said boldly. "Consider me merely the interim. The seat of Kandar's power should belong to a human – one of her natural descendants. So may it ever be."
As he turned away from the bed, Viaalkar's bodyguards dropped their chins to the armor covering their chests. Of course, the promotion was already in effect. Viaalkar's word was law.
But now, it is mine.
Hymyr cleared his throat. "Take him away," he said softly, meeting the angry stare of his former contemporary. "There is no room for usurpers of the throne in my kingdom."
Monty said nothing as his guards wheeled him about and marched him from the room. He had been beaten, and although Hymyr sympathized with the former Minister, he could not condone the man's actions.
The forces of fate are tools which only rightly belong to the gods, he thought, clasping his hands at the small of his back. Tonight's events are evidence enough that we should not attempt to meddle with them ourselves.
Thatrica Hymyr, King of Kandar, swept from the room and marched down the hall, headed not for his room but the Ministerial Chambers instead. Though it was barely four shifts of the sun into the new day, he was wide awake, and he had work to do.
"Today," he whispered to the empty corridor, "Kandar rises to a new day."