Oneshot set in my fantasy world, edited for clarity and all that good stuff
The soft thunk of the cane was muffled by the carpeting, thick and swollen with money. If not for his wheezing his approach would have been silent, but certainly not unnoticed. The king was at his desk, a massive, dark sculpture at the center of the room. His chair, high and deeply shadowed, was almost as intricate as the throne, though here black lacquer took the place of gold leaf. Compared to the furniture the man they held was unimpressive. Short and stout with age, his girth pressed against the arms of the chair while the top of his head barely reached the top of the backboard. His wig sat on a bust of the yaksha king, Edur, to his left, giving the snarling face comical white curls.
'Into the ogre's jaws,' the old man thought as he stopped a few feet from the desk and rested on the cane. The two guards in the shadows behind the king were watching him steadily, while the pageboy who had announced his arrival was staring fixedly at him, not even bothering to shut his hanging jaw.
"Dielle, I haven't seen you in a while," the king said as he set down his pen. Compared to the old man's last visit this was jovial and welcoming. He forced a smile in return.
"I'm afraid my health's been going downhill lately. Nothing to be done, or so they tell me. Confounded doctors, they never can do anything right, all they can say is bed rest."
The king chuckled; it seemed he really was in a good mood this afternoon, though those could disappear like a summer breeze. "They're all the same! Even mine keep telling me to take it easy, let Phillip meet with the assembly, let the ministers handle things. So what brings a sick old man out to see another old man?" He leaned forward, resting his hands on the desk and smiling with child-like sweetness.
Another forced smile, a forced laugh as well, and then, the crux. "Well, my son wants to marry."
Those wrinkled grey eyes widened and for a moment the old lord braced himself. But all that came after was a slight 'hm' as he leaned back and something else caught his attention. "Boy! What are you good for?! You must have a witch for a mother to be so incompetent!" The page jumped to attention, though his legs shook as he saluted the king. "Get those blinds closed!" he bellowed. "Can't you see the sun's in my eyes?!" The page ran for the windows, dragging on the cords to bring the blinds tilting further down. "You good for nothing little rat," the king muttered as he shifted his pen and ink out of the repositioned rays, aligning them with the bars of shadow.
"So who is he planning on marrying?" The tone was jovial again, and he was smiling, though the eyes were more alert, searching the face across from him. "If I remember correctly it's about time to marry in another cousin, isn't it? Every three or four generations. A fourth cousin. From the female line. To keep the bloodline strong. Normally something I admire in noble houses—"
"We were having trouble finding a suitable cousin." Old Dielle replied with a shrug before the mood could change, before the danger was out in the open. 'Because you killed them all,' the corollary ran in his head, though he kept his lips shut and his eyes friendly.
"Oh oh, your Charles has been quite the delinquent. Who is it then, Demsby's youngest? No, she's too young still. The Ruthbirds have a few unmarried daughters. If I remember correctly."
"I'm sure you do your highness, though I wouldn't know," he said with another smile and shrug. "I've always had a hard time keep tracking of so many families." 'Because they keep disappearing.' "The lady is foreign." 'Because no one in her right mind would marry into our family.'
The king's reaction was a resounding laugh this time, one that sent the fat monarch rocking back in his chair. It continued a little too long, was a little too loud. The old man kept his hand from his collar and merely smiled, hiding the fidgeting of his hands on his cane. The guards did not even shift, but if they worked this closely to the king, they were probably used to the behavior, or mad themselves.
"So he's following Phillip's lead, eh? A sensible thing to do. They always were close boys." His eyes glazed slightly as they unfocused through the old man. "Always liked your Charles. He always looked up to Phillip. He hasn't been around lately. What has he been getting himself up to?"
"Apparently looking for a wife, though I thought he was being dissolute as ever." The old man spoke carefully, watching as much of the room as possible with steady eyes. "He just told me this morning and somehow thought it would be a pleasant surprise and not a shock."
"And your daughter, how goes her marriage?"
The old lord laughed and cast a wary eye in the guards' direction. "They get along very well, but I think it good that her husband has two strong sons already as he's unlikely to have any more. The poor girl." He sighed and shook his head while the king watched him. "All the doctors say the same thing, she will never have children."
The Marquis had once been known for being a good and honest man, but times had changed. They were all in a fight for survival against this madman and lying had become his best defense, a net so intricate and tightly woven none could find their way through. Yes, all the doctors had said she would never have children, because he sent her to the right ones, and when she went for second opinions where king's loyalists suggested she knew her business.
"So the girl, she is from Beishuay."Another jolt in topic, but the old lord was used to such shifts.
"I'm afraid not."
With a sudden tutting the king sat forward and wagged a finger at the old man. "I thought he was following Phillip's lead. You mean to tell me he's not? If he's marrying a foreigner where else would he go? We're surrounded by barbarians!"
"How I wish he could emulate Prince Phillip more closely, but his negotiations did not proceed far in Beishuay. After such an advantageous bridegroom had graced their country my simple son appeared as nothing worthwhile." 'And they are already in your pocket.' "However his talks went far better in Maureit. He is now engaged to Lady Anabella, the daughter of Lord Donghai, the Baron of Margate."
The eyes were clear and narrow, the gaze fixed squarely on the old man. His fingers slid over the dragon's maw as they always did when he was nervous. The wood had a patina of many nervous years, years the cane had served him well. He met the king's eyes with a small, polite smile, trying his best to look slightly perplexed and feeble.
"Donghai's daughter? How much did that cost you Dielle? You certainly have married your children off in the strangest ways. Your daughter to a man who already has two heirs, and your son to one of the hundred children of a glorified merchant. He charges in pounds of flesh for the honor of marrying his children, but maybe your Charles hasn't told you that yet."
"Yes, I'm afraid trade is the Baron's only attribute, but Charles assures me the marriage won't be expensive. Apparently all of Donghai's other children have already married into the local nobility and there is no clan left that it wouldn't be too close a relation for the girl, so they had to seek a husband abroad.
"My son is a simple young man with no interest in government, the military, or business. He spends all his money on art and artists, and all his time in galleries and cafes. Few families want their daughters to make such a marriage, and he is so disinterested, few women want to tie themselves to such a man. But he assures me the girl will be fine with this, is a homely creature who likes nothing more than keeping order about the house."
"Of course that's what he tells you. And just how much of Donghai's empire are you getting, are the Dielles to become sailors, flying off the edges of the earth and returning in golden ships heaped with rubies?" The king was nearing the dangerous point, his voice steadily getting louder and his eyes rolling. At least the guards had made no move yet, but he must speak carefully.
"None I'm sure," the old man replied with another sad shake of his head. "Donghai has three sons of his own to divide between, not to mention his sons-in-law who live a bit closer to the pocket. Charles tells me he will get nothing, and he will have to keep the girl 'in a manner she is accustomed to.'"
"Hmph, well I hope she does not run your family's fortune into the ground while you're still alive to see it Dielle. I never thought I'd see the day when one of those fish-blooded seapeople married into our best families. They've been trying for years to get at us! Infiltrating from the lowest ranks and moving up!"
'That same old rhetoric again,' the old man thought as he tromped slowly down the hall. The soft 'thwunk' of his cane hitting the wood floor with every other step resounded off the brightly painted walls. 'I hope we haven't started a war.'
In the entry hall his son stood, hands behind his back, feet apart, exactly where the old man had left him over an hour before. Though his face was directed up towards a monumental painting his eyes had never focused on it. Peripherally, he could see his father's approach.
"Lovely isn't it?" the younger Dielle said as he fell in step beside the old man as they walked towards the doors. There was a pause as they nodded to the soldiers and footmen bowing them out of the palace. "Our victory over Briem in the Tripartite War, painted by Holhem when the palace was remodeled, and unveiled exactly fifty years after that last battle."
"I'm glad to see that you're still here too," the older man muttered as he was helped into the waiting carriage. The door snapped shut behind them, but neither spoke or really even breathed until they were outside the palace gates once more.
"He wasn't terribly happy when he found out who." The old lord looked down at the cane twirling between his knobby fingers as he spoke.
"We knew he wouldn't be. It makes our position stronger and we've spent the last fifteen years trying to look weak and dependent."
"We are dependent."
"But the thing is we're all dependent on Donghai, he controls our trade routes. Things have been getting worse to the south, they know we're unstable. If Donghai cut off the rivers, it would be less than nothing for them to say their mountain passes had been snowed closed or something, and you know the Breimans would like nothing better."
"And he would really cut off his biggest market like that?" The old lord looked out the window, letting his eyes drift over the masses of people going about their lives. Most days he didn't go out, he couldn't stand to see everything looking so normal.
"If his daughter's or grandchildren's lives were in danger I'm sure he would. The one thing he does care more about than money is his family, which is why this is the best possible marriage."
"You need to get the girl and get married as soon as possible. He might do something to stop the wedding."
"It should be no problem," the younger man said, following his father's gaze out the window. "I've already told them to come at the end of the month. He's desperate to get the girl out of the country."
"You still haven't told me why." The lord shifted his gaze back to his son while the latter continued to let his eyes drift across the scenery.
"She was pregnant," he said at length.
Charles turned, and his father could see the thin lines that had prematurely crossed his son's face, the emptiness of his eyes as he smiled wryly and said: "My fiancée is the terribly ashamed and totally disgraced mother of a bouncing baby boy. The father, they tell me, is one of the footmen."