Saiki Sa Riik's eyes wandered his throne room dourly as he tried to make sense of the multitude of changes that had been made to his plain soldier's castle over the past few weeks. No, he realized crankily, the changes had been going on ever since his marriage. When he had ascended to the throne fifty years ago, the castle had been pauperized, luxuries and treasures accumulated over centuries picked bare by greedy nobles. The cunning dogs had exploited a hundred years of weak monarchs to brazenly loot the home of their nominal rulers, without even the grace to leave the nails in the doors. His home had been cold, drafty, and uncomfortable, little better than the meanest hovel in the farthest corner of Landen.

The King of Landen grunted as he tried to catch a glimpse of the faded rags that had once been the war banners of rebellious lords. For many years, they had been the sole decorations of his throne room, visible reminders of his prowess in battle and the triumphs of re-forging an old kingdom anew. From the paltry domain his weaker forefathers had managed to tenuously retain, he had fought bitter conflicts against the far-stronger King of Satera and his own recalcitrant vassals. Fancy the outrage when the Crown tried to assert its rights!

Three decades of warfare had left him more comfortable in a tent on the field than inside the heap of stone that was his ancestral home. The neglect had shown in ways subtle and obvious, from the drafts down the hallways to the threadbare drapes and carpets. But those were just furnishings; Saiki had made sure that his ancestor, the great god Orakio, could never have been able to find fault with the castle defenses. Not even the goddess of darkness, Laya herself, would have been able to take the place, as two Kings of Satera and more than one audacious Landenian lord had found out to their bloody woe.

The last major war had ended about twenty years ago with a bitter siege of the castle. Beaten but not broken, his inimical liegemen had engaged the King of Landen in lengthy negotiations. Well, they'd engaged his chosen representatives in lengthy negotiations. For whatever damned reason, it wasn't considered proper for a king to beat the living daylights out of his vassals himself, even if they were in a treasonous state of rebellion. Nobles loyal to him had conferred with the ones trying to find their way back to loyalty to the Crown. Just because he hadn't conducted the negotiations himself hadn't meant he was a fool; his best soldiers and the attendant cyborgs had been in the room with them under orders to massacre the lot at the first sign of treachery.

A sigh escaped his lips as he nondescriptly surveyed the gathered nobility of Landen where they stood. Noblemen wore long black cloaks and golden spaulders over their embroidered tunics while the women preened themselves in their golden tiaras and their fancy dresses virtually every color under the sun. The only two colors absent for obvious reasons were funeral white and taboo red. Good Orakians did not wear the colors the goddess of darkness had made her own without good reason.

His eyes strayed upward to the glass dome that loomed over his throne room. The sunburst, the great Orakio's sigil, bathed the elevated dais in golden light as the sun shone through the stained yellow and clear glass. All that radiance only accentuated the details carved into the unrelieved ebony of the ponderous Black Throne. It also made the beastly heavy crown on his head and the royal black robes on his person feel even hotter, never something an old man enjoyed. Saiki turned his gaze away from the dome and took in his throne room.

Banners of the vanquished competed with marvelous tapestries, gilded arches, gauzy curtains, colored lanterns and hundreds of thousands of flowers, both in and out of season. The gauze and the flowers were specifically for the day, but the rest of the expensive junk had been brought in for the past twenty years by his wife.

When those final negotiations had been conducted after his final victory, a lot of it was just signing off on the facts. The Crown was acknowledged in its powers, particularly the right to revoke tenure, and its complete ownership of all of the kingdom's land confirmed. In exchange, the nobles were confirmed their tenure and were not forced to return everything they had looted out of the castle. To seal the pact, a marriage had been necessary to bind the factions together. As he had never taken a wife, Saiki had been available, but House Le Gaede, the leaders of the rebels and the most powerful nobles in Landen, had not had an unwed daughter to offer up. Lacking a virgin, they had forced their youngest available female to divorce her husband and act as the matrimonial sacrifice.

While commoners might quail at not being allowed to marry for love, an arranged marriage was just another fact of nobility. He had contented himself with various mistresses and whores before his wedding and had quietly gone back to them afterwards. No shame in that; most noblemen had mistresses. The point was that marriage was a weapon just like any other, a less bloody (well, in one sense) way of acquiring advantages the family couldn't get otherwise.

He glanced at his wife out of the corner of his eye. Queen Tesni Sa Riik, Lady of House Le Gaede, was a handsome woman, with dark blue hair and blue eyes, twenty years his junior. She had comported herself with queenly dignity for twenty years, never giving him cause to doubt her virtue or the paternity of his son. It was she who had managed to recover a great deal of the lost Sa Riik treasures through womanly connivance and cunning, and she who had turned his home from a soldier's fortress into a king's castle. For that and his son, she had earned his gratitude and no small measure of respect.

The King was very fond of Rhys. The boy reminded him of himself when he was a youth, with that arrogant respect for life and living that the young made all their own. He was always proud when the lad bypassed the niceties of court life and went straight for an offender's throat. Saiki had always worried that a warlord would produce a dandy, but his son had little use for fashion, perfumes, or jewels. His son was a warrior and seemed to have a good talent for warfare. They got on well, better than the King could ever have hoped.

Rhys was not his first child, obviously, but the lad was his first son, legitimate or otherwise. The boy's elder bastard sisters had been married off to unruly noble families Saiki had needed to pacify but could not afford to crush militarily. His litter of daughters and their marriages had probably allowed the King to retrieve the power of the Crown much more quickly than he would have otherwise. Despite all the disrespect for the institution of the Crown, that sacred drop of Orakio's blood was still honored and coveted. It was probably the only thing that had kept his vassals from assassinating him.

Even if he loved his son, Rhys had a duty to strengthen House Sa Riik and the Kingdom of Landen. Saiki had managed to arrange the lad's childhood betrothal to the King of Satera's daughter, a marriage that was the absolute best in terms of dowry, influence, and bloodline. It only grew more valuable as his counterpart failed to produce a male heir. When his erstwhile enemy died, Landen and Satera would become one kingdom, something not seen in centuries.

Fortunately for his heir, Satera's heiress was a good girl. She was a pretty, plucky, charming lass with a good head on her shoulders. Having chased women for longer than his wife had been alive, Saiki knew how the game was played. He had been canny enough to perceive that if he created conditions where the two might at least be attracted to each other, the union would work better. He had succeeded with Princess Lena, but judging from who was getting married today, his approach failed miserably with Rhys.

Grinding his teeth, the King admitted he did not dislike Maia. Without argument, the girl was beautiful. She was also passing strange and a mystery. No one knew where she came from, but the lack of calluses on her hands and her innate grace hinted strongly she was of noble blood. Her graciousness in donating all those bribes nobles had given to her to the Crown was something he greatly appreciated, especially when it involved returning things his prodigal son had no business giving in the first place. No matter how many rocks they looked under, however, nothing could be found about her past. It was like she had been born from the sea just to be found by Rhys.

A grunt escaped his lips as he looked away from his wife and stared across the room. Even if Orakio himself had brought the girl into existence and presented her to his son as his bride, Saiki opposed this marriage. He had brawled with Rhys for days over the boy's wish to break the engagement with Satera and marry the girl. The daily arguments had become mired in stalemate.

"Take her as a mistress if you must, but you will not marry her!" Saiki would roar.

"I'll marry the woman I love, and I won't disgrace my name or Lena's honor!" Rhys would snarl back.

"Stop thinking with your dick and do your duty!"

"I have a duty to myself as well as my kingdom!"

The Queen had come up with the solution. "Obviously, words won't help either of you hotheads," she had said impatiently. "Settle it with your blades. If you win, Rhys, your father will grant you the luxury of choosing your own wife. If your father defeats you, however, you will follow your father's wishes."

It was fair. His old body was still strong and trim, with decades of battle experience, pitted against his son's youth and impatience. They'd fought it out in Shilka's garden, out of sight of the courtiers and the soldiers. Much to the King's dismay, his son had proven more than a match for him. Saiki had lost, not so badly as to lose honor, but enough that he was forced to acknowledge his age. He was nearing seventy; a lifetime of warfare, intrigue, and the heavy crown on his head had drained him greatly.

A stir at the doorway parted to reveal his son and the bride. If nothing else, the girl looked like a queen, with those royal cheekbones and elegant sophistication of hers. Maia was in a new dress specifically for the day, the blue light enough that it came close to funeral white. Around her hips she wore a golden girdle that accentuated her figure, while she wore the silver coronet and choker that fit her so well.

Right next to her, his son was in his customary pale blue tunic and pants. A second glance made Saiki reevaluate the outfit. The cut was elegant, the material easily as expensive as Maia's dress, the black embroidery that climbed up the sleeves and around the edges sophisticated. He grunted at the obvious sign of Maia's influence on his usually practical son.

The two stopped before the throne, where they bowed to the Crown. The Queen smiled with motherly pride at Rhys; Saiki refused to meet his son's eyes. The boy began to speak. "I, Rhys, do take thee, Maia, to be my—"

The King looked up at the sound of shattered glass and froze as a sharp roar filled the chamber. His heart beat erratically as he saw the intruder. Sharp fangs were revealed in unholy jaws of a green beast as it let out a frightful cry. It landed in front of him and spread its membranous wings wide. Easily twice the height of a man, the scaly monster's hide glistened in the sunlight as it wrapped its long arms around Maia.

Rhys, his stupid, suicidally brave son, broke free of his terror before anyone else and lunged at the ugly beast, his fists audibly landing on the monstrosity. The lad was intent on freeing the girl, but one swing of the heavy tail tossed Rhys into the crowd. Saiki shuddered as an inhuman voice screeched. "Filthy Orakians! Maia will not be yours!"

The massive wings beat once before the monster flew up into the sky, Maia limp in its arms. He couldn't tell if the girl was still alive.

"NO!"

The pained roar brought his attention back to his son, back on his feet, his hand on his probably bruised stomach. "Return her, you foul dragon-spawn of Laya! I'll find Maia if I have to search forever! I'll take the army to destroy Laya's clan!"

The foolish boy had been lucky enough to survive attacking one monster! Now he wanted to risk the entire kingdom against the goddess of darkness over a single girl? Saiki rose to his feet even as his heart continued to beat irregularly. "Don't be a fool! No one has seen a Layan for over one thousand years! Starting a war is not a rational thing to do. Cool off in the dungeon for a while!"

The King gestured at his guards. Two of them reluctantly strode forward and laid hold of the prince. They began to drag him away even as the lad struggled. "You can't stop me from going after her, father! I'll find her again, and I'll bring her back! I swear it!"

Hotheaded young fool. He flicked a glance at his queen and wondered at the defiant spark in her eyes. "He is to stay in the dungeon until that temper is off him," Saiki said angrily before his eyes raked the court contemptuously. "Be gone."

He resumed his throne in disgust as the nobles scuttled out of sight. Rhys would stay in the dungeon until the entire passion burned itself out and he was ready to resume his proper role as a prince, and that was the end of it. The King of Landen did not know why, but he could not catch his breath.

"That boy will be the death of me," he muttered.