King’s Crown

Book 3 in the Chronicles of the Dragon-Bound

In the world of the dragon-bound: Dax has thwarted the Tharan’s invasion of East Landly, but it has left the kingdom in turmoil. Dax can take the throne to save the kingdom and redeem his right to rule that was taken from him years ago. The answer is obvious, yet the complications—and dangers—are many. Dax’s destiny and the fates of two kingdoms hang in the balance in the exciting conclusion to the books, King’s Exile and King’s Dragon.

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Start reading: Chapter 1

Frohliem City was burning—again. Helpless, Dax watched from the tower window. Alarm bells signaled that safety wardens were on their way to the terrace district. The fire should be under control before long—but it burned. Most of the city had too much stone to burn easily, but if a fire ever got into the shanties on the east side near the harbor entrance, the losses would be terrible.

Dax needed to see what was happening for himself. He trotted down the stairs to where Narsus waited. In the six months since he had been injured battling the monstrous dragon the Tharans had brought against the city, his injuries had healed. Still, he took every chance he had to get his body back into proper condition.

“There’s a fire in the north part of the city,” he announced. “I want to see what is happening.”

Narsus nodded. “Do you want a squad of palace guards to go with you?”

Dax paused to think. “No, in spite of what Queen Layna says, taking palace guards with me would be too conspicuous. Get Atch and two others to go with us. No uniforms. I don’t want to draw attention. I just want to see what’s going on.”

A few minutes later the five set out on foot. Dressed rough with long, plain cloaks against the cold night winds, they put their hoods up to hide their faces. Dax knew the city well enough to get around. However, the others had grown up in the back streets and alleyways, and that was the route they took. Factional slogans were scrawled on walls and fences on nearly every street. Crude, whitewashed names and epithets proclaimed the kingdom’s divisions in bold letters. A wide splash of paint covered over hand-lettered proclamations along a whole section of fence, but letters carved into the wood underneath still showed. All along their route, untended flat surfaces carried names and slogans that defaced earlier epithets that covered traces of yet older slurs. Factional endorsements adorned more surfaces all the time. Most alarmingly, the tone in recent weeks was much more angry and hostile.

The dark city streets were quiet as they neared the fire, but at the scene, the crowd was huge. A squad of safety wardens had arrived, but they had not been able to get through the throng to the fire burning in a large warehouse. Mobs of people filled the street. They threw rocks and bottles back and forth at each other. Until the crowd disbursed, the wardens could not get to the fire. The mob overmatched them.

Dax and his companions watched from the shadows of an alley. Dax wanted to help, but there was nothing he could do. His group was not large enough make a difference to the outnumbered wardens trying to restore peace. Frustrated, he stood in the darkness and watched.

A squadron of lancers clattered up the street toward the rioters. They did not carry their lances, but lancers on horseback with their wooden staves dominated the unmounted and unarmed members of the crowd. Although rival gangs had been throwing rocks at each other, no one threw rocks at the lancers. The mounted men forced their way into the mob and cut it into smaller groups. With the crowd split, peace wardens broke up the smaller fights, and soon the opposing parties separated.

A mounted officer noticed Dax and his party in the shadows of the alley and rode over to investigate. “Show yourselves,” he demanded. His hand was on his sword, but he had not drawn it.

Dax stepped out of the shadows. “Good evening, Tre Handman.”

The lancer recognized Dax immediately. He stiffened in his saddle. “General, sir!” He looked back over his shoulder and called, “Lieutenant Karry, General Daxdendraig is here!”

Dax winced, but it was too late. His surreptitious reconnaissance was no longer secret. The lieutenant rode over. Dax returned his salute and started to listen to the man’s report. Before the man had said more than a few sentences, a chant interrupted him. It started low, but more voices took up the cry. “Dax! Dax! Dax!” The excited mob pressed forward against the lancers’ line, eager to catch a glimpse of the hero who had saved the city. They had forgotten their enmity of a few minutes before in their enthusiasm to see the man who had killed the dragon.

Things were getting out of hand rapidly. “Lieutenant Karry,” Dax said loudly enough to be heard over the rising chant, “mind the crowd and your mission to help get that fire under control. My men and I are leaving.” He threw the lieutenant a quick salute. “My compliments to you and the rest of the lancers.”

It was too late. The first wave of the mob pushed past Lieutenant Karry and his horse toward the mouth of the alley. Their bodies wedged together at the entrance, blocking the bulk of the throng from getting into the narrow byway. A few leaders broke loose into the alley, and they raced after Dax and his party.

Dax saw Atch go down out of the corner of his eye. He shouted to the rest, “Man down!” They turned and faced their pursuers. Atch jumped to his feet and stood at Dax’s side behind Narsus and Joddle. The men coming down the alley toward them had no weapons. They reached out, eager to get closer to Dax. The alley was dark, but there was enough light to see their sweat-slicked faces. They smiled, their faces radiant as they reached for him. They wanted to be close to him—to touch him. Dax shuddered at the worship in their eyes.

Moments counted. There was no way to tell how quickly the jam at the mouth of the alley might give way, but these were not warriors they faced. “No swords!” he called. “No killing! Hit them. Knock them down. Then we run.”

The men with Dax were warriors. In a moment they were the only ones standing in the alley. Dax and his men did not hesitate. They turned and ran. They veered into the first side street they came to. Then again. Once out of sight of the mob, they slowed to a brisk walk. For some distance yet, Dax heard the crowd chanting his name.

They had gone past two more streets, and Dax’s breathing had almost returned to normal when Narsus leaned close to Dax. “We’ve got a shadow,” he announced quietly.

“That’s interesting,” Dax replied. “Thank you.”

A shadow? Could it be an assassin? Recently there had been attempts on the lives of several powerful people within the city. Two had succeeded. The first killed had been a woman of royal blood who had been championed as East Landly’s first queen by the Tietus and Malnik houses—to whom she just happened to be related. The other had been the senior Lott of Lott’s Stone and Masonry, one of the largest construction businesses in the city.

Dax had faced an assailant himself. A week ago he had met with the leaders of the peace wardens and representatives from the dockworkers. A group of tough men had been trying to extort shakedown payments from the dockworkers by breaking arms. The meeting had not solved the problem, although the peace wardens took descriptions the attackers and promised to keep closer watch on the docks. After the meeting, a man had confronted Dax in a doorway. “Death to the tyrant of the city!” he had cried as he lunged at Dax with a knife. The man had no skill with the blade, and Dax had disarmed him easily.

The assault had been on Dax’s mind for some time. The man had babbled a series of paranoid fears about Dax, the safety wardens, the queen, and a conspiracy from Urgo. None of it made sense. The man’s mind was obviously unsound. However, the man had twenty silvers in his pocket, a suspiciously large sum for someone so weak-minded.

This night as they walked back toward the palace, their shadow seemed content to remain a shadow. Could he be in league with a team of men who might be planning an ambush? There was no sense to the idea that a band of assassins would wait in the terrace district on the off chance Dax might choose to investigate the fire in person. Could the shadow be a spy for one of the power groups in the city? He might be a freelance operator hoping someone would pay him for information about Dax’s comings and goings. He could also be waiting for a favorable location to make an attack.

Whatever his motive, Dax decided to question him. “Atch. Joddle. Next corner we’ll turn right. You hide in the shadows after we make the turn and take hold of our friend as he comes along. I’d like to talk with him.”

They rounded the corner, and Dax walked on with the other two men beside him. At the next street, they stopped and waited. Soon Atch and Joddle joined them empty-handed. The shadow had not followed them around the corner. As much as anything, that worried Dax. Their shadow had skills that made it unlikely he was just a freelancer. Someone was keeping an eye on Dax.

#

Although it was late, Dax paced his quarters back in the palace, worried about what he had seen. Just as Queen Layna feared, factional fighting not only had continued, but it had gotten more frequent and more violent. Everyone wanted the crown, or they wanted to influence who got the crown, or they wanted to keep the wrong person from getting the crown. It was one problem with dozens of irreconcilable solutions.

Dax had been so busy keeping order in the city he had not had time to give the succession problem much thought. If there had been just two groups vying for power, there might have been hope of a compromise that both sides could accept. When the Tharans and their dragon wiped out the cream of East Landly’s nobility, they also eliminated all strong claimants to the throne as well as most other tangential lines of inheritance. Only weak and flawed candidates remained—pale blue bloods at best. None had a wide following. The prosperous merchant houses made a case that their wealth and power now merited consideration for a title—if not for the throne itself. The remaining aristocracy had cobbled together an Assembly of Nobles to make the decision, and they were working hard to settle on the next ruler. However, the assembly’s endless debates had not brought clarity. The factions took their arguments to the streets, and Frohliem City burned.

He looked up at a knock on his door. “Come.”

Narsus stuck his head in the door. “Just thought you’d want to know. They got the fire out.”

He sighed. “That’s good. What about the mob?”

“Seems they got distracted.” He smiled. “Rumor has it that somebody seen General Dax, and in the rush to have a look, it sort of broke up the party.”

With a rap on the door, Scarlet pushed past Narsus. “If you wanted to find a party, you could have asked me,” he said with mock indignation. Scarlet tried to sound lighthearted, but Dax knew he was concerned.

Narsus turned to the man and nodded. “Major Scarlet, sir.”

Dax waved Scarlet in and pushed a chair over for his friend to sit, then found a chair for himself. “Thank you, Narsus.” Dax nodded. “You can go.”

After Narsus had closed the door, Dax said, “Yes, I was out in the city without a full squad of guards, but I wanted to get a feel for the crowd. We were standing quietly in the shadows, watching, when one of our sharp-eyed lancers spotted us.” He raised his hands helplessly. “The moment he saw me, he called to his lieutenant, and that did it.”

“Well, if you were expecting me to scold you about going out on your own, I’m not.” Scarlet smiled. “I’ll just wait for the queen to do it. She’s the expert.” Dax nodded in acknowledgment while he went on. “More importantly, did you learn anything?”

“From the location, it was probably the Demothis and Soltees houses again,” Dax said. “I noticed a few in the crowd had Demothis orange colors tied around their arms. The size of the crowd was larger than anything we’ve seen before.” Scarlet started to say something, but Dax held up a hand. “One other thing. Someone followed our group after we left the fire. We spotted him, but when we tried to grab him, he wasn’t there.”

“Not an amateur then. You were just followed? No assassination attempt this time?”

“No,” Dax replied, “no attempt, but it bothered me the man was good enough to slip away when we tried to take him.”

“It was a man then?” Scarlet asked.

Dax thought for a moment. “Not for sure. No one saw the person well enough. I just assumed it.” He looked at Scarlet and nodded. “You’re thinking of Lady Aylssandra.”

“We’ve never found anyone else on her team.”

“If she had a team,” replied Dax.

“Her handmaiden was just a simple girl from East Landly, and Aylssandra admits nothing.” Scarlet shrugged. “We haven’t found anyone else suspicious.”

“Maybe her handmaiden wasn’t so simple.”

Scarlet sighed in aggravation. “You’re almost as annoying when you poke holes in my information as you are when you come up with thirty-six new things to be suspicious about.”

“Sorry,” Dax sighed. “I’m just frustrated that we know very little for sure.”

“Well, I know the Tharans’ dragon is dead.” Scarlet thumped the table for emphasis as he stood to go.

Dax sighed and nodded. “That is one thing for certain.”

#

After Scarlet left, Dax went to the window and stared out over the city. It had been a long, cold winter since the Tharan invasion, but the politics had only gotten hotter. East Landly’s disparate groups needed to compromise on a figure to take the throne. West Landly had been able to compromise years ago after Dax had fled Mathilde’s treachery. Dax, rightfully King Darius Ambergriff X of West Landly, had been just a boy and had never had ruled in his own right. Mathilde had poisoned Dax’s father, King Darius Ambergriff IX, and eliminated other family claimants in order to put her own lover on the throne. Dax’s flight and the sacrifice of his father’s loyal friend, Orin Herne, had foiled Mathilde’s plot. With no direct successor to the throne, the two largest aristocratic houses on West Landly’s Assembly of Nobles had competed for the crown. In the end they had settled on a king who had royal blood, though distantly through the East Landly line. Most importantly, it had been a candidate from one of the lesser, nonthreatening houses of West Landly on whom all could agree.

Tonight’s reaction of the crowd to his appearance brought back the thought that had preoccupied Dax with increasing frequency these days. Should he try for the throne? He was of royal Landly blood, although through the western Ambergriff line. He had sworn revenge on Mathilde and vowed he would take back his father’s crown. But this was not his father’s crown. And he was not that same boy who had sworn vengeance. Too many bloody, inconsequential mercenary campaigns had taught him that conflicts of any kind were never easy, and that decisions had consequences. His sleep that night was troubled.

#

“Dragons are coming. The dragon Kahshect’s thought caught him by surprise.

Dax was out of bed even though it was not yet full light. The thought from his bondmate caused him to blink his eyes and stop his morning routine of stretching and exercise. He thought in return, “Who’s coming?”

“Namkafnir, Teycuktet, Birworeth, Rynangath.”

“Their bondmates?”

“Most likely,” Kahshect replied, “but they are too far away to tell.”

“Sounds as if the conclave is over.”

“Likely. You could have gone. I can tell how badly you want to hear their news.”

Dax sighed and started his exercise routine again. His broken ribs from the fight with the drakon still ached as he pumped his arm up and down against the weight, but he had regained his strength. He conscientiously followed the stretching and exercise program Dr. Galen had prescribed to restore flexibility to his burned skin and muscles.

Dragons were coming. Conclave was over. The decision had been made. What was the verdict about the conflict between humans and the Tharan dragon? The Tharan Empire’s invasion of East Landly had caused a crisis in the relations between humankind and dragonkind. The empire’s use of a dragon as a weapon of war had violated at least a half-dozen provisions of the Great Treaty. When Dax and Kahshect had killed the dragon, they had been parties to two of the violations. As one of the dragon-bound, Dax had a responsibility to keep the treaty. What would the conclave’s judgment be?

“You were not ready to fly,” he thought to Kahshect. “What would you have done without me if I would have left for Conclave?”

“I would have gotten fat and happy.” The dragon was feeling smug. “You know the people of Frohliem City love me for helping kill the drakon. Markadamous and the Ugori enjoy my company as well.

“You would have gotten bored with both in a week if I wasn’t around to tell them all the rude things you say.”

“True,” the dragon admitted. “It’s always more fun to listen to humans if I can aggravate them at the same time.

“When do you think they’ll arrive? Day after tomorrow?”

The dragon thought for a moment before he replied. “Sooner, most likely. But it looks like you’ll still have to meet with Queen Layna today. On the list of things Dax had to worry about, the Great Treaty and his standing with the dragon-bound as a protector of the treaty had just risen to the top—right below his meeting with the queen. Meanwhile, he continued his exercise routine. Sweat beaded his brow, and his muscles burned, but he met his goal. He switched to the other arm and began again.

#

Dax, along with the heads of the constables, safety wardens, palace guards, and Commander Baffen of the East Landly Lancers, met with the queen that afternoon as they did every week. It was a time to share information about the state of the city and the kingdom. The queen gave them current information about the assembly’s search for a new king, and in turn, they told her news of the civil unrest in the city.

Everyone sat in a circle, but the queen spent most of the meeting on her feet, moving from one person to the next, asking questions and drawing out information. Dax knew she did this deliberately. The queen was tall for a woman, and her slimly elegant appearance made it easy for her to dominate the meetings. No longer a young woman, she had a streak of white running back through her hair. Dax did not see it as a sign of the queen’s age but as a symbol of the woman’s badger-like character.

In Dax’s opinion, the council should have chosen the widowed monarch to rule after her husband lost his life while leading the East Landly Lancers to disaster at Drundevil Pass. However, the assembly was not interested in Dax’s opinion. Queen Layna was half Ugori, and too many in the kingdom would never accept a queen so closely tied to a people most in East Landly regarded as barbaric savages living on their northern border. It did not matter how capable the woman might be in fact.

The meeting plodded through a similar list of minor crises as past meetings. At one point the queen asked Dax to share his observations from the previous night. Not surprised she already knew about his expedition, Dax described the event and mentioned the disruption his presence had caused. He did not dwell on the incident, because it vaguely embarrassed him. He also omitted mention of the shadow who had followed his party from the scene. That felt more like a personal matter.

When the meeting finished, Queen Layna dismissed the rest but motioned for Dax to stay. He nodded and mentally stiffened, prepared for a reprimand. After the door closed, she turned to him. He started to apologize for disobeying her instructions about going out in the city without protection, but before he found the words, the queen spoke. “What you said about the crowd last night reminded me I need to ask you something. Am I going to have trouble with you, Dax?” She arched an eyebrow questioningly.

Caught off guard, Dax fumbled for a reply. “I wasn’t making trouble, Your Majesty. I wanted to see for myself the temper of the disturbance. Taking just a few men should have allowed us to observe quietly.”

She waved off his reply and sat down in the seat next to him. “I expect you to think for yourself about things like that—not that I’m not concerned for your safety.” She sighed and looked toward the window where the afternoon sun reappeared from behind a cloud and sent a sudden shaft of light into the room. She looked back at him. “No, I’m talking about you making a try for the throne.”

Dax blinked. It was as if the queen was privy to his private thoughts. He was not sure what to say. At a loss, he finally managed, “Where would you get an idea like that, Your Majesty?”

“Dax, call me Teena. This is not an inquisition, but I’ve had these thoughts.” She got up and started to pace. “You are a hero in the city, and the word has spread to the rest of the kingdom. The factions fight each other, but you . . .”

She turned back toward him and inspected him carefully. Dax had the feeling she tried to guess his heart. Did he want the throne? A complicated question. His need to redeem his father’s murder was diminished by the fact that West Landly had a good queen. East Landly’s throne was vacant, but over the years, his desire to rule had been tempered by the realities of command. Besides, Dax was in no position to take the throne. Until he heard the conclave’s decision, for all he knew, he might be an outcast.

However, the queen needed an answer to her question. He knelt before her and bowed his head. “Your Majesty, I pledged to you when the Tharans came that I would save the city and the kingdom for you. I now pledge that I will not take this kingdom from you. Once the assembly selects a new ruler and the crisis is over, I plan to return to Iron Moor and see where my life leads.”

“Rise, General Daxdendraig,” she stated formally, then smiled. “I never doubted you, Dax, but I had to raise the issue. As one of the dragon-bound, I know your statement is the absolute truth, but dragon-bound or not, I trust you.” She gestured to a chair. “Now sit, and let’s talk about this.”

Once they were seated, the queen smiled at him. “I always listen very carefully to what the dragon-bound say, because, although they cannot lie, what they don’t say can be more important than what they do say.” She looked at him appraisingly. “What if the assembly were to offer you the throne?”

This was the question Dax had not answered for himself. The people of the city loved him because he and Kahshect had killed the Tharans’ dragon outside the gates. However, without a royal claim to the throne, many on the assembly would oppose him. If he revealed his royal connection as the lost boy king of West Landly, he would have well and sufficient claim to the throne of East Landly, but that claim could destabilize the monarchy in West Landly.

He would not risk doing harm to West Landly. After thinking carefully, he answered, “I am afraid taking the throne might cause more problems than it would solve.”

Clearly this was not the answer the queen expected. She looked at him oddly. “Could you explain?”

“One complication is that depending on the decision of the conclave, I could be forced to go into exile because of actions I took during the conflict with the Tharans. They might decide I violated the Great Treaty.” Dax waited for her to respond, but she waited patiently. She knew there was more, so he went on. “There is a group of dragon-bound who will arrive soon. I think they will have news. I must talk to them.”

She nodded. “I will respect your judgment on this,” she said solemnly. Then she winked at him. “I also know I still did not hear you say no.”

Yes, Dax had not said no, but he was not ready to say yes either. With all the other events of the last few months, he had not had time to think. To plan. No, he reminded himself. He would not plan anything until he had taken time to think about what any action he might take would mean for Landly, both East and West.

Dax changed the subject. “Teena, one thing about my little foray last evening bothered me. We were followed as we left the site of the fire. I thought it might be an assassin, but now I wonder if something else is going on. I’ve had meetings with representatives from several of the merchant houses in the last few days. Most of the conversations dealt with safety for their property, their trade, that sort of thing.” He ran a hand through his hair while he thought about how to go on. “Several times they wanted me to say something about whom I felt merited their support. I avoided answering at the time, but I suspect they have been trying to draw me into the power struggle. That person last night could have been an attempt to contact me.”

“Or an assassin sent to take you out of the power picture.”

“True enough.” He smiled sardonically. “Some political advisor I’ve turned out to be. I should have included myself from the start as an obvious player in this drama.”

“Dax, Dax.” She smiled again. “I don’t see it as an error on your part. Instead, I think it’s a sign of your character.” She stood up, and he rose with her. “Thank you, Dax. I have another meeting, and I know you do too.”

As he left the room, Dax continued to mull the question of what his role in East Landly should be—advisor, protector, or . . . contender for the crown.

#

He postponed thinking about his conversation with Queen Layna until that evening. He did not want to think about it even then, but he had to. Queen Layna’s observation about his popularity with the people of the kingdom and his personal role in the current power struggle meant he had to make a decision. He knew all too well what being on the low end of the calculus of power meant. Mathilde’s machinations had cost him the throne of West Landly. Worst of all, it had cost Dax his family and his sense of place in the world. Although it had been fifteen years since he had fled the city of Tazzelton, frigid tendrils of fear clutched his heart every time he remembered how alone and frightened he had been. The world in those days had been not just indifferent to his fate, but hostile.

“I’ve always liked the dream where you are in the market square naked with everyone staring at you.

Dax smiled at Kahshect’s reminder. “Yes,” he thought, “I’ve sometimes wondered if that one didn’t come from that time. Goodness knows I’ve had it often enough.”

“So you are going to be a king again?

Dax thought about what he had said. “No. I swore an oath. I will not usurp the assembly’s process of choice.”

“Would you be king if they asked you?

That, of course, was the real question, the one that Dax had yet to resolve. Would he want to be king? He was just a boy when he had been king in West Landly. He had worked, studied, and trained to become ruler of that kingdom. He had worked all the harder after his father, the king, had died—Been poisoned! he reminded himself. A familiar surge of dragon anger accompanied the thought. He took comfort in the anger, but he forced it away. This was a time for thought, not battle.

There was so much a king had to know. So much to do. Evnissyen, his tutor, and Herne, his physical trainer, had never discussed an end to his studies. Scholars in their last year at the upper gymnot school could look forward to celebrating encaenia when they completed their studies. But could one ever learn enough to be king? No, learning alone did not make a good king. The question remained unanswered: Would he be a good king?

“Would you be as good a king as Kankasi was or Ruprek would have been?

“Agh! Not a fair question,” Dax protested. “Kankasi was the king. He was vain with no attention span, but he ruled. Ruprek never got the chance to rule.”

“You are avoiding the question,” the dragon observed.

“Of course I am. I’ve spent years thinking about what might have been. Treyhorn helped me accept the life I was given to lead and not dwell on the impossible.”

“Ah, yes, your great-aunt. So what would she tell you now that becoming king is possible? By the way,” Kahshectadded, “she and the others will be here by midmorning.

“Thank you for telling me. I need to cancel some meetings.” Dax was quiet for a time. He could tell Kahshect still wanted to talk about Treyhorn. “She was a royal,” Dax said, “even though she was born out of wedlock. She could have made a life for herself at court, but she found she was dragon-bound. She made that her life.”

“Would she have liked a life at court?”

“That’s my point.” Dax was on firmer ground here. “She and I talked about my position as ‘king in exile,’ but she made me realize my life would be nothing but bitter regrets if I saw myself that way. I had to find my way to a new life. I had to find out who I really am. I didn’t realize it at the time, but arriving at Iron Moor, where Renshau gave me a new name, marked a turning point.”

“Reborn as a mercenary.”

Dax laughed. “Until Renshau thought I should be a political advisor. Look at how that turned out.”

“Yes,” Kahshect replied almost smugly. “You’re as big a hero in the kingdom of East Landly as any champion. As big a hero as Frohliem, who, if I remember from what you’ve said, became king himself.”

“You keep bringing that up. Are you telling me you think I should be king? Queen Layna might have your ears for her trophy room for saying things like that.”

“Well who knows you better than your own bondmate? If they had any sense, they’d make you king right now and end all the troubles.”

“Right,” Dax sighed. “Well, if I am going to have the verdict of the conclave in the morning, I should get some sleep. I might be an outlaw on the run from all humankind and dragonkind by this time tomorrow.”

“Don’t be silly. We were perfectly justified in killing that drakon. I don’t sense anything but satisfaction from the dragons, and that means their bondmates are happy too.”

“I hope you are right,” Dax said. “Good night, Kahshect.”

“Good night, General Daxdendraig, Hero of East Landly.”

Dax barked a short laugh in reply and retired to his bed. However, he did not fall asleep until much later in the night.

#

Overnight, the cold, sharp wind of early spring turned to a cold, wind-driven rain. Before he left the palace, Dax put on a long cloak of oiled canvas and a wide-brimmed hat. He rode out to what people now called the Dragon Fields. The dragon-bound and their dragons waited there, a safe distance from the city. Bindle Treyhorn greeted him first with a hug. “You look much better than the last time I saw you three months ago.”

“I am better,” he said quietly, “but there are other developments I’d like to talk with you about later.” The others approached, and he wished to save his political worries for another time.

Gadford Rudale shook his hand in greeting. “Walking better, are you?” He gestured to the woman beside him. “I think you know Carel Osset from Marret Town out east?”

Dax took her hand as well. “I apologize for my wet hands. I think the last time we met was the conclave two years ago last summer?”

An older woman, Osset still had the lithe and lively air of most dragon-bound. “My hands are wetter than yours, and you’re right—the summer conclave.”

Renshau waited under the nearby shelter. “Under the tent,” he barked at them. “All of you. Now that I’m warm, I refuse to come out in the cold.” He spoke with his usual tone of command, but the other dragon-bound needed little encouragement to get in out of the raw weather. A small fire warmed the inside of the tent. The Ugori had erected the shelter near their encampment to accommodate the now-frequent visits of the dragon-bound and their dragons.

They shed their wet gear, and Dax offered the group a selection of fresh-baked pastries he had brought in a box from the palace kitchens. After they had made tea with hot water from a pot on the fire, they settled into small but comfortable chairs around its warmth.

“Getting used to fancy cooking now, are you?” Rudale said after he had bitten into a sweet roll.

“Gadford, let’s not keep the poor boy waiting.” Treyhorn turned to Dax. “Conclave concurs you did nothing wrong defending Frohliem City and the kingdom of East Landly from the Tharan attack. Killing the drakon was an act of mercy to the beast. The conclave commended both you and Kahshect for your actions.” She smiled faintly. “Gadford was almost eloquent presenting the case for your defense.”

“What do you mean ‘almost’?” Rudale retorted, and Dax thought he saw a sparkle of amusement in his eyes. Well,Dax thought, a first time for everything.

Dax nodded, absorbing the news. “Thank you, Gadford, and thank you all for your help. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there, but it sounds as if you did a fine job.” The other side of the question remained, so he asked it. “What about the Tharans? Did the conclave decide to do anything?”

Renshau scowled. “The offense was egregious. Our reaction, inadequate.” He shook his head. “We will send an official team to meet their emperor, Darjazen, to demand an explanation for the attack.” He looked down and growled, “What could we do? Declare war?” Treyhorn touched his sleeve, and some of the anger went out of the man, but he still frowned. “I’ve dealt with the Tharans before,” he said. “Darjazen will claim it was a renegade who somehow got his hands on a dragon and decided to take matters into his own hands.”

“The force that attacked was small, so the argument is at least plausible.” Dax continued the thought.

“Plausible if we hadn’t heard the like before.” Rudale started to spit in disgust, then changed his mind when he saw Treyhorn staring at him.

“What do we know from the dragon-bound in Thara?” Dax asked.

Osset spoke up. “There are no dragon-bound in Thara.” Dax looked at her in surprise, and she said, “Sorry, but I guess the subject never came up at any of the meetings you’ve attended.”

“Sure did this time, though,” injected Rudale.

Osset continued. “More than a hundred years ago, the Tharans declared the dragon-bound were abominations. We have no dragon-bound in Thara. No egg-bonding program. Nothing. Thara is a question mark for us.”

Renshau cleared his throat. “We have had clandestine contacts. Although Thara does not allow outsiders to travel freely in their country, we occasionally send one of us along with a trading group. They seldom get outside their port of call, but they listen to gossip in the local marketplaces.” He gestured helplessly with his hands. “It’s not much, but it’s the best we can do.”

“What about airborne patrols by dragon-bound over Thara?” Dax asked.

“We talked about that,” Renshau nodded. “Thara is an awfully large place, but we might see something.”

“Could the draigs do the scouting?” Dax asked. “They have better eyes than we do.”

“Possible. They have better eyes, but they understand less about what they see when they look at the works of men.”

“But what about looking for other drakons?” Dax had brought this idea up before with Renshau and Treyhorn, but he was not sure if the others supported his suspicions. “Now more than ever I’m convinced Thara has been stealing eggs from the Dragon Lands for years.”

“I agree. We should talk more about this.” Treyhorn shifted in her chair, and Dax knew she was about to change the topic. “There’s something else you should know, Dax. One of the Kotkel will go with the delegation to visit Emperor Darjazen.” She nodded at Dax’s surprise. “Yes, they were at Conclave for the first time in years and years. They are involved this time.”

“They’re worried,” Dax stated.

“That was our guess,” added Osset. “I visit the Kotkels’ settling up in the mountains north of Marret Town from time to time. When I told them about the attack, they stopped their harmony song to hold a discussion with the entire population of the settling. They didn’t discuss it in Common, but I could tell they were upset.

“And speaking of the Kotkel,” Osset continued, “we learned something else. You know those sections of the Conclave building we thought must be solid?”

Dax nodded. The dragon-bound assumed the Kotkel had built the large, circular building for themselves an age ago, but abandoned it. Now the dragon-bound used about a quarter of the building for their own purposes. The rest stood empty.

“Turns out, at least some of those areas are storage rooms,” she said and nodded when Dax raised his eyebrows. “I brought three Kotkel to Conclave by drakon. When they arrived, they headed off to an unused area. One of the librarians followed them to a doorway where there had never been a doorway before.”

“Damned Kotkel had their own private door,” Rudale broke in. “We can’t even see the doors, let alone open them, but they must have a key.”

“What did they do?” Dax asked.

“They went in and came out rolling a cart with Kotkel-size chairs and other furnishings.” Osset shook her head. “Their stuff must have been in storage in the room for hundreds of years—maybe much longer. Yet when I had a chance to look at it, the fabric on the chairs could have been woven yesterday.”

“The librarians pulled out plan drawings they’ve made of the building,” Renshau said. Dax knew the Kotkel and their history interested his mentor. “Their drawings are rough, but we estimate around twenty percent of the first level is taken up by spaces only the Kotkel can access. There’s a larger proportion of space on the upper floors.”

“All storage?” Dax asked.

“We asked, but from what we could tell, the Kotkel didn’t know for sure.” Renshau paused and pulled thoughtfully at his chin. “My guess is they have records about the Conclave building somewhere, but this group only had information about where to find items to make themselves comfortable.”

They chewed on the new facts a while longer, but nothing interesting emerged from their speculations. The tent had sleeping accommodations, and the visiting dragon-bound planned to stay the night. Dax wanted to talk more with Treyhorn, and after a quiet word from him, she offered to accompany him back to the city for the night.

The nasty weather made the ride back every bit as pleasurable as the ride out. Dax made his great-aunt comfortable in his quarters, then attended to his afternoon business. Over supper that evening, he sketched out the recent events and his conversation with the queen about Dax’s role in the power calculus of the kingdom.

“Well, that’s something you should talk to Nale about,” Treyhorn said.

“Renshau knows politics, but it’s not the politics I want to talk about,” Dax sighed.

She arched an eyebrow at him. “You want to talk about what you felt when the queen brought up the idea you might want to be king? Although, knowing you, you have been thinking along those lines anyway.”

Dax nodded. She knew him well, but his thoughts were unsettled. One part of him saw redemption of his exile and fulfillment of his vow to win back a crown. Another part of him saw dishonor and even treachery in thinking he wanted to be king of a kingdom where he was an outsider. Treyhorn listened impassively as he described his conflict.

“Are you worried about ruling?”

He had expected her to comment on his concerns, and the question took him aback for a moment. He started to give a glib reply, but found he could not get the words out. His dragon-bound requirement for absolute truth stopped him. He was worried about ruling. But why? Commanding mercenary armies had never bothered him, and even when Queen Layna had given him responsibility for the defense of the city, he had never flinched. Why would the idea of ruling bother him? After he thought a while longer, he began to understand his hesitation. Treyhorn waited patiently.

“Yes,” he finally admitted. “I’ve never had to make decisions about what to do. I’ve only had to worry about howto do what I was told to do.”

Treyhorn nodded. “Makes a difference, doesn’t it? Sounds like you have to decide whether you are a chisel or the sculptor. A chisel carves the stone, but a sculptor decides what the stone will become.”

They talked late into the evening, but Treyhorn’s comment lingered in his mind. She had clarified an aspect of the problem for him—an aspect he had not considered before. Dax spent another night in his bed doing as much thinking as he did sleeping.

#

In the next month, winter faded into memory, and the spring flowers bloomed. Politics in East Landly and particularly Frohliem City had warmed up faster than the weather. The succession question hung over the kingdom like the dark clouds of a threatening storm. Dax decided to act. He had promised the queen he would not seek the throne, but he had not answered her question about what he would say if he were given the throne. However, Dax still was unsure of the answer to an important question of his own. Would his action solve the problem or create bigger ones? He knew the one person to ask and the way to ask it.

Venjet Carmodi had gotten in the habit of coming to see Dax in his palace apartment in the evening, and Dax often returned the visits. Carmodi had come back to East Landly with the relief expedition sent by Queen Dara from West Landly after the Tharan attack. At that point he had announced his retirement as ambassador to West Landly. Now he lived in Frohliem City, and Dax enjoyed hearing the older man’s stories from Dax’s former home. Carmodi, for his part, was happy to have an appreciative audience.

This evening Carmodi brought Scarlet along when he came calling. Scarlet appreciated the older man’s conversation too, but he also appreciated Carmodi’s taste in wine. The old man always brought the evening’s refreshments because, as he said, “While the dragon-bound can be trusted for the truth, they cannot be trusted for the wine.”

Tonight the succession crisis came up early in their discussion. Carmodi launched into a prolonged narration of events at this day’s meeting of the Assembly of Nobles. The ex-ambassador was on the Assembly of Nobles because of his ties to the royal family, but he described his connection as “a royal ruffle rather than a regal relation.” The other two had saluted Carmodi with their glasses in tribute to the clever phrase. It was a part of what made their evening talks interesting.

Carmodi was restless tonight. He paced the room, waving his arms in the air as he related details of a complicated five-way split in the assembly. Two factions favored two different candidates who had emerged from the nobility, but they were weak contenders at best. Three other blocs favored raising members of the merchant houses to the nobility to fill the vacant positions, but they each had different schemes favoring different houses.

Scarlet set his drink down. “Have they made any progress at all?”

Carmodi picked up the bottle of wine. He refilled Scarlet’s glass and made a nod toward Dax’s glass. Dax waved him off, and Carmodi topped off his own glass. After he put the bottle back, the old man strode over to the window and sighed. “The only progress the assembly has made is to deepen the lines of division. The people of the city and the kingdom have similar divisions but less patience. We’ve had more and more riots, with the latest in Falls Meadow almost rising to the point of an armed rebellion.”

“So what solves it?” Scarlet asked.

Carmodi lowered himself back into his favorite chair and put his feet up on the footstool. “If only the Goddess would whisper in my ear, I would tell you,” he said resignedly and took a swallow of wine. “Last week someone even suggested me as a compromise.” He set his glass down and made an elaborate gesture that almost looked as if he were bowing to himself. “Me? A king? May the Goddess be merciful on this land.”

Dax chuckled. “Well, I’d much rather see you on the throne than many others I’ve heard talk of.” The conversation was in the right place, and it was time. Dax smiled and said deliberately, “Next they may suggest me for the job.”

Carmodi picked up his wine again and took another sip. “Ah, now wouldn’t that be a thought. If we could find just a trace of royal blood in you, my boy, we’d have you on that throne so quickly—” He stopped midsentence because Scarlet’s head snapped up to look at Dax. Just as quickly Scarlet looked away, but Carmodi had noticed the sudden motion.

“Dear me,” Carmodi said. “What did I just say?” He turned to look questioningly at Dax. “Could there be a royal connection in your family, General Daxdendraig?” he said formally. He arched an eyebrow and cocked his head to one side, awaiting a reply.

The moment had arrived. Dax had thought much about his role in this kingdom after his conversation with Treyhorn. He and Kahshect had talked at length. A chisel or a sculptor? Dax looked at his half-full wine glass and took a rather large sip. “When I arrived at Iron Moor as a cadet, Nale Renshau gave me a new name.” His heart thumped in his chest at what he was about to say. “Before that moment, my name was Kort Leith Tavas. My father’s name was Conal—”

“Cor Tavas,” Carmodi finished with him. He rose from his chair as he uttered the name. “By the Goddess in all her aspects, can this be?” He reached out and touched his weathered old hand to Dax’s head. His hand trembled, and there were tears in his eyes. He stood silent for a long time before he breathed, “King Darius Ambergriff X, the lost boy king of West Landly?”

A sheepish smile crept up to Dax’s lips. Carmodi took his hand away and slapped himself on the forehead. “Of course! DAX—Dax.” Carmodi danced a jig and finished with a fancy little pirouette. A dollop of wine splashed unnoticed to the floor from the glass he still held. “Oh, this is glorious! Marvelous!” He stood and looked at Dax. “Yes!” he exclaimed. “We must tell the queen.” He looked skyward in supplication. “She will be so excited. I can’t wait to tell her!”

Carmodi was beside himself with excitement and would not wait an instant. He called his manservant and sent word immediately to the queen, requesting an urgent audience. Although the hour was late, the servant returned quickly with word the queen would see them. Scarlet wanted to excuse himself at that point, but Carmodi would have none of it. “You’re his closest friend, and you knew all the time, didn’t you? Well, you can just come and vouch for him—as if one of the dragon-bound needed vouching for.”

Dax sighed with relief—Carmodi thought the idea was a good one. A good idea? The man was positively giddy with excitement. Scarlet looked at Dax hesitantly, but Dax nodded in agreement. Scarlet might not enjoy it, but Dax wanted the reassurance of his friend’s companionship.

They waited just a short time in the plush anteroom of the queen’s audience chamber before the door swung open and a maid invited them inside. Queen Layna did not look befuddled by sleep, but she had obviously dressed quickly.

For once there were no social niceties. After everyone was seated, she arched her eyebrows and looked at Carmodi speculatively. “What is so important to bring you all here at this hour of the evening, Venjet?”

Carmodi fidgeted in his chair with excitement. “I have most wonderful news, Your Majesty. The succession problem is solved.”

The queen blinked and opened her eyes wide. “Solved?” She turned her speculative gaze to Dax before looking back at Carmodi. “In what way?”

Carmodi turned to look at Dax as well. “It turns out General Daxdendraig has a royal connection!” Carmodi bounced on his chair and clasped his hands in front of him. “More than just a connection,” he went on excitedly. “His claim to the throne exceeds . . .” He paused because the queen had gotten to her feet and walked past him.

She reached out her hand toward Dax. “Dax,” she said in wondering tones. “The boy king of West Landly?” She gently touched Dax on his cheek.

Carmodi looked crestfallen. “You knew?” he asked, sounding disappointed. “I so wanted to be the one to tell you,” he said almost petulantly.

Queen Layna turned and smiled at the old ambassador. “Oh, Venjet, don’t be silly. You did tell me.”

“Eh? When?”

“Why just this moment. Excited as you were, it had to be something amazing. Now it all makes sense.” She took Dax’s chin in her hand and turned his face up to look at her. “This is marvelous.” She sounded content, and although she looked at his face, her eyes were far away. “I understand so much now.” She took her hand away and looked back at Carmodi. “Venjet, thank you for this news. I can’t think of a better answer to our problem.”

She stepped away from Dax and returned to her chair. She sat and stared off into space. She had to be thinking about the assembly and the impact the news would have. Her eyes focused on Dax. “I must consider how this will be done,” she said. “Promoting you to general wasn’t hard, but promoting you to king? That’s quite a different matter.”

Dax leaned forward. “One thing we must not do is reveal my connection to the throne of West Landly,” he said firmly. “I explained this to Venjet. If I announce myself as the missing King Ambergriff, West Landly will face a political crisis every bit as difficult as ours. They have a good queen who thought only to help us when the Tharans attacked. I want no trouble for West Landly.” He sat back and folded his arms. “Can you do this?” It was his only requirement, but it was a big one.

For a moment, the chamber was silent. After a bit, the queen nodded. “Wise words, and I agree. It wouldn’t do to have both East and West Landly in turmoil. Not with the Tharans sitting just to our south—not that they ever would thinkof taking advantage of it,” she finished sarcastically.

She looked thoughtful for a time. “If this is to be done, we must be circumspect. I will make no quick decision tonight. We need additional allies on the assembly. For the moment, no one here will say a word.” She looked around the group, and her eyes lingered on Scarlet.

Dax jumped in to defend his friend. “Scarlet has known for a long time, but I pledged him to silence. I’ve trusted him with my life too many times not to trust him now.”

Satisfied, Queen Layna nodded. “We must tell the assembly soon, but we must tell them carefully. When we move, we must be quick and decisive. The decision must be made before the factions can mount opposition.” She looked at Dax and nodded. “Oh, yes. As much as the people of the kingdom love you, some on the assembly will hate you as king.”She sighed and stood up. The audience was over. Dax and the others rose with her. She gestured toward the door. “Dax, this will be a happy task.” She smiled. “Now I must think and plan for how it will be done.”

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