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For the Good of My House

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For as long as Andross could remember, House Kholin of Ursa Madeum and House Ul’Vandiir from across the Great Sea had been business associates. He’d been a young man during their family’s first trade agreement with the elves, back when the Tyrant King still sat upon his throne, and his father, Gavin Kholin, did well to ensure that the youngest of his twin sons understood why. Though he would not be head of the house upon his father’s passing—that charge fell to his brother, Alexandros, born just moments before him—it was of the utmost importance that he understood the intricacies of how their family played the great game. And so, by his father’s will, Andross learned, studied, and practiced.

Still, he never understood why his father did business with elves. Yes, they had access to the rare runestone from the Far East, but was it worth their snide remarks so thinly veiled as compliments? Was it worth their sneers, and how they looked down their noses at them? It was a wonder they hadn’t yet developed vertigo as an inheritable defect. Even the Ul’Vandiir, so low on their own cultural hierarchy that they’d been forced to find greener pastures amongst the world’s mortal population, still had an air of arrogance and entitlement about them. It wasn’t nearly as thick as some of the others he’d read and heard of, but it was noticeable.

Likely, that’s why he enjoyed his time with Vivienne as much as he did. Andross had never bothered to give it much thought.

One hand on the elf’s shapely hip, pulling her into each blow, the other pressed just over her shoulder and firmly planted against the cool stone of the dimly lit corridor, the young lord worked tirelessly behind her. Andross had always suspected Vivienne wasn’t like her family, at least not entirely, and she’d confirmed it the day of their first affair. Now, it had become something of an annual expectation for both of them. While their fathers toiled away at the details of the latest contract, Andross would “show their honored guest’s daughter the grounds”, which always devolved into little more than a sordid romp wherever there were least prying eyes. This time, it was a corridor adjacent to Skyfall Manor’s grand hall.

For the better part of a half-hour, they played their wicked game, just barely lit by the crystals mounted in the walls. Two phantoms tossing about the hall, locked in an intimate struggle with low, muffled sounds of pleasure. Andross leaned into her, putting all his weight behind his powerful stride, while he clamped his teeth down on the breadth of her tapered left ear. He’d been surprised to learn that wasn’t a very elven thing to do – biting another elf’s ear, though it seemed to bring them a great deal of pleasure. Elves, they had a strange sense of propriety, but one of little consequence here in Ursa Madeum. So he bit Vivienne’s ear, tugged on it with teeth and lips, knowing she loved every second of it.

Before too long, the young lord was finished, and he slumped into the deep arch he’d made of her back. It had always been her way to quickly shove him off her after they’d had their fun,  so that she could quickly set to the task of making herself once again presentable to their families. These last two years, though, something had changed. Now, he caught his breath, holding onto her as the heat continued to bound between their bodies to elevated heartbeats. There’d never been any romance between the two, not even a real sense of companionship – only a mutual, burning desire. But when she behaved this way, Andross could see the beginning of a favorable friendship taking root between them.

It was unlikely, seeing as they only crossed paths once a year. But it was a nice thought.

Andross untangled himself from the elf with a palpable reluctance and took a step back from her, adjusting his attire and quickly making himself presentable. He wore a simple militant uniform of Aegean blue with silver trim, set tight at the shoulders, waist, and wrists, with hardened leather boots that were well-worn. It was a stiff ensemble, sharp and freshly pressed, and fit him well both in form and temperament. He used the sleeve to wipe the sweat from his dark-skinned brow.

He slicked his hair back, what curly, white locks managed to slip free of their binding and fastened them once again. Breathing slow and deep, he looked at Vivienne with dazed hazel eyes, still supporting herself against the wall, the appealing swell of her backside just barely covered by the skirt of her dress. “What were you saying about the mines?” He hadn’t forgotten their earlier conversation, in spite of such a thorough distraction. There’d been a concern in her expression when she first mentioned it, Andross remembered, though that had quickly matured into seduction and hunger.

It wasn’t like Vivienne to discuss anything pertaining to her family, let alone their holdings. That she sought to do so now was troubling, though Andross did not reveal any of his concerns. Instead, he set his bearded jaw and looked the woman over more suspiciously. Could this all be some kind of game? It was easy to forget what she was when he was between her legs, working her with a fury. Vivienne was not some hopeless romantic or love-stricken maiden—she was an elf, a Hexmistress no less, as calculating as she was conniving. Andross frowned at that.

“It seemed... important.”

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zlm9mL5.jpg?1It had continued to be their annual tradition, this "showing of the grounds"-- which had been a facetiously polite excuse for Vhoori Ul'Vandiir to rid himself the burden of his daughter, Vivienne, for a few hours while negotiations were underway.  The Ul'Vandiir, a proud but fallen Elven house, had found it an unfortunate necessity to trade with the humans of Ursa Madeum, a casualty of the exodus in Kadia.  They were not dark elves, the sort that would've earned Corvinus' wrath, but despite their wood elf heritage, they were no less cornered by religious intolerance under his regime, no freedom of religion that would allow the stalwart house of Gaianists to go by unnoticed.  Having to leave most of their wealth and prestige behind, House Ul'Vandiir fled north, negotiating shrewdly for a spit of land and a pocket of ore mines in the Arcane East.

That was where Vivienne became enlightened.

Vhoori had been especially disapproving of his daughter, as Vivienne had become one of the faithful to the Eternal One, the blood red that claimed the irises of her eyes denoted her devotion to the Blood-God Sauriel, an affront nothing short of heresy by taking a faith other than that of her forefathers.  In Vhoori's mind, it was trading one tyrant for another, his own daughter defiling herself in blasphemy of blood magic, when the elves owed all their magic and being to mother Gaia.  Were it any other member of his house, he would have disowned and banished them without a second thought, but it was not even because Vivienne was his own daughter that she was not cast away-- but the mark that lay emblazoned beneath her eye.  The Mark of the Augur, a birthmark that signified Vivienne's Gaia-given [allegedly] ability to scry and see glimpses of the future.  Hers was a treasure he could not afford to simply throw away, but he made to shelter Vivienne's offenses to Gaia and Odin Haze with a dreadful vehemence.

Vivienne was only in Ursa Madeum for the appearance of numbers, the elves of the Ul'Vandiir not reproducing quite so quickly as their human counterparts, and thus every able body was conscripted to the visiting party to treat with House Kholin.  It was an exhausting display of pomp and circumstance, as the terms of their renewed contracted contained little new information, but the highfaluting heads of houses preened themselves like prized peacocks; the Ul'Vandiir a house of elves fallen from grace and prosperity, and the Kholins, only a minor noble house in Ursa Madeum who had their reputations bolstered by their exclusive contract with the elves, making them the sole importer of triastine to the islands.  Their listless lobbying could go on for hours, and could render Vivienne (as most of the remainder of both parties) positively comatose.  She would have been remiss not to be at least a little thankful for coming into the acquaintance of Andross, House Kholin's second eldest son, in her second year.

Theirs was a very succinct and physical relationship, brevity stressed by the nature of the arrangement, for she and her House only came once a year.  Andross had matured from boy to man in that time, the seven years gone by, while Vivienne had remained quite the same, if not a little more dry in humor (and only in humor) with the passage of time, for elves retained their youth for much, much longer.  Vivienne had rather liked the way his maturity had peaked upon Andross, the once-seldom whiskers of teenage years now seen to the completion of a proper beard, still as white as the fresh snowfall in winter.  It made him quite handsome, evidence by how quickly she'd enticed him, this time.  With her knee hiked up onto an oak sideboard in the hallway, their amusements had worn decent damage into the wall, but it simply couldn't be helped.  For Vivienne's reputation at home in the Arcane East, few were willing to lie with a heretic-- if she was going to remain celibate the remainder of the year, she'd best have made this one count.

She exhaled sharply with his completion of the deed, drumming at her own chest with her fingertips as if to temper the beating of her own heart, soothing it back to a comfortable rhythm.  Vivienne made apathetic work of readjusting her clothing, no mind paid to the mess that was covered up as a housemaid swept dirt beneath a rug.  Vivienne's tastes were quite simple, for she favored the tight and scantily-clad (of which made her conservative father sound so protective he almost cared), and often paired with a rich, rare pelt.  Today's whims saw her in black, crested with a high neckline and delicate gold chains, and a fluffy pelt made from pale Obsidian Hares.

Stringing her fingers through her hair to gather it back into some semblance of propriety, she ventured a curious look back at Andross, watching intently as he made meticulous work of cleaning himself.  "The mines of Mt. Saint Rias," she elaborated, though she hadn't expected Andross to pay attention, "I had a vision... the vein of ore had run dry."  Her tone lingered, as if to say more, but paused as her fingers lifted to stroke her velvety, pointed ear.  She'd never once doubted her visions, but the rumple in her brow showed concern for what she'd witnessed, prompted by the out-of-body experience his pleasure had delivered her.  "Andross--" she started, in a hissing whisper, almost confused with a twist to her lips and a scrunch in her nose, "--how did you come across a Racnaxa?  An Oath Breaker?"  Her blood-red eyes were full of scrutiny, a certainty and disbelief that were mounting equal assaults in the logic of Vivienne's mind.  "I'm sorry, I am unfamiliar with this name in the common tongue.  I believe you call it an Oathblade?"  Vivienne looked positively stunned, as if she'd just seen the miracle of the fountain of youth, and her face paled nearly as white as the pelt on her back.  "I must confess, I thought relics as those were merely superstition; power too great for any mortal to wield and were simply the nature of human exaggeration.  There can be only one explanation."  Her eyes were wide, as she gripped Andross by the biceps of his dark blue military coat, looking both grave and revering.  "You have been chosen."

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Before that evening, Andross had never put much stock in Vivienne’s “visions.” She’d mentioned the strange ability of scrying the future once before during an annual visit, though as she neglected to divulge any details surrounding what she’d seen, the young noble had dismissed the claim as mere superstition (elves are a magical people, true enough, but also known to exaggerate their talents) or, perhaps worse, some backhanded manner of insulting him. Vivienne may have been different from the more snobbish members of her thinned house, but she was still an elf, after all.

“That isn’t funny.” Andross’s frowned seemed from prominent, full lips framed by the white-gray of a thick, groomed beard. “You shouldn’t make such strong accusations light—”

“How did you come across a Racnaxa? An Oath  Breaker?”

Andross arched a white eyebrow.

“I’m sorry, I am unfamiliar with this name in the common tongue. I believe you call it an Oathblade?”

Eyes wide, lips parting, it was a brief moment of shock. Andross thought to speak but found no words. How did she know? It was a secret he’d neglected to reveal even to his father; one held so close to the vest it might as well have been buried beneath his chest, fixed right next to his heart. Andross had been careful in the months since he’d found the strange sword that night of the storm. Somehow, he’d knew what it was the moment it touched his fingertips—and knew it was something he could not trust with another living soul.

And yet, Vivienne, an elf that lived across the sea, knew of his greatest possession? Were her visions real?

Reeling in his surprise from the edges of his face, Andross’s eyes narrowed as his lips pressed into a thin, penciled line. He stepped closer toward her, leaning in to keep his voice a mere whisper. “I would appreciate it if you never mentioned that again.” Straying from her beauty to study the hallway, still vacant spare for the two of them, his hazel eyes returned to studied her with an almost appraising sharpness. “Chosen or not, that is not something I have divulged to my family. It’s too dangerous.” There was no shortage of stories that told of wars being raged for weapons like those, kingdoms falling and entire families being erased from history.

If there was one thing Andross had learned throughout his life, it was never to underestimate the greed or ambition of another man. His family was militant, but their holdings small and their soldiers limited in number. If even two of the other noble houses decided to align against them, even with the blade, Andross was not so sure House Kholin would survive. If Vivienne’s visions were true, it seemed they wouldn’t be able to rely on their elven “allies” for any support, either.

“So, you’ve seen the mines, hm? The vein is dry?” It was troubling news, to say the least. How long had it been so, and more importantly, how long had Vivienne known? Multiple visits before this one? How much money had her family robbed his for? No, he told himself. There’s no point in trying to paint her as a villain. Her loyalty should be to her house, and yet, she’s divulged this information to you. “Strong accusations, indeed. Come, I must report this to my father immediately.” Punctuating that his words were not a suggestion, Andross hooked his arm around hers and started for the grand hall.

“My father, he won’t be lulled into terminating the contract because of your visions.” Gavin Kholin was a hardy man, one that trusted only the earth beneath his boots and the steel in his hand. He wasn’t fond of magic or sorcery. “I need to know everything you can tell me about that mine, what you’ve seen – something distinguishing. If I can spin the story as though I’ve received word from spies, then it’s far more likely to sway my father’s mind.” Andross pursed his lips. “If the vein is dry, what has your family been selling us this past year?”

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Vivienne knew, whether because she was already aware or that she trusted Andross' gaze, that they were alone, but she agreed: walls often had ears.  "As well you should worry," she replied tepidly, with a check of her eyes down, and then up again, "Fate does not lead a person to objects like that for no reason."  Her brow rumpled with thinly-veiled prudence, her eyes affixed to the askew, medal-like emblem of House Kholin on his jacket, and wasted little patience before righting it, herself.  Perfectionism made her a bit fussy, though Andross straightened his posture like a cock abreast, earning only a moment's glance of her red eyes to find him unusually compliant versus the routine nature of their relationship, before finishing her task with full attention.  "Whether that purpose is for yourself, or to be the stepping stone for another, greater man..." she said, her voice trailing off, for she did not need to illuminate him to the consequences, "Seems even Fate could have a sense of humor.  Though, with the sight has been gifted to me, it would be a poor showing if it was all for irony."  She ran her thumb over the lion's face of his medal, seeming to reinvigorate it with some lost luster.  Satisfied and complete in her compulsion, she gave him an appeased pat on the chest.

Contemplating his well-worth concerns, Vivienne framed her chin between her thumb and forefinger, rubbing thoughtfully at her lower lip.  "No, it's more recent than that," she recalled, the ambivalent gaze weighed down beneath a heavy brow.  Vivienne was pacing now, back and forth across the thin breadth of the hallway, and her pointed ears subtly shifted this way and that as her reasoning came together.  "It was snowing, and our first snows in the Arcane East were nary a fortnight ago; St. Rias isn't high enough in the mountains to warrant the cold before we do.  And Father's hair was trimmed, the way it is now," she said, though she purposefully omitted the part where that was her fault, "So it couldn't have been long.  There's been no problem with the triastane your family has received thus far?  Father mentioned trying to lengthen the period of engagement-- perhaps he might be trying to sell the mine, itself."  Vivienne didn't need to explain the financial ramifications, Andross was already there; and like a prime military man, was ready with a plan.

Well, half of one.

"A moment, Andross," the elf cautioned him, a resistant tug plied to his arm.  The look she paid him understood his urgency, but conveyed herself accomplice to his wishes.  "I don't wager Gavin Kholin would believe in my visions, either," she agreed, gesturing vaguely to the elvish birthmark beneath her left eye.  She hadn't known the head of House Kholin particularly well, but if his son was any shade of the man, it was going to take a lot more-- and she didn't have seven years to prove it.  Vivienne bit her lower lip with concern, turning the skin a rosy pink, and shook her head.  "I didn't see the inside, just overheard a conversation," she said, for there was no way to distinguish them without witness.  She was retracing all of her visions, as best her memory could, for she was shown them only once.  However, the mines of Mount St. Rias were not the only vision she was shown this day.

An idea sparked as brightly as the first light of the hearth, prompting a small squeal from between Vivienne's flush lips, and a jovial bounce at his side that passed the current to her counterpart in a way that made Andross seem abruptly shaken.  "I'll do you one better," she promised confidently, a wry smile beaming up at him as she held onto his forearm.  In a meticulous, consecutive flow of movements, Vivienne pushed her hair behind her pointy elf ears, one after the other, and slid the hem of her large pelt further back, as if a spellcaster rolling up her proverbial sleeves.  "You might not be able to bring --you know--" she paused, with a suggestive shrug, before continuing, "but that's no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak."

"Give me your knife," she bade him.  Vivienne thrust a hand out, expectantly.  Impatient at his expected pause, she clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, for his disbelief.  "Oh, for Sauriel's sake," she scoffed with an exaggerating roll of her neck, making a sour face at him, and curled her fingers at him again, "The one in your boot.  Come now, we don't have all day."

-----

By the time Vivienne and Andross had shuffled into the back of House Kholin's great hall, the reception listless and weary as the morning had turned into afternoon, though no one had dared alert their liege lords to the excessive passage of time.  Their number were many, House Kholin and their retainers all noticeably human to one side, of various shades and complexities of skin and hair, dabbled with freckles or bespectacled by eyeglass, or even scarred by game or man; the Ul'Vandiir stood to the other, all fair, blonde, and in some matter of green for their staunch faith, homage to mother Gaia.  The walls took a shade of weathered bronze, a sea-like mossy green for the age of the stone that had seen many a rainy season on the island, and for the hall's small size, made it seem all the more crowded.  Nearly everyone was standing, a display of numbers disguised as might, save for the few who deigned themselves permit to speak: at the head of the great oak table, Gavin and Alexandros Kholin, and to their immediate side, Vhoori Ul'Vandiir.

Vhoori had, by no stretch of the imagination, the textbook defining appearance of a shrewd man.  He was tall, tall enough to look down his thin nose at just about everyone, scrunching at every other word with a scrutinizing gaze.  Each word was carefully selected, measured, and chosen to be as fine as his clothes, so as to dwarf those that were beneath him.  Vhoori Ul'Vandiir was layered in sweeping fabrics, bunched and draped, in a tartan of earthy fabrics, woven with the finest detail.  His hair was smoothly swept back, not a single strand out of place, landing just above his shoulder blades.  While speaking his calculated, wearisome words, he constantly preened at wrinkles in the constant pursuit of perfection, sharing that particular obsessive compulsion with his daughter.

On the table, an array of ore was scattered on the surface, rounded and raw nuggets carved from the quarry in a splay, like marbles thrown by a haphazard child.  It was unrefined, the shapes inconsistent and marbled in its teal sheen, no piece larger than a finger.  Gavin and Alexandros Kholin handled them observantly, running their thumbs across the surface of the metal ore, with an appraiser's air but not their skill.  Vhoori, alternating every so often between grooming the collection of shiny rubble and then himself, gestured between sentences, facing the nobleman and his eldest son with what could barely be called a smile.

"Then we are agreed," he stated, "For the price of five years' exchange in trade, House Kholin will purchase the plot of St. Rias, and all contained therein."  Vhoori was trying his best to be charming, they could all tell, but he couldn't help but sound snobbish, almost missing the comical set of spectacles to push pretentiously up his too-long nose.  "We'll draft up a contract immediately, and you'll have your fortune."

Vivienne nearly hissed by Andross' side, sucking in air from between the wince of her teeth.  She clutched her hand close to her chest, a white strip of fabric wrapped around it-- a bandage.  "He is trying to sell the mine," she confirmed in a whisper.  With a concerned turn, the elf looked up at him, and then jabbed him gently in the side with her elbow.  "Andross, do something."

Edited by Narcissa

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Andross eyed the woman sharply as she drove her elbow into his side, a bony dagger with more prod than pierce. Knowing it would be a waste of time and effort to caution patience, he instead left Vivienne where she stood, enacting his intervention.

He passed the elf lord first, paying his respects to the foreign noble-turned-petty thief with a curt nod of acknowledgment. Vhoori, true to his icy reputation (which had proven startlingly accurate over the years Andross had known him), responded in kind with a nod of his own, equally as curt and disinterested. Then he was alongside his father and brother at the head of the great oak table, the latter of which can him a suspicious, knowing glance.

“Finished showing our guest the grounds already?” Alexandros’s grin was sly, but brief.

Andross frowned. “Please, have some class.”

Their banter earned a questionable glance from their father, though thankfully, he remained void of inquiries. The old lord instead turned his hardened gaze back to the mineral in his hand, this piece a jagged splinter with deep emerald hue. Lord Vhoori likely saw it as a dismissal of responsibilities, being the youngest twin (and thus fashioned into a man of battle as opposed to politics), for he too seemed unbothered by the words.

“So, you intend to buy the entire mine then, father?” Andross asked.

Gavin nodded. “Lord Vhoori has made us a generous offer.”

Andross cut his eyes to the elf lord, wintry and hellish. “How kind of you.” Then, he returned his attention back to his father. “Has the ore been tested?”

It used to be that all the ores were rigorously tested, even the samples. Gavin’s trust was something earned, not recklessly given. It wasn’t until recent years that Andross could remember his father becoming lax in receiving their shipments, simply trusting their elven partners to uphold their end of the bargain. Besides, the ore was still good—better than the ore they mined from the nearby mountains—for a land as rich with magic as Genesarian typically produced quality material, which sometimes made discerning what from what difficult.

Gavin looked at his son incredulously. “No, why?”

Andross didn’t meet his gaze, but instead looked a small way’s to his left, studying Vhoori. The elf’s expression was terse, doggedly glacial. “This is probably going to be one the largest purchases our house has ever made, father. While I mean this as no offense to Lord Vhoori’s intentions, we cannot shirk precaution and duty for the sake of familiarity. The ore should be tested.”

Alexandros scoffed, gesturing at his younger brother. “You say that you mean no offense in one breath, then spit in Lord Vhoori’s face in the next.” Though Alexandros smiled, he set a hand heavy hand on Andross’s shoulder, squeezing in a gesture that said, Brother, this was my deal. There will be hell to pay if you ruin this.

Andross’s resolve didn’t waver. “The ore should be tested.”

Alexandros’s smiled died, buried beneath a deep frown. The older twin looked to their father, hoping to rally support for his claim.

Gavin’s expression was pensive, his brows wrinkled as he considered Andross’s words. Then, he nodded. “We’ll test the ore, then. You” – he gestured toward a darkeyed servant – “Go fetch the—”

With a swiftness and grace that came from years of practice, Andross knelt and drew his marked blade from inside the lip of his boot. The rune Vivienne had fashioend was small and near the base of the blade, a hair’s breadth from the hilt. He noted the queer looks from his sibling and father, and the suspicious glare from Vhoori, but ignored them as he rose. “We all know that the trademark of triastine is its greenish hue, but also, that it lacks magnetic properties like steel or iron. My knife has been modified to test just that.”

Vhoori opened his mouth to speak, but Andross’s hand was already in motion. The blade clanked against a small shard of ore, and when he lifted it, the jade-hued sample clung to the steel like ice to stone. Saying nothing, Andross extended his arm, asserting it in the view of all those nearby.

The silence in the room was deafening.

Edited by King

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As he held out the knife like a feat of divine miracle, the hush of whispers made the overwhelming surprise absolutely palpable, and every pair of eyes found themselves on Andross... except Vhoori's.  From the moment he saw the blood rune reflected on the blade of his knife, his icy stare had combed through the crowd in a beeline for his daughter, who stared defiantly back.  He had already known what was to come, even without the sight his insolent daughter had been so privileged to have, for the outcome was inevitable from even the first time Gavin's son had challenged it.  The trust between their two houses had been forged to perfection, that they would've made off with the gold and never needed to look back on this betrayal to House Kholin.

Vhoori Ul'Vandiir was silent for a long while, long enough to let some of the gazes of his fellow countrymen wander his way; others didn't, telltale admittance of their guilt in the deception.  Inhaling so briskly that it had wrinkled his long, pointed nose, he bristled as he pivoted back in his seat to face the heads of House Kholin, at that moment seeming like a three-headed Hydra, a single claw bared in the knife that grasped Vhoori's foul counterfeit ore in its menacing coil.  "Lord Gavin--" he began, in a tempered, firm voice, but was quickly repelled.

"Not another word from you," Gavin Kholin warned Vhoori, the timbre of his voice deep and gravelly.  He was slow to gather himself from his chair, raising to an imposing height over the seated elf, though whether he felt greater anger or dissatisfaction for the offense, it was too hard to tell.  More than anything else, he looked tired.  His thin-eyed glance dropped only to follow the path of his hand sweeping across the table, gathering up the warped, sea-green metal fragments in his palm, before letting them spill back onto the mahogany.  "Seven years we've been at this, Vhoori," Gavin said, dropping the namesake of title, propriety not arbitrarily thrown to the wayside, "Seven years that we've nursed this trust, seeing it through infancy and to childlike adolescence.  And all the while we have endured the way you and yours look down your nose at us, though we are as instrumental to your prosperity as you are to ours."  He spoke as if betrayal by the Ul'Vandiir had been expected, perhaps even a little disappointed that the elves were not beholden to this wisdom on their own, given their race's affinities.  "If the well being of your house must come at the expense of House Kholin, then we may no longer do business."  His chair squeaked as it slid along the floor, making space enough to signify that he planned to leave, his will imparted.  "Nor, I imagine, with any other house of Ursa Madeum, given that you've tainted who knows how much of their triastine stores."

Vhoori was about to object, from the way he lurched forward with jaw open, but another voice cleaved the crowd.

"The triastine Lord Vhoori has sent you thus far is pure, save this lot," Vivienne spoke, gesturing with a splayed hand towards the small bounty on the table, "That I can assure you; I have seen it.  Appraise it if you must, you'll find no compromising of Ursa Madeum's prized airship fleet, either."  She dipped her head with a polite curtsy, the great white pelt on her back shuddering as she quickly resumed her height.  The elf kept her bandaged hand close to her chest, fingers wound tightly in a fist to apply pressure to the cut she'd sliced across her palm, the price of the magnetic rune the Hexmistress had applied to Andross' knife.  Vivienne's red eyes shifted, exchanging tepid glances with Vhoori, who's scowl was growing ever greater.  She spoke curtly, polite and without her usual charm, insinuating an understood honesty in her claims.  "I implore you, forgive my father his lapse in judgement.  The depletion of the mine has placed an unbearable stress on we Ul'Vandiir, my father enduring its burden most of all."  There was no way to lighten his treachery, though Vivienne navigated it like a calm river, pushing carefully through each bend with a firm hand.  "Being dependent on others for self-sufficiency does not come natural for an elf, and neither the lands in the Arcane East nor its customs yet feel like home.  To trust another is not yet beholden to us, and thus we are as prone to error."

The tension in the room had eased, somewhat, with Vivienne's reassurances, though Vhoori had hardly deigned to move.  It was clear she'd offended him, but his daughter proceeded, anyway.  "Some of our other mines bear triastane, though we haven't enough men to reap the vein.  Should you be able to spare four men to tour a season in the Arcane East as our guests, you'll see bounty enough to have your shipment delivered by spring, a whole season earlier than previously agreed."  Vivienne managed a warm smile at Gavin and the brothers Kholin across the long table, an alluring tilt of her head that shuffled her heavy braid closer to the floor.  "You'd be able to see that new fleet built to completion before the summer is out.  Would this satisfy you, and repair the trust between our Houses?"

With a short dose of what felt like brilliance, Alexandros slapped his father's arm with the back of his wrist, like a needy child in desperate need of attention.  "At half price," the elder twin prince bargained, blurting it out as if he were unable to stop himself.  It wasn't much, but at least he could say that he'd negotiated part of the situation.  Judging by the rather impish grin on his face, he'd felt fiendishly clever.

Pausing, as she was not the one equipped to finalize the decisions of state, Vivienne's head swiveled to consider her father.  The remaining heads turned audibly, adding to the pressure weighing heavy on the Ul'Vandiir's shoulders.  Vhoori had paled white as a sheet, his lips pressed into a thin line; she guessed he was likely feeling sick to his stomach at the vulgar proposition.  However, he was in little faith to barter, besides how he'd felt haggling was beneath him.  After a moment, and with an almost visible pain, he paid a silent nod to Vivienne.

Vivienne smiled, a coy curl of her painted lips, before placing her hand across her chest and tilting with an approving bow.   "As you will," she agreed, confirming her father's participation in the new contract, "Half price."  She rose, satisfied, warm of spirit, if only for the moment.  "Select your men, Lord Kholin, the caravan leaves tonight at dusk, bound for the harbor."

With negotiations concluded, the great hall started moving all at once, words suddenly deafened by the echoes of shuffling from so many dozens of shoes.  Each had their own way to go, like ants spilling from a sandy anthill in the sun, filing out of the exits in funneled lines.  Two among them remained motionless however, Vhoori and Vivienne locked in a competing, almost hostile gaze.  He didn't take his eyes from her, a cold, icy blue, as he rose from his seat and pushed it politely in, clasped his hands behind his back, and walked to her side.  "A word," he muttered coldly at her shoulder, before passing by her to follow the last of their kinsmen out, Vivienne following close behind.

Once they'd filed into the hallway, Vhoori's pace slowed, then lingered altogether, standing abreast with his daughter.  His posture was rigid and uncomfortably straight, even to look at, his chin poised as high as if he hadn't just been struck down in the middle of his own betrayal.  When all else had left, the two alone to share a private word, he turned on the toes of his boots to face Vivienne.

With a swift hand, Vhoori struck her across the left cheek, with little reservation.  Vivienne's sight had gone white with a flash, her head swimming, before being resurrected by the warm sting in that consumed her face, tingling as she'd cupped it with the splay of her bandaged hand.

"How dare you!" he hissed at her, leaning down with an imposing pinch of his shoulders, like a vulture peering over a fresh carcass.  "The deal was finalized, and then you betray us?  You've had quite enough of this rebellious streak, before you damage what little we have left."  Every word that spilled from his mouth was hypocritical, though snobbery and projecting blame for an elf seemed as natural as breathing.  "And you used that heretical magic, in front of his son, no less!  They could have burned you at the stake, for such witchcraft.  Were you not my daughter, I would have you flayed for this insolence."

Vivienne's red eyes shot up at him, the calm displayed in the great hall having faded with the sting that faded as quickly from her cheek as it came.  "You mean, if I did not have this mark upon my face."  She stared him down, brow perverted by her resentfulness.

With the look in her eyes, Vhoori knew she had seen it.  "How long have you known?  About St. Rias, my intent?" he admitted, curt and to the point.  There was no reason to weasel out of his implication, now.

"A month," Vivienne confessed, though her stern tone had not wavered, "The rebellion you fund in Kadia does not succeed, and the Ul'Vandiir are no more."

Vhoori bit at the inside of his cheek, nearly snarling through his teeth.  He had grown impatient, and had no time for games.  "And you waited until now to intercede?  To incriminate me in front of our allies?" he was seething, fuming in front of her like a bellows, swallowing up air so he could vent it back out at his discourteous spawn.

Her gaze challenged him, inhaling so greatly that both her chest and her pelt inflated, ruffled like an irate rooster.  "And tell me, Father, if I had simply told you that you failed, would you not have tried again?"

Again, Vhoori raised his hand to her, the only retort that could be mustered.

Edited by Narcissa

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Andross was rather content to allow his father and brother to have their way with the negotiations thereafter, and settled for peeling the ore samples away from his blade and sheathing it in his boot once again. The false triastine, he tossed across the table with the rest of the elves' dismantled treachery, a haughty flick of the wrist as if he were discarding trash. It felt good to have the high ground, at long last. For too long they’d been at the mercy of these foreign dignitaries, the lowborns of a mysterious society come to distant lands to flaunt their status. Finally, they had the upper hand—and though his expression remained cool, cold as ice, even, Andross could see the barely visible lines of frustration along Vhoori’s face.

It killed him to be in this position, looking up—not down—that long, slender nose of his at his business partners. No, they weren’t quite partners anymore. For this treachery, this betrayal, they now stood beneath the humans they’d mocked for so many years. A feat only made possible by the betrayal of his daughter, no less. Oh, how that must have scorched the old elf’s soul.

As the witnesses and retinues filed out of the great hall, Andross cast his gaze toward his brother. Alexandros had likely thought to slip out before his younger twin noticed, but he was still by a hand on the shoulder, its counterpart held out in expectancy. He’d not received his father’s praise, not yet – that would come after this farce had been put to rest, and the elves were ousted from their homeland. But his brother, he would pay now.

“You have something that belongs to me,” Andross said.

Alexandros eyed his brother’s hand disdainfully. “Mm.”

“We’ve already seen one noble betray his word. I’d doubt you’d like to be cast in with that lot, no?”

“You cheated.”

“Cheated?” Andross cocked a brow. “It isn’t cheating that I happen to be in good standing with Lady Vivienne, enough that she was willing to entrust this critical information to me. I do believe you refer to that as networking. Now, give it over.”

With no ground left to argue, Alexandros fished into his pocket and retrieved an ivory king chess piece. It was smooth and polished, looking brand new as he pressed it into Andross’s palm. “Kings to you.” Then, he turned and walked away.

Kings to me, Andross thought proudly before tucking the piece into his pocket. He was a step from leaving when he heard the smack, loud and sharp as thunder as it cut through the room. Keen eyes swept over the empty face, finding Vivienne cupping her cheek, and Vhoori standing tall above her, palm pink from the impact. Instinct nearly kicked in as the young lord reached out to summon his blade—but years of propriety proved a far stronger influence, and succumbing to it, his battle sense quickly dulled, then vanished altogether.

They might kill her when she returns home, Andross thought to himself. She’s betrayed her House, but also brought ruin to their rebellion? If Vhoori doesn’t desire retribution, his allies might. How much had she truly sacrificed for the good of his House? Could he just stand idly by and watch as she was carted off to what promised to be a painful, lonely death?  Was it obligation he felt warring inside him, honor, or was it something else? What was she to him—stranger, lover, friend, all of these things?

Did he care for her at all?

Again, Vhoori raised his hand to her, the only retort that could be mustered, but it didn’t fall. Andross gripped the elf’s wrist tight, keeping it hoisted. “I don’t know much of your lands or customs, Lord Vhoori, but here, we do not strike our women.” The young noble tossed Vhoori’s hand aside with an almost excessive boast of power, a testament that the tall, thin elf would be a poor match for him in a contest of strength. With a step, he placed himself to their sides, and then with another, set himself as a bulwark between the father and daughter. He didn’t bother sparing the red-eyed elf a glance, knowing she was all right. Instead, he kept his gaze focused squarely on her father, meeting his icy glare uninhibited.

“My father and brother may have been content to settle the matters as they are, but I am not.” Andross posed both hands behind him, linked at the small of his back. “As the lord commander of my father’s Honorguard, I do not overlook matters of betrayal and treachery so easily.” Vivienne would see the mighty fists that formed, strained with unspent fury. “By the law of my lands, it would be well within my right to challenge you to a duel, Lord Vhoori.” His voice was bitter, vicious and curt. “You’re good at this political game, far better at it than me, I confess, but how long do you think you would last in the square with me?”

Gavin Kholin had given the elf more than just a chance to lick his wounds and reassess his dealings. He’d given him his life.

“You will make this right,” Andross said coldly. “Starting with your daughter.” A third step and he was beside her, arm around her waist, holding her in a manner both exalting and possessive. “She has proven herself a true ally of my family, and therefore, is invaluable to us. She will remain here, at Skyfall, where I can ensure that you’ve hatched no more nefarious schemes at my family’s expense. She will be well-kept and looked after, an honored guest.” He saw the rage in the man’s face, the hate just seconds from spewing from his thin lips.

“Or, we can draw the square and you can fight for these terms.” Andross, though no politician, was confident he’d worked Vhoori into a corner – the only exit, that which he provided. “Make your choice, Lord.”

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5d9cee29a5a8c1d5620c58a650fb770d.jpgThe loud crashing echo of wooden swords smacking against each other was heavier than mornings prior, attracting the occasional bystander to glance in their direction. They, however, were quick to look away. As were most who ended up on the receiving end of Ser Marcus' cold stare. The old man grunted as a couple walked past, immediately barking at them to get the hell out. 

"You feel like joining, boy?" he growled at the young man who shivered and shook his head, hurriedly leading the woman on his arm away from the training field. One of the knights-in-training snickered and Marcus' gaze flickered to him instantly, the Honorguard's wooden sword striking the boy in the chest. "And you! What are you laughing at? You think because you can wield a sword a little you can laugh at others?" Again Marcus stabbed the squire with the training sword, causing all the air in the boy's lungs to escape in a surprised burst. "I can still see the stain of your mother's milk on your lips. If you want to be a knight, act like one and get back to training. Otherwise, take your arrogant pride, stick it up your useless ass, and the fuck out of my sight." 

The squire squeaked his agreement, voice quivering and quiet as he scrambled to his feet nearly forgetting his dropped training sword in the process. Marcus was sorely tempted to give the boy a good beating but simply snorted instead, remembering Lord Kholin's warnings about his excessive "training." 

He turned back to the twenty some pages and squires who swung their swords with a frown. A decade ago many of them would have been thrown from the Knighting program like garbage. In a fight with Damien's Black Knights they would have been fodder. Less than that, perhaps. Even in Queen Decamron's era they would have been sorely lacking. 

Yelling at them to drill faster, work harder, think better, Marcus grunted. "I'll make knights of you yet." he leaned slightly on the practice sword he'd swatted the squire with. "You mommy may have cuddled you and your daddy may have spoiled you," his voice came out strong and powerful, but was accompanied with a sneer. A taunt. A challenge. "But make no mistake, your enemy will sooner drive a stake through your and their head than show you a single drop of empathy. And I," the wooden sword stuck into the ground, slipping through the hard earth like it was butter, "will be no different." They had heard the same speech every day since they'd begun three months ago. And they all knew it wouldn't be the last time either. It was just their luck to have ended up with Ser Marcus Trent as their drill master. A knight of achievement, for sure, but also the oldest and strictest of the lot. The days of Damien Gillick still fresh in his mind.

An hour or so passed as they continued. Marcus watched in a palpable disapproval as the young men struggled to maintain his standards after their muscles and brains were drained of energy. When one of them dropped to their knees mid spar Marcus' eyes narrowed. The loud thump of his feet froze the other spars and drills, their focus drifting to the approaching swordsmen. 

"Did I tell you to stop?" he snarled, heaving the collapsed boy into the air. Despite the young boy being a couple inches taller than Marcus, the old man hid deceptive strength. Enough so that when he lifted, the squire's six something body arced upward like a rag doll. The others quickly looked away and resumed their training, not wanting to incur the Honorguard's wrath. "Get out of the way." Marcus tossed the boy onto the ground with one arm and shoved the sparring partner away with the other. "Now get up and fight me. You think your enemy will let you take a breath? A break?" Weaklings. They were all so weak. So disappointing. "It is the final length which is the most important. If you fail at the end, you succeeded in nothing." 

The collapsed boy scowled, grabbing his wood sword. "There's no enemies anymore! Not since Emperor Titus-" his words were cut off by the painful crack of Marcus' sword smashing his face. 

"I am your enemy right now. Stand, boy." Marcus' command struck an obvious nerve with the young man. Not many knights-in-training or nobles liked to be called boy, especially when they were in their late teens or early twenties. When Jacob - the young man who'd collapsed - placed a hand on the ground to lift himself back up, Marcus kicked it out before another crack resounded, suggesting ruefully that the boy's face would be puffed for days. "What happens if Veluriyam suddenly decides they don't like other powers existing? What if the Emperor is killed and another takes his place?" Smack. "A civil war is plaguing the mainland and you tell me there are no more enemies?" Marcus throws the wooden sword at Jacob, sprawled on his back and in a daze. "Get up and run until I say stop. Show me there's some backbone in your worthless existence." 

That was around the moment when Marcus heard a crisp slap. Perhaps it would be hard to hear for those untrained, but the many years in Lord Kholin's service during the Tyrant King had trained Marcus to be hyper observant. Noticing anything and everything out of place. And that sound, especially during the scheduled meeting with the elven house, Marcus spit at the thought, was by no means normal. 

His speed no longer quite what it had been in his prime meant that it took him longer to reach the sound than he would have liked. If nothing else, time was a cruel mistress to all and Marcus was no exception. Seeing the rather obvious animosity and how the Lord Commander placed himself between an elven girl and the being Marcus knew to be Vhoori. At Andross' suggestion of a duel, Marcus scoffed loudly. The sound of his steady, heavy steps bouncing off the hall's marble walls, his cold blue eyes falling to the red mark upon the woman's left cheek. 

Marcus bowed deeply to Andross, though it was more one of respect than of obligation, while completely ignoring the male elf.  The war torn warrior then cast his gaze to Vhoori, the sharp downward trend of his lips signalling all the needed to be said. Judging by Andross' protective placement and the stern set of his lips it was fairly clear negotiations had broken down. For whatever reason. "Git out of my sight, pixie," he said using a derogatory term for elf, the timbre of his voice gruff and annoyed. A normal elf, perhaps, would not have been subjected to Marcus' full ire, but an elf living out of Genesaris? Marcus spat, disgusted with the elf's very existence. Though he respected the Count and his family greatly, Marcus had argued strongly against allying with the elves, his memory of the wars with Genesaris just as fresh as those with Damien in his stony gaze. 

@King @Narcissa

Edited by Ataraxy

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