CHAPTER FIFTY-NINE: FUTURE TOGETHER
Ciaran wasn’t sure what he had expected Aethaden to do to prove himself as king, but what happened was nothing he could have ever imagined. He heard the gasps as everyone saw something outside. He watched as everyone’s face, including Firathia’s, grew pale. And then he witnessed them fall to their knees.
“Oh, my God,” Egan murmured. His father had turned towards the wall of windows that looked out onto the mountaintop.
Ciaran slowly turned to face the windows, too. Twig let out one chitter, before falling completely silent, as she also saw what was outside. Ciaran took a few stumbling steps backwards, only stopping when Aethaden caught and held his hand. Aethaden told him that it was all right. That he was safe. But how could that be when there was a many headed dragon outside?
It filled the sky.
It was larger than the mountain.
It blotted out everything in the hazy distance.
Every head on it was a different color from emerald green to amethyst to gold to white. Each head looked different as well with apparently different personalities to boot. The white one appeared wise and cool. The red one was snarling. The green one puffed poisoned smoke from its nostrils. The blue one glowered and snapped its ginormous claws.
“What is that?” Ciaran asked.
“One of the Guardians. Its name is Xarathen,” Aethaden explained, though he did not look around to see its glory.
Or the sheer terror of it.
“Now I see why the Riven were never able to conquer you guys,” Ciaran admitted with nervous laughter. Even though the dragon must be miles away and was quite a bit above them, he didn’t want to see it any closer. How had he ever thought as Luthien that he could conquer the Valore with that thing protecting them? It was impossible! “You said one of the Guardians. Are there more?”
“There were, but only Xarathen remains to hear our calls,” Aethaden said.
Ciaran watched as the dragon merely hovered there. It was so incredible, he couldn’t quite believe it was real.
Ciaran cast his voice low as he asked Aethaden, “Is it a strain to keep it here?”
“No, because it is not really here. I have ripped the veils between our plane and the one where Xarathen resides. That took some energy, but it was… surprisingly easy,” Aethaden said, and looked thoughtful at this. “But I should close the rip. We are in no physical danger, after all, and I do not wish to trouble the Guardian further.”
Aethaden closed his eyes while Ciaran and Twig gazed in awe as the sky knit itself together, and the massive many-headed dragon disappeared from view. But Ciaran could still feel its presence as if the fabric between this plane and the one Xarathen resided in was thin. Twig chittered softly and tucked her nose behind her tail as if to hide from the Guardian.
“Do not worry, Twig. You wouldn’t even be a snack for the Guardian. You’re mostly bones and fur,” Ciaran assured her and kissed her head.
She sank further into the fluff of her tail though with a soft chitter that told him she didn’t agree. The Guardian would swallow her whole without a thought. She would be a crunchy morsel.
“I would never have the Guardian hurt you, Twig.” Aethaden reached up and scratched between Twig’s fluffy ears, which had the Violine raising her head slightly in pleasure.
“What about everyone else?” Ciaran tilted his head towards the kneeling crowd. Only Ciaran, his father and the Black Commander were on their feet.
Aethaden gave him a quirked smile. “I sincerely hope I have made my point. All the kingdom will have witnessed the Guardian’s appearance, and will know that I have called it to my aid.” Aethaden turned fully towards the kneeling group. He sat almost casually on the throne, as if it was made for him, and he was used to sitting lightly upon it. “Please rise. I would see your faces when we speak.”
All of them rose. Firathia was the slowest to get to her feet. Her expression was wrenched. Her lower lip was fastened between her teeth. Aiko’s eyes slid from her to Ciaran. There was so much conveyed in that glance. Ciaran knew that she had argued against imprisoning him. He also knew that if push had come to shove that Aiko would have taken his side in it. She might be Firathia’s Blade, but she was no slave. They so needed to talk. He wanted her advice though his father had been quite good at all of this.
Behind them, Lady Noor looked aggrieved. But her green-eyed glance at him showed more respect that he expected. Ever since their encounter in the hallway, she had evidently changed her mind that he was a force to be reckoned with.
Halleden’s face was expressionless, but bone-white in color. When would Aethaden’s supposed “best friend” realize that everything he was doing was hurting Aethaden? Not to mention disrespectful as Hell.
Lord Etoren and the other members of his house looked serene. They had picked the right side. There were several quickly hidden prideful smiles. Their eager glances at him made Ciaran want to hide behind the throne.
Too bad I don’t have a tail like Twig. It would be useful in times like this.
Aethaden was the first one to speak, but he’d held his mother in gaze for long silent moments before he did so. “For the over 500 years that I have ruled the Valore, I have always done so with the utmost respect for those who came before me and those who would rule after me. I knew that everything I did, everything I said, would be a reflection, not only upon me, but on all Undriels. I accepted constructive and, at times, disrespectful criticism, because I realized that I was standing in the shoes of giants. And how can one so young, so inexperienced, who is thrust into such a role by tragedy compare to giants?”
Tears glittered in Firathia’s eyes. Her hands knotted together in front of her. She said nothing. Finally, she was giving her son the respect he deserved as king, Ciaran realized.
“But, regardless of how I came to be king, regardless if there were those, undoubtedly, greater than myself who have ruled in the past, I am king now. The Guardian recognizes me as such,” Aethaden said, and his eyes flashed fire. “And you will recognize that, too, or I will remove you from my court, and from my kingdom.”
People’s heads lowered in shame.
“The actions you have taken today have called into question your loyalty to the throne. Your loyalty to me,” Aethaden intoned. “Lord Halleden, come forward.”
Halleden gracefully stepped forward and went down on one knee.
“My mother has not had 500 years to get accustomed to me being king, but you have been there every step of the way. Yet your actions have been treasonable on many occasions,” Aethaden told him. His beautiful face bore an expression of grief for a moment. But Aethaden hardened it and his resolve. “You are stripped of your title, your lands, and your wealth. You will serve at my pleasure in the dungeon.”
Halleden jerked and nearly fell over. There were some gasps. Even Ciaran closed his eyes and winced.
“You have undermined me, and I have allowed it because of my love for you, but for the sake of the kingdom, this is what must be,” Aethaden’s voice was hollow.
Halleden staggered to his feet, but he said nothing. With a nod at Lord Etoren, one of his people took Halleden and bound his hands behind his back.
“Should he be taken to the dungeon now, my king?” Lord Etoren asked.
“No, not yet. After this is… done,” Aethaden told him.
Ciaran looked over at his father. Egan was nodding slightly at everything Aethaden did. He approved of this. His father was ruthless, and a king likely needed to be as well.
“Lady Noor,” Aethaden pronounced her name clearly.
She stepped up to where Halleden had been. She stood at attention, hands crossed at the wrists behind her back, shoulders squared, and chin lifted.
“You have been one of my greatest critics and dissenter, yet a warrior should respect her general, her king, the one who directs her actions. Yet not only did you not respect me, you did not follow my directions either,” Aethaden told her, and she seemed to hold herself even more rigidly at that moment. “Your dishonorable actions in combat have caused many to question whether you should have ever been made a general in the first place. I agreed with those that questioned this, but allowed you to remain in your position because my father had appointed you. I see the error of my ways now. You are stripped of your title, your lands, your wealth and your position on the Council, Noor. You will join Halleden in the dungeon.”
Ciaran swallowed. Aethaden was truly cleaning house. His father smiled slightly. Aiko, though stoic as ever, looked approving as well. She agreed that this should occur.
“Councilor Parn,” Aethaden said crisply, though he looked a little bemused. “Step forward.”
The rather scholarly looking Elf nearly tripped over his own robes as he approached the throne. “Oh, my king, I didn’t mean to get involved in all of this! I was stunned and uncertain and—”
“Yes, I have no doubt that you were swept along with the crowd.” Aethaden nodded, as if this were quite what he expected.
Parn perked up. “Indeed, my king! It was exactly like that!”
“Yes, and that is a problem, too, Parn,” Aethaden said almost sadly. “A member of the Council cannot be swept away by others’ emotions. He must stand strong, and think on his own. And not get involved in a treasonous plot.”
At first Parn looked stricken and bewildered, but then he slowly nodded. “Yes, you are wise beyond your years, King Aethaden. If I had allowed myself to think as clearly on this as I do on our crops and livestock, I would not have behaved so foolishly. I understand that I must be punished for this lack of clarity in the most desperate of moments.”
“I believe the appropriate punishment for you is to be stripped of your title and your position on the Council. However, you will continue your good work in the agricultural department, which will be under new leadership,” Aethaden told him.
The scholarly Parn looked chastened, but there was a slight hope in his face. Ciaran wondered if Parn was glad to no longer have the burden of being a lord and councilor any more.
Aethaden went through each councilor. Like Parn each was stripped of their titles and positions on the Council. Some were allowed to remain in other roles of leadership, but most were dismissed entirely. None, however, were sent to the dungeon. They had followed their foolish queen.
Egan leaned down during a break in the proceedings and murmured to Aethaden, “I know this is hard. These were your parents’ choices, but you need your own Council, Aethaden. And you should bring into it new blood. Houses that have never had a chance to be in command but have earned it. And, of course, they should be ultimately loyal to you and all you wish to do.”
Aethaden gave a subtle nod. “You are right. I should have done this long ago, but I believed that people would be more… comfortable with me if there were familiar leaders in place.”
“You found the Blades,” Ciaran also whispered. “You went to the human realm, on your own. You summoned the big dragon thing. You are king, Aethaden. It’s time you set your own agenda.”
Aethaden smiled at him. “You have such faith in me.”
“Absolute and absolutely,” Ciaran agreed with a nod.
Twig caressed Aethaden’s cheek with her paw. Aethaden lightly kissed it, which had Twig chittering so happily that Ciaran was almost jealous. Both he and his father straightened as the last person—Aethaden’s mother—still remained to be judged.
It’s his mom. He won’t send her to the dungeon. Will he?
“Firathia Undriel, step forward,” Aethaden said. His voice was surprisingly empty of emotion.
Ciaran guessed that he was holding onto himself very tightly for this. Ciaran was a mess for him, though he strove not to show it. This woman hated him and wanted to throw him in the dungeon and kick Aethaden off of his throne. He should not feel badly for her! And yet, Ciaran did, because he knew that Firathia hadn’t acted out of a desire for power, but out of love.
Aethaden’s mother stepped forward with Aiko standing slightly behind her.
Aethaden said crisply, “Firathia Undriel, you are restricted to quarters until I say otherwise. You will not have communications with anyone unless I allow it. You will not be referred to as queen, because you are no longer queen. You have not been queen in half a millennia. You are simply Firathia Undriel. And like all Undriels who have ruled before you, you stepped aside peacefully. If there is ever a time when you are to take the throne again, it is not now. And based upon your actions today, I believe it should be never.”
Color stained Firathia’s pale cheeks, but she said nothing though her lips flattened as if to keep words in.
“If any of you think your punishment is too harsh, remember that such treason is normally punishable by death,” Aethaden’s words were soft.
Firathia jerked. She was not alone. There was a sucking in of air from every person in that room. Firathia’s gaze rose to Aethaden’s. It was perhaps in that moment that she truly realized that her son was king. It was also, Ciaran guessed, when she realized the full extent of what she had done.
“My—my king, may I speak?” Firathia asked, her voice trembling slightly.
“It depends on what you have to say. One more cruel and wrongful word about my Blade, and you will be sent to the dungeon and not your quarters,” Aethaden warned her.
The shamed color left her cheeks, and she was as pale as Halleden.
Ciaran nearly gasped himself. He didn’t want to be the cause of such strife between mother and son! But one look at his father and he knew that he needed to not react. What she had done was undermine Aethaden. She deserved no less. Maybe she deserved even more punishment than being stripped of a title that was no longer hers and sent to her room.
“Aiko, please step forward,” Aethaden said.
She did so. Ciaran felt the color leave his cheeks. Surely Aethaden wouldn’t punish her. He knew she hadn’t been disloyal! But she had been stuck in an impossible position, and had done her best.
“You have pledged no loyalty to me, Aiko. You have returned to this place, because of Ciaran and my mother. I—”
“Please let me speak, my king!” Firathia suddenly cried out. Her hands were in knots in front of her. Her fingers were white with the strain. “She did not betray you! She argued vociferously against what I had suggested! She… she told me that if I truly attempted to do anything against you and Ciaran that she would no longer protect me!”
Ciaran was not surprised. He felt no surprise from Aethaden either. Aethaden nodded. It confirmed what he had suspected, and Ciaran had known even without any words spoken by Aiko.
“Thank you, Mother.” Aethaden’s gaze was on Aiko. “What do you wish, Aiko?”
“I would no harm come to your mother, but my loyalty is to Ciaran,” Aiko stated simply.
Lord Etoren and the other members of his family looked at Aiko curiously. This was something that they had not expected. It also likely added to the mythos of Ciaran being Luthien. How ironic that it would! Considering that she didn’t worship him at all. He was her son, not her king. And that’s how he wanted it.
Firathia’s head lowered. “Have I lost you, my Blade?”
Aiko studied her. “I would not have it be so. But if you persist in your behavior then yes, you have lost me.”
Firathia covered her face with her hands.
“I am not your slave, Firathia. I am not your subject either. I am… was your willing protector, and I would be again, but I cannot support you in this,” Aiko answered. “Ciaran is like a son to me. I know him to his bones. I hope you will allow yourself to see the man he truly is and not this monster you have constructed in your head.”
Firathia’s shoulders slumped. “King Luthien is—”
“Not who you believe he is if he and Ciaran are the same people,” Aiko interrupted her. “And you should not speak of either, as you do not know either man.”
“You are so certain,” Firathia’s voice was soft.
“I have no doubts about Ciaran. He is truly good, and worthy of love and loyalty,” Aiko told her. It sounded like she had tried to tell Firathia this before. “Even now, he feels compassion and empathy for you. For everyone here. He does not have his father’s ability to hide his emotions. I hope that this openness remains for some time still.”
Aiko smiled at him, and Ciaran blushed. Twig chittered and licked his cheek with evident love and affection.
“I do not want you and Aethaden to be at odds, Firathia,” Ciaran said. “Is it all right if I speak, Aethaden?”
“Of course.” Aethaden reached up and laced the fingers of their nearest hands together.
Ciaran held tightly onto Aethaden while he looked at Firathia. She met his gaze with some trepidation.
“I have no idea what it’s been like for you, Firathia, to wake up after 500 years to find that who you believe is your greatest enemy is now your son’s Blade,” Ciaran told her. “I’m sure you are just terrified. I think you acted out of that fear and love. Your beloved son, you believe, is in dire danger. The whole kingdom might be. So you do what you think will save your son and your kingdom, you try to wrest back power to protect him.”
She gave the barest of nods. Ciaran looked down into Aethaden’s face.
“But he doesn’t need your protection. He is a powerful king in his own right. He might still be your little boy in your mind, but he is not in reality any longer,” Ciaran told her.
Tears formed in her eyes. He saw her try to harden herself against his words, but she couldn’t.
“I know at 1007 years old, he’s young for an Elf, but what’s happened in his short life has forced him to grow into a far older, wiser role faster than a mother might want him to,” Ciaran said.
One tear dripped down her cheek, and her lips trembled.
“Your son is loyal almost to a fault. He kept on these people.” Ciaran gestured to the group. “Far longer than he should have because of his good nature. How easy it would be to think that he is holding onto me out of some similar misplaced loyalty, too.”
More tears fell.
“But what he just did, not just to them, but to you, should tell you that he is willing to do what is hard. He is willing to punish those he loves in order to keep the kingdom safe,” Ciaran said, and licked his suddenly dry lips. He hated speaking about himself. He definitely didn’t want to take on the role he was about to, but if Aethaden had to accept being king, maybe Ciaran did too. His gaze swept from Lord Etoren and his family to Aethaden again. “All everyone else has seen are the bad parts of me being the reincarnation of King Luthien, but what about the good ones?”
Ciaran looked up, and saw disbelieving faces, except on those of their allies. He smiled, and let out an uncertain laugh. “I know. What parts aren’t bad, right? Except, what if I am the man that Aiko testifies me to be? What if I am the person that Aethaden believes me to be? If I am truly Luthien—and I can tell you that I adore Aethaden—yet also the men two honorable people believe then imagine the possibilities!”
Ciaran’s gaze scanned the room. There was some interest there.
“There could be true peace between the Valore and Riven. More than peace, friendship. For if I am the reincarnation of King Luthien, that is what I want!” Ciaran said, feeling the word “friendship” roll off of his tongue. “Imagine if there was no more fear of attacks by the Riven. Imagine if there was free trade. You could go to the purple-towered cities of the Riven. They could come to yours. You could learn each other’s magic and everything else!”
Ciaran’s voice rose in enthusiasm. “We can truly change things.” He swung his and Aethaden’s joined hands together. “We can make peace. We can do this. Aethaden is, at least, willing to try. Are you?”
He met everyone’s gaze in that room. Some still looked skeptical. Others looked almost hopeful. Some could not meet eyes altogether. Lord Etoren gave him a small smile. He wanted to hope but was fearful of doing so. His people, however, looked like they wanted to jump for joy.
“I hope… it continues to be my hope,” Ciaran paused and swallowed hard, “that the next time we meet, perhaps it can be in friendship. That is… that is all I have to say.”
Aethaden smiled up at him. His father nodded, too. He felt the Black Commander’s amusement at his earnest words.
Aethaden said, “Nothing more needs be said, Ciaran. For you are right, and that is the future I want to craft with you.”