“Your Majesty, there is someone here to see you,” the footman said as he poked his head into the dining chamber.
Gregory sighed. There was always someone who wanted to see him. Ever since he became King. Couldn’t even let him finish breakfast. It couldn’t be helped, he supposed. “And who would this ‘someone’ be?” he asked.
The footman took a step into the dining chamber, eyeing the spread on the table. “He says he’s an emissary from The Dragon.”
Ice shot through his veins. The Dragon? That wasn’t right. What could the leader of the most powerful Empire ever to exist want with his little sliver of a kingdom? “Are you sure he’s from The Dragon?”
“He was quite insistent, Sire. And he had the Dragon’s Crest.”
Gregory took a gulp of his breakfast wine. His throat was suddenly dry. “Have him wait in the great hall. I will meet him in the Throne Room.” He wasn’t sure a simple throne room would impress an emissary from The Dragon, but he had to keep up appearances.
“As you will.” The footman eyed his breakfast one more time before bowing and exiting the chamber.
Gregory looked at the spread before him. He was no longer hungry. There were three kingdoms between his and the Draconic Empire, and its capital city lay in the heart of the Coldlands. That was nearly two-thousand leagues away. It would have to be something important for The Dragon to send someone all the way down to him. He swallowed his nerves and rose from the table. He would have to meet with this man. It couldn’t be helped. The sooner he got it over with, the better.
A half-hour later he was dressed and ready. He wore his best silks and had his finest crown atop his head. He stood at the base of the throne. Sometimes, he wished his father was still alive, so he wouldn’t have to be King. This was one of those days. He said a little prayer to his father and began climbing the steps, exactly nine, up to the throne. The nine steps represented the nine Chaotic Gods who built this land, or so his father had told him. His stomach was in knots as he sat on the throne and worked himself into the most comfortable position in the ancient chair.
He did his best to look, and sound, regal when he motioned to the footmen. “Let him in.” His practiced boom filled the chamber, but he couldn’t keep all of the shaking out of it.
The doors swung open and the emissary stepped in. He looked as if he had been carved from pure gold. His blond, shoulder-length hair shined, radiant in the morning sun. His clothes were in varying shades of the color, from the darkened-yellow leather of his boots, to his cape that seemed to be made from spun strands of pure gold. Tasteful rings flashed on several fingers and a delicate golden chain hung from his neck, carrying the only non-gold item he wore; a silver pendant that seemed to shimmer with it’s own inner light. The pendant was stamped with a winged lizard curled around an egg. The Dragon’s Pendant.
This was Gregory’s first time seeing the Dragon’s Pendant. He had seen drawings, of course. He had received a royal education after all, but he never thought he’d see the real thing. He marveled at its beauty. It would take nearly half of the Crown’s coffers to create even one of those magnificent pieces, and it was known that all of the Dragon’s emissaries wore one. It reminded him exactly what kind of disadvantage he was at should this not be good news.
The emissary approached the throne and bowed. When he rose again, Gregory caught the sparkling gold of his eyes. He cleared his throat. “Who speaks before me?” He commanded with all the authority he could muster.
The man never broke eye contact. “Sir Nicholas Bontai, emissary to The Dragon,” he said with a smooth cadence that suggested he had worked with a few kings before.
“What is your business here?”
“I am here as the result of the deal.” Gregory thought he could see the corners of Bontai’s mouth turn up. He was enjoying this.
“I have made no deal with the Draconic Empire,” he responded. That should take some humor out of him.
Instead, the corners of his mouth turned up further. “I apologize, your Majesty, but the deal was not struck with you. It was struck with your father, King Gregory IV, twenty years ago.”
The man was clearly lying. Gregory resisted the urge to have him immediately removed and thrown in the dungeon. “There is no record of such a deal being struck. As far as I know, my father never had any contact with the Draconic Empire.”
“Then, and I apologize for being blunt, your Majesty, but you do not know much. I was the one who negotiated the deal. I was witness to the signing ceremony between the Dragon and King Gregory IV.”
Now he knew the man was playing games with him. Bontai couldn’t have been more than thirty years, yet he claimed to have negotiated a deal with his father twenty years ago? Still. It would be easiest to humor him until he could confirm that and send him to the dungeons. “And what deal did my father make with you?” His voice had steadied and filled the great room.
“Protection,” Bontai answered, without so much as a pause.
What kind of fool did he take him for? “Protection from what, exactly?” He was moments from calling the guards.
Bontai’s glittering eyes bored into him. “From other kingdoms,” he said as if he were talking to a child. “From rebellion. From the shadows lurking at the edge of the world. Everything.”
“I don’t recall seeing any of this so-called protection.”
Bontai had apparently been expecting this to go easier. The corners of his mouth dropped. “Have you not had an unprecedented peace during your entire reign?” He asked. “How did you think that happened? That you were such a good king and kept the peace entirely on your own?” He laughed. It echoed off the walls and came back to Gregory’s ears distorted and ominous. Your kingdom, and you, have been under the Dragon’s protection for the last twenty years. Our side of the bargain has been fulfilled, now it’s time to fulfill yours.”
Gregory was sweating now. Bontai was lying, he had to be. The story was too far-fetched, but something still didn’t sit right with him. He motioned for the guards hidden on either side of the room. “So what is my part of the deal?” he asked as they approached.
“It would not be wise to let your guards touch me,” Bontai said instead of answering.
“I wouldn’t dream of harming an emissary of the Dragon.”
“Right,” Bontai answered, not convinced. “As I was saying,” The guards were almost on him now. Bontai spun, and, in a single motion, drew his golden sword and swung it in a high arc, neatly decapitating both guards. As the heads rolled at his feet, he turned back to Gregory. “Come with me.”
Gregory rose. “You don’t give orders around here!” He shouted. “I’ll have you arrested!”
Bontai took a step forward and pointed his sword at him. “How many of your men will die before they can kill me?” He asked. There was no anger there, it was a simple question. “How many more will die once The Dragon receives word of what you’ve done?”
Gregory slumped. His little sliver of a kingdom had no chance in a war against the Draconic Empire. They would be slaughtered. “What do you want?” He asked. His voice no longer boomed through the throne room.
Bontai sheathed his sword. “I want you to come with me.”
Bontai led him out of the castle. Gregory walked erect, so as not to arouse suspicion, but he couldn’t help feeling like he was walking to his death. They exited the castle to find a carriage waiting for them, The Dragon’s symbol emblazoned on the side in bright silver.
Bontai opened the door. “Get in.”
“Where are we going?” Gregory asked.
“Out of town,” Bontai replied.
“Why?” Not that Gregory wasn’t already sure as to why.
“I will not answer any more questions from the man who threatened me,” Bontai said, gesturing to the door. “Get in.”
Gregory got in and Bontai shut the door. Evidently, he had another compartment to ride in. The ride was lonely, but that was a blessing compared to Bontai’s terrifying company. He rode for an hour in silence.
After the hour was up, the carriage came to a stop and the door swung open. Bontai was there and he gestured wordlessly to a little cottage nearby.
Gregory had never seen this cottage before, but there was a lot of countryside outside the Capital. There was no way he could’ve seen all the cottages. Bontai let him in and left the front room for somewhere deeper inside.
Gregory had no idea what he was supposed to be doing. He looked around the front room. It looked pretty much like what he imagined a cottage would look like on the inside. Unpolished wood was everywhere and anything with fabric on it was made with rough materials and rougher stitching.
Bontai returned some minutes later. “Come,” he said and gestured to the interior door. When they got into that room, larger than the last, he pointed to a wooden chair. “Sit,” he said and exited through another door.
Gregory sat. The chair was almost more uncomfortable than his throne. He had no idea how peasants did it. The door opened again and Bontai stepped through. He held the door open.
“King Gregory V,” he intoned. It was the most formal Gregory had seen the man. He didn’t like it. “May I present, Emperor Arturia, The Dragon.”
In strutted a woman, nearly six-foot tall, and dressed entirely in shiny silver garments. She didn’t look like a queen. She was dressed more like a nobleman on a hunt. A loose tunic was tucked into silver-threaded breeches which themselves were tucked into heavy, lace-up boots. She had no cape or dress, but she did wear a sword on her side. The only indication that she was royalty was the delicate crown resting on top of her shimmering hair. She fixed him with her hard, gray eyes and he felt more fear in that moment than he had ever before in his life. She was truly The Dragon.
She didn’t sit or introduce herself. “My understanding is that you threatened my emissary?” She asked.
Gregory held up his hands in defense. “It was a misunderstanding. Nothing more.”
She waved him off. “It doesn’t matter. The deal is what we’re here about.”
The deal. “What is my part in the deal?” he asked.
“You are to give us your essence,” she said, like it was the most reasonable request in the world.
“I’m sorry, no.” He made to get up, but something in her eyes stopped him. He sat back down. “This is madness. You want my soul?”
She chuckled. “No, we don’t want your soul. We want the essence inside you.”
That didn’t make any sense. If not his soul, what? “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
The Dragon shook her head. “Your father really told you nothing, did he?” she said. “No matter. The essence is a magic you acquired when you were a child. When we learned of it, we struck a deal with your father for possession of the it in exchange for twenty years of protection. For the kingdom, and for you.”
Gregory shook his head. “I’m sorry you came all this way, but I have no magic.”
The Dragon smiled. “You almost certainly do, but it is good you don’t know about it. It is a Chaotic magic and it would have consumed you if you had attempted to use it.”
Could it be real? Gregory swallowed. “What do you have to do to get it out? Kill me?”
“I have seen how your kingdom is run for the last twenty years, and how you’ve treated Bontai today. There is a method for removing it without killing you. I don’t think we will use it today.”
She drew her sword.