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    The Silver Wolf-For Crown Or Country: Opportunity Knocks
    Posted on Sun, January 05, 2020 by LordCeb
    CruelSummerLord writes "

    He smiled, ever so briefly, as he resumed working on his painting of Norreck. The painting featured Norreck as golden and resplendent, fiercely loyal to Aerdi’s crowned sun.

    It was only noticeable to anyone who studied the painting very carefully, but that crowned sun was already starting to set. 

    Chapter Twenty

    Opportunity Knocks

    When Xavener woke up the next morning, he was in a foul mood. He didn’t know what angered him more-his hangover, the fact that the adventurers escaped or his own foolishness in trusting them.

    Curse me for a damned fool! he thought as he emerged from the privy after expelling the remains of last night’s meal. I was too sure of myself. I let my ego get the better of me, and it could cost me everything!

    Now the adventurers were on the loose, taking knowledge of his efforts to ruin the cabal’s conspiracy with them. If Caradoc, Xeravho and any of the rest of the cabal were still alive, they might follow the adventurers’ trail back to him. He didn’t want to think about the trouble that would bring over the short term, and especially over the long term.

    Unlocking a cabinet at the other end of his bedroom, Xavener reached inside and pulled open a hidden door in its back wall. Glancing through the various treasures sitting in the hidden compartment, Xavener selected one of the potions and placed it in his pocket. Xavener quickly closed the hidden compartment and locked the cabinet up as he walked to his bedroom door. As he emerged onto the landing, he thought about what he’d say to the cabal members if they came to him, and how his long term plans would have to change.

    Xavener was halfway along the upper landing when he heard a commotion coming from the main entrance hall. Running down the stairs, gripping the potion flask in his pocket, he stared hard at the manor’s ashen-faced castellan. Behind the castellan, Xavener could see several of the manor’s staff and a few of the lesser Darmen nobles at the front door. They were gathered around a group of other people bearing something on a stretcher, covered with a white sheet.

    “My lord…my lord…it’s…” the castellan said, gasping as much from shock as fatigue.

    “What is it?” Xavener said, grasping his shoulder. “Out with it!”

    “Your…your father, my lord,” the castellan finally said. “He fell ill in Zelradton, and he was teleported back here to receive care!”

    Xavener nodded, suddenly calming. No Aerdi lord, particularly not a head of a Celestial House, would want to be medically treated anywhere except one of his own demesnes where the clerics were dependent on him. He followed the castellan to the crowd at the door, who parted in recognition of him. The castellan pulled the sheet on the stretcher back, and Xavener’s eyes widened at the sight of Norreck, his face ghastly pale and his mouth streaked with blood. He resembled a corpse, and it seemed as though any further trauma would push him into the grave.

    Xavener knew he had to act quickly. Looking around, he saw one of the senior priests of Zilchus in Zelradton, who’d accompanied Norreck back to the Darmen manor.

    “Can you treat him?” Xavener asked the cleric. “Do you have the correct spells-“

    “Not at the moment, my lord,” the cleric said. “I’ll need time to prepare one. It will take several hours-“

    “Then do it!” Xavener exclaimed, waving his hands in the air. “And hurry! Find him a suitable place to rest,” he directed two of the manor’s guards, who led the cleric away. Taking a deep breath, he turned to some of the other guards who were bearing Norreck on a litter.

    “Take him up to his chambers and lay him in bed. Do not let anyone except myself or Jonnass,” he said, referring to the senior cleric of Zilchus, “in under any circumstances. Guard my father with your lives. Is that clear?”

    The guards saluted Xavener before they marched to carry out his orders. The rest of the servants and lesser nobles began to disperse, reassured at Xavener taking charge of the situation.

    Xavener raced upstairs, knowing he had to hurry. Returning to his bedroom, he opened the hidden compartment in the cabinet and took out a small pouch full of the special colored spices he’d been adding to the meals he and his father had been eating. He also picked up a beautiful sunstone, one that happened to be cut just like the stone Norreck carried as protection against poisons.

    Xavener’s sunstone was enchanted too, although its enchantment was much weaker than the one Norreck’s stone carried. Xavener’s stone merely carried a petty spell, first developed by the wizard Nystul, that made whatever it was cast on detect as magical. It conferred no other powers, but Xavener didn’t need it to.

    Placing the sunstone in his pocket, he left his room and walked to Norreck’s bedchamber, which was already being watchfully guarded. The guards saluted Xavener as he came up to them, and one of them unlocked the door so he could enter. Xavener then entered the room and locked the door from the inside, so he would not be disturbed.

    Norreck lay in his bed, his breathing shallow. He was only sleeping lightly, as he started at the sound of Xavener closing and locking the bedroom door. His eyes opened and lit up in recognition at the sight of his son. He tried to raise his hand, but only managed to get it up a few inches before it fell again. He fell into convulsions, coughing up blood as he desperately tried to stop.

    Xavener was at his side in an instant, holding his hand and whispering reassurances into his ear. Norreck calmed at that, and smiled faintly as Xavener poured each of them a glass of water from a carafe on a nearby nightstand. Xavener added some of the colored, glittering spice to each of their drinks, and took a long swig for several seconds before helping Norreck do the same.

    “Everything will be alright, Father,” Xavener said, a reassuring look on his face. “House Darmen’s fortunes will flourish brighter than ever. I’ll help the crowned sun shine, and House Darmen will shine with it. That I promise you, as a son of House Darmen, a son of the Great Kingdom and most of all as your son.”

    Norreck smiled happily at that, before a look of pain and horror crossed his face.

    Xavener stared impassively back at him as two tears formed, one in each of his eyes, as he watched Norreck’s eyes close for the last time.

    He switched his sunstone with Norreck’s, placing the one that guarded against venom in his own pocket.

    An hour or more passed after Xavener entered the room before the guards outside heard a wailing cry of grief come from Norreck’s bedroom. The guards kicked the door open and ran into the room, their swords raised. They found Xavener kneeling on the bed next to Norreck’s corpse, clasping his father’s dead hand.

    “My lord…are you…” one of the guards said, placing his hand on Xavener’s shoulder.

    Xavener started as if awoken from a trance. He looked around, seeming like he was in a daze, before he saw the two guards looking at him.

    He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Taking several deep breaths, he tried again and finally managed to say something.

    “Wake Jonnass,” Xavener said, seeming like he could barely keep his composure. “There’s no healing him now. We…”

    Xavener took another deep breath, and it seemed like it took all of his willpower to keep his aristocratic calm.

    “…we must prepare the pyre,” he said.

    At Xavener’s request, the ceremony commending Norreck to Zilchus’s embrace and consigning his oerthly remains to the funeral pyre took less than an hour. The servants, guards and lesser nobles who attended the funeral thought that Xavener seemed almost overwhelmed by his father’s loss. When he said that he wanted to get the horrible experience over as soon as he could, they easily accepted his statement.

    Neither Norreck’s brother or sister had the opportunity to attend the funeral, but that was common practice among Aerdi nobles. The longer a deceased noble’s relatives delayed staking their claim to the decedent’s property, titles or lands, the greater the relatives’ risk of losing anything they stood to inherit. Some ninety minutes after Norreck’s death, Xavener had already sent a petition to Herzog Chelor asking for recognition of his claim as the new overall head of House Darmen, and his right to his father’s estates and wealth. He was fortunate that he was an only child, which saved him having to dispute with any siblings over the estate. As he predicted, Norreck’s will left everything to him.

    By noon, Xavener gave orders that he was not to be disturbed except for the most urgent of matters. He told the guards, servants and other nobles that he needed time to grieve, and to work on a fitting portrait for the late patriarch of House Darmen. Again, they accepted his explanation without question.

    By half after one o’clock, the visitors Xavener was expecting arrived. The castellan barely had time to tell him that Caradoc and Xeravho wanted to see him before they burst into his bedroom, glaring suspiciously at him.

    Xavener dismissed his castellan, leaving him to face the Naelaxian nobles.

    “What do you want, bursting into my house like this? I’m in mourning, and-“ he said, before Caradoc cut him off.

    “You know damn well why we’re here,” Caradoc said, seething with rage. His eyes flared angrily, and Xavener suspected that if Xeravho wasn’t also there, Caradoc would have tried to murder him on the spot. “You set those adventurers on us, and-“

    “Adventurers?” Xavener said, an incredulous look on his face. “You mean those Cranden maidens and their little entourage? Why would you think I-“

    “We know you dealt with their wizard,” Xeravho said, his expression as icily calm as Caradoc’s was fiery with anger. “People saw you speaking to her at your autumn ball.”

    “We were discussing her intent to purchase some sort of royal relic,” Xavener said, his expression showing the annoyance at the Naelaxians’ intrusion and questions. “Didn’t her gnome and halfling friends make similar inquiries?”

    Caradoc took a step forward, but Xeravho put a hand on his arm. Xeravho fixed Xavener with a cold, penetrating glare, which made Xavener wonder if Xeravho could see into his soul. Likely he could-Xavener suspected that Xeravho was employing a mind-reading spell to try and detect any lies he said.

    “The Cranden maidens and their friends stole something valuable from us,” Xeravho said calmly, “and it’s of the utmost importance we get it back.”

    “I’m as much a victim of them as you are,” Xavener said, shaking his head. “They stole my finest traveling coach when I had them brought here. For all I know, they’re halfway to the Iron Hills by now!”

    Caradoc and Xeravho looked at one another in alarm, realizing they needed to hurry. Xeravho, however, couldn’t resist one last question.

    “Why did you have them brought here?” he asked.

    “To discuss how they might help me in exchange for my purchasing the debt Cranden owes to Garasteth,” Xavener replied. “They abused my hospitality and betrayed me in my own house!”

    Caradoc looked at Xeravho expectantly, and Xeravho thought about what to do. His mind-reading spell showed Xavener wasn’t lying. At best, he might have been exaggerating about getting the adventurers to help him, but that didn’t prove that Xavener was behind their theft of the cabal’s documents. He suspected Xavener was involved, but he had no proof of anything Xavener might have done.

    “We’re wasting time,” Xeravho said as he turned to leave. Caradoc looked at him in disbelief, until Xeravho glared back over his shoulder.

    The snakelike look in Xeravho’s eyes made Caradoc wish Xavener’s guards hadn’t confiscated his sword, but he got the message.

    “This isn’t over,” Caradoc said, giving Xavener a threatening glare as he followed Xeravho.

    The Naelaxians shut the door behind them, leaving Xavener alone.

    Reaching into his pocket, Xavener smiled at the bottle he pulled out. It contained the potion he’d drunk when he’d first heard the castellan’s frantic footsteps approaching his bedroom. The potion made anything he said sound truthful, even to the point of shielding him from spells to read his thoughts or detect lies.

    Xavener thought of the alchemist he befriended in Kalstrand some two years ago. The man was brilliant at magic and chemistry, a credit to his profession, but utterly hopeless at managing a business. He’d been head over ears in debt when Xavener paid off his creditors, and was so grateful he eagerly made whatever potions and concoctions Xavener asked of him.

    They’d proven just as valuable now as they had two years ago.

    Xavener knew that the endgame was approaching. Whatever might come of any conflict between the adventurers and the Naelaxians pursuing them, as the new head of House Darmen he was well-placed to meet it.

    He smiled, ever so briefly, as he resumed working on his painting of Norreck. The painting featured Norreck as golden and resplendent, fiercely loyal to Aerdi’s crowned sun.

    It was only noticeable to anyone who studied the painting very carefully, but that crowned sun was already starting to set. 

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