Chapter 21: Blood & Birthright

Chapter 21: Blood & Birthright

A lone man rode into Argenport on a quiet autumn night.

He came in with a crowd, and the guards at the shattered gate never saw his face. He took quiet, half-remembered backstreets, sparks dancing from his steed’s worn shoes. The heads of both horse and rider hung low, run ragged. The man still bore wounds from his last fight; but some scars burned worse than others. He was here with one purpose to take what was rightfully his.

By blood, if need be.

Has it been a season already? Eilyn mused as she heard the murmurs of the crowd below. The morning after the city had been taken, the Clans, Crownwatch, and civilians had all stood apart, in tight, defensive groups. Now they mingled, one huge press of people. Clan ferocity and Argenport inventiveness bolstering one another.

In the thick of the gathering below, the man pushed his way through. His head and broad shoulders were obscured by a rough cloak, and he moved with purpose, shoving a burly Clan berserker aside. The warrior turned, but the growl withered in his throat when he saw the look on the stranger’s face. The man didn’t stop, pushing past a silver-haired soldier on his way towards the front of the crowd.

Far above, the Queen stepped up to the railing, raising a hand to acknowledge the cheers. Just as Eilyn began to speak, a gunshot cracked through the square. People screamed, and the man let his cloak fall away, pointing his still-smoking gun up at the balcony. With a raw and booming voice, Kaleb bellowed,

“Eilyn! Thief! That throne was paid for with the blood of your betters. Will you defend it with your own, or will you be named a coward?

I challenge you. Not under Argenport law, but by the code of your Clans. Caiphus earned that right when he wed you, and as his son, I claim your Throne by the old laws of combat. Name the time and place, and we will settle this!”

I claim your Throne!

Sudden silence rang like a struck bell. All eyes were turned up to Eilyn, who had not moved.

Slowly, her eyes still on Kaleb, she nodded. “I accept.” Her voice pealed over the assembly, drowning out the gasps. “Noon, two days from now, before my Throne. You will have your chance then.”

Eilyn’s footsteps echoed down the hallways of the Spire.

“My Queen,” Sigvard, a Crownwatch veteran and one of Eilyn’s advisors, said gruffly, hurrying to keep up with her, “there is no need for you to accept… The law is on your side here. Kaleb’s parentage is unknown, we could annul this so-called challenge by checking the lineal records and—”

“I do not doubt his legitimacy,” Eilyn said.

Sigvard blinked, confused. “What? A chip on his shoulder isn’t the same as a birthright.”

Eilyn stopped, turning to stare down at the man in his emerald armor . “Because in that moment, he was Caiphus. Or near enough. Bold, confident, and daring. He is his heir, that much is certain.” She trailed away, lost in thought. From her other side, her bodyguard cleared his throat.

“You have won many such duels, Clan Mother,” Daraka rumbled. “This is no different.”

Eilyn’s expression softened, and she nodded. “Yes, old friend. We have traveled far to be here, and we won’t give it up without a fight.”

Speculation and whispers whirled through Argenport with a brisk autumn wind.

“At last, the uncrowned prince has come to save us from the barbarous Queen of the Wilds,” some said, rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation.

“The hotheaded bastard is just throwing a tantrum. He has no chance,” others sneered, dismissively.

“This is the end of Argenport!” others cried. “The leaders care more about their petty fights than for the people!”

What kind of ruler would Kaleb be?

Many were worried. Eilyn’s efforts to integrate the Clans into her city were still underway, and construction crews were only now moving into some neighborhoods that were harmed by either her assault or by Rolant's battle with the rebels. The city had weathered many conflicts, and just as it was finding its footing, this happens? Worse yet, no one knew what kind of ruler Kaleb would be. He might be cruel, or he could be just, like his father. Those who knew him when he was younger reported that he was… different now. A changed man. Harder, more serious. What had he found on his travels that had driven him back here?

Within the first hour of the news spreading, Cabal bookies were taking bets. Eilyn began at two-to-one odds, but by the night before the duel, the odds were dead even. The Cabal was uninterested in the outcome of this duel, some highly-placed sources said. They could do business with whoever survived. After all: The house always wins.

The day of the duel dawned cold and grey. A summer of violence had made way for a quiet fall, and Argenport held its breath.

The throng in the Throne room was muted, subdued by nervous anticipation. The high andmighty of Argenport had shown up to watch the fate of their city unfold. Representatives of other groups were in the crowd as well. The Knight-Chancellor of Combrei, the envoy from Kosul, and an elder mage from the Praxis Arcanum were all in attendance.

Kaleb had arrived early, with no retinue. He sat at one end of the large stone room, eyes closed, apparently at ease.

There was the groaning of hinges, and a door at the other end of the throne room opened slowly. Eilyn entered, Daraka at her side. Without a word, the huge Queensguard left Eilyn’s side to stand with the assembled guests. In the silence, Queen Eilyn walked up the shallow stairs to the Eternal Throne.

She did not sit, but instead slowly removed her crown, her hair tumbling to her shoulders, and set it on the heavy stone arm of the ancient seat. Turning around, she said in a quiet voice,

“Irel, will you bless this duel?”

Genetrix Irel IV, head of the Solists, nodded and took a few steps forward. Irel was an older woman, dressed richly in the white, brown, and bronze of her faith. She leaned on a heavy walking stick of wood and bone, and her voice was rich and precise as she spoke, “Sol welcomes both combatants. May this duel sort the grain of truth from the maelstrom of lies.”

Eilyn nodded, “Thank you.” She took the steps down from the Throne slowly, pacing across the room until she stood at the opposite end from Kaleb. As she did, he rose, stretching. Both their faces were masks of calm. Eilyn turned to a figure standing apart from the rest. “Judge?”

An armored minotaur walked to the center and surveyed the room, eyes roaming over the assembled dignitaries.

“Well,” she said in a dry voice, “we all know why we are here and what is at stake. You may duel with all arms, firearms, magics, and guile at your disposal. You fight until someone yields. When I say it ends, it ends. If neither combatant yields, then it is to the death.” The massive minotaur cast a slow, deliberate stare around the assembled witnesses. “I will personally cut down anyone that tries to interfere. Is that clear?” Both combatants nodded. Grinva turned to look at each of them, then said, “Good. As this may be your last chance, you may each make a short statement. Challenger?”

Kaleb nodded, taking a deep breath.

“I’ve said my piece. The Throne is my birthright. I will not allow an outsider’s words to take that away from me. I am my father’s son.” In the crowd, he saw Marisen raise an eyebrow and nod, smiling. Kaleb turned and drew his sword. “And today I intended to prove that.”

Grinva looked over to Eilyn, who also drew her weapon, faint stormlight flickering along with worn blade. She too took a breath before speaking.

“A ruler is judged not by the strength of their blood, but by the strength of their accomplishments. You may be Caiphus’ son, but I have done more for this city in one season than you’ve done in all your years. Where were you when Caiphus vanished? Where were you when Rolant seized the Regency and left Argenport in ruin? Where were you when your uncle died? Because everyone knows my answer. I have been here. On the battlefield and on the Throne, building alliances and mending old wounds. Ruling. That is the measure of a Queen.”

Grinva nodded, “Very well.” The judge took two large, hurried steps backwards.

“Begin.”

The word had barely left the judge’s mouth before Eilyn let out a battle cry and pointed her blade at Kaleb. Azure lightning lanced from it, splitting the air with thunder. It struck Kaleb in the center of his chest, but instead of flinging him back, Kaleb gestured with his free hand and the lightning grounded itself, singeing the stone tiles.

Before Eilyn could follow her opening shot, Kaleb took a step forward, throwing a roaring mass of flame, trying to overwhelm her. Another lance of lightning poleaxed the fire, negating the blast and shocking Kaleb, who bared his teeth and charged.

Eilyn let out another sharp shout and blurred forward, raising her own blade.

The two met in the center of the room, sparks flying and metal ringing as their swords met. Both combatants leaned forward, each one struggling to overpower the other. Through gritted teeth, Eilyn said,

“I struck down the gates of Argenport with a single blow. You will not survive this storm. Yield.”

Grunting, Kaleb started to push Eilyn back as he growled, “I’ve been through storms and worse in my searching, stepmother. I will not be broken.” He accentuated the last word with a shove. Eilyn stumbled back, but righted herself quickly, cracking Kaleb’s chin with a swift punch. Kaleb roared in fury, and his hand darted to the shotgun at his hip. Two heavy shots rang out, deafening both combatants. The shiftstone slugs impacted Eilyn’s breastplate, knocking her back.

“Too easy,” Kaleb said as he strode forward. “Yield.”

“Never,” Eilyn gasped, standing. Her armor was battered, but it had not been breached. “This city is mine.”

“Like hell,” Kaleb spat, and charged.

Their blades met again, but instead of sparks, golden-white light erupted between the combatants, hurling them backwards. Everyone was forced to shade their eyes, squinting through the glare and sudden gale. Desert winds, hot and sandy, tore at everyone’s clothes.

“What is this!?” Grinva demanded, striding forward, as a figure appeared. It was Talir, but younger than she had been in years, her hair white and her eyes full of light.

The arch-magister hovered, bathed in a yellow glow, and surveyed the room. When she spoke, her voice echoed and rebounded, redoubling and growing louder.

“I have swam against the currents of time to bring a warning, and what do I find? My family, squabbling over a chair. Heed me, for I have seen beyond. Look to the Shadowlands. A pathway opens there. We are not alone.”

She glared at Kaleb and Eilyn, and her voice rang with command. “End this pettiness. I expect you both in my chambers at the Praxis Arcanum within three days.”

And with another roar of desert winds, she vanished, leaving everyone blinking in the sudden gloom of the Throne room.