Jackal Among Snakes

Chapter 350: Dynastic Troubles

Chapter 350: Dynastic Troubles

“I know that it might seem ridiculous,” Argrave said, one hand hovering near the other which held a wriggling salamander. “But these things… they’re the key.”

Reinhardt shook his head. “We’re the ones to ask you for help, Your Majesty. Why would we doubt what you do?”

Argrave looked down at the margrave. It had been perhaps three or four months since last they spoke, and now the situations between them had reversed entirely. It was a very strange thing to see Margrave Reinhardt and think of the past. That point of comparison struck home how much had changed. Argrave had done a lot. Some of it was worse than in Heroes of Berendar, and some of it was far better.

“Your Majesty?” Elias asked politely.

Argrave was drawn from his thoughts. “You’ll have two options. The first is to eat these things, daily…” he began.

Argrave explained the intricacies of the process to the two members of House Parbon, calling upon Anneliese to relay her experiences treating Elenore when necessary. When it was done he asked, “Any questions?”

“None.” Reinhardt shook his head.

“Good. Then, these things aren’t immortal. You’ll want to get this over with quickly.” Argrave looked down at the salamander. “You’ll either want your wyvern, or you’ll want to leave now. I’m curious where it is.”

Reinhardt looked instinctually defensive. “It’s… safe.”

Argrave smiled at the margrave’s paranoia. As he stared, he heard a knock on the door. Galamon, who was still acting as his knight-commander for now, stepped to the door and opened it up.

“I need your help,” Elenore said, her voice entering the room before she did.

“That’s rare. What is it?” Argrave tossed the salamander at Elias, and the one-eyed man grappled with it frantically in his surprise. “If there’s nothing else, margrave…”

“Nothing more, Your Majesty.” The man dipped his head respectfully, and his mane of red hair covered his face.

Argrave bit his lip, reminded once again of how much he enjoyed being undercover in the far north. It was hard to make fun of someone when they treated him like a king. It felt unfair. He turned to Elenore, and then he and his entourage walked out.

“You looked distressed,” Anneliese noted at once, and they walked down the hall following the princess’ fast pace.

“I have news,” Elenore began. “Rovostar… he’s abandoned his forces. On the bright side, they’ve surrendered to us and sent his family as hostages. His eldest son was killed while resisting.” She looked at him, gray eyes somewhat bright. “No more armies oppose you.”

Argrave raised a brow. “I only care about Duke Enrico by this point.”

“That’s the thing.” Elenore crossed her arms as she walked. “Rovostar took Duke Enrico with him alongside his small force. They marched right past Blackgard and Relize—the garrisons tried to stop them, but they travelled light and our sallying defenders were unable to even wound any of them. They have a spellcaster with them, I’m told. Last word I got… they’re headed for the Bloodwoods. It might be they enter, or it might be they look for a way out of this.”

Argrave sighed and placed his palm against his face. “I can’t… good lord. I knew I should have acted personally…” When he thought of what he might say to explain things to his cousin, he quickly asked, “What about Nikoletta?”

“We did find her,” Elenore nodded. “She was injured chasing after Rovostar’s party. She’s taking respite at Blackgard with another—Mina of Veiden. Her wounds are already healed, but the garrison is retaining her. For her own safety,” Elenore added positively.

Argrave nodded. “We’re due to head to Blackgard again soon, anyway. Damn it all. Everything was going so well…” he looked to Elenore. “What did you need my help with? Where are we going?”

Elenore sighed. “We’re here.”

She opened the door, then moved into the room. Argrave saw Orion sitting on the left, Vasquer situated on the balcony, and Elenore moved to sit opposite Orion. Vasquer barely fit: it was extremely evident that she needed much more room generally. Argrave looked about the room, perplexed.

“Have a seat, Argrave,” Orion gestured to a couch. “We’d like to talk.”

Argrave furrowed his brows. “Is this… an intervention? What’d I do?”

Elenore gestured her hand at Orion. “This man has been bothering me ceaselessly. He insists that we all should meet as a family.”

“Vasquer agrees with me,” Orion said defensively. “A good family is open and communicative. That’s what she told me. I insist we meet monthly, to update the others on what we’re doing, and to air any grievances.”

Argrave leaned up against the doorframe, feeling a bit dizzy. Even here, he could not escape forced family fun.

“Come on, have a seat,” Orion repeated, pointing. “You as well, Lady Anneliese. This is important.”

Argrave hesitantly dislodged himself from the doorframe and walked over to the couch between Elenore and Orion, and then sat until he sunk into the cushions. He stared at Vasquer as she fit awkwardly into the room. Galamon shut the door as Anneliese sat beside him.

“Alright,” Orion said happily, running one hand over his beard. “I’ll start.”

“Wait,” Argrave raised his hand. “Why don’t we just get mutual understanding through Vasquer?”

“She cannot be everywhere,” Orion pointed. “She cannot travel as she used to. Her body is old and ailing. It was trouble enough for her to move from the underground position after years of suffering. We have to develop these family skills now.

Argrave sunk further into the couch, then fiddled with his ring as he stared off into space. The silence persisted for a few seconds.

“Alright,” Orion said. “Then… I’ll start.”

“Why are we wasting time with this whole ordeal?” Elenore interrupted. “All of this is just a pretext to moralize about the fact I’m disparaging our dead father. I don’t care, and you can’t convince me to care. Don’t bother.”

“No, I want to know why you don’t care. This is about understanding,” insisted Orion.

Argrave sunk a little further into the couch, fiddling with his ring faster. He looked up at Vasquer, pleading for her aid.

Elenore scoffed. “You don’t even know what you want. All of this nonsense about family—I don’t want to hear it. You were father’s lapdog for years, jumping to his whim just as eagerly as Levin. Even now you’re defending his image. What am I to take from that? Can you even conceive of what he did to me? To Levin, Magnus, to all of us?”

The two of them continued to stubbornly bicker, and Argrave’s gaze jumped between the two of them. Orion has mellowed out so much, he noticed. Ordinarily, he’d be stomping and getting close to her face and looming and ranting about the gods. I guess he really did have some bad influences.

His gaze slowly switched to Elenore, who was saying something about how Orion probably enjoyed all of what he’d done in the past. And Elenore… she’s getting a lot more emotional than she normally does. Anneliese told me she’s been feeling very guilty lately. That’s why she’s been working so hard.

Anneliese placed her hands on her lap and leaned up, looking down at Argrave as he attempted to escape inside the couch. Her amber eyes watched him almost expectantly. On the other side, too, Vasquer stared with what seemed to be hope. Argrave slowly sighed and closed his eyes as he realized what they wanted from him.

Argrave planted his hands on his knees and leaned in, saying loudly, “Alright, alright, enough!” He looked between the two of them. Elenore crossed her arms and leaned back onto the couch defensively, and Orion sat there rigidly, surprised.

“You two aren’t getting anywhere. Forget Felipe, forget what Orion’s done, let’s just start with simple, ground-setting crap.” Argrave looked between the two of them, then pointed both hands at Orion. “Orion: why do you want to have this meeting, personally?”

Orion looked at Argrave plainly, then took a deep breath. “Galamon told me to invert the problem to find out what I want.” The big man closed his eyes. “I cannot keep making… no, I cannot be as I was. And most of all… I don’t want to lose more than I already have.” A silver tear ran down his cheek.

“I must make right what I made wrong.” Orion opened his eyes, gray pupils bright. “I want… a family. A true family. I wish for what was illusion to become reality: love, respect, mutual struggle for prosperity. I thought I had these things, but I wronged Elenore, Levin, Induen, and Magnus in service of parents that did nothing more than weave a tapestry of falsehood. I enjoyed the lie I lived, as much as it disturbs me. But now I want to make that lie a truth.” Orion lowered his head. “Please, Elenore.”

Elenore stared for a few moments, then looked away, blinking quickly. “Please, what?”

“Please allow me to be a true brother to you, as I never was.”

Elenore pursed her lips and said, “I can’t exactly stop you.”

“Listen,” Argrave cut in. “These next few months are going to be busy. With Galamon going away, the two of you are going to be my primary people for facilitating things. I need you two to be utterly comfortable with each other. And so…” Argrave tried not to sigh as he finished, “I think we should do this until we’ve figured it out.”


The Tower Master Castro opened the door, stepping in. Argrave and Anneliese, who were eating breakfast, both turned their heads at his arrival.

“Your Majesty,” Castro greeted. “You look… tired.”

“I feel worse,” Argrave returned. “Don’t do the majesty stuff. It’ll make what I’m going to ask of you awkward.”

Castro shot his head back. “What might that be?”

Castro was about to shut the door, but another hand caught it. Rowe the Righteous stepped in, and the two men locked eyes. Rowe was larger than Castro by a far bit, but both held staffs, walked with a slight hunch, and had bald, wrinkly heads.

“You’re that Tower Master,” Rowe said, his white eyes brightening in curiosity. “Saw you.”

“You’re Rowe. We’ve interacted indirectly. I read a spell book you wrote,” Castro began evenly.

“Made an impression, I see.” Rowe’s sagging lips curled in a rare smile.

“Before you two rent a room, hear me out,” Argrave interrupted them. “I stayed up all night writing this, but I think I need both of your perspectives.”

Argrave stood and retrieved a thin stack of papers, loosely held together by a thin, pliable metal clip. Argrave set it on the table, then ate another bite of food off his plate. Castro eyed the documents curiously, but Rowe picked them up without a care.

“Since we’re allies and all… I was hoping you’d help with my A-rank ascension,” Argrave said with a fatigued smile once he’d finished chewing.

Rowe read for a small amount of time, then looked up at Argrave. “You’re… serious?”

“Who better?” Argrave spread his arms out. “I do wonder who’ll be more helpful. The two of you are at the top of your field, after all… but which of you can do the better job?”

Rowe chuckled dryly. “Does he think we don’t know what he’s doing, manipulating us like that?”

“No, he knows,” Castro took the papers. “He just doesn’t care.”


“Would you look at that,” Melanie said, looking down at a map. She brushed aside her long red hair, then looked up at Durran with a grin. “The last one standing.”

“Really now?” Durran, too, leaned over the map. He surveyed things, then leaned back. “They really folded like a house of cards after what Argrave did.”

“Certain jobs are just peachy when you’ve got the right boss,” Melanie rolled her shoulders, then stretched. “Welcome change after that damned crusade into the taiga, fighting severed heads. We’ll contact this count tomorrow, get his submission one way or the other… and then all of Atrus will be Argrave’s.”

“We still have to finish that crusade,” he reminded her. “I don’t intend on leaving those necromantic abominations in the ground, just waiting to be unleashed on the world. Before we head back, we should kill them all.”

Melanie narrowed her eyes. “I see you’re volunteering.”

“Feeling lazy? Whatever. My bear has to eat somehow,” Durran stepped away from the table.

“I’ll help,” Melanie disagreed. “We’ll bring the whole party, make a festival out of it. Oh, you’re leaving?” she looked back. “Sleep well, I guess.”

Durran left the tent, returning Melanie’s farewell. Once outside, he looked up at the red moon above. He walked through the arrayed tents, reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a small metal object. After a few seconds of prying with his thumb, the top of it came back.

It was a compass. Specifically, it was the mundane compass that Titus had given Argrave all those months ago. It was in Durran’s possession, now. It pointed north faithfully even still, but Durran looked opposite where it was pointing. That was his intended direction.

“Not long now,” Durran muttered, then flipped the lid shut. “How to deliver the news…? Maybe I shouldn’t…”

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