FORTY-FIVE MINUTES AGO

Raoyenna’s palms were moist as she entered the Argent Tower. Flanked by a royal guard of dragoons, mercenary gunslingers, and her dragon guardian Dragonholt, she knew she was as safe as could be. Even so, she was nervous. This was her first diplomatic mission as regent of District Rao. She had been elevated six months prior following her father’s death. While the district was technically a monarchy, oligarchs were the true power behind the crown. If she were to have a successful rule, she would need to cow them. Sway them to her corner. Prove to them that she could and would lead the district out of the mines and into a future of riches untold. 

But first, she would need to get through the signing of the Treaty of Accordance. No small task, given the tension in the feasting chamber. 

“Greetings, your highness,” a bald servant said as she made her way through the great hall. “Would your retinue be so kind as to hand over your weapons for the duration of your stay?”

“What?” roared Dragonholt. “Preposterous. Keep your weapons,” he said to the guards.

“I’m sorry, but that is impossible,” the servant said, never raising his head or looking at any of them. “As per the terms of the Treaty of Accordance, all must hand over their weaponry before entering the feasting chamber.”

“Do as he says,” Raoyenna said, trying to sound tougher than she felt. 

“Princess, I must insist—”

“You will do as I command, Dragonholt,” she said, fighting down a quiver in her voice. “All of you. Hand them over.”

The gunslingers looked at one another and shrugged, handing in their handcannons. The dragoons, warriors encased in metal and imbued with the flames of the Tower of Fire itself, turned over their swords. Raoyenna gave the servant her scepter, a relic of the ancient kings and queens of Rao, more ceremonial than dangerous. The servant took them all and deposited them into a pocket dimension summoned from three shards. 

“Thank you, your highness. The merchants of the Argent Tower assure you your property is safe and will be returned at the conclusion of the signing.”

“I’m sure,” Raoyenna said, brushing past the servant and into the hall. She knew something that Dragonholt seemed to forget. None of her guards needed weapons to be dangerous. They were the weapons.

The forces of the Forge stood together against the far wall, muttering to each other. She recognized the blue mages of the Iakuma from Stormheld, the green cloudsea farers of Sol. They were not alone. Ten distinct Stormheld guilds were represented as were the various branches of the Sol military. 

Those of the Rose, where the allegiance of District Rao remained, stood on the opposite side. Together they were a mix of the white and purples of Knitehood, the cults that gave their lives to the Vigilant Tower, as well as the finely dressed and unemotional oligarchs of District Rao. Her district had seven great houses, each with nearly as much power over the district as the royal seat. Raoyenna felt their eyes on her, baring holes into her. She had never felt all fourteen of her years so explicitly. 

“Remember,” Dragonholt whispered in her ear. “You are princess of District Rao. You do not have to pretend to be. You simply are.”

Raoyenna puffed up her chest, adjusted the thin crimson crown on her head just so, and stepped into the center of the oligarchs. “Have the representatives from District Gloom arrived?” she said, forgoing formalities.“Good evening to you, too, your grace,” said Commandant Crane, the tallest of the oligarchs. He had high cheekbones and fire kissed hair. His eyes blazed with the fiery iris of District Rao’s old blood.

Raoyenna ignored him. “You there,” she said to one of the gunslingers. “Wine. Now.” He scoffed but did as he was told. “Well?” She eyed the oligarchs as a portal opened in the center of the room.

From it came a woman with a pointed witch’s hat flanked on all sides by a squadron of golems. Behind her, lawyers from the Gloom government known as the Den walked through, their noses in their contracts, each wearing a different shade of harlequin patterns and pinstriped suits. Behind them came another woman of similar build and appearance to the first, with eyes that glowed and left streaks where she moved. Two gargoyles accompanied her. 

Just as it appeared the Gloom delegation had arrived, another portal opened and even more lawyers came through. Raoyenna had always felt the people of Gloom were… off. Their limbs were too long, their skin too pearlescent, their laughter too manic. They were a people without a purpose, barely contained chaos in suits of skin. 

Servants ran to the portals, arms flailing. “Weapons! Give us your weapons!” one said.

“You were supposed to go in through the front entrance,” said another.

“Actually, it says nowhere in the treaty that we must enter through the entranceway, only that we must enter through an entranceway. Therefore, we are totally within our rights under subsection 61-C on page four-hundred and eight three,” one of the lawyers said.

“While my colleague’s conclusion is correct, his reasoning couldn’t be further from correct,” another lawyer chimed in. “If you would turn your attention to appendix ten under paragraph thirteen, you will see where the text clearly implies portals of this nature are allowable under extreme circumstances into and out of the heretofore mentioned districts.”

Another three lawyers spoke up. “What my fine colleague means to say…”

“That’s quite enough,” a man from Knitehood said, walking into the center of the room. “I am sure the merchants of the City of Silver can forgive such a… flexible reading of the rules, can you not?” he said to the group assembled. They nodded. “Good! Now, I hear music but I don’t see any dancing. Mirai, would you join me?”

A beautiful woman with skin like honey and dark hair stepped forward from the Stormheld congregation. She flashed Raoyenna a smile as she took the man’s hand. “Shall we, my dear?” he said.

The shardlight instruments above began to play. The man whisked Mirai along, light as a feather across the dance floor. They twirled and dipped, spun and held each other close. They danced as if they were alone.

“Who is that man?” Raoyenna asked Dragonholt.

“I do not know,” he said.

“A representative of the Corum,” Crane said. 

“That cannot be,” Dragonholt said. “The Corum shave their heads.”

“And they are devoid of emotion,” Raoyenna said. “That man is anything but.” She could taste the heat off their bodies as they danced closer to her. 

“He is most definitely from Knitehood,” said Dragonholt. “A member of the Rose. And she, a member of the Forge. Dancing together here, under the shardlight of the Argent Tower. It has been so long.” 

“Commandant Crane,” Raoyenna said. “Dance with me.” She grasped his hand and led him to the dance floor, where her dress lit on fire, dazzling the room. 

Their dancing seemed to break an invisible barrier as the delegations began to mix. Representatives from each of the districts, be it Forge or Rose, clasped hands and joined the dance. Soon, the room was full of twirling bodies and smiling dancers. The attendants filled their plates from the feasting table and wine ran over. Laughter rang throughout the halls and for a moment, it was easy to forget the ideological divide that kept Turrim at war for the last hundred years. For a moment, they felt what peace could be.

Raoyenna felt light-headed as Crane dipped her close to the ground. She found herself smiling. Her cheeks hurt from the strain. She hadn’t smiled in half a year, ever since her father died. She smiled because she had pricked Crane during the dance. The servants had taken the weapons they could see, but the poison Raoyenna carried was within her the flames of her dress. Only when they began dancing did she get close enough to her father’s killer to end him.

Crane pulled her in to him and her lips were at his ear. “Do you feel that?” she whispered. “Your eyelids are drooping.”

“What did you do?” he stammered, the poison taking hold. He would fall asleep on the dance floor and be taken to an infirmary where he would lay comatose for five hours before waking up in pain. He would suffer. She wished she could hear his screams.

“I—” 

Balls of fire erupted from both ends of the hall and exploded within the feasting chamber. Crane turned to ash in front of her as everything went dark. 

To be continued...

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