Ean knocked on the thick, silvery hahrax-wood door.
Ean prayed for strength and tried to still the fluttering in his stomach. It had been decades since he had opposed his father on any grounds more serious than a difference in engineering opinions.
He opened the door and stepped into the King’s office.
When was the last time he’d been in here?
It was smaller than he remembered. It must have been very long. His father always preferred to meet with people in his study, surrounded by his books and close to his private desk.
The office was for official business.
Drawings, paintings and black-and-white photographs of the kingdom obscured the wood paneling, along with a giant aerial map of Salshira that covered almost one entire wall, done with perfect penmanship and precise cartography, showing cities and towns, roads and rail systems, in minute detail.
His father sat behind a desk of white kren-wood with legs carved to look like the living trees the wood had come from. The great wide surface was set with dark green glass that had a pattern of leaves to it, subtle but distinct. The pattern was half hidden under several neat stacks of paper and files, none very high, and a pair of trays for incoming and outgoing documents. It held nothing else but a small selection of fountain pens and a massive hardbound copy of the scriptures set neatly on the right front corner. The desk was for business.
Ean met his father’s eyes, a medium brown like his own, and studied the set of a face that looked very much like his own, but with more wrinkles around the eyes and across the forehead. Open, but not warm. Firm. The ears were tilted forward enough to signal listening, but not in the open and wide way that would have shown eagerness to hear.
“Good morning, honored father.”
“And to you, trusted son.”
Ean bowed again, half as far, at the use of the traditional greeting from a father to his inheriting son. After a momentary pause, he straightened up and waited.
His father studied him for a moment, then nodded.
“You obviously don’t think you’ve done something wrong or foolish, despite the fact that you’ve set the entire family at an uproar and gone against my clearly expressed will. Explain.”
Ean had run the conversation through in his head a hundred times since receiving the summons, but never gotten his answer to where he wanted it. He had finally just prostrated himself before Kai and admitted he was not great with persuasion, begging for words when the time came.
This was that time.
He opened his mouth, paused, then went forward. Trust had brought him this far, and whether it would see him through or see him burned, it was the only stride he had.
“Honored father, I went out intending to deal with an intruding Garagran. When I reached the village I saw that this particular Garagran was likely somewhat peaceful, at least enough to make it worth talking to. And when I talked to her, I found out that she was very willing to cooperate and make what amends she could. And I saw someone in need. So I brought her to the village and sought to make a place of safety for her here.”
He stopped and waited.
His father nodded.
“That is all well and good and proper. However, then I told you to send her away. Why didn’t you? It is my right as King of this land.”
Ean twitched at his father’s words. Disobedience hurt when he was so used to willing submission.
“I did not disobey you lightly,” Ean said.
“No, you moved to block me quite firmly, actually.”
Ean stumbled mentally, thrown off by his father’s soft jibe, and waited. His father waved for him to continue after a few tikkits.
“I saw a stranger, dangerous but in need, and I remembered the teachings of Kai. I chose to obey him, rather than you.”
The King sighed.
“I supposed it would be something like that. Ean, Kaim told me she drew a sword on you, yes? And you had to promise to take care of her debts yourself before she was willing to come down to the village and apologize to our people. You also fed her out of your own personal funds. I know. I read the transfer request. You do know it will be very hard getting a breeding cow of that quality from the southern Kentinshirs, even with your position as crown prince, correct?”
His father drummed his fingers on the glass top of the desk, then eased back in his chair for a moment and stretched his shoulders before leaning in again.
“Son, you have taken on a very expensive, very dangerous charity case. If that was all this Danya was, I would have to give you my fatherly advice and watch to see how it turned out. But this woman also represents a great and continuous threat to all of us in this palace and in this city. She may be peaceful now, but she could go wild at any moment and we might have little chance of stopping her. As King of Salshira, it is my duty to protect our people, and I cannot tolerate that kind of threat.”
When his father said it, sending Danya away looked like the only proper and reasonable thing to do. Why couldn’t he sound so convincing?
“Here,” his father said, pulling a folder off the top of one pile and opening it so Ean could see the contents. A few of the old tin-backed photos fronted the contents. The first few showed images of a burned city. A later one showed hundreds of burned bodies lined up in rows. The last one showed a single dead Garagran, easily the size of a house, with dozens of arrows sticking out of it where they had caught in scales without penetrating, one broken ballista bolt protruding from an underarm, and a sword in the throat where one brave soldier had finally managed to get in close enough to find a weak spot.
“Do you remember this?” his father asked.
Ean flipped through all the pictures, then nodded. He had recognized it from the very first photo. There was only one incident it could be.
His father picked another folder and opened it over the first. Ean saw sketches of another city, much larger, completely destroyed by fire. An estimate of the dead reached well into six figures.
“This was Onimandil,” his father said. “One of the cities in the outside world. They angered one Garagran King and he came with his offspring and his commanders and razed the entire city overnight. Son, the only sane thing to do with Garagrans is to keep them far away.”
It was sane. Ean knew it was sane.
Or safe looking.
Yes. That was where he stood and why had to protect Danya.
“Honored father, I too am sworn to protect the people of Salshira, and I have not forgotten that duty. I protect them from something far worse than an angry Garagran, however. I protect them from Kai.”
His father’s eyes widened.
“‘Protect them from Kai’? You think He will get angry if we don’t look after a woman who could burn us all to ashes?”
Ean pointed at the giant text lying on the desk.
“Shall I quote you all the commands and curses that refer to how we should treat those in need? Or should I remind you of what happened to Aintara when they chose justice over mercy? Or what of the words of the prophet Shin to Mokrendin when they turned aside the Tixeries to avoid angering King Vadagan? ‘As you have shut the needy out of your walls, Aihay shall shut you out of his.’”
His father sighed and shook his head.
“Son, she is a Garagran. Not some helpless refugee. She IS danger.”
“She doesn’t intend us any harm. I think we frighten her far more at the moment. We are not a defenseless people ourselves.” Ean gave his father a wry smile.
His father stared at him, drummed his fingers on the desk again, then put his hand on the scriptures.
“For the sake of Kai I will put this in your hands for now–for now–and pray that nothing terrible comes of this. But if she becomes a threat, I will look for a way to bypass the protection your ‘betrothal’ gives her and have her gone.”
“Thank you, father.”
“Don’t make me regret this.”
“I won’t, father. And if she becomes a genuine threat, I will see her out of here myself.”
“You are kinder than you think, Ean. Too kind. And naive to think that a Garagran would be afraid of us. Garagrans are afraid of nothing.”