Fifteen minutes into the meeting, Davin Earthwalker began wondering exactly who among his fellow Tempestites would be the one to kill him.
"It was ill luck," Valen insisted, "and nothing more."
"Most certainly, Lord Valen," Calla said without any trace of a smile. "Doubtless you responded appropriately."
Valen glared at her, although the bandages that were tied around his forehead did little to sustain the gesture.
"And what of the peasant, then?" Calla asked Davin. "I hear that you've taken him under your wing."
Davin smiled. "I've given him to Hieron."
"Hieron? The man couldn't wring venom from a snake."
"Yes," Davin said, "but do we really want one of the lesser peoples walking among us, Lady Calla?"
Calla smiled despite herself, and for a moment Davin admired how beautiful she was. Calla Iceflame was more than perfect for many a man -- rich lineage, landed gentry, artful appearance -- and had just the right disposition for the Tempestites. Others either warmed to her smile, or shivered ar her touch.
"Ten crowns says that the young man doesn't survive," Valen said.
"Ten crowns?" Davin raised an eyebrow. "You've made more astonishing bets before, Lord Valen."
"If you think that I'd be willing to wager a small fortune on this... peasant, Earthwalker, then you'd better think again."
Calla laughed, and Davin joined her. There was little mirth in any of the sounds.
A shadow fell across the veil of sunlight that streamed through the windows of their chamber. "Your endless games bore me," a voice growled.
Davin held up a hand. "Patience is a virtue, Pyre."
Pyre approached the little group, his tall form radiating violence in all angles. "Patience lays many a man low. Patience opens one to slander and weakness. Patience kills."
"We are five voices, Pyre," Davin chided, "Five voices to govern the Tempestites. I know that you are anxious to begin, but I am certain that we hold enough affection for Lord Soran to overlook his... tardiness."
Pyre stalked across the floor slowly, but said nothing.
Calla waited until the tall man was out of earshot. "He has power," she neatly observed, "but no direction."
Valen snorted. "Would he find direction, however, then it had better not be aimed towards any of us, for his sake."
Davin laughed. "I should like to see that confrontation sometime."
"You should talk, Earthwalker. Pyre only takes orders from you."
"Pyre... owes me a few favors," Davin conceded.
"Everyone owes everyone a few favors," Calla said, enigmatically.
There was a sound of rushed footsteps, and then the door to the lavish chamber opened. A dark-skinned young man staggered in, clearly out of breath. All eyes turned to meet the newcomer.
"My... apologies," Soran Mistmoor mentioned in response to the glares directed at him. "My messengers arrived late today. Well met, High Ones. Well met."
"How diplomatic," Valen said, although the edge in his voice implied sarcasm over admiration.
Davin smirked. "What news from Queen Sasha's court?"
"Plenty of talk among the functionaries," Soran said, smoothing the front of his robes. "The Queen, it seems, has just given Lieutenant Ke'iara command of the armies of Allandria."
"The Tajikar woman?" Calla asked, curious. "An incredible choice."
"It would stand to reason," Davin said, "considering the severity of the fighting to the south."
"But still," Calla repeated, "a Tajikar?"
"Aran only knows," Soran said, shrugging.
Davin stole a glance at Pyre. The tall man stood against a marbled pillar, listening to Soran's pronouncement. Or perhaps he was merely sizing up the younger man in case of a fight.
Davin did not consider Soran to be much of a threat. "But sometimes," he said out loud, "the poisoned blade strikes from the unlikeliest of shadows."
Soran, Calla and Valen turned to face him. "Lord Davin?" Soran asked.
Davin only smiled in response. "What of Lord Gerad, then?"
"Gerad?" Valen said in a frustrated tone. "We hardly considered him for the post!"
"Yet he has ambitions to become General of Allandria, does he not?"
"Lord Gerad is the most skilled tactician in the Allandrian War Council," Soran said.
"Lord Gerad," Calla quietly noted, "is the most skilled male tactician in the Council. Allandria will only follow a female general."
"I see," Davin agreed, folding his arms. "Trust the Allandrians to assert the nature of feminine dominance," he added.
"I hardly think that Lord Gerad would be happy about that," Valen said.
"Lord Gerad is a military man," Davin said, shifting his gaze to the window. "He'll follow orders."
Pyre straightened. "Are you finished with your endless prattle, then?" he asked.
Davin turned, glancing at each of his fellows one by one: Calla Iceflame. Valen Stormseeker. Pyre. Soran Mistmoor.
If there was anything that the High Tempestites could be trusted to do, it was to bicker and argue among themselves without the slightest chance of conrete action. That was the beauty of the arrangement, after all: No one was willing to trust another long enough to gain an advantage.
Someone would strike against him soon enough, yes, but killing the leader of the wolves in this case would have meant exposing one's throat to the rest of the pack.
Ambition was a beautiful thing indeed. Davin smiled.
"Now then," he said, "shall we put this meeting to order?"