For supper, Sallith was out of his black drake leather armor and in a gray and gold evening suit. He sat at the head of the oceanic ivory table, rifling a hand through his hair as servant after servant set domed cloches of clear glass around him on the table. Savory fog wafted up from each dish as each dome was lifted.
“Fear not, father,” Pali said, coming to sit at the right-hand seat. “Someone has come to dinner on time.” His sons were triplets, all ten years of age, but not identical. Pali was the lightest in skin tone, with hair the color and strength of polished cutlery.
Sallith was careful to not let any of them be seen outside the palace. Pali especially could easily be mistaken for an elf next to his father.
“Have you seen Maximus?”
“Climbing around his play pen, last I saw,” Pali said. “Shall we begin?”
The starter was black potatoes, shaved and fried into crispy patties, topped with a warm sauce of mild peppers. The herbal enclosure balanced the salty, greasy explosion of taste. He at least had one boy with which to share these moments.
“What do you think?” Sallith asked. His son was no pampered brat. He had been raised on far less extravagant foods at first.
“Splendid.” Pali picked up his next potato patty and bit a third of it away.
“Sorry!” another boy said as he rushed to his brother and father. His nasal voice went straight up to the ceiling dining hall and reverberated for several moments. “Sorry I’m late!”
This was common. Sallith had a son who came to dinner on time, one who came late, and one who rarely showed up at all.
“Hello, Maximus,” Sallith said. “It’s still hot. Tell me what you think.”
Maximus lived up to his name, as he was the biggest and strongest of the three boys. Less pale than Pali, he dreamed of being an athlete, but not a killer, something the arena could certainly oblige with time. The boy’s crude hands crumbled the patties into balls as he stuffed them past his lips.
“I’m glad you like it,” Sallith said. “These are flat potatoes from Delvina.”
“Can we go there someday?” Pali asked. “I’ve read a lot about it.”
“Maybe,” he said, pinching another patty between two fingers.
After dinner, Sallith took a plate of the evening’s dishes and carried it up the arching stairs to the western hallway. Up here, past the windows shining moonlight, was his third son Cole’s room.
Sallith kicked the door with one steel-tipped boot. “Dinner.”
There was hectic shuffling of scrolls. “Coming!”
Sallith dropped the plate and let it clatter into a mess on his boots without thinking, pulling a key from his pocket to open the door. His most-tan boy had about five scrolls under the bed, as he knelt to push them further down and out of sight.
“It’s the same thing again, isn’t it?” Sallith said, darting to the bed and yanking a scroll out. Those twirling Elven symbols were obvious in the dark, just by rubbing a finger along the paper. He let the scroll snap together and squeezed, crumbling its ends in two directions. “Damn it all, Cole, how do you expect me to trust you?”
“The language is relevant in modern politics, father!” Cole said, hands out to his sides. “It has both inspired and ended wars!”
“The elves are beneath monsters, son. Worse than being dangerous, they are weaker than us. Those are the beings you can never trust. I don’t want their regressive ways turning any good human son, let alone mine, into a high-nosed leaf-eating defender of nature.”
“Your last name is Govoria,” Cole said. “Your ancestors were friends to elves, mages, all beings.”
“Where are you getting these scrolls? Where are you learning these things?” Sallith dug under the bed and took everything he could reach. It was not wise to let his boys know the history of their father. Yet the atheneum was the most likely place to house such knowledge, but according to his spies, nothing of the sort had ever been delivered to the palace.
“I can’t take this!” the boy shouted, voice cracking. “Why do you hate magic so much? Why do you hate elves? Why do you hate everything that isn’t pure human?”
“We’ve been over this… it’s not time for you to know,” Sallith said, turning away with the wide bundle of motley-toned scrolls. “But you will, when you’re a few years older.”
“We have been over it. Like I said before, I’m ready.”
“The servants will be ready for you,” Sallith said, stepping past the plate and mess in the doorway. “Eat, and when I see you again, I don’t want to see any Elven writing on whatever you study. Nor anything about the Govoria bloodline. And don’t read this late, either. You’ll ruin your eyes.”
Once his father was on his way down the stairs, Cole shut the door with full force, keeping an ear to it until he couldn’t hold his breath any longer.
He sighed and gasped for air, then wiped his forehead. “All right. It’s safe.”
An elf girl, Cole’s age, with huge crimson eyes almost taller than they were wide, crept out from under the bed. She wore the smallest robes of a palace mage that Cole could steal.
The common people, and even the majority of the Royal Palace guard and servants, did not know that the towering structure went underground as well, beyond a secret passage in the basement. Sallith stepped down the spiral cavern with one of his appointed mages.
“Leftivacus,” the hooded mage said, holding out a hand. A miniature sun, filled with luminescence, grew to the size of the man’s head. He bounced the orb carefully with light taps, keeping it floating ahead of them as they descended.
How does that damn boy keep getting those scrolls? Sallith thought. If only I could explain. But what could I say that wouldn’t ruin him? I’d rather he hate me than himself.
With time, and if things went as planned, Sallith could finally tell his boys the true nature of his actions as king, and why they had no mother, much sooner. Mirek was isolationist for reasons no one could know except for his children, once the deeds were already done.
They would see him as the lowest of hypocrites: a man who had lain with an elf—or something like an elf.
The King could see it now, as vivid as when it happened thirteen years ago. The images washed through his head—of a nude, dragonfly-winged form, sitting and watching him with one leg dangling in the stream.
He had been a soldier, all the way over in the Crown of Pines. There was no conflict at the time, but the previous King, Roras, had taken a perverse interest in the Elven land.
It was a simple reconnaissance mission. Ensign Sallith Govoria was surveying the land, just a young ranger.
He could traverse the thickest of woods at the same speed as a man sprinting down a road, and the specific path of bent trees with their mossy northern faces was as familiar as following the street markers of his city. His routes were well memorized, which is why he was such a fool to not feel nervous, when he was suddenly and inexplicably crawling into an open clearing before a sunken stream.
Sitting on a tree root jutting from the ravine walls and dipping into the jittering, shallow water, it was her. She glistened as if she were caked in tiny rainbow diamonds.
He didn’t know what a Fey was. When she giggled and fluttered his way, and began marveling silently at his muscles, his head was wiped clean like sand from a glass table.
King Sallith blinked, his eyesight marked with a purple blotch from absent-mindedly staring at the mage’s leftivacus light sphere. The memories left him as they reached the bottom level, an obsidian cavern with a gradually sloping ramp of sandstone. It wasn’t wise to walk on—or even touch—the many-ridged walls of volcanic rock.
At the base of the steps, hundreds of feet below the palace, was the portal—an empty mirror frame built into the ground. The space within faded into an image of a new place, dark and lit with an orange light. A figure taller than any man he knew stepped through. He was hooded and cloaked, his hands joined together beneath his sleeves, all in clashing rust and gold colors. An ear-itching buzzing sensation also marked his presence.
“Wisp. It’s time for a change of plans,” Sallith said.
“I trust you have a reason,” Wisp said. His voice was far more royal and impressive than his own, he had to admit. No word felt overly emotional coming from the King of Nimb Vard, the Archmage of all thaumaturges.
The rumpled cloak stepped closer. Sallith had made the mistake of looking down earlier, and saw a bare foot overloaded with blades or claws in illogical positions. Now he was sure to keep his head level.
“My comrades have been searching every oasis,” Wisp said. “The sand is a different color everywhere the Fey steps. If not for those wings and the desert winds, we’d easily have tracked it. You have time, before Headsplitter’s 100 matches are over.”
“I have met someone who could help,” Sallith said. “She could know a way to draw the Fey to us. We could set an ambush in the arena, use its ability to teleport against it.”
“If that is your wish,” Wisp said. “Whatever gives us the creature sooner is best.”
“But I’ll need more of that armor, much more, and weapons,” he said. “Right now, only my palace entryway guards use skymetal. I will set a trap with as many men as possible, and I want them all properly equipped.”
“Processing that much skymetal will not be a small undertaking.”
“I thought the Fey was worth it,” Sallith said, walking closer. There was no point in fearing the greatest magical faux-human after going this far.
“It is. I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I have to return,” the King of Mirek said. “Just remember, the Fey is yours—when I’m done with it.”
The hooded figure turned and entered the portal once again. The bubble-thin layer sunk with its mass, bounced back, and vanished. Sallith rejoined his mage and left the empty iron frame.