“Counselors Uni and Morath,” the servant announced, bowing low before the King.
The King nodded deeply, the long curls of his wiry beard touching to his breast. Then he waited as the two men shuffled from around the partition. Their ceremonial skirts were tight around the ankles, and made them walk with small and rapid movements. King Bal’Tath did not know the reason why tradition had chosen such preposterous dress for his counselors, but he appreciated that it kept them from ever feeling truly comfortable in his presence.
“We come to serve you, our Lord,” Uni clasped his hands above his brow as both men bowed low. Uni was senior, and as such, Morath would not be permitted to speak during this meeting unless he was first asked a direct question by the King. Until then it was to be assumed that he was in total agreement with whatever Uni advised.
“I am in need of being served,” King Bal’Tath returned. “Tonight I am in particular need. I am faced with a conundrum that I find most troubling. Indeed, I weighed a great deal as to which of my counselors I should summon for this evening. At last I felt that Uni and Morath possessed the mind of their Lord in this instance.”
It was tradition that also mandated that the King select only two counselors each night to help him reason through the troubles of the day. All the members of the Counselor Brotherhood had their different areas of expertise, which he took into consideration as much as their various personalities. He selected the knowledge and the proclivities that suited each individual problem, as well as his personal temperament.
Members of the fellowship were seen as an extension of the King’s own reason. Just as the armies were an extension of his strength. Just as every organization and member of the kingdom was an extension of the King in some way or another, various parts of one body. The King was the mind of the kingdom, the single driving source for the whole. It was his responsibility to see that the body flourished, that its every part was healthy.
And it was also his responsibility to cut out its cancers.
“What is the matter that so troubles the King?” Uni asked.
He most certainly already knew. All the kingdom knew what matter weighed on their sovereign’s mind tonight. Even so, before he answered King Bal’Tath turned to the listening guards that stood on either side of him. “Leave us.”
The two soldiers bowed and walked out beyond the partition, leaving the two deaf guards as the King’s sole protectors.
King Bal’Tath turned back to Uni. “You know of the matter of the Y’narro District?”
“I have…heard the rumors, of course,” Uni nodded. “So repulsive that I could scarce believe that they were true. But if I am hearing from the King himself that the reports are true…then I am deeply shamed to have ever known the place.”
“The reports are true,” King Bal’Tath said frankly. “As you know, their pedigree is…muddled with the fringe districts of the Kingdom of Talibath. Their children are halfbreeds, and among them was found one that proved as faithless as his blood. He claimed to be my own illegitimate progeny.”
Both of the counselors raised their wrists to their foreheads so that the drooping sleeves would hang down from their arms and shield their faces.
“My Lord, we are ashamed to hear such a pernicious lie. We can hardly stand to bear to be in the room of your wrath.”
“This is not the matter that concerns me so,” King Bal’Tath waved his hand dismissively. “A king anticipates such claims and is ever ready to respond to them. The man has been dealt with already. Our friends in the torturer’s guild made entirely new inventions for him,” the corners of the King’s mouth turned up in amusement. “But the district remains a problem. As I am sure you have heard, the lad had been gaining quite a following there. There are many in Y’narro that are discontent with the district’s status within the kingdom. There are even those that would rather take a higher place of power within a new order.”
“So the rumors have suggested,” Uni nodded.
“And the rumors are true. We have received confessions that there were several of the district’s Elders who were in league with the Kingdom of Talibath!” King Bal’Tath continued, his voice now straining with anger. “There were secret talks among them of fomenting a rebellion, of building a movement around their new claimant, and of deposing me!”
The King’s veins bulged and his two counselor cowered deeply, unable to find words to express the devastated prostrations that the moment called for. So the King continued.
“Were it only the heads of that district that sought rebellion, I would still unleash my wrath upon those people. For surely once the head has turned, the whole body is soon corrupted. But our spies have ascertained that the Elder’s had the heart of the people. The seeds of this rebellion were driven by a few, but were understood by all.”
“The whole is as corrupt as the one,” Uni exclaimed. “All the people of your kingdom know that the people of Y’narro are a shiftless and scheming people. We have long felt that we would be best to get rid of them, it was only a matter of waiting for them to give a justification for their destruction. Therefore, if this youth had come with his lies of being an heir to the throne, and that was all, and if his majesty purged out the whole district for nothing more than that, not a one of your loyal followers would question your prudence in the matter. All would confess that you only did what was just.”
Morath nodded deeply, reflecting his consent.
“But this news of insurrection stirring among the masses…for this your people demand vengeance! We plead with you to hasten, and to not hold back, and to crush your enemies in as cruel a way as can be fathomed. And we cheer and champion you to the cause.”
King Bal’Tath smiled deeply, it was just what he wished to hear. “I knew, indeed, that you were the counselors that possessed my mind for this night. My thoughts are yours, now let my wrath be yours as well. Counsel with me, then, what shall be done with the people of Y’narro?”
“It must be an utter destruction,” Uni responded. “This treachery of theirs, it is ingrained in the bone. You cannot spare their youths, their women, their infants. They would only spread seeds of unfaithfulness wherever they were put. And do not consider making them slaves, either, for then their filth would be imprinted in all our buildings and grain. It would poison us all. And do not leave their homes standing for others to possess, for then their spirits will corrupt whoever rests there. The only solution is to take that land, and make of it a shrine to the Lords of Fire! Burn the people, the homes, the fields. Let your people see the scorch in the skies from one end of the kingdom to the next.”
Uni finished and bowed. Notably, Morath did not bow his consent at this moment. This was common. Junior counselors generally disagreed with the counsels of their elders. How else would they get to say anything in front of the King?
More importantly, King Bal’Tath disagreed as well. So much was evident from the way his brow furrowed and the corners of his mouth turned down. He sighed heavily, shaking his head from side-to-side.
“Uni, your heart is in the right place, but let me remind you of your own words. You counseled me to destroy these people ‘in as cruel a way as can be fathomed.’ The burning of these people is obvious. You describe a brief moment of destruction that lasts but for a night. The next day and the flame would be extinguished. Ten years after and the people would no longer speak of the moment with dread. Twenty years and they would hardly speak of it at all. Fifty and no one would remember that the event had even occurred.
“What I require is an act of cruelty such as will never be forgotten. One whose fame would immortalize my hate, and become the stuff of legend. Give me a punishment that will be logged in the annals of myth, give me the retribution that will chill all souls just to think of it, give me the vengeance that will redefine the term!”
At this point the King turned to Morath and cocked his head to one side.
“What of you, silent counselor? What would you have me do with these people? Can you take Uni’s counsel and delve still deeper?”
There was an audible swallow as Morath cleared his throat. He did not appear nervous, though, only anxious to speak his mind clearly.
“My Lord,” his high strain began, “since you ask it of me, I do indeed have counsel to give. Your expressed wish is mine as well. Death is the obvious choice for these people, but in that obviousness there lacks memorability. To do what is expected, even cruelly, can never spark the imagination as you desire. The secret to immortalizing one’s hate is to express it in a way that has never been done before. We must have a new invention, one that shows the world a darkness it has never before dared to dread.”
“Yes, this is right,” King Bal’Tath nodded eagerly. “This is exactly what I mean. And tell me, Morath, do you have the way?”
“I believe I do, my Lord. I begin by simply asking myself: what is a greater torment than to be deprived of that which one loves the most, their own life? And I answer to myself: to be made to choose between the two things that one loves the most, to have to destroy one for the other. And so I ask myself: what are the two great loves of us all? And I answer myself: the love of one’s own life, and the love of one’s children. And from this I find my counsel to the King.”
King Bal’Tath leaned forward eagerly.
“Send an army out to the district of Y’narro. Let it set camp immediately outside of their walls, and have it rest there a full week. Let the dread apprehension of death build within them all. Then, when they are ripe, send the people an emissary, and inform them that you have not come to destroy them, but rather, in your magnanimous mercy, have decided to let all the men and women live in peace…just as soon as they have delivered all their children to butchered in their place. And then you will give them three days to weigh their answer, three days to agonize between being slain together with their children, or else to live forever haunted by the betrayal of their own. They will choose the latter, and it will set the fires of torment within. Do as I have counseled, and the wrath of King Bal’Tath will not soon be forgotten!”
King Bal’Tath pressed his fingertips together and rested his lips against them, silently turning the suggestion over in his mind. Neither counselor dared interrupt their master’s contemplation. They would wait until he had something to say. King Bal’Tath stood and paced away from his throne, clasping his hands behind his back.
“You raise some very excellent points, Morath. To have to choose, to destroy your own to save yourself. To then have to live and reflect on that ever after. Compelling, to be sure.”
He paused and walked towards an alcove that opened into an outdoor pavilion. He stood there at the divide between his palace and the outside world, and stared into the night sky, seeking answers from the eternal black above.
“There is also merit in how your proposed solution fits the punishment to the crime. This is a nation of betrayers, and so you would make them betray their own.”
With the King’s back turned to his counselors, Morath allowed himself a slight smile.
“But…yet it is lacking. It is cruel, it is fitting,” the King turned back to the two men, “but it is not beautiful. And that is the one element you forgot which makes a moment become legend. For though this destruction must be most hideous, it must also be too fascinating for the world to look away.”
“I am sorry to have let you down,” Morath bowed his head deeply.
“No. Do not be. This is how counseling works, is it not? We mull it over together. Uni moved us in the right direction, then you took it to the next step, and did it very well. And now I know how to take the next. I have my answer, built off of the guidance begun by the two of you.”
“You know what to do?” Uni asked.
“Yes,” King Bal’Tath nodded deeply, then strode back and sat upon his throne. It was only appropriate that he would sit there while giving his revelation.
“We shall begin as Morath has recommended. Send our armies, besiege the town, and after a week require them to deliver their children or be destroyed. All this we shall do.”
King Bal’Tath leaned forward eagerly.
“And we will take their young ones, and they shall think that we have executed them, and will be tormented by that thought for a full decade, maybe two.”
“But we will not have?” Uni asked.
“No. And then, one day, they will look up from their fields and see the hills crowned with warriors in black. A new army of the King! Youthful soldiers thrust out by their own people, surrendered to the gallows, but secretly preserved for a single dread purpose.”
“The children,” Morath breathed.
“How those youths will have come to hate the parents that betrayed them,” King Bal’Tath grinned. “How those youths will be ready to slay the new children born to replace them. Then, then at last, we shall see the fires that Uni spoke of. Then shall the district of Y’narro be made no more. Though it will take me years to taste my vengeance, I shall have it, and it shall be the truest vengeance ever known. This is the right thing for the King to do.”
“This is the right thing,” Uni and Morath cried at the same moment, arms outstretched in salute while their eyes slid to peer at one another with grim terror.