It wasn’t Eadwine’s place to ask questions, an irony considering her line of work. She adjusted the hempen robes more tightly around herself as a soft breeze drifted through the marble hall, royal guards bowing with respect while still keeping a hand firmly on the hilt of their swords. When she was still young, Eadwine had considered it a sign of rudeness to hold such doubt after all she had done to achieve her position, but after seeing first-hand the level of destruction a true Shapeless could unleash, she found herself on-edge every time she stood near someone with a weapon. The door opened as she approached, an Elf with a somewhat downcast expression and three layers of dark furs over his noble robes stepping out into the hall. Revulus appeared to be alone, a surprise considering how inseparable he appeared to be from his mistress; Eadwine found herself wondering if there was something to this meeting, but hurriedly pushed such stray thoughts from her mind. Traitorous thoughts.
“Lady Eadwine.” Revulus said as he bowed awkwardly, pausing midway to visibly overcompensate his show of respect. She found herself similarly uncertain how to reply, considering the Elf’s baseborn status despite holding such favour from the Lord Navigator herself. Still, the fact remained they were within Eadwine’s Court, which gave her enough standing to wave aside any social anxiety.
“Revulus,” She replied curtly, settling with a stiff nod. “Out on your own I see.”
The Elf glanced back with an uncomfortable expression; just what had he discussed with the Lord Inquisitor? “I am on an errand for my lady, she is currently indisposed with matters of Court.” He explained, hastily adding “Apologies lady, but I must be returning.” as he bustled past her. She watched him go, looking from behind like an overgrown displacer beast, hunching deep in his furs. Strange, the hall didn’t feel so cold to her, but considering his birth and dark skin, she assumed Revulus must have lived a childhood amongst his kin out in the Nesting Sea. As she turned back to the door, she almost knocked unconsciously, but held herself back just in time and pushed the oak double-doors open.
Delaryn stood, hands clasped behind his back, regarding the intricately painted map of The Empire. She had once heard it described as his ‘only treasure’, and it was hard not to see why, it was as much a masterpiece that blended the arts of calligraphy, cartography, and watercolours, while also being enchanted to update itself with shifting boundaries, newly established cities, and other such changes. She walked up to his side and regarded the map, wondering what in particular had garnered his attention this time; often he liked to test her in this way, giving her a chance to guess at what was on his mind at any given time. She tried to see if any changes had occurred, perhaps a new city on the frontier or a development from the border skirmish between Baron Iliphel and Baroness Vessa, but nothing struck her as noteworthy.
Delaryn suddenly interrupted her thoughts with a question. “Tell me Eadwine, what makes an empire strong?”
Eadwine blinked, looking up at the towering Eladrin peering down at her. As always, he favoured her with a an almost fatherly smile, though his eyes betrayed no shred of warmth, the sharp grey irises like shards of ice flecked with dirt. Feeling uncomfortable at the gaze, she turned back to the map and considered the question.
“I suppose an empire’s strength is dependent on its people.” She replied after a brief period of silent contemplation.
“An interesting idea,” Delaryn nodded, stroking his beard as he considered her answer. “Yet the people can also act as its weakness, can it not? The larger an empire grows, the more it must inevitably rely upon gathering disparate cultures. Consider the current Kenku revolutions, for example. Would we not be stronger if we had remained in the Feywild, a singular people under the Eladrin banner?”
“You have a point there.” Eadwine conceded, biting back the counter-argument formulating in her head and bowing in deference to Delaryn. He walked over to the large table and poured a bottle of violet wine into two cups.
“You’re close, a people are certainly an important factor to a strong empire,” Delaryn explained, returning to the map and handing her one of the cups. “However I believe it to be but one element of what is truly important.” He paused for dramatic effect, taking a sip of the wine and gazing at her with those horrible eyes of his.
“Unity, my dear Eadwine. That is what differentiates an empire of strength and authority from the empire of chaos and squalor. It was easy before The Crossing, our singular identity acted as the force to unify us under a powerful kingdom. In some ways becoming an empire has crippled us, left us scrambling to return to those halcyon days of unity. In our grand history as a true empire, we have had but one period of true unity. Do you know what it is?” She felt his gaze upon her like hands roughly intruding upon her skin and repressed a shudder, shaking her head in the hope he would look away once more.
“The great irony is that it was the Tieflings, our most hated foe, who truly unified us as an empire,” He explained, his eyes drifting back up to the map. “Hate is a powerful force, if you can use it wisely. Eladrin, Kenku, Human, even the ever-reclusive Dwarves, all unified against a single foe. The day the last bastion of the Tieflings fell was the last day I truly felt any modicum of pride for our empire. Another great irony, I suppose. In defeating the greatest threat to our might, we hastened our own stagnation. A stagnation I intend to overturn.”
“You intend to declare war?” Eadwine whispered before she could stop herself, wincing at such a mistake. Fortunately Delaryn seemed too enthused by his own proselytization that he gave it no mind.
“Oh yes, though not against the Tieflings,” He smirked, taking another sip of the wine. “No sense in rallying against such a tattered force, and it would undermine years of dutiful post-war propaganda. No, the enemy that will unify us once more is one that has sent far too long thumbing its nose at us. They hold the one who killed our prince, the symbol of our holdings in this land, and refuse to recognize that justice must be served.”
Eadwine’s eyes went wide as she realized what he referred to. “The Free City? But why? Surely the risks involved…” Delaryn turned, the smile gone in an instant, and she knew she had gone too far. He took a slow draught of his wine, emptying the cup, and tossed it to the side, letting it shatter on the floor.
“It is not your position to understand my methods, Eadwine,” He said, placing a hand on her shoulder; she could feel the force in the grip, knowing he could crush her shoulder if he but willed it. “You are a tool to further my plans, nothing more. Now go, tell The Drifter I have need of his skills once again.”
He let go and smiled again, a smile that somehow filled her with more dread than his words. She allowed years of training to still the raging tempest in her heart, bowing deeply and exiting the room with all the decorum she could muster. It was only until she was far away from his room that she finally let go and allowed the tears to fall.
Delaryn watched the sunset from his private terrace, basking in the radiant beauty of Thronerock’s many under-spires as they were cast in an orange hue. Sun, star, moon, earth. The four pillars of the empire he loved; it was impossible to mistake the vision as anything but a message from Corellon. No, not a message, a warning. The empire was in danger, the pillars under strain from so many enemies, some seen and others in the shadows. He would do Corellon proud, he would protect his empire. And if thousands had to die in the name of unity, so be it.