Regnine Argarwin stood atop a balcony, letting the evening wind brush her veil against her face. The veil, like the rest of her clothing, was black, the color of mourning and of death. Black was the color of the enemy's army which marched towards her city like a scar upon the land, creeping closer with each passing minute. Black was the color of the ink that had told her of the passing of her husband, and her father, just days ago. Black was the color of the allies that would never come. Black was the color of everything beautiful in this world that would never be, and what the city would look like when the sun rose tomorrow. For atop that balcony, the Queen was waiting for her kingdom to die.
But black was also the color of power. She was glad she wore that color today.
"Leave me," The Queen said, not turning around. She knew she wouldn't be able to stand seeing the faces of those whose freedom she had failed to protect. "Go defend your own families. I have nothing else to offer you. "
"Your Majesty, we--"
"I command you to leave this tower." She said, more firmly this time, replicating her father's commanding tone. "Once you exit those doors, you are hereby released from your vows. Protect those you love, not those you are obligated to."
They'd done everything they could to prepare for tonight. Regnine had hosted an emergency council with the noble families of the city, and designated soldiers and militia to be stationed at each of the sandstone gates. They'd boarded up the doors and windows of every home, and raised a chain blockade in the harbor, just in case their enemies decided to make an assault by water. Each household was to take their families into the lowest part of the home, away from the windows, and preferably in a space made of stone--or into any place that wouldn't burn.
These efforts would be futile, Regnine knew. Ever since the invasions began years ago, more and more refugees from the outlying towns had flooded into Summernorth proper. The king, Regnine's father, had wanted to house them all. It was a noble pursuit, but the mass influx of people had only created slums out of the lower districts, and food shortages throughout the city. Her people were strained as it was, and now, they would truly be tested.
Of course, there was nowhere else for them to go. They were the last human kingdom, and everyone in the city, merchant or nobleman or beggar, was chickens trapped in an inescapable coop. And the wolves were at their doorstep.
Regnine took seat when the last of her guards had left. She sat uncomfortably in the cushion chair at the foot of her bed, her breathing shaky. Unconsciously, she put a hand to her abdomen, thinking of the baby she was carrying. A child that would never get to see the beauty of the palace at twilight, or smell the fragrance of roses in the garden, or ride though the city and hear the people dancing and singing to a fiddler's lively tune. Now, she was certain the fiddlers would never play their happy songs again.
A lonely tear slipped down her cheek. She would have built a life so happily with her husband, a life she would have been able to reminisce about in her old age.
There was hope, however, if only a shred.
She reached to the object which hung on her chest, and pulled its chain off of her neck. The face of the medal was etched in with a Cyclonian Clock--the symbol of Summernorth, and of the Last Kingdom. With a polished fingernail, she clicked the switch mechanism on the side of the medal, causing it to pop open.
A weapon sat inside the locket. It was a relic of a time so long ago--a time even historians had failed keep record of. All she knew was that it was called Saldelude, an Eternity Disc, and it had been entrusted to her family, to guard it until the hour of her kingdom's greatest need.
Until the hour of Summernorth's greatest need, she would not use it. Though she had officially sworn it the day they'd placed her father's crown on her head, she had known her whole life about this duty. As much as she prayed to her Highest, He'd not granted her the luxury of time. For some reason, the cosmos had chosen her, and had chosen this time to set the world aflame. She would not argue.
Regnine swallowed. For now, she could do nothing to stop the coming war. So, she got up, shut the locket, hung it around her neck again, and brought a piping teapot over to the table she'd set up in her bedroom's antechamber. The teapot had been the last request she'd made of her servants.
For tonight, she had a meeting to host.
Footsteps sounded from the stairwell. Loud and metallic, the noises echoed against the hollow halls.
Regnine sucked in a breath, and then spoke confidently as she was trained. "I grew up hearing stories about your people, Warprince. I was afraid of you, we all were. All my life I had hoped you would prove me wrong."
The creature standing before her resembled a beast more than a man. Massive, the esk Warprince was armored in thick onyx plate, and upon it's head rested an elaborate helmet, which covered his entire face. Regnine's eyes were drawn to the top of the helmet, where a golden crown inlaid with glowing fire-stones, was affixed.
"You look beautiful, Queen." the beast said suddenly, his voice so deep that it was barely audible, "Beautiful, like a corpse, dressed in its finest before burial."
The Warprince's entourage chuckled behind him. They were armored similarly, but with less flair, and kept their helmets propped under their arms. Each of the guardsmen had the typical esk features: colorless hair, sharply-tipped ears, and luminous red eyes. Some even had white geometric tattoos around their eyes, snaking across their necks and under their chainmail. One or two of them operated prosaic discs, harnessing the arcane, primordial force of the universe.
Regnine did her best to remain calm, and forced herself to sit up straight in her seat. No matter what they did to her, she would not break under the weight of mere words.
For that was the way of the esks. Insults. Threats. Though, they were no laughing matter. These people possessed both incredible power and incredible ambition. Regnine knew there was no deadlier combination.
The snickers died almost as immediately as they started, for another figure stepped out of the arched doorway. Regnine's breath caught. The Grand Chieftain.
More attune to a god than a king, the Grand Chieftain's mere presence sent the other esks into immediate obeisance. Each of them fell to their knees, their head bent in reverence. Regnine just sat there, taking in the flowing, richly-patterned robes and painted jewelry he wore, and studying the red cloth which wrapped around his pronounced skull, concealing any hair he did or did not have. More than anything, she was intrigued by this man. She had studied esk culture as part of her training to rule, but nothing in books or by word of mouth compared to seeing it in real life.
The Chieftain's headdress, tasseled with bronze coins, clinked as he lifted his head, giving his subordinates leave to stand again. This man was no fighter, Regnine could already tell. She had seen what battle did to men, how a warrior's face hardened and his hands grew rough and calloused from the sword--she'd seen it happen to Arcan, her own husband, after he'd returned from fighting off the esk invaders this past year. It sickened her that this Chieftain called for so much bloodlust, when he himself looked little more than a brittle old man who had lived his whole life doing nothing besides sitting on a throne.
And now, Arcan was dead, and this man lived.
"Let us have a chat." Regnine said, clenching her sweaty fists under the table. "Please sit."
The Grand Chieftain calmly took a seat directly across from her, along with the esk Warprince. Neither of them gave any indication of that they were father and son, but now, with them sitting side by side, she actually could see the resemblance.
"I want to discuss the terms of surrender." Regnine told them, pouring two cups of tea. The warm peppermint scent was strong enough to mask the odor of burning wood and soot, which seemed to be coming from her city at the moment. "I do not want any more lives spent." She slid the cups to her guests.
The Warprince immediately scooped up the ceramic cup, lifted his visor, and drank the tea in one gulp, while the Chieftain just stared forward at Regnine, his narrow eyes giving off a wary scarlet glow. The two leaders contrasted each other beautifully.
Finally, the Warprince spoke, "Very well. All of your lands, treasures , and people now belong to us. You can keep this city, though. We have no desire to reconstruct a ruin."
Regnine swallowed a lump in her throat. "I cannot accept that."
"There is nothing you can do. We will conquer your nation and do whatever we want with it." In response, member of the Warprince's personal guard pressed a few notes on his disc panel, and in an instant, the large window opposite them exploded, raining shards on glass down onto the floor. Regnine winced. "Look to the city, woman. Watch it burn as we speak."
The Queen swallowed and spared a glance out of the broken window, to where the city lay burning. The skyline was glowing red from the flames, and smoke rose in tar-black columns from the outer districts. She could hear the screams, and blasts from the explosions. The esk armies operated discs with no regard to life. They weren't clean or precise--they only aimed to destroy as much as they could.
"Do you not wish that your people could fight back?" The Warprince said, "If your ancestors would have been smart enough to legalize disc warfare then perhaps your armies would actually pose a real threat to ours."
She would not change the laws now. Once, she had considered it, and begged her father...only to save the life of a man she had loved so long ago, a man who could not give her his love in return. He was but a shadow upon the wind now, a distant memory. "We won't use discs to kill, but do not be so quick to assume we are defeated." Regnine said, tapping the locket around her neck, "We have weapons of our own."
A cold smile crossed the Warprince's face. "There's one. Where is the other?"
"The other?" She had never heard of another Eternity Disc. "I don't know of any other. If we had it once, it is now lost to us."
"A lie." The Chieftain hissed, resting his long, spindly fingers on the Queen's tea table. "The Architects of antiquity entrusted two to the human kingdoms. The Kings and Queens of Summernorth have always been watchful over their Eternity Discs."
Highest, I am not ready for this yet. She had trained for this position her whole life, but somehow, she felt vastly underprepared. "You can call me a liar if you wish, but even if I possessed the Eternity Disc I would not give it to you. I would destroy you first." Regnine pulled the locket over her head, and gripped it firmly.
The Chieftain did not seem bothered by her threat, and neither did his son.
"You won't, Queen. You know what such power does to the unborn." The Warprince leaned in oover the table, his fists tightening. "You wouldn't want a twisted, deformed princeling, would you?"
Regnine's could feel her face heating up. By all means she would never want to hurt her child, but, it was her child's life, or the fate of her kingdom. Everything she had ever known versus the future. She prayed again, that she would have the strength to make such a decision.
"Marza made a disc connection while pregnant, and you know what happened to her child?" The Grand Chieftain said. His eyes flared with a sudden spark of cunning. "It looked completely normal. We thought that maybe she'd been lucky, and spared from the curse. However, the child had some strange connection to the disc, just as its mother had. When Marza tried to operate the disc again, the child collapsed. His heart had stopped beating, and the child never drew breath again. There are anomalies, however, but the chances of that are slim."
The Warprince nodded proudly towards his father, and then looked back towards Regnine. "You won't do it."
Oh how wrong he was. Regnine let her head droop and her blonde hair form a curtain over her eyes. "I won't." She echoed, covertly tucking the locket under her thigh.
The Warprince smiled. He thought he had beaten her into submission. He thought he had scared her away from action. He snapped his fingers. "You are dismissed. Begin sacking the palace."
The esk guardsmen grunted and nodded in excitement, then took off stomping, ripping the velvet tapestries from the walls as they left. He directed his gaze to Regnine. "Now, it is time to give us your disc."
She had to make her move soon. It was now or never.
But first, she needed a distraction. "No."
"Then we'll take it from you." The Warprince stood immediately, a hand on his longsword, but the Chieftain reached for his son's forearm.
"Sit down." The older man said through clenched teeth, "We are going to do this diplomatically."
Shaking his head, the Warprince slumped back into his chair.