The throne room of the Dornayar was uniquely barren within the Prime Dominion. No art or statuary adorned the walls, no courtiers mingled before the throne, no servants bustled and no music filled the air. The space was still and cold – even the austere Iden would have balked at how heartless the heart of the Satrapy felt.
The chamber served its purpose, though. It contained a throne, which was all a throne room was really tasked to do, and it had ample room for visitors. The rest was inconsequential. The silent Watchers standing at intervals had long surrendered their appreciation for ornaments in exchange for greater things. As for the withered Aelf sitting above it all, he could have opened his eyes and taken everything in. Today, though, as with almost every day, he chose not to.
Elusedrod sailed on a sea of thoughts, all but free of the shackles of his mortal flesh. Six centuries of practice had given his liberated spirit the talent of walking the world and seeing through a thousand different eyes. The Watchers were not called as such for nothing – by borrowing their senses, the Satrap could peer into many places and know much that was meant to be hidden. Now he watched an Idrelec platoon drilling, now a party of Ruyalar caught up in some debauched revelry, now a symposium of Teclandec debating arcana. More so than any of his peers, Elusedrod understood his realm and the realms beyond – not merely as a mortal king, but as the god he was becoming.
When he was young, the Satrap had played card games with his friends – games of chance, and more importantly, of skill. There was a rule to them, a law that held firm regardless of which game you played or who played it with you. If you knew nothing of the game, you would always lose. If you understood your hand, you had the makings of a worthy opponent. But if you understood not just the cards you held but those your opponents held in turn, then you were always the master.
All the cards in the Prime Dominion were familiar to him, and all the players, for that matter. Atressa held the strongest hand. If anyone would win the first round, it would be her – but sooner or later the luck of the draw would turn against the Idrelec. Never one to hold, the Satrap of Valour would likely soon overplay her hand.
If this were a betting game, Dariel and the Teclandec would hold the largest pot. In truth, Dariel would be better served to deal himself in later, once everyone else at the table had played their best cards. In this, though, Valour and Plenty were alike- their pride demanded that they bet often and wager high.
The Celandec… disconcerted him. They came with a small purse, but their hand was well hidden- and Elusedrod wasn’t even certain they drew from the same deck as the rest. But, they would have their tells, and none would perceive them with as keen an eye as the Dornayar.
The Ruyalar were an enigma of a different sort. It wasn’t that he couldn’t see their hand, for if cards were blood then Caradryas would stain the table red. It was more that the Satrapy of Conquest played in a bizarre style, with cards and hands they seemed to have made up moments before.
All that remained was the Aurannar, his old foe. The Satrap of Wealth was a creature of focus, commitment, and sheer will- but what concerned Elusedrod was not that Iden would defeat his hand so much as overturn the entire table out of spite. All the Satrapies were challenging opponents, but powerful players were not nearly so dangerous as personal enemies. Not for the first time, Elusedrod wished they had crushed the Aurannar six centuries ago when they’d had the chance. This was the greatest lesson he taught his people: learn from the past, and never repeat its mistakes.
Elusedrod did not care for the metaphor of having a card up one’s sleeve, for it implied victory through dishonesty- and for the skilled, no such duplicity was necessary. Stretching out with his mind, he could feel an alien presence respond in turn. It was the skink Starseer Tetar-Munteq, and as they made contact he saw a hundred points of light coalesce around her- the small but burgeoning Seraphon colony nestled deep in his lands. With the Watchers as his eyes and Skink’s inscrutable kind serving as his hands, he could play his cards in ways his adversaries would never expect.
A disconcerting thought swam lazily up from the depths of his mind. The other Satrapies, too, were being reinforced by allies from outside the Prime Dominion. They, too, might move and act in ways he hadn’t anticipated. These unknown quantities might prove the wild cards that would turn the game on its head. Yet for the learned, these variables too were predictable. There were few besides the Gods themselves with longer memories than he, and even that disparity would be fleeting, given time.
An observer in the throne room might have seen Elusedrod’s face contort into a grimace that might have as easily been a smile or a sneer.
The game was afoot.