The Black Hall was the largest room in the castle, and its walls were a testament to ancient Arman architecture with their elaborate stonework and inlaid columns. Its ceiling, however, consisted entirely of natural rock. Its slanted, craggy surface hadn’t changed since the Armans first brought the rock to this wet place and carved a home out of it.
When Ismael noticed Melchor, he ordered everyone else to leave. Once upon a time, such an order from Ismael would have been shouted with confidence and perhaps even laughter, but here and now, Ismael only whispered his desire to his attendants, who then quietly ushered the crowd of people from the chamber.
Once they were alone, Ismael let the silence linger a while before finally speaking. “I am sorry for what I had you do,” he said.
“The Lord of Marshrock should not apologize for his decisions,” said Melchor.
Ismael’s eyes went to the floor. “Forgive my weakness, then.”
A tinge of irritation crossed Melchor’s face, but he held his tongue this time.
“I know that my selfishness is to blame for our circumstances.”
‘Our selfishness,’ the man’s reaper said. This one was named Rholtam, and he had been with House Blackburn longer than anyone else. ‘The responsibility is ours to share, my friend.’
Ismael did not respond. He and his wife Nere had both retained the youth of their mid-thirties, but it had grown difficult to tell. He didn’t look old so much as just tired.
It pained Melchor to see him like this, but it had been many years since he’d seen much else in him. They were distant cousins by blood, but Melchor had come to feel like his older brother.
Rholtam gave a soundless ruffling of his feathers and looked at Melchor. ‘Will Orric be ready for battle by tomorrow morning?’
“Yes. Is that when we expect our visitors to arrive?”
‘Indeed. We have enough aerial defenses along the way. Our opponents will have to do some night marching up through the marshes if they wish to avoid needless losses. In the meantime, we have already started evacuating the town.’
“Where are you sending the refugees?”
‘To Intar. We’ve organized shelters for those who need them. I’m sure they’ll feel much safer across the border.’
Ismael still hadn’t reestablished eye contact with him.
“What of Ibai?” asked Melchor.
‘He is under guard,’ said Rholtam. ‘He made quite a fuss.’
“I don’t doubt it.”