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TDL BK I, CH 27: Concessions

Chapter Twenty-seven: Concessions

“Just to clarify”, Dunstan said, leaning forward. “There’s no chance of the Phantoms attacking us and seizing our mystic realm?”

“Not exactly!” 

“Of course not!”

The two elders paused their laughter, looking at each other in surprise. Elder Howatt gestured for Dorn to explain.

“I’d be concerned with his son Sacest!” offered Elder Dorn. “Vanush wouldn’t dream of attacking until Alshiram passes or he is certain he can finally win — As if that would ever happen!— Interrupted Elder Howatt from the side.

“However, the current head of the phantoms has no such restrictions. Even with his father holding the sect back, the phantoms don’t need to attack us directly to do us harm.”

“They could cut off our supplies, strangling and starving us out”, Dunstan realised. It was a strategy that would no doubt be much more successful now that he had alienated the second-greatest commercial organisation in the region.

He put his hands together, sinking into momentary doubt. “Do you think I did wrong?”

This could well be the spark that would reignite open warfare in the region and end whatever armistice currently existed between them and the phantoms. Even if their hated enemies stayed out of it, going to war with their allies/vassals would affect the internal politics of the Vast Heaven territories. However, not doing anything could be worse. Having enemies acting freely within couldn’t be good, and leaving traitors unpunished could leave others to follow. 

“Of course not!” Elder Howatt stated again. 

However, Elder Dorn hesitated. “Your intentions were pure, but I do think you were rash in your judgement. You leapt for their throats where a warning would have sufficed.”

Dunstan gazed at his twice-great uncle with some shock. The man’s support had always been so constant that he had expected it here too. This shock was further confounded when Elder Howatt jumped to his defence.

“And what warning would have sufficed?” the man all but yelled. “How many warnings does it take? How many times must we coddle and coerce those gold-counting bastards before they fall in line?”

“There have been other warnings?” the young sect master asked in surprise.

“Many!” The brash great elder affirmed. “First, it was a concession here, then a threat there until finally, we had to directly interfere and substitute the Ahmal clan with the Noswiths, and now, they pull this shit. I knew from the very beginning that Fioran wasn’t to be trusted, but did anyone listen… NO!”

“I — I don’t understand?” Dunstan asked, his mind awhirl.

Howatt gestured to Dorn so he would explain. Caught off guard, the old elder scramble for a way to explain. “The Jade Dragon Row is more important than you realise.” 

“It wasn’t apparent at first, but our sect has come to rely on them for a great many things, far more than we ought. As our territory and roster shrank, however, that became all too clear to us and to them. That’s when they began to make demands. It was a turbulent time. The True Fire Sect had just switched sides, and we’d lost our biggest city and only viable trade port to the Phantoms in the Battle of Gourne. We urgently needed to reassure our allies and mount a force to reclaim Gourne.”

Dunstan knew nothing about the Jade Dragon Row’s role in that conflict, but he was more than familiar with the results. “We failed.”

Elder Dorn closed his eyes in pain, understandable since he had fought in it. “Yes!” he eventually admitted. “We had made concessions, promises, some of which we were unable to keep. Some vassals were not accommodating.”

With a sigh, the portly man took the seat Fernus vacated. “The Ahmals were the leaders of the Sixteen Families back then, and they seized this chance they could to break away and become independent. We were preoccupied with the Phantoms at the time so they actually stood a good chance at succeeding if not for one thing.”

“The Dragon’s Head at the time was old. As the Row’s only Aurous tier cultivator, he held significant power, but like his longevity, it was fading fast. So he got it in his head to make independence his legacy to his organisation. Unfortunately, his intentions were too obvious. He’d groomed his heir to take his place, but without a tier 3 ascension pill, he had little chance of making a breakthrough.”

Listening, the young sect master’s eyes sparked with understanding. “We control the ascension of Aurous cultivators in our region!”

“Not directly, no!” Dorn admitted. “We do, however, have a great deal of influence in the matter. For example, we supported the Ahmals for many generations, helping to ensure that they had the power necessary to helm the Jade Dragon’s Row. Every Dragon’s head was assured our aid in procuring the resources necessary for their ascension and even a stay on Vast Heaven Peak as well as advice from our elders. When the dragons showed their rebellious side, all we had to do was withdraw this support.” 

“Don’t forget the price we paid to Ranulyn and Elior to place an embargo on the Jade Dragons!” grumbled Elder Howatt from the side.

Elder Dorn nodded. “After this, we could concentrate on fighting the Phantoms and wait for them to come to their senses.”

“Couldn’t they have continued anyway?” Dunstan asked. “Resources and pills help, but they are only supplementary, right?”

The two elders exchanged a look. 

Elder Howatt clapped him on the back. “Keep thinking that, you freaky brat! Not everyone can break through to the Exultant tier by age 21 without external aid.” 

Thankfully, the other elder was more helpful. “Many try. Some succeed. The Ahmal heir tried as well, only….”

Dunstan leaned forward in his seat. “What happened?” 

Elder Howatt was all too happy to answer. “The Old Dragon and his heir suffered a sudden case of mysterious death.”

“Did we do it?” the young man asked tentatively, fearing the answer. He could see the need for it, but he hadn’t expected his sect to be so cutthroat. 

Elder Dorn shook his head, dispersing his fears. “We were too busy at the time. Besides, assassinating our vassals in a time of strife would have seen more turn on us. No! The Jade Dragons handled everything internally.”

“Generations of being in charge meant the Ahmals looked at the other families as vassals and not the equals they objectively were. They made the costly assumption that the Jade Dragon’s Row was their personal property. The other families seeing how things were unfolding, took matters into their own hands”, he revealed. 

Elder Howatt snorted. “Say it plainly. Fioran Noswith got some of the other families on his side, and together, they savaged the Ahmals in the name of clearing out traitors, and we rewarded him for it. We fucking raised him to the head of the Sixteen Families, demoted the remain Ahmals and helped quell the opposition. Today, he prepares to betray us too.”

Turning to Dunstan, he teased, “See now, why Fioran Noswith shouldn’t be trusted?” 

The young sect master had other questions on his mind. “That is why I’m engaged to his granddaughter, isn’t it?” he asked despite knowing the answer. 

Both men looked uncomfortable at this line of enquiry. “Your master thought it smart to bind our strongest and most essential vassals closer to prevent them from straying.”

“Well, it didn’t work, did it?” hissed their leader. All those concessions, his future bargained away like livestock at a marketplace and nothing to show for it. Just a delay to the betrayal.

“No!” Elder Howatt acknowledged. “And now we must prepare for war!”

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