Hardin’s lips curve into an easy smile as he thanks the servant for delivering a decanter of wine. Perhaps he shouldn’t thank them— the servants of Millennium Court are proud of their roles within the ancient kingdom’s elaborate structures— but it’s how he won over the plainsmen of Aurelis, by talking to them as men and not dogs. He needs to forge a like bond with those of the Holy Kingdom, treated not even as dogs but as prey in the years the dragonkin occupied the capital.
The wine in the decanter is a deep jewel-toned red, like the crushed seeds of pomegranates. When Hardin opens the stopper, an aroma of sun-ripened fruit wafts out. He lets the fragrance seep around him while he reads the tax documents that Boah’s given him for review. The bishop has always chafed at some age-old iniquities in the taxation code, and he’s looking to the new emperor to right these particular wrongs. The smile touches Hardin’s lips again as he contemplates these small and certain successes. An adjustment to the rates on barley and rye, on butter and malt… something to ease the lives of his subjects as they rebuild the Holy Kingdom into something more glorious than ever before.
Hardin pours out a glass of the wine. It’s a wedding gift from Altea, whose rich soils and balmy nights produce a wine of unequalled lushness and sweetness. It caresses the mouth in a way the austere wines of his homeland never could. An indulgence, to be sure— Hardin thinks back of nights drinking sweet-sour koumiss with his men out beneath the stars of Aurelis, nights that at the time seemed they might be the happiest he could know— but such a pleasant one, and a fine gift indeed from his young friend in Altea.
Boah has slipped in a summary on why His Majesty ought to consider reducing the army tax. Hardin’s smile slips likewise; he swirls the glass idly as he does indeed consider it. No, it can’t be done, he thinks. Not now, when the army provides work and a place in the kingdom for those who’ve had their lives up-ended by war. Boah’s argument seems fair on its face— with the continent subdued and rebuilding from the western coast to the eastern islands, what need is there for some great force to repel invasion?
Too pretty an argument. It doesn’t sit well with Hardin. He sets the tax papers aside and turns to the globe resting at his elbow, all the known world crafted from precious materials. This splendid orb is so perfectly balanced it spins smoothly with the lightest touch of a finger. Hardin’s eyes pass over the great Northern Land, known to them in fragments of songs and old legends, whose refugees sometimes pass through Archanean cities like specters with strange manners. The Southern Land, of which even less is known, save that now and again a stranger arrives on Archanean soil claiming to be the son or granddaughter of an expatriate. The landmass to the west, called by its ancient name Barensia on the globe, crafted half of rich green jade and half of stark pale agate, less obscure but still a vessel of mysteries.
Hardin turns the globe back to center on Archanea itself. Such a splendid collection of jewels floating in the lapis sea, he thinks. Macedon, rendered in red jasper, a land of infinite potential beneath its starkness. Altea, a shimmering pearl, with the soils that can both make the sweetest of wine and feed a standing army. Aurelis, land of his birth, in letters of gold against a ground of turquoise that evokes the endless expanse of the skies over its plains. And then the Holy Kingdom itself, made from amethyst darker than wine, with Hardin’s very location marked by a dot of pure gold.
Such a conceit, this globe. The world itself made into a bauble, something a man can cup between his hands and so make himself in one motion the master of the known universe. And yet, what does it mean to see the storied empire of that northern continent reduced to an outline dotted by a few cities whose very names are not even certain? To see the great mountains of ice to the north of Archanea become a ridge of quartz no taller than Hardin’s smallest finger is thick, to see his capital and everything within it encased in that golden dot?
Hardin withdraws his hand. It feels as though his mind has for one moment glimpsed the earth as the dragonkin see it with the eyes of millennia, with man and all his works nothing more than the doings of termites or ants. He shakes off the feeling with another sip of the wine. No, the globe is a remarkable piece of craft and nothing more. When he’s finished with this little tax project of Boah’s he’ll summon the artisan and commission some even more ingenious gift for his Nyna’s delight. A coral tree with jeweled flowers to be a stand for her earrings, or a mechanical bird that can burst forth from an enameled egg with a twitter of miraculous song. It’s seemed to him, in stray moments, there’s a trouble in her eyes he hasn’t yet been able to touch, and perhaps some clever surprise will help him there…
Hardin tips back his glass to feel the last of the wine’s sweetness on his tongue, and he glimpses for a moment his globe through the bottom of the wine glass, a blue orb through a red glaze. He sets aside the empty glass and begins composing a rebuttal to Boah, for the Emperor of Archanea must have a strong army. Hardin can be a master of both kindness and strength, of mercy and power. For all their sake, he must, so that his empire can endure beyond the crumbled dreams of empty continents.