Drake strode across the inner bailey towards the main range, heavy boots sinking into the dew-soaked grass. It was a chilly evening, not quite frosty, but their breath pooled a misty white in front of their face as they walked, hands shoved deep into their jacket pockets.
It had been months since they’d last visited, which meant they’d missed the last several clan meetings. Five, if they were counting, and they wished they weren’t. They drew close enough that they stepped into the golden glow streaming from the building’s tall arched windows, and paused.
Crossing the drawbridge was always effortless. Passing through the barbican, the heavy wrought iron portcullis hanging ominously overhead, was fine. Traversing the neatly mowed grass of the inner bailey always began without a thought, with them defiantly taking the direct route diagonally over the grass rather than taking the longer route of the footpath. The closer they got to the great hall, however, the more their anxieties weighed on them.
Drake took a deep breath and balled their fists in their pockets. They had been summoned this time – summoned, not politely asked to attend – and if they didn’t show up now, they knew they’d have a couple of Cadfarch elites knocking at their door in the morning, and the Cadfarch were renowned for not taking ‘no’ lightly.
With a heavy sigh Drake willed their feet to move once more across the grass. Sounds of clinking cups and gentle chatter crossed the breeze, and soon they were close enough to smell the feast; roast hog, rabbit, venison. The castle grounds were always well stocked for hunting, and the weather had been fair; their father would likely have enjoyed a hunt every day this week to stock the castle kitchens for the meet.
The heavy oak doors swung open as they approached. An ostiary held the door open, dressed in the fancy dark red and green with golden trim reserved only for formal occasions. Their expression briefly flickered with surprise as they registered that it was Drake who approached, but quickly returned to a passive neutral.
“Your family are in the banquet hall,” The ostiary offered, voice terse.
Drake grunted and strode past, staring at the polished wooden floor and ornate carpentry as they navigated the passageway to the spectacularly large banquet hall.
“…The serfs in Canton Ward seem to have lost the will to continue rioting,” they heard their mother’s voice drifting through the open door. “Lord Undriss was apparently successful in his attempts to convince them that to protest further would not only be futile, but actively detrimental to their well-being.”
Drake’s brow furrowed. They entered the room and immediately side-stepped to place their back against the wall, lingering in the shadow of a giant armoire.
“And Riverside?” Their father asked, his voice deep and reverberating despite the mundanity of the question.
“Unaffected, by all accounts,” their mother replied. “They always were a more loyal bunch, anyway.”
A movement to their side drew their attention; the ostiary had entered the room. Drake’s cheeks flushed; they knew what was coming next and their skin began to crawl.
“Beg pardon,” The ostiary hovered at the corner of the meeting table. “I thought it pertinent to draw your attention to Drake’s arrival, since they have not announced themselves.”
Drake groaned. All eyes on the table turned their way; mother and father, their two elder brothers and younger sister, aunts and uncles, and a few members of the higher caste that Drake had barely interacted with and couldn’t remember the names of. They tried not to involve themselves with the politics of government and kept out of the family business as much as possible.
“Drake,” their mother pointed at an empty chair at the far end of the table, reserved especially for them. “How kind of you to grace us with your presence.”
Always passive-aggressive, their mother. It was far more difficult to handle than father’s pure, straight-forward aggression; at least they always knew where they were with him. Drake shuffled around the table, hot under the continued accusatory gaze of his family, and sank into the hard wooden chair.
“Where’ve you been, Rhun?”
Drake thought that perhaps hiding in the smoking room would afford them a moment piece, but somehow their sister Esyllt had figured out where they were.
“Same place as always,” they traced a finger over the mantle above the fire. Spotless, as always – not a speck of dust. “Not here. And it’s Drake,” they offered Esyllt a withering glance.
“Oh come on,” Esyllt perched on one of the cushioned stools beside the crackling fire. It was early autumn, but the fire was kept lit on all but the the hottest of summer days. “It’s boring here. Tell me stories.”
Esyllt still lived on the castle grounds, as did Tristyn, their older brother. Cadwy however, the oldest of the four of them, had long since lived in his own estate on the banks of the river outside the city. Mother and father had afforded him his own land to lord over from an early age; he was their favourite, after all. Tristyn wouldn’t be far behind, they were managing to curtail his curious nature well enough that he seemed more under their thumb every time Drake visited.
Drake shrugged. “Found someone’s missing cat. People don’t realise how far they wander, you know? It was two miles away getting fed by some old lady in her garden.”
“Boring,” Esyllt sighed. “I know you do more interesting stuff. Come on, ‘fess up.”
“You know, do you?” Drake sat on the opposite stool, elbows resting on their knees.
“I know what the valleys are like,” She egged them on. “Criminals everywhere, really rough. S’what mam says anyway. Do you help people find their stolen cars? What about stabbings? Bet people are murdered all the time.”
Drake sighed. “I do, on the odd occasion, help people find their stolen cars, and yes, people are occasionally murdered, just as people are occasionally murdered everywhere, and sometimes, yes, I get involved, but I’m not talking with you about it or dad will have my head on a pike next to the baboons on the animal wall.”
Esyllt sighed. For a moment Drake thought they caught a hint of worry in her dark blue eyes, but it was fleeting.
“You should come and visit, if you’re so curious,” Drake stood and walked to the window.
“As if,” Esyllt replied. “Then dad would put my head next to yours and we can all be a bunch of baboons on display for the serfs to gawk at.”
“They’re not serfs,” Drake’s shoulders tightened. “They’re people. You really do need to get the hell out of here, you’re becoming one of them.”
“That so bad?” There was a whisper of movement as Esyllt joined them at the window. The dark outside reflected them both in the glass; their younger sister was a full head taller than them. Esyllt was a pure-blood dragon, after all; they were tall even in human form. “We keep the people safe.”
“Keep telling yourself that, Esyllt,” Drake turned to the door to leave, but found their exit blocked.
“Drake,” their father spat the word out, his imposing figure looming in the tall doorway.
“See?” Drake turned to Esyllt. “*Dad* knows what to call me.”
Drake’s father sat across the banquet hall table. The rest of the guests had scattered about the castle or retired to their rooms for the evening, but Lord Deiniol Craig-Caled still had words to have with his disgraced offspring.
“Tell me what news from the valleys.”
Drake thumbed the polished, bevelled rim of the ornate table, dipped their nail into the gold leaf inset.
“Drake,” their father insisted after a moment’s silence, his tone a shade colder than it had been. “Speak.”
“The same as usual,” Drake sighed. “High unemployment, poverty, the general unrest that comes with it. Nothing ever changes there.”
“I heard rumours,” Lord Deiniol paused, tasting the words in his mouth before he spoke them, “that King Veara is spreading his influence further north.”
“Out of the city?” Drake asked, and immediately regretted showing any kind of interest at all in their family’s affairs.
“Indeed. Latest reports indicate a strong possibility of one of his… venues… as far north as Radyr.”
Drake checked that their father wasn’t looking at them – though that was unnecessary, their father never looked at them if he could help it – and then chanced a smirk. Radyr wasn’t the half of it. Fynn Veara’s underground nightclubs were scattered all across the country; through the valleys, along the coast, throughout the midlands. The Fairy King’s influence was far-reaching, and incredibly well concealed against oversized dragon nostrils sniffing around. Drake’s impure lineage, however, afforded them a sight that eluded their family’s prying claws.
“Huh,” Drake feigned innocence. “Haven’t heard anything, but I’ll keep an eye out, if it’s what you wish.”
“It is,” the Lord scraped his nails back and forth across the table’s glossy surface. “No sign of the riots from Canton spreading into the valleys?”
Drake all but snorted. “As if. They don’t have the will to riot. Haven’t you heard their new motto? ‘Morgannwg, where hope rots.’ No, father, your serfs are well stripped of all notions of dissent, you’ve at least ensured that much.
Their father shot them a narrowed gaze, and then disgusted, looked away.
“You may leave.”
Drake scowled. “Gladly. Will I be needed at the next cozy family gathering or am I safe to skip it without fear of your warhorses turning up to escort me to the castle?”
“You will come if called for,” Their father stared at the far wall as he spoke. “But ‘needed’? No, I shan’t think so.”
Their jaw clenched, bile rising in their throat. Fuck you, they thought, but managed to keep the words buried.
“How is mother?”
“She is entertaining in the Clock Tower. Do not disturb her. We wouldn’t want to sully the mood with your presence.”
“Jesus,” Drake muttered loud enough that their father would hear it. The Christian occupation had always been a sore subject and Drake took every opportunity to serve up that painful little needle of a reminder; they had very few of those that they could brandish in the face of their fathers’ constant onslaught of unfettered disgust.