a dragon and a king

The king is old and fat with waiting; his girth fills the whole of his throne and his belly rests on the shelf of his knees.  In spite of this, his eyes are still bright and keen, set deep amidst a sea of wrinkles, and his hands are steady even when lifted into the air.

He is a fox.  In his youth he was lean and clever and quick, with full red hair and a smile as sharp as his wit.  It was rumored his teeth had been filed to points, to give all of his expressions just that much of an edge.

In his age, he is still a fox, but time has forced him into a different sort of mold.  He is no longer spry enough to bait his enemies into attacking him to cut down while they are distracted, so instead he sets traps of all sorts, each one leading to another and another, creating trails that intersect with each other and weave into a full and complicated mass.

He does not ever call her by name.  She is simply Viceroy to him, her title as much her name to him as the one that her mother called her in her last moments, as she was lifted into the midwife’s arms.  That suits her just fine, though; even if he is clever there are parts of him that are not quite as sharp as they once were, and she does not want to associate with him any closer than that.

Every day she stands by his side and listens to the petitions of the people, as they crawl on their knees and stretch their hands to him, pleading for his mercurial mercy.  It is the same as it has been every day of her life — the only difference between now and when she was a child is that her father no longer stands between her and the rest of the court.  She is alone now, proud and tall and unbending.

The people are beginning to learn to petition her as often as they reach for the king.  In truth, she knows that he is not nearly as senile as he often pretends to be; he hears everything and sees everything that they do, their changing expressions and their faltering voices — but his age has sharpened his whimsy into a more malicious edge, and he decides who to favor and who to dismiss based on his own counsel, rather than any sort of logical conclusion.  Instead, that is left to her: she reviews the choices he makes, and if someone approaches her after the official counsel to beg, on hands and knees, sometimes she can be swayed.

Piece by piece, she is taking power for herself.

Of course the king knows this; she does not care for him much, but she does respect him.  He is a clever old fox, even now.  He will not give her everything she wants without a fight — he will not name her his heir, though he has no children and his three wives are long since in the grave.

Instead, he has favored the son of the old Archivist, who died under strange circumstances a mere five years before.  The man is her own age, or perhaps a little younger; they have known each other all of their lives.  They do not like each other in the slightest.  She knows him to be too soft and too vague, lost in his own dreams and his books — he lives too much in history than he does in the present.  That is not the sort of attitude that is needed for a king.

That is not the sort of attitude that will serve any sort of leader.  She knows this, and she knows he knows this — and she knows that he believes her to be without compassion or understanding of human suffering.  He believes that her heart is withered and cold in her breast, and that she is cut of the same cloth as the old king, fat and waiting on his golden throne.

To him this is an insult; to her, this is a compliment.  As much as he may wish to argue, or to protest inhumanity or disregard for the lives of the people, he cannot deny that the king has led the country through countless years of prosperity.  They have gone from a modestly-sized kingdom to one that stretches nearly to the size of a full empire; there are none in the world that dare defy them.  Poverty is down and health is up; prosperity is shared almost equally among all of the people.

It is because the king knew how to leverage the power of the dragon, and she has spent all of her life learning from his example.

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