"The earl of Hymirhall!", the herald announced loudly, as the folding doors to the throne hall opened.
With steady, long strides, Nathaniel walked inside, Sam on his heels. Sam's magic already vanished, leaving behind the earl's snow-white hair and red eyes, glinting dangerously. His face was expressionless, and even colder than normal. As he strode forward, his hands were clasped behind his back. He wore his usual black attire, only the cufflinks on his dress shirt changed as a concession to the special occasion. They were red rubies, matching his eyes.
The throne hall had a simple structure: four-sided, longer than wide, with a floor and walls of black marble, a high ceiling, and big windows to the left. If not for the latter letting sunlight flood in, it may have resembled the dark cave of some wild beast. Now it was more suited for the civilized predators that resided in it.
Nathaniel's gaze first wandered to the end of the hall. More than a hundred meters in the distance, five steps raised out of the marble floor, leading to a grand podium. On it sat a big, black throne. A row of sharp peaks protruded at the upper end of the lean, representing the icicles of goddess Skadi. Placed nonchalantly on the seat was a white winter coat inlayed with snow wolfs fur.
Next to the black throne was a smaller throne, made of gold with sun patterns. They were carved with great precision, looking filigree, and adding a feminine charm. Regardless of its beauty, the second throne looked a bit out of place in its simplistic surroundings. Right now, the thrones were vacant.
Taking one last step, Nathaniel stopped in front of a long table in the middle of the hall. Though it wouldn't have fitted in the earl's dining room, it looked like it was made for dwarfs compared to this grand hall. All of the chairs were filled, and piles of paper were stacked neatly in front of each of the high-ranking officials, who now looked up at Nathaniel with slight irritation, surprise, or annoyance. Indifferently, Nathaniel's gaze swept over them as if they were no more than ants, until it halted on the man at the other end of the table.
He was the only one that didn't seem affected by Nathaniel's sudden appearance. Sitting on a chair with high lean, the man wore a white formal suit with ornaments that shimmered as silver as the sides of his short military haircut. With his aged blue eyes, he looked up at Nathaniel expressionlessly. For a second or two, their faces were mirroring each other as if fighting for the title of the colder ice statue.
With a faint rustle, clearly audible in the silence, the man in white laid down the papers he was holding. Next to his right hand on the rustic table glittered a crown craved of sapphire and onyx as it broke the rays of the evening sun. The man's tone was cold. "We thought you were shown to your chambers. Apologies for not being able to attend to you today."
Nathaniel's mouth twitched. It didn't seem to be a smile. Deliberately slow, he replied: "I appreciate your kindness... your majesty. But I prefer to stay at my own place."
The silence was deafening. The officials held their breath and looked at each other in shock, not believing their ears. This lowly earl was invited to stay in the palace. Personally, by the king! It was a great honor! And yet... the earl rejected it without a second thought.
Most of the officials looked at Nathaniel as if he were an idiot, a simpleton. Only the smarter ones instantly realized that the situation couldn't be as plain as it seemed. What made the king invite an earl to the palace? When they considered the latest developments in the kingdom, only one matter came to mind that was important enough. And it had to do with some earl...
Of the officials who realized this point, one showed a curious smile, while four hid their emotions rather well. Only the face of the last one, an aged gentleman with sparse hair, suddenly contorted in fear. His eyes fell on the earl's white hair and red eyes, before hastily averting his gaze. Beneath the table, his hands clawed together into a praying position.
Naturally, the king felt the changes in his officials. Before anyone could start to ask pressing questions, he raised his voice: "Meeting adjourned!"
The fearful official sprang to his feet and fled the room before anyone else reacted. Now even the dumbest realized that there was more to this situation than met the eye. The officials left the room at a moderate pace, many curiously scrutinizing the earl in passing. However, beside the unusual facial features, they found nothing special about him. Even his clothing was barely up to standard for a meeting with the king.
The folding doors closed behind Sam's back. Even without the earl's direct command, the butler had followed the officials outside, giving the higher ranking figures some privacy. Now, the only people left in the big hall were Nathaniel and the king of the Icelands, William Timothy Roland Icefall.
Without waiting for the king's invitation, Nathaniel pulled out a chair for himself and sat down. Though raising his brows, the king didn't seem to mind it too much. For a few seconds they sat in silence, each at their own end of the table, staring at each other.
Finally, Nathaniel was the first to speak. "You said to arrive within three weeks. Here I am. Why do you think you need to threaten me over this?"
"If it was anybody else commanding this much power, I would have treated him the same.", the king replied indifferently. Even though his eyes were emotionless, Nathaniel was well aware that they hadn't left him for a second since he entered. They made him feel uncomfortable.
Nathaniel's gloved fingers rapped the table lightly, before coming to a stop. "So, you are being watched."
A thin smile showed on the older man's face, as if to ridicule him. Of course, he was the king of the Icelands. It was normal for him to be watched.
After a second, Nathaniel nodded as if he had confirmed something. "I thought I left you with no other choice, but it seems like that wasn't even needed. Did she really push you in such a tight spot that you prefer for me to come back?"
Sighing, the king held up two fingers. The skin didn't seem as wrinkled as one would expect with his mostly white hair. "Two times wrong. First, I always have another choice. If I wanted, I could've just ignored those grumbling nobles. But that's not important. Important is second: it's not her that troubles me, it's you! Getting princess Bellatrix killed, do you even know what you're doing? Or do you think it's fine just because the Dragsa-kingdom didn't notice? Let me tell you: there are more important people out there who had their eyes cast on her."
Surprisingly, the earl wasn't disturbed at all. "It seems your information source is lacking. For this incident as well as for your wife."
The kings expression twitched. For the first time he seemed lose his cool, before it was quickly restored. However, his momentum was gone. "You didn't meet her for a decade or longer. She changed."
Bitterness flashed across the earl's eyes as his lips curled up. "For sure." In his mind he added: she's become even crazier.
However, he knew it made no sense to say it out loud. If the king wanted to know, all he had to do was clearly look at the facts conveyed to him. If he still didn't know, it meant that he didn't want to see it.
"So, what punishment do you have in mind for me?", he asked instead.