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Wanting to punch his Grace the Duke of House Madouri in the throat was not even the worst part. His duplicious ilk were merely the background noise of her existence, and he was far from the lowest specimen of his kind. Her whole family had to put on polite smiles and solicitous manners when dealing with the menagerie of treacherous nobles who circulated through the Imperial court, but Theasia’s lot was far worse than that of her parents. They might be frustrated, but the worst thing happening to them was the progress of age.
Princess Theasia’s army of secretive healers had not come right out and said violent outbursts would be harmful to her health, but to parents who not only doted on a sickly daughter but feared for the Empire if the Tirasian bloodline were suddenly extinguished… These looming disasters were further complicated by the need to keep her condition a secret. If it became known that the future Empress suffered from the Banefall, the ever-circling vultures of the court would swoop in as one.
Constant monitoring, daily checkups, and regular applications of medicine whose value would have beggared some of the lesser Houses and magics so rare as to be borderline taboo all meant that Theasia went through her life with no greater hardship than an enforced limit on her degree of physical activity and the occasional twinge of pain. She had suffered the first symptoms of incipient organ failure at fourteen and received the diagnosis soon thereafter. Four years later, she was not particularly bothered, anymore, by the specter of death hovering constantly over her; it was amazing what a person could learn to live with.
To her parents and the Empire, however, Theasia Sabah Tirasian might as well have been some elven sculpture of butterfly wings and lily petals. Thus, not only could she not excoriate Duke Ravaan for being a slithering waste of blood for fear of the political trouble it would cause her father, she could not even vent to her parents later in private. Based on past experience, her mother would have her confined to bed for twenty-four hours to be certain her “episode” had caused no lingering effects.
So she refrained from glaring, but did not manage to smile. That much should give no offense; the young Princess had a reputation for being dispassionate in public. Encounters like this were the lion’s share of why.
“I share your concern about this issue, your Majesty,” Duke Ravaan said gravely to her father the Emperor about an issue of which he was almost certainly the cause. “I have just requested additional personnel from the Imperial foresters—this was only today, your Majesty may not have been yet informed—but to be frank, I consider it mostly a formality. The lands around Tiraas and Madouris are recovering well from the war, but it takes more than twenty years to re-grow a forest. I simply don’t think the woods provide enough cover to shelter bandits.”
“You make a good point, your Grace,” Emperor Sarsamon replied, his face solemn and attentive. Glancing over, Theasia noted with amusement that on his other side, her mother had not managed anything more than blank detachment in the face of Ravaan’s dissembling. The Empress was a serene soul by nature, but did not have her husband’s knack for pretending to like despicable people to their faces. “And yet, these ambushes continue. The banditry not only exists, but shows a distinct preference in targets. Perhaps you have some insight into the cause, if it is not brigands lurking in the forests?”
How she wished her father would just demand the boy account for his failure to secure the roads in Tiraan Province. They were even holding a private audience in a smaller chamber in the Palace, the only concession to Ravaan Madouri’s lesser stature being that he had not been offered a seat; there were none in the chamber save the ornate chairs on which the royal family sat. Had Theasia her way, this conversation would be held in the throne room, in full view of the court, while the young Duke stood below the Silver Throne like the worm he was to explain why Imperial revenue collectors kept being ambushed in his lands.
“There have been enough of the incidents now that it cannot be a coincidence,” Ravaan agreed, nodding with such a perfectly convincing expression of thought that Theasia itched to lunge from her chair and claw it off his face. She contented herself with drumming her fingers once on the armrest. “And in that time, the culprits have avoided apprehension. That, to me, suggests a political motive. Were they simply opportunists, and foolish enough to think the greater riches of an Imperial tax caravan worth the risks involved, they would have been destroyed by now.”
“Yet they remain free,” Empress Tamar said quietly. “They have weaponry and training sufficient to challenge Imperial soldiers, and appear to vanish.”
“There are no shortage of veterans and hardware still at loose ends, as your Majesties are of course aware,” said Ravaan. “It seems to me the only possibility is that they are blending into the populace.”
Or they’re being funded and hidden by a powerful interest, such as House Madouri, for example, Theasia did not say. Her parents did not require that she remain silent during such audiences, but anything openly suspicious or combative from her would result in lectures at best.
“Or perhaps,” her father said mildly, “someone with means is providing them shelter.”
Thank you, Father.
“There are no entrenched powers in Madouris or Tiraan Province who would dare openly defy the Silver Throne,” Ravaan replied with an unctuous smile. “Of that much I can assure your Majesties. There have been…difficulties…since my father’s passing. It was sudden and I fear he did not reveal everything he knew to me about the state of the province; I have been struggling, during this last year, to solidify my position while numerous interests within my domain vie to take advantage of the confusion. Perhaps your Majesties can relate?”
He dared compare himself to her father while knowingly contributing to the very travails about which he complained? Theasia gripped the arms of her chair for a moment before forcing her hands to relax. Ravaan, fortunately, did not seem to notice. Sarsamon simply acknowledged him with a magnanimous gesture of one hand, and the young Duke continued.
“I am deeply embarrassed to say that there is a significant well of anti-Imperial feeling in Tiraan Province left over from the war. Not enough to threaten the public order, but sufficient that even a few ambitious malcontents would have no trouble finding, at the very least, accomplices. Uprooting such diffuse troubles as public sentiment is a perennial challenge. I have even attempted to make overtures to the Thieves’ Guild. That…went nowhere.”
All three royals nodded once in understanding. Though they all knew the little beast was lying through his teeth—Imperial Intelligence prioritized sniffing out any whisper of rebellion and there was none in the vicinity of the capital—the intractability of the Guild was a matter on which all aristocracy was in harmony. Her father’s friendly overtures over the years had resulted only in (relatively) gentle reminders from Boss Rider of the role the Guild had played in toppling his predecessor.
“I am sympathetic indeed to your plight, your Grace,” Sarsamon said in a kindly tone, earning a smile from the young man before him. “You are correct; it is a most familiar feeling you describe. I realize that things have become strained between our Houses since the war and its aftermath, but I well recall the aid your father lent both to me and the Empire in our darkest hour, and have long regretted that the growing coldness between us deprived me of opportunities to make my gratitude known. Perhaps, in this shared trouble, we can begin to mend that breach.”
“There is nothing that would please me more, your Majesty,” Ravaan said, bowing and smiling with the overt triumph of a nobleman who had just gotten away with something. “It was in exactly this hope that I came before you today.”
“I am glad,” Sarsamon replied, folding his hands in his lap and continuing to bestow a fatherly smile in return. “As you have provided such valuable insight into this difficulty, I shall be pleased to lend the aid of the Throne to its resolution. Let us spare the foresters any needless risk and labor; it will surely not take long for Imperial Intelligence to locate and subdue our bandits once I direct its full attention to Madouris.”
Though young, Ravaan was at least good enough not to let his smile falter; the split-second freeze as he realized how he had outsmarted himself might have been invisible to any but a fellow politician.
“I am humbled and grateful for your Majesty’s attention,” he said, bowing again—more deeply, this time, which hid his expression for a precious second. “And I apologize most sincerely for putting the Throne to such trouble on my behalf.”
“Don’t worry, Ravaan,” Sarsamon said pleasantly. “I remember being in your position. Is it not better for the Empire to work as one? We must ever stand ready to aid each other at need.”
Impatient as Theasia often was with her father’s gentle way of handling the nobles, at times like this she had to acknowledge he was Emperor for a reason. No matter how many times he reminded them, they just kept forgetting that Sarsamon Tirasian was nobody’s pushover.
“My only concern,” Ravaan said, putting on a pensive expression, “is whether such an action might exacerbate existing anti-Imperial sentiment.”
“The public’s feelings must of course be considered,” Sarsamon agreed, nodding. “What would you suggest we do about this prospect?” As good as forcing to young snake to come out with whatever it was he was angling for. Theasia still would have preferred putting the boy firmly in his place, but she couldn’t deny her father’s methods got results.
“As we have discussed, your Majesty,” Ravaan replied earnestly, “the Houses of Tirasian and Madouri share both goals and difficulties, and the state of the Empire as a whole begs for greater unity. Our enemies both within and without our borders smell weakness and watch for openings. There is the additional similarity that both our Houses were diminished to a single branch by the depredations of the war. A single accident now could end the thousand-year history of House Madouri, or the hard-won stability of the Empire itself. With the greatest humility, your Majesties, it has inevitably occurred to me that these problems might have a single solution.”
Theasia’s blood went cold, so noticeably that she momentarily feared she might be having some new kind of attack.
“Are you suggesting,” Empress Tamar asked in deathly quiet, “a union of our Houses through marriage?”
“I merely submit the idea to your Majesties for consideration,” Ravaan replied, bowing to her. “I believe it has merit—for the Empire, for Tiraan Province, and for us all. Such a unified power block would be positioned to withstand almost any domestic challenge, and with that established, the Empire could make far more rapid progress in restoring its prestige and prosperity.”
How much did it cost to have a man killed? Surely she could afford it. That wasn’t the real problem; where did one go about finding an assassin? The Empire had people, of course, but there was no way to use them without it getting back to her father…
“You think very highly of yourself, your Grace,” Theasia said aloud, earning a sidelong glance of warning from her mother.
“I confess that I do, Princess,” Ravaan replied, having the audacity to smile warmly at her, “though in truth, not so highly as I do of you.”
Her iron self-control must have faltered slightly, because he took one look at her expression and immediately changed tactics.
“Please understand, your Highness, that despite the immense personal esteem in which I hold you, I am not attempting an approach out of flirtatiousness. Though I do believe you and I have every possibility of developing great mutual respect, even fondness—else I would not raise the idea—in the end this is a political solution to political problems.”
“It is an idea of merit,” Sarsamon said quietly. “Though not without its drawbacks, as well. You understand, your Grace, we must consider all of these carefully—both as rulers, and as a family.”
“I understand all too well, your Majesty,” Ravaan agreed. “Such is the delicate balance required of those the gods have designated to rule.”
“I thank you for your time, and these…very interesting thoughts you have raised, my lord Duke,” the Emperor stated, straightening subtly in his chair. “You may be assured that we will consider them with the greatest of care.”
“I could ask for nothing more, your Majesties, and am ever grateful,” Ravaan intoned, bowing in reply to the polite dismissal. “By your leave, then.”
The three of them sat in silence for several long seconds even after the doors had shut behind him.
At last Sarsamon let out a sigh, and reached over to take his daughter’s hand. “Well, the obvious fact must be stated: it would solve a lot of the Empire’s current problems.”
Theasia squeezed his fingers, closing her eyes for a moment. He was right, of course. The power of the Silver Throne had been so weakened after the war that only her father’s status as a hero to the people kept House Tirasian in power, for now. The alliance of House Madouri, House Aldarasi and the Universal Church which had conspired to place him on the Throne as a virtual puppet had shattered when Sarsamon managed to wrangle actual power out of Horsebutt the Enemy’s campaign and the need for a united Empire in the face of it. The Aldarasis still stood firmly with them, both because the Sultana was too canny to take being outplayed personally and because her own daughter was now Empress. Archpope Vyara, ever the pragmatist, had grown cool toward House Tirasian since the war, and neither made herself helpful—often—nor actively caused them trouble—for the most part. The old Duke of House Madouri, however, had been embittered and furious at being cheated, as he saw it, and made himself a constant nuisance right up until his death last year. By uniting Houses Tirasian and Madouri, that alliance would be restored and, as Ravaan had pointed out, the triumvirate of Tiraas, Calderaas and Madouris would have enough pull to force the rest of the Houses back into line.
“How certain are we,” she asked, “that there are no other surviving branches of House Madouri?”
“Very,” her father said, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “That was most of the reason the old Duke supported placing me on the Throne. Facing the possible extinction of House Madouri, he grabbed for power in the only way available to him.”
“So,” she said thoughtfully, “if I were to marry Ravaan and something unfortunate immediately befell him, I would be in control of—”
“Theasia!” her mother exclaimed, aghast. Sarsamon’s lips twitched with barely-suppressed amusement.
“I…suppose the boy isn’t all bad,” Theasia allowed grudgingly, fumbling for something positive to say. “He’s never once groped me with his eyes, which is better than I can say of half the nobles of our generation.”
With a diffident little cough, Lord Tariq Shavayad emerged from behind the decorative screen which had hidden him during the audience. The head of Imperial Intelligence was a tall, silver-haired man who wore discreet stateliness like a second suit.
“Given his late father’s protectiveness and the brevity of his rule thus far,” the spymaster said, “we are still assembling a dossier on him, and the portrait thus painted is yet incomplete. House Madouri has always been adept at guarding its privacy. I have ascertained, however, that all of his Grace’s romantic dalliances to date have been with men. I can say with reasonable certainty that his interest in the Princess is purely political.”
“Well,” Theasia said after they digested that in silence for a moment, “I do believe I have never been so simultaneously unflattered and yet relieved.”
Her father squeezed her hand once more and then released it. “What are your impressions overall, Lord Shavayad?”
“It is, as your Majesty observed, a valid political maneuver,” Shavayad said neutrally. “And, of course, his Grace would not propose it unless he believed himself able to position himself in control of both the relationship and the Empire. It would not be the first time someone technically relegated to the Swan Throne held authority in truth over a weaker-willed spouse.”
Theasia was very glad she was no longer holding her father’s fingers; her grip on the arms of her chair was painful enough for her. The upholstery was going to have permanent marks if people did not cease pointing out such repulsive facts in her presence.
“And the matter of the banditry?” Sarsamon added in a dry tone.
“It was, at the very least, not Ravaan’s idea,” Shavayad replied. “Simply by dint of the timing. The attacks have grown more brazen lately, but they began before he took power. I was not able to verify definitively that his father instigated them, and at the time they were but an occasional and minor nuisance. Shall I make good on your Majesty’s offer, and divert resources to Madouris?”
“Do,” Sarsamon said, allowing himself to display a predatory satisfaction he carefully hid from the nobility, the public, and his enemies. “I rather suspect the mere knowledge that it’s coming will cause Ravaan to hastily dismantle the program, if he has any control over it. Anything you find, though, is something we can hold over him.”
“Is it possible that he was telling the simple truth?” Tamar inquired.
“It is…possible,” the spymaster allowed. “I assure your Majesties there is no significant rebellious sentiment in the core provinces. Not enough to mount an insurgency, but it is not unthinkable that disaffected former rebels might find sufficient armament and numbers to execute bandit raids of this kind. His Grace’s theory is plausible. Forgive me, your Majesties, but there is nothing I distrust more than an aristocrat with an agenda and a plausible excuse.”
“Quite,” Sarsamon agreed. “Do what you can, Tariq, but do it as discreetly as the situation allows. The damnable truth is that we cannot afford either the lost revenue or the loss of face any further, and we may not be able to endure the backlash that would result from marching troops into Madouris.” He paused, then sighed heavily. “I suppose I also can’t afford to rid myself of that little pustule, either.”
“Sarsamon,” Tamar said reproachfully. He reached over to take her hand.
“I advise against it, your Majesty,” Lord Shavayad said in the same calm tone he doubtless used to order lunch. “The elimination of a high-standing lord who caused you trouble would provoke severe retaliation from numerous Houses. Especially after what happened to Lord Turombi, even in the absence of proof the suspicion of your involvement would be enough. Duke Ravaan, inconvenient as he may be, is probably more manageable than the chaos that would result from the sudden extinction of House Madouri and the resulting power vacuum in Tiraan Province, which House Tirasian is unfortunately not in a position to fill. There is also the matter that I could not guarantee with certainty that an assassination would succeed. House Madouri has not endured for a thousand years by taking chances with its security, and they have accumulated unknowable resources in that time. The closer the bloodline is to petering out, the more avidly it will be defended.”
“It was just a passing thought,” Sarsamon said, not without a hint of bitterness. “Well. Ravaan and his proposal require consideration and discussion in detail, which I’m afraid we will have to postpone.”
“Ah, yes,” Tamar said with a sigh, rising from her chair. “Lord Dufresne and Lady Leduc will arrive for their audience presently, and if I am not there to mediate before they meet it’s likely one won’t leave the room alive.”
“Take no prisoners, my dear,” Sarsamon intoned, standing and raising her hand to his lips for a kiss. The Empress did not reply verbally, but gave him a look of wry fondness before turning her attention to her daughter.
“How do you feel, Theasia?”
She knew better than to say she was fine. “Irked, to tell the truth,” she replied honestly. “I believe I shall take a book to my garden this afternoon. I would rather be in a calmer frame of mind when we discuss this in earnest.”
“Very good,” Tamar agreed, nodding and smiling. Her mother approved of such passive pastimes for her frail daughter. A moment later, though, the smile faltered, leaving her staring at Theasia with a worried expression that was subtly unlike her usual worried expression. She stepped over and took her daughter’s hands as Theasia rose to meet her. “It isn’t such a terrible thing as you are probably imagining, little bird.”
While Theasia was still blinking at her in surprise, she turned and glided from the room.
She was aware that her parents’ marriage was a political one. They cared deeply for each other, but Theasia had garnered enough hints over the years to be fairly certain that had developed after the wedding. Of course, such talk as this would resonate with them in a way to which she couldn’t quite relate. It also meant she had best restrain herself even further than usual in discussing it. To express honestly the revulsion she felt at the idea might be an outright insult. As much as Theasia bridled at their over-protectiveness and their passive style of rule, she loved her parents deeply and held great respect for everything they had accomplished for the Empire. The thought of causing them hurt was intolerable.
Sarsamon turned to his daughter and gathered her into a hug, which she gratefully returned, ignoring Lord Shavayad standing discreetly nearby.
“I’m afraid my conversation with the generals is going to be less boring that I’d like,” he said, releasing her. “I had better not tarry, either. We’ll talk about all of this over dinner, Theasia.”
“Of course, Father,” she replied, smiling up at him. “Just don’t invade anyone without me, I would like to watch that.”
“It’s a promise,” he said, lightly tweaking her on the chin with a finger. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Theasia sighed, watching him stride from the room, then turned to nod politely to the spymaster. “Lord Shavayad, I bid you good afternoon.”
“Your Highness,” he said suddenly, “I wonder if I could prevail upon you for a moment of your time.”
She had started to turn toward the door herself and froze. Shavayad had never asked her for anything, nor treated her as more than an accessory of her parents, to be frank. No official of the Imperial government had, thanks to her mother’s insistence that she was not to be unduly burdened. For all that Theasia was encouraged to be present and observe the functions of government, her only actual duties to the Empire had been social thus far. Most days, she felt less like a princess than the invalid ateenage daughter of some industrialist.
“What can I do for you, my lord?” she inquired as evenly as she could manage around the surprising surge of excitement she felt. If this turned out to be something about an upcoming ball or some such rot…
“My people have tracked an illicit operation which I think you ought to be informed of, Princess. In detail.” His expression was totally inscrutable. Well, the man was spymaster for a reason.
“I?” she replied, raising one eyebrow. “And not my parents?”
“As head of Intelligence, the core of my duty is to curate information, your Highness. Your father the Emperor cannot be burdened with every detail of everything which transpires in the Empire. I must choose carefully what to bring before him, what to ignore, and what to deal with quietly on my own initiative. In this matter, it is my assessment that you are the appropriate person to whom to bring the issue.” He hesitated for a split second, and undoubtedly deliberate pause for emphasis. “I beg that your Highness will forgive my presumption, but it is my opinion that you are more than intelligent and mature enough to begin participating in statecraft, Princess, and that the health of the Empire requires that you begin acquiring experience. Your mother’s laudable concern for your well-being has made this process somewhat slower than it might otherwise have been.”
Flattery. Skillful and subtle flattery, but there nonetheless. Even seeing him do it did not quite quash the surge of satisfaction she felt at being acknowledged. Offered the chance to do something for the Empire.
Of course, the question remained…why?
“And what is this issue, precisely?” she asked, as deadpan as she could manage.
“To an extent, you will have to be shown rather than told,” he said apologetically, “but I will brief you to the extent that I can on the way.”
“Yes, your Highness. This will involve an excursion into the city. I can promise you both absolute discretion and the greatest security my agency can provide. Be assured, I would take no risks with your Highness’s well-being.”
Her heart was practically pounding, so vividly she instinctively reached for the vial of medicine concealed in her dress—which had been tailored for that specific reason, as ladies’ fashions otherwise suffered from an aggravating lack of pockets. A chance to leave the Palace, to go out into the city, on Imperial business. To help.
Shavayad was up to something, of course; all of this was too sudden and too unconventional. But then, he was never not up to something. He was the spymaster, that was literally what they paid him for. And he had the absolute trust of her parents.
Well, if the man was a traitor, they were all doomed anyway. She had lived her entire life without being allowed to take risks. This seemed a good place to start.
“Of course, Lord Shavayad,” Princess Theasia said, barely controlling an eager smile. “Lead the way.”