Caelum would have been a rich man could he have made a career out of tardiness. As the sun set on the last day of their leave, he rode through South Gate, stinking from the journey out of the Southern Desert.
Southland and its surrounding lands were usually the warmest area of Athering, even in the midst of winter. Its inhabitants sported a tan year-round, fashioned into Caelum’s skin now as well. His hair had regained its original lightness, and a month spent helping his uncle keep house and farm had kept his muscles strong and well-defined.
Which was not to say he had enjoyed himself. He’d cultivated the mask-wearing abilities of courtiers and diplomats in this month, under tutelage from his Uncle Pieter, and so was the image of the Major Returning from a Pleasing Visit with Family. But he had spent this month, like the one before, in self-torment and despair.
Spending hours at the charred remains of his family house, at the graves in the back of the property, he wished for his parents’ warm presence or for the impertinent advice of his younger foster-sister. She was always smarter than I, he reflected, staring at her grave-marker. Stella would have known what to do, how to gain forgiveness for his heinous crime. That is, if she forgave him herself. It’d been so many years, he could barely remember his family. But he’d never forget what had befallen them.
He kept the property, now in his name, in its present state, as a reminder. A reminder to himself, to his hometown, and, as if it would be heeded by them, a reminder to the rulers of Southland and Athering proper to remain ever-vigilant.
The bandits who had scoured Southland while he was away, living the glamorous life of a soldier, had come from the Desert. All official maps of Athering and the surrounding nations said the Southern Desert was uninhabitable, but the truth was it was populated by Gypsies just outside city limits and bandits further to the south. There was little difference between the two groups, except that Gypsies had not turned to crime to survive. Not to raiding. They’d still cheat you of your coin were you not wary of their ways. Gypsies were in large part harmless, dependent on the clemency of the desert and some trade with Southlanders. If the bandits shared their spoils with the Gypsies it mattered not — since no one went after the bandits anyway, so what was the point in attacking anyone else? No one could go after the bandits. They took resources and prisoners and burned towns to the ground to prevent retaliation.
Not that there would be any. The South Guard had been pulled, and then erased from the military, to serve the self-styled Empress’ needs better, leaving Southland utterly defenseless. All able-bodied fighters in a given town spent their time rebuilding it after each raid, by which point…there wasn’t any. Even if one, two or a group of people managed to go after the bandits, it would be a suicide run, for, having survived the trip through the desert to the bandit settlement, they’d be grossly outnumbered.
No, there was no point in retaliation.
Caelum blamed Zanny for his parents’ and sister’s deaths. His mother, bedridden with Delta Fever, had been unable to use her military training to defend her family. His father, a farmer, had been slain protecting the women he loved. Terra had feebly taken up the sword, but the bandit’s blade had pierced her heart aught she had a chance to defend herself and Stella. His sister…Stella had been seven years old.
Caelum shuddered, and pushed those thoughts aside. He did not want to envision his sweet sister’s fate.
He no longer hated the bandits so fiercely as he had for years, though he would never lower himself to civility with them. All his hate was now directed at Zanny and her niece. Together the two of them had brought misery and ruin upon the nation. His family had been sitting ducks. That was the doing of Empress and Empreena, not some starving desert-dwelling nomad.
He wondered what in Bellona’s name he’d been doing with his useless self these past years, wallowing in his pain. He could have been planning or encouraging someone smarter than himself to do the right thing. Yarrow should have been the one with the Sceptre, not those Sisters of Umbra.
He could have helped her get there. He had had opportunities.. Before Midwinter, before drunken and sober confessions, before he ruined everything. Now Yarrow would no longer listen to him, any more than she would Lord Exsil Vis.
Caelum cursed his stupidity, a familiar habit. Either he would have to smarten up, or…. No alternative came to him. It was time to claim the intelligence that supposedly ran in his family.
He went to his mother’s brother, once a courtier himself, and asked for help.
“There’s not much I can teach you in two and a half tredicems, boy. What is it you want to learn?”
Caelum raised his arms. He did not know where to begin. All his thoughts were turned to one thing: revenge.
“I want to make them pay.”
Pieter looked at him askance. “The bandits? They’re but starving outcasts, victims of situation. It’s not there you should direct your anger – ”
“Not the bandits. Zanny and Zardria. They’re the true murderers of my family.” And Yarrow’s happiness. And Isidora. And anything decent in this world.
Pieter gave Caelum one long, searching look before nodding his assent. “So, then,” he began. “We’ll start with politics.”
Caelum spent the rest of his leave absorbing all he could from his uncle. By the end of the month, he felt more ready than ever to face the battle ahead.
So it was, on the twenty-second of Decima, 4019 of the Third Age, that he rode into Athering proper and did not even show his surprise at being met by four members of Zardria’s secret police.
Not a moment more than was normal passed before Caelum inclined his head respectfully in greeting. “Officers. To what do I owe the honour?”
The police exchanged glances. The leader, a Constable, spoke. “Empreena Zardria requires your presence straight away. Come with us,” she added, with a look that suggested he’d do well to obey. She and her second turned, the other two waiting for Caelum to fall in before taking up the rear.
With an imperceptible shrug of his shoulders he eased Gloaming into a walk and followed them to the castle.
He was made to wait on the first floor of the Spire for a good half hour before being told the Empreena would see him. There were no chairs to sit on, and the strict austerity of the room began to hurt his eyes. He forced himself to a state of calm, letting his uncle’s lessons come back to him, informing his actions and outward appearance. It gave him the strength to withstand whatever Zardria would hit him with. When finally ordered to attend on her, he had affected such a good mood, her servant could not hide his surprise.
It was another ten flights of stairs to the Empreena’s suite, though the Elevator could have been employed had she ordered it.
The Elevator was no more than an oversized dumbwaiter. Manually operated, it was historically used to ferry incapacitated or older rulers to their quarters. Nowadays, it bowed to Zanny’s laziness and wish for convenience. It provided for instant gratification of her whims granted, for she had servants at the controls at all times so that she might be brought whatsoever she wished. At the beginning or end of a night of drunken revelry at a banquet or ball, the Elevator was there to ferry her to or from her apartments. No doubt it would soon need strengthening and repair from over-use.
As he rounded the top of the final flight of stairs, he was out of breath, but he schooled his respiration so as to appear at ease.
He stood at the entrance of Zardria’s anteroom. It was empty, although opulently furnished. Her attendant gestured for him to wait where he was, before disappearing through the door that led to the rest of her chambers.
Strange to receive him here in this rather intimate setting. Not traditional at all. I wonder why she chose her private chambers?
He was not allowed to muse on this puzzlement long. Beckoned forward by the attendant, he ambled easily through the door. The next room was as opulently decorated as the former, which was not surprising. Caelum looked around for the elusive attendant in vain. He did not see Zardria and started when she spoke.
“Major Caelum. Do you not know it’s rude to keep a lady waiting?”
He turned. She was lounging on a klina, sipping wine, and attired in…. Hastily he respectfully averted his eyes and kept his mind blank. If Zardria were trying to seduce him, she would not gain that pleasure.
“My apologies, Highness,” he said with a deep bow. “I had just arrived from leave in Southland.”
“Came you straight here?”
Her brows knit together ever so slightly and she set her glass down. “Hm. Well, it is not pleasantries that I called you here for. Be seated, Major. I have questions for you.”
Caelum sat as far as he dared from Zardria; not only to keep a safe distance but to stay upwind as well. Since coming indoors, he’d noticed his high need for a bath. If he had any hope of keeping the upper hand in this meeting, it would be best to keep his stench out of Zardria’s olfactory range.
If the Empreena had noticed the distance he put between them, she did not indicate but continued blithely on. “My inquiries concern your direct superior and my sister.” He heard barely veiled hatred in the word. “What think you on Yarrow’s health?”
“Whilst sparring, she seemed lithe and robust as ever, Highness.”
“It was not her physical health I was inquiring after, but her mental.”
Caelum paused slightly, cogitating frantically to come up with a safe response. “No indications of ill mental health have shown themselves to me, Highness. Not more than the normal stresses of being a bellica,” he added.
There was a pause. Zardria pursed her lips slightly; Caelum kept outwardly cool but his emotions roiled. At length, the Empreena spoke. “That is of interest to me. For, you see, I have intelligence that would suggest otherwise. I believe, to use Yarrow’s own words, she feels she is going insane, to the point of not remembering her own heinous crime…. Does any of this seem familiar to you, Major Caelum?”
Caelum felt too hot all of a sudden. He resisted the urge to adjust his collar as he thought of a lie that would not compromise his situation. “Familiar is not my word of choice. It feels strange. Yarrow never said anything to me, and I have not witnessed anything untoward.”
Zardria’s brow arched delicately, if such a word could be applied to her. “I find it peculiar you should say so, Major. For my intelligence also reveals you were the one she told. I take it Midwinter was an uneasy night for both of you,” she added, and where that sentence should have held concern, it held only malice.
Caelum was trapped. He’d taken a gamble, lying, but he could not think of what else to do. He’d not spent enough time learning from his uncle. He still made stupid mistakes. “As you obviously have not brought me here without reason, Highness, I beg of you to speak plainly, so that I may know what deal you wish to make.”
She smiled, reminding him of a wild animal. “It pleases me that you are not quite so unintelligent as you have previously been perceived to be. I take it, then, you know what the punishment is for the use of terrabane?”
“Again, you prove your quickness. You are obviously aware that my hands are tied. Athering law is absolute. If it becomes known that Yarrow used the poison…well, I can do nothing to prevent punitive measures from being employed. The Chamber would have my head! This troubles me, for I no more wish Yarrow’s death than you do….”
Caelum wanted to slap the lying smile off her face. He kept his emotions tightly in check, trying to maintain the careful blank in his mind. “What do you suggest, Highness?” he said coolly.
“Well, this is where you come in, Caelum. With your cooperation, I may be persuaded to…overstep the safe boundaries of my rule, and make sure Yarrow’s guilt stays…out of sight.”
His answer was instantaneous, but he took the appearance of mulling it over before consenting. “What would you have me do?”
The Empreena smiled again, and sat up. “All I need from you, Caelum, is a promise.” Abruptly her tone changed. “You do know what happens in a month and a half?”
Nodding slowly as a feeling of dread overtook him, he answered: “Your Birthright Ceremony.”
She gave him a look that made him feel like a child receiving the condescending praise of a self-righteous adult. “So then you must be able to guess what promise I want from you.”
He said nothing. Part of him hoped that if he didn’t say it, he’d wake up again.
Zardria burst up out of her lounging place, and stretched, pacing the length of the room. Presently, she returned, not sitting again on her klina but resting on the arm of his chair, leaning on the back of it and letting her fingers fall onto the nape of his neck. He suppressed a shudder.
“Agree to be my Consort, Caelum,” she whispered, letting her fingers explore the back of his neck, “and I can guarantee you Yarrow’s safety.”
Her breath was hot on his neck, but he felt a chill inside.
“And if I don’t agree?” he said, casually.
She shrugged and withdrew her hand. “If you can’t persuade me to protect her…well, it will be a regret, but new bellicas are trained up everyday. We’ll just have to make do.” She got up again, with the air of having settled the matter. Before she reached her klina he spoke.
“As of the Birthright Ceremony, I will be your Consort, providing you keep your promise.” She turned to look at him, and smiled that feral smile again. “As of the Birthright Ceremony, and not a second before, will I fulfill my duties. So long as Yarrow is kept safe, I will concede.”
He spoke with finality, and she nodded, looking satisfied. “I’m so glad we could come to an arrangement, Major Caelum. You are free to go…and bathe, as I’m sure you desire. After your long journey.”
He kept his smile light as he stood and curtsied. “My eternal thanks, Your Highness.” Then, still slightly bent over, he exited the room, walking backwards. It was not until he was down, down, down the flights of stairs and back into his own quarters that he let the tears run down his face.