Jourd’Umbra, 24th Duema
Lares Stout-Heart sat with Caelum deTerra, Consort to the Empress of Athering, in the library.
He’d found the ex-major there almost a sevenday before, quite by accident, as he’d searched for a quiet corner in the book stacks to be alone and breathe. There were few people with whom he could be himself these days. Anala was it, really, but since Aro had resigned she’d become even more withdrawn, taken to spending long hours within her quarters, wrapped up in a blue fur cloak, bottle of whiskey in her hand, face expressionless as she stared at nothing. Lares tried to be there for her, but he had little time to himself to begin with, and besides, Anala didn’t want his company. He’d eventually given up.
Ghia didn’t speak to anyone anymore, and though he saw her often, he didn’t know where he stood with her. She had withdrawn from everyone. Aro was polite to him but the camaraderie they’d shared in Harbourtown and on the road was gone. Jules had been gone for three sevendays, and it was doubtful he even still lived. Yarrow had never liked him to begin with. And Dagon…Lares didn’t even know where Anala’s Honour Guard was anymore. The man had completely disappeared after Midspring. Anala didn’t know either, and strangely didn’t seem to care.
The Rebel Company of Nine – well, Seven, maybe, as he and Dagon had been there for Anala only – was truly broken. He had long since given up pretending to be from Harbourtown; he was sure the Empress had noticed, but she’d not said anything to him. He prayed this meant he’d been made Atherian enough for her to think he was just from some other part of the country. Still, the worry preyed on his nerves.
Lares found places to be alone. He had to change these places frequently, of course. It wouldn’t do for him to be seen favouring any one place in particular. People would start to wonder – about what didn’t matter. He just couldn’t have people wondering about him. Period.
So it was he’d happened upon the Consort while in search for a new place to spend his time alone, deep within the palace of books, sitting amid a pile of particularly old texts and poring over them intently. Before he could make a silent and hasty retreat, Caelum looked up sharply and noticed his presence despite Lares’ skill at walking silently. He supposed Caelum’s senses had sharpened considerably in Zardria’s company.
“Lares,” the man said with a nod. “Have a seat and join me if you wish.”
He didn’t wish to, in truth, but it would not do to be rude to the Consort of the Realm. He bowed and took a seat opposite the table from Caelum. “What are you studying, my lord Consort?” he asked, slightly curious.
Caelum’s eyes flickered up and regarded Lares’ face briefly. The Vocan kept his expression schooled to formal politeness. “I think we’re a little past such formalities, Stout-Heart. I’d prefer if you called me Caelum,” he said, his eyes going back to the book in his hands. When Lares said nothing in reply, Caelum sighed and answered the Vocan’s earlier question. “I’m studying the myths and legends of Umbra, but it’s slow-going.”
“Are the myths so few or obscure, my lord?” Lares refused to call the Consort by his given name. Stout-Heart hadn’t been inducted into a court environment yesterday. He knew that Caelum was not play-acting the affection he held for the Empress. No matter how Lares felt about Athering politics, Caelum was a traitor to their group.
Caelum closed his eyes and rubbed them with thumb and forefinger as if he wished to avoid a headache. “No. Quite the contrary – our history is full of them. However many are written in older forms of Athee, and I never had the benefit of a formal education, so comprehension comes slow to me. Southland has lacked in resources for a good many years,” he added as an answer to Lare’s quizzical look.
Lares felt a sudden surge of pity for the man before him. “I was not aware the towns of Athering were in such disrepair during your childhood, my lord,” he said, gently fishing.
Caelum gave him a shrewd look, confirming Lares’ suspicion that Caelum was not so dense as he was taken for. “They weren’t. Southland is a harsh place to live. Not many tutors wish to take up residence there, and so my sister’s education took precedence over mine with the one tutor we had. However,” he added, with another shrewd look at Lares, “I daresay it’s quite different there now.”
“Yes,” Lares said, a smile faintly tugging on the edges of his mouth. “Quite.”
Caelum did smile then, albeit bitterly, and leaned forward to regard Lares earnestly. “I’ll be frank about it, Stout-Heart – I could use some help with these texts. I’m aware you’re busy with Zardria’s business as it is, but any time you could spare to help me would be greatly appreciated.”
Lares sat and regarded Caelum, whose honesty sat on his face plain as day. He thought about the man’s current position and realised Caelum, like him, had no more friends. Caelum spent all his time with the Empress, and while Lares could see how they felt about each other, he doubted they were friends as well as lovers. He thought of how embarrassing it must be for Caelum to have trouble with letters and words on the page in a land where education ran like water, and saw how much of the Consort’s pride the man’s admission to Lares alone had cost.
“If I may ask, my lord Consort, what is so pressing about this research?”
Caelum’s face shuttered closed as he looked away, withdrawing anything he’d extended to Lares, hope gone. “Nothing,” he said shortly, picking up his book again. “Personal curiosity.”
Lares accepted the lie with a nod. “As you say, my lord, I don’t have much time. But,” he added, and Caelum’s eyes met his, disbelieving, “I will share what little time I do have in helping you, my lord.”
Caelum smiled and Lares felt the wall of ice around his heart crack a little bit.
This was Lares’ third meeting with Caelum in the library, and while he didn’t know if they were making any headway with the research, they were making headway with each other. Their patchy, low-toned conversation had moved on from the topics that were safe to talk about – weather, mainly, and occasionally the state of the food from the kitchens – and ventured forward into more dangerous territory: their personal lives. Caelum had made the first overture of real friendship, and Lares found himself responding in kind, for reasons only God could fathom.
“What do you miss most?” the Consort asked today, out of the blue.
“About Voco?” Lares hazarded. Caelum gave a small nod. He thought for a moment, rubbing his clean-shaven chin. “Smoking,” he said at length.
Caelum looked at him, confusion on his face. “You lost me.”
Lares laughed softly, remembering the man hadn’t been around in Harbourtown when Lares had explained to Aro and Dagon, and told Caelum about Voco’s trade with the Southern Isles and the long paper cylinders of tobacco it brought in. “I had to quit when I came here, for it would mark me as an outsider. They’re terribly addictive. I still get cravings from time to time.” He fell silent, thinking about those nights when he’d wake, shaking, desperately needing one more smoke, having to dig his nails into his palms until he bled to stop himself from finding where he’d hidden his remaining cigarettes. It had not been a pleasant experience.
Caelum nodded, and they both went back to their reading. They sat in companionable silence for a while longer before Lares asked the question that had been sitting as a lump in his chest for over a tredicem now.
“Do you love her?”
Caelum was a long time looking up from his book. When he did he regarded Lares blandly, and Stout-Heart wondered if he’d crossed the line.
“Zardria.” It wasn’t a question, but Lares nodded anyway. Caelum looked away, resting his chin in his hand as he thought. “I do not know,” he said at length. “All I know is that I do not hate her.”
There was another long silence, and Lares was not sure if he felt better for asking or worse. When Caelum spoke again he nearly jumped.
“Do you think she loves me?”
Lares’ heart beat wildly in his chest. “My lord, I wouldn’t know,” he demurred.
Caelum’s look was just as bland as before. “You’re a spy, are you not? You observe things,” he said, and his voice was carefully neutral.
Lares swallowed his nervousness, and looked away, unable to meet Caelum’s gaze as he replied. “Yes, my lord. She does.”
Stout-Heart looked back at the Consort, and Caelum nodded and turned back to his book.
That night found Lares more dominating than his lover was prepared for, though her protests were playful and soon turned to cries of pleasure, her nails digging into his back as he took her against the stone wall in some dark corner of the castle.
“Mmm,” she murmured afterwards, slowly letting her feet come to rest on the floor again so he wasn’t supporting all of her weight, “I think I like it when you take control like that.” She nibbled his ear lobe and neck affectionately.
Lares chuckled, his breathing coming short. “I shall have to be sure and do it more often, then,” he said, and kissed her deeply.
“Often is good,” she said dreamily, a contented smile on her face. She glanced down the hall ruefully. “I have to get back to work.” She made no move to do so.
He laughed softly and patted her backside affectionately. “You don’t want to get on the Head Healer’s bad side, Giselle. Go. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He kissed her again, caressing her cheek as he did so.
She gave him a smile that was dazzling, straightened her peplos, and ran off down the hall.
Watching her retreating form – incredibly pleasing to look at – he put himself to rights and waited a full minute before exiting the hallway himself. He’d been pleasantly surprised at Giselle’s advances at the banquet and dance that had followed the Birthright Ceremony; they’d met a little earlier when she’d treated the black eye Jules had given him. Since then they’d met as and when they could. Oft-times their meetings were too far apart for his liking but he did not complain. Giselle was sweet and passionate, and not unintelligent. Their pillow talk was the part he enjoyed most, as much because she was fascinating as because it didn’t happen so often as their trysts.
Mayhap later he’d have more of a life to himself, and their relationship could develop more.
His thoughts trailed off as his eyes caught a movement down the hallway, opposite the direction he was planning to go. Grimacing in recognition, he took off after the figure already disappearing down a side corridor. When he reached the hallway the small form was already halfway down it, but his legs were longer. He caught up to the girl in a matter of seconds and pulled her to face him.
“Miranda,” he spat, suspicions confirmed.
Her eyes widened in fear. “Lares? What are you doing here?”
“I should ask you the same,” he said, his hand tightening on her upper arm. “Your father said you were being fostered in Perch.”
Miranda’s eyes darted wildly from side to side as she sought for an answer. “Um. I was! I ran away.”
“To Athering?” he asked sardonically, and her face said she knew she was caught out. “Come on,” he said, tugging her away.
She pulled back in resistance. “Where are you taking me?”
“To see the Empress. See how she feels about having a spy in her castle.” He pulled again, but she still resisted.
“Ha! I am a spy for the Empress herself, so good luck with that!” She said it haughtily, but he heard the doubt in her voice.
He knelt in front of her and looked her in the eyes until she fidgeted uncomfortably. “Tell me, Miranda deHope Exsil Vis, does Empress Zardria know where you’re from? Who your parents are? Or have you conveniently left that part out?” His look hardened. “You may have fooled everyone here, but that ends tonight.”
She said nothing, only stared at him intently. Her eyebrows knit together in her concentration. Lares felt a fog surround his thoughts and a lassitude enter his limbs. Let her go; she’s only a child; what does she know of politics; she’s innocent, a voice whispered in his ear.
Briskly he shook his head and the fog cleared. He frowned at Miranda, making a tsking noise. “Really, kiddo, you tried that on me once before and it didn’t work then. What makes you think it will now?” When she didn’t answer, he stood and pulled on her arm again. “Come on.”
“I’ll scream!” she said, trying one last tack – one that had worked when she was younger.
“Go ahead. One child having a tantrum because she’s up far past her bedtime won’t attract much concern,” he said with a glare.
She didn’t scream, and they headed to the Spire.
The Empress was less than pleased to be roused from her sleep, and did not even see Lares in her study. They met instead in the antechamber of her suite, servants and guards hovering uncertainly at the corners of the room.
“I do hope you have a good reason for bothering me at 2430, Stout-Heart,” she said tightly. He could see she kept a firm rein on her temper, for which he was grateful.
“My most humble apologies, Your Highness,” he said, bowing low, his hand still gripping Miranda’s arm. “But I thought you may like to know that there is a spy in your midst.” He pulled the resistant scion of the Exsil Vis line forward.
Zardria looked unimpressed. “Of course she’s a spy. She’s in my employ, much as you are, Stout-Heart. Are we quite finished?” She turned to go back to her rooms. Miranda had a triumphant ‘I told you so!’ look on her face, and Lares stepped forward, speaking up in a way he usually wouldn’t dare with a ruler.
“Wait! Please, Your Majesty – this girl is a Vocan spy.”
Zardria froze, tension in every line of her body, then slowly turned to face Lares again. Her face was blank, and Lares took a step back in fear.
“Really, Lares,” she said silkily, almost a purr. “How on earth would you know?”
Here it was. His betrayal of himself. He glanced down at Miranda and decided it was worth it, to keep Maurice out of Athering. “I am Vocan myself, Majesty. I was in the employ of Lord Exsil Vis until Admiral Anala brought me back to Athering in my defection.”
She’d probably kill them both now, but Lares was no stranger to seeing his death loom above him. He stood unflinching, waiting for her decree.
Zardria stood, arms akimbo in a very un-Empress-like fashion, and stared at him steadily. Her face was just as unreadable as before. “Am I supposed to believe you loyal to Athering when you did not even see fit to tell me where you were from?” Her voice was the same silky purr it had been, but he was not fooled.
He bowed low again, and stayed bent over, showing as much submission as possible. “No, Highness. That was a very large mistake on my part and I beg your clemency. All I can give you is my word that I want nothing but the best for this country and have no sympathetic feelings for Mt. Voco.” Or Maurice, he thought savagely.
She was silent a long time and Lares’ back started to ache. Miranda whined, and asked to be let go since it was ‘obvious’ she wasn’t the real spy here. Lares glared at her, trying to get her to be quiet, but to no avail. The girl had never known when to shut up.
“Stand up, Lares,” the Empress said at length, sounding almost irritated. Lares stood and faced her. Her expression was stony. “I am choosing to believe your story – for now. Do not make me regret my choice to let you live.”
“Thank you, Highness,” he murmured, eyes downcast.
Zardria turned to look at Miranda, and Lares suddenly noticed how similar they looked. Yet Miranda was the spitting image of her father.
“Guards,” Zardria said, coming to a decision, “throw this girl in the dungeon. I’ll deal with her on the morrow.” The guards came forward to obey and Miranda’s protests fell on deaf ears. Zardria’s eyes flickered back to Lares. “Get some sleep,” she said in a tone that brooked no argument, and before he could respond was back through the door to her own chambers.
He did, eventually. But his dreams held naught but Hope’s face, and when he woke his pillow was wet with tears.