Lord Saeros outsmarts his emperor and Caelon finds amusement in the palace.
In company with his father, Caelon strode through the palace halls on his way to the throne room. He knew he ought, in truth, to be focused upon the upcoming meeting with Emperor Kaerkas but the strange interlude just before lunch still disturbed him.
He could not tell if Lady Dia were being honest or not when she implied that the dark and deadly chill he had experienced today for the second time was not somehow her doing. Of course, he knew he had no real reason to imagine that hers might be the hand at work. Yet, he could not rid himself of the feeling that it did have very much to do with her. The only question he really needed to answer was whether she was the potential threat or the potential victim.
He could not have explained to anyone, including himself, the peculiar attraction she held for him. Not that she was not worthy of attention, for the lady was remarkably beautiful. But Caelon, no novice to amorous adventures, did not recognize what he was feeling as a prelude to a fit of gallantry. In fact, he would have described it as something much more primitive and primal than that; along the order of instinct rather than attraction. He had a notion, conceived last endmeal and reinforced when he had fetched her to his mother’s apartments before midmeal, that presenting himself at her door on a regular basis after she had retired would place a severe strain on his self-control.
Caelon acknowledged to himself that he had somehow encountered something that seemed both powerful and pervasive in the person of Dia of Shae. The fact that he could not satisfactorily explain that something to himself was excessively irksome. And then, there was this ability he had suddenly acquired to listen to the thoughts of another, to carry on a conversation without speaking. Septha take the curst woman, anyway; what had she done to him? He was a soldier, scorch it! Everything he thought he knew about the world he lived in seemed to have been challenged recently, beginning with the strange bond he had unwittingly formed with this daughter of Shae.
Suddenly, he became aware that his father was addressing him. “This is not the time for woolgathering, my boy,” Lord Saeros said, regarding his heir with all his usual calm shrewdness. “No doubt you will sort it all out later. For now, I require your attention.”
They had reached the massive double doors of the Emperor’s throne room and Caelon, as he always did, straightened himself with military discipline at his father’s words, and put those puzzles away from his mind.
Lord Saeros had not confided his plans to his son, but Caelon was not particularly surprised by that. Lord Saeros almost never did warn Caelon in advance of what he meant to do. His Grace, when a much younger Caelon had remonstrated with him about that, had informed his son that he would be of little use in the field if he could not accustom himself to decisive action in the face of unexpected events. Caelon could understand the rationale behind this behavior but, he owned privately, he sometimes wished that Lord Saeros were occasionally willing to put aside being a general in favor of simply being a father.
At that moment, the door was opened for them and a herald announced the Grand Duke Saeros of Aerandos and Colonel Lord Caelon of Aerandos. Those two gentlemen strode into the room, halting when they had reached the foot of the throne, and bowed deeply.
“Ha! Saeros!” uttered his Imperial Majesty.
“Sire,” Lord Saeros said, “you wished to see me?”
“I want your decision, Saeros,” the Emperor said without preamble.
“Certainly, your Majesty,” his Grace responded after a moment’s pause. “I have considered the matter carefully and I am persuaded that you have no need of the entire army of Aerandos in this part of the Empire. Moreover, while it is plain to me that the imperial corps would benefit from improvements in training, you do not really need my presence here in the palace in order to give the proper orders and see that they are carried out.” He smiled ruefully. “It has also come to my notice that certain members of the General Staff have no wish to see me elevated to a position in which I have authority over them.”
The Emperor, who seemed to sense that he was about to be thwarted, turned an alarming shade of red. “So,” he said ominously, his eyes beginning to bulge, “you say you will withhold both your counsel and your troops from the services of your Emperor when we has need of them?”
“Not at all, your Majesty,” Lord Saeros replied smoothly. “It may very well be that the imperial troops would indeed benefit from example. As I say, however, I do not think that you will require the entire army of Aerandos.”
“And what of you, Saeros?” asked the Emperor broodingly. “Do you mean to leave me with troops but with no leadership? That will not suit the purpose at all.” He did not give Lord Saeros time to reply but gestured to a waiting flunky and sent him off to summon General Kraetus.
“By no means, your Imperial Majesty,” Lord Saeros answered the Emperor’s question. “I expect I can remain here and give the necessary orders at least until I am required to return north by reason of the imminence of HighSun.” The Emperor’s expression of smug satisfaction faded noticeably when his Grace added, “I cannot think, however, that I need be involved much with the General Staff.”
It was unfortunate that, at that moment, the door to the audience chamber opened once again and General Kraetus stepped inside in the wake of the herald preparing to announce him. The General was thus privileged to hear the Emperor’s reply perfectly clearly. “Great Chaos, Saeros, how can you mean to leave me saddled with my current staff? All one need do is take a look at the imperial army to realize that they cannot be any but the most complete dolts!”
“General Kraetus,” announced the herald morosely.
The General strode forward, his face an impassive mask. “Your Imperial Majesty,” he said, bowing.
The Emperor nodded to this greeting shortly. “Ah, Kraetus,” Lord Saeros said to the general cordially, affecting not to see the malevolent stare that gentleman was directing at him. “Your arrival is timely. Possibly you can assist me in persuading his Majesty that the General Staff has no need of my advice.”
“I am not so quick to contradict my Emperor,” the General muttered, much to Caelon’s astonishment. “I feel sure he knows better than you or I what is required to improve his army.”
That Kaerkas the Beast had never either trained or commanded troops must be obvious to anyone who had listened to his initial proposal, thought Caelon. Yet, Lord Saeros never batted an eyelash. “Your faith in your Emperor is commendable, sir. However,” and he turned back to the Emperor, “I must take exception to your assessment of the General Staff, Your Majesty. Indeed, I know them for highly competent military men. They will, if they wish, have the assistance of my sergeants with the day-to-day disciplining of the imperial troops. But they can have no need of my advice and I have no wish to lord it over them so.”
“You become womanish in your concern for the sensibilities of my generals, Saeros,” said the Emperor blightingly. “I am finding it tiresome.”
“Forgive me, my leige,” Lord Saeros apologized smoothly. “I have some experience in attempting to direct reluctant troops. It is not an experience I care to repeat if I can avoid it, particularly not with generals.”
“And, what is this? A few paltry regiments?” Emperor Kaerkas was asking suddenly, as if he had only just realized what his Grace had said. “Is that the best you can offer to your Emperor? What good do you imagine a few regiments will do?”
“Since their purpose here will be in the nature of aides to the training of your own army, Sire, I would imagine that they will do admirably well,” was his Grace’s bland reply, which almost caused Caelon to betray himself with a grin. “After all, they will not be required to invade any of our neighbors, so you will not be needing more of them.”
Emperor Kaerkas opened his mouth to speak but Prince Maermat, leaving his sister’s side with an alacrity that Caelon found excessively interesting, interceded quickly. “Indeed, your plans sound excellently well thought out, your Grace. I must confess, I am relieved that you have discovered a solution to my father’s need.”
Then, Maremat turned to his obviously seething parent. “Of course, we cannot hold Lord Saeros here when he has urgent matters to attend to at Aerandos, Father,” he said in a peculiar tone of voice that was half soothing and half commanding. “And I feel sure that his Grace can set matters here in motion in enough time to enable him to return to Aerandos before HighSun.”
Lord Saeros bowed acknowledgement of the Prince’s intervention, before addressing himself to the Emperor. “If my proposal is acceptable to your Majesty, I shall immediately send word for some few regiments to set forth for the palace at once.”
Emperor Kaerkas fixed the Grand Duke with a smoldering eye, an expression on his face that would have been called pouting in a less exalted personage. “Very well, Saeros,” he said finally. “I shall accept these few regiments — for the moment. For the rest of it, while we await the arrival of these few soldiers from the north, you shall attend me at all meetings of the General Staff. Is that clear?”
“Certainly, Sire,” said his Grace. Only Caelon was aware of the faint sigh that accompanied Lord Saeros’ words.
“And I shall expect you to do more than sit mute and worry yourself about the wounded sentiments of my generals,” added the Emperor.
“As you wish, Sire,” said his Grace with a bow that concluded the audience.
Once they had left the audience chamber, Caelon turned a wryly amused eye upon his father. “One wonders just how he will attempt to inveigle you into bringing the rest of our forces south, for it is quite plain that he had set his heart on acquiring our entire army for his personal use.”
“Indeed,” Lord Saeros replied, still in that bland tone, “it will be interesting to observe his method.” He smiled faintly when Caelon snorted cynically. “Never underestimate the value in learning the way your adversary’s mind works.”
Caelon digested that in silence for a few moments. “Do you count the Emperor your adversary, then?” he asked, speaking too softly to be overheard.
“Not at all, my dear boy,” Lord Saeros replied instantly, “although I have a notion that he counts me as his. No, it is merely that I have something he seems to want. You will note that he did not order me to hand the army over to him, even though, as my Emperor, he might be forgiven for attempting to do so. It would appear that he — or someone — perceives the need to handle me carefully.”
“Yes,” Caelon agreed thoughtfully, “the tone Maermat takes with his father does cause one to wonder which of them is running the Empire.”
“Why, I can say quite truthfully that I feel some sympathy for the Emperor, to be saddled with an impudent heir,” his Grace said, loftily ignoring Caelon’s chuckle. “So you made note of young Maermat’s manner as well?”
“How could one escape noting it?”
Lord Saeros replied with a satisfied grunt before returning to the subject at hand. “So far, we have seen that care of me involves flattery and appeals to my ego — weaknesses which his Highness assumes I am prey to, but which, sadly for him, I am not. I shall shortly provide an opportunity for all parties involved see whether Prince Maermat considers it worth his while to handle you as carefully as they have tried to handle me. Then, we shall see what he imagines your weaknesses to be.”
“I could venture a few guesses on that score. And why are we so interested in what they imagine our weaknesses to be?” Caelon asked, intrigued as always by the complex mind of his father.
“Because, my boy, they make assumptions about our weaknesses based upon their own,” Lord Saeros told him promptly, amusement lighting his eyes, “as surely you have already surmised.”
“And how do propose to provide this opportunity, sir? Will you, in fact, be removing from the scene?” Caelon asked, noting but not commenting on the oblique reprimand. “It seems strangely unlike you.”
Lord Saeros chuckled but did not reply, saying instead, “As to that, I am not wholly convinced that care of me is what is intended.”
“Indeed, sir?” Caelon asked.
“Well, it certainly has not escaped my attention,” Lord Saeros said pointedly, “that twice now my Emperor has created an occasion to inform the head of his General Staff that he is incompetent and I am not. It is not the way I would choose to introduce anyone to someone he is then expected to work with.”
“Yes, sir,” Caelon said meekly, “I confess I was surprised at his Majesty’s lack of discretion — and even more surprised at General Kraetus’ lack of protest.”
“Kraetus does not protest openly,” corrected his Grace. “Unless I much mistake the matter … ”
“Impossible,” Caelon interjected with grinning impudence.
“I shall soon be made to feel his displeasure,” his Grace went on, ignoring the interruption.
At that, Caelon frowned. “It is to be hoped that his displeasure does not take too violent a form,” he said thoughtfully.
“It is even more to be hoped that that is not precisely what his Majesty intends,” said Lord Saeros calmly.
“Indeed,” Caelon agreed emphatically, wondering once again what, exactly, Lord Saeros was thinking. “Wither away, sir?” he then asked when he realized that his father was not immediately returning to their rooms.
“We shall see about sending one of my men off with a message for Colonel Braeden and then we shall explore whichever of the splendid amusements the palace has to offer at this time of day catches our fancy.”
At that, Caelon frankly laughed. “What amusements does this palace ever have to offer, sir?”
“Come, my boy, surely we will be able to find something with which to occupy ourselves.”
“Why do we not simply return to my mother?”
“Because I have no wish to interrupt her visit with her young friend,” Lord Saeros said, again with that faint smile. “Really, lad, do you want to spend the next few hours listening to my lady giggling? Now, pull yourself together. It will never do for the men to witness Saeros’ heir grinning like a moonling.”
When the gentlemen finally returned to Lady Tamia’s sitting room, she informed them cordially that Lady Dia would be returning to join them for endmeal. Caelon took this news in very good part, even though he was thoroughly familiar with the glint in his mother’s eye. He accepted her efforts at matchmaking much as he accepted everything else about her and was only left to wonder if my lady was a party to this plot. He rather fancied it would be very unlike her, and found himself looking forward to some very good sport.
Lady Dia rather quickly fell in with her Grace’s notion that she should spend most of her time with the House of Aerandos and, from then on, arrived in his mother’s sitting room just before each midmeal. As often as not, Caelon did not see her then, for he was much involved in attending the Grand Duke at seemingly constant meetings of the Imperial General Staff. Not much was accomplished at these meetings; the generals could not seem to agree on even the necessity of establishing a regular training routine. Caelon wondered how Kaerkas had managed to saddle himself with a pack of commanders who were so concerned with their own personal power and proximity to the throne that none of them seemed able to focus upon the requirements of maintaining an effective fighting force. He would have found the frequent gatherings unbearably tedious if it were not for his ever-wayward sense of humor, for the speed with which Kaerkas’ generals found reasons to reject even the mildest and most insignificant of suggestions from Lord Saeros tickled him.
He did, however, regularly act as Lady Dia’s escort to endmeal, staying by her until she had been safely escorted to her rooms and had shared a handclasp with him. What benefit she derived from their frequent, tactile contact she never said. Caelon could easily feel strange bond that seemed to strengthen each time their hands met, and very pleasant he found it, but to Lady Dia it must have been vastly more important than a means of simply tickling her senses. He would have been hard put to it to have described her response to his touch: a profound relief, a relaxing of an almost unconscious tension, a release from an unnamed fear, and something else to which he could not have put a name. Whatever was happening between them, she seemed to need it and to be genuinely grateful for it. And, as much from innate kindness as from the dictates of his pledged honor, Caelon made it his business to somehow touch her hand every time he saw her, anywhere in the palace.
In time, of course, the Emperor’s court began to notice the very particular attentions that Lord Caelon of Aerandos was paying to Lady Dia of Shae. Rumor was rife, whispers abounded, and stares accompanied them whenever they appeared together in the public parts of the building. To Caelon’s amused interest, Lady Dia greeted the gossip with a rather contradictory mixture of mortification and indifference. While she was clearly not enjoying the notoriety she was acquiring, neither did she at any time even hint that she wished to dispense with their frequent handclasps.
Among the many eyes turned in his direction were those of Prince Maermat, Princess Kera and Lord Daerus of Shae. Unlike the courtiers, however, Caelon perceived that these onlookers were not idly curious but seriously concerned and more than a little hostile to his attentions to Lady Dia. While Lord Daerus’ antagonism toward a gentleman whose gallantries had made his sister the talk of the palace was understandable, Caelon was at something of a loss to account for the interest of the Imperial siblings. It was not until he had had an opportunity to observe, unnoticed, Prince Maermat trying unsuccessfully and rather laboriously to get up a flirtation with the lady that he understood and, from the moment he made that discovery, his enjoyment of his situation was assured. With a sad want of chivalry, he soon began to imbue the act of bowing over Lady Dia’s hand with as much innuendo as one could with so commonplace a gesture.
Lady Dia was, of course, inspired to protest the extravagance with which he greeted her. “Does it not bother you to be the object of so much curiosity, my lord?” she asked him in exasperation as he escorted her to midmeal, which he occasionally did.
“I think you do yourself an injustice, my lady,” he told her, a teasing gleam in his eyes. “Surely, the fixed glances you have noticed are admiration rather than speculation.”
“I pray you will not talk such nonsense, my lord,” she said briskly after a pregnant pause. He wondered, as he often did, whether she was really debating the relative merits of offering violence to his person, or whether those vivid images in her mind were purely for his edification. “And I very much wish that you would restrain yourself when next we meet. You may be enjoying the scrutiny but, frankly, I am not.”
“Really, my lady,” he protested, “how could you imagine that I would do anything so ungallant as to suggest to all the interested spectators that I am less than enthralled with you?”
He watched her sternly suppress laughter. “It would serve you very well indeed if I did marry you, my lord,” she told him smolderingly.
Such a threat very naturally made Caelon laugh heartily. “What a dreadful thing to terrorize a man with!” he said, when he could speak at all. “Really, my lady, I am sur …,” his voice trailed off as he stared down the corridor.
His father had come down the hall toward them, stopped at his mother’s sitting room door, and had then paused as he made note of their approach. At this time of year, as HighSun steadily approached, the halls of the palace were never well lit. Now, however, the ever-present shadows seemed full of menace. Lady Dia seemed to sense it as well, for her eyes were narrowed suspiciously and darting about the shadows.
Abruptly, several things seemed to happen at once. Shadows began to move, resolving themselves into four men brandishing swords and menacingly approaching Lord Saeros. Almost instantly, even as Caelon started forward wondering furiously what they could do with belt daggers against four swords, two of them fell, one with a jewelled dagger hilt protruding from his forehead and the other from a dagger in the side of his neck.
“Caelon!” he heard Lady Dia call to him urgently. He glanced toward her. Something was hurling out of the shadows toward him and, when he instinctively put out an arm to protect himself, found that his hand closed on the sword she had expertly tossed him. Now properly armed, he closed the distance between himself and his father’s attackers and engaged one of them. My lady, meanwhile, had scooped up the other discarded sword and circled around to confront the last ruffian herself.
It was all over in moments. The fellow Caelon faced was a competent enough swordsman but Caelon, a professional soldier with a great deal of incentive, easily outmatched him. He dispatched the ambusher quickly, eager to go to Lady Dia’s aid, and whirled in time to see her wrench her blade from her adversary’s chest.
My lady stared down at the crumpled, bloody bodies for a moment. Then she tossed her borrowed blade down before the man she had just felled, making of it a gesture of purest contempt, before turning icy grey eyes toward him. I hate assassins, she told him silently.
You have had much experience of them? he asked her.
Not until now, she replied.
Caelon turned to his father. “Are you well, sir?” he asked in some concern.
“Very well, I thank you,” Lord Saeros replied, thoughtfully eying the corpses littering the hallway. “Accept my compliments; your arrival was fortuitous. And my thanks to you, as well, my lady,” he addressed himself to Lady Dia, who was retrieving her daggers. “I had not realized that young ladies still trained in the warlike arts.”
That made her grin. “Many of them do not, your Grace,” she replied. Then she shrugged. “I do not like this new fashion of selecting a champion; I find it to my advantage to fight my own battles. Unlike the cur who hired this lot,” she added, her grin fading.
“Indeed,” agreed Lord Saeros impassively, his eyes twinkling.
The unhappiness of the imperial generals with the addition of His Grace of Aerandos to their number was suddenly no longer amusing. That they did not dare take their plaint to their Emperor was not entirely unexpected. But Caelon had assumed that those gentlemen would indulge in the usual political maneuvering in order to have Lord Saeros removed from his advisory position; in spite of his recent conversation with his father, it had not seriously occurred to him that they might elect to simply have him murdered. “So it begins,” he murmurred, fixing his sire with a fierce gaze.
“Aye, so it does,” Lord Saeros agreed again.
Lady Dia looked from one of them to the other, opened her mouth to speak and then apparently changed her mind. Finally, she said, “It would appear that you both have some notion of who might be behind this attack and why. I have no wish to pry, your Grace but clearly you would do well to look to your defenses. Calm acceptance is surely better than panic, but I hope you will not take this incident lightly.”
“You are very right, my lady, but there is no need to disturb yourself,” he Grace told her kindly.
“Yes, Father,” said Caelon, with determined patience, “it is all very well to tell us not to concern ourselves about it but, if we had not happened along at just that moment, you would likely not have survived this encounter.”
“Very likely not,” and with that, his Grace fixed both young people with a stern eye. “I wish you will tell me why the pair of you must needs instruct me in the obvious? Lady Dia, I make allowance for your slight acquaintance with me but you, my lad, really ought to know better.”
Caelon, his concern causing him to rapidly lose patience with his tight-lipped sire, was about to reply with some heat until he saw my lady flush scarlet. “I beg your pardon, your Grace,” she muttered, mortification in her tone.
“Never mind, my dear,” said Lord Saeros, taking her hand and patting it soothingly, “come along inside now. I expect her Grace is wondering what has become of us. You, no doubt, would like a chance to wash your hands before midmeal and,” here, his Grace paused to glance with faint disapproval at the blood-spattered hall, “I really must ring for a servant to tidy this corridor. Shall we … ?”