"Summon your family. -All- of your family..."
|"Summon your family. All of your family."
The soft-spoken command lingered in the air, sucking the breath from the otherwise peaceful spring day. In the midst of the crowded courtyard, it created a pool of stillness that rippled outward until the very silence seemed to echo the words and every eye turned to follow the speaker.
Who, Keira realized through the haze of her confusion and fear, had not so much as paused on his way to the door of the keep. It seemed strange, that the world was not frozen in the wake of that awful pronouncement; for a moment, she could only stare in dumb fascination as the prince and his escort approached, marvelling at the clarity of their footfalls and the subtle chink-chink of chainmail and weaponry.
Then, over the shoulders of the coming soldiers, she saw her mother stir, as though waking from a dream, and reach out to take her father by the arm. It hurt, to see his once-proud face so haggard, see eyes that used to flash with fire or crinkle in mirth so hopeless and fearful. He looked lost, standing in the middle of his own courtyard, but he responded to his wife's touch and whispered words. It brought a bittersweet pang to Keira's heart, to watch him gather himself and wrap his dignity around him like a cloak of impenetrable armour. When he finally moved to follow the visitors, his steps were firm, his back straight. It broke the spell cast over the rest of the keep's residents, and a rising tide of conversation swelled and swept through their ranks.
And then there was no more time to reflect on the changes wrought in her father or her people over the past few months, for the prince had reached the foot of the outer stairs and was mounting them without even a backward glance at the dismay he had caused. Keira gasped and pressed herself back into the shadows of the entrance hall. Her heart thumped a wild beat and her breath stopped altogether.
But no. She couldn't -- she wouldn't -- cower. She was Keira Rhyzenger, daughter of kings. If she were to show fear, how might others react? How could she expect to inspire her people with hope if they saw her cowardice?
Swallowing against the dryness in her throat, she drew herself up to her full height and lifted her chin. If her hands were clenched so hard against each other that the knuckles turned white, at least they did not tremble. She could do nothing about the fluttering of her heart, but she set her jaw, her dark brown eyes flashing with contempt as the intruders drew near.
Not that they spared her more than a glance. Prince Alddyn's eyes flickered over her, noting her presence but showing neither interest nor recognition as he passed. The man on his right -- a tall, reedy fellow with sallow skin and keen eyes -- followed suit, his black robes swirling around his feet. The man at the prince's left, closer to her, examined her with cold, unreadable eyes; they raked over her form, but the scrutiny was clinical. He was assessing her for the possibility of hidden weapons, weighing what, if any, threat she might pose. Dismissing her as harmless, he scanned the rest of the hall as servants scattered out of the way and the keep's guards clutched their sheathed weapons in rigid fingers. A shiver forced its way down Keira's spine despite her composure. She barely noticed the passing of the rest of the soldiers, nor their leers under the helmets they bore.
She had never gotten so close to Zaszriel Morecai before, had only caught glimpses of the man during that agonizing week when the Imperials had overrun the keep as their prince "negotiated" the surrender that had stripped her country of its sovereignty. The General, his men called him, as though the title needed no other embellishment. And perhaps it didn't. More than any other single factor, the man's strategy and cunning had left her father's troops confused and demoralized, while rumors of his strength of arms were perhaps even now finding their way into epic ballads across the Lithan Empire. The hard light in his eyes told her he would think nothing of breaking her neck if he thought the action warranted, and watching the coiled prowl of his steps, the banked power in his form, Keira doubted that any of the guards present would be able to stop him.
Then her mother was there, and Keira felt the ice around her heart thaw a little at the familiar presence. There was a faint trace of sorrowful pride in Geneva Rhyzenger's smile; she knew how much courage it had taken for Keira to appear undaunted. Her father hurried past, trailing behind the soldiers like a forgotten guest in his own hall, and for a single instant, as Keira met her mother's eyes, she saw that practiced mask slip, saw the serene facade crack, saw a fear emerge that matched her own and reminded her that none of them may live to see the sunset.
Summon your family. -All- of your family.
Would this be the end? Was Alddyn gathering them together like sheep to the slaughter? Was he planning to snuff out the royal Rhyzenger line in one fell swoop and so end any chance of opposition to his invasion? The questions chased each other through her mind, reflected in the deep lines of her mother's face as they both turned to follow the heavy tramp-tramp of boots further into the keep.
They bypassed the great hall and arrived at what used to be the Council chamber, back when Elrithea still had a Council. Here her father and his most trusted advisors had passed laws and settled disputes among the nobility, met with foreign dignitaries and negotiated trade agreements. Now, although the servants kept the room clean, a smell of neglect tainted the air. One of the first things Alddyn had done was to dissolve the Council and appoint his own lackeys to oversee the governance of his newest province. To add insult to injury, the man who had been named to be their Governor was none other than their main conquerer; it was difficult to say who was hated more in Elrithea -- Prince Alddyn or General Morecai.
A large, arced table dominated the room, its two upside-down branches forming the floor where petitioners would stand to address the Council. Now Keira and her parents huddled together in the center while Alddyn swept up the side and seated himself at the head of the table as though it had always belonged to him. The two men following took up positions on either side, and the Imperials they had brought -- twenty to thirty of the Elite Guard -- arranged themselves around the sides of the room and snapped to attention like so many statues.
Keira ground her teeth as she watched Alddyn settle himself comfortably in the same chair she had seen her father occupy countless times. She could almost feel the waves of helpless shame that rolled off the man she adored and had thought invulnerable, and her cheeks burned at his humiliation. It was a relief, this fury, and she clung to it to keep her fear at bay, glaring at the three men before her and inwardly cursing them in a language that would have shocked her mother into speechlessness had she known of it.
The prince was exchanging pleasantries with her father, for all the world as though this were a mere social call, his charming smile belying the tension in the room. As Verril Rhyzenger stuttered a reply, Keira found the eyes of the unknown man on her. His thin, pointed features betrayed nothing of his thoughts, but there was a look of speculation in his eyes as he studied her that hinted at hidden plans and veiled schemes. She look away, shaken, and unexpectedly found the gaze of the General upon her as well. For a moment, there was a trace of amusement in those dark, hooded eyes, as though he could hear the unspeakable and extremely unladylike swearing in her head.
Then the door crashed open, and Keira's heart skipped a beat as she watched the rest of her family enter, conducted by four hulking Imperials who might as well have been herding cattle.
Little nine-year-old Biannca and Lysander, twins down to the last freckle, brown haired like herself but with the blue eyes of their mother, their hands clasped together as they ran to Geneva and buried their faces in her dress; Wesley and Peyton, seventeen and thirteen years of age, both stocky as their father, their long-standing feud forgotten in the light of the new order; and finally their sister-in-law Naomi, tall and regal as Keira could only hope to be, her grace only heightened by the grief of losing her husband to the war, a tiny bundle wrapped in her arms.
The baby. Oh sweet gods, will they kill him too? Keira felt sickened at the thought. Trey was the one bright spot in an otherwise dark and dismal reality, the one legacy left of her oldest brother Tristan, whose death had cemented their defeat.
"Is this everyone?" Alddyn asked after they had all shuffled into a rough line.
"All of my family that currently reside at the castle, your highness," her father replied.
"Ah. Well, it's very nice to see you all again, I'm sure," the prince said, his tone bright and cheery. "Sorry to, uh, drop in unannounced like this, but certain matters have come to my attention that needed... immediate action. I do hope I haven't disturbed you unduly?"
"Not at all, your highness. What... what matters do you wish to discuss?"
Alddyn leaned forward to steeple his fingers on the table. "Well, no doubt you can recall the terms of our treaty, my lord? That Elrithea should maintain a certain level of independence as long as peace is observed?" Verril gave a jerky nod. "Ah, good." Alddyn's voice changed suddenly, a quiet note of menace replacing the false courtesy. "Then perhaps you might explain to me why that peace has been breached?"
"B-Breached, your highness?"
"Breached," Alddyn repeated, nodding. "Violated. Trespassed. Surely you've heard the reports of conflict and dissention?"
"Rebels, your highness. Renegades."
Alddyn waved a dismissive hand. "I am not speaking of some poorly-equipped and ill-trained underground, though the gods know those little maggots are annoying enough. I am speaking of coordinated attacks on Imperial forces. Allow me to elaborate. A month ago, on the night of the Feast of Saint Lacroix, the small Imperial garrison outside of the town of Karinton received three barrels of excellent wine courtesy of the local winemaker. Two days later, one of my tax collectors who was passing through the area decided to trade news with an old friend stationed at the fort. He arrived to find arrows sticking out of the perimeter guards, while everyone within had been slaughtered in their sleep. The wine had been poisoned, laced with enough sleeping medicine to knock out a small town. Well, I suppose it was the captain's fault; imagine being such an idiot as to allow the wine to pass untested! The winemaker admitted, under torture, to the deception, though he failed to provide the names of those who had attacked the fort." He paused, then added as an afterthought, "Of course, he and his entire family were subsequently executed for treason."
Someone gasped. Alddyn spread his hands and shrugged. "A pity, but one must sometimes make examples. I thought no more of the matter. Then, a fortnight past, a fire broke out at Fort Brighton. Quite possibly the kitchen staff were negligent in banking the coals that night; they do that, with monotonous regularity. What is less clear is how that fire spread to the central keep, when it was upwind of the kitchens and every soldier within had turned out to fight the flames. By the time the new threat was discovered, it was too late to save most of the structure. Further investigations revealed that several servants had seen shadowy figures moving among the tapestries, though again, no one could testify as to their identity. I don't think I need to tell you what happened to the entire staff, for turning a blind eye to unknowns wandering around an Imperial compound."
"Your highness," Verril was almost panting, "your highness, surely such isolated incidents--"
"I am not finished," Alddyn said, his mild tone cutting across the other man's feeble protests. "You see, not more than five days ago, as I was visiting with my good General here, an Imperial caravan was attacked as it passed through the Donnovan Hills. The attackers picked the narrowest point of the trail and unleashed a rain of arrows down on the guards. Unfortunately for them, they had reckoned without the presence of an Imperial mage. The ensuing battle proved costly and difficult, but in the end the guards were able to overcome the raiders, who melted back into the surrounding forest like mist in the sun." Alddyn paused, and his eyes lost their look of affable storytelling, becoming sharp and piercing as a raptor's. "There was, however, one important difference between this latest attack and the previous 'isolated incidents,' as you call them. Can you guess what that difference might be, my lord?"
"I... I don't know, your highness."
"This time... this time, you see, there was a survivor." Alddyn stopped again, as though inviting comment, but Keira and the rest of the Rhyzengers stood as though frozen, so he shrugged and continued. "One of the attackers had been wounded and failed to make good his getaway. Tried to kill himself rather than be taken alive, but was, alas, prevented. Brave lad, about sixteen or so. Name of... what was it again? Devin, I believe. Devin Hughberg."
No. Oh gods, no. Keira felt the blood drain from her face as the room swam in her vision. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Wesley and Peyton stiffen. Devin... They had played together, years ago, when the young Rhyzengers had been allowed to run free with some of the local children. The son of a huntsman, Devin had been the one who'd taught her how to climb trees and catch frogs in the stream. They had fallen out of touch over the years, but Keira knew that her brothers still visited their friend on a regular basis. If Devin were involved in the attacks...
"Your highness," her father was saying, shaking his head in genuine perplexity, "I'm afraid I'm not familiar with that name..."
No, he wouldn't be. He and her mother had always been too busy with rule and governance to know the names of all their little playmates. For a moment, Keira was desperately sorry for the shock they were about to receive. Because now it all made sense. The sudden bond that had sprung up between Wesley and Peyton; the resentful, brooding looks they sometimes shot at their father; the long, mysterious rides they often took into the surrounding countryside "to clear their heads;" and the times when she had seen them return, covered in mud and other dark splotches, their faces grim with stern triumph.
Gods above, they have doomed us all.
"No?" Alddyn voice was the soft purr of a cat who had cornered a baby mouse. "Well then, let's hope someone else can shed some light on the matter." His gaze snapped to where her brothers stood. "Lord Peyton! Perhaps you can tell us something of this Devin Hughberg?"
Watching the panic on her younger brother's face, Keira felt a flicker of pity. Poor Peyton. He had never been truly brave. Not the quiet courage of Tristan, not the daredevil bravado of Wesley, not even the impulsive and naive curiosity of Lysander and Biannca. By nature a sullen, solitary child, every act of daring he had ever undertaken was at the goading of those around him, done more for show than for conviction, and only if he thought he could escape punishment. Now, caught in Alddyn's cold and merciless stare, he could only manage a weak whimper, jerking back and shaking his head, before shooting a pleading glance at his brother.
Taking no notice of Peyton's terror, Wesley lifted his lips in a snarl, his fists clenched at his sides. "What did you do to him, you bastard?"
The words drew a sharp hiss from one of the guards, but Alddyn merely narrowed his eyes as he studied the furious young man. "To Master Hughberg, do you mean? Gallant of you, but please, don't trouble yourself on his account; let me assure you that you have much more important matters to worry about."
"Your highness," Verril grabbed hold of his son's arm to prevent further outbursts. There was a look in his eyes like that of a man trying to repair a leaking dam with his finger. "I... I do not understand..."
"Really, Lord Rhyzenger, my apologies; I must be exceptionally obtuse not to have clarified the issue to your satisfaction." He gestured to the robed man beside him. "Perhaps my friend here will be kind enough to help? Being, after all, the mage who both apprehended Master Hughberg and supervised his... confessions, no doubt Lord DuFey will be able to provide a fresh perspective."
The effect of that name was instant. Naomi shrank back with a cry, shielding her babe from the man's eyes, while Geneva clutched her two youngest children to her as though afraid he would pry them from her by force. Even Wesley paled and fell back a step. Keira found herself staring at the man's lean, spare frame and shrewd eyes in horrified fascination.
It was said that even before Mortimer DuFey had become a mage and sold his soul for power, he had been a man who could outsmart a fox and give a snake lessons in cold-blooded ruthlessness. His rise to prominence had been short and brutal, as he crushed his opponents and used their corpses for stepping stones. Now he was counted among the most trusted of the Emperor's advisers, serving as a sort of unofficial chancellor, though rumor had it that he undertook other, darker tasks as well.
Taking no notice of the reactions around him, Lord DuFey stepped forward and gave his prince a precise, bird-like bow. Bony, delicate fingers reached into his robes to produce a roll of parchment which he unfurled with a practiced flick. Keira wondered why he even bothered; certainly he did not appear to need any reminder, as his voice recounted the facts in a dry monotone and his obsidian eyes transfixed each member of her family in turn. She was the last in line, and once again, as his gaze lingered on her, she thought she saw a calculating cleverness in those dark depths. Disconcerted, she dropped her eyes, and when she glanced back a moment later, his attention had moved on and nothing in his face betrayed the slightest interest in her.
Distracted and uneasy, Keira let the man's words flow over her. It was easier than listening to the long list of names Devin had provided before... before... She closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing. Some of the names were completely unfamiliar to her; some were those of local folks; a few came from the nobility -- younger sons convinced of their own invincibility and righteousness. And mentioned over and over, each time like a fresh blow to her midriff, Wesley and Peyton, connected to planning, funding, and implementation of a dozen mad schemes.
Finally, the detached voice ground to a halt. A breathless silence filled the air. Keira didn't dare look at her family. At some point during the recital, Biannca had begun to cry, affected by the strain she felt in her loved ones, and now her quiet sniffles punctuated the stillness at steady intervals. Alddyn watched their little group with an odd, distant curiosity, a spark of contempt in his expression, as one might view the human wreckage left behind by excessive alcohol or drug use.
To her surprise, it was General Morecai who broke the stalemate. The man cleared his throat with a pointed "harrumph," and for a moment, Keira could have sworn he kicked the leg of Alddyn's chair. The prince arched an eyebrow at his General, who frowned in impatience and growled in a low rumble which nevertheless carried perfectly to her ears, "God's teeth, Al. Stop playing with your food and get on with it already."
Alddyn gave an exasperated huff. "Oh, very well. Lord DuFey, if you please, tell us what penalty the charge of treason carries?"
"Death, your highness," came the prompt answer. "And as treachery punished singly only breeds treachery twice over, death not just for the perpetrators, but for their families as well."
"Does either of the accused wish to dispute the charges?" The prince sounded almost bored, as General Morecai started to move around the table.
"It's not treason when the accuser is a usurper with pretentions to the throne!" Wesley snapped.
Afterwards, replaying the moment in her mind, Keira could never say for certain who moved first, Wesley or the General. Quite possibly they anticipated each other, for the same instant as her brother's arm shot forward, General Morecai lunged in front of his prince. Someone screamed, but the sound was lost in the clatter of metal-on-metal as Wesley's dagger glanced off his opponent's chain to land harmlessly on the table beyond; neither men turned to follow its progress, so intent were they on each other. Wesley's other dagger was in his hand in a flash, but even his speed proved no match for the General's as the latter rushed him, one hand reaching for his sword. In a trice, the unsheathing of dozens of weapons filled the air as every Imperial leapt into action, but already it was over.
Wesley lay on the floor, panting and coughing from a blow to his throat. One swift kick sent his dagger spinning into a corner, before the General planted a foot on his chest to keep him in place. The tip of his sword rested against the pulsing vein in Wesley's neck, tracing a thin, scarlet line into the delicate skin. The young man froze, glaring up at his captor with hatred burning in his eyes.
There was a minor scuffle to the side as two Imperials intercepted Peyton's attempt to retreive his brother's dagger, and the boy cried out in pain as they wrenched his arms behind his back and forced him to his knees. The other Imperials closed around the rest of the family, forcing them into a tight circle as Verril tried without success to shield both his wife and his children.
"Hmm..." the prince's thoughtful hum drew their attention back to the main table. He sounded every bit as calm and collected as before. Keira wondered whether he had so much as blinked during the encounter. Reaching out, he picked up Wesley's cast, twirling the dagger in his hands. "Thank you, General Morecai, for that timely intervention. Lord DuFey, the penalty for drawing a weapon on a member of the Imperial Family?"
"Death by torture, your highness."
"I believe the Imperial executioners have a pot going on how long the next one will last. Looks like they'll have a chance to settle their wagers."
There was the barest trace of hesitation in Lord DuFey's reply. "I'm sure they will be gratified at the opportunity, your highness."
"Your highness! Please!" Verril threw himself on his knees, joined by the rest of his family. "Please, your highness! Mercy! They're naught but lads!"
"Those 'lads' of yours have cost me a good bit of inconvenience, Lord Rhyzenger," Alddyn retorted. Gone was any veneer of cordiality. The hard, implaccable eyes might as well have been carved from granite, for all the warmth they showed. "Supplies disrupted, soldiers killed, a province that should have been pacified roiling with revolt. I assure you that my father was most unamused by reports of slaughtered garrisons and the like. I had thought to spare your family, and this is how my generosity is repaid? Well, I am no fool, my lord, and mark my words, I will not make the same mistake twice!" He gave a curt nod to his guards, who began tearing the family from each other.
Rough hands grabbed Keira's arms and restrained her as she kicked out, desperate. Her father gave a strangled roar, but was no match for the three Imperials who held him. She saw one of the guards seize the twins by the scruffs of their necks, and the frantic fear on her mother's face as they were dragged from her, screaming. Wails and cries rent the air, as Keira fought in vain against the strong grasp pinioning her arms.
"Your highness." The quiet words cut through the chaos with a dry hiss. "Your highness, one moment, if you please."
The struggles on the floor died down, save for the muffled crying from the children. The Rhyzengers slumped in the clutches of their captors -- Geneva's eyes still on her youngest, Verril tense and quivering in impotent rage and fear.
Prince Alddyn turned surprised eyes on his mage. "You have something to add, Lord DuFey?"
"Your highness," the man bowed, his tone apologetic, "forgive me but I believe I see a more... diplomatic way out of this dilemma."
The prince leaned back in his chair and raised an eyebrow. "Are you finally about to tell me what's had you looking like a cat that's gotten into the cream?"
"Err, quite so, your highness."
"Well? Don't just stand there, spit it out, man!"
"It is a matter of some delicacy... If I may?" DuFey approached his prince and bent down to his ear.
A frown creased Alddyn's brow at first as he nodded impatiently to his mage's words, one hand waving to tell him to get to the point. DuFey paused, then continued in a rush, his own hands fluttering in a placating gesture, as though to caution forbearance.
"Great gods!" Alddyn bit out at one point, looking amazed and incredulous.
"Please, your highness, take a moment to consider..." And DuFey's voice dropped low again.
When he finished, he fell back a step, his head bowed as though awaiting judgement. Alddyn's face had not lost its look of disbelief, but soon his features settled into a more calculating expression. Resting his elbow on the table, he traced one finger over his lips in thought, his eyes narrowed as he considered the new possibilities DuFey had presented.
How long his silence lasted, Keira could not say, though she felt each heartbeat of time like a hammer to the chest. Finally, the prince drew a deep breath and released it in a sigh. He blinked, and suddenly he seemed a changed man. Once again a genial spark shone from his eyes, and his whole manner altered until he looked almost jolly. The transformation raised Keira's hackles; there was something inherently dangerous about a man who could assume such masks for his own purposes.
The prince gave the man at his side an ironic look. "You know, Morty, you could've brought this up before we came."
That he addressed one of the most feared men in the Empire by a nickname was less surprising than the fact that the man in question merely smiled. "My apologies, your highness. It did not occur to me until we had already arrived."
"I'm sure," Alddyn said, rolling his eyes. He contemplated the frozen tableau before him a moment, then snorted in exasperation as he waved his guards back. "Oh for crying out loud... do let them up, Zasz. I daresay they've been subdued enough."
She could see the General's skeptical frown, but he shrugged and allowed Wesley to climb to his feet. The guards eased their grip on the rest of the Rhyzengers, though at a subtle signal from their commander, a couple positioned themselves close to each of her brothers, in case hostilities should resume.
"Well, DuFey, what infernal scheme have you dreamt up this time then?" There was an amused, almost rueful, note in Morecai's voice as he sheathed his sword and stepped back to the table.
"My lord general overestimates me, surely," DuFey replied, a ghost of a smile on his thin lips. "I merely serve to the best of my limited abilities."
That drew a snort from the other man. "The day I hear of Mortimer DuFey professing to modesty is the day I lay down my sword and become a monk."
"Give it a rest, you two," Alddyn grumbled. He looked... almost troubled, as he steepled his fingers and chewed at his lower lip. His stormy gaze roamed over her family, none of whom seemed particularly willing to ask what new change in their fortune he saw. Suddenly, he seemed to dismiss them from his mind altogether, instead focusing his attention on his General. "Tell me, Zasz, how much land do you control?" They might as well have been smoking together in a cozy den for all the notice he took of the rest of the room.
Surprise showed across the other man's stern features; suddenly, he looked wary, as he shot a suspicious glance at DuFey. "Land, your highness? Besides the governance of Elrithea province?"
"Mmm-hmm. Refresh my memory, if you please."
"Very well..." Morecai paused to gather his thoughts. "The largest of my ancestral holdings is the Duchy of Bruxton. Besides that, I hold the counties of Vrael and Edisto, and I am charged with overseeing the management of Pendleton until such time as young Kristov, who as you know is my ward, comes of age."
"Besides which," DuFey interjected when he stopped, "the General also has hunting rights in the Imperial forests of Ren and claims upon two stone quarries held by the Count of Gilford."
"Yes. The former was granted to me for services rendered, the latter as part of negotiations to settle the border disputes between Edisto and Gilford."
"Goodness. That's quite a bit of property, Zasz. Quite a bit of revenue and power."
"I assume that there's a point to this interrogation, your highness?"
"Yes, yes. Tell me, what would you say are some of the most important duties of a nobleman?"
"To ensure prosperity in his holdings and to support his liege lord in peace as well as in war."
"Well said. And... oh, how's your dear sister Gwen?"
"Indulge me, Zasz."
"She is well, your highness. Managing Bruxton in my absence."
"And doing very well with it, too, as I recall, if taxes are anything to go by. And your brother?"
"As far as I'm aware, he is still on his estate at Yarley, but Landis and I have not spoken for years."
"Yes, Yarley." Now there was a trace of annoyance in the prince's voice. "And a fascinating job he's done with it too. Defaulted on more taxes than any other three noblemen put together. And yet, he is next in line for the duchy as well as your other holdings, is he not?"
Morecai's stance shifted, a subtle tension running through his frame. When he spoke again, he had the air of a man picking his words with care. "Aye, your highness, should I fail to produce a male heir, he is, indeed, the next to inherit."
Alddyn's smile showed that he had manuevered the General to where he wanted him. "Should you fail to produce a male heir," he murmured, spacing the words apart and giving each equal weight. "And how's that little endeavor coming along, considering that you've no lady wife and campaign for half the year anyway?"
A sense of forboding seized Keira, making her breath short. She shot a panicked look at her mother, and the dawning sorrow in that beloved face confirmed her own fears.
The General too, seemed to have realized the trap. "And what," he ground out, "might your highness' point be?"
"My point, dear General, is the precarious state in which I find a good portion of my future empire. Not that you're not doing a first-rate job of it, but should things go awry and Landis come into your holdings... well, Zasz, I give it ten years, perhaps only five if he's very good at being the wastrel we know him to be, to turn what are now rich and productive estates into utter garbage."
"Not to mention," DuFey added, ignoring the General's murderous glare, "the chaos that would ensue should the post of Governor of Elrithea be left vacant."
"And what the devil do you want me to do about it, then?" Morecai snapped, at the end of his patience.
Alddyn brushed aside his outburst. His eyes lifted from his General to wander the room. They drifted over her parents and her siblings before pinning Keira in their sights. There was something mesmerizing about them, the amused, impersonal ruthlessness reminding her of the worst of the winter storm clouds. "Well now, err..." he glanced at DuFey.
"The Lady Keira, your highness."
"Ah. Lady Keira, pray excuse the rudeness of the question, but how many years might you count?"
Words failed her. They could not -- could not -- be implying that she should... that she would...
"Fifteen, your highness," Verril supplied. He avoided her accusing glare. "Fifteen this past winter."
"You can't mean to..." Morecai spluttered. "For the love of... she's a slip of a girl who's less than half my age!"
"Most men would not find that a reason for objection, Zasz," Alddyn said, rolling his eyes. "And does the lady have any prior claims upon her affections?"
Keira saw her parents glance at each other, but before they could speak, DuFey stepped forward once more. "She was engaged at three years of age to a Lord Toulane, your highness, though I'm not sure that they ever met face-to-face. In any case, the marriage did not take place before his lordship perished in the recent conflict."
"Ah. My deepest sympathies. And may I say you're holding up well under the weight of your broken heart, Lady Keira."
Her broken heart indeed! Keira opened her mouth to give the sarcastic whoreson a piece of her mind, but her father was already bowing. "Thank you, your highness," he said, with downcast eyes.
"And she has been raised in all the ladylike arts, I suppose?"
"Yes, your highness. My lady wife engaged the best of tutors for her. She is versed in music, dancing, and needlework, as well as reading and writing."
"Hmm... I do hope she can speak as well, as I've not heard her utter so much as a squeak so far. I refuse to saddle my General with a girl who has not yet mastered the rudiments of vocalization."
A wave of fury rose up in Keira as every eye in the room fixed upon her. That mocking, pompous, over-stuffed...! She drew a deep breath and let loose the first thing she could think of. "I wouldn't marry that soulless butcher if he were the last man alive!"
A moment of shocked silence.
"The feeling is mutual, lady!" the soulless butcher in question snapped, recovering first.
A babble of voices rose, among them her mother's scandalized "Keira!"
A snort of laughter interrupted the confusion. "Well," Alddyn chortled as he wiped a tear from his eye, his shoulders shaking with suppressed mirth. "I must say that I've seen more auspicious beginnings to relationships before, but at least you two have something in common already."
In desperation, Keira turned to the one person whose support she might count on. "Mother! I won't... you can't... for all we know he might've been the one who killed Tristan!"
It was a low blow, but she refused to be ashamed as the blood drained from her mother's face. Before she could press her advantage, her father grabbed her arm.
"Keira..." There was a rough edge to his voice, formed of pain and resignation. "This is not the time."
She gaped at him, stunned by his betrayal. He simply could not mean to hand her over to their enemies like this, to be their... their... broodmare!
Meanwhile, the General was dividing his glares between his prince and DuFey. "This is complete lunacy! Have you lost your mind, to be proposing such a thing?"
"Come now, Zasz, there's really no need to get so very excited..."
"No need to... Name of God, Al! If nothing else, the girl's family's committed high treason! Her brothers--"
Alddyn cut him off with a wave, his eyes on the Rhyzenger clan. He returned Keira's furious glare with a sharp-toothed smile. "Consider their lives and the lives of the entire family as my wedding present to your intended."
Hot tears rose to her eyes as his words sank in. Even as a part of her mind still revolted against the concept, she knew in her heart that the battle was lost. What answer could she make to such an offer? No wonder her father had seemed so willing to entertain the idea; he must have seen the respite it would earn, and decided that the preservation of the Rhyzenger line was worth the sacrifice of a daughter.
Keira buried her head in her mother's shoulder, too numb even to cry as she felt a hand stroke her back.
General Morecai apparently saw no similar need for restraint, for she heard DuFey's dry remark, "His Imperial Majesty is unlikely to object, my dear General, to a pact that will ensure the future of some of the richest land in the Empire. In any case, the royal Rhyzenger bloodline is impeccable; in protocol, you and Lady Keira are essentially equals."
"And just imagine, Zasz. With this union, I won't even need to make the Governor of Elrithea a hereditary post, as it will pass to your heirs via the Rhyzenger bloodline anyway."
DuFey coughed. "Actually, your highness, there is a legal hurdle there..."
"Oh?" Alddyn gave her father a curious look. "And what hurdle might that be?"
"It's... According to Elrithean law, a female child cannot inherit unless there are no male heirs left in the immediate family, your highness," Verril said.
"Ah. Is that so." A trace of amusement touched Alddyn's eyes, as he looked pointedly first at Wesley and Peyton, then at the bundle squirming in Naomi's arms. Keira felt her mother tense as his meaning became clear. The threat in those simple words grew as the silence stretched, until the prince broke it with a dangerous smile. "Seems a bit of an obsolete custom, does it not, my lord?"
"Y-yes, your highness."
"No doubt one that will be reformed then, I suppose."
"At once, your highness."
"Very well. It's settled then--"
"It is not settled--"
"Enough, General!" Alddyn's tone hardened, and Keira was surprised to see Morecai look startled, before making an obvious effort to control himself. "I've made up my mind, and you would do well to abide by it. Now," he rubbed his hands together and rose. "Lord DuFey, if you would be so kind as to stay and arrange the marriage contract with Lord Rhyzenger?"
"It would be my honor, your highness."
"Good. Now, come along Zasz; we really shouldn't intrude upon our hosts' hospitality any longer." Alddyn gathered his guards with a snap of the fingers. "My lords, ladies. Let us hope to see each other again soon, to witness the, ah, joyful union of our esteemed General and Lady Keira."
There was utter silence in the room as he swept out, followed by the Imperials. Last to leave was General Morecai, and as he passed, she met his eyes; they swirled with fury and contempt as he shot her a scathing look before stomping out the door himself.
Indignation flared. Did he think she wanted this? She broke free from her mother's arms, ready to launch into a blistering tirade, but the words died on her tongue as she caught sight of her family. Her parents' haggard expressions tore at her as Verril approached DuFey and Geneva gathered the twins to her once more; neither would meet her eyes. Peyton gave her a weak, sickly smile that quickly faltered as he looked away. Naomi's expression was stony and unreadable before she turned to leave, and suddenly Keira realized that she had, in effect, just stripped her nephew Trey of his inheritance. Stung by the silent accusation, she turned away, and almost stepped back as she met the hostility in Wesley's eyes.
"Congratulations, little sister," he spat. "Good to know that at least one Rhyzenger stands to gain from cooperating with the enemy."
"Wesley!" Geneva's voice was sharp as a whip crack, but he paid it no mind as he whirled and left the room.
Keira closed her eyes, tears prickling against her lids. She would not cry; no, nor give into hopelessness and despair! She sensed someone studying her, and looked up to meet the curious gaze of Lord DuFey. He accorded her a small smile and a polite bow before exiting the room, led by her father.
Something in his manner nudged the puzzle pieces into place, and in a flash Keira saw the pattern they formed with crystal finality; she knew now the real reasons behind Prince Alddyn's insistence on her marriage to Zaszriel Morecai, beyond even those to which he had already professed. For suddenly Keira understood that the prince could not have chosen a surer way to destroy her family; execution would have made them martyrs to their people, and exterminating an entire line was a costly, and not always effective, business.
But this... this one act would sunder their unity and lose them the support of the rest of Elrithea. Old alliances would break as people chose sides, some sympathetic to her plight, but the vast majority seeing her -- and by extension her family -- as a traitor to their defeated kingdom, a whore willing to curry favor with the new conquerers. The pride and determination of her people would crumble under the splintering factions, and no one would be able to resist as the Empire asserted more and more control, until Elrithea forgot her past and became just another vassal state orbitting the Lithan sun. And she would be a pawn to it all, a helpless witness to the destruction of her homeland.
This time, she did not try to stop the tears.
This story now has a spin-off: "Outside Pawn" . Feel free to check it out!
Word count: 7121