by Sarah Ann Watts
Chapter 4: Birds of Prey
I’m not sure he is fooled — like so many of us playing the fool that night — but his manners are impeccable. I’m surprised when he breaks protocol, inviting me to join him in his chamber. I thought only to pay my respects so I might call on him before he leaves court. Later I understand that he doesn’t believe in marking time.
‘My thanks and compliments to the Princess.’ He bows, giving Mireio her royal title. ‘I am honoured by your company, Your Highness.’
That in itself is an indicator. My style at court is ‘My Lord’, and I know it’s not a casual breach of etiquette.
‘I have sons older than you. I have no interest in children.’
This brings colour to my face, but he holds his hand out in apology. ‘Forgive me, Prince. If you can accept there was no intention on my part to insult you — I merely wished to be sure you understood the nature of my invitation.’
‘I am honoured.’ This could mean anything. In truth I’m wrong-footed, unsure of what is happening. He opens his robe but only to show there is no knife in his belt.
I give his servant my cloak and he departs, leaving us to a fire and freshly brewed coffee, a delicacy rare in our land.
‘I am sorry that Your Excellency has no interest in children.’ I speak somewhat absently. ‘I have heard of the arts that may be learned in the Empire. A friend’ — I place gentle emphasis on the word — ‘has two young sons whom he would wish to see fostered safely abroad, given an education they might use in the Emperor’s service.’
Khal is all attention at this. ‘There are indeed possibilities,’ he says slowly. ‘Of course the education Your Highness desires comes at a price.’
‘Money is not the issue,’ I say. ‘These children are in themselves valuable, and I wish to consign them to the Emperor’s protection as his personal wards.’
‘This is a grave responsibility. Children are delicate; not all thrive in a different climate.’
‘If the children stay in this kingdom, the climate here is likely to prove so... unstable... that I fear they will not survive at all.’
He frowns a little, not liking my plain speaking. I press on quickly, knowing I have little time left to make my case. ‘You come to negotiate an alliance, a marriage that will further cement our bonds with the Empire.’
‘You are well-informed, Your Highness.’
‘When my father dies...”
He flinches. The Emperor is immortal and it is forbidden to speak of his death. The mask passes to his successor but the Emperor is eternal; all other claimants die as the Emperor ascends his throne. I’m breaking more than one cultural tradition here.
Still, I have his attention. ‘Then my brother Majvaz will rule. He will follow the traditions of the Empire as the Emperor’s nephew. I am asking you, for the friendship you bear my father, that you take his children into the protection of the Empire, that you keep them safe.’
‘You are committing treason, Prince.’
‘I’d rather commit treason than murder, My Lord. There is a tradition in our kingdom not to shed children’s blood. It offends the Goddess. No reign begun in such a manner could be considered auspicious.’
This is plain speaking. He raises his hand, and I know he has only to call his attendants. He should by rights silence me and, by speaking as I have, I place my life in his hands. His next question is unexpected.
‘Why do you seek to protect Majvaz?’
‘My father named me Lord Protector for his children. He is dying.’
‘And what will you gain from this, Prince?’
I shake my head, not knowing what to say. There is something in his eyes, and having gone this far, I might as well tell him the truth. ‘I’m going to return to my mother’s people. To Kota Samur... if I live that long.’
He smiles at that, stroking his beard. ‘Someone has been misleading you, Prince. There is no such land as Kota Samur. It is a legend merely that one tells to children to help them sleep in the cold nights of winter. A land where there is no winter, eternal summer. It’s an old tale.
‘Your mother’s people...’ He shrugs. ‘I don’t quite know how to put this delicately, Prince. Your mother was a gift from the Empire, designed to please your father in every way. Your father was young, susceptible and fell in love, an unfortunate complication that nearly led to war. Have you never heard of the Children of the Goddess of love?’
My face is warm so close to the fire. I have drunk more than I thought, because his words make no sense to me at all.
The ambassador glances at me. ‘It was never the Emperor’s intention to dishonour your father. He was young and heedless. It seemed like a joke and afterwards he was sorry. That is why he betrothed his own half-sister to your father, to make amends. None would say this to you.
‘I could show you a way to return to your mother’s people, if you would travel with me. As your friend, I would not recommend the journey. I doubt their ways would be yours. They are raised in captivity, seldom permitted to bear children. And on the rare occasions they do, they never keep them. They do not remember the past. Each day is a new beginning.’
‘They said my mother died.’
He nods. ‘Like all your father’s wives. It is a miracle you lived, and it is due in no small part to your uncle’s skill. It is no wonder he considered the temple uplands a healthy environment for your education. According to reason and science you should never have been born at all.’
‘My father certainly seems to think so.’ The bitter words are out before I can check them and I bite my lip, shamed to show this courteous stranger the petulant boy that lurks beneath the surface of my court demeanour.
I’m scowling at the floor and chide myself silently. When I raise my eyes, I see that he is looking polite, almost bored.
‘I’m sorry, My Lord.’ I stumble over a graceless apology.
He smiles then. ‘Your father never apologised for anything in his life. He loved your mother and could never forgive himself for her death. You he wanted to forget; he knew she should never have conceived a child.
‘Your father loves you, Kyran, after his fashion. Do you not realise that he set you against Majvaz in the hope and expectation that you might win?’
I laugh at that. ‘My Lord, I think you’ve seen for yourself how puny a threat I am. Even if I did kill Majvaz — and in a fair fight that is as likely as the moon setting in the south — do you think the Empire will accept my rule?’
‘I think you would find the Empire a generous overlord who knows how to reward loyalty.’
He leans forward in his chair, placing a hand upon my knee. ‘Face it, Kyran — the time of little kingdoms is coming to an end. As a vassal state you have everything to gain: the Empire would defend your people. The Emperor would be glad to take your noble children into service, and they would return having seen a wider world.
‘Your people are isolated and dependent on others for trade. As for those you seek to protect — I offer you sanctuary for the children, and they need never return home.’
‘Sanctuary or slavery, My Lord?’
‘Are your serfs any different from slaves? No slave in the Empire knows hunger or thirst. Some of the more promising may breed and nurse their children.
‘I thought you were enlightened, Kyran. You saw the effect of the famine. Can’t you see that accepting the protection of the Empire would be to the benefit of your people? The Empire is not insensitive to local tradition. You could, of course, keep the title of king; and your nobles, their ranks.’
‘These are not my people,’ I speak angrily. ‘They belong to the land and the land is theirs. My father holds it in trust merely. Being their king is about more than a title and a crown.’
‘What kind of ruler lets his people go hungry?’
I am silenced. It is true there is no lack at the court but what I saw on my journey bears its own witness. I think of imperial barges bringing grain to the city — a regular food supply.
‘Your father was once young, and an idealist like you, Kyran. In his age, he has learned wisdom. Will you, like him, leave it too late? A ruler does not fear to do what is right for the sake of the kingdom, he sees the bigger picture. Your mountains cage this kingdom. There is a world beyond. Can you not see it when you fly?’
He has caught me now, but I shake my head and yawn as if the night and the wine are catching up with me.
He is smiling. ‘You should have good sport in the mountains. I have an interest in birds of prey — falcons especially.’
His hand goes to his sleeve. I can imagine the symbol tattooed above his wrist. I have risen to my feet and am looking anywhere but there.
Time to act the drunk and hope he is content to think me a fool, though I fear the knowledge in those hooded eyes. I am yawning openly; it is true the wine has caught up with me. I am afraid of too many revelations.
‘Excellency, you have given me much to think about. It is late. I ask imperial leave to retire.’
He smiles. ‘Your Highness does not need to ask where you might command.’
I bow out of respect and to conceal my face, and he in turn bows to me, a nicely graded courtesy.
The guard escorts me to my chamber. No sign of Garaile, who has no doubt sought consolation elsewhere. It lacks but an hour to dawn, and I know I will not sleep.
Now I know why kings seek more diversion than other men to fill their waking hours. It would not be kind to use Garaile in that way, to assuage fear and rage, not lust. And what do kings know of kindness?
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts