Fresh Heir

Deyvan Corliann leaned back in the plush chair, pushing the thick red hair back from his face as he examined the message his servant had delivered. A summons in his uncle’s hand. Uncle Caildenn never wrote his own summons. It could only mean he wanted to discuss something away from the prying eyes of the imperial court. The last time Uncle Caildenn had sent a personal summons to call a meeting, he’d invited Lady Mirjari Varela and her entourage from the northern kingdom of Sernyii to negotiate trade. Two weeks later, Lady Varela had sought sanctuary among Deyvan’s household as the empire marched north to war seeking vengeance for the murder of the Uncle Caildenn’s sons.

A twinge of guilt ran through Deyvan’s heart. Prince Jaylen had known, somehow. Poor boy, barely old enough to start learning the ways of a royal house, and yet he’d clung to Deyvan like a lifeline, begging not to be left behind. I’ll miss you when I’m gone, the boy had said. And despite the desperation in his eyes, Deyvan had been sure he meant the imperial family’s coming tour of the provinces. Who could have guessed the boy knew his father’s guests intended murder that very night.

Deyvan rose, pushing the memories away. Jaylen and his older brother had been gone ten years now and Uncle Caildenn had refused to wed in all that time. The time to name a new heir was long past. Everyone knew that heir was Deyvan’s father. This summons seemed to say otherwise.

He crossed the opulent study Uncle Caildenn had given him and threw the door open. Two guards snapped to attention at his presence, their tunics finely pressed in imperial purple, swords polished to a shine. More like statues than trained men at arms. Lounging in a far more natural indolence against the far wall, Ymari Sandrine licked the last honey from an oat roll off her fingers and looked up at him through the natural frizz of her hair. He could feel the anger his own guards directed at the woman, her foreign disregard for Deyvan’s rank simmering in their narrow-eyed glares.

“Ymari.” Deyvan stepped across the hall to lean on the wall beside her. “What brings you to my study this morn?”

She grinned at him, the bright white of her teeth a sharp contrast to the darker brown of her skin. “I come for this news.” She waved a hand at the slip of paper he still held. “Words say you go to speak with him. My people have desires to know the intent.”

“Your people wish to know,” he corrected, biting back his frustration at her broken speech. She’d proven herself too smart to mangle the imperial tongue, but she made no effort to correct her language. As if she was proud of her foreign accent and the misconceptions it bred.

“You will tell?” She pushed away from the wall, turning down the corridor toward his uncle’s study. “Or may it be true that the gods stole your will when They stole your skin’s colors and your wits?”

Deyvan sprang forward, throwing a hand up to forestall the guards before they could react. No one dared speak ill of the native imperial bloodlines in Uncle Caildenn’s palace. Not if they hoped to live long enough to utter an apology. But Ymari had never shown the sense his countrymen had learned through blood and brutality. One of the guards advanced despite his warning, hand clenched on the hilt of his sword.

“My companion jests, goodsir,” Deyvan said, stepped between the guard and Ymari. “Stand down or face my uncle’s wrath.”

The guard glared for another few breaths while Deyvan’s heart pounded in his chest. With the newly established Serni Province still threatening rebellion and their western neighbors in Mindaine pulling away from imperial treaties, the last thing Uncle Caildenn needed was a holy war from Ymari’s homeland because a guard couldn’t take a joke.

“As you command, my lord,” the guard said at last. “But your companion may wish to watch her tongue before she faces your imperial uncle’s anger herself.”

“Come, Ymari.”

Deyvan strode down the hall, not waiting for her to follow. She had no reason to stay with the guards anyway. She’d come to see him, or so she claimed, though she had yet to tell him what her people wanted with the prince of an all-but-dead province who only held a title from his aunt’s marriage into the imperial bloodline. The treaty that had sealed his province into a land-pact with the imperial high-realm had stripped any true power his father held and left Deyvan a meaningless extra in the cycle of inheritance. Unless Uncle Caildenn’s summons meant what he suspected. What Ymari seemed to have guessed. But such a change could only harm her plans. If Uncle Caildenn named Deyvan his heir, the responsibilities would keep Deyvan far too busy for whatever Ymari wanted.

“You will speak?” Ymari paced beside him, her eyes fixed on Deyvan as he walked. An arrogance that would have gotten her flogged for insolence if she hadn’t arrived on a diplomatic assignment.Not that Uncle Caildenn showed much respect for the sovereignty of his neighbors.

“I’ll have to talk to my uncle,” Deyvan said. “I won’t know anything until I hear what he wants to discuss.”

“You know of what things he will speak,” Ymari said. “My Eldreign has decreed. He sees much to find your courage, hidden in your lamb’s heart.”

Deyvan chuckled. “That’s hardly complimentary, Ymari. My people would say I have the heart of a lion, or perhaps a warig fighting for its den.”

“They lie.”

Ymari shrugged, examining the tapestries Uncle Caildenn had hung along the hall to his private study. Each one depicted a moment of triumph in war, typically with Uncle Caildenn or one of his ancestors standing victorious over the mass of dead bodies. Deyvan grimaced at the glorified gore, frowning at the floor. Ymari was baiting him. He’d practiced ignoring her callous dismissal of his skills, but this one stung more than he cared to accept. She knew he wasn’t timid in a fight.

“So if I’m a lamb, why would your holy leader, your Eldreign, send you to me? What good can a coward serve for your cause?”

“I called you not a coward, Day-van.” Ymari smirked at him. “Not always is a lamb fearful. But always is it gentle, and often is it smart. A lion, brave he may be, but also vicious and without mercy.”

A smile crept across his face, his wounded pride soothed by the explanation. He knew better than to think the worst of her. Ymari seemed as fascinated with Deyvan’s life as he was with her culture. And whatever her intentions, she’d never treated him poorly before.

Deyvan paused at the final turn that led to Uncle Caildenn’s study. “Well, my lady, I’ll have to leave you here. My uncle gave no indication he’d allow a guest at this meeting. Shall we reconvene to discuss our plans this eve?”

“See you when I am ready, I will.” She retraced her steps, gaze trailing across the violent scenes as though she were a mindless girl wandering a flower garden.

With a deep breath, Deyvan stepped around the corner and pasted a smile on his face, knocking briskly on the door of Uncle Caildenn’s study. A moment of silence, then a shuffle of papers and whispered words, and after a few more moments the door swung open. No sign of Uncle Caildenn’s visitor.

“Uncle, how are you?” Deyvan placed a hand on his heart and offered a slight bow, waiting for the response before moving further.

“Come in, Deyvan.” Uncle Caildenn waved the guard by the door away. “Leave us. My nephew has no reason to wish me ill and we have matters of state to discuss.”

Deyvan straightened, entering Uncle Caildenn’s cherry wood paneled study to take a formal stance by the cold fireplace. The guard wasted no time vacating his post, closing the door behind him with a swiftness that spoke of Uncle Caildenn’s mood. Whoever Uncle Caildenn had ushered out just before Deyvan arrived, they’d brought unwelcome news.

“I’m honored by your summons, Uncle, but what matters of state need my attention?”

“Tell me of the woman who stalks you,” Uncle Caildenn replied, running a hand across his mustache. “I’ve heard rumors. What does she want in my empire?”

“Ymari?” Deyvan scrambled for an answer. He’d sworn to keep what he knew of her presence quiet, although he couldn’t help but wonder if that had been wise. “Her ruler sent her to gather information on our empire to determine if they were interested in offering an alliance. Of course I haven’t given her any information that would jeopardize our security. She clearly doesn’t have solid alliances here anyway, given that she was sent to someone as insignificant as me.”

“Insignificant?” Uncle Caildenn considered him from behind his steepled hands. “You, nephew, were born into privilege and power. Why, if not for my grandfather’s treaty, you’d be heir to a province by now.”

“But I’m not,” Deyvan said. “I’ve never been in line for a throne and I never will be. Corlin Province is dead, and though my mother’s sister had the honor to be your wife, I have no blood ties to the imperial family.”

“No one has blood ties to the imperial family any longer.” Uncle Caildenn’s face clouded with anger as he spoke and he frowned down at a report on the table before him. His golden blond hair fell across the sharply defined cheekbones that had always marked the imperial bloodline.

“I’m sorry, Uncle.” Deyvan grimaced. “I didn’t mean to remind you of your boys. Such a terrible tragedy.”

“It’s been a decade,” Uncle Caildenn said. “And I’ve caught and punished the assassins responsible.” With visible effort, Uncle Caildenn looked up, the anger clearing from his features. “But that’s not why I called you here. You’ve more import than you know, and I suspect our Yllshanan guest has seen as much.”

“Well, Uncle—” Deyvan hesitated. Ymari had trusted him. Or had she? “She hasn’t told me much. Just that her ruler thinks a connection with me would benefit both nations. It’s clear she has plans, but as yet I’ve no reason to think she means us ill.”

Uncle Caildenn sighed. “You’re too naive, boy. Anyone would take our land if given the chance, Yllshana more than most. Think of the benefit if they married into our royal line. We’d be forced to support them when they next feud with Osuvia. Those mountain passes would be the end of our soldiers.”

“Ymari’s not even in a position to unite our royal houses, and neither am I.”

“You’re not so stupid as to misunderstand my summons.” Uncle Caildenn scoffed. “I’ll need your aid with the details, though. By law your father should get the title. He’ll have to be removed.”

“I—” Deyvan swallowed against a sudden lump in his throat. Removed? He couldn’t mean to harm Deyvan’s own father.

There were rumors, of course. Vile speculation that claimed Uncle Caildenn had falsely blamed Sernyii assassins for his son’s deaths when their murderers lived closer to home. Some even said the killers lived in Uncle Caildenn’s own palace, and that Uncle Caildenn defended those murderers for reasons of his own. Other stories told of executions for minor crimes that shouldn’t have even warranted a fine, or women forced to serve at Uncle Caildenn’s pleasure against their will. But for all the talk, no one had acted against the empire. Surely if there were truth to the rumors, the high lords would never stand for it. Except they had no other heir. Deyvan’s father might be the closest to a blood relative Uncle Caildenn had, but plenty of other high lords would protest if he tried to take the throne by force. How many would protest with steel in their hands and an army at their back? And already threats of rebellion trickled south from Serni.

Deyvan pushed the fears away, focusing on Uncle Caildenn. “Certainly Father will understand choosing me. He’s near fifteen years your senior, Uncle. Naming an older man as heir seems unwise.”

“He may,” Uncle Caildenn replied. “Or he may feel that I’m delaying a transition that was long due. After all, the wisdom of such a decision depends entirely on when you intend me to die. The Serniens would see me hanged in plenty of time for your father to rule. And he might aid them.”

“Father would never betray his nation.” Deyvan paced across the room, his shoulders tight in agitation. Deyvan’s father would never turn on the empire, but Uncle Caildenn might have a new concern if he learned some of the whispers Ymari had spread in Deyvan’s chambers to Deyvan’s friends. “I swear it. Father is loyal. I’ll prove it.”

“Precisely how, nephew?” Uncle Caildenn asked. “I hardly expect a traitor to answer a direct question honestly.”

“I’ll make him sign over his title,” Deyvan said. His father had been pushing Deyvan to take the title for three years already. Probably because he expected to be named heir, but Deyvan could manage those specifics. “And the transfer will include an abdication of any claim to other titles previously held or implied to him. Any such will be transferred to me, and then you’ve no need to—” Deyvan froze. If he’d misread the comment, he’d sound treasonous. “No need to fear repercussion should you choose another as heir.”

Uncle Caildenn considered him for a long time, his silver-grey eyes boring into Deyvan. A trail of ice ran down Deyvan’s spine at the look in Uncle Caildenn’s eyes. Like fury made flesh, ready to rend anything or anyone who opposed him limb from limb. A side to Uncle Caildenn he’d never seen, hidden beneath the generous uncle who’d taken Deyvan on his first hunt and mourned the lost princes at Deyvan’s family estate. The uncle who’d treated him more as a younger brother than a nephew by forced-marriage now glared at him like an enemy.

“See it done, nephew,” Caildenn said. “If he won’t sign, I’ve no choice. The only reason to name him is because they seek my death, and I can’t trust my high lords. Prove I can trust you and I won’t harm your family.”

“Of course you can trust me, Uncle.” The words stuck in Deyvan’s throat, the horror of Uncle Caildenn’s admission lingering in his thoughts. He planned to murder a brother-by-marriage to secure the heir he wanted. And he’d expected Deyvan to understand.

With a nod and a cursory bow, Deyvan backed out the door and headed toward the imperial scribes. Maybe Ymari’s whispers held more truth than he’d given them credit for. It was time to start his own network of ears to learn as much truth as he could. And he knew exactly where to start. Turning down a side corridor, he grabbed the arm of an off duty page.

“I need to send a message,” Deyvan said, pulling a thick coin from his purse. “And I need it sent free from prying eyes.”

The boy eyed the gold coin in Deyvan’s hand. “What ya need, milord?”

Leading the boy toward an empty supply room, Deyvan grabbed a quill and paper from a stack and scribbled a quick message. He signed the end with an old nickname and folded the paper, dripping hot wax onto the fold. A plain circle served for a seal. The message would be enough identification when she opened it. Deyvan spun around and handed the message to the boy.

“To the merchant criers, a private message for Mistress Varela of Serni Province,” he said. “She’ll be in a manor house outside Lorwall. She sees no visitors, but her servants will take a message.”

The boy nodded, taking the paper and the gold coin that came with it. “As you say, milord.”

It was a start, at least. Now if he could convince Ymari to tell him her plans, he might get a handle on how bad things truly were in the Laisian Empire. Deyvan scowled and headed back to his study. One informant would do him no good without allies. And after Uncle Caildenn’s threats, potential allies were something he could no longer afford to dismiss.


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