“Father, we don’t have a choice.” Deyvan Corliann reached out a hand, pleading with his father to understand. “Uncle Caildenn won’t let this go.”
“And that is exactly why I cannot agree,” High Lord Mikkal Corliann replied. “Surely you see that. I’ve relinquished the management of my holdings to you and accepted your appointment as his heir. Nothing I’ve done since hints at rebellion. If he won’t trust my word, how can I trust his?”
Deyvan collapsed into the heavily padded chair beside his father’s desk, his hand falling on a pile of ignored papers. Papers that Deyvan should have answered weeks before, but for his uncle’s demands. The entire office overflowed with bits of work Deyvan had yet to examine. Requests for his blessing on new trade agreements, demands he resolve disputes between minor lords, adjustments in laws and regulations that he’d never realized needed the high lord’s approval at all. And more than a dozen contracts with marriage clauses attached, each hinting not so subtly that an alliance with that family might aid him should his uncle remarry and father another heir. No one trusted Uncle Caildenn’s word. Not even Deyvan.
“This isn’t about trusting my uncle,” Deyvan said. “It’s about showing the empire that the provinces remain united. The northern rebellion has been growing for almost six years now and any day they might break out from skirmishes and ambushes into a real war. Uncle Caildenn is our emperor and he needs the show his enemies that our nation is not to be dismissed. What if Mindaine decides the rebellion is a distraction they can use to take back Sentar Province? Or Osuvia wants to rebuild the former country on their lower border as a puppet state?”
“Then the imperial army will rally to our nation’s defense regardless of home province, as they always have.” High Lord Mikkal shook his head, as if the answer were obvious. “Caildenn knows that as well as I. My abandonment of an empty title does nothing but force me into subservience. It’s not about unity, Deyvan. It’s about cruelty.”
“That’s—” But Deyvan couldn’t really argue. Uncle Caildenn had a bad reputation, and nothing could make Deyvan forget the look in his uncle’s eyes when Deyvan had sworn his father’s loyalty. After the province high lords had forced Uncle Caildenn to marry into the Corliann bloodline much too young, he would never trust the brother-by-law he’d gained in High Lord Mikkal. “Uncle Caildenn has his flaws, but he only needs a proper family. The high lords took one chance of that from him by selecting my aunt as his bride, the Serr-Nyen took another with their assassins. Give him a chance, father. Uncle cares about me. I can help him and our empire.”
A sharp knock at the door interrupted their discussion and both Deyvan and his father spun in their chairs to face the entry. If anyone had overheard this discussion it could too easily find its way back to Uncle Caildenn’s ears. One hint that Deyvan or his father disapproved of Caildenn’s actions could tear the fragile truce between their families apart. After a few breaths, the knock came again. A servant poked his head in at Deyvan’s call.
“Pardon, my lords, but there’s a visitor for Prince Deyvan.” At Deyvan’s blank look, the servant pointed toward the formal study. “From up north.”
“Oh, yes.” He’d never get used to being Prince Deyvan. His cousins had been the princes, murdered in their beds by foreign warmongers hoping to disrupt the treaty Uncle Caildenn planned with the now-conquered nation of Sernyii. “Thank you. I’ll be down in a moment.” Deyvan waved a hand to dismiss the servant and turned back to his father. “I’ve a foreign trade discussion. But I promise, Father, I can turn Uncle Caildenn into a decent ruler if you’ll help me.”
High Lord Mikkal sighed. “I know you aren’t that naive, but I can see I won’t convince you. Let’s table this discussion for this evening.” He pushed up from the desk, offering a resigned smile. “May I join your discussion? I’ve missed the dance of negotiations between equal powers.”
Deyvan hesitated. He knew that tone from too many forays into the sweets cupboards as a child. High Lord Mikkal thought he knew something Deyvan shouldn’t be doing. And if he had found out about Deyvan’s communications with Mistress Varela of Serni Province he could wreak havoc on Deyvan’s carefully laid plans. But if no loyal-born imperial could trust a Sernien merchant-lord’s daughter after the massacre they’d made of Uncle Caildenn’s sons. Deyvan’s eyes settled on a piece of paper on his father’s desk. Innocuous but for the seal in a bottom corner. Uncolored wax as any commoner might use, but with a gryphon head pressed into the center.
“I’d be pleased to have you join me, Father,” Deyvan said, a weight lifting from his shoulders. This was the answer to his frustrations. If Deyvan’s father had plans with the Varela family, he could use that to find them a middle ground.
“I’m not certain you’ll feel the same in a few moments.” High Lord Mikkal gave him a knowing smirk. “But it’s better we have these things in the open.”
The warning gave Deyvan only a moment’s pause. For all his worries, he did trust his father. Even if it meant revealing a secret that most would use to control him. Family could be trusted.
Rising, Deyvan motioned for his father to follow and led the way through his keep—his father’s keep. High Lord Mikkal needed no guide through these corridors. Deyvan’s skin prickled under his father’s scrutiny like a child playing at adulthood under a critical gaze. Any moment he could misstep—greet a foreign dignitary with the wrong honorific or offer too much information at the opening of a trade deal—and his father would see. He’d pause, raise one hand and stop himself, smile, and politely comment on the difficulty of keeping etiquette up to date. A reminder that High Lord Mikkal had taught Deyvan everything he knew about politics and could still run circles around him. Deyvan swept his gaze along the hall, looking for anything to distract himself from his nerves, and settled on examining the tapestries adorning the walls. Each was a symbol of some great conquest or treaty that broadened the family holding. Priceless work that could have fed hundreds of refugees for years if his family had spent the money more wisely. Uncle Caildenn’s excesses weren’t so different from those his high lords and their vassals had indulged for generations.
Before Deyvan could sink too far into that train of thought he arrived at the door to his father’s—his formal study. He tapped quickly on the door to warn his guest and opened the door, smiling at the pretty blond woman seated by his crackling fireplace.
“Mistress Varela.” Deyvan crossed the room, waving a hand behind him to indicate his father. “Thank you for coming so far. Allow me to introduce—”
“Lord Sphinx!” Mistress Varela sprang to her feet, dropping immediately into a curtsy. “I hadn’t realized you had connections here, my lord.”
Deyvan froze, staring at her shocked face. Mistress Varela had been barely sixteen when her family came to reside at Deyvan’s home in the upheaval over the death of his cousins, but surely she knew High Lord Mikkal was Deyvan’s father. Except Deyvan’s father had been away at court, he realized. Dealing with the aftermath of the betrayal while some of the suspected perpetrators sheltered among his family. Mistress Varela’s mother and younger brother were dead now, leaving no one to tell her who High Lord Mikkal was. And yet…
“Lord Sphinx?” Deyvan asked, casting a glance at his father. No one had reason to call his father anything of the sort. Their family crest was a fox and High Lord Mikkal was known among all the high lords as the most direct and honest.
“Please pardon the secrecy, High Lord,” Deyvan’s father replied, offering a nod as if greeting an unknown but respected rival. “I consider a man’s identity his greatest commodity and the mistress had recently advised me of a Serr-Nyen tradition I quite like. To choose the name of a mythical creature as a war title for the protection of those you hold dear. She named me Sphinx for my refusal to reveal any details of my status.”
And there it was, buried amongst the casual explanation that would have satisfied any other. A hint of frustration, a nudge to follow his example, and a hidden—exasperated—statement. You knew better, Deyvan. As if his father had shouted the criticism in his ear. Deyvan bit back a curse and nodded.
“Of course. Lord Sphinx.” And Deyvan had better come up with his own title before he took any further steps toward joining Mistress Varela’s cause. If his father feared her knowledge he didn’t dare question that wisdom. He’d already given Mistress Varela enough power by letting her know his true name at all. Ymari’s face swam before his eyes, her strange culture a mystery in itself. A place where Deyvan could learn tricks even his own father didn’t know. “I do think I’ll follow suit. Among your allies, mistress, please refer to me as Kumiho.”