Saylina strode down the hall, her eyes trained on the wall just above her escort’s head and fingers rubbing gently on the grip of her fan in tension. Just enough decorum to look in control while her nerves ran wild. Her father, High Lord Johannus Sentarsin, hadn’t summoned her for nearly a year now, leaving her to the care of her tutors instead. Had he found the notes she’d been exchanging with Lady Arianne Skianda and her brother? Or maybe he’d heard about Saylina’s vigorous search for a malleable husband. The southern trade lord’s youngest looked promising, but without a favorable contract to go with it, her father would never agree.
The servant pushed aside the wide double doors, revealing that smallest court gathering Saylina had ever seen. Her father standing on the dais. his long time friend, Baron Oskari Weydert, loitering near the steps where the herald should have been. But only five other lords graced the chamber. Too few for even a facade of formality to feel reasonable. She crossed the floor, newly bought marble that must have drained the province coffers to scraps. But her father had more concern for image than frugality these days. Not that she could blame him, when his image as a loyal servant to the bloodthirsty emperor was all that had saved her from the dangers of imperial court.
Saylina paused several feet from the group and bowed her head. “You summoned me, Father?”
“Saylina.” Her father gestured to the chair by his side. By his left side, where tradition sat his blood heir. “It’s time we discussed your future, girl.”
“Of course, Father.”
She stepped onto the dais, each step seeming to grow as she crossed the distance from common courtier to province heir. The chair felt too hard under her hands, her narrow, girlish frame of not quite fifteen years too small to fill the place intended for her brother, Arkaen. Saylina eased onto the seat and lifted her chin, meeting the eyes of the few courtiers her father had allowed to attend. Only the most notable of the lower lords. Not even the Skianda family, although he might have simply refused to allow Lordling Brayden Skianda to fill his father’s shoes. But Baron Oskari Weydert was here, along with a handful of others her father had known for decades. Everyone, she realized, who had voiced fears over Arkaen’s loyalties.
“What did you want to discuss?” Saylina pushed an innocent smile onto her lips, turning away from the lower lords to meet her father’s gaze.
Her father scowled. “You’re not a halfwit, girl. You know what that chair means.” He cast a glance at the other lords and sighed. “We can’t trust him any longer. It’s more than rumors, now. Our own scouts saw your brother at the head of a rebel army.”
A chill ran through her. Rumors of treason had been enough to tear the lower lords’ council apart, some defending Arkaen’s honor while others demanded he be removed from the registry of Sentarsin kin. If there was real proof…
“How many saw him?” The calculations circled her mind. If it was only a couple scouts they could cover it up. Prevent High Emperor Laisia from blaming the entire family for her brother’s treasons.
“That’s not the point,” her father replied. “Your brother is lost to us. We need to find you a proper husband to rule—”
“Gods damn your pride, Father.”
She leaped from the chair, her formal skirts swirling in a flash of temper she rarely showed. A flash of temper that drew her father’s fury to the surface and she could see his rage brewing under the calm facade of his mild frown. Her heart pounded against her chest, the danger of her insolence leaving her entire body shaking. But this was bigger than her or her father.
Saylina turned to meet his eyes again, fighting for some semblance of reason in her tone. “Emperor Laisia won’t care who’s to blame or who you plan to succeed you. Can we hide Arkaen’s actions and protect our home?” Her throat clogged at the next thought. But it might be the only way. “If we send assassins…” Her eyes burned. Arkie, her beloved brother, who used to sneak sugary treats into her bed after the cook had banished them both. “We can claim he was coerced.”
“Emperor Laisia has no reason to doubt my loyalty,” her father replied. But she could hear the uncertainty in his voice. “I have served his needs since he confirmed my seat when he was still a boy.”
“She’s got a good head on her shoulders, my lord,” Baron Weydert said. “Better to protect the province first. I did warn you of these actions when he first left.”
Not someone she wanted to agree with, and certainly not on the proper way to depose her own brother. But if these reports were true, Arkaen had damned himself.
Her father spun to face Baron Weydert. “I don’t need your lectures any more than I need strategies from a barely weaned girl, Oskari. I’ve seen to the boy, of course. No one who saw him will tell any tales, and Arkie won’t be sighted anywhere else. Not living, at least.” He fixed a narrow-eyed stare on Saylina as her heart skipped and her eyes burned. “I called my council to name an heir.”
Saylina stepped back, the back of her legs rubbing against her brother’s chair. A chair he’d never sit in again.
“Your lords serve.” Baron Weydert bowed low, his cloak falling to one side and dragging the floor. “I only thought it prudent to discuss the matter, my lord. My guards reported these measures have only just begun. Surely additional caution only serves the needs of our subjects.”
Baron Weydert cast Saylina a guarded smile. And winked. Almost a conspiratorial, friendly gesture, as though he were a peer trying to impress a crush. Gods above. He’d tried to marry his daughter to Arkaen. His son was betrothed to a lady serving at the imperial court. And his wife was long dead. Surely the baron couldn’t mean to take her hand.
“Then do what you will, Oskari.”
Saylina’s focus snapped back to her father, the casual dismissal of Baron Weydert’s challenge impossible to ignore. A lower lord did not spy on his liege. Or at least, he didn’t admit to doing so and the reigning high lord pretended not to notice that everyone did. It was a matter of etiquette. To treat such a breach as meaningless could only mean that her father had been in confidence with Baron Weydert on this already.
“Thank you, Father.” Saylina straightened. Gods, let her be mistaken. If only she could be sure she’d read the situation wrong. “I feel better knowing our council is monitoring the situation.” She licked her lips, casting a hopeful glance at the other lords. All silent and most bored. They had no intention of challenging Baron Weydert for whatever he’d planned with her father. “I’ve given thought to my marriage. There’s a southern trade-lord’s son—”
“No.” Her father shook his head. “When you were just a daughter, maybe, but not as my heir. We need to solidify the province.” He turned toward Baron Weydert and Saylina knew she hadn’t been wrong.
“Brayden.” She nearly shouted the word in a rush to speak before he suggested his childhood friend for her husband. Her father froze. “Brayden Skianda. The family is old but his father has taken to focus on his own lands more than the province. Brayden is more than a little frustrated with his own impotence. An ally for your heir and a chance to honor one of our valuable but less prominent allies with a gift of Brayden’s sister as a bride.”
Except Brayden was halfway through a very complex negotiation for his own wedding to another woman. But at least it was a name her father couldn’t immediately reject. He turned back, the endless pause hinting that he wanted to dismiss her suggestion. Finally, her father sighed.
“I’ll talk to Count Skianda, but that’s a complicated suggestion. Don’t get your heart set on him, girl.”
And just like that she had a reprieve. Time to find a husband that her father wouldn’t reject. If such a man existed. Saylina rose and curtsied.
“Shall I retire, then, to write the invitation?”
Her father considered her for a moment before nodding. “See to your lessons. I’ll write the invitation. Province business is none of yours.”
As though he hadn’t just named her heir in her brother’s place. But she’d expected it. Saylina straightened and crossed the room, refusing to meet the eyes of any of the other lords. A high lady did not beg for approval from her subjects. Stepping out the door, she counted out twenty steps before she let herself run through the halls, her finely held control finally on the edge of breaking. She’d better warn Lady Arianne that her brother was about to get a marriage proposal before her plans fell apart before she got them started. And hope she hadn’t just chosen an ally of someone about to betray her.