High Lord Johannus Sentarsin scowled at his court, their fidgeting and the glitter of their finery grating on his nerves. Spineless sycophants, the lot of them, milling around his marble-floored great hall waiting for a chance to snatch an advantage from their peers. And now they cast terrified glances at his throne, judging how likely he was to let them renounce their vows to follow the newly crowned emperor.
“My lord.” A messenger shoved through the crowd, his rumpled livery covered in mud. He dropped to his knees as soon as he reached the foot of the high lord’s dais and slammed a hand to his chest in salute. “News on the foreign soldiers spotted entering our lands. They’ve done no damage, avoided all our patrols and troops as though they know the and, and—” The messenger licked his lips, casting a glance at the lords to either side. Or maybe at Johannus’s guards lining the walls. “Pardon, my lord. Reports say your son, Lordling Arkaen, rides at their head.”
Gods damn it all. Johannus clenched his fist on the arm of his throne. The boy should have been handled by now. He would have been if Emperor Laisia’s men had brought him home as intended, instead of trying to interrogate him. They’d nearly broken the boy with their tactics, and now there was no telling where his loyalties might lie.
“Have you any reports on his intentions?” Johannus sat forward as he spoke, scanning the assembled lords for any potential spies. The wrong ears in this room could damn the entire province.
“None, my lord,” the messenger said. “But the soldiers are outfitted for war.”
“Then we must assume he plans an assault,” Johannus replied. And Arkaen would know how to weave his army through the province to avoid any positions where they might catch him off guard. “Ready the guards and call conscripts from the villages. We’ll also need—”
“Father, no!” His daughter, Saylina, shrieked the protest as she burst through the hidden door behind his throne. Skulking where she shouldn’t be, as usual.
“Silence, child.” He flashed a glare at her, noting the servant he’d hired to watch her hiding in the shadows of the doorway. Useless, just like Arkaen’s guard had been. Johannus waved her away. “Your sentiment won’t change our status. Your brother is lost to us now.”
“Arkaen wouldn’t attack his own people!” Saylina insisted, reaching a hand forward as though she could sway the entire court by sheer force of will. Her plea almost worked and a whisper of uncertainty swept through the gathered courtiers.
“I said silence!” Johannus slammed a fist onto the arm of his throne and fought the urge to stare the girl down. A high lord didn’t answer to children before the entire court.
Examining the now-silent crowd, his eyes settled on the messenger, still kneeling at the foot of the throne as though nothing had interrupted him. Waiting for orders. Thank the gods he had at least one loyalist.
Johannus rose, facing his lower lords with stately focus. “Our prince has overstepped his place.” He should disown the boy here and now, but Saylina was too naive to take his place as heir. “Ready the guards. Call conscripts from the villages. And send word to the nobility to ready their elites for combat.” He spared a glance back at Saylina’s pale face. “First we’ll bring my son home, then we’ll decide what to do with him.”
Saylina frowned, her shoulders trembling with fear in contrast to the frustrated crinkle of her forehead that so nearly echoed her mother’s fury he almost relented. But there was nothing to be done. She was just a child and could never understand the danger of misplaced trust. Perhaps she could be of use, though.
“You.” Johannus thrust a finger at a servant. “Bring Lady Saylina paper and a writing table. She has a message to send to her brother.”
The lower lords’ council cowered under his gaze, every eye turned away from the crumpled note in the center of the table. As if ignoring the insolent response Arkaen had sent would somehow turn this into anything other than a war council planning combat against their own prince. And through it all, Saylina’s plea hung in his mind. Arkaen wouldn’t attack his own people. Johannus snatched the note up and read the words again.
To High Lord Johannus Sentarsin—
You are ordered to submit to judgment by High Emperor Deyvan Corliann, such judgment to be administered by the emperor’s appointed arbiter. Said arbiter will arrive at your capital in five days’ time. Any attempt to delay his arrival or inhibit his review will be considered an act of treason.
—Signed and penned by hand of Arkaen Sentarsin
As if a runaway noble boy had any authority to speak for the emperor. But then, rumors from the north claimed any number of absurdities. Arkaen pandering to the imperial heir to get his way was hardly the most preposterous rumor he’d heard.
“My lord…” The tentative voice of his Lord Chancellor faded at his sudden focus.
The Lord Chancellor dropped his gaze, falling silent again, but Baron Oskari Weydert stood.
“You know, my lord, what must be done.” Oskari gestured at the message. “This cannot be tolerated.”
“He’s still my son, Baron Weydert,” Johannus said, fixing Oskari with a glare. “He’s still your prince.”
“Is he, my lord?” Oskari asked. “He’s claiming a role in the imperial council. We both know this empire has seen its best days long past. This is our only chance to act.”
Johannus shook his head, leaning back in his chair. Too impulsive, as Oskari had always been. Even when they were children together making plans to conquer their teachers’ classrooms. But for all the recklessness of Oskari’s comments, he wasn’t entirely wrong. Any plans to break free of imperial oversight would die in the grip of a secure imperial succession. And the newly-crowned emperor was young enough with enough respect that even without a wife he’d no doubt solidify his power in short order.
“My son has chosen his side.” Johannus pushed up from the table.
None of the other lower lords would meet his eyes. No doubt too frightened of Arkaen’s empty threats to admit the truth of the situation.
“We’ll need another method of bringing him to heel without bloodshed. Lord Chancellor, send word to my personal guard. I need to speak with my guest in the high lady’s parlor.” Johannus waved at Oskari. “Attend me, Baron Weydert.”
Johannus stepped around the table, leading Oskari into the hall beyond. They strode down the hall, bare stone interspersed with the elaborate—and now painfully worn—tapestries that Johannus had bought for his wife decades ago. Anger simmered in his thoughts as he walked, Oskari silent but too obviously tense beside him.
“You’ve no standing to challenge me before the council,” Johannus said at last. “I’ve long known your counsel on my son, but the choice is my own.”
“Then I encourage you to honor the plans we made,” Oskari said. After several breaths, he added, “My lord.”
“Don’t test me, Oskari. I’ve enough ire to vent already.”
“Vent on your wayward boy.” Oskari paused, crossing his arms and glaring to the north. “He’s the source of these complications.”
“Arkaen’s a brat.” Johannus scowled. “Spoiled by his mother. But he still has value. Without a proper heir, we can’t bring any change but chaos.”
Oskari turned back to him. “You’ve another child for an heir.”
Johannus looked away, running a hand along the edge of one of his wife’s tapestries. Fifteen years dead and he couldn’t bring himself to take them down, but he stood before them discussing the sale of his only daughter. How could he value his wife’s ornaments more than the daughter she’d given him? But Saylina needed a proper rein if she was to serve the province, and she was the last of his line able to do so.
“Write the contract, then,” Johannus said. “Saylina’s to young to wed as yet, but you can set a date a few years out. Let her settle into her woman’s moons before she takes to a bed. The contract should be enough to secure my legacy.”
“I’ll have my clerk draft the papers.” Oskari bowed. “Are you certain of the other matter? I don’t know that your… guest is to be trusted.”
“It’s the only option if we’re to avoid open war.” Johannus cringed at the thought. That Arkaen could be susceptible to the charm of such a man always made his skin crawl. “Keep your men ready in case the louse fails again.”
“Yes, my lord,” Oskari said. “I hope your boy comes home, for your sake, but beware. By rumor…” Oskari hesitated. “Well, they say he may be as like to use you as follow you.”
Johannus waved the concern away and walked toward the parlor where he’d set his meeting. Down a long-disused set of corridors he hadn’t been able to reclaim after his wife’s death. No servant would let dust collect in the high lord’s palace, but the silence spoke volumes of the ghosts that lived in this wing. A place no one dared lurk lest Johannus find them there defiling his wife’s memory. The twists of his keep felt like a maze here, all corridors he’d known forever but hadn’t seen for almost two decades. He’d courted his wife in that study, securing an alliance with the tumultuous Istalli bloodline. Another turn. There was the servant’s common where Arkaen had hidden as a boy after lashings. He wouldn’t have endured so many if he’d taken his lessons to heart. At least Saylina hadn’t followed her brother into those flaws as she had so many others.
Finally, he reached the carved wood door that led into his wife’s private parlor. The low table inside had already been set for tea, the polished wood gleaming in the soft light from a distant window. No candles lighting the room, but he didn’t need much. Johannus inspected the twin sofas on either side of the table, worn fabric still elegant despite the age. He settled into one and poured a cup of tea savoring the blend of herbs and spices that he’d imported from the southern hills. A slight knock announced the arrival of his guest, escorted into the room by a pair of guards, each holding one end of the heavy chains. Matted brown hair hung around his face and from his unkempt beard. Young enough to be Johannus’s child, the man looked almost ten years older than he truly was. Lines on his face hinted at wisdom he had yet to show.
“Vaiyen.” Johannus gestured at a seat across from him. Sit and have a respectable drink. Let’s talk.”
Vaiyen collapsed into a seat with a rattle of chains and the guards took up positions on either side.
“Yes, my lord.”
His voice was raspy with disuse. What would he use it for in an empty cell among an empty dungeon, anyway? Johannus waited for him to pour a cup of the tea, drop a cube of sugar in, and take several sips. When Vaiyen had settled into his seat and replaced his cup—after the heavy sigh of relief from the warm liquid escaped his lips—Johannus leaned forward.
have a task for you, Vaiyen,” Johannus said. “One which you alone have ever managed, and I hope you can do so again.”
Vaiyen froze, his eyes going wide. “Me?” His gaze swept through the room, realizing, perhaps for the first time, the peculiarity of their meeting. “You can’t mean… My lord, I can’t. Even if he were he, he won’t listen to me.”
“He will be here,” Johannus said. “In five days. You will meet his forces before they try to enter the city and you will gain an audience with my son. Bring him home—peacefully—without his army.”
“I said, my lord, he won’t—” Vaiyen hesitated, looking up at the guards on either side of him. “How would I even convince him to see me?”
“You’ve been quite adept at managing his decisions in the past.” Johannus steepled his hands, hiding the grimace of distaste the admission elicited from him. “One might say you were something of an expert in that task. Until your mistake.”
“I could have done nothing more, my lord,” Vaiyen said. “Lordling Arkaen had already decided a course. The only question he brought to me was the choice of whether to betray my own oath, as well.”
Johannus smirked at him. “So you’ve said. Consider this an opportunity to prove your claims.”
“If he asked you to join him, then he will surely welcome your return to his side. Use that and bring my son home.”
Vaiyen scowled, staring into his tea, but nodded. “I will try, my lord.”
“You will succeed,” Johannus snapped. “Or you will watch your family flayed before joining them in Eiliin’s hell.”
Vaiyen paled, taking a deep breath. “Yes, my lord.”