My family wish yours well, though we sorrowed to hear of your recent tragedy. Farm’s keeping well despite the pests. Lads are getting grown enough to cause trouble ’round town, but there’s work enough to tire them out. Love to share a keg of ale with you, if you’ve a chance to come see the new fields. Reckon my lads would get some good out of seeing a proper leader—
Saylina Sentarsin flipped the paper over, checking the seal again. There couldn’t be a reason to send this mundane gossip under an official, private seal. But there it was. Feathered wings rising from the outline of flames, pressed into a complex pattern of colored waxes. Red, orange, and gold glittering in the candlelight around the seal Arkaen had reserved for use only by his personal guards from Serni for the most private of messages. She wasn’t even supposed to know about the decree. A secret Caela had pried from the closemouthed foreign guards after years of building camaraderie. And then she’d died at the hands of a brutal boy and his minions, all to prove a point to Arkaen that had never been made. A pang of grief shook her. Caela, who had stood by her side since she was old enough to have a servant of her own, gone. The lump in her throat choked her breathing, dragging the fresh sting of unshed tears to her eyes. Unsheddable, if she wanted any respect from the lower lords. Nobles didn’t cry over servants. Not even the ones they’d grown up with, close as sisters, and lost to a senseless brawl.
And then, barely weeks after the deadly fight at her uncle’s former estate, this letter arrived for Arkaen under his most private seal.
A single knock, barely a breath of pause, and a servant swept the study door open and stepped in with a tray of steaming tea. Saylina glanced up from the message before her, fighting back her pain to nod in acknowledgment.
“My lady, you have a visitor,” the servant said, crossing the room to lay out the tea, sugar, and a gilded spoon on her desk. Saylina shuffled the books and papers aside to make room. “Count Brayden Skianda has requested your attention. He is just outside, but I can send him away if my lady is too busy.”
“Did he—” Saylina cut off with a scowl. She didn’t know this man, and while he might be loyal, she couldn’t trust anyone yet. Besides, he likely hadn’t even thought to ask why Count Skianda wanted a private audience. “Send him in.”
Saylina waited until the servant stepped outside before scanning the message again, hunting the meaning as the murmur of the servant’s voice drifted in. Arkaen would read something here beyond an update on a small farm, and that meant nothing was as it seemed. A farm with pests—bandits, maybe? But it could just as easily refer to a disagreement between wealthy landowners. The “lads” must be some form of servants, but without knowing the author’s status she couldn’t guess what specific threat “cause trouble ’round town” might imply. She folded the note, setting it aside among a pile of her own, more personal papers. A mystery to unravel when she’d dealt with this request.
Taking a sip of her tea, Saylina waited for her guest. It was only moments before Count Skianda followed the servant back into the room. And he stood, silent and patient, until the servant left again. Saylina gestured him toward a chair.
“Please, sit, my Lord Count,” Saylina said. “Tell me what the province can do for you.”
He smiled. “I’m not here to ask a boon of my province.” Count Skianda stepped around the chair and sat, waiting as if he expected some form of response. When she offered none, he continued. “I came to discuss a matter of some delicacy related to the stability of our home.”
“Well that sounds rather ominous, Count Skianda.” Not that Saylina disagreed with the sentiment. Arkaen had certainly left the town a mess, and the lands beyond suffered for the turmoil of their capital. “What specific issues concern you?”
Count Skianda stared at her, the edges of his eyes narrowed as if he couldn’t quite decide what to tell her. Saylina busied her hands organizing her papers and hoped her anxiety didn’t show.
“Before the rather… explosive events of the past weeks, your brother came to speak with me.”
Saylina let a frown cross her lips. “I recall. I advised him against it. What did my brother promise in that meeting?”
She hated to have to ask. A loss of her power in this negotiation, since he could say anything and she’d never know what was a lie. But Arkaen had been too busy to share the details, and then she’d had that tea with the princess.
A shudder ran through her at the memory. Ropes tight on her wrist. Hands dragging her past Caela’s body, the blood still flowing fresh from her head. The bitter liquid her captors had forced down her throat—
“Apologies, my lady.” Count Skianda leaned forward over her desk, face pained with concern. “I’ve no wish to bring that time back to your mind so soon. May I get you anything?”
“No, thank you.” Saylina pulled back, hands trembling as she dropped cubed sugar into her tea and stirred the liquid. The clink of the spoon against porcelain, gentle swirl of the dark liquid. A distraction from the memories she couldn’t allow right now. “I’m well, my Lord Count. What did my brother say?”
“Well.” Count Skianda hesitated, worry still sharp in his eyes, but finally resumed his seat. “It’s not about what he promised me. He asked my opinion on naming you, my lady, as his heir. He’d clearly been thinking about it some time.”
Saylina nodded. “He made a few comments to similar effect in our discussions as well. He was under a great deal of pressure. I’m certain the appeal of a living sister several years his junior seemed an easy solution to a problem he didn’t care to manage.”
“If you’ll pardon my audacity, I don’t believe that was his reasoning.”
“You flatter me.” Saylina smiled, but she could see the beginning of a suggestion she wasn’t going to like. “I’m afraid Sentar tradition is rather intractable on the matter. Women do not inherit. Certainly not when they’ve an elder brother able to wed and provide a proper heir.”
“But what if your lord brother has no desire to wed?” Count Skianda fixed her with an intense look that hinted at exactly which rumors he meant to reference.
“You’re edging dangerously close to an inappropriate accusation, Count Skianda.”
“To something inappropriate, my lady?” he asked. “Or to something you’d rather not admit? He’s spent these weeks refusing the care of the physics, closeted away with that demon of his. Talk spreads too fast for you to have missed it.”
Saylina rose, heart pounding. Of course she’d heard the whispers, growing since Arkaen’s last public display of womanizing. And he’d thrown oil on that fire when he’d demanded Kilasha stay by his side and refused any other visitors. He might just want the protection. No one could forget the speed with which Kilasha had crossed the crowded great hall where Arkaen had dueled Oskari, knocking a crossbow bolt away from Arkaen’s heart before it could hit home. But politics thrived on scandal, and Arkaen’s seclusion with only a foreign-born, terrifying man for company had sparked every scandalous rumor the nobility could imagine. She needed to nip that in the bud, regardless of who stood before her making the accusations.
Laying a hand on the desk, Saylina leaned forward to catch Count Skianda’s attention. Not precisely towering over him, but enough to emphasize her power in the situation.
“My brother is high lord, Count Skianda. Confirmed by the high lords’ council and supported by our high emperor himself. Any challenge to his rule, any accusation that he isn’t honoring his duty to our province, is treason.” She paused just long enough for him to begin to speak, cutting him off before he voiced a reply. “You’re not engaging in treason, are you, my Lord Count?”
He smiled at her. “I am not, Lady Saylina. Which is precisely why I brought the matter to your attention.”
He leaned back in his chair, waiting for her to sit. She straightened, looking down her nose at him. Another smile, slightly less condescending and more conspiratorial.
“To be honest, my lady, I don’t care what he’s doing with the man,” Count Skianda said. “Arkaen’s done his best by this province despite my initial fears. I wouldn’t call him a good ruler, precisely, but he’s certainly tried to do right by us. I’m only suggesting that he might welcome the opportunity to pass that responsibility to someone better suited to it.”
Saylina hesitated. Still treason, technically, but… You’re my heir, Sayli, he said. Arkaen couldn’t have meant that if he’d planned a full reign. She be far too old to inherit by the time his natural reign ended, and no doubt settled as someone’s wife besides.
“Are you suggesting I ask my brother to abdicate?” She took her seat again, frowning at the thought. Impossible. Too many of the lower lords would protest her coronation while Arkaen lived.
“I’m suggesting that you may not have to ask,” Count Skianda replied. “He’s already convinced the council to accept you as interim high lord while he recovers. We’ve had no objections so far.”
“That’s only a matter of time.” Saylina already knew of several petitions that had been retracted when the complainants had discovered she’d be hearing the claims. If she announced Arkaen wasn’t returning to the seat at all, those slights would quickly become dissent. “A lady has never been confirmed by this council.”
“Only one other has ever tried,” Count Skianda replied. “And she had a reputation for rash, selfish decisions and a tractable younger brother. You, my lady, have neither.”
“But you know I’d face objections from all the other lords.”
“Objections are not an end to the matter if you have proper support.” He leaned back in his chair as if to emphasize the point. “Lord Arkaen had plenty of objections to his coronation, as I’m sure you’ll recall.”
“Hard to forget,” she said. “Especially when his primary critics are still awaiting burial. I’d prefer to avoid a repeat of that circumstance these next few years.”
“We both know that result was avoidable.” Count Skianda paused, glancing behind him as if concerned someone might burst into the room to interrupt them. “If your lord brother had been more prone to placating the nobility we’d likely still have a full council. His temper doesn’t suit the position well.”
“Once I might have agreed with you, my Lord Count.” Oskari’s face hovered in her memory, his frustration at Arkaen’s stubbornness plain on the lined features. Saylina shivered at the image. Oskari had blamed the entire mess on Arkaen, but his words were nothing but a traitor’s justifications for acts he knew were wrong. As she’d known it was wrong to let Kyli Andriole take her place in the imperial capital.
“You don’t agree any longer, my lady?”
Her gaze settled on the message she’d been examining earlier. A coded message to Arkaen from some unknown source warning of potential dangers. And Arkaen’s guard—Kilasha… He’d always watched the province locals like a rabid dog waiting for an attack, until Arkaen had been injured. Now nothing could pry him from her brother’s side. Like he knew the danger wasn’t truly past, no matter what the physic said. The entire time they’d been waiting for something to go wrong, and whatever it was, they didn’t think it was over yet.
“My lady?” Count Skianda leaned forward, laying a hand on the desk between them again.
“I wonder, Count Skianda, why my brother has been so quick to take offense.” Saylina pulled the paper out of her pile, examining the seal again. Too obvious for the subterfuge he’d been managing these last years. Had he meant for her to intercept it?
Saylina looked up at Count Skianda again. “I don’t recall Arkaen being quick to anger when I was a girl. Impulsive at times, perhaps, but always kind-hearted. Was I mistaken?”
Count Skianda frowned for a moment, tapping a finger on the wood of her desk as he thought. Finally, he shook his head.
“No, my lady,” he said. “He was certainly rash at times, and he’d get his hackles up if you insulted his family or friends. But he was never cruel, and he never lashed out at anyone without giving them a chance to apologize first.” He looked up, a hint of sadness in his eyes. “I told you when he took the throne that he’s not the boy we knew any longer. The boy I knew would have accepted Oskari’s surrender.”
She nodded. “But I told you when we agreed to his coronation that he’s still my brother.” An exchange so far in the past now it seemed a lifetime away. Separated from the person she was now by most of a month of captivity. “I’m more certain of that now than I was then. And one thing I know of my brother is he is not petty.” She saw the agreement in Count Skianda’s eyes before he nodded. “If Arkaen has become quick to anger, my Lord Count, then he has a reason to be angry.”
“Then perhaps it is long past time that we discover what that reason is.” He dropped his gaze to consider the message she held. “Is it reasonable to assume that is a hint?”
“If we can decipher the code.” Saylina offered the paper across the desk. “It’s some form of warning, though I couldn’t guess at the specifics.”
Count Skianda took the paper and examined the seal, his lips setting in a grim line as he opened the note. He skimmed the words briefly before looking up.
“That’s dangerous, my lady.” He tossed the page onto her desk. “I can’t imagine we’ll understand what it means without breaking his inner circle. But a coded message under that seal? You know what the lower lords will think.”
“That Oskari was right,” she said. “They’ll think he’s a traitor.”
“Are you certain he isn’t?”
She scowled. But what could she say? Arkaen certainly hadn’t confided in her since coming home.
“He wouldn’t do this.” The denial felt weak. Spoken to convince herself as much as anyone. “Kaen wouldn’t betray his home. There’s another explanation.”
“I agree.” Count Skianda didn’t sound hopeful. “He’d never betray his home. But what has Sentar Province ever done for him? Is this his home any longer?”