Part 6: "Welfare"
Story Rating: Hard R/NC-17
Story Warnings explicit heterosexual and homosexual sex, slavery, violence, torture and drug use.
Story Summary Since the death of their brother the Emperor Dolmus brought the royal brothers Valentin and Cassius back to Monsilys, capital of the great Jovani Empire, Valentin has cured the boredom of court life with poppy-sap and women, while for Cassius the remedy has been ale and the result much the same. Then an ill-fated duel causes their niece the Empress to send them to Gallica to deal with a problem there, and they find themselves drawn ever more back into the world of Jovani politics: a world their brother banished them from seventeen years earlier. As Valentin veers from disaster to disaster, always running from his past and a life he would prefer to forget, Cassius is fascinated by a damaged boy he rescues from a slave brothel. Valentin's weapon is sly diplomacy, while Cassius prefers the honesty of the sword, but will either be enough to protect Jovan, and themselves?
Notes: Volumes I and II are already written; you can check them out at my website (along with Vol III as it's written), as free eBooks (Volume I and Volume II) or I will be posting them here at a rate of one chapter a week, which means Livejournal will catch up to the website in around July/August 2013. I sincerely hope you enjoy the story. :)
Valentin leaned back against the bench, distractedly playing with the hem of his tunic as he half-listened to the discussion of the council. They discussed taxation, the import of spices and dyes, trade routes on the new continent, and the other usual matters. Then Bracchus, head of gens Platina stood up. Beside Valentin, Cassius shifted and grumbled.
“Be nice,” murmured Valentin, “he’s my cousin, after all.”
Snorting, Cassius whispered back, “Yes, and you’ve always been so good to my cousins.”
“Shh,” said Valentin, stifling a smirk. Lord Bracchus was a well-dressed middle aged man with brown hair pulled back from a widow’s peak and narrow blue eyes. It was easy for Valentin to recognise the shared blood between himself and Bracchus. Like his cousin, Bracchus came to his power by alliances and deals. He rarely showed his hand, and the less astute might dismiss him as having very little influence compared to militarism and territory of the coastal gentes Mereia and Sola. Emperor Herminius had married Thalassa Platinus, Bracchus’ aunt, because the Platini controlled resource-rich inland Jovan and could sway four or five of the other aura families.
Valentin suspected that Bracchus was about to reopen the subject that irritated Cassius so much.
“Empress,” said Bracchus, dipping his head to Adrienne, who sat on a little throne on floor of the chamber. “I wish to bring to the attention of the council the manifold advantages that would accrue to Jovan were the Empress to sign her name to the covenant of slavery.”
There were some hisses, and someone behind Valentin muttered, “Oh, not this again,” while another called, “Sit down Bracchus, you’ve said your piece before.”
Bracchus held his hand up. “I appreciate that I am boring the council, but I have new information to bring to light. We have talked before of the manifold advantages to textile weavers and tanners of having slaves to do the jobs that proud, free Jovanis consider beneath them. I have told you before of the forests on my land that stand un-logged and the quarries un-mined for lack of men to work them. We have talked about the little pleasures that can only be given by a man or woman who is bonded to their master. Who here is not attracted to the thought of returning after a long day on our lands or in our villages to a trained body slave from Baetica, Ilas or Ce-Tulia?”
He paused and swept his eyes over the council like an actor delivering a monologue. “I won’t bore you with these arguments again. My men have been out in Jovan gathering information and I beg to inform the council that I can now say with confidence that a majority of Jovanis support signing the Covenant. I encourage you to go back to your territories and ask your own folk. You will see that I am right.”
“Thank you, Lord Bracchus,” said Adrienne. “Did your men tell this majority of Jovanis that accession to the Covenant would mean that they might be sold into slavery one day, as spoils of a squabble between you, my respected aura, or to pay their debts? That if they are sold, their children would become property too? Freeborn Jovanis have a right as citizens of this Empire to remain so.”
There was rustling from the aura.
Adrienne continued: “I have heard your arguments, Lords Bracchus, and I will be happy to discuss with you any other assistance we can render for your forests and quarries. You are free to import slaves for your personal use, subject to the tariffs and regulations governing the trade in live chattels. But I have said my piece on the matter you raise. I will not repeat myself. Any further talk of introducing systemic slavery to Jovan is treason.”
Cassius’ was loudest among a few voices that called, “Here, here,” as Bracchus sat down. He didn’t look cowed; merely thoughtful.
Valentin considered him for a moment, then turned his attention to the next matter. At Adrienne’s nod, the doors to the council room were opened, and Lady Kyria entered. “Councillors,” said Adrienne,” my mother has asked to put a proposal before you. I will be guided by your advice in this matter.”
Lady Kyria stood beside her daughter’s throne and said, “I thank you for your attention.” Her back was straight as a pine trunk and her hands clasped in front of her. “I imagine it has been some time since any of you walked through the docks quarter of Monsilys and saw what goes on there.”
Valentin winced. Bad start, Kyria, he thought. Looking around, he could see offense on the faces of some of the councillors, and sly amusement on others.
Lady Kyria went on to describe the street of lanterns, to more sly amusement, and the plight of the prostitutes or, “unfortunate men and women”, who worked in the brothels and the lively trade in black market slaves that supplied these establishments. Then she went on to talk about the “unfortunate men and women” who sold themselves on the sea wall. “This trade goes on unregulated and unmonitored. The unfortunate men and women so employed must rely on the protection of thugs and bruisers who are just as likely to take their payment in trade,” she concluded. “The case is, I understand, the same in Rinnai and the other large cities of the Empire. I propose that all brothels be required to register and that the City Guard be empowered to conduct inspections for illegal or unwilling workers. I ask that houses be established in all cities where refuge may be sought by those who have been unfairly used in this vile trade.”
“Lady Kyria,” Isadora of gens Mereia said, “whores who run away from their establishment can already seek refuge in the temples.”
“Only if there’s space,” replied Kyria, “and only if they aren’t pregnant or infected with some foul disease. Often women who are with child are beaten or thrown down the stairs to try and shake it.”
Another aura said, “And so? The bringing of more shiftless, bastard children into the world is hardly a cause for the council to champion.”
“The women often die from this treatment, Lord Iatus,” said Kyria coldly.
Adrienne held up her hand and said, “You have heard my mother’s proposal. I will be guided by the council’s advice. I will now take a preliminary count. If carried by the ayes, further work will be done to put together a proposal for our consideration. Those in favour?” A few ayes were heard; Cassius among them. “Those against?” The noise was significant. Adrienne nodded. “The nays have it. On to our next piece of business.”
Kyria bowed her head and was escorted from the chamber. Valentin saw that her knuckles were clenched white.
After the council, Valentin found Kyria sitting in one of the family drawing rooms, staring out a window. She didn’t hear him enter; he paused on the threshold for a moment, studying her. She had the characteristic look of the Skyan royal family; like Adrienne, Ulyr and Domina, she had a round jaw, high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes. Despite being her aunt, she was only slightly older than Domina, and if he hadn’t known that Kyria had been a child born late in her father’s life, he would have thought they were sisters.
Kyria sighed and rested her head on her hand. Valentin slithered over and sat down opposite. This provoked an immediate reaction; Kyria straightened up, folded her hands in her lap and transformed from a tired woman into a marble statue. “Lord Valentin,” she said coolly.
“You went about that wrongly,” said Valentin.
“Indeed,” said Kyria, crossing her legs at the ankle and turning her body away from him.
“It is a good cause, for the most part, but your target was too big. You lost them when you proposed to register brothels; half the people in that room went straight from that proposal to their own night-time activities in the Dusk or the Docks becoming known.”
“I care very little about protecting them if they choose to expose themselves thus,” said Kyria.
“A fair point of view, but hardly likely to bring their votes to your cause.” Valentin leaned forwards. He didn’t miss the subtle movement as Kyria leaned away from him.
“Of course, you went wrong before that.”
“Did I?” Kyria’s tone was so cold Valentin almost wished for his furs.
“Yes. Why did Adrienne bring this proposal to the council?”
Kyria looked down, then out the window. “I couldn’t convince her to approve it herself. She is young and has made too few mistakes to have sympathy for unfortunates.”
“That is an affliction from which we do not suffer, Lady Kyria.” Valentin quirked a self-mocking smile.
He did not get one in return. “How did you vote, Lord Valentin?”
Valentin raised and lowered one shoulder. “I abstained,” he said insouciantly.
“Because I knew the motion would be defeated.”
Looking at him directly for the first time since he had sat down, Kyria said, “And yet you would like to help.” She stood. “Excuse me.”
Valentin looked after her as she left the room and sighed.
“What are you doing tonight, brother?” said Cassius, falling in step beside Valentin as he strode down the hallway.
“A quiet night, I think,” said Valentin. “I’ve a headache I can’t shake. Ever since council this morning.”
“Will you be at dinner?”
“No, I think not.”
“All right,” said Cassius, sounding a little surprised. “I will see you tomorrow, then.”
Valentin went straight to the stables and collected his horse. He rode to the Dusk, the small, thoughtful frown never leaving his forehead. He wrapped his arm around Elodia’s waist when she greeted him and gave her a distracted kiss. “My sweet saviour,” he said, “we are to have a guest tonight.”
“Not Lord Cassius?” said the girl.
“No,” said Valentin. “My cousin, Lord Bracchus Platinus, is coming for dinner. I have something I would like to discuss with him.”
“Dear cousin,” said Lord Bracchus as he doffed his cloak, “what a surprise it was to receive an invitation from you.”
“Please, sit down,” said Valentin, disposing himself on a couch. “Wine?”
“Yes, I thank you,” said Bracchus. “And how goes it, Lord Valentin? Your family is enjoying the city life?”
“Prince Felix is,” said Valentin, cradling his drink and beckoning a servant holding a platter of fruit over to him. “My wife misses her home, I think. I expect she will return to Whitefields soon.”
At that moment, Elodia entered, a vision of young womanhood in a clinging white chiton tied with gold cord under her breasts. Bracchus studied her, eyebrows raised.
“Lord Bracchus, this is Elodia, our hostess this evening.”
“My dear,” said Bracchus, taking her hand. Elodia greeted him pleasantly and then sat down beside Valentin, settling herself into the crook of his arm. “Where were we?” Bracchus’ expression was bland. “Ah yes, you were telling me Lady Luvina will be returning to Whitefields.”
“Luvina and I try to interfere in each others’ lives as little as possible,” said Valentin. “How is your own wife?”
“Very well; she is enjoying the health benefits of the Tyrian hot springs.”
They talked of inconsequential matters over dinner, but Valentin had the feeling of playing a long and complex word game with his cousin. It was exhilarating, to match wits with a cunning player. They discussed the weather, the state of roads, the issue of public safety and the strength of the Empire. Although they had touched on nothing consequential, by the time the platters were removed, Valentin was leaning back against the arm of the couch, trying to stop a smile from ruining his perfect, careless expression.
Elodia had listened without involving herself in the conversation. Now she said, “Shall I have the braziers set up?”
“Do you like a bit of poppy vapour, Bracchus, or would you like to keep your wits sharp?”
“I’ve never found the poppies dull my wits, cousin,” said Bracchus.
“Very well,” said Valentin lazily. “Now, I wish to discuss business with you.”
“Ah,” Bracchus leaned forward, “I thought you must.”
“Today in council I heard something rather interesting.”
Bracchus raised his eyebrows. “I infer you do not mean my own paltry contribution.”
“Lady Kyria’s proposal.”
“Ah yes, to save the whores of Monsilys.”
Valentin folded his arms. “I noticed that you voted against it.”
“I didn’t see the point of the thing.” Bracchus raised and lowered his shoulders.
“It is true that Lady Kyria went about it the wrong way,” said Valentin.
“The unfortunate men and women,” Bracchus’ tone was dry.
“Indeed. But with the right spokesperson, I believe the council could be made to see the merits of the idea.”
Bracchus leaned backwards, a smile playing around the corners of his lips. “The right spokesperson? You overrate my influence. The cause I truly believe in, that I have thrown all my heart into, where has it come to? To speak of Jovan signing the Covenant is treason.”
“Against the Empress’ opposition, you secured a third of the council in favour last time there was a vote,” said Valentin.
“Ah yes. Was that the time you voted in favour, or against?”
“I believe I voted nay,” said Valentin.
“Very wise. More wine, I think?”
Valentin beckoned the servant. “The cause is not lost.”
Bracchus shook his head. “I believe that Jovan will never join the slaving nations while Adrienne is Empress,” he said.
Adrienne is young. She has said no for now, but she can be worked on. If done in the right way by the right people, she won’t call it treason. In a few years, you may have your yes.”
“Hm,” said Bracchus. “I see. Well, I think I see what you are bargaining with. I will help you get Lady Kyria’s unfortunates proposal accepted. In return, you will help me see slavery a reality in Jovan.”
“It will require careful handling. You must let me manage matters.”
Making a cutting gesture, Bracchus said, “This has been my work for the last ten years, Valentin. I will not move to the stands while you take over the show.”
Valentin frowned. “Then I don’t know if we can help each other after all, cousin.”
Cassius caught Valentin as he was walking back to his rooms the next morning. “I’ve been thinking about Adrienne and Caspar,” he said.
Valentin looked around. There was no-one nearby. “You should be careful linking their names in public,” he said.
“Why can’t she marry him? It isn’t as if the Hierarch of Toqueia would object.”
“We talked about it,” said Valentin, “but the Empress’ hand in marriage is worth a great deal more than a younger son of Toqueia. She needs to marry either one of the elder sons of the aura, or a prince of a great military power. The ascension of the Sylvani to the throne is still within living memory and there are still those who would love to topple us. If I had my way, Adrienne would marry the prince of Baetica, or perhaps Lord Pavely of gens Sola. He’s a decent man, who wouldn’t try and step above his position as consort, and the Soli bring with them the power of five thousand men.”
“I see,” said Cassius, sighing, “but it seems so heartless.”
Valentin fought the urge to roll his eyes. “We talked about you too, you know.”
“Me, a dynastic marriage?” said Cassius, wincing. “Blessed few, that would be a bad deal for the lady.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time.” Your cousin Mila, for example, Valentin added mentally. “And you’re forgetting that some of the inlanders allow like-to-like marriages if you are wealthy enough to buy the permits,” said Valentin. “Merot, for example, or Deusetats.”
“Ensuring that such marriages will only be made for political or economic reasons,” said Cassius.
“If you married one of the Deusetats royals, they might stop providing money and arms to the Gallican resistance, thus allowing the stabilisation of the province and the use of the Jovani occupying force elsewhere.”
“And I would be stuck married to a barbarian prince who in all likelihood would be disgusted by the entire fact of our marriage and would spend his nights tumbling the servant girls.”
Valentin leaned against the wall and massaged his temples with one hand. “Cassius, the fact of your preference for men doesn’t free you from the realities of your station. You are a Sylvanus, you enjoy the privileges of power, and in return you must make sacrifices. Don’t climb on your high horse about the bloodlessness of marriage, and the hollowness of trading love for power.”
Cassius stared at him for a long moment. “The irony of you, brother, lecturing me on my obligations to gens Sylvana,” he said in a tightly controlled voice, then stalked away.
By the time council began a few hours later, Valentin had a blinding headache. He slouched into the room and slumped down on the bench, pinching the bridge of his nose and pressing his eyes closed. When Adrienne entered and opened the session, he cracked one eye and discovered that Bracchus was sitting next to him. “Sore head?” he said.
“Constantly,” muttered Valentin.
The session progressed through the usual matters, then, as Adrienne was about to adjourn it, Bracchus stood. “I beg the attention of my lords and ladies for a moment,” he said.
“Lord Bracchus,” said Adrienne, narrowing her eyes.
“Don’t be alarmed, Empress. I only wish to say that since yesterday I have thought long and hard on the proposal put to the council by Lady Kyria. I believe that the proposal has merit and should be investigated further.”
Valentin stifled a smirk at the vagueness of this wording. Bracchus had evidently paid so little attention yesterday that he couldn’t recall any of the details of Kyria’s petition.
“I see.” Adrienne raised her eyebrows, looking surprised. “All in favour?” She paused for the ayes. “All against?”
This time the ayes were clearly louder than the nays.
“All right, then. Cesare will oversee the preparation of a formal proposal for the registration of brothels, search powers for the City Guard, the establishment of safe houses, and any other matters deemed relevant for the improvement of conditions in the Dusk and the Docks. The proposal will be brought back to council for decision within three months.”
“Thank you, Empress,” said Bracchus, bowing and resuming his seat.
“I should rather thank you,” said Adrienne dryly. “Any other business? No? Then council is adjourned.”
“Do you go to tell your Lady Kyria the good news?” said Bracchus as they left the chamber.
“No, I’ll leave that to the Empress. Thank you, cousin.”
Bracchus inclined his head and said, “Until next time, Lord Valentin.”
Making his way back to the family wing, Valentin found he was walking some way behind Adrienne, near enough to follow her path. She hadn’t seen him, so he trailed behind her to one of the family parlours, where she found Lady Kyria.
Valentin hovered outside the door, as Adrienne said, “Mother, I’ve good news. Your proposal was approved by council today.”
“What?” said Kyria. There was a pause, then she said in a flat tone, “Did Lord Valentin raise it?”
“No, it was Bracchus Platinus. I thought he was going to bring up the Covenant again and I was going to have to have him thrown in the cells. But instead he said he had thought about your petition and that it merited further investigation. When I took the vote, two thirds voted in favour. Congratulations.”
“That is good news indeed,” said Kyria. “Tell me, how did Lord Valentin vote?”
“I… believe he abstained,” said Adrienne.
Sounding more cheerful, Kyria replied, “That sounds about right.”
“Mother, I know you don’t like Valentin, and didn’t want me to recall him after father died. But you have to admit he has been a loyal and astute adviser the last two years.”
Valentin slipped away, not wanting to hear Kyria’s reply. He found Cassius in the practice yard, leaning against the rail and watching Felix spar with another boy under Tamlin’s supervision.
“Brother, I’m sorry,” he said.
Cassius looked over his shoulder. “Mm. Well, you were right, and I shouldn’t have brought up the past. Of course I wish to serve my Empress—” Valentin didn’t miss the slight emphasis Cassius put on the phrase “—and my family. Although I do most earnestly hope that service doesn’t take the form of a dynastic marriage.”
“I will do what I can to prevent it,” said Valentin, leaning his elbows against the wood. “Goodness me, Felix does have some style with the blade, doesn’t he?”
“He already favours fancy footwork over honest skill,” said Cassius dryly, “rather like his father.”