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A Frequent Traveller's Guide to Jovan
Volume II
Part 9: "Rebellion"

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. :)

“Ah, there you are, Cassius,” said Valentin, stopping him in the hallway. “Have you got a moment?”

“I suppose so,” said Cassius, allowing himself to be towed into an empty drawing room.

“I won’t keep you long, I just wanted to let you know that I’m going out of town for a little while.” Valentin shut the door and went across to the window to pull the curtains open. The chairs were all under covers, but the room didn’t have the dusty, disused feeling of some of the older wings of the palace. It was opened up for major events, or when guests required a private sitting room.

“Oh?” said Cassius, resting his shoulder against the mantelpiece.

“Yes.” Valentin waved his hand and shook his head. There was a small, annoyed frown creasing his forehead. “Caspar finally spilled his guts to me.”

Startled by this mental image, Cassius said, “What?”

“He bailed me up in a corridor and confessed that he was hopelessly in love with Adrienne and he didn’t think he could live without her. He wanted my advice on whether he should break the engagement and slink back to Toqueia or marry Adelais and live out his life in wretched misery.”

“That’s not very polite of him.”

“Oh, I’m paraphrasing, of course.”

Cassius crossed his arms and looked up at the ceiling. “Have he and Adrienne ever spent any time together?”

“That’s the thing. Apparently he’s been sneaking into her chamber of an evening.”

Pushing away from the wall, Cassius stared at Valentin. “What?”

Valentin nodded knowingly. “My reaction exactly. But Prince Caspar was at pains to explain to me that all they do is play cards and talk. A maid servant was on hand at all times, apparently.”

“Do you believe that?”

“They’re both so tiresome, I think I do,” said Valentin.

“You’re a cynic, Valentin.” Cassius reached out and put his hand on his brother’s shoulder, before going over to the window.

“To think that two people who can’t keep their eyes off each other and who meet each other secretly to play cards are wasting their opportunity?”

“I suppose you’ve never been so in love that you just want to sit and talk to someone, and spend time with them, because even if it’s inconsequential and trivial, it winds your lives more closely together.”

“And of course you think a chaste, doomed affair is the height of romance.”

Cassius grunted and looked out the window across the city.

“Oh, stop brooding,” said Valentin, coming over and leaning against the sill. “Anyway, the upshot of all this is that I am feeling nauseated by being made the auditor of such a pointless confession and I am taking Elodia to the coast for a few days to cleanse my palate. I will see you when I return.”

He waited a moment for Cassius’ response and when none was forthcoming, crossed the room to the door.

“What did you tell Prince Caspar?” said Cassius. “When he asked your advice, I mean.”

Valentin stopped with his hand on the doorknob and looked back over his shoulder. “I told him he should marry Adelais, of course. My loyalty isn’t to some foreign prince’s heart; it’s to Jovan.”

The next morning, Cassius was woken by a knocking at his door. His first, dream-hazed thought was, Oh blessed few, what am I in trouble for now?

“Come in,” he called, rubbing his knuckles across his eyes and sitting up. “Lord Cassius,” said Cesare, “you are needed in the throne room immediately.”

“What time is it?” said Cassius, throwing back the blankets.

“A little after dawn.”

“Ugh.” Cesare shut the door, and Cassius stumbled into clean clothes and draped himself in his cloak, pinned with the medallion of gens Sylvana. Then he pulled on his boots and made his way to the throne room, yawning.

There was a small crowd of people in the throne room. Adrienne sat on the dais, and Lady Kyria stood nearby. Cassius looked around and was startled to see Lord Marcellus Mereius and his wife Lady Caia standing in front of the throne. Marcellus looked at Cassius and nodded sombrely.

At Adrienne’s gesture, everyone filed out of the room, leaving Adrienne, Kyria and Cassius. Adrienne stepped down from the dais.

“Uncle,” she said, “we have just received some extremely distressing news. Lord Daron, head of gens Caela, has been murdered at Falona.”

“I am very sorry to hear that,” said Cassius when he was confident of his voice. Lord Daron was Marcellus’ uncle. “Is it known who committed the crime?”

“Yes, but I wish you to go to Falona and investigate. The man that the Caeli claim did it is dead. He was killed by guards after he killed Daron.”

“I see,” said Cassius.

“He is called Betigan,” said Adrienne, watching Cassius closely.

Cassius searched his memory. “Should that name be familiar to me?”

“I wondered if it would be,” said Adrienne. She frowned. “Apparently, this Betigan is Betigan Sylvanus. He’s our cousin of some sort.”

Wincing, Cassius said, “I see why you wish me to investigate.”

Adrienne nodded. “Daron was well loved by gens Caela and its affinity, and they have no fondness for us.”

Cassius nodded. Gens Caela fought for gens Fabia in the war and had been excluded from council throughout Dolmus’ and Herminius’ reigns. “I will ride to Falona immediately.”

“Thank you, uncle,” said Adrienne. She looked tired.

Cassius rode down to Falona an hour later. As he rode through the streets, which were alive with merchants and the servants of Falona’s rich inhabitants, he thought of the last time he had been here, reluctantly chaperoning Adelais to the gens Mereia party. Lord Daron had been at that party; they had suspected him of abducting Adelais, and had followed him all the way to a whorehouse.

He found the gens Caela house easily enough. It was a big old mansion fit for one of the great Jovani gentes, but showed signs of disrepair.

He was greeted by a servant and shown into a sitting room, where he waited for some time until Marcellus Mereius arrived and said, “Commander, I’m sorry to keep you waiting.”

Cassius frowned and hovered for a moment before he reached out, clasped Marcellus’ hand and pulled him forwards. Their chests met and Cassius wrapped one arm around Marcellus’ shoulders. Marcellus sighed and rested his chin on Cassius’ shoulder. “I am very sorry about your uncle,” said Cassius.

Marcellus stepped out of Cassius’ arms and turned away, nodding.

“Where is Cirun Caelus?”

“My cousin is in Skydown. We’ve sent a rider to him. The Empress said she would be sending you to investigate. How can I assist?”

“I would like to see Lord Daron, if you’ve no objection. And the murderer—Betigan…” he trailed off.

“Betigan Sylvanus,” Marcellus supplied. “Yes, please follow me.”

Lord Daron was laid out on his bed wearing a white tunic, with a black cloak spread over him like a blanket. His face was waxy and still.

“How was it done?” said Cassius, leaning over the bed. The room had the strong smell of incense, but underneath it Cassius could detect the cloying smell of death. Soon, it would be overpowering.

“In the early hours of the morning, my uncle’s body servant was woken by a commotion in this room. He hurried in to find Lord Daron struggling with an assailant. As he watched, the assailant stabbed my uncle…” He paused and pinched the collar of Daron’s tunic, lifting it aside to reveal a long, deep gash between Daron’s neck and his shoulder, “here. Betigan Sylvanus fled, and Daron bled to death within a few minutes.”

“May I?” Cassius leaned close and examined the wound. It had missed the arteries of the neck, but he could easily imagine a man dying from it, particularly if the only aid to hand was a distraught body servant.

He stood back and bowed his head for a moment, then said, “Where is the murderer?”

“Follow me.”

They left Daron’s chamber and walked down a flight of stairs and down a long, unadorned hallway towards what Cassius assumed were the kitchens and servants’ quarters. Marcellus stopped at a closed wooden door and unlocked it, revealing a dusty little store room. The room was full of old, broken bits of furniture and in the middle was a table on which sat a long object wrapped in a canvas sheet. Cassius stepped into the room, glancing at Marcellus, who inclined his head. He pulled the sheet aside to reveal a mottled corpse with unruly brown hair and a nondescript, rough-hewn face.

He tried to think of whether he had ever seen Betigan Sylvanus before. The man was evidently an argentum; gens Sylvana had enough argenta branches that Cassius couldn’t count them all, let alone identify every scion. After the civil war, several devastated minor families had married into the branches of gens Sylvana and taken it as their own. Cassius shook his head and released the sheet. He would need to send someone to the family lands to establish where this weed sprung from.

“How did you know who this man was?”

“He was carrying papers of introduction,” said Marcellus, “from Nasarin Sylvanus to the Steward of Monsilys Castle.”

“I see,” said Cassius. “What a clumsy assassin.”

“He was successful enough,” said Marcellus tightly.

Cassius leaned over the body, pulling the sheet aside again. Betigan was clad in a black linen shirt, which was ripped and rent from the many stabbing, slicing wounds that covered his body. Evidently the guards had not stopped hacking at him when he had ceased moving.

Wait a moment. Cassius paused, heart pounding, and reached out to pull aside the shirt, baring the man’s left shoulder. Underneath the dried blood, and intersected by a much newer wound that almost obscured them, were a series of glossy white scars that would almost have looked like an animal attack if Cassius hadn’t seen them before.

He remembered the moment in Cordiserrat when Valentin had pushed aside the shift and dress of Lady Ignatia, wife of Atellus Ventus, to reveal the same sequence of puncture marks and ragged gashes. He turned to Marcellus, and heard his voice shake as he said, “Whoever else this man may be, he is a Papirian.”

“What?” said Marcellus.

“He has the Papirian mark,” said Cassius, “look.”

Marcellus frowned. “That’s just some old scar, Cassius.”

“I suppose this means Magnus didn’t catch wind that we caught Lady Ignatia,” said Cassius to himself.

“Who’s Magnus? Do you mean Lady Ignatia Ventus? I heard she died at Cordiserrat.”

Cassius nodded. “Marc, I know you believe my family had something to do with your uncle’s death, but I swear we didn’t. If this man is indeed a scion of gens Sylvana, it was under the orders of a different master that he did this deed.”

Marcellus looked away and didn’t reply.

“Don’t you believe me?”

“My uncle is dead at the hands of a Sylvanus. Blaming the Papirians is rather like blaming the bogeyman.”

Cassius sighed. “I hope to convince you otherwise. But in the meantime, I have to go.”

As he was leaving, Marcellus’ voice stopped him. “Cassius,” he said. “Cirun is going to raise arms against your family when he hears of this. There will be rebellion. You should be ready.”

Nodding, Cassius turned. “Please come back with me to Monsilys. There is someone I would like you to meet, if I can arrange it.”

All things considered, Lady Ignatia’s cell was surprisingly pleasant. It was up high in the Keep, which had once been the defender of Monsilys, but now loomed over the waterfront. The Keep housed many important prisoners, from rebellious aura to defrocked priestesses. Cassius suspected that Adrienne kept a cell in perpetual readiness for Lady Domina of Skya, should she ever venture back to Jovan.

Ignatia was sitting at a plain wooden desk, writing. A year and a half’s captivity hadn’t told on her beauty; her plain grey gown made her radiant, and her hair was tied back with a ribbon and tumbled over her shoulder as if her maid had arranged it that way.

“Lord Cassius,” she said, turning around. “What a surprise.”

“Lady Ignatia,” Cassius replied, keeping a cautious distance. “You are well?”

She opened her hands. “As you see me.”

“This is my friend Lord Marcellus Mereius. Marc, this is Lady Ignatia Ventus.”

Marcellus stared. “I heard you were dead. Cassius, weren’t you there when she died?”

“Yes, I was,” said Cassius grimly.

Ignatia laughed. “It was all a clever plot of mine, Lord Marcellus. You see, I’m a Papirian. Well,” she looked up at the ceiling, “I was a Papirian. I ran away, and they have been hunting me ever since. So I made an arrangement to pretend to have died, and claimed the Empress’ protection in return for becoming her resident authority on the Papirian menace. Is that about right, Lord Cassius?”

Biting his lower lip to keep from either smiling or grimacing, Cassius ground out, “More or less. Although I told the Empress she should just kill you and be done with it.”

“Well, that wasn’t very polite,” said Ignatia, her voice serene. “Actually, the Empress and I got on rather well. She visits me sometimes, to see how I’m going with my work.”

“Going with your work?” Cassius blinked.

“Oh yes, I’m writing a definitive history of Jovan under gens Sylvana,” said Ignatia airily. “The Empress is naturally interested in my progress.”

“I see,” said Cassius. “I can’t wait to tell Valentin. At any rate, since you are our resident authority on the Papirian menace, would you mind telling Lord Marcellus about the Papirian mark?”

Ignatia stood up. “I’ll do one better, shall I?” she said, and pulled aside her bodice to reveal her shoulder. “There it is.”

“Blessed few,” said Marcellus, stepping forward.

He examined the scars while Ignatia spoke over his head to Cassius: “Caught one, have you?”

“Yes, a man claiming to be Betigan Sylvanus has killed Lord Daron, head of gens Caela. I found the mark on his shoulder.”

“Oh my,” said Ignatia. When Marcellus stepped back, she released her bodice and straightened her clothes. “Well, I am not familiar with Betigan Sylvanus, but the Papirians would target minor branches of your family. They’ve probably been holding him in reserve for some time. Did he have many marks?”

“More than you,” said Cassius. “He must have been important.”

“Not necessarily.” Ignatia sat down. “If you had a fish, puffed up on its own importance, that you wanted to catch, how would you bait the hook?”

“You mean they mangled his shoulder to pander to his ego and then sent him on a suicide mission?”

Raising and lowering one shoulder, Ignatia said, “I imagine Valentin would recognise a kindred spirit in Magnus.” She saw Cassius flinch and said, a slow and malicious smile breaking across her face, “Oh, I forgot. Valentin and Magnus are old friends, aren’t they?”

“Thank you for your help, Ignatia,” said Cassius tightly. “Marc, it’s time to go.”

“It has been enlightening to meet you, Lady Ignatia,” said Marcellus.

Ignatia flicked them both an amused look and returned to her papers as they shut the door behind them.

“All right, I believe you about the Papirian mark,” said Marcellus as they returned to the palace. “Is that why you took me to see her?”

“It is important that you not tell anyone Lady Ignatia is alive.” Cassius bit his lip, then said, “When I tell the Empress what I have told you, she is going to send two forces. She is going to send a legionary company or two to chase Papirius around the spinal mountains, and she is going to summon the Sylvana affinity to march to Skydown and put down the rebellion Cirun Caelus is planning. I assume I will lead the latter force, and I want you to come with me.”

Marcellus frowned. “You want me to fight against my cousin?”

“I want you to talk sense into your cousin before the fighting starts. Lord Cirun will be counting on the affinity of gens Mereia, and I need you to convince him that the Sylvani are not behind this murder, and that Lady Isadora Mereius will not come to his aid if he takes up arms.”

“How do you know?”

Cassius shrugged. “I don’t, but neither will Lord Cirun. Marcellus, I am trying to save your cousin from a traitor’s death.”

“If…” Marcellus trailed off. “Never mind. Let me think about it.”

“No,” said Cassius. “You are not leaving the palace until this is done. At the moment, we have the advantage over gens Caela and gens Mereia, but if you leave, and tell your wife what I have told you, she will tell her mother, and we may indeed have a war between Sylvana and Mereia.”

Narrowing his eyes, Marcellus studied Cassius in silence. “I do not like what the capital has done to you, Commander.”

Cassius shrugged and rang for a guard. “Write Lady Caia a letter telling her you are convinced that this was a Papirian plot and that the Empress wished no harm to Lord Daron, and that you are coming with me to try and prevent any more Caela deaths.” When an Imperial Guard opened the door, he said, “Take Lord Marcellus to a guest room and give him pen and paper. When he has written a letter to his wife, bring it to me. He is to be guarded at all times, and must not leave the palace.”

“Yes, Commander,” said the guard.

“I am sorry, old friend,” said Cassius as Marcellus was escorted out. He didn’t look back.

Had the capital changed him? Cassius crossed his arms and leaned his weight on his right leg, staring absently at a fresco in the Empress’ anteroom. When he was admitted, he told her what he had found and what he had done.

Adrienne’s mouth was tight as she nodded. She gestured to Cesare and said, “Send the writs out to the nearer properties in Castlewood. I want two legions… no, one legion to march south immediately, and ten thousand of our men equipped and ready to march to Skydown by the end of the week. And send me Captain Gennaro.”

“At once, Empress,” said Cesare, and hurried away.

“Do you think that is sufficient, uncle?” said Adrienne, leaning forward and rubbing at the small of her back. “I don’t want to rely on the legionaries as their loyalty may be split.”

“Cirun will not have the chance to summon all twenty thousand men of his affinity in time to meet your forces,” said Cassius.

“That is my hope,” said Adrienne, sighing. She squeezed her eyes shut and grimaced.

“Are you all right, Empress?” said Cassius.

“Just tired,” said Adrienne. “My poor body does not seem inclined to ever recover from that poisoning in Caith’il Deran.”

“Perhaps you should try and get more sleep,” said Cassius solicitously, and stop spending your evenings with the man you cannot have.

“I get sufficient sleep, thank you, Lord Cassius,” said Adrienne. “You will lead our affinity?”

“Of course, Empress.” Cassius bowed.

Marcellus rode in stony silence beside Cassius along the high way to Skydown. It had taken them three weeks to get to the far end of the winding way that traversed the Spinal Mountains. Now they were in the Highvalley, riding towards the heart of the gens Caela family lands. Scouts reported that Cirun Caelus had most of his men camped a day’s ride further onto the plateau. The legionaries had already clashed with the Caeli, and had successfully blockaded the pass to the easternmost lands. A few companies had met the Sylvanus affinity two days ago. Cassius now rode at the head of an army twelve thousand strong, with the legionaries in formation at the vanguard and rearguard, and the Sylvani in a semi-organised mob in the middle. By now, Cirun had probably marshalled two thirds that number, but the legionaries blockading the low lands had prevented him from mobilising his full affinity.

Cassius remained hopeful that fighting could be avoided. He didn’t know what Marcellus thought.

They rode on, and made camp a half-day’s ride from the Caeli. The next morning, they took a thousand man and rode forward, under a parley flag. The Caeli had moved in the night, and it took less than an hour to reach them. Cirun Caelus met them on a grassy hill that surveyed the Caelus forces on one side, and, in the distance, the Sylvani.

“Cousin,” he said. He was a big, broad man, with a deep voice. Unlike his father, he was not fond of Monsilys. Also unlike his father, he was unused to commanding forces. The Highvalley was rich, fertile farming land, particularly suited to vegetables and winter fruits, and Cirun Caelus was a farmer.

“Lord Cirun,” said Marcellus, grimacing.

“And Lord Cassius, I think,” said Cirun. “What a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” His voice held no warmth, “and how brave of you to march into the Highvalley with fifteen thousand men. One would almost think it was I who had murdered your father.”

Cassius looked at Marcellus, who shifted his weight in his saddle and frowned.

“Lord Cirun, I have come to prevent you from doing something rash. Lay down your weapons and disband your affinity, and nothing more will be said.”

“And murderers will go unpunished?”

Cassius waited, but still Marcellus didn’t speak. “Your father’s death was not at the hand of the Empress, or at the wishes of gens Sylvana. The man who did it was at the beck of another master. He was slaughtered by your father’s loyal guards, but we found the mark on his body. He was a Papirian.”

Narrowing his eyes, Cirun looked at Marcellus, who sighed and said, “Perhaps, Lord Cassius, my cousin and I could speak in private.”

Running his hand through his hair, Cassius gestured, and the men withdraw out of earshot, leaving the two men on the hill, silhouetted in the midmorning sun.

A few minutes later, Marcellus turned his horse and rode towards them, while Cirun rode back towards his men. At Cassius’ questioning look, Marcellus said, “I do not like being used against my family, Lord Cassius.”

“Will he stand down?” said Cassius. Later, he thought he might mourn their friendship.

“I told him that I believed the Papirians had been involved, and that my wife and unborn child were in Monsilys in your family’s hands. I said I didn’t think gens Mereia would come to his aid. He listened to me, and afterwards thanked me and hoped my wife gave me a healthy child. Then he rode back to his men.”

“Lady Caia is pregnant again?” said Cassius awkwardly. “I’m sorry; I didn’t realise.”

Marcellus gave him a humourless half-smile.

Cassius was shaken awake by his servant in the early hours of the following morning. They had withdrawn to where the bulk of the troops were camped and pitched their tents.

“Commander,” said the servant, “the scouts report that the Caeli are on the move.”

“Toward us or away from us?” said Cassius, rubbing his eyes and rolling off his camp bed.

“Toward us,” said the servant.

“Damn.” Now wide awake, Cassius dressed quickly and his servant buckled on his armour and sword and settled the fur-trimmed cloak over his shoulders. Clanking, Cassius stomped out of the tent and met his commanders.

“How is the terrain?” he said.

One of the centurions said, “They are moving off the high ground to engage us.”

Cassius nodded. “Form ranks, then. Legionaries at the front and centre; Sylvani behind and to either side. Find any of our men who has a bow and put them on the flanks behind a couple of lines of legionaries. Bring me my horse, and find Lord Marcellus Mereius.”

Men jogged away to execute his commands.

Half an hour later, the two armies sized each other up. Cassius turned to find Marcellus beside him. “He isn’t seriously going to fight, is he?”

Marcellus shrugged. “He is grieving for his father and wants to punish someone for his death. And I suppose he would say that although you have the superior number, his men are fighting for something they believe in.”

“Then his men are going to die for something they believe in,” said Cassius grimly.

“A few of yours will die as well,” said Marcellus, and Cassius frowned at him. He rode out in front of the army, and a mounted figure detached from the hoard opposite and rode forward.

“Lord Cirun,” said Cassius, “you should reconsider your course of action.”

Cirun pulled his horse around, his armour chiming. “You tell me the Papirians are involved. My cousin tells me the Papirians are involved, and that you have his family. I ask him why in the world would a Papirian murder my father? He cannot answer. Can you, Lord Cassius Sylvanus?”

“I don’t know. They have long been enemies of Jovan and the Empress. Perhaps they foresaw the pass in which we find ourselves now.”

“I have thought about it, and I think in these cases the simplest explanation must be adhered to. Your despicable kinfolk murdered my father out of an old grudge, and I am going to exact retribution.” There were tears running down Lord Cirun’s face, but they in no way diminished his menace. “I want you to know, Lord Cassius, that I am going to try and kill you. I am going to direct my archers against your position, and set my infantry against you. Gens Sylvana will lose a scion today.”

Cassius bowed his head. “So be it, Lord Cirun,” he said, and rode away, the space between his shoulder blades itching.

Seeing him shake his head, the centurions started to bring the legion forward, shields in front of them, forming a wall. At the same time, the officers commanding the Sylvani ordered the bowmen into position. Behind him, Cassius could hear Cirun making the same preparations. He reached the line and rode through it, before turning his horse when he was out of arrow range. He studied the backs of his men’s heads, the officers and centurions turned towards him expectantly. A waiting silence settled over the plateau. Taking a deep breath, Cassius raised his hand and lowered it. The centurions shouted, and the legionaries moved forward.

Then the arrows began to fly.

Cassius lay awake in his tent listening to the sounds of the camp. His arm still ached with the impact of sword against sword, and he felt filthy and covered in blood, despite having washed as best he could with a basin and cloth. His servant slept on a pallet diagonally opposite him; he could hear the man’s deep, whistling breaths.

He supposed they had carried the day, but they hadn’t crushed the Caeli. Two thousand dead or wounded on their side. He estimated Cirun Caelus had lost three thousand or more, but the rest had fought on until exhaustion and the fading light had forced them to disengage.

As he had staggered from the battlefield, head aching, Cassius had thought nothing could keep him from sleep, but here he was, lying awake. He thought of his poor horse, which had taken an arrow in the haunch. The beast was still alive, but if it couldn’t walk by the time they had to leave, it would be killed. He thought of walking through the battlefield, surrounded by a tight formation of Sylvani, while Cirun’s forces broke against the legionary shields. He fancied he could hear the groans and shouts from the surgeons’ tents, even though they were on the other side of the camp.

He forced his mind onto other paths. He thought of Llewellyn, and a smile found its way onto his face. He hoped Llewellyn was well, and had found his family in Cambria. Then he thought of Laurentio, the shopkeeper’s son turned soldier who had been the first man to share Cassius’ bed, and who had died on the field at Jeunell. Then he thought of the handsome young cousin who had been leading a company of Sylvani, and who Cassius had last seen being carried from the field. His face had had the pallor of death.

He rustled around in his blankets until he had turned over and curled against the canvas wall of the tent.

They would fight again tomorrow.

There was fighting all around him. Cassius wheeled his horse around and galloped back, seeking high ground away from the all-consuming glitter and clash of sword against sword. His guards rode with him. It seemed as if this battle would never be over, but as Cassius fought his way into the clear, he realised that the legionaries and Sylvani were slowly but inexorably pushing back the Caeli. Some of them were surrendering. As he looked over the battlefield, he saw Cirun Caelus’ banner and he realised the head of gens Caelus was exposed, protected by only a handful of men. Gesturing a runner forward he said, “Tell the Centurions to concentrate on the right of the field, near that copse. Cirun is over there, undefended.”

An hour later, Cassius heard a shout, “I surrender.”

Someone else called, “Lay down your arms and you will be spared.”

It’s over, thought Cassius. He looked around him at the filthy, exhausted men, some heads hanging low, staring at their weapons cast away on the ground. Others with chins up, breathing through their teeth. There was very little to distinguish them. “See to the wounded, and send all the Caeli except the aura and argenta home.”

There were four aura including Cirun and seven argenta would be taken back to Monsilys to face whatever punishment the Empress saw fit to mete out. They all looked as dirty and tired as the rest of the Caeli.

Cirun Caelus was brought before him. Someone had bound his hands. Cassius said, “Unbind him. He is the head of a great Jovani family.”

While the rope was cut, Cirun watched Cassius. “Thank you. One day, when our positions are reversed, I will show you the same courtesy.”

“I think you’ve made enough threats today, Lord Cirun.” Cassius rubbed his hand across his eyes.

Marcellus appeared, and Cassius realised he couldn’t remember seeing Marcellus on the battlefield. Well, if Jovan had been at war with Caith’il Deran, Cassius would have had some qualms about fighting, so he supposed he couldn’t blame Marc if he had absented himself. Again Cassius pushed down the heaviness pushing into his ribcage. He couldn’t escape the thought that he had made the Empress an enemy. He wondered what Valentin would have done.

Leaving the bulk of the Sylvanus affinity to follow and disband at their own pace, Cassius rode with a company of legionaries and the prisoners. The second night of the journey back to Monsilys, they were camping in a large clearing of the forest which bordered the Highvalley. The next morning they would begin the descent through the mountains.

Cassius had collapsed into his bedroll and was drifting off to sleep when he heard a shout. He sat up, fishing around him for his sword. A centurion ducked his head in, lighting the tent with torchlight. “Commander,” he said, “a few Caeli followed us. They attacked and in the scuffle were killed. But Lord Cirun and Marcellus Mereius are missing.”

“Blessed few,” muttered Cassius. “Find them.”

“I already have men scouring the forest.”

Cassius shrugged on his tunic, shivering at the bitter cold until he had swung on his fur-lined cloak, which had been doubling as a blanket. Outside, the camp bustled with activity: legionaries jogged to and fro, fetching weapons and torches. Cassius could hear shouting as chase parties set out.

Surely Cirun and Marcellus didn’t actually expect to evade a company of legionaries? But in terrain like this there were many places to hide, and Cirun knew the territory.

Cassius wished Valentin were here. One question circled and swooped around in his mind: What will Adrienne do to them?

He knew Valentin would have a glib answer, but he had no idea what it would be. But if Valentin drew down his brows and said, “Crucifixion, I suspect,” then Cassius knew he would be able to ask Valentin to help, and Valentin would search the labyrinthine passages of his mind for a way to save Marc from the cross.

Of course—he thought back to Beold Ruben’s face contorting in pain as the poisoned honeywine took effect—Cassius didn’t always approve of Valentin’s methods.

He might be no politician, but he was a soldier, and he knew that if Cirun Caelus weren’t neutralised, the Empress would be forced to send a larger legionary troop to the Highvalley, by which time the Caeli’s allies, particularly the Mereii, would have had the chance to consider where their interests lay. It was not beyond the realm of possibility that all-out war could result.

Cassius made a quick circuit of the camp and was heading to the horse pen when the centurion jogged up. “We have them,” he said.

“Oh, thank the blessed few,” Cassius muttered. Setting his chin, he stomped after the centurion to where Cirun and Marcellus stood, chins tilted at identical, defiant angles. Marcellus’ gaze fixed on Cassius the moment he strode into sight. Cassius looked back, trying to think what he might say.

In the end, he sighed and said, “From now on, all aura prisoners will ride bound to their pommel, led by a legionary. At night, they will sleep tethered to a stake. If honour will not keep them here, we must be more strict.”

He rolled his shoulders and looked up at the tops of the trees, then turned and strode away.

They would reach Monsilys the next day. Cassius had wanted for several days to talk to Marcellus, but every time he thought about it, he remembered the way Marcellus’ face would twinge and he would rub his injured leg, or the way he looked kissing his way down Cassius’ chest. Or, more cruelly, Cassius’ mind would conjure the image of what Marcellus would look like having his wrists nailed to the beam of a cross.

Tonight, though, would be his last opportunity. He forced himself to walk through the camp to the tent, inside which Cirun and Marcellus sat, hands bound and tethered to the tent pole. Cassius gestured, and a legionary undid Marcellus’ bonds and gestured him outside.

“Cassius,” said Marcellus, rubbing his wrist.

Cassius drew him a few paces away, still well within the protective circle of the camp, and under the watch of several legionaries. “Why did you do it?”

Sighing, Marcellus said, “For family obviously. Cirun and I grew up together.” He leaned his weight on his good leg and pressed his thumb into the meat of his thigh.

“Is your leg hurting you?”

“Didn’t the legionaries tell you? That is why we didn’t get away. My damned leg. And Cirun wouldn’t go on without me.”

Tightening his lips, Cassius said, “You know that you may both be crucified for this.”

Marcellus blanched. “But…”

“And you with a wife and a child on the way. Aren’t they your family too?”

“I didn’t think…”

“No.” Cassius made a cutting motion. “What about gens Mereia? What about me? We were friends. You should have trusted me.”

“You haven’t been much of a friend lately,” said Marcellus.

“I brought you with me to prevent bloodshed. You not only failed to do that, you implicated yourself in gens Caela’s treason.”

Marcellus looked at him steadily, and Cassius felt blood rush to his face.

“I would like to go back to my cousin now.”

Cassius nodded and gestured to the legionary. As Marcellus walked away, Cassius said, “I’m going to try and save you.”

Without looking back, Marcellus said, “I appreciate that, Lord Cassius.”

As they reached the Monsilys plain the next morning, A troop of riders detached themselves from the shadow of the city walls and galloped towards them. Cassius saw the leading figure was his brother.

“Valentin,” he said, as he brought his horse alongside. He offered Valentin his arm, and they clasped hands briefly. “It is good to see you.”

“Good gracious me,” said Valentin. “I go to the coast for a week and you get yourself mixed up in a rebellion.”

“On the side of the blessed few this time,” said Cassius dryly.

“Mm. The Empress has had your messenger. The lords Cirun Caelus and Marcellus Mereius ne Caelus tried to escape.”

Cassius looked down at his reins. “Yes. What do you think she will do. Crucifixion?”

“Not for Cirun. Come on.” Valentin wheeled his horse around, and they column moved off towards the city.

“Not for Cirun?” Cassius echoed.

“If she executes the head of gens Caela, there is a tidy succession to Cirun’s younger brother Bertius, who has even more reason to hate the Sylvani. If she imprisons him in the keep, or exiles him from Jovan, there is no transition, and the family is weakened. Bertius will still take over, but his every move will be made with reference to his absent brother.”

“I see,” said Cassius, “and Marcellus?”

Valentin’s eyebrows drew down. “I’m sorry, Cassius. If it was me, I would execute him. Sever the link between Caela and Mereia, and send a clear message that rebellion will be punished.”

Cassius felt his hair stand on end. He didn’t think he could watch calmly from his horse as Marcellus was raised onto a cross to bleed, starve or suffocate to death. “Can you save him?”

After a moment of thoughtful silence, Valentin said, “For you brother, I will try. But it may be better for Jovan if he were to die.”

“I understand,” said Cassius in a small voice.

Adrienne sat on the throne, looking out over the assembled aura as if she scarcely noticed their presence. There was a small furrow between her brows and her chin was set. Her hands curled over the armrest were heavy with rubies, and diamonds glittered from her throat and the diadem wound into her hair. She had already been seated when Cassius was shown in. He stood to Adrienne’s right with Kyria, Adelais and Caspar. Valentin had not yet arrived.

Since they had returned to Monsilys the previous day, Cassius had hardly seen Valentin, who had even been absent when Cassius had given Adrienne his report. He had wished Valentin there to put an eloquent gloss on Cassius’ clumsy words about what a loyal soldier Marcellus had been, and how Cassius owed his life many time over to Marcellus on the battlefield.

Cassius looked down at his hands. His mind kept circling back to the moment when he had all-but asked Valentin to put his interests above the Empire’s. Beside him, Adelais shifted, rustling her skirts.

“Good morning, brother.” Cassius looked up to find Valentin standing in front of him. “Are you ready? They are about to show your rebels in.”

Swallowing, Cassius nodded. Valentin studied him for a moment, then put his hand out and briefly clasped Cassius’ shoulder.

Cirun and Marcellus had been housed in the Keep since being brought to Monsilys, and were both dressed neatly. Cirun wore the medallion of gens Caela, while Marcellus’ medallion had the mountain of gens Caela crossed with the Mereia dolphin.

Adrienne frowned and said, “Lord Cirun Caelus and Lord Marcellus Mereius. You stand accused of treason and rebellion.” Cassius looked down at his lap and tried to breathe steadily as Adrienne recited their crimes.

“Lord Cirun, we will deal with you first. You have shown a lack of respect for the Empire or the bonds of loyalty you owe Jovan. But we acknowledge the mitigating circumstance of Lord Daron’s death, and in particular your erroneous belief that we had some hand in it. Knowing personally the effect that a beloved father’s death can have, we have decided to be lenient. When we are finished here, you will be taken to the Keep, and will stay there until it is our pleasure to release you.”

Cirun bowed his head. Out of the corner of his eye, Cassius saw Valentin nod. Then Adrienne said, “Lord Marcellus Mereius,” her tone cold, and Valentin’s stance shifted, his expression set. Cassius swallowed hard.

Adrienne continued: “Your actions are more difficult to forgive. You, we understand, knew full well that the death of Lord Daron Caelus was a Papirian plot intended to destabilise our realm, and you knew your duty to assist Commander, Lord Cassius to bring Cirun Caelus to Monsilys to face justice. And yet, you chose to try and help him escape. Do you have anything to say?”

Marcellus bit his lip. “Only that I acted out of family loyalty. I hoped to convince my cousin Cirun that his father’s death was not what it seemed, so that he would come to you in humility and beg your forgiveness, rather than being dragged to Monsilys in chains.”

Adrienne raised her eyebrows. “Did you chain Lord Cirun, Cassius?”

“I—er…” Cassius looked at Marcellus’ ear. “Only after he tried to escape.”

“You are guilty of hyperbole, Lord Marcellus,” said Adrienne.

“My apologies, Empress.”

“And what about the loyalty you owe gens Mereia?”

A woman stepped forward, and Cassius recognised Lady Caia, Marcellus’ wife. She was heavily pregnant, throwing her weight backwards to balance her belly. She stepped forward and came to stand beside her husband. Adrienne narrowed her eyes. Cassius looked over at Valentin: he seemed pleased with himself.

“Was that your doing?” Cassius whispered.

“Shh,” said Valentin.

Caia Mereius leaned against Marcellus’ side and wrapped her arm around his. “May I speak?” she said. Adrienne inclined her head. “Empress, please spare my husband. He is a good a true servant of Jovan and is very dear to me and to gens Mereius. We would feel his loss deeply.”

Cassius heard the threat and knew Adrienne did too. They needed gens Mereia to hold the south.

Adrienne studied her for a moment, then turned her attention to Marcellus. “The penalty for what you have done is death by crucifixion. Our uncle, Lord Cassius, tells us that you are a good soldier who served and was wounded in the service of the Empire. Lord Valentin tells us that we may put you to better use than as food for the crows.”

She paused, visibly considering her next words. “But, Lord Marcellus, we have a problem. Your loyalty is split. You serve too many masters. You cannot serve the Empire and two great gentes. You should serve the Empire first, and second the gens you took as your own when you married Lady Caia. Instead, you put gens Caela above all else. Look at your wife. How could you contemplate treason when it would be bought at such a dear price to those who should be closest to your heart?”

Marcellus bowed his head.

Adrienne drummed her fingers against the armrest. “If you wish to live, you must forswear gens Caela. You will no longer have the right to wear the medallion, or call yourself Marcellus ne Caelus. Your conversing with any member of gens Caela will result in an immediate charge of treason. If you do not accept these terms, you will be taken to the Keep and from there to the south road, where you will be crucified and left to die in whatever way befalls you most swiftly.”

There was silence in the throne room. “Lord Cirun, do you have something to say?” said Adrienne. Cassius held his breath.

Cirun Caelus stepped forward, a deeply pensive look on his face as he said, “Marc, please believe I am doing this because I love you.” He took a deep breath. “Lord Marcellus Mereius, formerly of the Caeli, I declare you anathema to gens Caela. You are no kin of ours. No Caelus will open his hearth to you, nor share his meal. You have no right to succour or sanctuary on Caelus lands. Your name will be spoken no more from the eastern plain to the Highvalley.”

“Very clever,” murmured Valentin. Cassius watched Marcellus, feeling a physical wrench. He knew what it meant to have his family ripped away from him.

Marcellus had turned his head to look at his cousin. Now he turned back to the Empress, shoulders slumped. “It appears I have no choice. I thank you for your mercy. Please believe that I am as ever your loyal servant.”

Cassius released his breath as Cirun stepped forward and, not meeting his eyes, removed Marcellus’ medallion with the Caelus arms from its ribbon.

“Lord Marcellus Mereius, you will return to Anasylvia.” Adrienne’s voice was cool. “You are banished from the Imperial Province until such time as we summon you. Be grateful you are leaving by the high way and not the dark road.”

She gestured and Marcellus and Cirun were escorted away. Cassius felt a full-body shudder go through him. “Thank you,” he said to Valentin.

Valentin nodded. “I hope we won’t regret that.”

“Surely there will be another chance to make an example of someone?” said Cassius.

“Let us hope not,” said Valentin, “and if there is, let us hope he is not a friend of yours.”

In a stifled voice, Cassius said, “Indeed.”

“Thank you for sparing him,” said Cassius as he walked alongside the Empress back to the family wing.

Adrienne sighed. “I don’t think I should have.” She was leaning heavily on the blackwood cane. “But I am weak, Uncle Cassius. I couldn’t kill a man with a pregnant wife. Not with her standing right there next to him like he was the only thing holding her upright.”

“You have a kind heart,” said Cassius.

“Sometimes one must die to prevent the deaths of thousands,” said Adrienne. “I hope Lord Marcellus was not that one.”

She turned as Valentin came up alongside. “What would my father have done, Uncle Valentin?”

“Your father was sometimes merciful to traitors,” said Valentin. Cassius admired his composure. “If you have a moment, we have had an intelligence report from Alysia you need to hear.”

They walked into the guard room that marked the entrance to Adrienne’s quarters and through to her private sitting room.

Sitting down on a sofa, Adrienne looked at Valentin expectantly.

“Do you remember Elloran Fabius?” said Valentin.

“Not personally,” said Adrienne, “he was killed at the Battle of Tyresine.” Elloran Fabius had been the head of gens Fabius, Prince Capistan of Sal Sirona’s elder brother. His death more or less ended the civil war.

“Yes, well, we’ve had reports from Alysia of a boy calling himself the Fair Prince of Jovan and claiming to be the grandson of Elloran Fabius.”

“What? Why weren’t we aware of this?”

“Apparently Lord Elloran’s wife was with child when she fled Jovan. She raised her son on an Alysine farm, and now his son is claiming Jovan as his birth right.”

Adrienne sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “What’s his name?”

“If he is who he claims? Lord Leo Fabius.”

“And who is his mother?”

“Unfortunately, she is the daughter of one of the Alysine royal dukes.”

“Damn. Is this Fair Prince a threat?”

“Not at present. He is barely sixteen, and has set up a petty court in the Alysine capital. He has the support of his other grandfather, the Duke of Bel Alys, but he can command no more than twenty thousand men, and Alysia is a long way from Jovan. Are you all right?”

“I have a shocking headache,” said Adrienne. “Tomorrow I would like a full report on Lord Leo Fabius. And place spies in this petty court.”

“Of course, Empress,” said Valentin, bowing. They left Adrienne making her way into her bedchamber to lie down.

“When did you find out about this?” said Cassius as they left.

“Two days ago,” said Valentin, quickening his pace.

“And you kept it from the Empress because you thought it would change Marcellus’ sentence.”

“I thought she should focus on one threat at a time.”

“I see.” Guilt coiled in Cassius’ stomach.

“Console yourself, brother. Two days makes very little difference when it is a six-week voyage to Alysia, and if I had truly believed Leo Fabius posed an immediate threat, I would not have withheld the information.”

They had reached Cassius’ quarters by now. Valentin left Cassius with a brief clasp of his shoulder. Cassius doffed his cloak and left it on the bed and crossed to the window just in time to see Lord Marcellus Mereius being escorted from the palace.


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