Part 10: "Love"
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. :)
The air in the room was cold, and the banked fire was no comfort, but Valentin felt warm, inside and out.
He lay on his back under the furs and blankets, Elodia curled by his side, his head turned to the side to survey the atrium through a gauze-curtained window.
Elodia woke and blinked up at him, her eyelids settling at half-mast and a little smile digging into the corner of her lips.
“Good morning, my sweet saviour,” said Valentin, putting his knuckle under her chin. “What do you have on today?”
She raised her eyebrows. “I told you last night, Lord Valentin. I have to go to the market, and then the tutor is coming to sit with me in the afternoon.” Her young brow crinkled. “He says I am improving…”
“Good,” said Valentin.
“I suppose.” The frown wiped away. “Will you visit tonight?”
“Yes, and that reminds me, we will have guests.”
“Your brother?” said Elodia, vaguely hopeful.
“No, the others. You know who.”
“I do.” Elodia sighed and rolled over. “You never invite Lord Cassius anymore.”
“I didn’t realise you were so fond of him.” There was a stifled silence. Valentin broke it by saying, “Damn, I forgot. There’s a family breakfast. Blast it.” Leaning out of the bed, he pulled the bell. Then, sucking in a deep breath, he stuck one foot then the other out from under the blankets. “Blessed few, it’s a chilly morning.”
Elodia was lying on her side, her back to him. “Mm,” she said, “I think I’ll stay abed for another hour.”
“Lucky you.” Valentin followed feet with legs and stood, shivering, on the rug. In the distance he heard a pounding on the door. “I expect that’s my escort.”
He went to the washstand and splashed face and neck with water, then got dressed. All in all, he kept the four Imperial Guards waiting for a very moderate half hour, and then he was ready to be hauled to the palace.
All except Adrienne were waiting on the terrace when he arrived. The chairs were draped with fur, and when he sat down he discovered there were heated rocks at his feet. Some thoughtful attendant had placed braziers out in the courtyard, and the onlookers clustered around them like moths.
Adelais and Caspar sat along one side of the table, with Valentin and Cassius opposite. Kyria sat at the foot. After five minutes or so, Adrienne arrived with due fanfare. She nodded to the assembled family and sat down.
“Did Lady Luvina get away safely?” asked Caspar.
Valentin looked at him blankly for a moment, then said, “Oh yes, I assume so. I was busy at the time, alas.”
“You were too busy to see your own wife and son off?” said Adelais.
“My dear, not all marriages are as happy as yours will undoubtedly be.” Because he was watching for it, he saw Caspar and Adrienne flinch almost in unison. “I had other commitments, and Lady Luvina would have drawn neither comfort nor pleasure from my farewells.”
“I still think that was rather rude,” said Adelais.
“You’re right, of course.” Valentin watched Adrienne’s downcast face. Adrienne’s and Caspar’s hands sat on the table, barely a hand span apart, smallest fingers yearning towards one another.
Looking away, he caught Kyria watching him thoughtfully. Usually she tried as hard as she could to ignore him, so this was an intriguing change.
And it only took her two years to acknowledge my existence, he thought with a pinch of self-mocking.
“Lady Kyria.” Valentin jogged to catch up with her quick steps as they left the terrace.
She turned. Ah, there was the expression he was used to, as if someone had waved rotten fish under her nose. “Yes?”
“I—er—how are you?”
“I am very well. I am always well.”
“I am glad to hear it.”
They walked side by side for a while, then Kyria said, “I have been meaning to thank you, Lord Valentin.”
Valentin blinked. “For what?”
“I realise that it was you behind Bracchus Platinus’ supporting my plan for the Dusk and the Docks.”
“Ah.” Valentin smiled. “I hope you will forgive my presuming to interfere.”
“For the sake of the men and women I have been able to help, I will.”
They walked on. The hallway was empty; Valentin wasn’t sure where they were going. He wondered if Kyria knew. “I have not been very kind to you, Lord Valentin,” said Kyria, her gaze focused ahead.
Unexpectedly, a lump rose in Valentin’s throat. He was seventeen again, facing the fiery anger of his brother Dolmus, and Lady Kyria’s marble statue indifference.
“I didn’t want Adrienne to recall you to the capital.”
On more solid ground, Valentin said dryly, “I suspected as much.”
“But she needed her uncles. She needed allies. And when she asked me why I objected to your return, I couldn’t force myself to tell her.” Kyria sighed. “After all that time, I suppose I thought you deserved a second chance.”
“But you never forgave me.”
Kyria darted a quick look at him.
“No,” said Kyria. Valentin had braced himself for the answer, but he still felt it like the echo of a fist to the sternum.
“Did he ever forgive you?”
She sighed. They were passing a long window which led into the garden. Valentin took Kyria’s arm and pulled her through. She allowed herself to be spun around, and hung off his arm, eyes downcast, “Not really: enough for us to get by. He loved me, and I him, so very much. That made it very hard for him.”
“A strange kind of love, that holds betrayal so close to its chest.”
Kyria pulled her arm away and looked up at him. “Don’t be disingenuous, Valentin,” she said.
“You’re right; my apologies,” said Valentin, rubbing his hand across his face. “I imagine you were equally worried that I would tell Adrienne what happened.”
Kyria’s spine straightened. “I didn’t flinch in telling my husband. I don’t fear my daughter finding out.”
“And yet neither you nor Dolmus ever told her. You didn’t think as Empress she would need to know what a snake her Uncle Valentin was? Or were you both too ashamed?”
“Don’t tempt me to do something rash,” said Kyria, and stepped back through into the palace.
Valentin leaned against the wall and smiled. A second chance.
While he stood there, a group of servants appeared and set three chairs and a table on the grass. Adrienne and Caspar emerged from the atrium and went to sit down, wrapping themselves in furs against the chilly wind. Adrienne had a sheaf of papers that she began to read, while Caspar fidgeted with a wooden puzzle-board. A servant stood by ready to serve them hot wine.
The third seat remained empty. Valentin supposed it must be for Adelais, but she did not appear. Every now and then, Adrienne reached over to point to a block on the puzzle-board, and Caspar laughed and moved it.
Valentin narrowed his eyes. What clever children. He stepped down onto the grass and approached them, like a hunter stalking prey.
“Empress, Prince Caspar,” he said. “What a lovely idea. May I sit?”
“That seat is for my sister,” said Adrienne, turning around to look back at the door, “but she hasn’t come down yet.” The words rang hollow, confirming Valentin’s suspicion that they had set the third chair out as a pretence, to mask the fact that they wanted to spend time together.
“Mmhmm,” said Valentin, sitting down. “I will happily yield the seat when its fair owner arrives.”
Adrienne blushed and looked down at her paperwork. Caspar stood hurriedly, tumbling furs onto the grass. “Perhaps I should go and find her.” He hadn’t yet successfully met Valentin’s eyes since he spilled his guts about the whole love affair to Valentin a month ago.
Adrienne nodded, still looking at her lap.
Leaning back in the chair, Valentin drawled, “Adelais is always late. She’ll appear in her own time, and won’t thank you for trying to hurry her on.”
“Nonetheless,” said Caspar in a fading voice.
“Oh, sit down. You’re behaving very guiltily, Prince Caspar. I fear you’ll never make a politician.”
Caspar sank into his seat.
“After all, you’re doing nothing wrong, sitting out here in full view of the palace, attended by servants. It isn’t as if you’re meeting clandestinely, is it?”
A quick look passed between them, and Caspar stood up. “I think I will go and find Princess Adelais,” he said, and escaped the scene.
Adrienne set the paperwork on the table and looked at her uncle. “Lord Valentin, do you have something to say to me?” she said.
“No, my dear,” said Valentin. “Do you have anything you wish to discuss with me? Any advice you wish to seek? I am entirely at your disposal, and, I hope you know, very discreet.”
“You appear to be under the impression that there is something clandestine, as you put it, occurring between Prince Caspar and me. You are incorrect. We are friends and I wish him to feel welcome in Monsilys. Prince Caspar is committed to marrying my sister Adelais.”
“There were good reasons why we sought Prince Caspar for Adelais,” said Valentin gently. “The prize of your blessed hand in marriage is too great to be given away to a Confederated Provinces princeling.”
“I know that, Lord Valentin.”
“Have you considered where that favour might fall? To the prince of Baetica, perhaps? Or Lord Pavely Solus?”
“The prince of Baetica is seventeen.”
“The same age as Adelais, who even now joyfully contemplates her nuptials.”
“Do you think she is too young to marry? Have I pushed her into this too fast?” Adrienne looked across at him, a strange hope shining in her eyes.
“Lady Kyria was wed at sixteen. Don’t you think she had doubts about marrying your father so young? She was frightened of coming to Jovan, and in the early months, frightened of your father, who could be very stern even as a young man. But she did her duty, as will Adelais.”
He sat back. He thought Kyria would approve of this speech.
Adrienne’s looked out over his shoulder. “Thank you, Lord Valentin. That will be all.”
He left her sitting statuesque, gazing out over the garden and looking very much like her mother.
Valentin lay awake, a pleasant muzziness giving him courage to venture down mental pathways he usually avoided. Kyria: the perfect widow, the perfect imperial mother, and apparently the perfect Empress Consort for the best part of seventeen years.
But in his mind’s eye, he saw the girl she had been, holding heavy brocade skirts out of the way as she laid a first step on Jovani soil. Fifteen years old, and looked rather like Adelais did now: dark, sleek hair; dark eyes; and blushing skin.
Dolmus, already stern at twenty-one, had stepped forward to take her hand, but it was Valentin’s eyes she had caught and held.
Shaking his head on the pillow, Valentin turned over as if to turn his back on that image. Elodia shifted and grumbled, a warm lump pressed against his back.
He had never slept beside Kyria in this easy intimacy: it was intimacy born of having no stakes in the game. Love, in Valentin’s experience, was never easy.
The wedding had been the same afternoon as Kyria arrived. There was no period of acquaintance, of testing whether the union would suit. It had been decided between Dolmus and Kyria’s elder brother, the Skyan king, and so it was done with no fuss, but much ceremony.
Valentin had been among those jeering and hustling Dolmus towards the wedding bed. Then, his thoughts had contained a comfortable sort of pity for the bride: Dolmus’ nervousness made him cold and severe. Valentin had been only twelve, but without particularly understanding what it might entail, he thought he should like the opportunity to give Kyria a proper tumbling.
Later, Valentin had reflected on Dolmus’ good fortune in being able to chose a wife from among the many exotic foreign princesses, and hoped when his turn came Dolmus would choose someone as pretty as Kyria.
The new imperial couple hadn’t been happy, but they had done their duty, and less than a year later, Adrienne was born. Valentin got used to being called lord; he had lost the title of prince when he lost his place in the succession.
Years passed, and Valentin grew into what he considered manhood. Lady Kyria taught him to play Skyan card games; they rarely saw Dolmus. And there was Magnus whispering in his ear: Magnus who used Valentin’s nascent feelings for the beautiful, unhappy Lady Kyria like he used all the other petty vanities of an adolescent boy.
Kyria hadn’t been indifferent to him. In another world, if they had been shepherd boys and she a weaver’s daughter, she would have chosen Valentin over Dolmus. If there had ever been any choice at all, she would have chosen Valentin.
For two glorious weeks, she had. When he was sixteen and she almost twenty. She had come to him in the night and he had loved her with all his heart and his body.
Magnus had approved. He had whispered to Valentin of countries where, if husband and wife found they didn’t suit, they might separate and be free to marry others. Valentin imagined what it would be like if they were married. He imagined himself in Dolmus’ place, with Kyria by his side.
Shivering, Valentin drew his knees up to his chest and pulled the blanket over his shoulders.
He had done wrong. Kyria was right to despise him, to wish him far away from Monsilys. But she had said she thought he deserved a second chance.
He fell asleep envisaging the glossy fall of her hair spread out against his pillow.
Valentin watched the Empress over the rim of his wineglass.
“These children are repeating the mistakes of their fathers,” he murmured, although he couldn’t decide whether his sympathies should lie with Adelais, the jilted younger sibling, or Adrienne, in love with her sister’s intended.
All three of them, Caspar included, deserved better than the situation they were in, but that was the nature of royal marriages.
Luvina must be almost home in Whitefields. And there was still no law in Jovan to allow divorce. He wondered if Adrienne would consider it. If Caspar married Adelais, perhaps she would. He quirked a dark smile.
“What has you so ruminative, brother?” said Cassius.
Valentin tilted his head. “What do you think?”
“I think Adrienne should marry him,” said Cassius quietly.
“Even if it weakened her enough that she had to marry you off to shore up her position?”
“Surely it wouldn’t come to that. Caspar’s a princeling, but he has the Confederated Provinces behind him.”
“You continue to be determinedly naive,” said Valentin, resting his chin on his hand.
“If you are so sure of the right course, why do you ask me about it?”
Curling his lip Valentin said, “I find doomed love nauseating.”
“Mm,” said Cassius, “ever the pragmatist.”
Valentin was fairly sure Cassius didn’t know about Kyria; Cassius assumed that Dolmus’ spy network had been their undoing. If he knew the true cause of his seventeen year exile, he would understand why Valentin was a pragmatist, as he called it.
But if Cassius knew, there would be no forgiveness.
After dinner, Valentin followed Kyria until they were alone in one of the hallways branching off the atrium. “Lady Kyria,” he said, and she turned around.
“Yes, Lord Valentin?” she said.
“How goes your work with the unfortunates of Monsilys?”
Kyria’s shoulders lost some of their tension. “Very well, thank you. The safe house has ten women living in it and the City Guard have closed down several brothels which were using illegal slave labour.”
“I wondered about the possibility of opening a similar house in Tyresine. I have substantial business interests in the city, so I think I would be in a position to make the setting up of such a place go smoothly.”
“Many people import slaves through Tyresine,” said Kyria. “Slaves legally branded and bought in Baetica are one thing, but I have heard those slavers sometimes pick up street children or Alysine refuges and mix them in with the slaves so the authorities don’t notice. We could do a lot of good in Tyresine.”
“I will get my man on it, shall I?” said Valentin, wondering if he could plausibly task Emillian, his wife’s lover, with wading through the Tyresine stews to fish out illegal slaves. Probably not.
“Thank you, I would be glad of your help.”
Valentin nodded. His heart began to pound as the silence stretched between them. “I was thinking about what you said yesterday. About second chances.”
“Were you?” She didn’t meet his eye.
The words escaped before he could stop them: “The things I have done for love of you…” He bit his tongue. “I was wrong to pursue you when you were married to my brother. But we could be together now.”
“I may be widowed,” said Kyria dryly, “but you still have a wife.”
“We are separated. Luvina asks for no fidelity from me, nor I from her.”
Kyria sighed. “When we were young…” She looked up into his face, then away. “No, too much has happened since then, Valentin. Dolmus and I had a life together. In the end, I loved him dearly and I was very happy with him. You have had many women, I think, and have proven yourself unable to cleave to any of them. We cannot go back to those children we were. To think we can is a fantasy.”
“Some fantasy,” said Valentin around a constriction in his throat. “You came to me because you were pregnant and knew it was safe. You betrayed me because you hold your duty dearer than any living thing. As my brother would say, how pragmatic.”
Kyria shook her head pityingly. “For all your airs, you are still no more than a silly, spoiled boy. I am a princess of Skya and Empress Consort of Jovan. In a month, or a year, I will be married again, to a man chosen by my daughter or by King Ulyr of Skya. I will do my duty again; it is all I have.”
A flush had risen on her neck. Valentin stared at her collarbone, fascinated. He barely heard her words. He knew they would sink in later. “You could have me,” he said quietly.
Studying his face, Kyria continued, “I wanted you to have a second chance for your own sake, not mine. Try to do good with it.”
Valentin turned and leaned against the wall as she walked away. “Duty,” he muttered, and smacked the palm of his hand hard against the painted stone. He stomped through the atrium onto the terrace, where the torchlight illuminated his breath puffing out into the cold air.
Duty, she said, as if she were some paragon of the virtue.
Valentin paced up and down the terrace, barely feeling the chill.
Duty, as if she had never come to him, whispering sweetly to him how she loved him, as if he had never moved above her, kissed her neck, and felt her arms twine around his shoulders.
He hadn’t known that she was pregnant. He had learned when she lost the child, which if it had lived would have been two years older than Adelais. Then it had all made sense; Kyria had been sick for weeks. When they had lain together, he had wanted to pull out, to spend his seed elsewhere, but she had pulled him close and said, No, it’s all right. It’s safe.
Valentin reflected bitterly that for all his own supposed sins, she had been the first to give him a proper lesson in intrigue. And now she lectured him about duty and goodness.
Curling his lips into a grimace, he went through to the courtyard and called his carriage. A few hours later, blind drunk and substantially poorer, he stumbled up to a blue-painted door in the Dusk.
Elodia met him, deshabillé in a fur-trimmed robe, sweetly inquiring.
“My sweet saviour,” he said, and swept her up into his arms. He carried her through the house to the bedroom and threw her on the bed. She sprawled, looking up at him, auburn hair like a crown around her head.
“What is it?” she said, and he pressed his lips to hers and sucked the words away.
The next morning, Valentin walked up to the palace, the crisp, dry air clearing his head. He found Cesare in the atrium and said, “Does the Empress have a moment? I wish to speak to her on a matter of some importance.”
When he was shown into the Empress’ study, he found her dressed in a fine-woven wool dress and a sable mantle against the early morning cold. She was standing in front of a table, studying a large rolled-out map.
“Good morning Uncle Valentin,” she said.
“Empress.” He bowed. “I wished to speak with you.”
“Come here a moment.” Adrienne beckoned him over. “Thank you, Cesare. You may go.” The door shut behind the steward, leaving Adrienne and Valentin alone in the room. “I have been thinking about what you said the other day.”
Valentin laced his fingers together and said, “Yes, Empress?”
“If I were to marry Prince Caspar myself, what would be the consequences? The benefit would be gaining an ally on the Council of the Confederated Provinces, which may insulate us against any further threats from Prince Capistan Fabius de Sirona.”
“An objective which is equally achieved by the marriage contemplated between your sister and Prince Caspar.”
“Yes, but we both know the bond will be closer.”
“True. So, we neutralise the threat from Sal Sirona, which is not trivial given Prince Capistan is kinsman to this Fair Prince who has popped up in Alysia.”
“I hadn’t forgotten. So, the consequences?”
“If you marry Prince Caspar? I assume you mean discounting the domestic disharmony that may arise?”
Adrienne squared her shoulders. “I do.”
“Well, your blessed majesty has several threats she must look to. Internally, the recent exercise with Cirun Caelus has shown us that the south is not unwavering in its loyalty. If you were to marry a Mereius, you would neutralise that threat. Or, if you married Lord Pavely Solus, you would ally the two greatest affinities in the Empire.”
“Whereas if I give them Adelais, the tie is weaker.”
“Particularly once you produce an heir and remove her from the succession.”
“Externally, aside from the threat posed by the Fabians, you have Baetica and Merot to the north and, of course, the ongoing trouble in Gallica. Deusetats would side with Merot and what remains of Gallica if they saw that you were weak.”
“The King will bend whichever way the wind blows.”
“Which is why you want me to marry his son. I should like to annexe Merot and Deusetats anyway,” said Adrienne, half to herself. “Queen Sekhmede has been a thorn in my side for years, and I would love to get my hands on the Deusetatsi mines.”
“Admirable aims,” said Valentin, “which an alliance with Baetica would help to achieve.”
“I take your point.” She narrowed her eyes and studied the map. “So how can I achieve the same ends if I take myself off the board? Do I send Adelais to Baetica for the Crown Prince?”
“You will need her closer to home, I think.”
“We could promise him Prince Felix for one of his daughters, then.”
Valentin nodded. “The conquest of Merot and Deusetats would have to wait until the union was made, but the promise would most likely keep Baetica from meddling in Jovani affairs in the meantime.” Blessed few, Luvina would hate the idea of Felix going to Baetica, even in the far future.
“What is Uncle Cassius’ disposition towards marriage?”
“He, ah, does not view it favourably,” said Valentin, “but would of course do his duty.”
Adrienne ran her fingers through the ends of her hair. “Well, I can’t ask less of him than I’m asking of my seventeen year old sister.”
Valentin brushed his hand across his face, remembering the various arguments he had had with Cassius over that very issue. Adrienne continued to study the map, a little crease between her eyebrows.
“May I ask whether you are decided that you will marry Prince Caspar?”
Adrienne bit her lip and straightened up. “I love him,” she said.
“Then let us hope we will not come to the point of selling either Adelais or Cassius to seal an alliance.”
“You must be glad you are already married, Uncle Valentin.”
“Not at all,” said Valentin smoothly. “I would gladly marry a Baetican princess for your sake.”
Adrienne patted him on the arm and sighed. “Don’t say anything of this to anyone.”
“Of course not, Empress,” said Valentin, and bowed himself out.
He found Cassius exactly where he expected to: in the practice ring. Cassius saw him and set down his sword, wiping sweat from his face with a linen cloth. “I think Tamlin misses sparring with Prince Felix,” he said.
“Yes, I should send a swordmaster to Whitefields,” said Valentin.
“We could visit there sometime. I could amuse Felix well enough.”
“Leaving me with Luvina? No thank you.”
“She is your wife, Valentin. Don’t you think you could try to get along with her, instead of pulling horrible pranks like sending her to that house in the Dusk you’ve set your mistress up in?”
Valentin shrugged. “We’re like two cats in a bag. I try to be kind to her by leaving her alone, because the instant we’re in the same room, I can’t help sharpening my claws. It makes it worse that I was once rather fond of her.”
“But you didn’t love her?”
Valentin thought of Luvina, Domina, Isobel, Kyria and all the other women he had known. “I don’t think I’m very good at love,” he said.
“That’s terribly sad, Valentin,” said Cassius.
“Mm, well, we all have our talents.” Valentin rolled his shoulders. “When you’re cleaned up, come and see me. I want to tell you something.”
Cassius nodded and turned back to the ring. An hour or so later, Valentin was sitting in his room, staring distractedly out at the gardens when he saw Adrienne leading Caspar out of the terrace and down through the formal gardens to the hedgerows.
He stood up, snatching a wool cloak from the chest and opened the door to find Cassius, hand raised to knock. “Come on, brother,” said Valentin, grabbing Cassius’ elbow and dragging him down the stairs and out of the palace.
“Where are we going?” said Cassius.
They hurried down to the hedgerow and Valentin paused, listening. He made his way through the paths until he heard talking. Adrienne and Caspar must be in a little bower on the other side of the hedge. In the summer it bloomed with jasmine, but the frame was currently grey and bare. He beckoned Cassius forward and put his hand to his lip.
Cassius, alight with curiosity, stepped close to the hedge, an evergreen shrub that provided decent cover. He could see bits of Adrienne and Caspar through the gaps in the leaves. Adrienne was sitting on the little wooden bench in the bower, and Caspar leaning against the frame watching her.
“Prince Caspar,” said Adrienne, her hands folded in her lap and her shoulders straight as if she were on her throne, “I have a proposal that I would like you to consider.”
“I am at your service, Empress,” said Caspar, crouching at her feet and putting his hands on hers.
Adrienne nodded. “Well, I have given the matter some consideration and have examined it from all sides, taking the counsel of my advisors. We find ourselves in a difficult situation. You are betrothed to my sister, but without our wishing it or seeking it, warm feelings have developed between us which, in my view, make the proposed marriage quite unsuitable. I wish better for Adelais than that, and I also do not wish to give up the—the man I love…” she trailed off and bit her lip.
Caspar curled over and rested his forehead against their joined hands. “Go on, please,” he said quietly.
“I do not wish to give you up. With your consent and the agreement of your father, I would like to propose that the alliance between gens Sylvana and House Greenlyon of Toqueia is accomplished through your marriage to me.”
Beside Valentin, Cassius sucked in a breath. Valentin half-turned his head and raised his eyebrows. Cassius mouthed to him, did you know about this?
Valentin nodded, rather smug.
“What about the other—alliances you wished to make? You’re the Empress of Jovan, and I’m a petty princeling of a second-rate province. You’d be throwing yourself away.”
“I don’t consider that having someone that I love and trust by my side is throwing myself away. A plan is in place to manage any political consequences which might arise. And I have spoken to Adelais already.”
Valentin pricked up his ears.
“She surprised me. She said she accepted my decision and that the opportunity to marry someone we cared about was a rare privilege for people like us.”
“Really?” said Caspar, raising his head and looking up into Adrienne’s face. “Princess Adelais has a good heart.”
“In return, she asked that when the time did come for her to marry, she would be able to choose her own husband. I told her I would try.” Adrienne put one hand under Caspar’s chin. “You haven’t told me your answer.”
“I feel as if I should say no for your sake,” said Caspar in a choked voice, “but I can’t make myself do it.” He stood up, drawing Adrienne with him. “Of course I will marry you. I never dared hope for such a happy outcome. I love you, wholly and sincerely, and I would consider it the greatest honour in the world to stand by your side until the day I die.”
“I’m so glad,” said Adrienne. Their figures met and merged, and Cassius tapped Valentin on the shoulder and gestured towards the palace. Valentin nodded and they crept away.
When they were back up on the terrace, Cassius said, “That felt rather voyeuristic.”
“Knowledge is power, brother,” said Valentin blithely.
Cassius looked thoughtful. “Well, I have to say I’m very pleased. Prince Caspar might not be a brilliant dynastic match, but he will stand by her and give her good counsel.”
“True true,” said Valentin. “It’s Adelais I’m interested in. She has been rather clever. I first thought it after the floods in Ilouera, but this cements it. She gave Adrienne her blessing. The Empress of Jovan is in her debt now.”
Cassius said nothing, visibly turning this over in his mind. “I suppose,” he said.
“Well, I wouldn’t expect you to recognise good politics if it bit you,” said Valentin. Cassius rolled his eyes.
The next day at Council, there was a new seat in the chamber, smaller than the Empress’ throne. Valentin considered it as he took his own seat. Was it for Caspar?
Adrienne entered, followed by Adelais, who sat down beside her. Valentin caught Adelais’ eye and smiled at her. She nodded back at him.
The councillors were all leaning forward. Rumour had got around that something was going on. Adrienne stood and called the session to order.
“My respected councillors, first among the aura of Jovan, I have an announcement. Some months ago, it was decided that my sister Princess Adelais Sylvanus would marry Prince Caspar Greenlyon, second son of the Hierarch of Toqueia. However, in the last day, the situation has changed. I have spoken to Prince Caspar, who has vouched for his father’s acceptance of the new arrangements. Therefore, in two months, on the first day of spring, I will marry Prince Caspar.”
She paused, and murmuring swelled through the chamber.
“I understand that this may be a shock to you, and I apologise sincerely for not consulting you, my respected aura, in making this decision. However, it is my decision, and it is final.”
Valentin looked around the chamber, making mental note of the aura who looked particularly disgruntled. Lord Maximilian, head of gens Sola was frowning into his beard, and Lady Isadora Mereius was whispering something to Lord Halermo Astrus.
They would need to offer something to Lord Maximilian. Perhaps lower tariffs on his goods going through Tyresine? Valentin leaned back and mulled over it in his mind.
After council, Valentin caught Adelais and Adrienne leaving the chamber and walked behind them.
“How did you find that?” said Adrienne.
“Oh, fascinating,” said Adelais, tilting her head.
“Well, if you are interested, I would like you to come to council more often. You are my heir and it is important for you to understand the way things get done.”
“Do you always accomplish things by staring down the ten most important people in the country?”
“They aren’t the ten most important people in the country,” said Adrienne. “You and I are much more important than they are. And no, I usually try to ask first.”
“I see,” said Adelais. She turned around. “Good morning, Uncle Valentin.”
“Good morning Empress, Princess Adelais. I think that went rather well, don’t you?”
“For the most part,” said Adrienne. She smiled. Valentin realised he hadn’t seen her smile all that often.
“Have you considered inviting Lord Maximilian and perhaps a couple of his children for a private dinner sometime?”
“You think I’ve ruffled his feathers?”
Valentin inclined his head. “I suspect Lord Maximilian cherished similar ideas to myself about a possible marriage between you and Lord Pavely.”
“Oh well,” said Adrienne. “Do you think he’d accept one of our breeding mares for his stable instead?”
“Thus merging the bloodlines of Sylvana and Sola?” suggested Adelais, and they both laughed.
Adrienne beckoned Cesare, hovering as always a polite distance away, and said, “Invite Lord Maximilian Solus and his wife, and Lady Erania and Lord Pavely to dine with the family later this week.”
She excused herself to go and take care of some business, leaving Valentin walking back to the family wing with Adelais.
“You’ve done well,” said Valentin.
“What do you mean?”
“Not turning this into a tragedy. It reflects well on you and earns your sister’s gratitude.”
“Yes, Uncle Valentin,” said Adelais, raising her eyebrows. “Well, I liked Caspar, but I didn’t really want to marry him. He’s not very dashing.”
Valentin winced at this regression to teenage frivolity, but when he looked down at Adelais, she met his gaze steadily.
The Empress’ good mood extended to her subjects, and three days later she held a festival to celebrate her betrothal. The day itself was rather tedious; no amount of spiced wine could make up for the hours of standing and waving, and although Valentin enjoyed a tournament as much as anyone, a chilly wind coming off the sea made being a spectator particularly uncomfortable. Caspar wore Adrienne’s favour proudly, while Cassius accepted Adelais’. In the end, they didn’t meet each other, both being eliminated in the penultimate round and the honours being taken by a young aura from gens Platina who made a very pretty speech wishing the Empress happiness when he accepted his prize.
After that they all trooped back inside for lunch, which was accompanied by a pantomime, and then in the afternoon Adrienne rode through the city distributing money and blessing the peasant children.
Dinner began before dusk and continued for six hours. As the night wore on, Adrienne and Caspar narrowed their attention more and more on each other, until the point when Adrienne stood up and said, “It is time I retired. Good night, everyone.”
As few minutes after the left, Valentin saw Caspar slip away as well. Valentin leaned over to Cassius and said, “Do you think they’re gone to bed together yet?”
Cassius put his nose up and said, “That’s none of our business, brother.”
“Knowledge is power, remember.”
“Prurient curiosity is not knowledge. Leave them alone.”
Valentin crossed his arms and said, “You’re no fun at all.”
Valentin finally escaped with Cassius sometime towards midnight and they made their way down to the Docks, where the Empress’ largess had provided bountiful food and drink on long trestle tables in the temple square.
The Sapphire was full of drunks: aura, argenta and peasants all mixed in together. They elbowed through the taproom and went upstairs, where a more refined clientele reigned, and settled themselves onto two couches. Valentin summoned a poppy brazier, and Cassius pulled a face and ordered a tankard of ale.
“To the Empress,” called Valentin, and everyone lounging about the room raised their drinks and echoed the toast.
They lay around there for a while, until they got pulled into a card game which was being conducted at a leisurely pace as the interest of the players waxed and waned, and the braziers burned down.
Then the strains of laughter and music drifted in from the taproom. Valentin raised his eyebrows, and Cassius rolled his eyes, which Valentin took for consent. “Come on, you old humbug,” he said, “even you have something to celebrate tonight. True love has triumphed!”
Cassius blinked and nodded. “You’re right,” he said, and stood up. “To true love!”
Valentin rolled his eyes and raised his goblet, draining the last of the wine, and they went back downstairs.
The music was being provided by a little trio on lute, fiddle and pipe and had already inspired some of the patrons to try their hand at dancing. Valentin pulled a pretty, plainly-dressed girl into a jig, while Cassius leaned back against the bar, one foot tapping in time with the music.
Releasing the girl, Valentin wandered off looking for a place to relieve himself. He turned towards the door and froze. The man who stood in front of him had ash-brown hair, curls escaping from a ribbon at the nape of his neck, and grey eyes. He was dressed in the high-collared tunic and loose breeches characteristic of Cambria, and had a red cloak over his arm. He saw Valentin and ducked his head, shaking the loose curls around his face over his eyes. Valentin swallowed and beckoned him forward.
Over his shoulder, Valentin said, “Cassius, there’s someone here to see you.”
Cassius glanced back at him then excused himself from the group and came over. He looked at Valentin quizzically, and then followed the tilt of Valentin’s chin to the well-dressed young man. Valentin took the goblet out of Cassius’ hand before he dropped it as the boy came forward, fingers winding around each other, eyes fixed on Cassius’.
“Prince Cassius,” said the boy, quirking a shy smile.
“Llewellyn,” Cassius gasped.