Part 13: "Treason"
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. :)
“This is lovely,” said Cassius, enjoying the palfrey’s smooth gait. “I never ride for pleasure.” They were out in the home wood, a preserve about half an hour to the east of Monsilys town. It was primarily used for hunting; Cassius remembered vaguely the pennants and pavilions set up in a clearing, with fires and spits ready to cook the deer Dolmus was triumphantly dragging behind his horse.
Adrienne did not particularly like to hunt, and rarely did so. These days the huntsman brought down deer and boars periodically for the royal table, but otherwise the animals in the wood were largely unmolested.
It was a warm spring day; it had rained overnight, but was now clear, and sun filtered through the vibrant green foliage to where Cassius and Caspar rode side-by-side down a wide track.
Caspar patted his mount’s neck. “You’d be used to big stomping coursers too, I suppose.”
“I don’t ride my destrier unless I have to,” said Cassius. “He’s a brute; he fights as well as I do, but I couldn’t walk him without rattling all the teeth out of my skull. On campaign I rode an Ilasian jennet and my servant led the warhorse. We are both happier that way.”
“My brother Piero is the warrior,” said Caspar, “but I do love horses. I think in other circumstances I would have happily been his squire and followed him around cleaning his armour and caring for his mounts.”
Cassius smiled. “The Empress loves horses too, and her dogs.”
“I know,” said Caspar, his eyes crinkling fondly. “I am trying to get her to take more interest in race horses, but she doesn’t see the appeal.” He paused and then said, “I should like to meet Llewellyn some time. He sounds like an interesting man.”
The image flashed into Cassius’ mind of Llewellyn as he had left him, curls spread out like a crown, one tangled sheet barely covering his modesty. He had been lying on his back, head turned, nose resting against his cupped palm. Cassius fought to stifle the foolish smile the image invoked. “I will ask him if he would be willing to have you to dinner sometime.”
Caspar nodded. “Only if he is comfortable with it, of course.”
They returned to the city in the early afternoon, pleasantly warm from the spring sunshine. Cassius followed Caspar into the palace and along the hallways to the Empress’ quarters. Adrienne was sitting at a little gilded desk by the window in her sitting room, attended by Cesare and a serving girl. She held out her hand and Caspar kissed it, then he drew up a stool and sat down beside her.
“Uncle Cassius,” said Adrienne, “do sit down.”
Selecting an armchair, Cassius did as he was instructed. Adrienne had returned to her papers, and Cassius and Caspar conducted a desultory conversation, to which Adrienne occasionally contributed.
“Where is your mother?” said Cassius.
“I think she’s in the garden. A courier brought her some clippings from a Skyan rose, and she is trying to get them to take in the flowerbed. She and the gardener have become firm friends.” Adrienne looked up, a little frown curving her brow. “Mother does not like Lord Valentin. Is there any reason for that?”
“I hadn’t really noticed,” said Cassius. “I suppose…” he hesitated, “I don’t think Lady Kyria has ever been fond of Valentin. I don’t know why.”
“She said every move he made was calculated with his own benefit in mind.”
Was Valentin calculating? Cassius frowned. Was it possible to be both calculating and reckless?
“His interests are aligned with yours, Empress,” said Cassius, “therefore his benefit is your benefit.”
She looked at him for a while. “A politician’s answer, Uncle Cassius,” she said with a hint of a smile.
Cassius ducked his head. “I am no politician.”
He left Caspar and Adrienne in murmured conversation and walked back to his rooms, feeling strangely unsettled. He had had a feeling for some weeks now that there was something going on, like music that he couldn’t quite pick the melody of.
Why didn’t Lady Kyria like Valentin? Cassius had the sense she didn’t like him very much either. He should ask Llewellyn. Llewellyn was much better at reading people than Cassius.
The matter drifted out of Cassius’ mind. He went to the bath house to wash away the smell of horse and mud, then to the barracks to meet with the Captain of the Imperial Guard. By that time the sun was sinking toward the hills, so he went back to his rooms to dress for dinner.
There was a note waiting for him on the side table near the door. He picked it up and opened it. It was written in a hesitating hand; the letters were big and clumsy and there were several misspellings. It said,
I present to you my compliments and beg the honour of attending on you at your earliest convenience. Please do not mention this to Lord Valentin as it is on a matter concerning him that I wish to meet with you.
Your humble servant,
What in the name of the damned few was Valentin’s mistress doing writing to him? He wrote a quick note saying that he would be available to meet with her the next morning and that since she wished to be discreet about it they should meet at the Wanderer’s Rest.
Having prepared that, he summoned a servant to tell Cesare that he would not be attending dinner at the palace. If he was to meet with Elodia the next morning at the Wanderer’s Rest, he might as well sleep there tonight.
As he made that decision, Cassius felt his shoulders open and relax and his spine straighten. He would go now, the sooner to see Llewellyn.
The next morning, Cassius got up and crawled out of bed. In the end, he had been so caught up gossiping about Valentin’s bedroom relations that he hadn’t asked Llewellyn what he thought about the Empress’ comments with regards to Valentin and Lady Kyria.
He went to the door and called for breakfast and wash-water, then climbed into the warmth and went back to sleep.
They were both woken by the arrival of a servant, and Cassius said, “What time is it?”
When he was told, he sat up. “Damn, I’d better get dressed. Take that breakfast to the parlour, will you? We’ll be out shortly.”
Llewellyn cracked open an eye. “Will we, indeed.”
They shuffled out of bed and dressed, then stumbled down the hallway to the parlour. Various aches and pains made themselves known to Cassius, and he felt a secretive smile dimple his cheeks as he remembered how he had got them.
When she was shown into the parlour, Elodia looked wide-eyed at its two occupants.
“Good morning,” said Cassius, “this is Llewellyn kin Gwaerfon. He is a friend, but will leave if you would prefer it.”
Elodia hesitated, and Llewellyn stood up. “It was nice to meet you,” he said. “Excuse me.”
“Oh…” Elodia seemed like she might protest, but it was with visible relief that she watched the door shut.
“Did you have trouble getting here?” said Cassius.
Elodia shook her head. “I walked, but it didn’t take overlong. Thank you for meeting with me.” Cassius looked more closely. She looked tired, and there was a trembling around her mouth. She sat at the edge of her chair, spine straight, hands winding around each other in her lap.
“What was it you wished to speak to me about?” said Cassius. When she didn’t reply, he said, “You can trust me. Whatever it is, I will keep your confidence.”
She nodded. “I know. And I know that Lord Valentin is very dear to you. That is why…”
“What has he done to you?” said Cassius, leaning forward.
If possible, Elodia looked even more miserable. “No, no, nothing. He has been nothing but kind and generous, and he says he will protect me, but… what if he can’t even protect himself?”
“You had better tell me what is going on, Elodia.”
She took a deep breath and released it. “He has been meeting with Lord Bracchus Platinus. Very frequently.”
Cassius frowned. After all this, was it just a girl’s instinct for drama? Well, it would serve Valentin right, if so. “Is that all? They’re cousins, you know. Hardly untoward.”
Looking down at her lap, Elodia said, “There are others. Two Jovanis and a Baetican who is sometimes there. They meet in secret to discuss ways of bringing Jovan to sign the covenant. They talk of overthrowing the Empress.”
“What?” The bottom seemed to drop out of Cassius’ stomach. “Valentin too?”
“No, he talks of using his influence to persuade her, of choosing the right moment to make their case. They talk about rebellion when he isn’t there. They talk about assassinating Adrienne and putting him on the throne instead. There will never be slavery in Jovan while she is Empress. It seems to be their mantra.”
Cassius pressed his hands to his forehead. “You have heard all this yourself?”
“Yes, when they think I am not listening. And the servants tell me they have heard the same.”
“Valentin told me he wasn’t mixed up in Bracchus’ schemes,” said Cassius. He gritted his teeth and said, “The house in Aldis?”
“My lord did not know the slave was in Jovan illegally. He was furious with Lord Bracchus when he found out.”
“So it wasn’t an outright lie,” said Cassius. “Cold comfort.” He stood and went to the window. “Why are you telling me all this?”
“Because I have asked Valentin to stop, and he won’t. He just gets quiet and self-mocking and says I shouldn’t waste time worrying about him.”
“I will need to witness this for myself.”
When he turned around, Elodia nodded. “I thought you would. They are meeting tonight. If you meet me at the servants’ entrance at dusk I can find you somewhere to hide where you can hear what goes on.
“Thank you, Elodia.” He went to her chair and put his hand lightly on her shoulder. “You have done the right thing coming to me,” he said, around the dryness in his throat.
As she left, Llewellyn caught Cassius in the hallway. “I heard,” he said without preamble. “You need to go after her. Tell her to sell her jewels, or hide them, or take them to the bank. She should have a bag packed and be ready to flee if necessary.”
“You think…” said Cassius. He couldn’t finish, that Valentin might hurt her?
“I don’t know,” said Llewellyn. “Her life is about to get dangerous. Having money will give her options.”
Cassius nodded and jogged away down the hall. He caught up with Elodia as she was leaving the inn and echoed what Llewellyn had said. He added, “I know you have come to me for my brother’s sake, but now you need to think of yourself. I will deal with Valentin.”
“Yes, Lord Cassius,” she murmured, hunching over. “I will see you tonight.”
“At dusk,” Cassius said.
She nodded without turning around.
Cassius concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. He felt as if the sun sinking towards the horizon was marking the time until his execution. He hoped Elodia was somehow mistaken; a young girl’s hysteria now seemed the best possible outcome. But it all made too much sense. Only the day before he’d been thinking that something was going on, like a tapestry he was standing too close to see the image woven in the strands.
Llewellyn’s only response to Elodia’s story had been, “You will have to ask Valentin about it.” Then he had relented and said, “I will be here when you return.”
“You don’t want to come?” said Cassius hopefully.
“This is between you and Valentin,” Llewellyn replied, then tilted his head and added, “I killed the last slaver I met.”
Elodia let him in through the servant’s entrance. He didn’t see anyone else around as they hurried down a hallway from the kitchen to the atrium. “In here,” said Elodia, opening a door. “You will have a view of the meeting, and be able to hear it.”
“What is this?”
“It’s a linen closet.”
“Right,” said Cassius, stepping inside. Elodia shut the door, and he was surrounded by the scent of cloth and soap. He leaned back and found a soft pile of sheets against which to rest his back.
Half an hour or so later, there was a knocking at the front door. The closet had wooden slats to keep its contents from getting musty, and Cassius saw Elodia flick him a quick glance as she hurried to the atrium to receive the first guest.
Valentin swept through into the atrium and planted a kiss on Elodia’s lips. “My sweet saviour,” he said. “I am the first, I see. Is all prepared?”
“Yes, my lord.” As she turned, Elodia cast the linen closet another troubled look.
Valentin installed himself on a divan and spread his arms across the back. He tilted his head and Elodia went over and sat beside him. “This is nice,” she said. “I wish we spent more evenings like this.”
“Do try to conceal your dislike of Bracchus and the others,” said Valentin dryly. “What we’re doing is important.”
“Yes, it is. Slavery could give Jovan’s economy a boost, and create a new revenue stream for the Empire. Slaves could win the war in Gallica in a week, and push Sha-penseian silks out of the market in two. Adrienne doesn’t think of these things because the crown is wealthy now. But when we are poor, what then? Adrienne is wrong not to consider it.” Valentin was silent. “At any rate, I’m in it now, and there’s no getting out of it except by steering through and not running aground.”
Cassius leaned back against the sheets and closed his eyes. He would have put his hands up to run through his hair, but there was too little space in the linen closet.
Adrienne is wrong not to consider it. It was this attitude that had got them into trouble the first time, and many times since then. That little demon Magnus had planted in Valentin’s ear that whispered, You could rule better than any of them. Nobody understands power like you do.
Cassius had never really asked Valentin for the details of the scheme that had got them both banished. Then, he had been a fourteen-year-old boy who adored his brother and thought that whatever Valentin thought was right should be done. When Adrienne had summoned them both back, so much time had passed, there had never been the right moment. Cassius had thought Valentin a different man and his mistakes those of a foolish boy.
He looked up at the shadows above him.
In truth, Valentin hadn’t changed. He was still foolish and proud, and Magnus’ little demon still whispered in his ear as surely as if the Papirian were beside him. And Cassius was still the stupid younger brother too blinded by sibling-worship to see the dangerous path he was on.
Valentin’s voice, saying, “Good evening, cousin,” brought Cassius’ attention back to the present. He peered through the slats and saw Valentin and Bracchus Platinus clasp wrists.
Other men began to arrive, until there were six seated at the low table. Servants brought food and Cassius realised Elodia had made herself scarce.
The conversation was low-voiced, but Cassius heard enough to understand that they planned to turn as many of the council to their cause as possible, and force Adrienne to repeal the ban on speaking of slavery and institute the process of adding her signature to the Covenant, or face civil war.
“We have six on our side already,” said Bracchus. “I spoke to the Mereii last week.”
“That is enough to give Adrienne pause,” said another. “I say we move before the equinox.”
“We will only have one opportunity,” said Valentin. “The equinox is too soon. The overwhelming majority of the council must support it. Too many for Adrienne to consider punishing us for treason. We wait.”
“You always say we should wait,” said one of the others, a man Cassius didn’t know.
“You may appreciate that I have more on the line than most of you,” said Valentin.
“Not really,” said another. “The Empress is your niece; she’d never nail you up on the side of the high way.”
“Then you should appreciate my caution all the more, Lord Islinus.”
Cassius clenched his fists. As if Jovan weren’t in a precarious enough position, as if they didn’t already face the threat of the Caeli in the south and the Fabii’s precious Fair Prince over the water in Alysia. And yet, these men sat around nibbling on biscuits and arguing about the timing of destabilising the council even more.
Elodia reappeared and ducked down beside Valentin. She whispered something to him and he said, “Excuse me, my lords,” and as they walked past the linen closet, Elodia widened her eyes at Cassius.
Back in the atrium, the tenor of the conversation had shifted. They spoke very quietly now, and Cassius caught, “…speak to Isadora on the other matter?”
And then, “Yes, she agreed…no slavery… is Empress.”
Bracchus nodded. “So if Valentin’s bid through the council fails?”
“She didn’t say as much but… support us.”
So Elodia was right about that too. There was something afoot between the others; something darker than treasonous words.
When Valentin returned, Cassius listened with dismay as they all gave updates on the people they had approached and allies secured. It seemed half the aura in Jovan had been told of their plan, including some whom Cassius remembered shouting Bracchus down when he had raised the question of the Covenant in council.
Valentin devoured half a grapefruit and wiped his hands. He held the napkin up and frowned. “Lyselle,” he called, and a servant-girl appeared, “fresh napkins, I think.”
“Yes, my lord,” said the girl.
Cassius’ blood chilled as the servant-girl advanced towards his hiding-place. There was nothing he could do. She put her hand on the door and opened it, her gaze tracked up from his midsection to his face, and she gasped.
Valentin turned his head and his eyes widened. Then a dark expression settled over his face, pushing his brows and the corners of his lips down. He stood. “Brother,” he said, “what are you doing in my linen closet? Did someone mistake you for a sheet and tidy you away? They did a poor job folding you if so.”
“As if I am the one doing wrong here,” said Cassius, stepping out into the atrium and straightening his shoulders.
“Well, you are skulking around eavesdropping in a private residence.”
“You’re plotting treason,” Cassius shouted. The room was suddenly very quiet. And Cassius realised all the men had stood. They ranged themselves behind Valentin, who stood as if balanced on the edge of something.
One of the rougher-hewn men who Cassius didn’t recognise stepped forward, his hand on his sword. As he drew it, the swish of metal caught Valentin’s attention and he turned his head. His hand twitched and was still at his side and he looked back to Cassius. There was a blank, glazed look in his eye.
The man with the sword kept advancing. Cassius had a knife in his boot, but he couldn’t believe Valentin would allow an attack.
But Valentin was making no move to stop it. It was as if he had vacated his body and was watching from elsewhere.
He was about to watch Cassius fight for his life. He was about to watch one of his compatriots try to kill his brother.
Cassius straightened his shoulders. He wouldn’t crouch into a defensive stance until he had to.
He looked at Valentin one last time. “Brother,” he said.
Something shuttered behind Valentin’s eyes and he put up his hand. “Stop, Brus,” he said. “Go home, everyone. I will deal with my brother.”
They all looked at each other. While Brus kept his sword pointed at Cassius, Valentin and Bracchus Platinus had a low-voiced argument. At the end of it, Bracchus drew Brus back, and they all gathered their things and left. Bracchus was the last to leave the atrium; he paused and frowned at Cassius, then Valentin. Then he was gone too.
Valentin stood about three feet away, still paused as if they stood, hands on swords, waiting for the handkerchief to drop and the duel to begin. Without taking his eyes from Cassius, Valentin called, “Elodia, dear, would you come here?”
A moment later, she appeared and stopped on the threshold. “Oh,” she said, looking between them.
“Come here, if you please,” said Valentin, not looking at her. “Do you have any idea how this intruder came to be in my house?”
“It isn’t your house, brother,” said Cassius.
Valentin nodded. “Ah,” he said, “that answer suffices. Get out of here, you minx. Go back to the docks. If I ever see you again, I’ll report you to the inspectors as an unlicensed whore.”
“My lord,” said Elodia, stricken.
“Go!” Valentin shouted. He hadn’t looked at Elodia once.
Valentin’s eyes glittered. “So where to from here, brother? Can I tempt you to join our endeavour? Do you believe in a bright and prosperous Jovan?”
“Bought with slave labour?” Cassius sneered. “Don’t be stupid.”
“It’s Elodia’s house,” said Cassius, “you can’t evict her from it.”
“Let her try to take it from me then,” said Valentin.
“You miserable bastard,” said Cassius. “Elodia came to me because she was frightened for you. Bracchus and the others were planning to assassinate the Empress and put you in her place.”
Raising his eyebrows, Valentin said, “Do you really think I didn’t know that?”
“And you…” Cassius spluttered.
“It wouldn’t have got that far. I wouldn’t have failed in council, and if I did, I would have dealt with their silly plan then.”
“Silly plan…” said Cassius, his head pounding. “Can you deny the idea appealed to you?”
An enigmatic, bitter smile played around Valentin’s lips. “Would you believe me if I did?”
Cassius clenched his fists. “You will never be Emperor of Jovan, Valentin. Magnus planted this maggot in your mind, and it has grown and eaten away at your brain. If you rise against Adrienne, I will not follow you. You have none of the qualities that made Dolmus a good Emperor and none of the qualities that make Adrienne his true heir. You have no heart.”
The silence swept between them like a frozen wind, like a chasm with no bridge.
They both heard the kitchen door slam and Cassius knew that Elodia was gone. He hoped she had heeded Llewellyn’s warning and packed anything she might need earlier.
Valentin tilted his head in acknowledgement and gestured towards the atrium. “Do sit down, and we can discuss this like civilised aura.”
Cassius hesitated for a moment, then nodded. The thrumming anger had drained away, and he felt tired and hollow. When they’d sat down, he said, “Why did you get mixed up in this? I think you owe me an explanation.”
“I owe you many explanations,” said Valentin.
Cassius nodded. “You do,” he said. “So start with this one. Did Bracchus Platinus suborn you?”
“No, not really. We made a deal.”
Frowning, Cassius said, “A deal?”
“Yes. He would support Lady Kyria’s proposal for the unfortunates, and in return I would lend my support to his campaign for slavery.”
“Lady Kyria’s proposal?” said Cassius. “What is between you and Lady Kyria? She hates you, doesn’t she?”
“She didn’t always,” said Valentin, looking down at his hands. “She loved me once.”
Cassius felt his eyes widen. “Before, you mean?” At Valentin’s nod, he said, “Did you…”
Valentin nodded again. He took a deep breath. “And here is the rest of the explanation that I have owed you for eighteen years.” He paused and it seemed as if he wouldn’t continue.
Cassius leaned forward and said, “Tell me.”
Valentin pressed his lips together. “I loved Lady Kyria so much that I wanted to overthrow the monarchy for her. Magnus told me that if I helped him remove Dolmus, then I would be Emperor, and I would be able to marry Lady Kyria.” He ran his hand along his jaw, still looking down at the table.
“You know the Papirians don’t believe in female succession. She would have been dealt with, I suppose.”
Cassius leaned back into the sofa. “Blessed few. And you mixed me up in this. It’s a wonder we weren’t both crucified.”
“I told Kyria about the plan, one night when we…” Valentin closed his eyes, “…and she told Dolmus. Because however much she loved me, she loved Adrienne more. And that is why she hates me now.”
“But you’re still in love with her.”
“I can’t help it.”
“And you have committed treason for her again.”
Now Valentin looked up at Cassius, but only for a moment before his eyes flicked away. “Some might see it that way.”
Cassius ran his hand through his hair and closed his eyes. The words came to him unbidden: “Valentin, if you don’t leave Jovan, I will tell the Empress about your plot. I will give her the names of the people I recognised tonight, and descriptions of the others. I will tell her everything Elodia told me, and everything I overheard.”
Folding his hands carefully in his lap, Valentin said, “If you do that, Adrienne will have no choice but to imprison me and put Bracchus on trial for treason. The Platini will not forgive her for that, and if she loses the Platini, she will lose half of Jovan.”
“I know,” said Cassius. “That is why you have to leave. You are a dangerous and destabilising influence. You have proven time and again you cannot be trusted near the throne. I am asking you to leave Jovan.”
Valentin met his eyes for a moment, and then tilted his head. “As you wish,” he said. “Without me the plot will suffocate. They were only so brave because they could stand in my shadow.” He stood, and Cassius followed suit.
“Where will you go?”
“Somewhere I can’t be found,” said Valentin. “Somewhere I can’t even find myself.”
“Will you write me your location?”
Valentin shook his head and said without emotion, “If I’m to be exiled, I will do the thing properly. You’ll take care of things here? Luvina and Felix?”
“Oh—” Cassius bit his lip. “Yes, of course.”
“I’ll write you an authority to manage my affairs. Now excuse me, I should go and pack.” Valentin turned to leave the atrium.
“Valentin…” said Cassius.
Valentin turned. Putting his hand on the nape of Cassius’ neck, he drew him close and pressed his lips to Cassius’ forehead. Cassius stared at the intricate embroidery of Valentin’s collar.
“Be good, little brother,” said Valentin, his breath warm against Cassius’ hairline. “Be good and be true.”
Then he strode through the atrium to the house and Cassius heard the door click shut behind him.
Valentin was gone.
Cassius had tracked him out of his house, a servant carrying a large travelling case, and down to the docks. A few hours later, he had watched Valentin board a ship. When Cassius had asked the harbourmaster, he had learned the South Star was travelling to Ilas and Alysia on its way to the new continent. Further inquiry confirmed his suspicion that Valentin had booked passage for the entire journey. It was reassuring to know where he might start looking, even if Valentin did not want to be found.
Then, he had gone back to the palace and sat at his desk in front of a blank piece of paper. Eventually, he had managed to write a note to Lady Luvina. Valentin has gone away, it said, and, I am empowered to manage his affairs. I will leave Whitefields to your care. Please let me know if there is any service I may provide you or Prince Felix.
When that was done, he put his head in his hands and hunched over the desk, staring at the blackness behind his eyes. He saw Valentin’s blank look, and felt the surge of adrenaline as he had realised Valentin was going to let Brus, the swordsman, attack him. Brother. He saw Valentin’s sneer as he had sent Elodia away, and the fall of his hair as he looked down at his hands. I loved Lady Kyria so much that I wanted to overthrow the monarchy for her.
Valentin and Lady Kyria. Then, and now. Magnus had played on that vain boy’s ambition, yes, but he’d played on the boy’s love as well. He’d turned a virtue into a vice; he’d twisted Valentin in ways that had never been straightened. And Isobel and Luvina and Domina and Elodia and all the others had followed from Kyria.
Then, through the anger and disappointment, Cassius found pity. And that was even more difficult to bear.
Blessed few, he’d said things that Valentin would never forgive. Valentin…
Be good, little brother. Be good and be true. Possibly the last words that would ever be spoken between them.
Several hours later, he felt a hand on his back. He turned his head and saw Llewellyn crouched beside him. “What happened?”
Cassius sat up and rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. He pulled his hair out of its ribbon and retied it and then straightened his tunic. “Elodia told the truth. Valentin was mixed up in a plot to bring slavery to Jovan against the Empress’ edict. He didn’t deny it. He’s gone now.”
“To the new continent, I think. I told him he had to leave Jovan and threatened to expose him and his co-conspirators if he stayed. So he went.”
“Oh, Cassius,” said Llewellyn. He leaned over and pressed his cheek against Cassius’, his arm a warm weight across Cassius’ shoulders.
Cassius pressed his lips together and nodded. “I wrote to Luvina,” he said. “I suppose next I will have to tell the Empress. And… Lady Kyria.”
Blessed few, he wished he’d just asked Valentin, when they had met after Dolmus’ funeral, when they were riding back from Gallica, or in Caith’il Deran, or any one of a thousand other moments.
Despite it all… he rested his chin on his fist. He didn’t quite know what he was going to do without Valentin. After sixteen years, their separation had been like the phantom pain of a long-severed limb, but now the wound bled afresh. Knowing the amputation had been necessary didn’t make the loss any less painful.
He’d said things Valentin would never forgive.
“You couldn’t have stopped him with any less than what you did. He would have taken it as a challenge. Valentin ran rings around all of us.”
Cassius managed a small smile. “He would be gratified to hear you admit it.” He looked at the letter on the corner of the table. “He never cared for anyone but himself.”
“Your brother loves you,” said Llewellyn.
Cassius saw again the shuttered expression in Valentin’s eyes as they faced each other across the atrium, Brus’ sword glittering in the candle-light.
I am asking you to leave Jovan.
The recognition that not even he, Cassius, could act as a brake on Valentin’s madness.
“Cassius,” Llewellyn pulled him up, “what are you going to tell the Empress?”
Hunching over, Cassius replied, “I’ll tell her that Valentin has been called away indefinitely, and that I learned of it when I received the letter of authority.”
“And why didn’t you come straight to the Empress with this news?”
“Well, Valentin shouldn’t have gone anywhere without asking the Empress’ permission, should he?”
“No,” said Cassius slowly.
“So why have you waited several hours to tell her?”
“I had to write to Lady Luvina.”
Llewellyn put his hand on Cassius’ arm. “And Lady Luvina takes precedence over the Empress?”
“No, of course not.” Cassius winced. “Oh, damn.”
“Exactly. You need to go to the Empress immediately if you don’t want her to be suspicious. If she investigates your and Valentin’s movements this last day, she’ll know you’re lying.”
“If she asks me, I will tell the truth,” said Cassius dully.
“Very admirable.” Llewellyn tugged him out the door. “Don’t be drawn on details; you’re no good at fabricating them.”
“Unlike my brother.”
“Indeed.” As they reached the hallway to the Empress’ wing, Llewellyn pushed Cassius against the wall and leaned close, putting his arms around Cassius’ shoulder and resting his cheek against Cassius’ chest. “I’m here for you,” he said.
Llewellyn had to wait in the guard room while Cassius went in to the Empress’ quarters. Somehow, Cassius managed to produce a story about receiving a messenger saying Valentin had been called away. The Empress was furious that Valentin had left Jovan without her permission and ordered a watch put on all ships coming and going so that Valentin might be arrested and brought to face her displeasure upon his return. She interrogated Cassius, but aside from being unimpressed that he had delayed telling her to write to Luvina, she seemed to accept that Valentin would take off without even consulting Cassius.
Which just went to show, Cassius thought, remembering all the things Valentin had kept from him, that the Empress understood their relationship better than he did.
Cassius escaped the palace an hour later, aware that he too was in disgrace. Llewellyn took him back to the Wanderer’s Rest and put him to bed, and they curled up against each other. Slowly the cold that had seemed to wrap around Cassius’ bones melted away.
Two months later
After more than two years, Cassius had finally got used to the bizarre experience of eating breakfast with a thousand Jovanis avidly watching from the courtyard. Adrienne sat in her throne at the head of the table, with Caspar at the foot, Kyria and Adelais along one side, and Cassius at the other. There was no sixth place set.
“Have you heard from Valentin yet, Uncle Cassius?” said Princess Adelais.
Cassius looked up. The phantom limb ached, and the day lost some of its colour. “No, I haven’t,” he said.
“When you do, you will tell me immediately,” said Adrienne pointedly.
“Of course, Empress, but I do not think he will contact me.” Cassius focused on his plate and added, “Obviously he had some reason that he wanted to disappear, and he would know that I would not keep his whereabouts a secret from you.”
“Hm.” Adrienne frowned.
The day was warm and there was a pleasant breeze making its way across the courtyard. Cassius could still feel the burn in his muscles from his training earlier that morning. He had stepped up his routine now that the frequency of his nursing a hangover was reduced.
“Should you like to go riding today, Empress?” said Caspar.
Adrienne nodded. “I will have Cesare clear the afternoon. Uncle Cassius?”
“If you wouldn’t mind my company.”
“We would welcome it,” said Caspar.
Adelais leaned forward. “I’d like to ride too.”
Adrienne looked at Lady Kyria.
“No thank you, my dear; I will stay and make sure the tapestries and carpets are aired before tonight. Then I think I will read for a while.”
“As you wish, mother.”
They left soon after midday. Adrienne rode ahead, with Caspar on one side and Adelais on the other. Once they reached the forest, the heavy foliage muted the sun’s glare and encased them in cool, still air and green-tinted light.
It surprised Cassius how quickly two months had gone by. Somehow, his days had managed to fill themselves without Valentin. Other people and activities had flowed in to fill the gap: Caspar was becoming a dear friend, Llewellyn was never far from his thoughts, and he was finding his voice in the council.
At Lady Luvina’s request he had travelled to Whitefields for a fortnight, where he had affirmed his impression that Luvina was an admirable woman and Prince Felix a charming boy who had too much of his father in him. He had invited them to Monsilys, and expected they would arrive sometime in the next few weeks.
He had found Elodia eventually and assured her that the little house in the Dusk was hers. She didn’t cry over Valentin’s departure; there was something hard in her eyes that hadn’t been there when Cassius saw her last.
He was happy, most of the time. He was productive, his days were filled with useful things, and he went to sleep each night with the pleasant ache in his bones of a day well-spent.
But then something happened and he thought I should ask… or I should tell… or Where is… and it was as if all the flesh and gristle and marrow was sucked out of him, leaving skin draped over hollow, brittle bones.
The ride was followed by a visit to the bath house, and then a feast, and it seemed as if another day had fled without Cassius really marking its existence. He set out on foot from the palace, bound for the Wanderer’s Rest. The streets were sparsely peopled and quiet, which was why the noise coming from a pub caught Cassius’ attention. It sounded like a speech being given to a combination of jeering and loud applause.
He drifted over and looked in the door. Inside, the ground floor of the pub was packed. On a little raised platform at one end, a man stood, shouting about the state of the Empire and the Empress’ unfitness to rule, her poor counsel, her foreign husband’s ulterior motives. It was standard dross, and Cassius rolled his eyes. He would call the city watch to deal with the seditious speaker, and then be on his way.
He stopped. A person in the crowd had caught his attention and Cassius stepped into the pub to get a closer look. The man was tall and thin and had a scholarly, unobtrusive air that had almost made Cassius look straight past him. He stood near the back of the crowd, scanning around him and occasionally turning his gaze on the speaker. He seemed amused by the accusations, but maintained an air of detachment from his surroundings, as if he were an observer not a participant.
He leaned on a walking stick and had more grey at his temples than Cassius remembered, but however long it had been, there was no forgetting a face branded onto his memory like that one.
Cassius stepped forward and the man turned. His eyes lit on Cassius sand widened in shock, then narrowed. The man smiled a predator’s smile.
“You,” Cassius gasped and strode towards him, one hand rising of its own accord to point at the man.
“Prince Cassius,” said Magnus the Papirian, and swung his cane at Cassius’ head.
Volume III begins here! (At my website; LJ edition coming soon)