The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an “accident,” he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.
Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment. Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody.
News Comes to Edonomee
Maia woke with his cousin’s cold fingers digging into his shoulder.
“Cousin? What…” He sat up, rubbing at his eyes with one hand. “What time is it?”
“Get up!” Setheris snarled. “Hurry!”
Obediently, Maia crawled out of bed, clumsy and sleep-sodden. “What’s toward? Is there a fire?”
“Get thy clothes on.” Setheris shoved yesterday’s clothes at him. Maia dropped them, fumbling with the strings of his nightshirt, and Setheris hissed with exasperation as he bent to pick them up. “A messenger from the court. That’s what’s toward.”
“A message from my father?”
“Is’t not what I said? Merciful goddesses, boy, canst do nothing for thyself? Here!” He jerked the nightshirt off, caring neither for the knotted strings nor for Maia’s ears, and shoved his clothes at him again. Maia struggled into drawers, trousers, shirt, and jacket, aware that they were wrinkled and sweat-stained, but unwilling to try Setheris’s ill temper by saying so. Setheris watched grimly by the single candle’s light, his ears flat against his head. Maia could not find his stockings, nor would Setheris give him time to search. “Come along!” he said as soon as Maia had his jacket fastened, and Maia followed him barefoot out of the room, noticing in the stronger light that while Setheris was still properly and fully attired, his face was flushed. So he had not been wakened from sleep by the emperor’s messenger, but only because he had not yet been to bed. Maia hoped uneasily that Setheris had not drunk enough metheglin to mar the glossy perfection of his formal court manners.
Nervously, Maia ran his hands through his hair, fingers catching on knots in his heavy curls. It would not be the first time one of his father’s messengers had witnessed him as unkempt as a half-witted ragpicker’s child, but that did not help with the miserable midnight imaginings: So, tell us, how looked our son? He reminded himself it was unlikely his father ever asked after him in the first place and tried to keep his chin and ears up as he followed Setheris into the lodge’s small and shabby receiving room.
The messenger was maybe a year or so older than Maia himself, but elegant even in his road-stained leathers. He was clearly fullblooded elvish, as Maia was not; his hair was milkweed-pale, and his eyes the color of rain. He looked from Setheris to Maia and said, “Are you the Archduke Maia Drazhar, only child of Varenechibel the Fourth and Chenelo Drazharan?”
“Yes,” Maia said, bewildered.
And then bewilderment compounded bewilderment, as the messenger deliberately and with perfect dignity prostrated himself on the threadbare rug. “Your Imperial Serenity,” he said.
“Oh, get up, man, and stop babbling!” Setheris said. “We understood that you had messages from the Archduke’s father.”
“Then you understand what we do not,” the messenger said, rising again to his feet, as graceful as a cat. “We bear messages from the Untheileneise Court.”
Maia said hastily, merely to prevent the altercation from escalating, “Please, explain.”
“Your Serenity,” the messenger said. “The airship Wisdom of Choharo crashed yesterday, sometime between sunrise and noon. The Emperor Varenechibel the Fourth, the Prince Nemolis, the Archduke Nazhira, and the Archduke Ciris were all on board. They were returning from the wedding of the Prince of Thu-Athamar.”
“And the Wisdom of Choharo crashed,” Maia said slowly, carefully.
“Yes, Serenity,” said the messenger. “There were no survivors.”
For five pounding heartbeats, the words made no sense. Nothing made sense; nothing had made sense since he had woken with Setheris’s grip hurting his shoulder. And then it was suddenly, pitilessly clear. As if from a very long distance away, he heard his own voice saying, “What caused the crash?”
“Does it matter?” Setheris said.
“Serenity,” said the messenger with a deliberate nod in Maia’s direction. “They do not yet know. But the Lord Chancellor has sent Witnesses, and it is being investigated.”
“Thank you,” said Maia. He knew neither what he felt nor what he ought to feel, but he knew what he ought to do, the next necessary thing. “You said… there are messages?”
“Yes, Serenity.” The messenger turned and picked up his dispatch case from where it lay on the side table. There was only one letter within, which the messenger held out. Setheris snatched the letter and broke the seal savagely, as if he still believed the messenger to be lying.
He scanned the paper, his customary frown deepening into a black scowl, then flung it at Maia and stalked from the room. Maia grabbed at it ineffectually as it fluttered to the floor.
The messenger knelt to retrieve it before Maia could and handed it to him without a flicker of expression.
Maia felt his face heating, his ears lowering, but he knew better than to try to explain or apologize for Setheris. He bent his attention to the letter. It was from his father’s Lord Chancellor, Uleris Chavar:
To the Archduke Maia Drazhar, heir to the imperial throne of Ethuveraz, greetings in this hour of greatest grief.
Knowing that Your Imperial Serenity will want all honor and respect paid to your late father and brothers, we have ordered arrangements put in train for a full ceremonial funeral in three days’ time, that is, on the twenty-third instant. We will notify the five principalities, also Your Imperial Serenity’s sister in Ashedro. We have already ordered the courier office to put airships at their disposal, and we have no doubt that they will use all necessary haste to reach the Untheileneise Court in good time for the funeral.
We do not, of course, know what Your Imperial Serenity’s plans may be, but we hold ourself ready to implement them.
With true sorrow and unswerving loyalty,
Maia looked up. The messenger was watching him, as impassive as ever; only the angle of his ears betrayed his interest.
“I… we must speak with our cousin,” he said, the constructions of the formal first person awkward and unaccustomed. “Do you… that is, you must be tired. Let us summon a manservant to tend to your needs.”
“Your Serenity is very kind,” the messenger said, and if he knew that there were only two menservants in the entire household of Edonomee, he gave no sign.
Maia rang the bell, knowing that birdlike Pelchara would be waiting eagerly for a chance to find out what was happening. Haru, who did all the outside work, was probably still asleep; Haru slept like the dead, and the whole household knew it.
Pelchara popped in, his ears up and his eyes bright and inquisitive. “This gentleman,” Maia said, mortified to realize that he did not know the messenger’s name, “has traveled hard. Please see that he has everything he requires.” He faltered before the thought of explaining the news to Pelchara, mumbled, “I will be with my cousin,” and hurried out.
He could see light under Setheris’s door, and could hear his cousin’s brisk, bristling stride. Let him not have stopped for the metheglin decanter, Maia thought, a brief, hopeless prayer, and tapped on the door.
“Who is’t?” At least he did not sound any drunker than he had a quarter hour ago.
“Maia. May I—?”
The door opened with savage abruptness, and Setheris stood in the opening, glaring. “Well? What chews on thy tail, boy?”
“Cousin,” Maia said, almost whispering, “what must I do?”
“What must thou do?” Setheris snorted laughter. “Thou must be emperor, boy. Must rule all the Elflands and banish thy kindred as thou seest fit. Why com’st thou whining to me of what thou must do?”
“Because I don’t know.”
“Moon-witted hobgoblin,” Setheris said, but it was contempt by reflex; his expression was abstracted.
“Yes, cousin,” Maia said meekly.
After a moment, Setheris’s eyes sharpened again, but this time without the burning anger. “Thou wish’st advice?”
“Come in,” Setheris said, and Maia entered his cousin’s bedchamber for the first time.
It was as austere as Setheris himself—no mementoes of the Untheileneise Court, no luxuries. Setheris waved Maia to the only chair and himself sat on the bed. “Thou’rt right, boy. The wolves are waiting to devour thee. Hast thou the letter?”
“Yes, cousin.” Maia handed Setheris the letter, now rather crumpled and the worse for wear. Setheris read it, frowning again, but this time his ears were cocked thoughtfully. When he had finished, he folded the letter neatly, his long white fingers smoothing the creases. “He presumes much, does Uleris.”
“He does?” And then, realizing: “Dost know him?”
“We were enemies for many years,” Setheris said, shrugging it aside. “And I see he has not changed.”
“What mean’st thou?”
“Uleris has no reason to love thee, boy.”
“He says he’s loyal.”
“Yes. But loyal to what? Not to thee, for thou art merely the last and least favored child of his dead master, who wished thee not on the throne, as well thou know’st. Use thy wits, boy—an thou hast any.”
“What do you mean?”
“Merciful goddesses, grant me patience,” Setheris said ostentatiously to the ceiling. “Consider, boy. Thou art emperor. What must thou do first?”
“Cousin, this is not the time for riddles.”
“And it is not a riddle I pose thee.” Setheris shut his mouth and glared at him, and after a moment, Maia realized.
“Ha!” Setheris brought his hands together sharply, making Maia jump. “Exactly. So why, I ask thee, does thy coronation not figure largely in Uleris’s plans or, indeed, at all?”
“No! Thou think’st as a child, not as an emperor. The dead are dead, and they care not for the honor Uleris prates of, as well he knows. It is the living power that must concern thee, as it concerns him.”
“Think, boy,” Setheris said, leaning forward, his cold eyes alight with fervor. “If thou art capable—if thou hast ever thought before in thy life—think. Thou com’st to the Untheileneise Court, the funeral is held. What then?”
“I speak to… oh.”
“Yes.” Better than Setheris might care to realize, for it was at his cousin’s hands that Maia had learned this particular lesson; by waiting, he put himself in the position of a supplicant to Chavar, and supplicants could always be denied. “Then what must I do?”
Setheris said, “Thou must countermand Uleris. Meaning that thou must reach the Untheileneise Court before he has time to entrench himself.”
“But how can I?” It took most of a week to reach the court from Edonomee.
“Airship,” Setheris said as if it were obvious.
Maia’s stomach knotted. “I couldn’t.”
“Thou must. Or thou shalt be a puppet dancing at the end of Uleris’s strings, and to a tune of his choosing. And thy nineteenth birthday may very well see thee dead.”
Maia bowed his head. “Yes, cousin.”
“The airship that brought Chavar’s lapdog here can take us back. They’ll be waiting for him. Now, go. Make thyself fit to be seen.”
“Yes, cousin,” Maia said, and did not contest Setheris’s assumption that he would be traveling to the court with the new emperor.
The Radiance of Cairado
The airship Radiance of Cairado hung ominously beside her mooring mast like an isolated thundercloud against the predawn sky. Maia had not been in an airship since the age of eight, when he had been brought to the Untheileneise Court for his mother’s funeral, and his memories of that time were full of darkness. He remembered praying to Ulis to let him die, too.
The crew of the Radiance were all very solemn; they knew about the Wisdom of Choharo, and he saw grief and fear in their faces.
On impulse, when the captain greeted him with a mumbled “Serenity” at the foot of the mooring mast, Maia stopped and said quietly, “We have nothing but confidence in you and your crew.”
The captain was startled into looking up; Maia met his eyes and smiled at him. After a moment, the captain’s ears came up, and he bowed again, more deeply. “Serenity,” he said in a clear and far stronger voice.
Maia ascended the narrow iron staircase that spiraled around the mooring mast. On the tiny platform at the top, a crewwoman was waiting to steady the emperor into the passenger cabin.
“Serenity,” she said stiffly, and offered her arm.
“We thank you,” Maia said, accepting help he did not need. The crewwoman seemed almost as startled as the captain had been.
Airships were not primarily intended for passengers, but along with cargo, they transported couriers and other government servants. Maia had refused to allow Setheris to inconvenience the other passengers—four couriers, two missioners, and an elderly maza—by commandeering the ship, and he suffered for his charity now under their wide-eyed, breathlessly silent stares. His translation to emperor had failed to work any comparable miracle on his wardrobe—indeed, he only wished it had worked a miracle on his person—so that while he was correctly dressed in formal mourning, each garment bore betraying signs that black had been at least its third dyeing, and the whole had not been worn in over two years, since the death of the emperor’s sister, the Archduchess Ebreneän. The clothes, castoffs of Setheris’s, had been too large then; now, they were barely large enough. Lacking tashin sticks or combs, he had had to make do with braiding his hair back neatly and pinning it off his neck, but the style was more suited to a child than to an adult, much less to an emperor.
He took the seat that Setheris and the Lord Chancellor’s messenger had left between them. If the messenger recognized in the new emperor’s scrambling departure the thwarting of his own master’s plans, he gave no sign of it, entering with helpful thoroughness into Setheris’s travel arrangements. There was nothing to say he was not as devoted to Maia’s service as Setheris was. Maia smiled at the irony.
He and Setheris had disliked each other from the moment they had met, at the funeral of Maia’s mother, the Empress Chenelo. The airship that brought her body to the Untheileneise Court from the manor to which her husband had relegated her also brought her griefsick eight-year-old son. Varenechibel IV took no interest in his youngest child, and immediately after the funeral service, Maia was handed into the care of Setheris Nelar and both of them relegated to the former hunting lodge Edonomee, where they had lived in mutual antipathy ever since.
Maia glanced sideways; Setheris was glowering—insofar as he could tell—at a perfectly innocuous piece of woodwork on the opposite side of the cabin. He had never seen Setheris when he was not angry, save for those times when he had drunk himself into a maudlin stupor. Maia’s adolescence had been made a misery by Setheris’s anger, and he would bear until his dying day an ugly scrawl of scars on his left forearm, where a blow of Setheris’s had knocked him into the elaborate and hideous wrought-iron antlers that adorned the fire screen in Edonomee’s main hall.
To do Setheris what justice he deserved, he had been truly horrified, and since that incident, which had enlivened Maia’s otherwise utterly unremarkable fifteenth winter, he had been a good deal more circumspect with his fists. But it did not make him like Maia any better, and it was something Maia knew he himself would never be entirely able to forgive.
The crewwoman stepped into the cabin, securing the door behind her. She cleared her throat—out of nervousness, since there was no need to attract the attention of the deathly silent passengers—and said, “Your Serenity, the captain has taken the helm, and we are preparing to cast off.”
Setheris’s elbow slammed discreetly into Maia’s ribs, and he said, “Thank you.”
The crewwoman bowed, relief written in every line of her body, and went to the front of the cabin, where there was a speaking tube that communicated with the cockpit. Maia had only a moment to wonder if he would be able to tell when the Radiance of Cairado cast off from the mast; then there was the slightest of sideways lurches, and the airship was rising into the dawn sky.
The trip to the Untheileneise Court would take two hours, covering a distance that required four days on the ground, and that given fair weather and swift passage across the Istandaärtha, neither of which could be assumed. He could not help wondering, as the airship’s motors cut in, their din ensuring that he would not have to speak to Setheris again until they reached the court, what the final moments of the Wisdom of Choharo had been like. Less than a day ago, she had been in the air, carrying the Emperor of the Elflands. He wondered if there had been a moment when they had known, or if death had come as suddenly as an executioner’s sword. He tried to imagine his father screaming or crying or even frightened, and could not do it. His memory of his father, the only time he had ever seen him, was of the Emperor Varenechibel IV, tall and distant, with glacial eyes and a face as white and cold as marble. He remembered the white robes stiff with embroidery, the moonstones on his father’s hands, braided into his hair, hanging from his ears. He remembered the black bands, the only token of mourning the emperor deigned to wear for his fourth wife, like smears of ink across the whiteness of his person. He remembered his father’s bitter mouth, and his smooth silken voice: The damned whelp looks just like his mother. It was as clear and frozen in his mind as the state portrait of the emperor that hung in the receiving room of Edonomee—and now there was no chance for it to change, no hope for it to be replaced.
Though truly, he thought, leaning back slightly to lessen the likelihood that he would catch Setheris’s eye, even were it to have been replaced, it would only have been with something worse. Be grateful he cared no more for thee than “damned whelp.”
His memories of his brothers were nothing more than wisps of cloud. He had not even been sure which ones they were in the masses of black-clothed courtiers around his mother’s tomb. It had been the lady charged with his care during the funeral—a minor noble’s wife whose name he could not now remember—who had pointed them out. There your brother Nemolis and his wife, there your brother Nazhira, there your brother Ciris. They had all been adults to his child’s eyes, as white and forbidding as his father. None of them had ever made overtures, not at the funeral and not since—whether because they shared the emperor’s disdain or feared his wrath—and Maia had hesitated to make overtures of his own, lest he should anger them. And now it was too late for that, as well.
He would have liked to rest his head against the back of the seat and shut his eyes, but he did not need Setheris to tell him that an emperor could not behave so in public, and those seven passengers and the nervous crewwoman constituted “public.” Despite what had seemed the overwhelming probability that both of them would be confined to Edonomee for the rest of their lives, Setheris had been relentless in maintaining and enforcing court etiquette. Maia had never minded—Chenelo had taught him carefully—but now it occurred to him that he ought to be grateful.
He glanced again at Setheris’s granite frown. It was strange in this sleepless dawn to be looking at Setheris and seeing simply another man instead of the tyrant of Edonomee, as he had figured in Maia’s mind for the past ten years. Middle-aged, bitter, cunning but perhaps not wise—Maia had never learned what it was that Setheris had done to earn Varenechibel’s enmity, but he knew it could not have been anything trivial. Outside Edonomee, Setheris seemed smaller, less dreadful, and it occurred to Maia that if Setheris ever struck him again, it would mean a death sentence. The idea was dizzying, and Maia found his hands clutching the arms of the seat, as if the Radiance herself were whirling about, instead of merely his own mind. He forced himself to relax his grip before anyone else noticed; it would be unkind in the extreme to make anyone think him fearful.
Through the windows on the opposite side of the cabin, he could see great mountains of cloud, stained with pinks and reds by the approaching dawn. He remembered a Barizheise hymn to Osreian his mother had taught him and said it to himself, looking at the clouds and hoping that the goddesses’ mercy would extend, not merely to his father and half brothers, but to everyone who had died with the Wisdom of Choharo.
He was brought back to his immediate surroundings by the approach of the crewwoman, who came within arm’s length and then went down on one knee. “Your Serenity.”
“Yes?” said Maia, aware of both Setheris and the Lord Chancellor’s messenger coming to full alertness beside him.
“The captain wonders, Serenity, if you would care to come forward to watch the sunrise from the cockpit. It is a very beautiful sight.”
“Thank you,” Maia said before Setheris could get his mouth open. “We would like that very much.”
He compressed the corners of his mouth against a smile as he stood up, watching Setheris turn an unflattering shade of red with impotent fury. And following that thought—and a host of others that had been teasing about the edges of his mind since Setheris’s lecture on dealing with Uleris Chavar—he turned and said to the messenger, “Would you accompany us, please?”
“Serenity,” the messenger said, rising with alacrity, and they left Setheris fuming, unable to invite himself along now that an express invitation had been issued to another than himself. Maia reminded himself that glee was unbefitting an emperor, and thought soberly as the crewwoman opened the narrow door at the front of the cabin, I must not acquire a taste for this pleasure. It was heady, but he knew it was also poison.
The door led into a narrow passageway, scarcely broader than the width of Maia’s shoulders, and debouched through another door into the cockpit, where captain and first mate shared a wide panorama of clouds and sky.
“Serenity,” they said in chorus, though they spared but a glance away from their instruments and the unfurling brightness in the east. The first mate, he saw, was of goblin blood, his skin only a shade lighter than Maia’s own.
“Gentlemen, we thank you,” Maia said, having to pitch his voice even louder to be heard over the roar of the engines, and allowed the crewwoman to shepherd him into a corner where he could see but would not obstruct anything important. The Lord Chancellor’s messenger was likewise shepherded into the opposite corner, and the crewwoman closed the door and braced her back against it.
They stood in silence for fifteen minutes, enrapt and breathless before the glory of Anmura rising from Osreian’s embrace. Then the first mate turned, bowing his head, and said, “Serenity, we will be arriving at the Untheileneise Court in approximately an hour.”
Interpreting this to mean that they needed their cockpit back, Maia said, “We are most grateful, gentlemen. We will remember this always as the beginning of our reign.” Much better this than that confused and frightened awakening in darkness, his own glassy, sharp-edged panic, Setheris’s drunken viciousness.
“Serenity,” they chorused again, and he could see that he had pleased them.
The crewwoman opened the door and Maia returned to the passenger cabin, to spend the remaining time considering ways and alternatives of greeting his father’s Lord Chancellor.
The mooring mast of the Untheileneise Court was a jeweled spire in the sunlight. Maia descended the narrow staircase slowly, carefully, aware that the deceptive clearheadedness of fatigue would not extend to coordination, and he would be most unlikely to save himself if he stumbled.
No one knew to await him, and so there was no one at the foot of the mast except the captain, again. Maia was relieved; Chavar caught off balance would be far easier to deal with than Chavar given time to consider and plan.
Maia lengthened his stride past Setheris to catch up to the messenger. “Will you guide us?”
The messenger’s eyes flicked from him to Setheris, and then he bowed. “Serenity. We will be honored.”
“Thank you. And, if you would—” He lowered his voice and dropped formality: “Tell me your name?”
He at least succeeded in startling the messenger out of his stone face for a second: his eyes widened, and then he smiled. “I am Csevet Aisava, and I am entirely at Your Serenity’s service.”
“We thank you,” Maia said, and followed Csevet toward the long roofed walkway that led to the Untheileneise Court itself.
“Court” was a misleading word. The Untheileneise Court was a palace as large as a small city—larger, in fact, than the city of Cetho that surrounded it—housing not merely the emperor, but also the Judiciate, the Corazhas of Witnesses that advised the emperor, the Parliament, and all the secretaries, couriers, servants, functionaries, and soldiers needed to ensure that those bodies did their work efficiently and well. The court had been designed by Edrethelema III and built during the reigns of his son, grandson, and great-grandson, Edrethelema IV through VI. Thus, for a compound of its vast size, it was remarkably and beautifully homogeneous in architecture; rather than sprawling, it seemed to spiral together into the great minareted dome of the Alcethmeret, the emperor’s principal residence.
My home, Maia thought, but the phrase meant nothing.
“Serenity,” said Csevet, pausing before the tall glass doors at the end of the walkway, “where do you wish to go?”
Maia hesitated a moment. His pressing concern was to find and speak to the Lord Chancellor, but he remembered what Setheris had shown him. The emperor hunting all over the court for his chief minister would look ill and ludicrous, and it would grant Chavar the power he was presuming he had. But, on the other hand, Maia knew nothing of the geography of the court, except for the stories his mother had told him when he was small. And since she herself had lived in the Untheileneise Court for less than a year, he could not rely on her tales for any accuracy of information.
Setheris came up to them. Maia thought, Thou hast resources, if thou wilt stretch out thy hand to use them. He said, “Cousin, we require a room where we may have private audience with our father’s Lord Chancellor.”
There was a flicker of something, some unreadable emotion, on Setheris’s face, gone as soon as noticed, and he said, “The Tortoise Room in the Alcethmeret has always been the emperors’ choice for such audiences.”
“Thank you, cousin,” Maia said, and to Csevet, “Take us there, please.”
“Serenity,” Csevet said, bowing, and held open the door for Maia to enter the Untheileneise Court.
The court was not as bewildering as he had expected, and his admiration for Edrethelema III increased. Doubtless behind those beautifully paneled walls there were warrens and webs, but the public corridors of the court were straight and broad and clearly designed for an emperor to be able to find his way about his own seat of government. The distances were fatiguing, but about that Maia imagined Edrethelema had been able to do little; the simple fact of the palace’s necessary size precluded convenience.
They were seen—as how could they not be?—and he was able, with bitter amusement, to distinguish those who were in the Lord Chancellor’s confidence and those who were not, for only those who recognized Csevet and had known his mission looked alarmed. No one recognized the new emperor on his own merits. In sooth, I look not like my father, and I am pleased at it, Maia thought defiantly, although he knew that the dark hair and skin he had inherited from his goblin mother would do him no favors in the Untheileneise Court. And, even more grimly: They will learn to know me soon enough.
Csevet opened another elaborately wrought door, this one a wicket set in a massive bronze gate, and passing through, Maia found himself standing at the base of the Alcethmeret. Staircases wound in wide spirals around the inside of the tower; the lower levels were disturbingly open, a reminder from one emperor to the next that a private life was something he would not have. But about halfway up the tower’s height, the architecture changed, a boundary marked by a pair of floor-to-ceiling iron grilles; those were open now, for there was no emperor in residence, and Maia could see that beyond them the staircase was enclosed and guessed that the rooms would likewise be smaller, more customary. Less exposed.
There were servants everywhere, it seemed; for a moment he could not even sort them out, as they turned and stared and dropped to their knees. Some of them prostrated themselves full-length as Csevet had done, and in that excess of formality, he read their fear. Belatedly, he realized that catching Chavar off guard also meant catching the servants of his household in unreadiness, an unkindness they had done nothing to deserve. Setheris would tell him it was sentimental nonsense to care for the feelings of servants, but in Barizhan servants were family—legally always and often by blood. The Empress Chenelo had raised her child by that principle, and he had clung to it all the harder because of Setheris’s opposition.
Csevet said, “The Tortoise Room, Serenity?”
“Yes. And then,” arresting Csevet as he turned to lead the way up the nearer staircase, “we would speak with our household steward. And then the Lord Chancellor.”
“Yes, Serenity,” Csevet said.
The Tortoise Room was the first room beyond the iron grilles. It was small, hospitable, appointed in amber-colored silk that was warm without being oppressive. The fires had not yet been lit, but Maia had barely seated himself in the chair by the fireplace when a girl scurried in, her hands shaking so badly she almost dropped the tinderbox before she could get the fire to light.
When she had left—her head lowered so far that, first to last, the only impression Maia gained of her was of her close-cropped, goblinblack hair—Setheris said, “Well, boy?”
Maia tilted his head back to regard his cousin where he leaned, not quite lounging, against the wall. “Do not presume, cousin, when thou hast warned me of presumption so cannily.”
A great many things were at that moment made worthwhile, as he watched Setheris gape and splutter like a landed fish. Remember, he said to himself, a poisonous pleasure.
“I raised thee!” Setheris said, all injury and indignation.
“So you did.”
Setheris blinked and then slowly went to his knees. “Serenity,” he said.
“Thank you, cousin,” Maia said, knowing full well that Setheris offered him only the form of respect, that even now, as at Maia’s wave he took the other chair, he was incensed with Maia’s arrogance, waiting for the correct moment to reassert his control.
Thou wilt not, Maia thought. If I achieve nothing else in all my reign, thou wilt not rule me.
And then Csevet said from the door, “Your house steward, Serenity. Echelo Esaran.”
“We thank you,” Maia said. “The Lord Chancellor, please.”
“Serenity,” Csevet said, and vanished again.
Esaran was a woman in her mid-forties. The sharp, austere bones
of her face were suited by a servant’s crop, and she wore her livery with an air that would have done justice to an empress’s coronation robes. She went to her knees gracefully; her face and ears revealed nothing of her thoughts.
“We apologize for our sudden arrival,” Maia said.
“Serenity,” she said, the word stiff and precise, unyielding, and he realized, his heart sinking, that here was one who had served his father with her heart as well as her mind.
I do not want more enemies! he cried out, but only in his own thoughts. Aloud, he said, “We do not wish to disrupt your work any more than we must. Please convey to the household staff our gratitude and our… our sympathy.” He could not say he shared their grief when he did not—and when this cold-eyed woman knew he did not.
“Serenity,” she said again. “Will that be all?”
“Yes, thank you, Esaran.” She rose and departed. Maia pinched the bridge of his nose, reminding himself that, although the first, she would hardly be the last inhabitant of the Untheileneise Court who would hate him for his father’s sake. And, moreover, it was foolish and weak to feel hurt at her enmity. Another luxury thou canst not afford, he thought, and did not meet Setheris’s eyes.
It took some time for Csevet to return with the Lord Chancellor. Maia had been trained, first by his mother, then by Setheris, to disregard boredom, and he had no lack of matters to consider. He kept his back straight, his hands relaxed, his face impassive, his ears neutral, and thought about all the things he did not know, had never been taught because no one had imagined an emperor with three healthy sons and a grandson would ever be succeeded to the throne by his fourth and ill-regarded son.
I shall need a teacher, Maia thought, and Setheris is not my choice.
If there was a contest waged in the Tortoise Room, it was Setheris who lost it. He broke the silence: “Serenity?”
He saw Setheris’s throat work and his ears dip, and his attention sharpened. Anything that discomfited Setheris was reflexively a matter of interest. “We… we would like to speak to our wife.”
“Of course,” Maia said. “You are welcome to send Csevet in search of her when he returns.”
“Serenity,” Setheris said, not meeting Maia’s eyes but continuing stubbornly on. “We had hoped to… to introduce her to your favor.” Maia considered. He knew little of Setheris’s wife, Hesero Nelaran,
save that she had worked tirelessly and fruitlessly to get Setheris recalled to the Untheileneise Court and had sent him weekly letters with all the gossip and intrigue she could gather. Maia had assumed—in part because Setheris never spoke of her save, when in a particularly good humor, to relay choice tidbits of scandal over the breakfast table—that theirs was an arranged marriage, as loveless, if not as hate-filled, as his mother’s marriage to the emperor. But Setheris’s obvious distress argued otherwise.
Do not make enemies where it needs not, he thought, remembering Merrem Esaran’s enmity, considering the likely course of his upcoming interview with the Lord Chancellor. He said, “We would be pleased. After we have spoken to the Lord Chancellor.”
“Serenity,” Setheris said, acquiescing, and they fell again into silence.
Maia noted when an hour had passed, and wondered if it was that the Lord Chancellor was unusually well hidden—most odd and unadmirable in a man planning a state funeral—or that he was trying to regain the whip hand by a calculated show of disrespect.
He harms none but himself by such tactics, Maia thought. He cannot delay long enough to force me into step with his plans—at least not without risking dismissal on grounds of contempt. Perchance he thinks I would not do it, but he will not rule me, either. And if he has no loyalty to me, it is just as much the case that I have no loyalty to him. I do not even know the man’s face.
Immersed in these grim thoughts, it took him a moment to realize that the approaching tumult on the stairs had to be Chavar. “Has he brought an army with him?” Setheris murmured, and Maia repressed a smile.
Csevet, looking a little winded, appeared in the doorway. “The Lord Chancellor, Serenity.”
“We thank you,” Maia said, and awaited the entrance of Uleris Chavar.
Without realizing it, Maia had been expecting a copy of his father’s state portrait: tall and cold and remote. Chavar proved to be none of these things. He was short and stocky by elven standards, choleric, and he was almost on top of Maia before he bothered to bend a knee.
“Serenity,” he said with perfunctory courtesy; Maia had to resist the urge to stand up, to prevent Chavar from looming over him. Instead, he jerked his head at Setheris—tacit permission to send Csevet in search of Osmerrem Nelaran—and, as Setheris crossed eagerly to where Csevet stood, Maia waved Chavar to the empty chair, a sign of favor the Lord Chancellor could not ignore.
Chavar sat down with ill grace and said, “What is Your Serenity’s will?”
It was a formula, brusquely uttered; he already had his mouth half-open—doubtless to explain the arrangements he had made for the funeral—when Maia said, as gently as he could, “We wish to discuss our coronation.”
Chavar’s mouth remained half-open for a moment. He shut it with a click, inhaled deeply, and said, “Your Serenity, surely this is not the time. Your father’s funeral—”
“We wish,” Maia said, less gently, “to discuss our coronation. When that is arranged to our satisfaction, we will hear you upon the subject of our father’s funeral.” He caught and held Chavar’s gaze, waiting.
Chavar did not look away. “Yes, Serenity,” he said, and the hostility was in the air between them like a half-drawn sword. “What are your plans, if we may be so bold?”
Maia saw the trap and skirted it. “How quickly can you arrange our coronation? We do not wish any more delay than is necessary in rendering the proper rites and obsequies to our father and brothers, but we also do not wish to do anything in a slipshod or hasty fashion.”
Chavar’s expression was, if only for a moment, distinctly pained. It was clear he had not expected an eighteen-year-old emperor, raised in virtual isolation, to provide him with any contest at all. Sometime, Chavar, Maia thought, you must try living for ten years with a man who hates you and whom you hate, and see what it does to sharpen your wits.
Something of this thought must have shown in his eyes, for Chavar said quite promptly, “We can prepare the coronation ceremony for tomorrow afternoon, Your Serenity. It will mean delaying the funeral for another day.…” He trailed off, clearly hoping that Maia might still be browbeaten into acceding to his Lord Chancellor’s wishes.
But Maia was considering something else. Setheris had been trained as a barrister, before he fell afoul of Varenechibel’s temper, and he had passed as much of that training on to Maia as he felt it likely a teenage boy—of whose intelligence he had no great opinion—would comprehend. There had been no kindness in the gesture, merely Setheris’s rigid sense of what befitted the son of an emperor, and it did not befit the son of an emperor to reach manhood entirely ignorant. And, Maia supposed, it had been something to do, a commodity that Setheris must surely have needed as desperately as he did himself.
But again there was reason for gratitude, although still he felt none. For at least Setheris had taught him, among other things, the forms and protocols surrounding a coronation. He said, “Will that give the princes time to make the journey?” He knew perfectly well it would not—else Chavar would have scheduled the funeral for that time— but he was not yet prepared to accuse the Lord Chancellor of open contempt. It would be a rare start to my reign, he thought, but kept the bitter quirk off his face. He would have to work with Chavar until such time as he was sufficiently familiar with the court to choose his own Lord Chancellor, and he feared that time might be far distant.
And Chavar did a passable job of pretending chagrin. “Serenity, we most humbly beg your pardon for our oversight. The princes, if we send messengers today, cannot arrive before the twenty-third.”
As we know from your letter, Maia did not say, and he saw acknowledgment of that in Chavar’s eyes. The Lord Chancellor said, “Serenity. We will put preparations in train for your coronation at midnight of the twenty-fourth.” It was an offer of truce, no matter how obliquely or grudgingly offered, and Maia accepted it as such.
“We thank you,” he said, and gestured Chavar to his feet. “And the funeral on the twenty-fifth? Or can preparations be made for the twenty-fourth?”
“Serenity,” Chavar said with a half bow. “The twenty-fourth is achievable.”
“Then let it be so.” Chavar was almost at the door when Maia remembered something else: “What of the other victims?”
“The others on board the Wisdom of Choharo. What arrangements are being made on their behalf?”
“The emperor’s nohecharei will of course be buried with him.”
Chavar was not being deliberately obstructive, Maia saw; he genuinely didn’t understand.
“And the pilot? The others?”
“Crew and servants, Serenity,” Chavar said, baffled. “There will be a funeral this afternoon at the Ulimeire.”
“We will attend.”
That had both Setheris and Chavar staring at him. “They are as much dead as our father,” Maia said. “We will attend.”
“Serenity,” Chavar said with another hasty bow, and left. Maia wondered if he was beginning to suspect his new emperor of insanity.
Setheris, of course, had no doubts; he had aired his views on the perniciousness of Chenelo’s influence more than once. But he forbore to speak, merely rolling his eyes.
Csevet had not yet returned, and Maia had a use for this breathing space. “Cousin,” he said, “would you have our father’s Master of Wardrobe sent to us?”
“Serenity,” Setheris said with a bow as perfunctory as Chavar’s, and went out. Maia took the opportunity to stand, to try to ease the harp-string tension of his muscles. “Not all hands will be against thee,” he whispered to himself, but he feared it for a lie. He rested his elbows on the mantel, his head in his hands, and tried to conjure in his mind the sunrise seen from the Radiance of Cairado, but it was blurred and dull, as if seen through a pane of dirty glass.
There was a hesitant tap at the door, an even more hesitant voice saying, “Ser… Serenity?”
Maia turned. A middle-aged man, tall and stooped, with the mild, nervous expression of a rabbit. “You are our Master of Wardrobe?”
“Serenity,” the man said, bowing deeply. “We… we so served your late father, and so will serve you, an it be your pleasure.”
“Clemis Atterezh, Serenity.” Maia saw nothing but anxiety to please in his face or stance, heard nothing but diffidence and nerves in his voice.
“We will be crowned at midnight on the twenty-fourth,” he said. “Our father and brothers’ funeral will be that day. But today there is the funeral for the other victims, which we wish to attend.”
“Serenity,” Atterezh said politely, uncomprehending.
“What does an uncrowned emperor wear to a public funeral?”
“Oh!” Atterezh advanced slightly into the room. “You cannot wear full imperial white, and court mourning is inappropriate… and you certainly can’t wear that.”
At the cost of a savagely bitten lip, Maia did not giggle. Atterezh said, “We will see what can be done, Serenity. Do you know when the funeral is to be held?”
“No,” Maia said, and cursed himself for his stupidity.
“We will ascertain,” Atterezh said. “And when it is convenient to Your Serenity, we are at your disposal to discuss your new wardrobe.”
“Thank you,” Maia said. Atterezh bowed and departed. Maia sat down again in bemused wonderment. He had hardly ever had a piece of new clothing before, much less an entire new wardrobe. Thou’rt emperor now, not a half-witted ragpicker’s child, he said to himself, and felt almost dizzy at the reminder of his own thought from not even twelve hours ago.
A clatter of feet on the stairs. Maia looked up, expecting Setheris, but it was a breathless, frightened-looking child of no more than fourteen, dressed in full court mourning and clutching a black-bordered and elaborately sealed letter.
“Your Imperial Serenity!” the boy gasped, throwing himself fulllength on the floor.
Maia had even less idea what to do with the gesture now than he had in the receiving room at Edonomee. At least Csevet had had the grace to get himself back on his feet again. A little desperately, he said, “Please, stand.”
The boy did, and then stood goggling, his ears flat against his skull. It couldn’t be the effect of being this close to an emperor—the boy wore the Drazhadeise crest and thus was in the service of the emperor’s household. Maia knew what Setheris would say: Cat got your tongue, boy? He could even hear it, somewhere in the back of his head, and what it would sound like in his own voice. He said patiently, “You have a message for us?”
“Here. Serenity.” The boy shoved the paper at him.
Maia took it, and to his own horror heard himself say, “How long have you served in the Untheileneise Court?” He barely managed to bite the “boy” off the end of it.
“F-four years. Serenity.”
Maia raised his eyebrows, mirroring the cruel incredulity he had so often seen on Setheris’s face; he waited a single beat and saw the boy’s face flood red. Then he turned his attention to the letter, as if the boy held no more interest for him. It was addressed, in a clear clerk’s hand, to the Archduke Maia Drazhar, a presagement that did not make him any happier.
He broke the seal and then, realizing the boy was still there, raised his head.
“Serenity,” the boy said. “I… we… she wants an answer.”
“Does she?” Maia said. He looked pointedly past the boy at the door. “You may wait outside.”
“Yes, Serenity,” the boy said in a half-choked mumble, and slunk out like a whipped dog.
Setheris would be proud, Maia thought bitterly and opened the letter. It was, at least, short:
To the Archduke Maia Drazhar, heir to the imperial throne of Ethuveraz, greetings.
We have need to speak to you regarding the wishes of your late father, our husband, Varenechibel IV. Although we are in deepest mourning, we will receive you this afternoon at two o’clock.
With wishes for familial harmony,
Csoru Drazharan, Ethuverazhid Zhasan
I do not doubt that she wants an answer, Maia thought. The widow empress lacked even the subtlety of the Lord Chancellor. He wondered with an unhappy shiver what Varenechibel had told his fifth wife about her predecessor and her predecessor’s child.
The Tortoise Room had a small secretary’s desk tucked into the corner behind the door, and no matter the widow empress’s rudeness, he owed her a reply in his own hand. Or perhaps more accurately, considering the clerk’s hand of her letter, he owed himself a reply in his own hand. He found paper, dip pen, ink, wax—no seal, and he supposed the assumption was that anyone writing a letter would have his own signet. Maia did not; it was one of the many tokens of adulthood he had not received on his sixteenth birthday. A thumbprint would do for now, though it would probably get him accused of following his mother’s barbaric customs. So be it, he thought, dipped his pen in the ink, and wrote:
To Csoru Drazharan, Ethuverazhid Zhasanai, greetings and great sympathy.
We regret that a prior obligation prevents us from speaking with you this afternoon as you request. We shall, however, be pleased to grant you an audience tomorrow morning at ten; we are eager to hear anything you can tell us of our late father.
Until our coronation, we are using the Tortoise Room as a receiving room.
With respectful good wishes,
And here Maia paused. To sign with his given name would be to acknowledge that she had been correct in addressing him in that fashion. But he had not, until that moment, given any thought to the choosing of a dynastic name, and it was hard to get beyond his first, instinctive reaction: I will not be Varenechibel V.
No one forces thee, he thought as the ink dried patiently on his pen. An thou did choose Varenechibel, the court would doubtless construe it an insult.
He knew from Setheris’s impatient tutelage that his great-greatgreat-grandfather, Varenechibel I, had chosen to signal his rejection of the policies of his father, Edrevechelar XVI, by refusing the imperial prefix that every emperor since Edrevenivar the Conqueror had used, choosing to become Varenechibel the first of that name instead of the ninth Edrenechibel. His son and grandson had followed his lead, being Varenechibel II and III. His great-grandson (willful, though never particularly imaginative, Setheris had said dryly) had defied burgeoning tradition by becoming Varevesena. And then had come Varenechibel IV.
And now Maia.
The emperors of what was informally called the Varedeise dynasty—as if their chosen prefix were a surname—were noted for their isolationist policies, their favoring of the wealthy eastern landowners, and their apparent inability to see anything wrong with bribery, nepotism, and corruption. Setheris had gone into scathing detail about the Black Mud Scandal of Varenechibel III’s reign (so called because it stained everyone who came in contact with it), and Varevesena’s disgraceful habit of giving munificent but otherwise empty political appointments to his friends’ newborn children. “At least he is not personally corrupt,” Setheris had said grudgingly of Varenechibel IV, but Maia thought that very cold praise.
He did not want to continue any of the Varedeise traditions; embracing their traditional hostility to Barizhan seemed self-destructive in a way that he found uncomfortably ambiguous between the symbolic and the literal. Even if he had wanted to, the encounter with Chavar demonstrated that he would have a grimly difficult battle winning the trust of his father’s ardent supporters.
Better to build new bridges, he thought, than to pine after what’s been washed away. He dipped his pen again and wrote with pointed legibility across the bottom of the page, Edrehasivar VII Drazhar. Edrehasivar VI had had a long, peaceful, and prosperous reign some five hundred years ago.
Let it be an omen, Maia thought, a quick prayer to Cstheio, the dreaming lady of the stars, and folded and sealed the letter. He had a lowering feeling that he was going to need all the omens of peace he could accumulate.
The boy was lingering nervously on the landing. “Here,” said Maia. “Take this to the zhasanai with our compliments.”
Wide-eyed, the boy took the letter. He had caught the nuance— “zhasanai,” not “zhasan”—and Maia did not doubt that the widow empress would be told. She could style herself a ruling empress all she liked, but she was not one. She was zhasanai, an emperor’s widow, and had best remember that she was dependent now upon her unknown stepson’s goodwill.
“Serenity,” the boy said, bowed, and fled.
Already I become a tyrant, Maia thought, and retreated again into the Tortoise Room to wait for Setheris and his wife.
But Setheris did not reappear until after Atterezh had come back bearing a mass of black and plum-colored cloth embroidered in white: mourning colors without the strict formality of court mourning. He also brought the information that the funeral would be held at three o’clock—as sundown was the most correct hour for funerals, it was also the most expensive, so that the families had had to pool their money to get as close as they could—and added that he had advised Esaran of the emperor’s intention and obtained her assurance that the emperor’s carriage would be ready at half past two. Maia could have wept with gratitude at finding one person who did not resist or resent him, but such an action was unbecoming to an emperor and would frighten and perplex Atterezh very much.
Thus, he stood and allowed Atterezh to take measurements, to drape and fuss with the cloth, and it was in the midst of this, as Atterezh mumbled arcanely to himself, that Setheris appeared in the doorway and demanded, “Has Uleris not sent you a guard?”
“No,” Maia said.
“Who is this?”
“Our Master of Wardrobe.”
“Then he hasn’t sent a maza, either.”
“No. Cousin, what—?”
“We will see to it,” Setheris said. “And we would advise you to replace your Lord Chancellor as soon as you may. Uleris seems to be growing forgetful in his old age.”
Since Setheris and Chavar were of an age, the insult was a pointed one—enough so that Maia realized this was not mere officiousness on Setheris’s part, nor angling for Chavar’s position. “Cousin, explain.”
“Serenity,” Setheris said, reminded by the imperative. “The Emperor of the Elflands has both the right and the obligation to be attended at all times by the nohecharei, the guardian of the body and the guardian of the spirit. And especially if you intend to persist in this lunatic idea…” He waved a hand at the cloth draped over Maia’s shoulder.
“We do,” Maia said. “We are sure the Lord Chancellor has much on his mind. If you would see to the matter, we would be grateful, and when you return, we will be pleased to receive your wife.”
“Serenity,” Setheris said, bowed, left.
Maia knew—everyone knew—about the emperor’s nohecharei, the guardians sworn to die before they would allow harm to come to him: one, the soldier, to guard with his body and the strength of his arm; the other, the maza, to guard with his spirit and the strength of his mind. Edonomee’s cook could sometimes be coaxed into telling stories, so Maia even knew about Hanevis Athmaza, nohecharis to Beltanthiar III, who had entered a duel of magic with Orava the Usurper, the only magic-user ever to attempt to take the throne. Hanevis Athmaza had known Orava would kill him, but he had held the usurper off the emperor until the Adremaza, the master of the mazei of the Elflands, had reached them. Orava had been defeated, and Hanevis Athmaza, horribly injured, had died in his emperor’s arms. In his early adolescence, Maia had dreamed of becoming a maza, of becoming perhaps his father’s nohecharis and earning his love, but he had shown no more aptitude for magic than he showed (Setheris said) for anything else, and that dream, too, had died.
He had never dreamed of becoming emperor.
Atterezh continued with his task, the only sign that he had even noticed the conversation being that his discussion with himself was now inaudible rather than merely under his breath. Maia hoped his father had chosen his household staff for their discretion, for there was no part of that exchange with Setheris that he wished bruited about the court. But to say so would offend Atterezh and shatter the precarious fictions by which servants and nobles protected each other.
“Serenity,” said Atterezh, climbing slowly to his feet. “I will have clothes in readiness for you at two o’clock, if that will please?”
“Yes. We thank you, Atterezh.”
Atterezh bowed, released Maia from his draperies, and departed. Maia observed gloomily that thus far the life of an emperor seemed chiefly to involve sitting in a small room and watching other people come and go.
That’s more variety than thou hadst at Edonomee, where there was no one either to come or to go, he thought, and managed a smile at his own foolish self-pity.
He sat down wearily, wondering if there might be time for a nap before he had to dress for the funeral. The clock gave the time as quarter of ten (which seemed either too late or too early, although he could not tell which). Esaran would not love him better if he demanded a bed made ready at ten in the morning.
He rubbed his eyes to keep them from drifting shut, and here was Setheris again, bristling with energy and spite. “Serenity, we have spoken with the Captain of the Untheileneise Guard and the Adremaza, and they will see to the matter. They wished us to convey to you their apologies and contrition. No slight was meant, for they were expecting the Lord Chancellor to inform them of your arrival.”
“Do you believe them?”
“Serenity,” Setheris said, acknowledging the justice of the question. He considered a moment, his head tilted to one side, his eyes as bright as a raptor’s. “We are inclined to believe they speak in good faith. They are men with many other concerns, and we, too, expected Chavar to inform them.”
“Thank you, cousin,” Maia said; although those words were grimed with years of sullen irony, he said them as lightly, as gently, as he could. “And your wife?”
“Serenity,” Setheris said, bowing.
He turned and beckoned. Maia heard the click of shoe heels and rose to his feet. Hesero Nelaran stopped in the doorway to drop a deep and magnificent curtsy, the old-style honor that the Empress Csoru had made unfashionable. “Your Serenity,” she said, her voice as smooth as Setheris’s was sharp.
She was a year or two younger than her husband, crow’s-feet showing behind her maquillage. Her clothes were the black of proper court mourning: a floor-length dress trailing a train like a snake’s tail; a quilted and elaborately embroidered jacket, plum on black, frogged with garnet clasps like drops of blood. Her hair was dressed with black lacquer combs and tashin sticks and strands of faceted onyx. She was not beautiful, but through sheer force of elegance she contrived to seem so.
Since his mother’s death, Maia’s personal acquaintance with women had been limited to Edonomee’s stout cook and her two skinny daughters who did the housework. Although he had studied the fashion engravings in the newspapers with great care, there had been nothing that could have prepared him for Hesero Nelaran; he felt his composure shatter and fall to the floor about his feet.
“Osmerrem Nelaran,” he managed finally, stumbling over his words like any callow youth, “we are very pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“And we are pleased to make yours. We are also more grateful than we can say that you have allowed our husband to return to the Untheileneise Court.” She sank again, this time not merely into a curtsy, but into a full-length prostration every bit as graceful as Csevet’s. “Serenity, our honor and our loyalty are yours.”
He said inadequately as she rose to her feet again, “We thank you, Osmerrem Nelaran.”
“May we not count ourself your cousin, Serenity?”
“Cousin Hesero,” he amended.
She smiled at him, and he melted in the warmth of it, barely able to keep his wits together sufficiently to realize that she was speaking, asking about his coronation. “Midnight on the twenty-fourth,” he said, and she nodded with grave approbation, as if she had been worried that he might choose some other, less suitable time.
“Serenity,” Setheris said, “you must not allow us to impose on you.”
“We have much to do,” Maia said to Hesero, partly out of habitual obedience to Setheris’s obliquely worded commands, partly because he did not think he could sustain the audience much longer without making an utter driveling fool out of himself. “But we will hope for an opportunity to speak to you again.”
“Serenity,” they said. Hesero curtsied again; Setheris made a stiff, jerky little bow like a clockwork toy. She swept out with the same grace with which she had entered; she had one thin milk-white braid falling down her back past her hips, following the line of her spine. Setheris hurried after her, and Maia sank back into his chair, now abruptly breathless as well as fatigued.
Thou hast no head for dalliance, he said to himself, and began to laugh. He tried to stop, but it was beyond his power; the laughter seized and shook him like a terrier with a rat. The best he could do was to keep his vocal cords silent, suffering the paroxysm with no more noise than the occasional gasp for breath. It was as painful as choking or the terrible rattling cough of the bronchine, and when at last it released him, he had to wipe tears off his face.
And then he looked up, straight into the eyes of a sober-faced young man dressed as a soldier and with a soldier’s topknot, but wearing the Drazhadeise seal on a baldric across his chest. “Serenity,” he said, and knelt. His disapproval was palpable.
Maia wondered in horror how long he had been standing there, waiting for his emperor to be in a fit state to receive him. “Please rise. You are one of our nohecharei?”
“Yes, Serenity,” the young man said, standing straight again. “We are Deret Beshelar, Lieutenant of the Untheileneise Guard. Our captain has ordered us to serve as a nohecharis—unless Your Serenity is not pleased to accept our service.”
Maia wished he could say, No, we are not pleased, and be rid of this disapproving wooden soldier. But he could not offend the Captain of the Untheileneise Guard without giving a reason, and what reason could he give? He caught me laughing the day after my father’s death. He could not say that, and he read in Lieutenant Beshelar’s vast disapproval an equally vast probity, and that, he felt, he would need more than the man’s friendship.
“We see no reason to be displeased with the captain’s choice,” he said, and Beshelar said, “Serenity,” in such a flat, withering voice that Maia knew he had heard the phrase as an attempt at flattery.
Before he could decide whether he could say anything to ameliorate the wrong-footedness of the conversation, or whether he would merely dig himself in deeper with the attempt, another voice said, “Oh, damn. We did so hope we would get here first. Serenity.”
Maia blinked at this second young man, now kneeling in the doorway. He, too, wore a baldric with the Drazhadeise seal, but it looked almost incongruous over his shabby blue robe. As he stood again, unfolding a remarkable length of bony leg, Maia saw that he was taller than Beshelar, as gawky as a newborn colt. The pale blue eyes behind their thick round-lensed spectacles were myopic, gentle, and the one beauty in a face dominated by a long, higharched nose. His untidy maza’s queue did nothing to flatter him, but he was clearly not the sort of man who would ever care. He said, “We are Cala Athmaza. The Adremaza sent us.”
Beshelar let out a slight pained noise, not quite a sigh and not quite a snort. But the maza seemed to find nothing insufficient in his introduction, merely stood blinking benevolently at Maia, and Maia found nothing insufficient in his introduction, either.
“We are pleased,” he said. And to both of them, “We are Edrehasivar, to be crowned the seventh of that name at midnight of the twenty-fourth.”
“Serenity,” they said together, bowing, and then Cala said, “Serenity, there is a young man on the landing who looks as if he does not know whether he ought to stay or leave.”
“Show him in,” Maia said, and Cala and Beshelar stood aside.
Appearing between them, Csevet said, “We beg your pardon, Serenity. We did not know if you required our services for anything else.”
Maia hid a wince. He had forgotten about Csevet, which was thoughtless and arrogant. “Have you other duties?”
“Serenity,” Csevet said, bowing. “The Lord Chancellor has been so good as to intimate that he will second us to your service, if it would be pleasing to you.”
“That is very kind of the Lord Chancellor,” Maia said, meeting Csevet’s eyes in a moment of shared, pained amusement. “Then we would be very grateful if you could…” He gestured for a word that was not there. “If you could organize our household?”
He heard the plaintive note in his own voice, but Csevet disregarded it. “It shall be as Your Serenity wishes,” he said, bowing more deeply. “We will begin with…” He consulted his pocket watch. “Luncheon.”
The Funeral at the Ulimeire
The Ulimeire was on the outskirts of Cetho, the city that circled the Untheileneise Court like a crescent setting for a pearl. Descending from the embarrassingly large imperial carriage after Lieutenant Beshelar and Cala Athmaza, Maia thought unhappily that it might as well have been in another world.
The temple and the wall around the graveyard were made alike of crumbling red brick. The pillars of the temple portico were in need of a coat of whitewash, and their capitals were shaggy with abandoned birds’ nests. Weeds thronged the cracks between the paving stones of the walkway from gate to temple, and the grass in the graveyard had grown so tall that the tops of the gravestones appeared like small, barren islands in a tempestuous and brittle sea.
“Serenity,” said Beshelar, “are you sure—?”
“Yes,” Maia said. “Their deaths weigh no lighter on the earth than our father’s.”
As Cala opened the gate, a stout black-robed prelate, as shabby as his temple, appeared in the doorway. He stared, mouth agape beneath his dented moon-mask, and then all but threw himself down the stairs. He prostrated himself, and from the dark interior of the temple, there was a great soft rustling as the congregation did the same wherever they happened to be standing.
Thou must grow accustomed, Maia said to himself as he followed Beshelar and Cala toward the temple. Thou art emperor, as Setheris told thee. And at this juncture, truly, thou canst be emperor or thou canst be dead. Which dost thou prefer?
“His Imperial Serenity, Edrehasivar the Seventh,” Beshelar announced; Maia wished he wouldn’t.
“Please,” Maia said to the prelate, “rise. We wish only to pay our respects to the dead.”
The prelate stood up, rubbing his hands anxiously on the skirts of his robe. “Your Imperial Serenity,” he said. “We had no idea… that is, we weren’t informed…”
And someone should have been sent to inform you, Maia thought wearily. He had imagined somehow that he would be able to slip into the back of the temple and listen to the service without confessing his identity, but that had been a child’s wonder-tale, nothing more.
He said, “We are sorry, truly.”
“Serenity!” Beshelar hissed out of the corner of his mouth.
“We wished only to acknowledge the loss,” Maia continued, raising his voice so that the people inside the temple might hear him clearly, “that all of you have suffered. We did not wish that to be forgotten. We did not wish you to feel that… that we did not care.”
“Thank you, Serenity,” the prelate said after a pause. “We… that is, the temple is very small and not what you are used to. But, if you— and these gentlemen—would like to share in our worship, we—” and he used the plural, meaning both himself and the congregation. “—we would be…” He trailed off, searching for a word. “It would be an honor.”
Maia smiled at him. “Thank you. We also would be honored.” He ignored Beshelar’s appalled expression and followed the prelate up the stairs into the temple.
He considered and discarded the idea of telling the prelate that his Ulimeire was preferable by far to the dank and grimy Othasmeire at Edonomee. It was wiser for him to say as little as possible, and he feared besides that the prelate would take it as some sort of joke. But it was true. The Ulimeire was shabby and run-down, but clean, and the whitewash that had not been applied to the pillars had clearly been put to better use on the walls. The shy people, elves and goblins, in their much-mended and ill-fitting blacks—very like the clothes that Maia himself had been wearing when he had left Edonomee centuries ago that morning—were the family and friends and lovers of the crew of the Wisdom of Choharo, of the servants whose lives had been lost with their imperial masters. Many of the mourners wore livery; one or two of them were people he thought he had seen in the Alcethmeret earlier in the day. He saw grief and pain on their faces and wished he felt anything of the sort in his heart. He wished he had had a father worthy of mourning.
It took some time to find a place to put an emperor and his nohecharei in the Ulimeire that did not cause great discomfort and embarrassment for all concerned, but between the goodwill of the congregation, the prelate, the emperor, and his maza—and the remarkable and pointed forbearance of his guard—the matter was managed, and the prelate, taking his place before the altar of Ulis, as clean and shabby as the rest of the temple, began the service for the dead.
He spoke the words very simply and honestly, unlike the affected intonations and dramatic pauses of the Archprelate of Cetho who had officiated at the funeral service for the Empress Chenelo. Maia was disturbed to discover how clear and sharp his memories of his mother’s funeral were. Ten years might as well have been as many days.
The Empress Chenelo Drazharan had died in the spring of her son’s ninth year. She had been ill for as long as he could remember, his gray, stick-thin, beloved mother. Even to a child, it had become clear that winter that she was dying, as her eyes seemed to take up more and more of her face and she became so thin that even a badly judged touch could bruise her. She spent much of that winter and early spring in tears, dying and homesick and desperately afraid for her son.
She had been married very young—barely sixteen—and the marriage her father’s idea. The Great Avar of Barizhan wanted to see his daughter an empress. The Elflands, hostile to all foreigners though they were, desperately needed cordial relations with Barizhan, their only access to the rich trade of the Chadevan Sea, and so Varenechibel’s Witness for Foreigners had convinced him to agree to the marriage. It had been a bad decision all around, Chenelo told Maia in the days before her death. Her father, bitter in his disappointment that his wife had given him no sons—only two daughters, and one of those ill-favored and half-mad—had cared nothing for Chenelo and everything for the idea of treaties to secure his northern borders against his much larger and more powerful neighbor. The Witness for Foreigners had been an ambitious, greedy man. When Maia had been two years old, the Witness had been caught taking bribes from Pencharneise merchants. Varenechibel had sent Chenelo a gruesomely explicit engraving of the execution.
Varenechibel himself, still mourning for his third wife, the Empress Pazhiro, who had died five years previously, should not have considered marriage at that time, especially not to a girl young enough to be his daughter, a foreigner, a barbarian, a goblin; she had gained the cruel soubriquet “Hobgoblin” among the court before she was even married. Varenechibel found her ugly, boring, unappealing, but his lack of interest in her would not have deepened to hatred had it not been that their wedding night, the necessary legal consummation of their marriage and the only time Varenechibel claimed his marital rights of her, resulted in her pregnancy. Considering the unambiguity of the evidence that she had come a virgin to his bed, he could not even claim the child was not his.
Pazhiro had died in childbirth, and perhaps if Chenelo had done the same, he would have forgiven her. But she survived, and produced a healthy son as dark and ugly as herself; Varenechibel said viciously that if she thought she could replace Pazhiro and Pazhiro’s last, dead child, she was very much mistaken. As soon as Chenelo was able to travel, she and her child were sent to Isvaroë, where she would spend the last eight years of her life.
She had died on a gray, windy day in mid-spring, and since a dead empress was marginally more acceptable to Varenechibel than a living one, preparations were immediately put in train for a high ceremonial state funeral. It was also true that the Great Avar, who made no protest about his daughter’s treatment while she was alive—and saw nothing to criticize in the idea that a man would want no more congress with his wife than was necessary to beget a son—would have been grossly offended if less than full respect were paid to her corpse. The quiet house at Isvaroë was invaded by secretaries, functionaries, clerics. Most of them, when they noticed Maia at all, looked at him and sighed and shook their heads. He hid in his mother’s bedroom as much as he could.
If he could simply have lain down and died of grief, he would have. His mother had been the world to him, and although she had done her best to prepare him, he had been too young to fully understand what death meant—until she was gone, and the great, raw, gaping hole in his heart could not be filled or patched or mended. He looked for her everywhere, even after he had been shown her body—looked and looked and she could not be found.
He wept only in private, not trusting the strange adults who bustled around him, breaking the peace of Isvaroë with their loud voices and continual racket of packing and planning. And then came the day when they told him he had to leave Isvaroë, and took him in an airship to the Untheileneise Court, in which he had never fully believed, being always half-convinced that it was merely part of his mother’s stories.
He sat now, in this clean shabby temple to the moon-god, who was also the god of dreams and death and rebirth, and remembered the cold echoing marble of the Othasmeire of the Untheileneise Court, with its separate satellite shrines for each god. But there was not room in the shrine of Ulis for a full state funeral, and so Chenelo’s bier was placed beneath the dome’s oculus, as the biers of the Empress Pazhiro and the Empress Leshan had been. Instead of this single prelate, there had been a flock of clerics and canons surrounding the red-robed Archprelate, a miasma of incense, and crowds of whitehaired, white-faced elves in elaborate black who stood and listened to the service silently and without emotion. Here, they were almost silent, but there were the sounds of sobs choked back; the rustle of cloth against cloth as one mourner comforted another; even, halfway through, the wail of a child realizing loss, and the quick wordless shuffle as people cleared a path for her father to take her out. No one, Maia thought, would have done as much for him.
He remembered standing silent and stony-eyed beside the noblewoman given the thankless task of shepherding him through the funeral. Although the account Chenelo had given him of her marriage had been carefully impartial, carefully judged to what a child could understand, nevertheless his fierce worship of his mother had led him closer to the truth than she had ever wished him to go. It was his father’s fault, he understood, and this his father’s court, and he imagined that it would please them to see him weep. So he had not wept, not then, although he had wept every night for a week in the cold, musty bedroom he was given at Edonomee. Probably, he thought ruefully, he had frightened that noblewoman very much, and he made a mental note to ask Csevet if she could be found.
The prelate of the Ulimeire used the short form, unlike the interminable ceremony that had been used for Chenelo and would be used for Varenechibel and three of his four sons. The longest single part was the list of the names of the dead and the list of those who survived them. Hesitantly, with a shy glance at Maia, the prelate added at the end, “The Emperor Varenechibel the fourth, Nemolis Drazhar, Nazhira Drazhar, Ciris Drazhar, survived by the Emperor Edrehasivar the Seventh.” Blinking back a sudden prickle of tears, Maia bowed to the prelate over his clasped hands as each of the other mourners had done in turn, and cared nothing for the stiff, shocked disapproval of Beshelar at his elbow.
With the service concluded, it was clear to Maia that the prelate and congregation would only be shamed and embarrassed at the spectacle of their emperor picking his way through the tall yellowing grass to the twelve new graves. And there was no difficulty in extricating himself; he simply quit fighting Beshelar for the reins of the situation, and Beshelar with grand pomposity did the rest. Maia smiled at the prelate and the prelate smiled back. Beshelar all but physically strong-armed the emperor into the carriage, crowding Cala and himself in behind. The coachman clucked to the horses and they rattled off.
For ten minutes, no one said anything. Beshelar looked like he was reinventing most of Setheris’s favorite epithets—with “moonwitted hobgoblin” at the top of the list—although of course his sense of propriety was too great to allow him to utter them. Cala stared dreamily out the window, as he had on the way to the Ulimeire, and Maia himself clasped his hands in his lap and contemplated their darkness and ugly, lumpish knuckles.
Then Cala turned and said, “Serenity, why did you wish to attend the service?”
He sounded genuinely curious. Maia said, “I don’t know.” He did know—he knew all too well—but he did not want to discuss his father with his nohecharei, with anyone. Let that truth be buried with him, he thought. It profits no one for Edrehasivar VII to speak of his hatred for Varenechibel IV. And the worst of it was that he did not even hate his father; he could not hate anyone of whom he knew so little. The thought of Beshelar’s shock and disgust was exhausting, like the thought of carrying a massive boulder on his shoulders for the rest of his life.
Then he realized he had forgotten to use the formal first, and Beshelar would be shocked and disgusted anyway. He looked at Cala to avoid looking at Beshelar, and found the vague blue eyes unexpectedly sympathetic. “Nothing can make death easier,” Cala said, “but silence can make it harder.”
“Speaking helps not,” Maia said.
Cala drew back a little, like a cat tapped on the nose, and silence— whether hard or easy—filled the carriage, unbroken, until they reached the Untheileneise Court.
The Goblin Emperor © Katherine Addison, 2014