Introducing House Aerandos — Lord Saeros, Lady Tamia and their son Caelon. Caelon meets Dia.

Colonel Lord Caelon Aerandos stalked down the hall of the imperial palace on his way to his mother’s apartments. His habit of movement, more crisp and decisive than was the norm among the nobility, had already attracted the fascinated attention of many members of court. They wondered why he squandered such energy doing nothing more urgent than walking, while disdaining those pastimes that they considered much more diverting and thus worth the effort. He seemed quite humorless to them; he barely drank more than a cup of wine with his endmeal; he had not taken a lady to his bed since he had arrived at court some time ago. Yet, even as they tried to shrug him off as a dull fellow, they secretly drank in his aura of purposefulness as a starving man might wistfully breathe the perfume of a well-cooked meal, seeing in it a devotion to something more sustaining than pleasures of the flesh.

Caelon was well aware of, and grimly amused by, the fascinated horror with which the Emperor’s courtiers beheld him. For his part, on a good day, he eyed them with barely veiled contempt. Was this the much-vaunted imperial court, that was said to impart some sort of worldly wisdom upon the scions of noble houses? It seemed to him that they could learn as much in the back alleys of any town large enough to boast a tavern and a brothel. Surely, it was a very wise man who had said that idle hands bred feeble minds.

On a bad day, his lordship was not so generous and today was turning out to be a very bad day. Caelon was no more prudish than the next fellow but he found himself thinking, as he strode down the hall, that if he had to spend much more time among the drunken sots and unrepentant whores of His Imperial Majesty’s court, he was likely to do something desperate. And, to make matters worse, when he wasn’t fending off the advances of another energetic gentlewoman or indulging his male peers in wine-scented conversation, he was listening to addle-brained proposals from the madman on the throne.

With a perfunctory knock, Caelon opened the door to his mother’s sitting room and entered without ceremony. She looked up from her needlework and smiled at him. “Really, Caelon, whatever is the matter? You are looking quite ferocious. I am sure the entire court must find you terrifying!”

His scowl softened into the quizzical smile that was more habitual to him. “I had rather hoped for that effect, Mama, but alas! it is not so,” he told her.

Lady Tamia’s eyes returned to her embroidery. “If there is one good thing to be said about a half year of daylight, it is that there is plenty of light in which to set one’s stitches,” she remarked. “‘Tis a good thing your father and I did not bring you here with the notion of providing you with entertainment, my dear. I would have been sadly cast down by your stubborn refusal to enjoy yourself!”

At that, Caelon burst into laughter. “Oh, in that case, I would have made some effort, for if you were to go into a decline over the business, I would never hear the end of it! Come, Mama, admit that if I did find something with which to occupy myself among these wretches, you would be wholly mortified.”

“Oh, how can you say so?”

“Easily,” he replied instantly, a loving smile on his face that would have astonished much of the court. “So, tell me, which would you prefer? Shall I spend my time with my noble peers, drinking myself into a stupor regularly? Or shall I abide with the ladies instead, to see if my stamina is up to par?” Caelon shook his head, adding as his smile soured, “I had rather seek out the stable hands. At least they spend some of their time usefully.”

Her Grace chuckled. “You would not think so to hear what our own Thaerd has to say of them!” she told her son, youthful blue eyes twinkling. “To hear him tell of it, the only reason to keep any of them about the place is because His Majesty’s guests are so little addicted to outdoor exercise that the general ineptness in the stables goes unremarked.”

“As if anyone would ride out in this heat! Thaerd is quite absurd, you know.”

“No, he just does not approve of anything this far south. I am sure, if we asked him, he would say that we would still have a Phoenix if only the Temple of Fires had been built in Aerandos. Besides,” Lady Tamia continued as Caelon grinned, “he is a soldier, my dear, and has no taste for the amusements of the imperial guests.”

“I, too, am a soldier, ma’am, and Thaerd is a very sensible fellow,” Caelon contradicted himself promptly.

“No matter how absurd he might be!” her Grace retorted with a delightful gurgle of laughter. “Now, my dear, what did the Emperor say that has put you in such a temper? I felt quite certain, from his manner since we arrived, that he had some signal honor in mind for House Aerandos.”

That question effectively put a period to Caelon’s amusement. “Oh, he does indeed,” he replied grimly. “He would have my father serving on the General Staff of the Imperial Army here in the capital.”

“And what is there in that to put you out, Caelon?” asked her Grace in some surprise.

“Why, nothing, ma’am,” Caelon said promptly. “Indeed, the Emperor needs to do something about the sorry state of the Imperial Army, if the imperial guard here in the palace is considered the best of them. This latest evidence of His Majesty’s military genius is wonderful. He would have us withdraw our own troops from the northern frontier to take up positions closer to the imperial person, and replace them with regiments from his own sorry forces.”

Lady Tamia frowned thoughtfully and charmingly. “I would not offend His Majesty for the world, but I do not think his troops would be able to hold the north against the Throk,” she said hesitantly.

“They would be about as effective as those kittens you keep about the estate in such abundance,” Caelon said in disgust.

“Nonsense, boy,” said another voice from the door. “The kittens at least have claws.”

Caelon turned quickly as Lord Saeros stepped inside and closed the door behind him. He advanced into the room to greet his lady, placing an affectionate hand on Caelon’s shoulder in passing. “Your departure was somewhat precipitous, my boy,” he noted to his heir as he bowed over Lady Tamia’s hand.

“Why, how is this, sir?” Caelon replied, feigning astonishment. “We had been dismissed. Surely I could not have been mistaken?”

“Did I not bring you here in your capacity as my heir?” Lord Saeros turned now and bent a stern glance upon his son. “Do you imagine that your instruction at the hands of my generals and my stewards is all you will require?”

“Well, if there is more that I will require, I beg you will not ask me to learn it here,” Caelon said, making no effort to mask his contempt.

Lord Saeros eyed his son sardonically. “Aye, the baby lord thinks to assume the command of the premier fighting force in the empire without need of learning how best to address imperial machinations! Think you that you can display your contempt for the imperial court so plainly when you stand in my shoes? The Emperor is still my liege, and will be yours; you can no more avoid him than you can avoid my lady’s cats.”

At that, both Lady Tamia and Caelon laughed. “Now, really,” the lady said, “why must the pair of you harp so upon the poor pussies? They do earn their keep, you must confess. Cook tells me there has not been above five mice in the kitchens in all the years since I was married!”

“I knew you must have been well dowered, Mama,” Caelon said, very much impressed, “but, indeed, I had no notion of the riches you commanded.”

Lord Saeros did not smile at this banter between his wife and his heir. “A moment of your attention, Caelon!” he said, throwing back his shoulders and assuming what Caelon undutifully called “commander stance”.

And Caelon responded in kind as was expected. He straightened to attention, saying, “Sir?”

“You are to attend me at all of my meetings while we are here in the palace. That means informal meetings as well as formal ones. It is for that reason that I brought you here to begin with.”

“As you will, sir,” Caelon said, bowing. Then, as he moved to the door, he added with a grin, “And I had thought my purpose at court was to acquire the acquaintance and society of my peers. Never was I more disappointed!”

“Off with you, Impudence!” said his father, trying to scowl around the smile that was blossoming on his face.

Caelon quit the room in a much better frame of mind than he had entered it. He strode down the hall, trying to decide which of the numerous saloons and sitting rooms in the palace was most likely to be empty. He did not particularly want to remain closeted in his room, but neither did he want to make himself too accessible to his empty-headed peers by arriving for endmeal any sooner than was absolutely necessary. The closest thing in the palace to an exercise gymnasium was the imperial steam rooms, which Caelon had avoided since he had learned, early in his stay, that the courtiers were likely to use the rooms for purposes for which they were not originally designed. He would have given a great deal for the sort of equestrian exercise arena that Lord Saeros had constructed at Aerandos, to be used for training cavalry units in inclement weather. In truth, Caelon was not used to having a great deal of unoccupied time on his hands; he was restless and felt sure he was growing soft with so much enforced idleness.

He wondered what could have occurred after he had excused himself to his father that had roused that gentleman’s ire. Caelon doubted it was simply a matter of wanting him to observe the smooth technique which his Grace used to divert imperial importunities. He’d had plenty of opportunity to observe that during that thrice-blighted conference, so he had! A reluctant smile tugged at his lips. Perhaps there was something to be said for acquiring a touch of court polish.

The imperial summons had come to Aerandos at a bad time, for his Grace had been busy about his estate, repairing flood damage and preparing for the long dry spell that had just begun. Still, the Grand Duke of Aerandos knew his duty to the Emperor better than most, occupied as he was with the defense of the empire, so he had placed his well trained steward in charge of the repairs and brought his family south.

But his Imperial Majesty, once the Grand Duke Saeros and his family were ensconced in the palace, seemed in no hurry to get to the matter that had inspired him to summon them. Instead, they had been treated to interminable banquets and insipid soirees, the Emperor apparently determined to demonstrate to House Aerandos the endless congeniality of his court. His parents had been heartily bored by what His Imperial Majesty had referred to as “picking up the neglected threads of their acquaintance”, although they tactfully refrained from pointing out that none of the minor nobility currently at court were known to them. Caelon had been passed around among the younger visitors to the palace like a platter of savories and soon grew every bit as bored.

So all three of them were pleased when Lord Saeros had been summoned to an imperial audience as they had been finishing a substantial midmeal. Caelon and his father had exchanged a single startled, hopeful glance before attacking the remaining wine in their glasses with what Lady Tamia had laughingly called unseemly haste. Neither of them had spoken of it, but father and son both hoped the summons meant that his Imperial Majesty was finally going to get on with it. Caelon, indulging optimism, thought that perhaps they might be on their way back to Aerandos before endmeal.

Lord Saeros and his heir, therefor, arrived in the conference room and greeted the Emperor with such affability that his Imperial Majesty seemed smugly gratified. Since the cordiality of father and son had nothing to do with their delight in the imperial court, and everything to do with relief at the notion that they might soon be done with it, Caelon reflected that it was as well that the Emperor could not read their thoughts as the TimeKeepers had been said to do. Politely, he bowed to General Kraetus and to the imperial heir, Prince Maermat.

“How may I serve you, my emperor?” Lord Saeros had asked, once the introductions were over and all the men were seated.

“The matter is simple, Saeros,” the Emperor said, as if he felt sure his Grace would fall in with his ideas without protest. “I find the imperial troops in less than the desired state of combat readiness. You have perhaps noticed the same thing?”

His lingering relief had prompted a mood of hilarity in Caelon and only his father’s stern glance had kept him from uttering a crack of laughter at this massive understatement. “Why, yes, your Majesty,” Lord Saeros had agreed, “I did make note of a certain … er … ”

“They’re soft and lazy, your Grace,” Kraetus had interjected with a grunt. “No need to wrap the thing up in clean linen. I have given the Emperor a thorough briefing on the condition of his army.”

“Indeed,” Kaerkas the Beast had said, frowning petulantly. “It will not do. Ormaeranda is the greatest empire in the history of the world, but the might of the empire will be judged in the end by the might of the imperial army.” He had paused and Caelon felt sure he had caught himself on the brink of unwise speech. “We must improve the men, Saeros, and without delay.”

“A wise choice, your Majesty,” Lord Saeros had agreed politely.

An awkward pause had followed that courteous remark as everyone had waited for him to continue. Curious, Caelon glanced around the table. General Kraetus was scowling down at the fine grain of the hardwood table under his hands. Prince Maermat wore a faint smile and the imperial visage held nothing but polite interest. Yet, all three men betrayed a taut expectation in the set of their shoulders, in Maermat’s narrowed eyes and the Emperor’s fingers, which drummed absently and arhythmically on the table.

Now, what’s afoot? wondered Caelon. It was quite obvious that his father had been expected to offer to see to the task of sprucing up the imperial army, and it was equally clear to everyone in the room that his Grace had missed his cue. Lord Saeros appeared to be the only one of them who was in command of his face and body language; he seemed completely at his ease, his expression politely enquiring. Caelon carefully hid a smile; his Grace certainly knew how to bring conversation to an abrupt halt.

“Hmmph. Yes, well,” said the Emperor, with an expression on his face that was very close to a pout. “The thing is that this task will require leadership, Saeros.”

“Your Majesty has a very fine General Staff,” Lord Saeros pointed out.

“Nonsense!” the Emperor stated. “How fine can they be if they have allowed the army to deteriorate in this fashion?” His Imperial Majesty seemed to have forgotten that a member of the General Staff sat at the table with them. The General’s scowl grew blacker.

“The thing is, your Grace, that our generals here in the capital do not have that military tradition so long in their bloodlines as does House Aerandos,” Prince Maermat took up the chant, his voice smooth and persuasive. “All the world knows that the soldiers of Aerandos are the finest to be had anywhere.”

“Your Highness is very kind.” Lord Saeros murmured the formula response, still apparently unwilling to help these three say what they seemed so reluctant to say.

“Kindness has nothing to say to the matter,” the Emperor said firmly. Given his reputation, Caelon had no doubts about the sincerity of that statement. “Your aid is needed, Saeros. I would appoint you to the General Staff as a special advisor and have you see to retraining the imperial army. Now, what say you?”

“You honor me, your Majesty,” Lord Saeros said slowly, his face giving no hint of his opinion of this indication of imperial favor, “but I have duties to my people in the north that must be discharged, and I also must see to my own troops.”

“That will be no problem at all,” the Emperor said promptly, as if he had anticipated this caveat. “I will send the army to you at Aerandos, and your troops will come here in their stead.”

That plan seemed so fraught with disaster, that Caelon remained silent only with the greatest difficulty. Of all the ridiculous notions … !

“That would not be a very good idea, your Majesty,” his father pointed out. “It would be imprudent to withdraw the best troops available from the border of the empire’s only hostile neighbor.”

“Great fires of Phoenix, Saeros, but you are insulting!” General Kraetus burst out with what, to Caelon, seemed a bizarre reversal of his originally proffered opinion of the imperial troops. “They may not measure up to the heights of soldierdom that you set, but neither will they turn tail and run at the first sign of an engagement! Rest assured, your Grace, our men will fight.”

“Of course, they will fight, General,” Lord Saeros returned, his voice mild but his eyes glinting. “But will they win?”

“A home question,” said the Emperor, clearly delighted. Caelon wondered if the man were deliberately needling his general or if he was simply an idiot. Much more of this, and Lord Saeros would need to guard himself most assiduously during the remainder of his stay at the palace.

Lord Saeros sat back, apparently pondering the matters at hand. “I do not think I should care to have the Throk as near neighbors,” he remarked absently. “As it is, they are quite close enough.” After a pause, during which the company awaited his pleasure, he smiled faintly and spoke again. “Your majesty, you have presented me with a nice dilemma. The easiest solution would be for me to acquire the ability to be in two places at once.”

Prince Maermat chuckled, but his glance remained watchful.

“I will consider the matter,” his Grace had declared. “There may yet be a way for me to both discharge my responsibilities to my people and serve the empire’s needs.”

Striding easily down the hall, Caelon considered the matter now. That his father’s reaction at being offered a special commission by the Emperor was less than effusive did not seem to disturb a ruler known far and wide for his intolerance to opposition. Caelon found that interesting. He did not think that report had lied or exaggerated; there was that in Kaerkas’ eyes that made one hesitate to cross him.

Lord Saeros, Caelon realized, had handled the situation with admirable skill. He had failed to instantly fall in the scheme and volunteered neither action nor information, yet he had managed to avoid placing the Emperor in a position in which an imperial ultimatum would have been justified. They were going to have to volunteer more information before they acquired his Grace’s cooperation, much less his army, and that was just as well. The general’s hostility was not difficult to fathom but Prince Maermat’s calculating gaze suggested that there was more to this very plausible imperial request than met the eye.

All at once, Caelon realized that he was being watched and he cursed his inattention. Automatically, his steps slowed as his eyes darted around, trying to penetrate the shadows. The watcher was unfriendly, instinct told him; the level of malevolence he could feel from that silent observer caused him to wish, not for the first time, that the Emperor would allow his guests to be armed with more serious weapons than their fashionable daggers. This corridor, like the entire palace, was ill-lit and quiet. Waves of coldly brooding menace chilled him, inhuman in their intensity.

Inhuman? Caelon was not a fanciful sort but he had learned not to cast aside those random, instinctive impressions if he would save his own life. Surely, this corridor had not been this dark a few moments ago? Those instincts, which had served him so well for so long, could sense that dark menace building, reaching toward a crescendo that could only mean his unseen watcher was working himself up to launch an attack. Caelon’s nerves stretched taut as his body automatically prepared for battle, but his mind seethed with helpless frustration. How could he fight what he could not see? What was it?

A door latch sounded and Caelon, poised for a fight despite the dimness that seemed to shroud his sight, whirled to his left with his knife in his hand.

“What ails you, my lord?” a sharp, feminine voice asked.

Suddenly, he could see again. Confused and angry, he looked accusingly into the face of a woman he had never seen before. “Perhaps I should ask you the same thing, my lady,” he replied sardonically. “I had thought that a female of your obvious breeding would not stoop to spying about the corridors of the palace. Tell me, were you expecting your lover? No doubt it were better to make these little appointments for some time after endmeal.”

She glanced up at him with eyes the color of a stormy sky. “You are churlish, my lord,” she said, her voice flat with hostility and her hands twitching, although she wore no daggers.

He had been churlish, he knew. Manners and morals in the palace may be lax, but his hasty words were unforgivable. Still angry, he said, “Forgive me, my lady. I find I do not care to be watched and there is no need for you to trouble yourself with my movements. I have no secrets.”

The lady seemed to have mastered her temper and now stared at him sardonically. “On that point, I must beg to differ, sir,” she said. “No doubt you have a great many secrets, for I have no notion of what you may be talking about!”

“Do you mean to say that you were not watching as I came up this hall?” he asked her, suspiciously.

Caelon knew, as soon as he had asked her, that she could not have been that silent watcher. That aura of menace had been far too strong for her to successfully hide it now that they were face to face, and her present annoyance was a zephyr compared to the brooding hatred he had sensed. She did not even reply to his distrustful question, merely staring at him with her remarkably fine gray eyes. Those eyes held a peculiar expression, a combination of cynical amusement and the sort of wariness one usually employs when dealing with lunatics.

Aware that he had behaved in such a way as to completely justify her apparent impression that she had encountered a raving maniac, he bowed and suppressed an untimely fit of laughter. “I can see that I was very much mistaken and can only beg your pardon, my lady. You must think I learned my manners in the stables,” he told her ruefully.

She fixed him with a stern eye and drew a deep breath. “I expect that any manners you might learn from the stable hands would be a vast improvement, sir,” she told him. “Frankly, if the two gentlemen I have encountered since I arrived at the palace are a fair sample of Emperor’s court, I had as lief return to my home without further delay.”

This time he could not control the crack of laughter her words surprised from him. “How very unhandsome of you!” he said, grinning. “Come, my lady, I have owned my fault and apologized most properly. It is unkind in you to withhold your prompt forgiveness!”

She took another breath and open her mouth to speak, but what reply she might have made him he would never know. Suddenly, as she gazed at him, her eyes widened in astonishment and her irritation seemed to melt away. She seemed amazed by something only she could see and Caelon found himself wondering who she was and why she was looking at him so oddly. Finally, she seemed to recollect herself, for she released her pent up breath and, in some confusion, dropped a curtsey. “Of course, my lord,” was all she said.

“Thank you,” and Caelon bowed again, feeling rather irrationally as if he had been robbed of some very good sport. “No doubt you will be attending His Imperial Majesty’s tedious endmeal, at which I expect we shall be formally presented to each other. There, I shall behave so irreproachably that I daresay you will be astonished and I shall be fully redeemed in your eyes.” He reflected, as he made that extravagant promise, that once she had a taste of the rest of the imperial court, she would no doubt think him a model of rectitude.

He turned from her and continued down the hall, entertaining himself with speculations about her likely reaction to that particular treat in store — or should he rather call it an ordeal? — his unseen watcher momentarily forgotten.

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