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Chapter the Sixty-Ninth
How the Empress, Attempting to
Work on the Design of the Imperial Palace,
Manages Those Who Interrupt Her
On the ground floor of Whitecrest Manor was a wide enclosed terrace, the twin to the open terrace on the other side where the Count and Countess of Whitecrest were accustomed to take their morning klava and watch the ocean. The enclosed terrace, of course, was used during inclement weather and had been the place where the Countess was accustomed to carry on her workexcept that now it was the room where the Empress was carrying on her official business. The room was reached by a hallway with two entrances, one leading down to the parlor, and the other to a flight of steps that went up to the second story of the Manor. This second entrance had been sealed off, and a guard was posted at the first, with instructions to admit no one without permission of either Her Majesty or the officer on duty.
The officer on duty, of course, was generally Khaavren, and it happened to be Khaavren on this day who entered the room, bowed to Zerika, and said, "A gentleman to see Your Majesty. It is Prince Tiwall, of the House of the Hawk."
"Ah!" said Zerika, looking up from the papers she had been studying, which papers were, in turn, a single entry in a seemingly endless list of details to be decided upon with regard to the design of the Imperial Palace. Before her were not only lists and diagrams, but several different models of the future structures, or portions there-of, one of which was a full five feet high and more than fifteen feet in length, and occupied most of the room.
This activity had taken up so much of Her Majesty's time and effort that she was often impatient with any interruptions. On hearing who was there, the Orb, which had been circling her head with a beige color of distraction, first turned to a faint red of irritation, then, after she had reflected, to a warm orange of pleasurable excitement. "Send him in at once," she said.
Khaavren bowed and, as he had been trained to do for so long, did as he was told.
"I greet Your Majesty," said Tiwall, a stern, forbidding gentleman of well over two thousand years, whose white hair, worn long and brushed back from his noble's point, made a stark contrast to his dark complexion.
"Come, Your Highness," said Zerika. "That isn't so bad. You greet me as Your Majesty. Does this mean that I have cause to hope the House of the Hawk looks with favor upon my claim?"
Tiwall bowed. "I use the title because of my own belief, madam, that the Orb is the Empire."
"Your own beliefwhat of your House?"
"Oh, as to my House"
"They are considering the matter."
"Your Majesty must understand that these are difficult times, and no one wishes to be hasty."
"Yet, Your Highness has decided."
"I have, and I beg Your Majesty to believe that I am using all of my influence within the House on your behalf."
"I am glad to hear it. For my part, I shall be glad to use what influence I have on Your Highness's behalf."
"Oh, if Your Majesty means that"
"Yes?" said Zerika, frowning.
"It could be of immeasurable help in that cause in which we are united."
"I do not understand what Your Highness does me the honor to tell me. Speak more plainly, I beg."
"I only wish to say that should Your Majesty act on my behalf, or, more precisely, on behalf of my House, it would be of great help to me in convincing them."
Zerika looked at him carefully. "Does the House of the Hawk wish to bargain with the Empire?"
"It is their contentionand believe me, I speak of them, not of methat, not having been recognized by the Council of Princes, it is not yet the Empire."
"I see. So, then, the House of the Hawk wishes to bargain with a certain Phoenix who happens to have the Orb circling her head."
"Your Majesty has stated the situation admirably."
"I see. And what does the House of the Hawk feel this recognition is worth?"
"If Your Majesty will permit me, before I answer the question you have done me the honor to ask."
"Permit you to what, Highness?"
"To explain the situation as I see it. Perhaps there are aspects that I fail to understand."
"I doubt that," murmured Zerika. Then she said, "Very well, Prince. State the situation as you understand it."
Tiwall bowed and said, "Well, let us see. You already have approval of the Lyorn, have you not?"
"The Count of Flowerpot Hill and Environs came to Adrilankha within days of my arrival here, and at once pledged the support of his House."
"And of course, you have the support of the House of the Phoenix."
"As I am the only one in the House, yes, it is true that I gave myself my full support. And I even plan to continue doing so."
"But Your Majesty has not yet heard from the Dragon or the Athyra, which are, I should point out, the two most powerful Houses."
"Again, you are correct."
"It must be said that the indications of allegiance you have received from the Tiassa are important. They have influence."
"I received a letter only yester-day from Count Röaanac in which he informs me of the decision of his House and pledges his personal good-will. Your Highness is singularly well informed."
Tiwall bowed and said, "So then, will Your Majesty permit me to make an observation?"
"Certainly, Highness. Do so, by all means, especially if it brings us to the point of this political survey you have just made for my benefit."
Tiwall, after clearing his throat, said, "My House occupies an unusual middle ground. We have more influence than the Jhereg and the Teckla, but not so much as the Dragon and the Athyra. We have been consultedinformally, I should addby parties from the Issola and the Iorich, as well as certain of the merchant Houses."
"Very well, go on."
"Should I manage to persuade my House to accept Your Majesty as the Empress that you are, well"
"Yes, if you should convince them, as I know you are trying to do?"
"I am certain we would bring with us, as a matter of course, the Iorich, the Chreotha, and most probably the Orca as well."
"Once that happens, I cannot imagine the Jhereg and the Teckla not falling into line."
"It seems as if Your Highness is doing my planning for me."
"Not in the least, Your Majesty. I'm attempting to explain"
"Never mind, Highness. Go on."
"Yes, Your Majesty. I wish only to observe that, should my negotiations within my own House be successful, it may have the effect, by itself, of very nearly bringing the entire Council of Princes to Your Majesty's support."
Zerika remained silent, and the Orb, slowing down a trifle in response to this contemplation, took on a dark green shade as she considered, as well as flickering slightly when she consulted it for some detail on Tiwall's history or family. To be sure, this Hawklord was no one's fool, and he was, as Hawks always are, well informed. But how honest was he, within the lies he was telling that were meant to be seen through?
"Very well," said Zerika after a moment. "What might the Empire grant your House that could help you to convince them that I am the true Empress, representing their interests as well as everyone else's within the vast Empire that we once had and, with the Favor, will again?"
"Tolerably little, Majesty."
"We shall see."
"That is easy enough; there are many estates."
"A particular estate, Majesty."
"Then that is different. Who owns it now?"
"No one. That is to say, the Empire."
"So much the better. Is it valuable?"
"I will not deny to Your Majesty that it is."
"What is its value?"
"Nowhere else that I know of are iron ore, oil, and coal all to be found in the same, narrow region of a few small mountains and valleys. There are refining operations near-by where, before the disaster, kerosene was produced, and there is no shortage of waterways."
"And you say, these counties are not owned?"
"Not one of them. A few had a baron or two ruling part of them before the Disaster, but since then not even a younger son of any of them remain."
"How many counties are we speaking of?"
"How much in area?"
"Perhaps twelve hundred square miles."
"That is not so much. Where are these counties, exactly?"
"Just south of the Collier Hills."
"Your Majesty knows them?"
"Nearly. I have just promised three of them to a certain Dragonlord who gave me some assistance against the Pretender. I had no idea they were so valuable."
"You have promised them? Ah, that is too bad!"
"Is there nothing else that will do?"
"I fear not, Your Majesty," said the Hawk, bowing deeply. "If I may be excused"
"Your Highness may not," said Zerika coldly.
Tiwall bowed again, and waited in the perfect attitude of the courtier.
The Empress was discovering, as Morrolan had, that to govern others requires one to spend more time in consideration than one is used toeither that, or one must inevitably become a careless administrator, and history says nothing good about careless administrators. Therefore, Zerika considered, and, after considering, she said, "Very well, you may have your five counties."
The Hawklord bowed. "I believe I will be able to bring Your Majesty good news within a month."
"I depend upon it."
"Oh," he said, suddenly looking worried. "I hope Your Majesty did not interpret my words as a guarantee for any House other than my own."
"I hope," replied the Empress, "that Your Highness did not interpret my words as a guarantee of five counties to be given to your House."
"And yetI understand, Your Majesty."
"That is good, Highness. It is important to understand one another."
Tiwall bowed to acknowledge this observation Her Majesty did him the honor to share, and inquired, "Will there be anything else?"
"No. You may go."
"Your Majesty will hear from me soon."
When he was gone, Zerika returned to her work, comparing certain figures on paper to some of the models and drumming her fingertips on the table, until the captain once again entered the room, and said, "Another gentleman begs to have a word with Your Majesty."
Zerika had been reflecting on what sort of passageway ought to connect the Imperial Wing with the Iorich Wing, which included certain philosophical issues about the relationship between the needs of the Empire and the abstraction of justice and therefore could not be easily delegated. She permitted a grimace to cross her countenance as she said, "Who is it this time?"
"It is I," said Khaavren.
"Yes, yes. But I mean, who wishes to see me?"
"The captain of your guard," said Khaavren coolly.
"But you are the captain of my guard."
"Then, it appears, it is I who wish to have a word with my Empress."
Her Majesty's eyes narrowed, and she said, "You must break yourself of this habit, Captain, of answering in tones that might be construed as deficient in respect for the Orb. Even when we are alone, I do not consider it in the best of taste, and I am surprised that an old soldier such as yourself, who has served the Empire for so many years, would permit himself such liberties."
"I beg Your Majesty's pardon," said Khaavren. "With age, we soldiers become brittle, and the least pressure upon us causes us to snap back quickly lest we break."
"I do not believe, Captain, that you are in any danger of breaking."
"I beg Your Majesty's pardon, but I must do myself the honor of disagreeing."
"You say, then, that you are in danger of breaking?"
"Your Majesty must know that I am old."
Zerika quickly consulted the Orb, and did some fast arithmetic, after which she said, "My dear Captain, you have not seen a thousand years."
"That is true, but Your Majesty ought to understand that each year of Interregnum, now thankfully passed"
"As to that, we shall see, with the Favor."
"must count as ten years when calculating my age."
"At the very least."
"Well, perhaps the Tiassa do not reckon figures as others do."
"That may be; but I swear it is the truth."
"Very well, then, Captain, I accept that you are old. What of it? Your service is still valuable."
"Oh, it is good of Your Majesty to say so."
"Not at all. I hope, at least, you do not dispute me on this as well?"
"What, you say that you are no longer useful to me?"
"I am old, Your Majesty, and tired. I feel that, in having the honor to have served Your Majesty in so far as arriving to Adrilankha, I have done my duty."
"So then? What are you saying, Captain. Speak plainly."
"Your Majesty, I wish to offer you my resignation."
"What? I cannot believe it! You? Resign?"
"It is my fondest wish, Majesty."
"You offer your resignation."
"And if I do not accept it?"
"Then I must find a way to convince Your Majesty to do so." He placed a paper on the table in front of her. "Here are a list of certain of my officers in whom I have great confidence; some of them were with me before the Disaster. Any of them can easily step into my boots."
"But why, Captain? Come, speak frankly."
"I have already had the honor to do so."
Zerika looked at the soldier carefully, noting his unbent posture, the attitude of humble respect that can only come from one who is secure of his own place, the lines of sorrow and joy on his face. At length, she said, "My lord, you are not being entirely honest with me."
"Do you require me to repeat myself?"
"I heard, but I do not understand."
"What could be plainer? I believe that you wish to resign, but I do not believe you have told me the true reason."
"I can only do myself the honor of repeating myself to Your Majesty, and, as that might be considered disrespectful, I must refrain from doing so, wherefore I stand mute."
"Permit me to observe, Captain, that you require more words to stand mute than you should have required to answer my question. So now I do myself the honor of asking again. Why do you wish to leave my service? Does it have something to do with your son, with whom you have quarreled?"
At these words, Khaavren stiffened almost imperceptibly, but he looked the Empress fully in the face and said, "No."
"Well then, what is the reason?"
Khaavren bowed his head and stood mute, this time without accompanying explanations.
The Orb turned to a dark, forbidding red, and Zerika slapped her palm upon the table. "Very well, then, Captain. You have tendered your resignation; I accept it. Farewell."
Khaavren bowed low to Her Majesty, and turning crisply on his heel, left the Empress's presence at a good, martial pace, which carried him, after two steps, to the Countess's apartment. The door being open, he passed within. Darowhom we confess to our shame has been unfairly neglected by this historyhad been, since giving the Manor over to Her Majesty, using the small secretary to carry out the business of the county. She looked up from this work as Khaavren entered, and stood up, smiling. Khaavren at once approached her and tenderly kissed her hand.
"It is such a pleasure, Countess, to be home, because I am able to see you every day."
"I give you my word, sir, that I share fully in this pleasure. But come, do not stand there so. Sit and speak with me."
"Nothing would give me greater pleasure, I assure you," said Khaavren, accordingly sitting down next to the countess.
"Well," said she, "what have you to communicate to me?"
"Certainly. Can you conceive that I might live with you for hundreds of years without knowing when you have something to tell me, and are at a loss for how to begin? And so, sir, I beg you to simply tell me, whether it be good, ill, or merely amusing."
"As to which it is, in all honesty, I do not know. It could be any of them. But to say itfor you know you are correct on all countsit is this: I have resigned my commission."
"Two minutes ago."
"Yes, I am completely at liberty."
The Countess looked at him carefully. "It seems a hasty action."
"Is it because of"
"No," said Khaavren shortly, before she could pronounce the name of their son. This was a sore subject between them, and had caused a certain amount of strain; although the bonds of affection between them had not frayed, nevertheless Khaavren had no wish for them to become tied up on such a discussion now, when it could only lead to the issue being entangled with more tension.
"What then?" she said. "For I know there must be a reason."
Khaavren frowned. "The truth is"
"I am not pleased with this little Phoenix."
"How, you are not?"
"You perceive, I remained loyal to Tortaalik, with all of his changing moods, and indecision, and impotence; but I was a younger man then."
"My dear Count, you are not as old as you pretend."
"Perhaps not. And yet, I find I have no patience for this young Phoenix."
"What has she done?"
"She has given away, to the House of the Hawk, certain counties that were promised to the Lord Morrolan, whom I consider to be a gentleman of the first order; indeed, he made such a strong impression on me that, were it not for the differences in our age, I could think of him as a friend. He reminded me of"
"Well, if truth be told, of Lord Adron."
Khaavren shrugged. "I know that to speak his name is to conjure an evil, both to the Empire and to myself, for he could, indeed, be called the author of all of my misfortune. And yet, I always liked him, and thought him an honorable gentleman, if headstrong and misguided. And Aerich feels the same way, which seems to me to prove the case."
"Oh, my dear Count, I do not dispute with you on Adron's character."
"As I have said, Morrolan reminds me of him. And, even if he did not, it was wrong of her to take back what she had given him."
"And so you have given her your resignation?"
"And she has accepted it, yes."
"And did you tell her why? "
"I told her that I was old and tired."
"And did she believe you?"
"No, but I wore her down with repetition. I did not presume to tell Her Majesty that I judged her actions."
"And you were right not to, only"
"My lord husband, I do not think that is what is disturbing your peace of mind. Or, at least, that is not all of it."
Khaavren started to speak, stopped, then shrugged. "Perhaps not all of it."
"It has not been easy for you, since the Disaster, my lord."
"Nor has it for you, madam wife."
"Oh, as for me, you know I am always cheerful. But I worry about you. And now this latest blow"
"With Her Majesty?"
"You know that is not the matter to which I refer."
Khaavren lowered his eyes. "I know," he said. "But let us not discuss it."
"On the contrary, my lord. I think we should discuss nothing else."
"Very well, let us discuss it. What else could I have done?"
"What if it had been you?"
"Me? How could it be me? Would I have wanted to marry outside of my House?"
"What do you tell me?"
"My lord husband, do you remember our first conversation?"
"The Gods! I think so! Your gown showed most of your back. It was red, with gold lace about the collar and the sleeves."
Daro smiled. "Your memory is excellent. What else do you remember?"
"I remember that you thought I was arresting you."
"Yes. And you thought I was a Lyorn."
"That is true, I did."
"And it seems to me that, even believing I was a Lyorn, you spoke with tolerable freedom."
"Was it displeasing to you?"
"Oh, not in the least; and the proof is that I am here. But, nevertheless, if I had been a Lyorn"
"Were you a Lyorn, you would hardly be who you are, and I should not have felt as I did, and as I do."
"These ifs are useless."
"With this I agree."
"But you were too hard with our son, too inflexible. That is my belief."
Khaavren bowed his head once more, at last saying, "I do not know."
"Madam, what do you suggest I do?"
"What do you always do when you are troubled in your mind?"
"I do not know. It seems that I have been troubled in my mind for these last two and a half hundred years, and I do not know what I should have done were it not for you."
"Well, in the old days, were you never disturbed in your mind?"
"Why, yes, I think I was, at times."
"And what did you do on those occasions?"
"In the old days, I would speak with Aerich, who always seemed able to ease my heart."
"You think I should visit Aerich?"
"You ask a good question," admitted Khaavren. "Perhaps I should indeed."
The Countess smiled, and, after a moment, Khaavren was forced to smile back. "Well, madam? What is it you have not yet told me?"
"I have spoken with him."
"You? You have spoken with Aerich?"
"I sent him a message by the post some days ago."
"A message? What message did you send him?"
"I merely explained that"
"That you would very much wish to see him."
"Astonishing," murmured Khaavren. "Madam, you are adorable."
Daro smiled and lowered her eyes.
Copyright © 2004 by Steven Brust