Authors: Christine Pope
his is a work of fiction
. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, organizations, or persons, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
ASHES OF ROSES
Copyright © 2013 by Christine Pope
Published by Dark Valentine Press
Cover art by Nadica Boskovska.
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, Emperor of Sirlende
Lord Keldryn Tylande, my chancellor, had always reminded me of one of my father’s old hunting dogs, with his drooping jowls and sad dark eyes — and never more so than when he was attempting to cajole me into an enterprise he knew from the start I would never agree with.
“Linara Tharne, youngest daughter of the king of Purth,” he said desperately, setting a miniature portrait in a jeweled frame on my desktop.
I didn’t even bother to look at the portrait. As if a painted picture could be counted on to tell the truth. Portrait painters had to eat, that much I knew, and so of course made sure that the richer their subjects, the more flattering the portrait. And even if this Linara were fair in actuality and not merely on a tiny piece of canvas, I already knew she was not at all suitable.
“By my calculations, the girl is barely twelve years old,” I replied, and set down my pen before pushing the inkwell off to one side. It was rare that I should have an uninterrupted hour, and I had been attempting to use it to some purpose, examining the sketches the architects had brought for the renovation of my quarters and making what notes I could for any alterations and improvements. Typical that Lord Keldryn would sniff out that idle time and thrust his own intentions upon it. “Surely you do not expect me to marry someone half my age, a child who will not be ready for the marriage bed for at least another five years?”
I could tell from the brief tightening of his fleshy lips that he had, indeed, expected me to do that very thing. After all, even an emperor had little choice when it came to who might sit on the throne next to him. So few who were suitable, let alone appealing.
“Your Majesty — ”
A raised hand was enough to silence him. “You will have to do better than that, Keldryn.”
“Your Majesty, there is no one else. Anyone of acceptable rank has been betrothed almost since birth. As you were, with the princess who met her death so shockingly. The King of South Eredor has only sons, as did the Mark of North Eredor. We do not treat with Seldd, and the Hierarch of Keshiaar’s two sisters were married off years ago. Even Princess Linara of Purth is only free to marry because her own betrothed died of the plague two winters ago.”
A scowl creased my brow, but I did nothing to prevent it. I saw no reason to hide my irritation. Did my chancellor really think that by reciting facts to me I already knew, I would somehow capitulate, take some child I had never seen as my wife? At least that poor girl from Farendon had only been three years my junior.
Even princesses were not immune to accidents, and that was how I had lost my intended bride — in a terrible tumble down the stairs that had left her with a broken neck, her family without a daughter, and I, the Emperor of Sirlende, without a bride. I cannot say I grieved overmuch, except for the loss of what might have been, as I had never met her. Some might say that was cold, but the ruler of an empire is often not allowed much space in his heart for warmth.
Apparently wishing to take advantage of my silence, Lord Keldryn pressed on, “Your Majesty, it has been almost a year. It is time to make a decision. Sirlende deserves stability, an heir. It — ”
At once I stood, pushing my chair back as I towered over him. Perhaps it was not entirely fair to use my height against him when my rank would do well enough, but by that time I had lost all patience. “Are you presuming to lecture me on what I should or should not do, Keldryn?”
The color drained from his face. “N-no, Your Majesty. Of course not, Your Majesty. It is only — ”
“It is only that you think you can manage Sirlende’s affairs better than I.”
“N-no, Your Majesty — ”
Suddenly weary of his stammering, of his shuddering hangdog jowls, I said, “Enough, Keldryn. We will speak of this no more. I realize I have a decision to make, but it is one I will make in my own time. Understood?”
He bowed. “Of course, Your Majesty. I will take my leave, then.”
And he bowed once more, as if hoping that would mollify me, before he turned and exited my study. I remained standing, staring at the door through which he had just left, then reached up and plucked the gold circlet from my head before tossing it carelessly onto my desktop. The metal clanked against the inkwell, but did not knock it over.
I ran my hand through my hair, although the gesture didn’t do much to ease my roiling thoughts. Yes, some of what Lord Keldryn had said was true, even if I didn’t want to admit it to myself. Now, at the beginning of Sevendre, I was closer to my twenty-sixth birthday than to my twenty-fifth, far past the time when I should have been wed, should have started a family, done my part to ensure the royal succession.
That had not yet happened, through no real fault of my own. And yet I knew Keldryn’s remarks only echoed what was likely being said throughout my court and indeed up and down the length of my realm. Such things could only be let go for so long.
My study began to stifle me, although no fire had been lit, and the windows were open to let in the fickle late afternoon breeze off the River Silth. I knew then where I needed to go, to find the one person who would listen to me reasonably and calmly, and offer only useful advice, not browbeating and foolish attempts at guilt.
Not looking at the crown I left on my desktop, I exited the chamber.
y sister was
, as I had expected, in her suite high atop the East Tower, her windows open as well to the fleeting afternoon winds. Most young ladies of her age and rank would most likely have been occupying themselves with an embroidery frame and needle, or perhaps practicing upon the lute or mandolin, but of course Lyarris was not engaged in such frivolous pursuits.
She sat at her own desk, dark head bent over sheets of paper filled with her even, slanting hand. But she laid her pen aside at once as her maidservant let me in, and an impish smile pulled at my sister’s mouth as soon as the serving maid had curtseyed deeply and shut the door behind me.
“My, Torric, that is quite the thundercloud you have hovering about your head.”
“Is it that obvious?” I inquired, and flung myself into my favorite chair, the one by the hearth with the leather ottoman. No fire here, either, not on this warm afternoon, but the room still felt cozy, on a friendlier scale than my own admittedly grand suite.
“I’m afraid so.” She picked up a scrap of cloth and blotted her pen, then set both items down on her desktop. Always so careful, my sister. A scattering of sand across the still damp ink, and she set the paper aside and stood, coming to take her own seat on the velvet-upholstered chair that was a match to the one in which I sat. She tilted her head to one side and regarded me with some curiosity, her dark eyes keen. “What is it this time?”
I let out a noise probably closer to a snort than any sound an emperor made should be. “Keldryn again, badgering me about getting a wife.”
Her mouth twitched. “Oh, that.”
For the space of a heartbeat or two she said nothing, but only stared at the empty hearth as if seeing the ghosts of winters’ fires past within the surround of carved black marble. Finally, and with a little prefacing sigh of her own, she said, “He means well.”
“Ah, well, then, that excuses all the nagging and cajoling, doesn’t it?”
, precisely, but explains.”
I shifted in the chair and set my booted feet on the ottoman. Staring at the shining black leather encasing my toes did little to ease my mind, however, no matter how comfortable my body might be at the moment.
Lyarris seemed to sense that I did not feel like replying, for she continued, “He is only saying what many are thinking. Even I, actually. True, you needed to let a respectable interval pass after the death of poor Princess Lisanne, but we have gone beyond that now, I think, especially since the lady involved was someone you did not even know.”
Again, I was being told something I already understood all too well. “So you would have me marry a girl of only twelve, someone who could not be a true wife to me for many years?”
A lift of the shoulders, and a brief shake of her head. Then she ventured, “It is not as if you could not keep yourself occupied during that time…”
My mouth tightened at those words, and at their implications. Lyarris, sheltered as she might be, was not a complete innocent. She knew I was nowhere near as chaste and cloistered as she. Oh, I was careful not to repeat the mistakes my father made. I took no mistresses from among the wives and daughters of my courtiers, choosing instead those women who had made the pleasuring of men their trade, although of course these liaisons were only with the courtesans who practiced their profession from their own elegant salons, and did not freely give of their charms to just anyone.
So I supposed in a way my sister was correct in saying that I would not be suffering much denial of the flesh by waiting for a child bride to reach the proper age for bedding. However, the notion did not much appeal to me. I had thought — I had hoped — that when I took a wife, I would put those other women aside. If nothing else, my parents’ bitter marriage had taught me a very good lesson in how not to treat a wife.
“Do you really think I would do that?” I inquired, not bothering to keep the anger from my tone. “Do you think me no better than Father?”
Something flickered in my sister’s eyes then, something that came and went so quickly I couldn’t quite tell what it was. Regret?
“I did not say that, Torric,” she replied, voice calm enough. “Indeed, I am glad to hear that you plan to treat your wife with respect, even in a match made for politics and not for love. But I doubt anyone would think ill of you for doing what you required during a time when you were waiting for your wife to gain a few years.”
Politics. I felt my mouth thin, and wished it were a little later in the afternoon, so I might call up for some wine to clear my muddied thoughts. Then again, I was the ruler of this land. I could do whatever I wished.
No, that was not true. Not true at all.
Some might call it an irony, that the lord of the greatest realm on the continent could not do exactly as he pleased. But I knew in many ways I had far fewer freedoms than the drovers who brought their cattle to market each day, or the women who sold flowers on street corners. Everything in my world was ordered precisely, from the days I heard the petitions of the people to the guests I invited to the balls and suppers hosted every night at the palace.
It is as it always has been done
were words that had become the bane of my existence.
I said, “It is foolish, don’t you think, that the rulers of our land should always look outside its borders for their spouses?”
“But the alliances — ”
“Oh, those are more empty words, and you know it. Every treaty of any import was signed into existence hundreds of years ago. Even during the war, those treaties were honored.”
Lyarris nodded. She did not look altogether convinced, even though she most likely had no true arguments to present on the subject. The various lands of the continent had been at peace for many years, perhaps because most everyone knew, even if they would not utter the traitorous words aloud, that they could not hope to defeat Sirlende in open warfare…even the divided Sirlende my father had inherited.
Civil war had not been visited upon the empire for many centuries, but when my grandfather died of a sudden fever when he was barely thirty-five years old, leaving a twelve-year-old son to inherit the throne, greedy factions rose up to claim it for their own. Almost a decade of fighting ensued, with my father and his supporters finally gaining the upper hand. It had seemed wise at the time that he should take the eldest daughter of his bitter foe, Duke Harvald of Darlast, as his wife in an attempt to seal the breach.
It had all sounded well and good in theory. In practice, however…
I shook my head to free it of the memories of bitter arguments and slammed doors that populated every recollection of my childhood. “At any rate,” I went on, “if I am deemed able to govern an empire, then I do not see why I cannot be allowed to select my own bride.”
My sister raised an eyebrow. “I daresay that particular notion will not go over very well.”
“What do I care for that? Besides, what you really mean is that it will not go over very well with my advisors. I daresay the people might have a very different opinion.”
“Perhaps,” she replied, and I was relieved to hear that now her tone was musing rather than derisive. “Although how on earth would you even go about such a thing? Put a crier on every street corner, announcing that the Emperor of Sirlende is in need of a wife?”
This time there was a note of gentle amusement in her voice, but I took no offense. Her words had gotten me thinking.
“Something very like that, yes,” I said. “Of course, I will need some boundaries. Naturally, she must be of gentle birth — ”
“Naturally,” my sister cut in, her mouth lifting in the half smile I knew all too well. “I think your advisors might very well put their foot down if you took it into your head to marry a barmaid, or a girl from one of the weaving factories.”
I ignored this statement, partly because I knew Lyarris was teasing me, and partly because of course I would never do anything so mad as to put a flower-seller on the throne beside me. “All the way down to baronet…or do you think that’s being somewhat too generous?”
“The daughter of a baronet is still of gentle birth, if not nearly so lofty as the daughter of a duke.”
“True enough. Very well, then, down to the daughter of a baronet.” I paused, thinking of what other requirements would be important. “And of a suitable age — say, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two.”
“Because of course any young woman of twenty-three who is yet unmarried is a hopeless old maid.”
My sister smiled as she said this, but I thought I noted a crease of her brows even so. For of course she was twenty-three and still unwed, although through no fault of her own. My father, instead of having her betrothed to some foreign prince, had arranged her marriage with the son of one of his greatest supporters, the Earl of Fallyn. All should have been well — except that the earl’s son fell violently in love with the daughter of one of their neighbors, and the earl came to Iselfex to beg for his son’s release from his promise. My father granted the wish of his old friend, one of the last actions he took before dying just a few days short of his forty-eighth birthday.