Untitled Novel-in-Progress, AKA “Game of Thrones with Lesbians”

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3

Mack the city guardsman was silent as he trailed behind Tasia and Tedric, one of the younger Sunfall guards, to the Emperor’s antechamber.  Tasia gave Mack a subtle backward glance at one point, and could see clearly from his gawking at the lamplit silk tapestries hanging from the walls that he’d probably never seen the interior of anything richer than a city guard outpost in his entire life.

She hid a smile.

Mack had nearly assaulted the daughter of the Emperor, the Princess of the Four Realms.  Tasia could have had him put to death with a few words if she’d wanted to, and surely he knew it.  Surely he had to be wondering if she still would.  But she didn’t plan on doing that.  Just as she’d learned that it was useful to have some allies at the Sunfall Gate, she might find a use for a city guard member who owed her a favor, too.

More than a favor.  He owed her his life at this point.  If Tasia were anyone else, it would have made them even.  But she wasn’t anyone else.  She was the Princess.  Stupid as Mack seemed to be, Tasia was sure he understood this.

The Emperor was already in the antechamber when Tasia entered with Mack and Tedric.  Her father paced restlessly behind the heavy cedar desk in the center of the room, his night clothes fluttering behind his massive frame like a cape.  Even if he hadn’t carried the title “Emperor of the Four Realms,” Andreth of House Dorsa would still be an intimidating man.  Taller than all the other men in the room by at least a head, he had a broad chest, log-thick limbs, and a face mostly obscured by his black beard.  A large and crooked nose bowed to the side, the scar across it suggesting that the disfigurement might’ve been earned bin battle — a nose that had healed wrong after being smashed by a sword hilt or halberd or hammer.  His skin was ruddy and pock-marked; his eyes were as black as his beard and managed to give the Emperor the appearance of being both cold and shrewd at the same time.

He stopped pacing when his daughter entered, studying first her, then the guardsmen, with a grave expression on his face.

Three other members of the palace guard were also in the room — the two men who always guarded the Emperor’s chambers at night, and Cole of Easthook, the head of the palace guard.  Cole was seated in a plush chair to the side of the Emperor’s desk, rubbing his bad leg absentmindedly as he regarded Tasia with an appraising look.

The Emperor flicked his hand at the door, and all the guards, with the exception of Cole, bowed and exited quietly.  Mack, still in a state of obvious shock, also bowed and began backpedaling.

“No, not you,” the Emperor said.  “You stay.  Sit.”  He pointed at a divan upholstered in red velvet, trimmed with ornately carved golden wood, and draped with a large white doily.

Mack hesitated, glancing between the divan and its small wooden footstool.  After a moment, he settled onto the footstool, knees jutting upward uncomfortably.

At least he understands his place, Tasia thought to herself.  She settled onto the divan.  Across from her, Cole continued to study her.  She shifted her eyes away from him and busied herself with straightening her hair.  Her baker’s girl   disguise practically burned her skin beneath Cole’s steady gaze.

“Assassin?” said her father.

He widened his stance behind the desk, crossing his arms against his broad chest like a statue of a stern god.  His stomach had rounded over the years, but his beard showed no grey.  Dinner plate-sized hands were clenched into fists, and Tasia could see the muscles twitching there as he repeatedly squeezed and relaxed his hands — the only outward sign of tension he would allow himself to show.

Tasia cleared her throat.  She met his eyes, intending to hold his gaze, but she couldn’t.  She looked down at her own hands instead, folded and lady-like in her lap.

“Yes,” she said.

“Where?”

“The Ambassador Quarter.  Not far from the Royal Canal.”

“Did you recognize him?”  The question came from Cole, his gravely voice unhurried, seemingly unconcerned.  Almost lazy, like they were discussing the unseasonably warm weather instead of an assassination attempt on the Princess.  Tasia had seen her father lose his temper but never Cole.  The man was smoother than the silk of her finest gowns.

“No,” Tasia answered, “but he was a Wise Man — or at the very least, he was dressed as one.”

Tasia felt her father’s eyes on her, and she looked up, willing herself not to look away this time.

“Much the way you are dressed as a common servant?” he said.

She wouldn’t look away.  She wouldn’t.  “Yes.”

A noise emerged from the back of his throat; it sounded like an animal’s low growl.

Years ago, when Tasia was still just a girl, circus performers had been permitted to perform a series of shows at the palace.  Tasia thought now of the lion the troupe kept caged in the inner courtyard for over a week.  The creature paced between the iron bars day and night, snarling at anyone who came too close, giving Tasia nightmares when she imagined what he would do if he had somehow gotten out.

That was what the Emperor reminded Tasia of now — the caged lion, waiting for his opportunity to escape.

He turned on his heel, paced two steps, turned again, paced back to his original spot.  A meaty finger jabbed at Mack.

“And you.  My daughter says you stopped this would-be killer?”

Mack didn’t have the same determination as Tasia; his eyes fell away from the Emperor’s immediately.  “Y-yes, Your… Emperor — Highness.  Your Highness.”

“Tell me what you saw.”

“Me an’ my mate — my patrol partner I mean, Dawkin is his name — we was finishing up our supper in the guard post in the Ambassador Quarter, the one just west of — ”

Cole interrupted.  “You were eating?  Not patrolling?”

Mack turned on the wooden footstool towards Cole, seeming to notice him for the first time.  Tasia could understand how he’d missed the head of the palace guard; the Emperor did tend to take up all the attention in a room, after all.  Cole, on the other hand, had a way of making himself unseen.  If the Emperor was a lion on display for all to see, Cole was a crafty tomcat, hiding in the bushes and waiting for prey to come to him.

Mack took in the criss-cross scars, the scraggly dark blond hair that framed Cole’s face, and seemed to grow a shade paler.  He swallowed, Adam’s apple bobbing visibly.  “Yessir.  Halfway through our shift, Dawkin ’n me, we always take a break to eat — if it’s been quiet, that is.”

“I imagine the Ambassador Quarter is usually quiet, in the hours before dawn,” Cole said.

“Yessir, it is,” Mack said.  He relaxed on the stool a little.  “Never anyone around except an occasional errand boy, a lady of the night, that sort of — ”

His jaw snapped shut with a click when he realized what he’d said, panicked wide eyes flashing to Tasia, who reddened and dropped her gaze back to her hands in her lap.

“But it wasn’t quiet tonight,” Cole prompted, gliding around the lady of the night comment with ease.  “You heard something that roused you and Dawkin from your supper?”

“Yes — yessir,” Mack said.  He stared at an indefinite point on the floor as he described running from the guard post to find a Wise Man with his knife raised high above what appeared to be a baker’s girl.

“A Wise Man?” the Emperor asked, incredulous.

“Yes, your Highness.  As the, uh, as the Princess said.  He was dressed as one.”

“And where is this man now?” said the Emperor.

“Dawkin took him back to the post, your… Emperorship.”

Cole turned to the Emperor.  “It is the standard procedure of the city guard that when patrol pairs come upon a drunk or a rogue in the night, they hold them in their local post until the change of guard, when they can escort them to magistrate’s for safekeeping until sentencing.”

The Emperor nodded at Cole.  “Go rouse some of your men — ones you trust  to be discreet — and have them bring this supposed Wise Man here.  You know where they should take him.”

Cole dipped his chin deferentially, rose from his seat.  “Yes, your Majesty.”

“And Cole… come back once you’ve woken your men.  I have another idea I wish to discuss with you.”

“Yes, Majesty,” Cole said, and cat-like as ever, slipped soundlessly from the room.

“As for you,” the Emperor said, walking around his desk to address Mack, “you’ve done the Empire a great service tonight, you and your patrol partner.  You saved the life of the future Empress, who will one day sit beside a husband who rules the Four Realms in the name of the House of Dorsa.”  He stood a few inches from Mack, who still balanced precariously on the footstool, leaning slightly away from the most important man in the known world.  “Many will say that the strength of an Empire comes from its Emperor, but in truth, we are only as strong as a single common soldier’s sword, only as rich as a single fruit merchant’s success.  Do you understand, guardsman?”

Mack ventured a gaze in the Emperor’s direction before dropping his eyes to the floor again.  “Yes, your Emperorship.”

The Emperor hovered above him for a moment, turned back towards his desk with a sigh.  “It doesn’t matter whether you understand the point or not, guardsman.  Your actions were enough for tonight.  You and your patrol partner will be duly rewarded by Cole before the sun rises.  Go, now.  Wait outside for Cole to return.”

Tasia offered Mack an appropriately gracious, regal smile, but he was too busy bowing and shuffling his way out of the Emperor’s antechamber to notice.

The Emperor waited for Mack to close the door behind him before addressing Tasia.  He placed both palms on his desk, leaned over it before hissing, “A baker’s girl, Tasia?  And leaving the Ambassador Quarter hours before dawn?  Even for you…”  He pursed his lips, shook his head.  “You leave me at a loss for words.  And if two half-drunken, feckless city guardsman hadn’t happened upon you, you would’ve left me at a loss for an heir, too.”

“You have a third child yet alive,” Tasia said without lifting her eyes to the Emperor.

“A twelve year-old girl who prefers ponies and pageantries to politics.”

“And you think I prefer politics?” Tasia countered.

“I think that you remind me of your grandmother.  At least you have the potential to make the clever wife of an Emperor.  Your sister… is too much like your mother.  Bewitched by birds and flowers.”

Tasia bristled.  “Do not speak of the dead that way.  Or of Adela, for that matter.  As if she is nothing.”

The Emperor slammed his fist against the desk, rattling the lamps, vase of roses, and ink bottles upon it.  Tasia flinched without meaning to.

“And do not speak to your father, the Emperor, that way!” he bellowed.  “As if I am nothing.  You want to know who is nothing, Natasia?  You.  You are nothing without that royal crest you wear so easily upon your ring.  You are nothing without my great-grandfather’s name to bolster you!  We are all nothing without that name!  And you seem content to throw it away — an entire Empire — for the sake of a night with some — some Ambassador’s son!”

Tasia knew her father well enough to know when to hold her tongue.  She was also similar enough to her father that she failed to hold her tongue most of the time.  But now, miraculously, she managed to stay quiet.

Her father turned from the desk, paced again, running his hands through his hair.

“You are the strongest of my children.  You always have been.  Nikhost was weak, insecure.  He never would’ve been able to command the respect of the ambassadors or lords.”

Hearing her brother’s name sent a stab of pain through Tasia’s heart, as if the assassin had succeeded and his black blade was still lodged between her ribs.  First her mother.  Now her brother.  Her father seemed determined to resurrect ghosts tonight.

“Nik wasn’t ‘weak,’” she said.  “He was thirteen.”

“He was weak, Tasia, and you know it.  Your mother saw to that.”

“Stop speaking ill of those who are not hear to defend themselves,” Tasia snapped.  “Maybe Nik wouldn’t have been so insecure if his father didn’t always look at him as if he was a disappointment.  If I’m strong, it’s only because you ignored me!”

The Emperor stopped pacing, pinned Tasia against the divan with his black eyes.

Angry, she held his gaze defiantly.  Several seconds passed before Tasia realized she was holding her breath.  She exhaled, and her eyes broke away from her father’s.

“You think you know so much,” the Emperor said.  “But your actions reveal that you are hardly more than a child.  A foolish child, at that, who nearly got herself killed tonight.  For nothing.”  He practically spat the final word, then lowered himself in the chair behind his desk with a heavy sigh.  “If two city guardsmen know that the Princess was found leaving the the Ambassador Quarter before dawn, it won’t be long before word spreads and people begin to talk.  I cannot wait any longer, Tasia.  It’s time for you to accept a husband.”

He might as well have doused her in ice water.  She gasped, sucking in a breath as her chest tightened.  “No.  I’m not ready.  There’s no one who — ”

“Natasia.  You are nineteen.  It’s been nearly a year and a half since you came of age.  And you’ve rejected every proposal I’ve offered you so far.”

“Which is my right,” she said.

“Which is your privilege,” he corrected.  “But while you remain unmarried, the Empire remains vulnerable.  If anything happens to me before you take a husband, the ambassadors, the lords — Mother Moon, even the richer traders and merchants — will fight over the crown the way wild dogs squabble over a carcass.”

She said nothing.

“You’re old enough to remember the Western Rebellion,” her father went on.  “Or the end of it, at least.  We barely held the Four Realms together.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking that every taproot of those weeds have been pulled.  The Empire cannot survive another rebellion in my lifetime, not while we fight a war in the east and wait for one in the south.”

Tasia said nothing for a moment.  She said she didn’t care for politics, but that didn’t mean she didn’t understand them.  And although she might not want to marry some pliable, spoiled Lord’s son with ambitions for her father’s crown, it didn’t mean she wanted to see the Empire fall into chaos and disarray due to her own foolish selfishness.

“I’m sorry, father.  I didn’t mean to… take my duty for granted.”

He sighed.  “At the moment, I’m simply glad you came home to me alive, and glad that I am not tasked with planning a funeral,” he said.  The words were as close to an expression of affection as Tasia could hope for.  “Although as long as Cole’s men bring your assassin back alive, it seems I do still have an interrogation to plan.”

And as if he was some kind of spirit, summonable by the whisper of his name, the head of the palace guard reentered the room and closed the door softly behind him.

The Emperor met Cole’s eye, an unspoken question on his face.

Cole nodded.  “It is underway.  The assassin will be in the dungeons before the sun rises.”

“And the guardsmen?” the Emperor asked.

Cole gave a slight grin.  “They will enjoy a healthy addition to their salary, provided the girl who was attacked remains simply a… baker’s girl.”

The Emperor nodded.  “Good.  We shall see how long they can hold their tongues.”

“They’ll keep quiet,” Cole said.  “I made it very clear what would happen if they did not.  I’m afraid I made quite the impression on young Mack.”

The Emperor stroked his beard.  “Very well.  Speaking of guards, Cole.  There is the other matter I wanted to address.”  He sat up straighter, regarded Tasia with his bottomless black eyes for a long few seconds.  “Since someone seems to know my daughter’s movements better than I do, and is bold enough to send an assassin, she requires a guard of her own.”

Tasia opened her mouth to protest, but Cole spoke before she could.

“That is easy enough to arrange, your Majesty,” he said.  “There are several in the palace guard who would be happy to serve — men I trained myself.”

The Emperor nodded.  “Tell me their names.  We’ll decide which one is best-suited.  Whichever we choose is to stay at her side every hour of the clock.”

Tasia cleared her throat.  “Father, Cole — I appreciate your concern for my well-being, but I don’t know how practical it is.  Someone with me at every hour of the clock?  Even in my personal apartments?  While I remain unmarried, it is unlawful for a man to be in the apartments of a princess, not without my father’s supervision.”

“It is unlawful for a man to be in your apartments with you alone,” Cole corrected.  “Your handmaid — what is her name again? — she would be there, as well.  Would she not?”

“Her name is Mylla,” Tasia said.  “But I’m alone in my apartments often enough, because Mylla isn’t there continuously.  She leaves when I send her on errands, or to fetch my meals, or into the city for parcels at a tailor’s or cobbler’s or furrier’s.  And three times per year, she leaves the palace for a week to visit her family in the west.”

Tasia was careful not to let her triumph show on her face for uncovering this loophole.  As frightening as the assassination attempt had been, she refused to allow her freedom to be curtailed.  She refused to let her father put her under this house arrest.

The Emperor turned to Cole, who in turn appeared to contemplate the dilemma.  Tasia felt hopeful.

“Well?” the Emperor said after a moment’s silence.

Cole nodded slowly.  “It does complicate matters, but… I believe I may have a solution, Majesty.  May I speak to you about this again tomorrow, after the noontide meal?  There’s a general I’d like to speak to — Galter of House Kelter, I believe you know him.  He might be able to help.”

“Yes,” the Emperor said.  “But no later than noon.  The safety of the Princess must be your new top priority, Cole.”

“I understand, Majesty.”

The hope Tasia had felt dissipated.  Along with, she suspected, the last tattered remnants of her freedom.

The Emperor rose from the chair behind his desk, waved a hand at Tasia and Cole.  “You’re both dismissed.”

Cole gave a quick bow to each of them and left the room as quietly as he’d entered it.  Tasia moved to follow him.

“Natasia.”

She turned, one hand still on the door knob before her.  “Yes, father?”

“I know you care little for what I think.  But imagine what this would have done to your mother, had she lived to see it.  Or even Nik, for that matter.  Nearly murdered in the street like a common whore just because you’re determined to prove to me that I cannot dictate your future.”

Tasia looked down, because the words stung.  It was true; an attempt on her life would have terrified her mother for weeks — months, even.  It would have left her mother bedridden, crippled with anxiety.  It would have left Nik jumping at every shadow.

The Emperor sighed.  “You’ve learned, just as I learned at your age, that the name we carry on our backs shackles us as much as it elevates us.  It is fate, daughter.  But you can find happiness in your fate once you stop fighting it.”

“Yes, father.”

“Your mind is even sharper than your tongue.  Don’t waste yourself chasing boys who are only interested in using you to take a step closer to the crown.”

She said it before she could stop herself.  “But isn’t that exactly what any husband you find for me will be doing?”

He turned his back to her.  “Goodnight, Tasia.”

“Goodnight, father.”

Chapter 4 available on Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14)


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