Durant came to summon them to the Empress' presence the next morning. Again, she was in her receiving room, alone save for guards and attendants. She welcomed them in and bade them sit.
"I have had time to consider your offer, your grace," she said.
"Please, tell me what I may offer you," Tancred interjected.
"Hm," said the Empress with a wry smile. "First tell me why you want to be king. Why not accept that the burden of rule has been lifted from your shoulders and live out a comfortable life of exile here in Jovan?"
"Deusetats is my birthright," said Tancred.
"Ah." The Empress sat back in her chair, placing her hands on the armrests. "How many folk will fight for your birthright? How many of the common folk will set aside their tools and herds and march to death to place you back on the throne just because you believe you were born to it?"
Rainhart leaned forward. His lingua Jovan was only just up to the challenge of following the conversation. Years of language lessons and he'd wasted them all.
"Well..." Tancred wrung his hands together.
Oh, Tancred. Had it ever even occurred to Tancred that he might have a choice just to capitulate? That his kingship might not be carved into the tablets of the gods?
The Empress smiled. "Don't be downhearted, your grace. Some years ago I fled this city on horseback with a hundred men to guard me and an army of thousands breathing down my neck." She shook her head. "Scant months later the city was mine again, and my folk tore my enemy to pieces. Do you know why?"
Tancred shook his head and the Empress continued, "Because I have given them everything of myself. In my actions, I make manifest their spirit. My strength makes them strong; my joy makes them happy; my courage makes them resolute. You must love your people, but that love must not make you a fool. Then they will love you, they will rally to your banner, and they will die for you. Are you willing to do that?"
Tancred put his chin up. "I know every rock and stream of Deusetats, and I love it. It is my duty and honour to protect it, and to be the embodiment and guardian of all that is great and--and sacred in the kingdom. And I will not have the land stolen from me by a coward who acts by poison and sleight of hand. I am a better man than Valdon, and will be a better king."
Rainhart let out a breath he hadn't realised he was holding, and flexed his fingers. Yes, he wanted to shout. That was a king worth following.
The Empress shared a meaning-laden look with Lord Valentin, then brushed down her skirt and said, "I accept your offer of preferential access to your mines. The specifics of trade and treaties can be negotiated." She paused and leaned forward. The atmosphere in the room became tense. "But you must know my ambitions for the continent. Gallica is mine, and I intend to move on Merot."
"Yes, this is well known among the clan kingdoms," said Tancred. "I share my uncle's view that it is wiser for Deusetats to be your friend than your enemy."
"If I gave you the men and arms to retake Deusetats, I will expect more than friendship in return. When I am ready to move on Merot, Deusetats will contribute men and intelligence to ensure a smooth victory. This commitment will have to be made with a surety against defection."
"Lord Valentin and I discussed this," said Tancred hoarsely. "I offer--I humbly ask--for your cousin Lady Philomena's hand in marriage as a token of my commitment to Jovan."
"No," said the Empress, "that is a different matter. Sending Philomena to Deusetats was a deep and difficult sacrifice for me, fitting to the alliance I wished to flourish between our countries. You cannot now seek to barter with the same coin."
"But--" Tancred's eyes were wide. "That was between Prince..." He trailed off.
"Yes, it was for Philomena to marry a prince. Now you offer a...what? A Baron? An uncrowned king? A condemned traitor?" The Empress shook her head. "If you become King of Deusetats, I agree that there may be some benefit in solemnising our friendship through marriage, as I have wished to do for several years. That is a separate matter to this, and is not the surety I require."
"Your Blessed majesty, may I ask what you had in mind?"
"One of your cousins will be my guest in Jovan until I have no further need of your support." The Empress nodded to Holle and then Rainhart.
Tancred's head snapped around. "I..." he began.
"You wish to think about it?" said the Empress. "You are most welcome to; however, I leave tomorrow for Castlewood, so if we cannot come to an agreement in principle today, then it will be several weeks before we may meet again."
"But there is less than six months until the first snows will fall in Deusetats," Tancred protested. "Time is of the essence."
"I'm aware, but the business of running an empire..." The Empress spread her hands in a gesture of helplessness.
"Your Blessed majesty, I would gladly stay." Rainhart surprised himself by saying it. Everyone's attention turned to him. "If his grace is willing, that is."
Tancred turned back to the Empress. "I beg your indulgence. I must discuss this with my cousin."
"Of course." The Empress stood. "I will ask my secretary to find time for you this afternoon, if you will have an answer by then."
"Thank you, I will," said Tancred. As they left the Empress' quarters, Tancred grabbed Rainhart's arm. "Are you mad?" he said. "You wish to be Jovan's hostage?"
They hurried through the hallways. "You need this deal," said Rainhart, "and I don't suppose you'll have much use for me, since you three have... well, more useful skills."
"You were given your gift for a reason, Rainhart." Tancred strode quickly, looking around as he went through to the gardens. "We are all going to Deusetats."
"All right," said Holle, "then how do we answer the Empress' offer?"
"No offer of sacrifice from you?" said Tancred, not slowing his pace.
"Hardly my style," Holle replied, sounding bored. "What about Maldwyn?"
"Well, the great gods know I'd prefer he wasn't hanging around Breg." Tancred stopped. "We should be able to talk here without being overheard." Rainhart looked around; they stood in the middle of a garden of low hedges; there would be no way someone could hide within earshot. "I'm very sorry, Lady Philomena," said Tancred. "But would you mind giving my cousins and me a moment alone?"
"You want to use your gift on the Empress," said Philomena. "Don't worry, I understand. But I will give you some privacy."
Tancred reached out and put his hand on her shoulder. "Thank you," he said. "I--we are very lucky to have you."
She left. Rainhart watched her go. She was such a petite thing. Aside from colouring, she didn't really resemble Lord Valentin or the Empress at all.
"She--" he began, but bit it off.
Tancred waited for him to continue. When Rainhart was silent, Tancred said, "We were given these gifts to help us retake Deusetats and protect the sacred forest. It would be foolish not to use them. Did you read the Empress?"
"I tried." Rainhart frowned, "but I couldn't find the still place."
"That's worrying." Tancred looked at him closely. "Holle?"
Holle had closed her eyes and was breathing deeply. "It's difficult," she said, her brow furrowing. "Ah, there."
"Perhaps we are too far from the glen?" Rainhart crossed his arms.
"Or perhaps we are failing in our mission," said Holle quietly.
"There will be an agreement today," said Tancred. "I don't care what it takes."
YOU ARE READING
Philomena is a child of the empire, traded to faraway Deusetats to seal an alliance and marry a prince: the handsome but arrogant Prince Rainhart. However, politics is never simple. On the eve of Philomena's wedding, the king is brutally assassinat...