Bargains and Agreements (Part 2)

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They were shown back into the Empress' quarters. As they were sitting down, the Empress pulled up her sleeves, and Rainhart noticed that she was wearing a wooden cuff among her gold and jewels.

She must have seen him looking at it. "Yes," she said, "I am wearing a darkwood bracelet. You see, Lord Valentin told me that you four had been in the forest. I have, alas, had some experience with the blessings some people draw from those mystic places. I am not gifted, but I've found that contact with wood from the blessed forest makes one impossible to manipulate. I hope you don't mind that I took precautions, but it is important to me to trust the people I negotiate with."

Oh. It made sense... and ruined their plan. They had never considered that their gifts might be able to be confounded. He tried to read Lord Valentin's mind. He had done it once before, but now it was closed, a book on a shelf too high for him to reach. The Empress' uncle must now be wearing darkwood as well.

"Powers, your Blessed majesty?" said Tancred with admirable calm.

"Powers of the mind," said the Empress. "The ability to read others' thoughts and manipulate their actions. You understand that I am not accusing you of anything, but folk with those gifts have caused me great trouble over the years. I have perhaps become over-cautious."

"Well," said Tancred. He straightened in his chair and shot a glance at Holle, who raised her eyebrows.

"Well?" said the Empress. "Have you considered my conditions?"

"I have." Tancred nodded, transparently stalling for time. "They are eminently reasonable. My eldest cousin Prince Maldwyn is currently in Valdon's hands, but I will send him to Monsilys once Breg is secured."

There was a shadow of amusement in the Empress' schooled features. "Uncle, what do we know about Prince Maldwyn?"

"A layabout and malcontent," Valentin drawled.

"Oh dear, we've got enough of those in Monsilys already." The Empress fixed her attention on Rainhart, and he had the sensation of being read, as surely as if she did have blessed powers. "Prince Rainhart, are you still willing to make your home in Monsilys once all this is over?"

She had all the bargaining power, and she knew it. For the great Jovani empire, this was a diversion, a season's amusement. As Tancred had said, the Jovanis were testing to see how high they would jump.

Rainhart swallowed around the lump in his throat. The path that had been set out for him by his father was in ruins. If all went to plan Philomena would marry Tancred. He wasn't needed in Deusetats. "If that is how I may best serve my king, and what is agreed," he said, hearing the hoarseness in his voice.

"I cannot spare Prince Rainhart from the campaign to retake Breg," said Tancred.

The Empress waved the objection aside. "I understand your desire to have your family by you. The men that I lend you will escort his highness back to Monsilys when your crown is regained."

"I..." Tancred unclasped his fingers and smoothed them along his breeches. "That is more than fair. But I will need two legions. A small contingent under my command to travel through Gallica, and the rest under an experienced Jovani commander to attack Breg from the west."

"Your grace, you will have one legion," said the Empress, "but they may be organised however you wish. Are we agreed?"

After a moment's hesitation, Tancred said, "We are agreed, subject to further negotiation on the details."

"Then you will have your legion." The Empress stood and beckoned an attendant. "Send for a scribe. You will join me at the high table for dinner, I hope?"

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