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Chapter 2: An Engagement, Interrupted, Part 6

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"What do we know about the beast?"

"His name is Tacen, your Majesty. The constables don't yet know his surname, or if he even has one. He seems to have been working as a guard for a caravan called Swiftfoot Carting. A modest business, one that works only the more common routes."

"Are they all in custody yet?"

"Most of them, your Majesty. I have outriders following their backtrail. We will have them all by the end of the week. Messengers have been sent to the Prefect of Gallowsport. Their central office is there. If necessary, they can be arrested as well."

"Oh, it is entirely necessary, Varallo. Don't hesitate a moment. Send another messenger if you must. I want them all held. I want them all questioned."

"Your word is done, your Majesty."

"I want a proper questioning, Varallo. Use someone not afraid of pincers or coals. Answers will be forthcoming or I'll know why."

"I shall conduct the interrogations myself, your Majesty."

"Good. And her handmaidens as well. I don't believe for an instant they knew nothing."

In the shadows by the throne, the shape of the Empress-Consort moved ever so slightly, but she said nothing. Denisius's heart went out to her. Her appearance was so very like Carala's, only older and with silver in her midnight hair, and tonight more haggard than he had ever seen her. Five years younger than the Emperor, now she looked twenty years older.

If Varallo Thray found this order unappetizing, however, he showed no sign. "Very good, your Majesty. I am sure they will cooperate once they understand their mistress is in danger."

"I understand your man performed heroically, Lord Marhollow," the Emperor said with a smile, fixing Denisius with his rheumy gaze.

Denisius hesitated, not at all sure how to respond. He sensed a trap. "He saved my life, your Majesty. Lord Thray's life too. I -- I regret -- I am very sorry we couldn't take the princess back."

"Yes, yes, that is a terrible thing. A shame Erstan has neglected your combat training. Or do you disdain it? I have heard things. Failures on the sporting field, a hunt where you wept when your arrow found a deer's throat but didn't kill it. Courtiers do love to gossip, don't you find?" The Emperor poured himself another goblet of wine; he distrusted cupbearers. "Or perhaps it is your physical prowess that is wanting. I would have imagined the trip here from Marhollow ought to have thinned you out a little, but I seem to be mistaken."

Denisius could not have held the Emperor's gaze even if he'd wanted to. His cheeks burned shamefully, not having thought of that terrible hunting expedition in years. Yes, he had wept, but his father hadn't mocked him. Rather he had comforted him, explaining that his heart could be good and not be a hunter's heart or a warrior's heart; that the world needed all kinds of people and good hearts most of all. He couldn't imagine his father relating that story to the Emperor. Perhaps one of his brothers, though they were rarely at court.

"Chastising Lord Marhollow is unfair, your Majesty." Denisius looked at Varallo Thray dumbfounded. Even Vos seemed surprised. "He followed me when I told him I believed the princess had been led astray. He did not flee when he had the chance. And though he lost hold of his weapon, he retrieved it. Do not blame the young man for having a faithful servant."

Somilius Deyn III stroked the pouch of flesh between his mouth and neck where a chin ought to have been, regarding his Grand Chancellor with great concentration. At last he began to laugh.

"Great gods, I think you favor the boy, Varallo. Very well. I withdraw my remarks on your skills with a sword, staggering and like unto Il-Hethma the First Knight though they surely are. But tell me this, my good lord: what am I to do with the princess? I don't imagine she's gone far."

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