Briony would have been one of the first to admit that the throne room back in Southmarch might be dignified, even impressive, but it was not awesome. The ceiling was full of fine old carvings but they were hard to see in the dark chamber except on festival days when all the candles were set blazing. The ceiling itself was high, but only in comparison to most of the rest of the rooms – there were higher ceilings within many of the great houses of the March Kingdoms. And the colored windows that in her childhood had formed her strongest idea of heaven were not even as nice as those in the great Trigonate temple in the outer keep beyond the Raven’s Gate. Still, Briony had always thought that there could not be much difference between her home and the other royal palaces of Eion. Her father was a king, after all, and his father and grandfather had been kings before him — a line that went back generations. Surely the monarchs of Syan and Brenland and Perikal did not live much more grandly, she had thought. But since she had come to famous Broadhall Palace, Briony had quickly lost her illusions.
From the first hour of her capture, as the coach surrounded by a troop of soldiers had passed through the portcullis and gate and onto the palace grounds, she had begun to feel foolish. How could she have thought her family something other than rustic — the same sort of faded, countrified nobles that she and Barrick had found so amusing back home? And now she stood beside Jino in the throne room itself, the voluminous chamber which for centuries had been the heart of the entire continent, and which still was the capitol of one of the most powerful nations in the world, and her own witless pretension was a bone in her throat.
The Broadhall throne hall was vast, to begin with, the ceiling twice as lofty as that of Southmarch’s greatest temple, carved and painted in such wonderful, startling detail that it looked as though an entire population of Funderlings had worked on it for a century. (That was exactly what had happened, she found out later, although here in Syan they called their small people Kallikans.) Each brilliant window stained with sun-bright colors looked as big as the Basilisk Gate back home, and there were dozens of them, so that the huge room seemed to be crowned with rainbows. The floor was a swirling pattern of black and white marble squares, an intricate circular mosaic called Perin’s Eye — famous throughout the world, Erasmias Jino informed her as he led her across it. She followed him past the huge but empty throne and the company of armored knights in blue, red and gold who all stood solemnly against the throne room’s great walls, still and silent as statues.
“You must permit me to show you the gardens at some point,” the marquis told her. “The throne hall is very fine, of course, but the royal gardens are truly extraordinary.”
I take your point, fellow — this is what a true kingdom looks like. She kept her face cheerfully empty, but Jino’s high-handedness griped her. You do not think much of Southmarch or our small problems and you want to remind me what real grandeur and real power look like. Yes, I take your point. You think my family’s crown is no more impressive than the sham crown of wood and gold paint that I wore on the stage.
But the heart of a kingdom is not small just because the kingdom is, she thought.
Jino led her through a door at the back of the throne room, this one surrounded by a group of guards in different, although complementary, shades of blue and red to those lined along the walls of the throne room. “The King’s Cabinet,” said Jino, opening the door and gesturing for her to go in. A herald in a brilliant sky-blue tabard embroidered with Syan’s famous sword and flowering almond branch, asked her name and title, then stamped his gold-topped stick on the floor.
“Briony te Meriel te Krisanthe M’Connord Eddon, princess regent of the March Kingdoms,” he announced, as casually as if she were the fourth or fifth princess who’d come through the door that day. For all Briony knew, she might have been: two or three dozen guards, servants, and beautifully dressed courtiers filled the richly-appointed room, and though many of them watched her entrance, few showed any signs of overwhelming interest.
“Ah, of course, Olin’s child!” said the bearded man on the high-backed couch, waving her forward. He was dressed in serious, dark clothes and his voice was deep and strong. “I see his face in yours. This is an unexpected pleasure.”
“Thank you, your Majesty.” Briony made her bows. Enander Karallios was the most powerful ruler in Eion and looked the part. He had gone a little to fat in recent years, but he was a big man and managed to carry it well. His hair was dark, almost black, with only a little gray, and his face, though rounded by age and weight, was still strong and impressive, brow high, eyes wide-set, his nose strong and sharp, so that it was still quite possible to see why as a younger man he had been considered a very dashing and handsome prince indeed. “Come, child, sit down. We are pleased to see you. Your father is dear to us.”
“Dear to all of Eion,” said the woman in the beautiful pearled gown beside him. This must be Ananka te Voa, Briony recognized, a powerful noblewoman in her own right, but also, and far more importantly, a mistress to kings. Briony was a little shocked to see her sitting at Enander’s side so openly. The king’s second wife had died some years ago, but the gossip Briony had heard among Makewell’s Men suggested that he had only taken up with this woman recently, after Ananka had left her old lover, Hesper, the king of Jael and Jellon.
Hesper the bloody-handed traitor…!
Briony, who had been in mid-courtesy, almost lost her balance as she thought of him. There were few men in the world Briony would have seen tortured, but Hesper was one of them. She couldn’t help wondering whether Ananka been at his side when Hesper had decided to imprison Briony’s father Olin and then sell him to Ludis Drakava? Looking at the woman’s sharp, hard eyes, it was easy enough to believe.
“You are both very kind,” Briony said, doing her best to keep her voice even. “My father has always spoken of you with the highest regard and love, King Enander.”
“And how is he? Have you had word from him?” Enander was toying with something in his lap and it distracted her. After a moment she saw the bright little eyes peering out from beneath his heavy velvet sleeve. It was a small animal, a tiny dog or a ferret.
“Some letters, yes, but not since I left Southmarch.” She couldn’t help wondering what the two of them were thinking. They acted as though this was any other audience — did they not know her situation? “Your majesty is doubtless aware that I left my home…well, let us say I did not go by choice. One of my subjects…no, one of my father’s subjects, Hendon Tolly, has traitorously seized the throne of the March Kingdoms. I suspect he murdered my older brother, as well as his own.” In truth, Kendrick’s death was the one crime she could not with certainty lay against Hendon Tolly, but he had admitted his role in his own brother Gailon’s death.
“Lord Tolly says differently, as you probably know,” said Enander, looking troubled. “We cannot take sides – not without knowing more. I’m sure you understand. Lord Tolly claims you ran away, that all he does is protect Olin’s remaining heir, the infant Alessandros. That is the boy’s name, is it not?” he asked Ananka.
“Yes, Alessandros.” She turned back to Briony. “You poor child.” Ananka was handsome, but she used too much powder – it accentuated the lines of her thin face rather than hid them. Still, she was the kind of woman who had always made Briony feel like a clumsy, stupid little girl. “How you must have suffered. And we have heard such stories! Is it true Southmarch was attacked by the fairies?”
King Enander gave her an irritated look, perhaps because he did not want to be reminded of Syan’s old debt to Anglin’s line in the fairy-wars of the past.
“Yes, it is true, my lady,” Briony said. “And as far as I know, still true…”
“But we hear that you hid yourself among a company of peasants and escaped — walking all the way from Southmarch! How clever! How brave!”
“In truth, it was a company of players…ma’am.” Briony had learned how to swallow an angry reply, but it did not taste good. “And I was not escaping the siege, but my own treacherous…”
“Yes, we have heard – quite a story!” Enander cut her off before she could say more. It was not an accident. “But we have had only the barest bones – of course, you must flesh them out for us soon. Ah-ah,” he said, lifting his hand when she might have spoken again. “But no more talk now, my dear — you must be exhausted after your ordeal. Time enough for everything when you are feeling stronger. We will see you tonight at supper.”
She thanked him and made another courtesy. So, she wondered, am I a guest? Or a prisoner? It wasn’t entirely clear.
As Lord Jino led her out of the King’s Cabinet, Briony fought against anger and unhappiness. Enander had received her kindly and courteously, and so far the Syannese had treated her as well as she could have hoped. Had she expected that the king would stand up, declare undying loyalty to the blood of Anglin’s line, and immediately equip her with an army to go back and overthrow the Tollys? Of course not. But she also had the distinct feeling from the king’s mien that such a thing wasn’t only to be delayed, it was never going to happen at all.
Briony was so immersed in her thoughts that she nearly walked into a tall man coming across the throne room, headed toward the chamber she had just left. As she started back he reached out a strong hand to keep her upright.
“Apologies, Mistress,” he said. “Are you well?”
“Your royal Highness,” said Jino. “You are back before we looked for you.”
Briony straightened her clothes to cover her confusion. Royal Highness? Then this young man must be Eneas, the prince. She felt her breath getting a little short as she looked up. Was this truly the boy she had thought about so much during that year of her childhood? He was certainly as handsome as the prince she had imagined, tall and slender but wide-shouldered, with a tangled mass of black hair like a horse’s mane after a long, fast ride.
“There is much to tell,” the prince said. “I rode fast.” He looked at Briony, puzzled. “And who is this?”
“Highness, allow me to present Briony te Meriel te Krisanthe…” Jino began.
“Briony Eddon?” The prince interrupted him. “Are you truly Briony Eddon? Olin’s daughter? But what are you doing here?” Suddenly remembering his manners, he grabbed her hand and lifted it to his lips, but his eyes never left her face.
“I will explain all later, Highness,” Jino said. “But your father will want to hear your news about the southern armies. Did everything go well?”
“No,” Eneas said. “No, it did not.” He turned back to Briony. “Are you dining with us tonight? Say yes.”
“Y—yes, of course.”
“Good. We will speak more then. It is astounding to see you here. I was just thinking about your father – I admire him greatly, you know. Is he well?” He did not wait for an answer. “Jino is right, I should go. But I look forward to our conversation later.” He took her hand, kissed it again, a mere brush of his dry, wind-chapped lips, but looked at her as though he meant to memorize her every feature. “I told them you would grow up a beauty,” he said. “I am proved right.”
Briony watched Eneas go, staring after him for several moments before she realized her mouth must be hanging open like that of some Dalesman sheepherder getting his first view of a real city. “What did he mean by that?” she said, half to herself. “He couldn’t have even known I existed!”
Jino was frowning a little, but he did his best to turn it into a smile. “Oh, but the prince would never lie, Highness, and certainly he would not stoop to flattery.” He gave a rueful laugh. “He means well, and he is of course a splendid young man, but in truth his courtly manners leave a bit to be desired.” He straightened and extended his arm. “Let me show you back to your rooms now, Princess. We all look forward to the honor of your company again at supper, but you really should rest after your terrifying journey.”
Briony’s own courtly manners might be a touch rustic by Syannese standards but she understood what Erasmias Jino was saying well enough: Please, child, get out from under my feet so I can see to more important business – the business of a true kingdom, not a backwater like yours.
It was another reminder that Briony was at best a distraction for these Syannese, but more likely an annoying problem. Either way, she had no power here, nor any friends she could count on. She let herself be led back across the gleaming, echoing throne room, through groups of staring courtiers and the more discreet but just as interested servants, already thinking about how that balance might be changed for the better.
© 2010 by Tad Williams. All rights reserved
- Shadowmarch Origins: The Online Serial
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