The Fall of the Builder: II
The bay was calm, the trees were in their last bloom, the breeze was mild; everything was boring. Celia paced her balcony back and forth, back and forth, reciting the verse she had tried to learn for weeks.
“’White as the pale moon, lingering fraught; night incessant, where moonlight ought; trees in the groves whisper to thee; whispering… whispering…’” She sighed heavily and frowned. “’Trees in the groves whisper to thee; whispering…’”
“’Whispering light, like a whispering tree.’”
Celia rolled her eyes and turned to face her brother. Cereo gladly flaunted his extraordinary talent for poetry, but she hated how easily it all came to him. She huffed and sloped against the bannisters. “I’ll never learn it.”
“Come now, Sister dearest,” smiled Cereo. “Those are only the first few stanzas! There are plenty more for you to learn.”
“Thank you, Brother dear,” she muttered, “for those kind words of encouragement.”
“Now, now,” sighed Cereo, “don’t be like that.”
She pouted, but sighed. “It’s a dull poem, anyway. Typically Nornish. ’Whispering light, like a whispering tree’? Rubbish.”
Cereo laughed. “You’ve never liked what you cannot master.”
“Neither have you!”
“No, but I master most things I take upon myself to master.”
“Except swordsmanship, strategy, military history—”
“Oh, you bore me!” cried the Emperor.
Celia scoffed and turned to glance out over the bay. The glittering water shone brilliant blue against the cloudless sky; large merchant vessels lay resting on the water, one with golden sails. “So, she returned safely from her travels, then?”
Cereo leaned on the bannisters and sighed. “And she brought with her riches beyond imagination. Aranthe holds more riches than we could ever imagine, and I have secured trade with the nation.”
“You mean, Forello secured trade with the Aranthian King,” Celia sneered.
“Well, that’s another way of putting it,” Cereo said. “Either way, we will now have strong and prosperous relationships with every Edredian country, with sovereigns, luxuries, and soldiers if need be.”
Celia observed her brother as a crease appeared between his brows. “Have you heard anything new from the North?”
Cereo clenched his jaw. “Duke Arlington is dead, together will all the heads of the noble Houses in Noxborough. His daughter has joined the beasts, but his son escaped. Now, there’s a price on his head, and every bounty hunter out there is looking for him—if not for the money, then to strike a bargain with the Grey Warlord.”
Celia felt her heart race. The news about the invasion in the North was disturbing to everyone, but even more so were the rumours and the stories from the soldiers who had escaped the beasts during the Night of the Demons.
She knew that the Northerners were far more superstitious than any Illyrian, but she couldn’t deny the terror she felt when hearing the gruesome tales. Knowing now that Noxborough had fallen, and that the Duke was dead, was even more devastating.
She bit her lip. “Perhaps we should offer him amnesty?”
Cereo raised a brow. “Offer whom? The warlord?”
Celia rolled her eyes. “The Duke’s son. If we send out a reward of our own, a more generous one, bounty hunters will protect him and bring him here.”
Celia put her hands on her hips. “You may be the Emperor, but you are sometimes utterly useless! He knows the beasts! He escaped them when no one else did. He could counsel you when dealing with them.”
Cereo sighed deeply and straightened. “And why would I need his counsel? Why would I deal with the Grey Ones? I aim to stay as far away from the Grey Ones as I possibly can!”
“You might not be able to if they come here,” muttered Celia.
Cereo smiled. “Celia dear, Valaris has been impenetrable for a thousand years, and it will be so for another thousand years to come. No warlord, grey or else, will ever be able to sack this city.”
She looked at him, feeling the terror spread in her body. “But what if they do come?”
Cereo sighed deeply and pulled her into an embrace. “Not to worry, dearest sister. If the Grey Warlord marches his men south, we will know and we will be at the ready. We have the Golden Army, we know the land, and we will have aid if the need arises.”
“Noxborough thought as much as well,” Celia whispered. “But when they needed the help, they stood alone.”
“I am not Richmond Arlington,” Cereo muttered. “Our history is not torn as that of the Free Cities. Illyria has always been strong and dependable. United. Varsaii, Tallis, and Aranthe know this. We are not alone.” Then he sighed. “There is another matter I would like to discuss with you.”
“And what is that?”
He sighed. “As part of the treaty between Illyria and Aranthe, King Ashka wants to marry his son with a woman of my court. He wanted you as his daughter-in-law.”
Celia clenched her jaw and pulled away from her brother. “And what did you tell him?”
“That I will have to speak to you about it, of course. I would never force you to marry anyone—I’m not sure I even could—and I told King Ashka as much.”
“But,” Cereo sighed, “I beg you to at least consider it. Aranthe is a great nation, and King Ashka is a gracious ruler. His son will one day succeed him, and if you were to marry him, you’d be the Queen of Aranthe one day. It would be everything Father ever wanted for you. Besides, you’re nearly eighteen years old, Celia. It’s time you marry.”
Celia sighed. She knew that she one day would have to marry a lord, or a King, or an Emperor—from childhood she had known that she was destined for great things, but she had never been told what.
Being the bastard daughter of the late Emperor put her in an awkward position at court, but being the favourite sister—nay, favourite person—of the current Emperor placed her at an even more awkward position. She was his commodity, but also his nearest and greatest friend. To have him speak of her marriage was disheartening, for she had no wish to ever leave Illyria. Then again, as long as the Empress Dowager Danaia was still alive, Celia would have no peace in Valaris.
During supper that evening, the Empress Dowager had been informed about King Ashka’s proposition. The woman was a frightening one, with long, thick locks, brown as coffee, and with eyes blacker than beetles. She was still a very beautiful woman, regal and formidable, but she lived and acted as though she was still the Empress. She tried to rule through her son, but Cereo was far too free-spirited for such a stern hand; she tried to rule through the council, but they would not recognise her authority.
Her frustration was then poured out over young Celia, because the girl was the constant reminder of the Empress Dowager’s late husband’s infidelity. Celia knew Danaia hated her, and that she thought her to be a bad influence on her son the Emperor. She had even tried to spread the rumour that Celia was a witch—and if she wasn’t a witch, she was a whore.
Cereo had put an end to every foul rumour his mother had started, but it was clear that the war between the two women would only end when one of them passed away, or left the capital.
“I hear Aranthe is a rather new kingdom,” said Danaia. “Barely a hundred years old. I also hear savages live amongst the nobility. It would suit your liveliness perfectly, Miss Celia—”
“It’s Princess Celia, Mother,” Cereo muttered.
The Empress Dowager pressed her lips tightly together. “It would be, if she were royalty.”
“We’ve had this discussion, Mother,” said Cereo. “She’s my father’s daughter, and thus she is my sister. You will address her properly.”
Sighing deeply, the Empress Dowager put down her glass. “Indeed. Princess, I think this is a most perfect match for you.”
Celia narrowed her eyes and glared at the woman. “How would you know? You’ve never spoken to an Aranthian in your life. Why would you think this is my best offer?”
“Well,” sneered the Empress Dowager, “I don’t suspect you’ll receive better offers elsewhere.”
Before Celia could reply, Cereo snapped, “That is quite enough for the both of you.”
His mother pursed her lips and was silent for a moment before she said, “I heard about the news up north. Poor Arlington. Such a gruesome end. It truly makes one wonder why the Builder would ever allow such horror.”
“He was only beheaded,” Cereo said. “There have been much worse executions. He wasn’t disembowelled, or dismembered, or stretched, or half-hanged, or whatever the Northerners like to do. Indeed, I thought it rather merciful.”
Celia suddenly lost her appetite and placed her spoon back onto the plate. Not even wine could down her growing feeling of disgust.
“That may very well be,” said Danaia, “but beheading is divine justice. Refraining from savagery proves that the Kas aren’t just here to slaughter, but to conquer. They know that they don’t have to kill all of us, they just have to kill our God.”
Celia tried not to gasp or in any way show her fear, lest the Empress Dowager would sense her weakness. So she took up her spoon and continued eating, even though the images of maimed bodies were still firmly imprinted in her head.
“Kas?” the Emperor laughed. “Is that was they are called? I thought we were talking about Grey Ones.”
“Cereo,” sighed the Empress Dowager, “if you want to beat your enemies, you ought to know who they are. These people are called Kas, and they are a proud nation with a large and imposing military force. You should take this threat seriously.”
“We have the Golden Army, Mother,” said Cereo dismissingly. “Besides, they are all the way up in Noxborough. Winter will freeze anything north of the Dawning River, and they won’t march anywhere before spring. I’m not worried. Father would never worry about such a thing.”
“No,” said Danaia, “and neither would his father, or his father before that, or his father before that. As a matter of fact, there has been no great threat against our glorious empire since our war with Varsaii, and that was two hundred years ago.”
“My point exactly, and—”
“I wasn’t finished,” growled the Empress Dowager darkly. “Since it was more than two centuries ago that Illyria faced a threat of this magnitude, you ought to take this seriously. The Kas is a more formidable foe than you understand.”
“How come you know so much about them?” Celia voiced her words before even thinking, but she was surprised to see the Empress Dowager accept her inquiry.
“My birth nation, Tallis, has been attacked by the Kas for centuries,” said the Emperor’s mother and gazed at Celia. “They came to Nornest to seek followers, but they came to Tallis to seek slaves and resources.” She turned her dark eyes on her son. “I would never underestimate them, and neither should you.”
“Well,” said Cereo, “one idea is to—well, to issue a reward for bringing Sebastian Arlington here, to Valaris. He escaped the Grey Ones when no one else did. He could be useful to us.”
“An excellent idea, my son,” said Danaia. “Now you’re thinking like an Emperor.”
Celia dropped her jaw and glared at her brother. How dared he take credit for her idea? He gazed back, apologetically, before he smiled at his mother.
“The Kas has offered five thousand sovereigns and immunity in return for the boy,” said the Empress Dowager. “What will you do to match that?”
“Let’s double it,” said Cereo. “Ten thousand sovereigns, and some land in the Southern Reach. Let’s make it worthwhile.”
“And what of the council?” asked his mother.
“What of it?”
“Are you going to issue such a grand reward without discussing it with the council first?”
The Emperor sighed and sank into his chair. “I am the Imperial Majesty of this Nation, Mother. What good is such a title if I have to discuss every matter with the council first? I will issue the order tonight.”
The Empress Dowager seemed as pleased as she possibly could, but Celia was bitter. Danaia would not have thought it to be a good idea if she knew it was Celia who came to think of it.
Now, the Emperor would be praised by his people for his generosity and his goodness, offering a sanctuary to the poor noble boy who had just lost his family and his city. He would be rendered a hero for doing what he should to secure the safety and the future of his empire.
Celia, however, would be ignored and forgotten, as always, because it was wholly unthinkable that a woman could have any political knowledge, wisdom, and prowess.