The rest of the journey passed smoothly, if quite frigidly for a time. It indeed took another fortnight to reach the shores of Faradesh, the weather warming gradually as they made their way south after rounding Ashemar’s northern coast. They came to shore and dropped anchor at a small, auxiliary port located in the countryside of the northernmost princedom of Campagna.
At Moody’s stern command, the crew stayed aboard to tend to the ship while the passengers and their grooms and horses disembarked. They were greeted by a cordial, if cool, dockmaster, who led them to a structure overlooking the dock that resembled a miniature castle. The time of day was in between twilight and full-dark, so any observers would be able to see a disembarking ship, although those exiting its gangplanks would be difficult to describe later.
Inside, at the far end of the small reception chamber into which Trystane, Clío, Ryman and their immediate attendants were led, stood a young man who could only be described redundantly as startlingly striking—that was how striking he was. Angelique did her level best not to stare impolitely, but it took a monumental effort.
He was tall, with a slender yet sturdy build, and he held himself with a pride that bordered on arrogance. His features were dark, boasting a flawless olive complexion, and eyes the color of molten cacao that clearly missed nothing. He appeared no older than twenty-five, but his overall countenance was that of a man of King Julius’ age and experience. Angelique wasn’t certain exactly who he was, but his presence here, along with his appearance and attire—rich dark leathers, supple white furs, and fine velvets in the deep purple, magenta and vibrant gold of the empire—suggested high royalty. The shoulders of the fur cloak he wore each bore a per gyonney shield of magenta and gold, with a purple bend slashed across its face, three dragons rampant embroidered upon it in thread of silver.
Beside him stood a beautiful woman who appeared a little younger, with similar dark features, who possessed a meeker, yet proud stance of her own. The couple was flanked by heavily armed guards, jewel-embedded swords drawn, ready at a moment’s notice to protect one whose safety was at least mildly under threat at any given time.
An attendant announced their guests in a rich, clear voice: “His Majesty, Lord Trystane II Maquesta, King of the Realms of Aesha’an and Anglica’a on Morgadesh, Duke of Majere and High Lord Commander of the Royal Armies; and Her Majesty, Lady Clío Ashworth Maquesta, Queen of Aesha’an and Anglica’a, Duchess of Majere.” Turning toward the king and his party, the crier reversed the introductions: “His Radiance, Sotiris Daskalaki d’Campagna, Fourth Imperial Prince Consort of the Empire of Faradesh, Prince of Campagna, Knight of the Arrow; and Her Brilliance, Princess Raya, High Lady of Campagna, Keeper of the Arrow.”
Angelique’s reaction was twofold: mild shock that the king and queen would be so open about their identities, though she supposed there was no real reason to hide them here, and to do so may be treasonous for all she knew; and a confused curiosity regarding the Lady Raya. She had just been introduced as the wife of Prince Sotiris, but wouldn’t a Prince Consort, by definition, be married to the empress? Nonetheless, she sank in to a flawless curtsy and held it; she had been informed that, while Morgadeshi kings and queens were content with a bow or a curtsy followed by an immediate straightening of the stature, imperials preferred the gesture of deference to remain in place until they indicated permission to be at ease.
Sotiris studied them a moment, as if to ensure that they followed that protocol precisely.
Angelique kept her eyes averted—another piece of sage advice she had been given—but watched out of the corner of her eye.
The Imperial Prince didn’t not speak it aloud; he indicated that they should rise by turning the palm of his right hand toward the ceiling, an almost casual gesture that might go unnoticed by one not watching for it.
Angelique stood on somewhat shaky legs, glad that she had practiced the prolonged curtsy every day for two weeks on a rocking ship. It occurred to her that she had never seen Trystane bow to anyone before now, with the sole exception of his own father. Clío, it seemed, could drop a perfect curtsy in her sleep and hold it for hours.
“House Maquesta is well-known, even here across the sea,” Sotiris acknowledged in a clear, confident voice adorned with cultured eastern accents. “Many Faradeshi couldn’t care less about the world beyond our borders, but our empress feels differently.” The prince’s tone did nothing to indicate whether his own views leaned toward the latter or the former. Angelique sensed that his tone never did betray much. He had a detached, almost disinterested way of speaking, and she wondered if that was an affectation unique to him, or to the Imperials, or if that was simply the Faradeshi way.
“Your Radiance,” Trystane addressed the prince with a slight respectful incline of his head. “We wish to convey our deepest gratitude for your opening your gates to us. Our realms have no obligation toward one another to speak of, and your hospitality as we seek temporary sanctuary is profoundly appreciated.”
Sotiris gave a small, gracious nod. “We do not turn a cold shoulder on those in need out of hand. However,” he added, a slight note of warning creeping into his tone, “I trust you know that we do not offer protection out of hand either. You are here on a… let’s call it a probationary basis.”
“We do know; and we respect that.”
“Respect is key,” Sotiris confirmed. “Our empress will accept nothing less than the utmost.”
“And that is what she shall receive.”
Sotiris studied his royal guest with an unreadable expression for a moment before nodding. “Good. But she did not send us here to make subtle threats; and therefore, we wish to extend the warmest of welcomes, and convey the empress’ desire that you visit her at the Shield of the Heavens as soon as you can make the journey. Until then, you will receive the best accommodations Campagna has to offer.”
“A night is all we ask, Your Radiance.” Trystane assured.
Sotiris nodded. “Your Majesties,” he announced formally, “Lords and Ladies. Welcome to Faradesh.”
There was a feast that evening to honor Campagna’s esteemed guests. The opportunity to relax and enjoy oneself and don one’s finest clothing and jewels was a welcome respite from the grimness of the last few weeks, and all fell into their beds long into the small hours, exhausted, but content.
The party departed late the next morning, accompanied by a small escort of a dozen Campagnanese soldiers. The day was mild, a little warm even, and the mood was light, all things considered.
They all once again chose understated garments; they may no longer be in full hiding here, but there was still no reason to draw an excessive amount of attention to themselves. At Trystane’s request, Sotiris had ordered his men to do the same.
“I should tell you,” Ryman began after riding in silence for a time and making sure their escorts were out of earshot for the moment. “The Imperial Family is not like the ruling Houses in the west.”
Clío glanced at Trystane, noticing a knowing look in his eyes. “How so?” she asked, though she’d acquired a distinct impression of the Campagnanese branch of the tree the evening before. “I’ve heard little of them.”
“That’s because some of their customs, particularly those concerning marriage and family, are considered… distasteful, by most Morgadeshi—unusual at the least. They don’t exactly teach it to you during your lessons.”
“I know some,” Trystane commented. “They do teach Morgadeshi heirs about the Imperial House, and naturally, my brother could not help but pass along some of it.”
“Well, here’s all of it. For starters, the family is enormous. The empress Persephoni has four husbands. The Emperor Consort Konstantinos, and Prince Consorts Cristos, Sotiris and Dmitrius. The empress herself, though she can’t be more than thirty-five, has given birth nine times; six have survived, all daughters. They are all considered to belong to Konstantinos, her… chief consort, if you will, a sort of first among equals—though they could have been sired by any one of the four. Paternity isn’t important; all that matters is that the firstborn of the empress, boy or girl, will inherit the empire. Persephoni rules the capital, Candora, a city within a province of the same name. But though she is the sovereign above all, her husbands are the heads of state in the other four provinces, or princedoms.”
“So…” Clío repeated thoughtfully. “There is an empress, but no emperor, but her husband—one of them—is Emperor Consort. The others are Prince Consorts, but they also rule the provinces, and so, are also semi-sovereign princes.”
“And it gets yet more complicated,” Trystane put in, sounding somewhat amused.
“It does: titles are extremely meaningful to the Imperials, even more so than in our seven kingdoms. The empress and her spouses are called Your Radiance; the rulers of the princedoms—not always the sovereign’s spouses, mind you, that’s just how Persephoni likes it—are Your Brilliance; Imperial lords or ladies, the sovereign’s direct heirs, are My Light. Absolutely no exceptions. Where My Lord or My Lady is considered acceptable, in our world, for any member of the nobility or above, and even for high-ranking handmaidens and manservants—in Faradesh that title is only to be applied to the lower nobility. A ‘lesser’ title, used while addressing an Imperial, is considered highly offensive.”
“So it is both more and less complicated,” Clío mused. “So how does one know when to address the Imperial consorts by Radiance or Brilliance? Wouldn’t both be appropriate, since they are also the rulers of the princedoms?”
“Both would be appropriate. Knowing which to use simply depends on the capacity in which one is communicating with them.”
“If it is a matter involving the empire, Your Radiance is required,” Trystane specified. “If you are addressing one of them in his capacity as a prince, rather than a consort, use Your Brilliance.”
“What about more informal communication—those not of state?” Clío inquired.
Ryman made a wry face. “There will be no informal communication with the Consorts, Your Majesty, I can assure you of that. I am sure you noticed that Prince Sotiris kept himself rather aloof at the feast last night. The empress keeps him and the others under tight wraps. If you pass one in a corridor at the Shield, he will behave as if you are not there, and it is best you do the same. Cristos in particular can be rather… cool. Sotiris is near unimpressible. Konstantinos is more cordial, and Dmitrius has a sort of boyish, carefree charm; but all should be considered highly unapproachable.”
Clío couldn’t help but feel a bit indignant at that. She was still getting used to the idea of being a queen, especially with no crown or castle to show for it; but she and her husband were still royalty after all, albeit foreign royalty.
Sensing her thoughts, Trystane murmured, “It is not coldblooded arrogance, my love. It is simply what they know. The Consorts were raised from birth to be what they are, and what they are is high royalty in the largest, most powerful corner of the world.”
“Raised from birth?” Clío echoed. “So the empress’ husbands are born to it?”
“Well,” Ryman explained. “More are raised for it than actually do it. The ones the sovereign actually marries—and they can marry as many of them as they like—are handpicked by trusted advisers who have known the young men well all their lives.”
“According to what criteria?”
“Their talent in the yard, for one, as well as their intelligence, political savvy, physical appearance, and… other talents.”
Clío frowned in confused thought. “Carnal talents. And how exactly is that determined?” she asked carefully.
Ryman tossed a questioning glance at Trystane, unsure of whether or not to answer that one.
Trystane cleared his throat softly. “Prostitutes,” he said simply.
“And what if they lie?”
“That’s not a notion your average Faradeshi would entertain for long. That sort of perjury and high treason will get your head separated from your shoulders with great haste.”
Clío took a breath. “What was it you called it? ‘Distasteful’?”
Ryman gave a small shrug. “To us, yes. But here, it is simply the way it is done.” He continued with his lesson. “And the family gets yet bigger. The princedoms have their princes, but they also need heirs, and that means they need princesses.”
“So the Consorts also have multiple spouses,” Clío murmured.
“They do; the empress would not dishonor the children of her womb by charging them with the provinces. Consorts are allowed only one spouse aside from the sovereign. The firstborn of the prince on his second wife is his heir, whether male or female, just as with the empire itself. Sotiris of Campagna has three children with Princess Raya; Cristos and Medea in Torcien have two; Dmitrius and Appalonia of Mandieque have five; and Konstantinos is said to have no fewer than fifteen children besides his six with the empress, a dozen of them bastards; Princess Lamitra has birthed three.”
Quickly doing the math, Clío observed in awe, “That is nineteen legitimate children, all told—and twelve illegitimate, besides. Gods, how do they keep track of them all?” she added offhandedly.
“At least,” Ryman confirmed. “The Prince Consorts are not exactly known for their fidelity, multiple wives aside. Neither is the empress, for that matter. Adultery is… not looked upon with nearly the same contempt as in the west.”
“Sounds as if the gene pool is more like a stew.” Trystane glanced at his wife apologetically. “Forgive my crass analogy, love.”
“It seems fairly accurate,” Clío conceded. “Are they sickly?” She knew her history, and polygamous and incestuous gene pools often produced sickly heirs.
“Not even a little,” Ryman replied. “There are a lot of people in Faradesh; the gene pool is plenty large enough to contain their polyamorous proclivities. Also, Persephoni employs a veritable army of the best physicians and surgeons the world has to offer. The Daskalakis are perhaps the strongest, healthiest people you’ll ever meet.”
“Oh, really?” Trystane retorted lightly, feigning insult.
Ryman grinned. “Besides Your Majesty, of course.”
Clío ignored the japes. “I can’t imagine it, polygamy. How does one… share their husband or wife with another—multiple others?” Suddenly Liam’s relations with Domani, and others, seemed downright chaste in contrast.
“Not all monarchs love their spouses like the two of you do, Majesty,” Ryman reminded her gently. “It all comes down to one thing: producing heirs, and a lot of them. The Daskalaki dynasty is more than fifteen centuries years old, and there is a reason for that. Also… well, carnal relations are seen as a sort of… recreational activity. It is also often an expression of love, particularly among the Faradeshi citizens, who are said to be monogamous more often than not. But the further up the ladder you go, the more it seems to be an entitlement, a pastime, rather than a symbol of commitment. And lastly,” he went on, changing the subject abruptly. “The family gets even bigger: Persephoni has—rather, had—eight siblings, the five younger with their own families. Her three older siblings, all brothers, died very young before they could take the throne. empress, heirs, Consorts and their other families, siblings and their families all have quarters at the Shield of the Heavens. It is the largest single structure on the Mortal Plane, aside from Silvana’s Wall.”
“Is there a lot of infighting?” With so many direct heirs, heirs apparent, potential heirs, bastards, and a plethora of husbands, wives, mistresses and kept men, it had to be next to impossible to keep the peace in such an enormous and privileged household with so much to covet.
“Not that is spoken of openly. It is a point of pride, both among the imperials and the people, that Faradesh enjoys a peaceful reign, and a peaceful Imperial household. Some of her predecessors allowed it, even in some cases encouraged it, for unknown reasons; but Persephoni will not tolerate it. She is known to have… banished those who have disobeyed in that way.”
“Banished, as in, put to death?” Clío inquired softly.
“In some cases,” Ryman admitted.
Clío grew silent, allowing herself to mentally absorb this glut of information. Complicated politics, inside and outside the family, and the idea of capital punishment she was used to. But this, it seemed, was a House possessing many dynamics that were, to her, simply unfathomable.