The Empress and a Lost Lady
Persephoni V Daskalaki, fortieth-generation ruler of her House and its empire, lay abed with a beautiful man just emerging from between her thighs, kissing her belly and her breasts as he positioned himself atop her. Catching her breath in the wake of the life-altering orgasm he had just given her, she ran her fingers through his dark hair, gazing at him with genuine affection. He was her first and most celebrated husband, her Emperor Consort of eighteen years—since the days when they were “only” Imperial Lady and her Lord Consort—and the recognized father of her six daughters, including their own Imperial Lady Leora.
Sometimes, in the right light, Persephoni thought Leora resembled Cristos more closely than she did Konstantinos. She had after all, been taking Cristos into her bed around the time she married Konstantinos, though she and Cristos were not married themselves until seven years later. But the two men looked similar enough, with the same dark hair, tall beautiful builds, lightly golden skin and eyes like the bluest topaz, that she supposed she would never know for certain whose seed had quickened her womb and produced her now-seventeen-year-old firstborn and heir. Anyway, more than anyone else, Leora resembled her mother, who also carried the predominant Faradeshi coupling of very dark tresses and bright blue eyes.
Feeling the probing of his cock between her legs, she folded them around him and let him in. Making love to Konstantinos was like transcending to another dimension. For the ensuing hour, he was all that existed in her world.
After, he lay beside her again, lovingly cleansing her inner thighs with a piece of warm wet toweling. There was no such thing as quick, clean relations in the bed of Persephoni V.
“Sotiris sent word that Trystane of Aesha’an and his queen set out for Candora late this morning,” he murmured conversationally. It was not uncommon to hear the name of one husband on the lips of another to whom she had just made love.
“I received it,” the empress confirmed. “I am quite intrigued to host guests such as these. Our little part of the world does not see the likes of Morgadeshi royalty often.”
“‘Little’?” Konstantinos kidded.
Persephoni smiled. “Very well: our huge part of the world.” She was well aware of how vast Faradesh was, even excluding the Shadow, home to the Children of the Jungle in the east. She was simply more inclined toward modesty—at least concerning trivial matters—than her husbands were, especially the Emperor Consort himself.
“The prince will be here to join us a day or two ahead of our guests.” There were routes connecting the provinces open only to the empress and her consorts, ones that conveyed their passengers more swiftly and directly than more common routes, in case of the need for such. Other times, it was simply safer: any of the royals running into the wrong fellow travelers on the road could turn deadly in an instant—usually for the other travelers.
Moreover, it was unseemly for high royalty to travel with those other than their own; hence Sotiris’ refusal to simply leave Campagna with the Maquestas and their party.
“Very good,” the empress nodded approvingly. Persephoni preferred to have her entire family present when greeting guests to the realm for the first time, especially ones as important as these. It served to remind them of the formidability of her rule and her House. Cristos and Dmitrius, along with their princess wives and children, were already present at the Shield, their provinces left in the hands of tried and trusted regents.
King Julius of Anaemar’s message, sent surreptitiously and born on a small vessel manned only by an illiterate captain and his first mate, had arrived weeks ago. The empress had been intrigued then, and she was still intrigued now. The message, written in Anaemarian and orally translated to Imperial diction, had read:
Your Radiance, Empress of Faradesh—
I acknowledge the fact that we do not know each other. But our families have a long history as distant if not tight allies. I am afraid I must humbly request your assistance in dealing with a matter most grave. I send a very important world leader and his entourage your way, and dearly hope that you will find it acceptable to extend your hospitality. I dare not divulge more details in this message, however please accept my oath that the safety and sanctuary of those of whom I speak is of dire importance to my realm, and indeed to that of the whole of Morgadesh. I can personally vouch for their discretion and trustworthiness, as well as their need and appreciation for any assistance you see fit to offer.
I hope it is not too presumptuous to thank you most humbly in advance.
Sincerely and Gratefully,
Julius of House Carlisle, King of Anaemar
The letter had born a seal of indigo wax, pressed with the shape of the shadowcat of Anaemar, vouching for its authenticity, and showed no signs of tampering; the falconers of the empress knew exactly what to look for concerning the latter.
The Houses of Daskalaki and Carlisle did indeed go way back: they had both served the ancient House of Karavitius, overthrower of the Matraxia, the descendants of Silvana Starshine, first Empress of Faradesh. When Faradesh, under Karavitius, sent her people across the Crystalline to explore Morgadesh, House Carlisle had been among the potential colonizers. Those colonizers, who became the first of the mighty and defiantly self-sufficient Rohannish, had rebelled against Karavitius’ successor Notaria in the second century M.H., eventually winning autonomy for the former imperialists and birthing the kingdom of Rohannon. Over the ensuing twenty-three centuries, Morgadesh would become a separate, yet mighty continent nearly the equal of its mother Faradesh.
Some even said it had become mightier, but Persephoni chose to dismiss that speculation.
In the early centuries following the Morgadeshi rebellion, the east and the west had been bitter enemies, the sting of betrayal still fresh in the memories of the former. But now, after millennia, the bad blood had diluted to the point of nonexistence, and ancient ties between Faradeshi and Morgadeshi Houses had long since become honored once more. Persephoni saw no reason to reject King Julius’ requests out of hand.
At any rate, she was eager to hear firsthand accounts of just what was going on over there. Of course there had been rumors of unrest in Aesha’an, but nothing solid had yet crossed the sea. For one no less than its king to do so was intriguing indeed. Julius had not disclosed the identity of her impending guests in writing, but it seemed the logical conclusion, given what he had disclosed and what little she had yet heard.
The Maquestas were not to be trifled with, if those sent away from Morgadesh in exile were to be believed, and she was curious to discover just who had done so anyway, and why. What part would her empire play—what part should it play—in such matters?
The empress watched her husband, as gorgeous at thirty-six as he was at eighteen, rise from their bed and begin dressing. “I must take my leave, my queen,” he explained in quiet apology. “I should check on Lamitra; I am concerned for her well-being.”
The princess was with child for the fourth time, but things were not progressing as they should—it was possible the pregnancy would not end well.
“Well, if you leave my bed for another, Lord Alvechon,” Persephoni teased lightly, “then have one of my ladies send for Cristos.”
Konstantinos reacted with mock exasperated resign, as a man whose wife had just requested the commissioning of yet another party dress, rather than the warmth of another man. “As you wish, empress.”
“Give Lamitra my best wishes,” Persephoni added sincerely. Sharing partners with others was Faradeshi custom, but jealousy and spite was not—not in Persephoni’s household.
She watched her husband exit the room, then rolled over lazily to gaze out the window of her bedchamber as she awaited the arrival of another.
The soft rapping at the door caused Cristos Daskalaki d’Torcien to wonder who in hells might come calling at this hour. Glancing at the woman in his bed beside him—one who was neither of his wives—he called for the visitor to enter.
It was Ladasha, one of the empress’ junior maids, who entered hesitantly. “Your Radiance,” she murmured shyly, arranging herself into a curtsy and waiting.
“Up, Ladasha,” Cristos instructed lightly. “You know me better than that.”
The girl beside him, another maid named Sasha, giggled. “I wager she does,” she teased as a blush colored Ladasha’s pretty face.
To an outside observer, the exchange would have seemed scandalous; but there were few outside observers within the Shield of the Heavens. Cristos let it pass, and the color disappeared quickly from Ladasha’s features.
“The Lady Radiance requests your presence at once,” she announced.
“That’s my cue to leave,” Sasha commented, sighing, with little more than passing annoyance coloring her tone. She got up, paying no mind to the fact that she was completely naked and there was company present.
“You may go as well, Ladasha,” Cristos dismissed, leaving his bed as well.
He dressed, careful to cleanse himself properly of what had just transpired between him and Sasha. It was one thing to “exchange intimacies” within their bizarre nine-party marriage—he and Sotiris had done so directly more than once, both with and without the empress present—but quite another to come to the empress’ bed still exhibiting evidence of a woman who was not Medea.
A woman who was not Medea: there had been more and more of those of late, as well as the occasional man who was certainly not Medea. The simple fact was, his princess wife had grown cold in recent years, as those who are married for some time often do—however Cristos had not. Cristos still very much ran hot. And he was the kind of man who needed only to glance at a woman meaningfully to find her in his bed at night—what was more, he knew it.
Alas, the woman who truly commanded his love and passion also commanded this empire, and had three other husbands to entertain her.
He had been but a boy when he fell in love with the Imperial Lady Persephoni; and being born who, and to whom, he was, he had always known he might marry her. He had also known full well that he would likely not be the only, maybe not even the first, one to do so. What he could not possibly have prepared for, was how much it would hurt when it came time for her to take her Emperor Consort.
The same year she had married Cristos, she had married Dmitrius; three years after that, Dmitrius’ brother Sotiris. But neither had hurt like her union with Konstantinos.
It wasn’t titles he cared about. In western terms, Konstantinos was king while Cristos was more like a crown prince, and it was much more satisfying to be the latter than the former.
At first, it had hurt because– well, simply because it did. It didn’t matter who you were, what your birth dictated, or what your culture viewed as the norm, it would always be heartbreaking to see the one you love marry another. He had spent her wedding night in a whore house, attempting desperately and in vain not to think about what—or rather, whom—Persephoni was doing that same night.
But—though the wound had long since healed, at least as well as it ever would—over the years, other circumstances had developed, that wore on that same place in his heart, like putting pressure on a bruise. One was the knowledge that Konstantinos was his only real rival for Persephoni’s affections. Her marriage to Dmitrius and Sotiris was born of convenience and politics; they knew it, and they readily accepted it. But Konstantinos, she loved.
Another was Cristos’ distinct suspicion that he had four daughters, aside from the Stonewall girl living with her mother in the countryside: Iona and Evangelina by Medea. And almost certainly Leora and Athenia—who nonetheless bore the name Alvechon.
All of Cristos’ daughters—all five of them, as well as his Stonewall son—hung the moon and the stars in his mind, but that was exactly why it hurt.
It did not matter who you were, what your birth dictated, or what your culture viewed as the norm, the paternal allegiance of a man’s children was everything.
Why had Persephoni seen fit to tell him which of her girls she thought might be his? It would have been so much easier to simply assume they belonged to the Emperor Consort, just as the entire realm was supposed to do.
The answer was simple: she had told him because she loved him.
It took some time to reach the empress’ rooms. The Shield was a fortress the size of a large town, covering half a dozen square city blocks and boasting five full stories in a world where a building with a second story usually meant that that building was no less than a castle. Building upward was dangerous, and most simply chose not to attempt it. The fortress contained five war rooms, one each belonging to the empress and her four husbands, each with an adjoining map room—off of which were its masters’ studies behind hidden doors. The various living quarters of the mammoth imperial family occupied the entire fifth story and half of the fourth. When Matraxia had begun building this palace, it had been a question of whether to house the imperials underground where they may be safer, or high up to match their place in the world. Silvana Starshine had declared the lack of light underground grievously depressing and too reminiscent of a dungeon, and chose high up. Some believed, and probably still did, that the choice was arrogant, frivolous and foolish, and that was even before the time of the trebuchet and other formidable war machines that might make quick work out of the top floors of even the stoutest of castles. Therefore, underground bunkers had been added in the seventeenth century P.M.H.—a mere five decades after the first towers of the Shield were erected—the construction of which encompassed sixteen years of the century and a half it took to complete the Shield from start to finish. As of the Year of the Sapphire Serpent, Century Six, Age of the Sun—known more widely as P.M.H.1588—it contained the Great Throne Room and seven smaller receiving chambers, eight ballrooms, half a dozen feasting halls served by four kitchens, two private gaming rooms, a brothel, four libraries, three chapels, a convent and a monastery, and—at last count—no fewer than four dozen privies; this was all besides the countless studies and quarters of its servants, attendants and guests. Aside from the adding-on of opulent monarchical living quarters on the fourth story and the gradual shaping of the fifth, it had been constructed such for forty-five centuries. Silvana’s Wall, which marked out the border between Imperial Faradesh and the Shadow Jungle, was the only structure in the known world which dwarfed the ancient home of the Emperors and empresses of the realm.
Reaching Persephoni’s quarters, he stopped at the door, noting absently that both the maids that waited there to admit him had given up their virtue to him recently. “Radiance,” they greeted with simultaneous curtsies, one’s eyes remaining on his slightly longer than was considered proper.
“Rise,” he murmured, unable to decide if the girl’s boldness was intriguing or off-putting.
Each grasping the large brass handle of one of the heavy double doors that led to the empress’ sitting room, they pulled them open. The two guards to either side made no move to assist; the doors pivoted easily in their hinges, and each and every guard, maid, servant and hound within the Shield walls knew exactly what their duties entailed. The empress’ guards were not to remove their gazes from the areas they were to survey for even a second.
“Jasmine. Adina,” Cristos murmured with a slight nod as he passed. He may have had an abundance of notches in his bedpost, but he knew the names that corresponded to every one of them.
There were two more maids waiting at the empress’ bedchamber doors. These he had not touched: they were too young. The same courtesies were repeated, both girls keeping their eyes averted entirely—and anyway, everything around him vanished as soon as he entered Persephoni’s presence.
Still, she read something in his eyes, and immediately hers took on a mischievous glint. “Which ones?” she demanded lightly by way of greeting.
He held her gaze, the same look of mischief coloring his own, but he said nothing.
She sighed in mock exasperation, much like the one Konstantinos had given her moments before. “Well, you know, you don’t have to fuck them all.”
“Why not?” he grinned. “I can’t have you every night, and… they’re pretty,” he shrugged.
Persephoni rose from her bed, closing the distance between them and pressing her naked body to his hastily dressed one, causing all sorts of things within him to stir. “Who says you can’t have me every night?” she asked quietly, pointedly.
He sobered, still holding her gaze, a guarded quality shadowing his gorgeous blue-topaz eyes, the ones she knew turned every lady and a good number of the men in her employ to a puddle on the floor. Hells, they rendered even her practically useless.
“I spent some time with Athenia today,” he informed her quietly. Leora was seventeen, preparing to inherit an empire someday, and already bogged down with a mammoth daily schedule; Athenia was only two, still possessing a good deal of free time. “She called me ‘father,’” he added pointedly. “Did you tell her to do that?”
She hesitated, a gesture highly out-of-character for the empress. “I told them all to call all of you that,” she murmured evasively, turning back to her bed.
“You didn’t,” he countered without changing expression or even blinking. He knew her better than she knew herself, and she was lying. “Why would you? Why now? It’s never been done before.” She failed to answer right away. “Persephoni.”
“Which ones belong to Dmitrius? To Sotiris?”
“I don’t know,” she answered, impatience beginning to creep in.
“Then how do you know which are mine? Why would you put ideas in my head? And why would you put them in theirs?”
She turned back to face him. “Because I love you,” she answered simply.
“If you love me, then stop,” he pleaded, the words coming out more bitterly than even he anticipated.
She stared at him with eyes slightly widened. Either of them could likely count on one hand the number of times he had spoken to her with even the slightest bit of animosity.
“Alright,” she gave in softly. “It was not meant to hurt you,” she added uncharacteristically meekly.
He glanced at her bed, knowing Konstantinos had just left it—any one of the Consorts always knew where the other three were at any given time; it was a matter of course—and for the first time, something broke in him and he couldn’t bear the thought of being in that bed tonight. “But it does,” he whispered, and something else that had never happened before, did: he turned and left her voluntarily for the first time in twenty years.
He could feel her incredulous stare boring into him all the way back to his own chambers.
“He walked out on her?” Soritis replied to his brother’s statement, appearing almost bored as he stared into the low flames that burned on Dmitrius’ hearth. Everything seemed to bore Sotiris, where his brother Dmitrius, a full five years younger, held an air of perpetual amusement.
“That’s what word is… you know, around,” Dmitrius shrugged.
None of this was of import, simply idle gossip which had made its way from maid to kitchen wench to courtesan. Those in high places liked to pretend that the servants were deaf, dumb, blind, and invisible to boot, knowing full well that they turned right around and told anybody who would listen exactly what of interest they’d witnessed. And Prince Cristos abruptly leaving the empress’ bedchamber after only moments with her would certainly be of interest to the help. In truth, the brothers were simply making idle conversation of their own, although this particular piece of gossip did stand out from the others. Discord between Persephoni and her husbands was rare and kept under tight wraps where it did exist; and Cristos had never turned away from the empress, no matter how much loving her hurt him.
“Falling in love with an empress is dangerous and foolish,” he commented dismissively. “I’ve been saying as much for years.”
“Are you jealous, brother?” Dmitrius teased. It was the worst kept secret in the palace that occasional carnal relations between Sotiris and Cristos existed.
Sotiris flashed Dmitrius a glance of the closest thing to casual amusement that ever graced his pretty dark features. “I am not in love with him,” he reminded unnecessarily. “There are simply certain desires that only another man can fulfill properly.” Sotiris was easily bored and a little cold, but there was nothing dishonest about him—at least… not between the two brothers.
“Won’t Raya ever go to her knees?” Dmitrius teased.
Sotiris looked his brother straight in the eye, replying flatly, “Raya wouldn’t put a cock in her mouth to save our children’s lives.”
“There are plenty of women who would.”
“Oh, I’m well aware of that.”
Dmitrius raised his eyebrows in a silent question.
“In fact,” Sotiris added almost casually as he rose to take his leave. “One of Trystane’s women did so quite recently. I think we’ll have him where we want him once they arrive.”
Back on Morgadesh, in the oldest and mightiest realm on the continent—the latter distinction rivaled by Aesha’an only in the last several hundred years—a woman with the bearing of a princess watched from the storm porch of her large old manor house as her son and daughter-by-law approached in a carriage followed by a cart driven by Marco, the husband of their housekeeper Lenore, and full of supplies purchased in Rohan.
Their luxurious, yet relatively humble abode stood several hours’ journey from the capital, and once each moon’s turn, Elijah traveled into the city for supplies they couldn’t produce themselves. Elijah produced firewood right on their own back forty—in fact, he called it therapeutic, and he enjoyed it—and they always had fresh fruits and vegetables that Aeris expertly cultivated in their gardens and orchards. But that still left a great deal they needed: clothing and textiles mostly; beans, rice and cured meats, since they did not keep animals; spices and medicines, among other incidentals. They did not have need to produce much on their own; Amber-Lily still had access to an indefinite abundance of funds left over from her previous life of luxury.
Though those funds had begun to grow a bit thinner in recent weeks. The bank was the same, but the banker had changed.
She had spent an anxious three fortnights considering, planning, changing her mind, wringing her hands in indecision, communicating with the Duke of Kantor, who was growing more and more desperate and impatient with each clandestine message he sent. His son had still not been allowed to leave Majere, and every one of his own messages, sent to his father and relayed to Amber-Lily, was a risk to his life.
Both father and son considered Amber-Lily and Elijah to be their only hope of ridding themselves of this usurper Altair, which she supposed was true enough. But this was not a thing that could be decided and carried out in haste.
Trystane could return any day, and she desperately hoped he would. The gods only knew where he was, or why. He could, gods forbid, be dead, which meant one very important thing— but what if he wasn’t? Wouldn’t that make what she was considering high treason? She was Rohannish, but her son was Aesha’ani, whether he remembered that clearly or not. The second they crossed into either one of the Sisters, their intent—its very existence, let alone what they may do to act upon it—became a crime against the crown, punishable by death.
Then there was the matter of Aeris’ pregnancy. She had been just beginning to grow round when Amber-Lily received Kantor’s first plea for help. That early, there was no safe guessing as to whether or not the pregnancy would last, and once a mother-to-be lost one child, the chances of her keeping another decreased. Amber-Lily would not risk the loss of her first grandchild to an ill-advised journey into a potential warzone. So far, Majere and the rest of Aesha’an had been quiet, accepting if not welcoming of their new ruling regime. Altair had so far been, while not exactly warm and personable, at least more-or-less harmless, despite his tight hold on the city gates, his unwillingness to open them. But how long might that last?
It was quite possible—indeed likely—that there had been no uprisings precisely because the gates remained closed. The Majeri were penned in, all others kept out, making the coordination of rebellion difficult—indeed, nearly impossible—to plan, let alone carry out. Altair Rothford was reckless and overbold, but no one had ever called him daft. Any rebellion would have to come from outside Aesha’ani borders.
Lastly, and most importantly, where and how could she possibly find enough competent support to launch a counterinvasion with any hope of success? Amber-Lily and her son were only two people, no matter what Elijah’s bloodline dictated. Altair had large parts of both the Kartha’ani and Aesha’ani militaries—however reluctant the latter may be to serve him—at his disposal. One could not simply waltz through locked city gates and kick the sitting monarch off the throne. Even Altair’s own arrogantly bold stealth invasion had presumably taken two years to conceive and carry out.
She could appeal to her own queen for help, but Deeanna and Lancel—and just what in hells was he doing anyway?—were allies in more ways than one, if rumors were to be believed. Deeanna may not only laugh in her face, but throw her in a cell, for even asking.
The assistance of Dunmar and its King Agadonn were out of the question; no one was allowed to so much as enter the kingdom without a good reason, and almost no one even knew what Agadonn’s definition of a good reason might be. Protecting the Maquesta claim to the Aesha’ani throne was not likely on that particular list. Historically, Dunmar could hardly care less what was happening outside its borders unless it directly affected its people—sometimes not even then.
Ashemar was not exactly known for military might; it owed its continued existence mainly to the geographical and political protection of Anaemar. Anglica’a was both sitting in the middle and hanging in limbo for the time being—who knew what sort of unrest the essential power vacuum there was in the process of stirring up? Which left King Julius and the Carlisle loyalty to Maquesta as her only viable option. But he had already been involved in this dispute, and had pulled back. Why, and what reason did she have to believe he would be willing to jump back in? Did she dare attempt communication with the Anaemari king, alongside the dangerous correspondence she was already maintaining within Aesha’an itself?
Elijah and Aeris waved in greeting as their cart and carriage neared the house, the hoofbeats of four horses growing louder by the second, echoing the growing desperation of the situation in which Amber-Lily currently found herself. Returning the greeting, Amber-Lily took a deep breath and mentally braced herself. It was time to remind them of who they were and who they had the potential to be.