The Shield of the Heavens
Angelique was not the only lady-in-waiting on whom Prince Sotiris had made a deliberate and irreversible impression. There was another young woman, blond and beautiful, lamenting a love she could not reach, who had attracted his immediate and acute attention. The thing was, she wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about it.
He was beautiful, of that there was no question. Many—many—Faradeshi men, as with the women, were remarkable pretty; but this one was so stunning, it nearly hurt the heart to look at him. And when his eye caught yours, there was no turning away.
No turning back.
His cool air could turn warm with the quickness of a candle catching flame, and the flame raged into an uncontrollable conflagration before there was any stopping it.
Not that she would say she was forced. She was not as innocent as most might believe, especially given recent events, and she had given in willingly. It gave her a forbidden thrill to think about what had happened, a thing of which ladies did not speak, even among themselves—a thing she had certainly never done before.
It gave her a forbidden thrill—even as it terrified her. For what she had done, should the wrong soul find out, she might pay with her life.
The Shield loomed; there was no other way to describe the way it rose above the horizon as one approached.
Clío counted the levels as best she could as they appeared one by one over the line of the intervening land. Five, as far as she could tell; the Fortress was huge in its own right—two levels to the main keep, with towers rising four, and many outbuildings—but the Shield of the Heavens dwarfed it. The main structure sprawled in an enormous squared-off U shape, enclosed within a double curtain wall which—regardless of its own soaring heights—hardly concealed half the bulk of the building. There were no towers, and no outbuildings that were visible above the ramparts.
The walls, it seemed, had eyes. The guards which no doubt crawled the parapets were utterly invisible, but their formidable presence was felt as if the castle were guarded by a dragon. Which it was, in a manner of speaking: the Daskalaki banner, slashed with gold and magenta and boasting a single rampant dragon and crown, hung from every wall, flew from the top of every guard tower, flanked every gate. As invisible yet certain as the presence of the palace guards was the sense that those banners had hung for centuries.
House Maquesta had ruled Aesha’an for over three hundred years, a long time for any one family to hold power during its thousand-year history. Daskalaki, only the fourth and the mightiest and longest-reigning dynasty in Faradesh, had occupied the imperial throne for a staggering millennia and a half. It was nearly impossible to get one’s mind around.
The city of Candora was a sprawling one, though smaller than one would expect, with an abundance of space between properties. As they neared the imperial capital, it became apparent why: Candora was a city steeped in obvious wealth. Apart from the large bustling square in which the markets stood, the buildings sprawled far apart from one another because every house and the lot upon which it stood was huge. One did not live, or even shop, in Candora unless one had money to spare. Clío was no stranger to opulence and privilege, but that of the gleaming white manses, manor houses and private stables was such as she had never seen before.
“Candora is the domain of the empress herself,” Ryman quietly explained. “Of course the whole of the empire is, but Candora is under her rule, and hers alone; it is part of no principality, and living and working here is a privilege afforded by few.”
“Even the working class is comparatively wealthy,” Trystane agreed.
“They are not royalty, by far. But they are certainly not poor,” Ryman added.
“Clearly,” Clío murmured, unable not to be impressed by it all.
“Most of the nobility have property here. Many of these homes sit empty for much of the year. Nonetheless, they pay the generous residency tax, same as any other Candoran.”
If this was the impression the imperial palace and the city it dominated made from the outside, it was impossible to imagine what lie inside.
The king and queen and their entourage were admitted through the gates without much fanfare. The empress of course was expecting them and knew of their desire for discretion. However, discretion flew right out the soaring stained glass window once outside the Great Throne Room. They were announced much as they had been at the palace in Campagna.
“His Majesty King Trystane II Maquesta, Sovereign Prince of the Sister Kingdoms of Aesha’an and Anglica’a on Morgadesh, Duke of the capital city Majere, High Prince of Aesha’an and High Lord Commander of the Royal Military of the Sister Kingdoms. Her Majesty Queen Clío Ashworth Maquesta of the Sister Kingdoms of Aesha’an and Anglica’a, Duchess of Majere, High Princess of Aesha’an and Princess of Anglica’a. His Lordship Sir Edric Ryman, decorated knight and Commander General of the Royal Military of the Sister Kingdoms.”
Dazzled by the majesty of Candora and the Shield, Clío almost had to remind herself that she herself had so many titles and occupied such a high place in the world. Such was the impact of the magnitude of the imperial capital. But she would be stunned once more the moment she caught sight of the vast, ancient House that ruled it.
The pride and majesty that had permeated the informal reception hall of Sotiris and Raya was magnified a hundredfold here. For here waited the empress, her four Prince Consorts, their princess wives and all of their children—as well as, Clío guessed, the empress’ five living siblings and their families.
“Her Radiance Empress Persephoni V Daskalaki, the Lady Highest, Sovereign ruler of the Empire of Faradesh, Princess of Candora, Guardian of Silvana’s Wall, Knight of the Heavens. His Radiance Emperor Consort Konstantinos Daskalaki d’Alvechon, Prince of Alvechon, Knight of the Rose, and Her Brilliance Princess Lamitra. His Radiance Prince Cristos Daskalaki d’Torcien, Prince of Torcien, Knight of the Sword, and Her Brilliance Princess Medea. His Radiance Prince Dmitrius Daskalaki d’Mandieque, Prince of Mandieque, Knight of the Crystal, and Her Brilliance Princess Appalonia. His Radiance Prince Sotiris Daskalaki d’Campagna, Prince of Campagna, Knight of the Arrow, and Her Brilliance Princess Raya. Her Light Imperial Lady Leora Persephoni Alvechon Daskalaki, Princess Heir to the Empire of Faradesh.”
Empress Persephoni and Emperor Consort Konstantinos occupied large thrones on a raised and recessed dais opposite the entrance. Princess Lamitra stood to the right and slightly behind that of Konstantinos. Imperial Lady Leora stood to the left of the empress. The other three Consorts Dmitrius, Cristos and Sotiris—left to right in that order—were arranged on smaller thrones before the dais, their wives Appalonia, Medea and Raya positioned similarly to Lamitra, to the right and slightly behind their husbands. A guard standing to the left of each prince silently re-positioned his lance, switching it from straight up and down to pointing slightly forward, as each prince and his wife was introduced—so that their guests may know to whom the crier referred without requiring movement on the parts of their imperial masters and mistresses. It also served to remind guests that the room was packed with armed soldiers, at attention and ready to use their weapons should the need arise. All of the children were positioned to the left and right of the thrones with their numerous governesses, making a group which covered half the circumference of the enormous octagonal chamber. The siblings of the empress and their families, an impressively large group in itself, watched from a balcony above the throne dais. The balconies to either side were filled with those who were presumably members of the nobility and imperial court.
All forty guests, including Trystane and Clío, assumed deep bows and curtsies and held them, eyes averted, awaiting permission to rise according to Faradeshi custom. It was a moment before the crier announced, “The Empress bids you rise,” before taking his spot near the door, his job done for the time being.
The guests rose, Trystane and Clío waiting politely for the Empress to speak first, but it was the Emperor Consort who did so. “We welcome you to Imperial Faradesh, Majesties.” He spoke with beautiful, highbred eastern accents similar to that of Sotiris, though slightly more informal. Where Sotiris held himself decidedly aloof and watched them now in the same sharp, unreadable manner that Clío recognised from that night in Campagna, Konstantinos affected an air of warmth. Cristos seemed to convey nothing more than cool curiosity, while Dmitrius let a decidedly amused expression grace his features. All, as well as Empress Persephoni, were utterly breathtaking in appearance, and all surveyed them with an unshakable regal assurance that was almost unsettling.
“We understand your land is in distress,” the empress added, her voice almost hypnotic for its refinement. “What is the nature of this distress?” she inquired. “King Julius had need to remain brief and sparse in his communications.”
“First, I must express our deep gratitude, Your Radiance,” Trystane began, “for you hospitality and for your cordial relations with one of our greatest allies. That is fortuitous indeed, empress.”
The empress nodded once. “House Carlisle is yet more ancient than even you might know, forgive my presumptuousness in saying so. They were among the Faradeshi colonizers of Morgadesh over four thousand years ago. There was some bad blood after the rebellion, but that has long since dissipated. You have our willing hospitality, the length of which will depend upon your reason for being here and what it is you ask of us.”
“We ask only your hospitality, Radiance, until I can wrest control of my kingdom back from a usurper.”
“You were invaded?” Persephoni asked.
“In a… manner of speaking, yes. In a variety of ways.” Trystane did not elaborate on that last; to do so would have been uncouth. But he murmured it almost as if to himself, as if unable to resist venting his anger in any way, at any time, possible.
Persephoni reacted with slightly raised brows at the vague nature of the king’s response. No doubt she wasn’t used to anything less than full disclosure when she posed an inquiry. But she let it go, saying nothing.
“So a pretender occupies your throne,” Konstantinos commented. “May I ask why you are here, and not cutting him down as we speak?”
“I understand the apparent counter-intuitiveness of that,” Trystane acknowledged. “But we have some close to us that sit in precarious positions, who will die if I simply charge in, sword ablaze. My sister has been forced to marry the usurper under duress, no more than a pawn in his game. She is very dear to my wife, and I will not see her murdered. I know it may sound… sentimental, but we have lost too much already. Not to mention half a million innocents that stand directly in harm’s way in the event of an attack on my capital. An attack by their own rightful king, no less.”
Konstantinos glanced at his wife, considering what to think and waiting for her response. When she gave none straight away, deep in thought herself, he turned back to Trystane. “It is certainly unprecedented.”
Clío recognized that for what he really meant: What a curious, possibly foolish reaction to invasion.
“Unprecedented, but with noble intent,” Persephoni commented.
“You take great risk in leaving your land at such a time,” Konstantinos added.
“But your reasoning is sound, if unusual,” Persephoni said.
Clío had the impression that the empress and her husband were speaking to each other as much as they were speaking to Trystane, each with a slightly different view on the situation without the ability to hash it out in a direct way.
The other three Consorts now wore almost identical expression of intrigue, yet gave away nothing of their respective inner dialogue. Their wives simply stood straight, expressions dutiful, but otherwise blank, disinterested. They clearly said or cared very little of state affairs as a matter of course.
Some of the children, especially the younger ones, were beginning to stir along the walls, clearly restless and bored.
“The children may go,” Persephoni allowed distractedly. “Leora, you stay,” she said quietly to her heir at her right hand.
There was a long pause as the young lords and ladies and their minders filed wordlessly out of the throne room to go about their usual business.
“The empire does not wish to join in war, Your Majesty,” Persephoni informed firmly.
“We are aware of that and respect that, Your Radiance; we do not ask you to fight out war. We only ask for a place to take refuge while we formulate a plan going forward. It does not have to be here at the Shield. We do not even ask that you secure lodgings. However, we thought it wrong to hide out in your realm without your knowledge and consent.”
“Why Faradesh?” Konstantinos inquired curiously.
“Anywhere on Morgadesh either represents a conflict of interest–” (Rohannon and certainly Kartha’an, Clío knew) “–is outright hostile to outsiders–” (Dunmar) “–or would feel compelled to assist directly if we were there. Also, vanishing from the continent is meant to instill a false sense of confidence in my rival, increasing the chances for a relatively peaceful retaking. His invasion was rather stealthy itself after all.”
“Who is this usurper?” Persephoni asked.
“Prince Altair of Kartha’an.”
“Prince Altair? What of King Lancel?”
“I have no earthly idea, Your Radiance,” Trystane sighed.
“He sits back and lets his son play war games? Is he mad?”
“Some say so.”
Persephoni considered for long moments before announcing, “Well I suppose I can see your motivation for using such unusual reactionary tactics. The Rothfords are unpredictable and volatile. And they have Rohannon on their side.”
“Rohannon so far has been quiet, but there’s no telling how long that will last.”
“They won’t step in either way unless Lancel does. Do you have people on the inside, in Majere?”
“We do; several especially loyal servants of the Fortress as well as a good part of my military.”
Persephoni nodded at that last. “So it will likely be a slow, quiet counter-takeover from the inside.”
“Likely, yes. We are just unsure of the logistics as of yet. Half the Kartha’ani military also occupies the city.”
“Half? What in bloody hells is Lancel playing at?”
“That is exactly the question we ourselves have asked again and again, Your Radiance.”
“I would guess he is simply letting his son do his dirty work,” Konstantinos mused aloud. “Let Altair take the Sisters, then seize control himself afterward.”
Clío spoke up. “Majesty, Radiance, if I may?” All eyes shifted to the demure queen who’d until now remained silent. “I take his word with a grain of salt of course, but Altair claims his father knew nothing of his plans, which is at least conceivable. The prince is… bitter over a broken contract.”
“A broken contract?” Konstantinos replied.
Clío glanced at Trystane, who nodded for her to go on. “He was supposed to marry me, Your Radiance. That is not to say that this is simply a fight over myself in particular; but Altair seems to have issues with my king personally, and this was but one trigger. He was spurned quite publicly, and if he cannot ally with the Sisters, he will simply take them.”
“Gods, it is even madder than we thought,” Konstantinos commented.
“Where is Anglica’a in all this?” Persephoni inquired.
“Currently held by its former queen Duchess Olessa and a legion of Aesha’ani troops,” Trystane answered.
“Precarious,” Konstantinos murmured.
“It is, Radiance,” Trystane admitted. “For over two moon’s turns, the continent has been poised and ready to explode, but there is no knowing who will end up on what side when it does. Rohannon is Kartha’an’s twin, but Deeanna is not mad, and it seems Altair is. Lancel is content to simply enjoy the show for now, but who knows what he’ll finally decide to do?” Trystane’s perplexed frustration with that detail was clear. “Dunmar is apathetic as ever, Anglica’a is all but helpless, and Anaemar is in much the same situation as we are while also assuming much responsibility for the security of Ashemar.”
“Why did Ashemar ever break away?” Konstantinos wondered aloud.
“Religion, mostly, Radiance.”
“Well,” Persephoni finally announced. “Our hospitality is yours. Your Majesties and your personal servants will stay here at the Shield. My men will secure some of the unoccupied manor houses nearby for the remainder of your entourage.”
“We thank you most dearly, Your Radiance.”
And with that, the king and queen of the Sisters became indefinite and honored guests of the Faradeshi imperial family.
Adora hardly heard a word of the exchange as she stood dutifully near her queen. Nearly all her attention was focused on one of the Imperial Consorts.
Sotiris’ dark gaze seemed to see in to one’s very soul, and he kept shifting it to her periodically while her king and his empress spoke. Every time he did, she felt herself blush slightly, remembering.
Clío had dismissed her, Angelique and Talia for the evening after the feast at the palace in Campagna. Talia and Angelique had gone to bed, but Adora was restless and decided to stroll the gardens instead. She had had a bit too much wine and wanted to walk it off before attempting to sleep.
Not that she slept much at all since watching Stephan die. When she did, she often dreamed she was witnessing it all over again.
She had been strolling for perhaps a quarter of an hour when she rounded the end of a tall laurel hedge—and nearly collided with the Prince of Campagna himself.
She gasped, sinking automatically into a curtsy that was not as graceful as she would have liked.
“Rise, miss,” the prince murmured in that disinterested way that he had. When she did, he contemplated her openly for a moment before commanding, “Walk with me.”
A command of any sort from Sotiris d’Campagna was not to be questioned or disobeyed. She had learned that much in watching him curiously over the course of the evening.
She remembered Sir Ryman’s words as he educated Clío on the Faradeshi imperials and their customs: There will be no informal communication with the Consorts, Your Majesty, I can assure you of that. 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. It made her nervous, but this was not the Shield. The prince was sovereign here, and he had bid her do something, so she did it.
“What is your name?” Sotiris inquired.
“Adora Dane, Your Brilliance, of Anglica’a,” she answered demurely.
“Who do you serve, Adora?”
“I am the queen’s handmaid, Brilliance. One of them.”
“Then I should call you My Lady.”
Adora blushed. “You shall call me whatever you like, my prince.”
“I am not really your prince, am I?”
“You are when I’m in your land.”
He nodded approvingly. “You were brought up well, My Lady. You deserve the title.”
Adora had the sense that she had just passed a test of sorts. “Thank you, Brilliance.”
He flashed her a small smile, and she noticed how absolutely gorgeous he was when he did. Yet more than he was already, which was astounding. “Enough with the honorifics, Adora. It becomes cumbersome.”
“Then how shall I address you?”
“You don’t need to call me anything. It’s just us.”
It reminded her, as if she’d forgotten, that she was alone with a prince. She couldn’t recall a time when she had ever been alone even with Trystane, ever. Unless one counted that fateful time when he had come calling on Clío in her bedchamber and Talia had been elsewhere…
She realized her mind was wandering, and quickly got hold of it.
“Your mind is elsewhere, Adora.” The statement was not accusatory, simply observant. She got the feeling that there was little Prince Sotiris missed in his presence.
“I am sorry, I’m… unused to being alone with one of your stature.”
“Does it make you uneasy?”
She thought about it, and realized it didn’t. She would think that this particular prince would terrify the living hells out of her, but somehow that wasn’t so. “No,” she answered simply, unable to keep the wonder out of her tone.
He smiled again, something she had already gathered he rarely did. “Good. I rather like your company.”
She looked at him, stunned. “Thank you,” she murmured.
“That surprises you.”
“It… I am only a maid, that’s all. I suppose it does surprise me.”
“Sometimes,” he stated, breaking off an errant twig from the hedge they walked along and studying it absently. “One tires of formality, of everyone saying and doing only what they think they should say and do in your presence. Even my wife does it. You are… genuine. A breath of fresh air.”
Adora’s pulse quickened. A compliment from a man like Sotiris was breathtaking. “I… which wife?” she asked before thinking, immediately feeling her face go red. One did not just blurt out personal inquiries of royalty with such bluntness.
But he let it go surprisingly casually, even responding in kind, if indirectly. “Our marriage customs puzzle you.” She realized Sotiris rarely asked questions; he observed what to him was simply plain.
“They… do.” she admitted simply. “Can I ask… what is the purpose of plural marriage?”
He threw her a look of mild surprise. “I am impressed you know that term. It’s old; we hardly use it ourselves anymore.”
“I’m sorry. Is it not acceptable?” She was growing more and more comfortable, conversation coming easier by the second; it stunned her.
“It is perfectly acceptable, just old. We take multiple spouses simply to ensure many heirs, for both the empire and the provinces. And it was Princess Raya to whom I referred. The empress is formal only outside the– private quarters.”
The bedchamber, Adora knew he had been about to say. It was odd, imagining sharing the beds of two different people. She had, but not at the same time—and one had been quite unwillingly. But now, with Stephan gone…
Her mind was wandering again. “Why would your wife be formal toward you?” she asked quietly, knowing she might be treading on thin ice.
“That’s just Raya,” was all he said.
For long moments they were silent, and she got the feeling he was brooding over something. Then he asked her something wholly unexpected. “Have you ever been in love, Adora?”
It took her breath away. She took a moment to get it back before answering. “I have. But he’s gone now.”
“A very, very bad man took him from me.”
“I am sorry. Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked that.”
“Been in love?”
“I am married. Twice.”
“That doesn’t mean you’re in love.”
He looked at her, finally losing interest in the twig and dropping it to the ground. “You are young, but certainly not naive.”
“I’ve learned some things recently,” she replied evasively.
“The answer is no; I have not.”
She looked at him sadly. “Now I am sorry.”
He shook his head. “Love is fleeting, I am told. I am in love with my children. They are everything.”
Adora smiled. “How many do you have?”
“Three. Costas is seven, Andromeda is six and Amycus is four.”
She was impressed. She had known of men in high places who hardly knew they had children, let alone exactly how old they were.
They reached a fountain and stopped. Adora looked up at it and colored yet again. It was a statue of a man and a woman in a decidedly erotic position.
Then everything happened at once.
Her gaze dropped back to Sotiris, and her head swam with how absolutely beautiful he was, combined with the stirrings inside caused by the statue on the fountain. It threw her off-balance, and she instinctively reached out and put a hand on his arm to steady herself.
What she didn’t know is that putting hands on a prince of the empire without leave can get one killed. If any of his seven bodyguards had been present, she’d have found herself with a sword at her throat. Instead, he gripped her lightly by her upper arms as she attempted desperately to catch her breath.
“I’m sorry,” she breathed. “I’m sorry.”
“Adora. It is alright. It’s just us.”
Still breathing hard, she stared at him. “It is, isn’t it? It’s just us.”
He brushed her cheek soothingly with the back of his hand. “It’s alright. I won’t hurt you. You can touch me.”
A moment ago, it had been a decidedly personal, yet innocent conversation. Suddenly, now, it was a seduction.
And she was perfectly content to let it be that.
This man—this prince—had two powerful wives, was at least fifteen years older, and looking at him the wrong way could be the last thing one ever did. But she found she didn’t care about any of that.
“Come here.” He led her to an ornately carved white stone bench that sat facing the fountain, lowered himself gracefully onto it, and pulled her firmly onto his lap. She gasped. How had he become so aroused without her noticing? It caused her pulse to quicken yet more, and she wanted him with a fierceness she hadn’t thought possible. His haunting dark eyes took on a sudden knowing light. “This isn’t new to you. Is it?”
She shook her head. “No. But this is.” She slid off his lap to sit beside him, and began to pull at the laces of his breeches, a sudden impulse completely overtaking her. She freed him with an expertise she hadn’t known she had acquired.
He drew in a sharp, stunned breath as she drew his cock slowly into her mouth.
Now, a fortnight later, she could still taste him, feel the firmness of him in a place she had never before allowed a man. He had been close to his climax when he pulled out of her mouth, hastily pushed up her skirts and plunged into her elsewhere.
His gaze now could mean one thing and one thing only.
She just may feel the desire to take another stroll tonight.
Sotiris was distracted; Cristos had been unable to draw out his seed this night. He took no particular issue with that; it happened, sometimes the other way around. But he knew him well enough to know there was something significant on his mind.
“Go,” he said quietly to the girl he’d summoned into his bed shortly before Sotiris had called on him. She left it now, giggling softly at what she had just taken part in.
Cristos rose, moving to a table beside the bed and filling a chalice with strong wine. He handed it to Sotiris, then filled another for himself. He stood watching the empress’ fourth husband as he lounged lazily against Cristos’ bed pillows, appearing uncharacteristically out of sorts.
“Alright. Out with it,” he ordered briskly after moments of silence.
Sotiris glanced at him. “It’s already out,” he commented wryly. “And you couldn’t do anything with it.”
Cristos feigned insult. “No need to be hurtful,” he returned bemusedly. “It is a girl?” he teased only half-kiddingly.
Sotiris was silent.
Cristos sighed. “I know about the handmaiden,” he announced, a small sly smile lighting his striking features.
Sotiris looked at him as if to say, How?
Cristos shrugged. “You were right out in the open on the grounds of a palace with about seventy-five hundred in residence.” He threw Sotiris a teasing expression. “Really? A handmaiden? So far beneath you.”
Sotiris tossed him a wry glance, tossing back the remainder of his wine. “Please. You fuck maids on a daily basis.”
“Yes,” Cristos conceded, “but you don’t. Even the mothers of your bastards aren’t exactly prostitutes.” They were high nobility. Ruined high nobility, one banished with her issue to a house of the gods by her husband, the other unable to find one—but well-taken care of nonetheless.
“And she wasn’t a maiden,” Sotiris added offhandedly.
“Really? How do you know this?”
“She told me so.”
Cristos considered this. “Hm. Morgadeshi girls aren’t as chaste as they like the world to think, it seems.”
“Not this one.”
“What if you get her pregnant? You can’t exactly steal away a foreign queen’s lady and hide her away while she bears your spawn.”
“Why not?” Sotiris said flatly. “Besides. That is exactly the idea.”