Sunday 27 January 2013
Book Spotlight: A Stage for Traitors by Serban V. C. Enache
by Serban V. C. Enache
Emperor Hagyai Rovines has sent Sycarus to the Desertlands, to return home with an Aharo maiden for his son and heir. The emperor's exiled brother, Amarius, means to reclaim the throne, and he has powerful friends in the empire, waiting for the right moment to turn their cloaks. Lord Birus Mandon seeks to root out the traitors. Lord Kalafar Sodomis is faced with choosing battle or neutrality.
Read an excerpt after the jump:
Chapter IX: The Exile
by Serban V. C. Enache
The room was dark and filled with silence. His eyes were wide open, but blind. Footsteps sounded from behind, and with them… torchlight.
“Master,” said Isador the slave, “how did you manage walking these stairs in such blackness?” He was a short man, at least two decades older than him, but a man of wits.
“I have a fondness for dark places,” he said, while taking the slave’s torch. “Come, Isador. Follow me.” The room’s darkness turned to moving shadows in the presence of the torchlight. Statues appeared from the brightened gloom, busts of men that died long ago. Around them, white candles stood unlit, some more spent than others. He instructed Isador to grab a couple of the fuller ones, place them in each corner of the room and light them. Every wall beared a long table. All of them were filled with scrolls, trinkets, rags, parchments, and more busts. He hanged the torch on one of the walls’ stays, and began to study the sculpted faces, tracing their features with his hand. They were covered in a grey layer of dust, almost black. Where his fingers touched the stone, it became white. He inspected one bust, then another, then another one, and stopped. He felt the lips, nose, brow, and cheeks. He knew them… he knew them very well. What child would not remember his father’s features? Zygar Ferus Mero, emperor of the Sunborn, his father, the possessed emperor, the worshiper of blood gods… and there were many other names – worse names. He did not care to speak them out loud, nor dwell on them. It had been years, long years, since he thought about the civil war, that horrible war…
“Master,” the slave called, “I found this. Isn’t this what your were looking for?” He held in his hands a dusty cloth – its colours aged by time and forgetfulness. He took it from him, and unfolded it on the table facing the torchlight. The black and gold, the colours of Mero, were faded alongside the coat of arms – the left hand holding a green strain with two greenbuds, and the six yellow sharp rays of the halo, encircling the grip to its right. But the words of the house were not. They still read clearly, ‘We Are Sunborn.’ Though the forgotten founder of his house had chosen the words, ‘I Am Sunborn’ – his descendants changed the I am into we are. Amarius always wondered what possessed his ancestors to enact such a change.
“Thank you, Isador. Your sense of perception is accurate, as always. I truly needed to see this cloth, to remind me of my roots.” He gave the slave a feint smile. Isador nodded, and resumed searching the tables for other worthwhile things.
This flag, this faded flag… he brought it with him six years ago, when he landed in Harpool, an exile – deprived of rights, titles, claims, and honor. So much time had passed, but he still remembered that day – the day when his little brother, his own brother, accused him of breaking the sacred laws; when he accused him of illegal warfare, theft, and treason. That word, treason, stabbed his ears, still. He didn’t thieve anyone’s money, only borrowed it on good fath. It had been a spoken agreement. No note of credit was aksed of him to sign, so he never signed one. The lords and knights he took; they joined him of their own free accord. After all, he was the emperor, and his war against the so called Free Kingdoms, had been in the Empire’s best interest. After the civil war, the crown’s coffers were left empty of treasure. He did not triumph in that campaign, which took him two whole years to organize, but that wasn’t his fault. During his siege of the fortress of Cutrass, he received a message, bearing the seal of the imperial chancellery. The message said, that he should immediately stop all acts of warfare against the Free Kingdoms – on account that his campaign was sanctioned by… by the emperor. It came as a shock to him then, but afterwards, he laughed so hard, he was afraid he’d piss himself before his war council. The message also stated, that he should return with haste and answer the charges brought against him. The message, however, did not specify the nature or number of those charges. Like any proud soldier, he ignored such drivel and continued with his siege. By the time the fortress of Cutrass fell, the supply ships from the Empire had stopped arriving. They could have pushed forth, without those supplies, by pillaging the enemy’s lands. However, his lords did not agree on this course of action, and persuaded him to abandon the war and head home. The shortest campaign in the recorded history of the Empire was his. A shameful thing to be recalled by future generations, he thought then.
Naturally, the war spoils had been few. There was nothing much to loot from Cutrass fortress, or from the towns and villages nearby. He could not pay his loans, so his lenders accused him of theft. Ultimately, he had been a great fool, but an honest one, a fool of good faith. He was brought with his hands in chains before his brother, the new emperor. He was found guilty and sentenced into exile. The lords who fought by his side, during his campaign, also faced trial. “They were not brought forth in chains, though,” he whispered to himself, remembering that day. All of them, except for two, lords Lukanus and Tychos – all of them claimed he had forced them into joining his war, with threats against their honor and the lives of their families. A lie, for all of them called their banners with the prospects of war spoils, glory, and most especially, favor with the emperor for new titles, holdings, incomes, as well as the prospect of them joining into his house. They were the true traitors, not him, nor Lukanus or Tychos – cowardly men, who sought to enter the good graces of his usurper brother. Those two lords, however, did not betray their honor with lies, and thus, joined in his fate.
Out of all those memories, there was one he savored greatly – the image of his brother, little Hagyai, wearing their father’s crown, misuttering the name of his own house… Oh, how he had laughed at that, there and then. “You are now banished from the Empire! You are no longer my brother; no longer do you bear the name of Nero… ahm, I mean… Mero!” How he had laughed; laughed all the way on the ship that took him to the place, where he would spend his exiled existence, Harpool. Here he found allies, unlikely allies, as well as old ones.
“Ah, I found it.” Isador showed him the scabbard of his weapon. “It’s a greatsword. It’s quite heavy.”
Amarius grasped the hilt with one hand, unsheathed a quarter of the silvery blade, then grasped it with both hands. He pulled it straight from its scabbard, whom Isador held. The edges were sharp and mirrored the warm light of the torch and candles – but the mirrored light seemed cold to his eyes, not warm. The last time he held it, he was not living in exile, but in Sun’s Helm, in the royal chambers of Castle Spire. The sword didn’t feel as familiar as it once did.
“Does it have a name?” Isador asked softly.
“No,” Amarius whispered in reply, then sighed. He tried to remember why that was; why it didn’t have a name. He frowned, staring at the torchlight’s reflection in the weapon, then he recalled. “Naming things,” he snorted. “Why name an object, which already has a name? A sword, a knife, a bow, a spear, a shield – they’re just tools. Objects have no vanities, only men do… I am not like others.”
“That is very true,” Isador said with a smile. “You were once an emperor, now you are an exile.”
He put the sword back in its scabbard, and reflected for a while on the slave’s words. He couldn’t scold him for speaking them, for they were true. “I am still an exile,” he nodded, “but I won’t be one forever.” He put a hand on the slave’s shoulder, and squeezed him a little. Isador was of a short height. Somehow, if the man had been taller, mayhaps he wouldn’t have tolerated such impudent words coming out of him; but nonetheless, he wasn’t tall, and he did tolerate them. Isador wasn’t witty and free tongued in foreign company, only in his own. He locked him with his eyes, and said, “I’m going home, my friend.”
“Ah,” the slave replied, while nodding a tilted head, “yes, but you’ll require a conflict beforehand, before the actual invasion.”
“It’s not an invasion. It’s a campaign of... restoration.”
Isador giggled at that, and turned to the table – his fingers fumbling upon the many dusted parchments. “And what do you intend to restore, I wonder?” He asked in the same witty voice.
“Why, the imperial throne, of course… the dignity of mine own house and name. I shall pledge myself to the province of judicial mercy.” His response made the slave chuckle. Big words, small words, Amarius reflected with amusement. They don’t make an ambition any better or worse. “I will do all those things, my friend. I will unseat the proud and raise the humble.” This time they both laughed, and with quite the vigor.
“Are you prepared to make the concessions that, no doubt, will be asked of you to make?” Isador’s talent for pleasant and insightful conversation was unlike any other’s. The man was not dull at all.
“But of course. I’ll do whatever is necessary. I’ll offer bribes, exempt the merchants of Harpool from paying customs on their wears in the Empire’s ports. I will abstain from taking vengeance on my former accusers. I will pardon those who surrender and swear fealty to me. By the Three, I’ll even bring back the bloody Inquisition, if that’s what it takes.”
The slave sighed, and produced a parchment with the map of the Empire drawn upon it. “It’s very good,” Isador said in a cautious tone, “that you’re prepared to make sacrifices, or more accurately, that you are prepared to sacrifice others.“ The slave’s words brought about him a loud and healthy laugh, but nevertheless, Isador continued his thought in the same cautious manner, without joining in the laughter. “But you must not sacrifice the traditional customs of the Old World; traditions in which the lords of the Empire are rooted. Winning the favor of the slavers, and losing the favor of the old and noble families, who are traditionally against slavery, brings you no true gain. The same is valid for winning the aristocrats, and losing the plebs, or winning the temple’s Patriarch, and losing the temple’s Matriarch.” Isador pointed on the map to the Northlands, and said, “These lords lack peasants and good cropland, grain reserves, levies, coin, and ultimately, influence. You would do well to secure their loyalty, or indeed, buy it. They would be the cheapest of the lot.”
He paused for a moment, thinking, scratching at his chin – the chin Isador shaved not two days ago. The slave had the truth of it, he knew. He grind his teeth, weighing in the thought. Isador arched his brow and twisted his mouth, then continued with his advice. “The lords of the Streamlands are loyal to Hagyai Rovines, or so I’ve been informed – “
“Not all of them,” he cut him off. “Only house Mandon truly is – “
“Their liege lord, the lord of Rivermark,” this time the slave cut him off. “His vassals will follow him. Of that have no doubt. The most convenient way is through the southern lords. They will not welcome an army in the harbor of Sun’s Helm, to be sure… It all depends on the success or failure of your landing. If someone from inside the capital will weaken their defences, bribe the captains of the fleet, delay their maneuverings, induce the people into riots, maybe even counterfeit a few imperial messages, and send some birds west and east with conflicting information and orders… then…” Isador paused, and regarded him with a certain wonder in his eyes. But what was he amazed by? His own wit, or the possibility of victory?
Staring into the slave’s brown eyes, he absorbed that sentiment of wonderment – wit and chance… His is the wit, and mine is the chance, he thought.
“…then you’ll be the emperor once more; once more you’ll rule the whole of the Empire from the Sun Throne.”
Isador’s prudent voice had a fire inside it. A fire that spread from the slave to him as well – into his ears, along his eyes, all the way to his heart and fingers. Amarius could see it in his head, all of it... the battles, the blood, the screams, the fires, the shouts of soldiers which echoed the war horns, the corpses, and his brother – in the castle, alone, frightened, naked beneath his crown.
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