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News Comes to Edonomee
Maia woke with his cousin's cold fingers digging into his shoulder.
"Cousin? What…" He sat up, rubbing at his eyes with one hand. "What time is it?"
"Get up!" Setheris snarled. "Hurry!"
Obediently, Maia crawled out of bed, clumsy and sleep-sodden. "What's toward? Is there a fire?"
"Get thy clothes on." Setheris shoved yesterday's clothes at him. Maia dropped them, fumbling with the strings of his nightshirt, and Setheris hissed with exasperation as he bent to pick them up. "A messenger from the court. That's what's toward."
"A message from my father?"
"Is't not what I said? Merciful goddesses, boy, canst do nothing for thyself? Here!" He jerked the nightshirt off, caring neither for the knotted strings nor for Maia's ears, and shoved his clothes at him again. Maia struggled into drawers, trousers, shirt, and jacket, aware that they were wrinkled and sweat-stained, but unwilling to try Setheris's ill temper by saying so. Setheris watched grimly by the single candle's light, his ears flat against his head. Maia could not find his stockings, nor would Setheris give him time to search. "Come along!" he said as soon as Maia had his jacket fastened, and Maia followed him barefoot out of the room, noticing in the stronger light that while Setheris was still properly and fully attired, his face was flushed. So he had not been wakened from sleep by the emperor's messenger, but only because he had not yet been to bed. Maia hoped uneasily that Setheris had not drunk enough metheglin to mar the glossy perfection of his formal court manners.
Maia ran his hands through his hair, fingers catching on knots in his heavy curls. It would not be the first time one of his father's messengers had witnessed him as unkempt as a half-witted ragpicker's child, but that did not help with the miserable midnight imaginings: So, tell us, how looked our son? He reminded himself it was unlikely his father ever asked after him in the first place and tried to keep his chin and ears up as he followed Setheris into the lodge's small and shabby receiving room.
The messenger was maybe a year or so older than Maia himself, but elegant even in his road-stained leathers. He was clearly full-blooded elvish, as Maia was not; his hair was milkweed-pale, and his eyes the color of rain. He looked from Setheris to Maia and said, "Are you the Archduke Maia Drazhar, only child of Varenechibel the Fourth and Chenelo Drazharan?"
"Yes," Maia said, bewildered.
And then bewilderment compounded bewilderment, as the messenger deliberately and with perfect dignity prostrated himself on the threadbare rug. "Your Imperial Serenity," he said.
"Oh, get up, man, and stop babbling!" Setheris said. "We understood that you had messages from the Archduke's father."
"Then you understand what we do not," the messenger said, rising again to his feet, as graceful as a cat. "We bear messages from the Untheileneise Court."
Maia said hastily, merely to prevent the altercation from escalating, "Please, explain."
"Your Serenity," the messenger said. "The airship Wisdom of Choharo crashed yesterday, sometime between sunrise and noon. The Emperor Varenechibel the Fourth, the Prince Nemolis, the Archduke Nazhira, and the Archduke Ciris were all on board. They were returning from the wedding of the Prince of Thu-Athamar."
"And the Wisdom of Choharo crashed," Maia said slowly, carefully.
"Yes, Serenity," said the messenger. "There were no survivors."
For five pounding heartbeats, the words made no sense. Nothing made sense; nothing had made sense since he had woken with Setheris's grip hurting his shoulder. And then it was suddenly, pitilessly clear. As if from a very long distance away, he heard his own voice saying, "What caused the crash?"
"Does it matter?" Setheris said.
"Serenity," said the messenger with a deliberate nod in Maia's direction. "They do not yet know. But the Lord Chancellor has sent Witnesses, and it is being investigated."
"Thank you," said Maia. He knew neither what he felt nor what he ought to feel, but he knew what he ought to do, the next necessary thing. "You said … there are messages?"
"Yes, Serenity." The messenger turned and picked up his dispatch case from where it lay on the side table. There was only one letter within, which the messenger held out. Setheris snatched the letter and broke the seal savagely, as if he still believed the messenger to be lying.
He scanned the paper, his customary frown deepening into a black scowl, then flung it at Maia and stalked from the room. Maia grabbed at it ineffectually as it fluttered to the floor.
The messenger knelt to retrieve it before Maia could and handed it to him without a flicker of expression.
Maia felt his face heating, his ears lowering, but he knew better than to try to explain or apologize for Setheris. He bent his attention to the letter. It was from his father's Lord Chancellor, Uleris Chavar:
To the Archduke Maia Drazhar, heir to the imperial throne of Ethuveraz, greetings in this hour of greatest grief.
Knowing that Your Imperial Serenity will want all honor and respect paid to your late father and brothers, we have ordered arrangements put in train for a full ceremonial funeral in three days' time, that is, on the twenty-third instant. We will notify the five principalities, also Your Imperial Serenity's sister in Ashedro. We have already ordered the courier office to put airships at their disposal, and we have no doubt that they will use all necessary haste to reach the Untheileneise Court in good time for the funeral.
We do not, of course, know what Your Imperial Serenity's plans may be, but we hold ourself ready to implement them.
With true sorrow and unswerving loyalty,
Maia looked up. The messenger was watching him, as impassive as ever; only the angle of his ears betrayed his interest.
"I … we must speak with our cousin," he said, the constructions of the formal first person awkward and unaccustomed. "Do you … that is, you must be tired. Let us summon a manservant to tend to your needs."
"Your Serenity is very kind," the messenger said, and if he knew that there were only two menservants in the entire household of Edonomee, he gave no sign.
Maia rang the bell, knowing that birdlike Pelchara would be waiting eagerly for a chance to find out what was happening. Haru, who did all the outside work, was probably still asleep; Haru slept like the dead, and the whole household knew it.
Pelchara popped in, his ears up and his eyes bright and inquisitive. "This gentleman," Maia said, mortified to realize that he did not know the messenger's name, "has traveled hard. Please see that he has everything he requires." He faltered before the thought of explaining the news to Pelchara, mumbled, "I will be with my cousin," and hurried out.
He could see light under Setheris's door, and could hear his cousin's brisk, bristling stride. Let him not have stopped for the metheglin decanter, Maia thought, a brief, hopeless prayer, and tapped on the door.
"Who is't?" At least he did not sound any drunker than he had a quarter hour ago.
"Maia. May I—?"
The door opened with savage abruptness, and Setheris stood in the opening, glaring. "Well? What chews on thy tail, boy?"
"Cousin," Maia said, almost whispering, "what must I do?"
"What must thou do?" Setheris snorted laughter. "Thou must be emperor, boy. Must rule all the Elflands and banish thy kindred as thou seest fit. Why com'st thou whining to me of what thou must do?"
"Because I don't know."
"Moon-witted hobgoblin," Setheris said, but it was contempt by reflex; his expression was abstracted.
"Yes, cousin," Maia said meekly.
After a moment, Setheris's eyes sharpened again, but this time without the burning anger. "Thou wish'st advice?"
"Come in," Setheris said, and Maia entered his cousin's bedchamber for the first time.
It was as austere as Setheris himself—no mementoes of the Untheileneise Court, no luxuries. Setheris waved Maia to the only chair and himself sat on the bed. "Thou'rt right, boy. The wolves are waiting to devour thee. Hast thou the letter?"
"Yes, cousin." Maia handed Setheris the letter, now rather crumpled and the worse for wear. Setheris read it, frowning again, but this time his ears were cocked thoughtfully. When he had finished, he folded the letter neatly, his long white fingers smoothing the creases. "He presumes much, does Uleris."
"He does?" And then, realizing: "Dost know him?"
"We were enemies for many years," Setheris said, shrugging it aside. "And I see he has not changed."
"What mean'st thou?"
"Uleris has no reason to love thee, boy."
"He says he's loyal."
"Yes. But loyal to what? Not to thee, for thou art merely the last and least favored child of his dead master, who wished thee not on the throne, as well thou know'st. Use thy wits, boy—an thou hast any."
"What do you mean?"
"Merciful goddesses, grant me patience," Setheris said ostentatiously to the ceiling. "Consider, boy. Thou art emperor. What must thou do first?"
"Cousin, this is not the time for riddles."
"And it is not a riddle I pose thee." Setheris shut his mouth and glared at him, and after a moment, Maia realized.
"Ha!" Setheris brought his hands together sharply, making Maia jump. "Exactly. So why, I ask thee, does thy coronation not figure largely in Uleris's plans or, indeed, at all?"
"No! Thou think'st as a child, not as an emperor. The dead are dead, and they care not for the honor Uleris prates of, as well he knows. It is the living power that must concern thee, as it concerns him."
"Think, boy," Setheris said, leaning forward, his cold eyes alight with fervor. "If thou art capable—if thou hast ever thought before in thy life—think. Thou com'st to the Untheileneise Court, the funeral is held. What then?"
"I speak to … oh."
"Yes." Better than Setheris might care to realize, for it was at his cousin's hands that Maia had learned this particular lesson; by waiting, he put himself in the position of a supplicant to Chavar, and supplicants could always be denied. "Then what must I do?"
Setheris said, "Thou must countermand Uleris. Meaning that thou must reach the Untheileneise Court before he has time to entrench himself."
"But how can I?" It took most of a week to reach the court from Edonomee.
"Airship," Setheris said as if it were obvious.
Maia's stomach knotted. "I couldn't."
"Thou must. Or thou shalt be a puppet dancing at the end of Uleris's strings, and to a tune of his choosing. And thy nineteenth birthday may very well see thee dead."
Maia bowed his head. "Yes, cousin."
"The airship that brought Chavar's lapdog here can take us back. They'll be waiting for him. Now, go. Make thyself fit to be seen."
"Yes, cousin," Maia said, and did not contest Setheris's assumption that he would be traveling to the court with the new emperor.
Copyright © 2014 by Katherine Addison