I think I felt a great deal more real when I stood in Serein and watched him turn himself into a snake than here, on this day, in this bright sunlight, before the ruined gate, dressed in silk and pearls, with a sword around my waist and the top half of my breasts exposed, whilst Lucian played at being the general.
“I stand before you today not as your new emperor but as the one who will restore the throne of the kingdoms to a rightful descendant of Malme the Great.”
He had a wonderful rich speaking voice that carried far and wide but he was also broadcasting the words on the mind levels simultaneously to make sure that really everyone would hear and understand him. I smiled at his use of the magic because I remembered well on one occasion, he had tried to give a battle speech in thunder and in pouring rain and ended up having to give it ten times or more, to each individual division.
“Trant the Traitor besieged this city and your rightful Emperor, King Salter was slain. I have returned to fulfill my promise and extract the retribution. I, Lord Lucian Tremain, by the authority vested in me by King Malme, will take the regent’s mantle until such time as a rightful successor has been proclaimed.”
I tracked across the mood of the multitude, not just the soldiers but the many citizens who were massed behind them, in the trees, on the fallen walls and clinging to the outer gates. Pertineri had turned out in force to get a good look at the Lord Of Darkness and they were not giving him the benefit of the doubt. They listened to him, yes, but they had seen and lived too much these past two years to give much credence to the prettiest of speeches; but worse, I don’t really think they took him entirely seriously. Three weeks in Trant’s cage had done nothing for his reputation and his announcement that he would be the regent for now fell down into a profound and hurtful silence of rejection and distaste.
On his plinth, straight and so unadorned, his cloak drifting with the light fresh morning breeze, Lucian continued.
“I am a soldier born and bred, and my allegiance is to the crown and to the united kingdoms. As a soldier, I stand between justice and chaos. As a soldier, I fought by Malme’s side and as his General, I oversaw the creation of this empire. I will not stand by and see all this brought to wreck and ruin by the dealings of a madman who has no more right to wear the crown than any one of you!”
I nodded as he spoke. He was, indeed a soldier first and foremost and to remind them of this was a good move. I could feel them giving their assent, some of them against their will or feeling even, but the mention of Malme’s name still carried a great deal of power and then too, there was a depth of honesty about him as he spoke that was difficult to resist. Still. It did not sit well with their ideas of him, and the depth of their distrust of a one who was a legend, or perhaps a demon or an impostor.
“There is danger for the kingdoms. There is disarray, and disorder. Outside the city walls there are Trant’s forces, leaderless and headless now. I would now ask each one of you to consider your allegiance – will you stand for the empire, and the throne, or war and destruction? Will you return to your posts with a vengeance and an understanding that you are there to keep the peace? Will you serve me in the name of Malme The Great?”
The confused roar that followed from the crowd shocked me and it did surprise me, too. He had touched some and there was no doubt that they wanted order, and a return to the glory days of far away. But it just wasn’t enough, nowhere near enough. Some didn’t take him seriously at all, some too seriously by far and deeply feared that he would take the crown for himself once he had established himself here with a base of power and bring down fire and tar upon them all, but either way, it did not matter much. There was no way they would pledge him their allegiance, not for all his fine oratory or convincing speeches. Too many thought that Trant had probably been the lesser of the evils. I wondered if I should nudge him, tell him this but even as I thought about it, he already said,
“In three days time from now, the Lord’s council will convene at Manoranta Keep. It is there that the correct succession will be established and arranged. Within a week, there will be a new king. Will you keep the peace until then?”
The crowd muttered a ragged assent.
“Will you pledge yourself to this endeavour?”
They assented again, more strongly than before.
Lucian nodded on his post and gestured to Eddario to come and join him.
He introduced the Duke of Solland and set him to be their commander; they accepted him most gladly and in the end, the sea of men knelt and swore their allegiance to the crown, to Malme the Great, to his rightful descendants and to Eddario of Niccosia, 17th Duke of Solland.
I knew then it was fully official that Lucian had lost his endeavour to have them swear allegiance to him and accept him as their regent.
He left Eddario on the plinth to give their marching orders, jumped down in a fluent motion and without so much as gesturing or nodding to me, strode off, back towards the courtyard. I had to stretch my strides long to keep up with him.
Lucian, are you alright?
He swatted the link away and kept on going.
Out loud, I said, “What did you expect? A salutation?”
He said nothing and kept on walking.
“Where, pray, are we going?” I asked, still struggling to keep up and getting annoyed with him.
I don’t know, he send me finally, testily. That was an absolute disaster.
How can you say that? And can you stop running like that please? I can hardly keep up.
He forced himself to control, slowed his stride to an ordinary walk and shook his head.
I said to him, “What did you expect? Have you any idea of your reputation across the kingdoms? You’ve worked at your snake personae long enough for everyone to take it for the truth!”
Lucian stopped and turned to me, sharply.
“There was a time,” he said, “when my word counted for something. There was a time when my soldiers stood to attention and did as they were asked. There was a time …”
I sighed and put my hand on his arm. “My love, this is a new time now. And after having been absent so long as you have been, it is hardly surprising that they don’t know anymore …” I wasn’t sure how to proceed from there but he sighed and looked beyond me, back to the sea of red behind our backs.
“The trouble is,” he said slowly, “that for me it was but yesterday that Malme died. Indeed, it was but yesterday that we fought side by side and drank and laughed. For them, it is but history. Hearsay. Nothing more than those empty, lying tales they tell each other or those mindless songs.”
I stroked his arm, tight and hard beneath his jacket and his eyes then turned to mine.
I think you did very well, I send him and I meant it, word for word. To give them the new Duke of Solland was a beautiful move. No-one would know it was not as you had planned, or hoped.
He sighed. What use is lightning and the power to take down the mountains here? It is no way to win the hearts and minds of men. I wish ... and he stopped himself from going any further, but I well knew what he wished.
He wished that he was back with the Knights of the Black Wing, riding into battle under Malme’s command, with ungainsayable authority and total security in the ones who served him.
I heard his thought, so loud and clear, There is no place for me anymore. There was a time, there was a place but it has long gone and now, there is no place for me.
I gave him a sharp pat on the arm.
“Now here’s the man who accuses me of feeling sorry for myself! Pull yourself together, Lucian. As you said, in two days time the council will convene and you will lead them. We will do exactly what you promised to your friend – we will restore his line, and then we can both take our leave from this because you are right, all of this is in the past. Your place, and mine, is elsewhere now. Your time in the army has come to an end, if only you would admit it. I know it was the best of times for you, but it is truly over. Let us not dwell upon this anymore.”
He glanced at me briefly and I did not like the look in his eyes. Moreover, there was a definite movement of the muscles in his jaw; small shifts beneath his skin but noticeable, and to me, they stood out like flares for I was used to seeing him be marble calm and so contained in ordinary conversation. This thing had struck him deeper, harder, worse than I was understanding or appreciating.
I looked down at the rippled courtyard mosaic and in a small voice, said, “What should we do, now?”
Now, we will find a place that is suitable to judge Trant and his courtiers. We will carry out the executions. We will find someone to give charge over this place. And tomorrow night, we will leave here and ride for Manoranta.
Yes, Lucian, I said in resignation and followed him as he strode fast across the courtyard and towards the main building once more.
We were being watched again, like ants were watched, a black one and a smaller green one, scuttling across a marble pastry board, by all those eyes in the shadows of the columns, from the windows above, hiding behind each other and the fallen statues.
We were being judged again, all around, like a whirlwind of whispering, rushing and enclosing me, giving me things to hear that I did not want to hear and I shut it all out as hard as I but could. It was not soon enough and still the eyes remained and their judgements about him, about us, about me, circling inside my protective barrier like fat flies trapped beneath an upturned dish.
Tremain and his whore. Black witchery. Evil – look! It oozes out of their pores! See! She carries a sword, that is no lady, did you hear that she took on a hundred men in the dungeon and drained them all, of their seed and of their blood, and then a hundred soldiers after that?
Lucian virtually slapped me with his voice exploding in my head.
Get control! NOW!
I came to and found that I was shaking all over and my steps had faltered enough to create a distance of two men’s length between me and Lucian in his cloak. He was still walking but had slowed a fraction, giving me a chance to catch up and to return to his side.
In all the hells! What a place to fall apart! Would you have me invite Trant’s army in so you have a better range of spectators!
I stopped myself from shaking my head, fought with the tears and forced myself to lengthen my stride to close the distance between us without seeming to be making a run for it.
It was another thirty paces to the sanctuary of the half collapsed entry tower building that formed the bridge link between the north and south flanks of the palace. I didn’t think that I would make it. My legs were shaking and I was so alone amidst all of this, and him berating me for it on top.
Just get the ice! he snapped at me with exasperation and a barely controlled rage that I had nothing at all left to defend myself from.
Just get the ice. I reached for it, try to find it, and I could not.
All there was a churning, a mess, a mixture of his and mine, incohesion, panic. I tried to walk and could not, I tried to stop the trembling, and could not, and now I tried to breathe and I simply could not. Panic. Out of control. Columns and emptiness and the sky falling right down on my head …
I came to in comparative silence and a rising and falling that made me wonder if I was on a boat, on a river, before I cautiously opened my eyes and realised that Lucian was holding me tightly about the legs and back, carrying me along a wide, wide corridor and it was his breathing in and out in time with his slow steps.
Beyond his shoulder, I could see exquisite wall decorations of tapestry, and time and time again, huge ornate light fittings of crystal and gold as we passed on by. I closed my eyes and let myself remember about this passage way that would lead straight through the main entrance building and out into the central courtyard where the Abbey lay, the heart of Pertineri Palace, around which the entire complex had been constructed.
I wondered vaguely if it still stood.
Rushing memories of walking down this corridor, so many times.
With Sepheal, with Malme.
With Malme’s son and his grandson.
All alone and by myself, surrounded by utter strangers.
Going to the Abbey with Sepheal and returning, without him.
I wished I had eyes inside my mind that could be shut to keep these pictures out, as well as you can shut your outside lids to what you don’t want to see any longer.
I wished I could just rest somewhere, get out of this place, this time, this body.
Somewhere, anywhere else.
There was a darkening in my mind in response, and I found myself standing clearly and precisely amidst a wide, empty landscape of white rock beneath a black sky that sparked with a thousand falling stars.