“You’re late,” Tiernach said without looking up, quill scratching delicately over the parchment on his desk, the sharp tip marking out neat, precise symbols in a deep red ink. Tiernach had always believed neatness in handwriting was essential to an ordered thought process – and if the parchment were any indication, with its carefully spaced lettering that lined up at both sides of the page, his thoughts today were particularly well controlled.
“My apologies. I was held up.”
“You?” Tiernach raised an eyebrow as he wrote. “That is the second time you have obeyed orders other than mine. I allowed the last occasion because it was logical – if irritating. Do we need to renegotiate our agreement?”
“I must respect the First, otherwise he will grow suspicious,” Katrina admitted, uncomfortably.
Tiernach did look up now, his eyes narrowing as he looked across his desk at her. Without really meaning to, she straightened her posture under his penetrating gaze. Something about his eyes... intensity. Self confidence. The unashamed gaze of one who has holds fear of that which he observes. Just how strong a magic user was he, anyway? Clearly enough to tame a dragon, no easy feat even with the assistance of the Dragon Staff, but there were scholarly magics... and then there were the more forceful kind. The kind that featured more favourably in the history books, those magic users who could take their knowledge of the art onto the battlefield, bending the powers of the four elements to their will and unleashing catastrophic punishment upon their foes. What exactly might happen were Tiernach cornered and forced to fight for his life, Katrina wondered. It was almost tempting to persuade some lackey to attempt an assassination, just to find out. It didn't for a moment occur to her that Tiernach might actually be assassinated. He was far to calm in her presence to doubt his strength.
“And what is he doing here?”
Katrina shook herself back to attentiveness. “It appears the First has some instructions, regarding the running of Lordenor during the king’s absence. He wanted me to tell you...” she hesitated, for the first time in her life wondering if it was a good idea to be the bearer of bad news. “That you are to implement them at the first possible opportunity.”
“Did he...” Tiernach watched her carefully, but she stood motionless, not giving away any hint of emotion. “And what, pray tell, are his ‘instructions’?”
Katrina placed placed a scroll of parchment upon the desk. Tiernach opened it scanned the writing thereon, his expression darkening with each line he read.
“Absolutely not! This is unacceptable, I cannot put the kingdom into this condition.”
“I fear, my Lord, that you have little choice. The First instructed me to tell you that this is a part of the deal you have made.”
Tiernach’s fist clenched. “This was never a part of the deal!”
Interesting, Katrina thought. So there were chinks in his armour, other than the previously proven wish to avoid civilian casualties by his own hands. The question was, were they a fiery temper, a dislike of being ordered around, or was he trying to protect someone the orders were going to harm? “If you want what the Eye can offer, my Lord, it will have to be.”
Tiernach growled, the muscles at the side of his jaw working for a moment before he regained control. “Very well,” he snapped. “I can see I have little choice. These orders appear to be signed by my father.”
“Yes,” Katrina nodded.
“There is an herb used by the brotherhood,” she said carefully. “It can be powdered and mixed into a drink, and is almost tasteless, very hard to detect in a glass of wine, for example. It leaves the drinker very open to suggestion, and with at best a dreamlike recollection of the events. It is most effective, for such purposes.”
“You drugged my father?” Tiernach put the parchment down slowly.
“It is quite harmless, beyond the effects I have just described.”
Tiernach stood up, walking around his desk to stand directly in front of Katrina, staring deep into her eyes.
“I thought I had been very clear that no harm was to be done to my family.” Tiernach’s voice was dangerously low, and it sent a shiver down Katrina’s spine, making her tail curl involuntarily. “Did I not?”
“My Lord,” she licked her lips, half captivated by Tiernach’s gaze, half angry with herself for being so. “I have done no lasting harm to your father, and I cannot disobey an order from the First. He speaks for the Eye, and even you must answer to that authority.”
“And what of my orders?”
“I will... I will obey them where I can, my Lord.”
“Yes, my Lord. Your judgements... are most competent.” Why, Katrina berated herself, had she added that last? Stupid.
“Excellent,” Tiernach stepped around her, standing at her back and whispering into her ear. “Now listen to me, Katrina, master assassin of the brotherhood. You know what it is the Eye seeks.”
“Of course. Resurrection. A draconic body for the soul of Tyrandius, the chance to once more walk the earth, to rule a kingdom.”
“Precisely. Up to that point, the moment when Tyrandius obtains his new body, we may be reasonably sure of maintaining any deals we make. Beyond that... do you trust him? Or the First?”
“Would you trust Tyrandius once he has what he wants?” Tiernach reiterated. “When that mind of crystal and metal and magic is once more flesh, do you believe he will keep his bargains?”
Katrina didn’t answer, her heart beating hard as Tiernach placed his hands upon her shoulders.
“You see, already there are signs of what is to come. The First changes the rules as he sees fit. He claims to represent Tyrandius, yet he already betrays my trust. What chance then that the master will stay true to his word? But you suspect this already, I think... You of all people know that one can make a deal with the devil – but it is very rare that one will profit from it if one keeps faithfully to the terms.”
Katrina nodded, taking a sharp breath as Tiernach’s lips brushed her ear.
“When that day comes, I need to know where your loyalties will lie,” he whispered. “Between us, we can be sure of our success. I command the kingdom, the soldiers, and the magic. You are a trusted member of the brotherhood. You have opportunities, you can sew seeds of doubt, you can turn them against each other, or perhaps even command some level of loyalty to yourself. Together, we are strong enough to hold Tyrandius to his bargain. Alone we are at the mercy of the whims of he and the First.”
“My loyalties will lie with you, my Lord,” Katrina closed her eyes and purred as his strong hands ran down from her shoulders along her spine.
“I am far more trustworthy than the First, and I think you know that.”
“Yes, my Lord. There are few who do not believe you honourable. I know that you do what you do for the greater good, not for selfish gain.”
“If you are prepared to obey me, you will find that you are much more likely to come out of this with what you want.” One hand rested over the base of her tail.
“I will obey you, my Lord,” her breath trembled as she spoke, her tone hushed.
“Do not lie to me, Katrina,” Tiernach warned softly, his hands suddenly grabbing her arms roughly, pinning them behind her, propelling her across the room and trapping her against the wall. His muzzle was by her ear again, sharp teeth glinting in the candle light.
“I'm not lying, my Lord!”
“I know full well you do not like to take orders, Katrina,” Tiernach hissed. “You like to give them. You like to be in charge.”
She growled, pushing back against him, but finding his grip stronger than she had expected. “I do what I need to get what I want.”
“Which implies you want to obey me.”
“Yes! No! I want my reward!” she shook her head angrily. “I will take your orders for that purpose!”
“Now there’s the honesty,” Tiernach whispered. “That’s fine. Afterwards you can do as you wish, but until that day you obey me and only me. Above the First, if I ask it.”
“If you ask it, my Lord,” she confirmed.
“You will give me your complete loyalty?”
“I will.” She wanted to add until that day, but somehow it didn’t quite make it out.
Tiernach felt her trembling under his hands, and smiled.
“Then listen very closely. The Dragon Staff was not Tyrandius’ only creation. There was another weapon, a powerful weapon, one that was designed to compliment the Dragon Staff. Where the stave of a magic user served as a symbol of power over dragons, so was this weapon to be a symbol of his power over leonin, humans, and all other races – we poor mortals where all to often the strength of steel wins out over the knowledge of the scholar.
“Importantly, the brotherhood do not yet know where this weapon may now be found, and thus nor does Tyrandius. It is only a matter of time before he seeks it, once the Brotherhood has the manpower to begin a search – the First has me pursuing some studies that will aid him in that regard. When he asks for it, I will use my influence to ensure that you are placed in charge of that search. When you find that weapon, you will return it not to the First, nor to the Eye, but to me. Do you understand?”
“Yes, my Lord,” Katrina shivered. “You shall have this weapon. Anything you desire, you shall possess. I have only ever seen you succeed in this.”
“And yet,” Tiernach placed his hands lightly against the back of her neck, his breath hot between her ears. “There is one more thing I desire that I do not yet possess.”
Katrina felt herself tremble with his touch, shivering under the mysterious power he held over her.
“Anything that I can give, my Lord, is yours for the taking,” she gasped as she felt his lips press against her ear.
“I was hoping you would say that.”
Aleana jumped, standing back from the half wall she had been leaning on, turning away from the view over the palace grounds to see who had addressed her.
“Oh, Brigadier,” she sighed, feeling rather relieved. Patting her leafy green dress down, smoothing out the creases it had gained as she had turned so swiftly, she watched him attentively, aware he would not have approached her without good cause.
“Good day, Princess Aleana,” the lutrani bowed, highly polished chain mail glittering in the sunlight as he moved, the white tabard emblazoned with the crest of the house of Irontooth swaying, hinting at the solid steel breast plate underneath. At his left hip, a formidable looking longsword, the metal pommel polished to a mirror shine that reflected the surrounding gardens.
Despite the almost over-bright gleam of his attire, Aleana knew full well that it was completely functional – and that the brigadier knew how to use every solid plate and razor edge to maximum effect in combat. Standing a couple of inches above lutrani average, and eye to eye with most human men, his brawny limbs and sturdy rudder-like tail held a strength and speed that were the envy of soldiers two decades his junior. Aleana had on several occasions been witness to some of the brigadier's training lessons, often left wide eyed as he moved with speed and fluidity, the steely blade of his longsword glittering as it struck each and every target presented in exactly the right place to ensure that the cadet behind it sat down with a thump and nothing hurt but their egos. Fortunately he had always been rather more gentle when instructing Aleana herself in fencing.
Combined with an unswerving loyalty to the royal family, a thoughtful and temperate personality, and a selflessness in battle that had saved more than a few innocents from harm, Aleana considered that there could be no finer officer to head the palace guard. A gentleman, a solider, and a living embodiment of all that he inspired in others. That he had recently saved her life only bolstered this opinion.
“Might I ask if you have seen Prince Kaja?” he queried in his brisk, clipped tones. “He's likely to be late unless he hurries.”
He could also, on occasion, be a bit of a nag, Aleana thought wryly.
“I have not,” she shook her head, returning his bow with a shallow curtsy. “Though I do suspect you are in the right place to find him.”
The brigadier nodded sombrely, indicating their shared understanding of the prince's tendency to seek quiet open areas when under stress. It was a common trait among leonin – where other races might seek shelter, they were more likely to find comfort in open land and an unobstructed view of the sky.
“I do need to find him,” the lutrani said apologetically. “It's important that he makes his address to the senate on time this afternoon. People will look to him in the king's absence.”
“I think he's wishing they would look to Tiernach,” Aleana smiled.
“Mmm,” the lutrani agreed, gruffly, his expression guarded. Probably wishing the same thing, Aleana suspected. Not entirely without reason. While Kaja was kind hearted and honest, he was also not known for his interest in political affairs. Tiernach on the other hand was observant, alert, and had a keen memory for such things. Unfortunately he was also half an hour younger, and thus second on the list. Unless Maximilian ever chose to disinherit his marginally older son completely, there was nothing for it but to insist that he start taking his share of responsibility.
“Well then,” Aleana decided, looping her arm comfortably through the brigadier's, feeling the solidity of his muscles underneath the shifting mesh of steel. “We had better find him, hadn't we?”
“Mmm?” Flat on his back in the grass, Kaja didn't open his eyes as Aleana leaned over him, though given his response he was evidently not asleep.
“Do you know what time it is?”
“Yes,” he answered. “No,” he added. One feline ear twitched as a single chime from the great church clock resounded through the air. “Yes.”
Aleana couldn't help laughing as she sat next to him. She eyed the brigadier as he stood beside them, clearly of the opinion that sitting on the grass was not particularly dignified for a prince and princess.
“Prince Kaja, I feel I should point out...” he started.
“Please don't, I've had quite enough of all that today,” Kaja sighed and the lutrani stopped again. “A great honour, a young age to be in charge of the kingdom, a worthy successor to my father – as if he was dead! He's away, get it? Away! Returning shortly, temporarily expecting me and everyone else to get on and deal with things at home, support him as he leads the army, and generally not mess up. What's so hard about just doing our jobs, hmm? What do they want from me, three hours on how I'm going to change absolutely nothing? Or are they all waiting for me to rewrite all the rules the moment father has left the city?”
Several seconds passed in uncomfortable silence before Kaja relented. “You're right,” he sighed, opening his eyes to look up at the sunlight leaves of the tree above them. “Don't worry, Brig Riv,” he reassured, using the old nickname that he had once tagged the brigadier with many years ago. “I'll be there. I won't embarrass you.”
“Thank you, Prince Kaja,” the lutrani bowed. Straightening, he hesitated before, much to Aleana's surprise, sitting down on the grass with them, risking his spotlessly white tabard on the turf.
“Might I offer you some advice, Prince Kaja?” he asked quietly. Intrigued, the leonin sat up and nodded.
“I am not reminding you of this duty simply for the sake of being irksome, nor to save either of us embarrassment,” the brigadier said, choosing to get straight to the point as he often did. “In the king's absence, it is important that the senate perceives that all other matters of state will continue with the efficiency that they are used to – and that the robustness of the royal family remains unaffected. They need a firm hand to both reassure and guide them, and that hand is going to be yours. You need to be,” he looked Kaja squarely in the eyes, “As perfect as you can manage to be. The nobles need to be confident in you and inspired by you in order to remain loyal to you.”
“So just a little perfection, nothing major?” Kaja asked wryly.
“Only in the senate chamber,” the lutrani answered, rather more gently. “Once outside the gaze of the nobles, you may be as hesitant and as uncertain as you wish. You may seek advice and guidance from any you see fit, and you would be right and wise to ask for such. You are a fair and honest young man, Prince Kaja, but you are still a young man. Rarely would control of a kingdom fall to one of your years, barely a score and five. Some will claim you too young and inexperienced, but I think you know your weaknesses as well as any, and they are no worse than the faults found in any man. But you cannot show those weaknesses today. You must present yourself as would the king, with the authority and confidence that you are accustomed to in him.”
“I am not like my father,” Kaja said. “I'm not a born leader, and I don't want to order people around! I just want things to work out for the best.”
The brigadier chuckled heartily. “That, Prince Kaja, is why you will never fall to corruption. I love your father, but I sincerely hope I live long enough to see you take the throne. Would that more people with power had no wish of it, for the world would be a better place. Don't worry so much. You are not on your own. And I can assure you, your father had plenty of doubts and worries on his way to where he is today. You may be less dissimilar than you think, eh what?”
“I hope so,” Kaja sighed.
“Cheer up, laddie buck, you'll do fine,” the brigadier told him, and the unexpected use of such a familiar term did actually make the leonin smile. “Just remember, act the part. You don't have to live it. Just act it. You can pretend, can't you?”
“Well he can pretend he didn't eat the cake,” Aleana laughed, and Kaja scowled at her in mock annoyance.
“I never touched that!” he protested.
“No, carried it off still in the tray, if I remember rightly – no touching involved in the actual theft,” the lutrani chuckled. “I believe the cook still laments the loss of some of his finest crockery.”
“Just for that, I'm announcing a law that all humans and lutrani have to shave their heads for the week,” the leonin grumbled sourly.
“Good! That's the attitude you need! Bit more guts and cheek and we'll make a ruler of you yet!” the brigadier clapped him on the back. “Stay headstrong and never take no for an answer from anyone but your father!” He glanced around. “And between you and me, if you feel strongly enough about something, question him on it, too – he's no more flawless than the rest of us. Just don't do it when anyone might see. Not proper to question the king in company.”
Aleana looked at him in admiration. “Why, Brigadier, I do believe you're even more trustworthy than even I ever imagined!”
“Yes, well,” the lutrani looked momentarily shifty. “I'd be most grateful if you don't pass that advice on to his Majesty.”
Kaja and Aleana both nodded solemnly.
Glancing over her shoulder at the packed rows of seats, Aleana fidgeted. Despite herding Kaja into the speakers' antechamber and adorning him with the customary sash and tricorn hat, he had somehow still failed to make an appearance as the great clock chimed the hour. Around them, ranks of noblemen and women curved around to both sides, filling three quarters of the circular chamber, each bank of seats leaving the occupant facing the dais in the centre. While the voices audible around the senate were currently muted, Aleana noted that there was a definite rise in volume as time passed.
“Maybe one of us should...” she began whispering to the brigadier as he sat beside her, but he shook his head.
“None but the king, or his regent may call a council session to order. If he is late... then so will the senate be late.”
Aleana sighed, looking towards the doorway through which Kaja should have entered by now, instead finding herself looking at Tiernach, hanging back in the shadows. He caught her gaze, and shrugged helplessly. That in itself was unusual, she thought. Most likely it meant he knew exactly where Kaja was and what he was doing, but wasn't prepared to hurry him.
Regarding his adopted sister, Tiernach took a deep breath. He had rather hoped she wasn't going to be present today. While he was fully confident he could execute his part successfully, it was going to drive something of a wedge between them. Maybe... No. No there was really no backing out now. This was likely to be the last time he would be on good terms with his siblings for a long time. So be it. It would be worth it in the end. And there was Kaja now, setting down the speech notes that Tiernach had prepared for him and hurrying towards the doorway.
“Brother,” Tiernach smiled calmly, grasping Kaja's hand firmly, making sure they were both visible to the senate beyond. “Are you ready?”
“Tier,” Kaja shook his hand firmly in return, reading the message of support in Tiernach's face. “As I'm going to be,” he nodded. Turning to the senate, he strode forwards to the lectern, raising his arms as the great hall quieted around him.
“Lords!” he said loudly. “Ladies! Nobles of Lordenor, members of the senate! Welcome, and thank you for attending. This senate is now in session. Please let me have me your attentions.”
It was a good choice, Tiernach silently agreed. No apology, no explanation for lateness. This is how things were, the nobles could just deal with how their new head was going to run things. Unfortunately – he caught Kaja's eye – that looked about as far as Kaja was going to get. Unfortunately for Kaja, that was. Quite predictable for Tiernach. Still, it gave him all the more reason to be at his brother's elbow.
“It is no secret...” Tiernach prompted in a whisper, being careful to move his lips the smallest possible amount to get the words out.
“It is no secret,” Kaja repeated, loudly enough for the ranks of nobles to hear. “That the king has now left the city, and is now on his way to join our brave soldiers in the Freelands, but I mention it for the benefit of those who may not have heard so. I am sure all of you will miss him dearly in his absence, as will I, my brother,” Kaja indicated Tiernach. “And my sister,” his hand swept towards Aleana, who fought a blush as she felt the eyes of the chamber light upon her, finding herself fiddling with one of the ties at the front of her dress and pointing her gaze to the floor.
“But we know he is strong,” Kaja continued. “And we know he is brave. And...”
“And we have faith...” Tiernach whispered.
“And we have faith in him. Faith that he will fight with honour, faith that he will fight with justice, and faith that he will prove victorious on the battlefield. Faith... that he will come home to us when his work is done.
“As difficult as we may find it in the king's absence, I have no doubt that his difficulties will outweigh ours,” Kaja continued, his head slowly clearing as the initial paranoia at being the focus of so many people faded. “However, this does not stop him from performing his duty to the people of Lordenor, even at the risk of his own life, and thus we shall show no less courage and resilience until he returns to his place in our city, our senate, and our hearts.”
A swell of applause greeted this statement, and Kaja sighed quietly. Always rely on Tiernach to produce a decent speech... Glancing at his brother, he winked, receiving a small smile in return, and a raised eyebrow as Tiernach pointed at himself with a silent question in his eyes. Well why not, Kaja thought. That could work too.
“While it is my solemn duty and privilege,” he improvised. “To act as the king's regent in his absence, I am as you know supported in all things by my family, and none less than my brother Tiernach.” He gave a smile, for the first time allowing himself to look apologetic. “While it may be my strength that will lead our kingdom, I imagine it will be his head.”
A gentle ripple of laughter rolled around the chamber, and Kaja smiled, stepping aside and leading a round of applause as Tiernach took a stance at the lectern.
“L-lords...” Tiernach cleared his throat. He forced himself to calmness. This was not the time to suddenly have a surge of feeling for his brother. Not. Now. “Lords and ladies,” he said again, firmly and clearly. “I thank you for your welcome, and I hope that I can fulfil the, uh, role, for which my brother has just nominated me.” He paused to allow a few smiles to spread around the chamber.
“In times such as these, and especially right now with the king away,” Tiernach continued. “It falls upon us all to be extra vigilant. I need not remind you, lords and ladies, that we are at war. At war with a nation which continues to strike at us, to terrorise our farms and towns, our fishing fleets, mines and trade caravans. A nation that shows no mercy and no discrimination in their aggression, to whom families and children are equally valid target as our soldiers.”
A murmur ran around the chamber, and Kaja frowned, not quite sure that this was on the speech he had read. And surely terrorise was not the right word – so far the Freelands army had done less damage to Lordenor, than the Lordenor army had done to the Freelands...
“We can be sure, lords and ladies,” Tiernach was continuing. “That it is only a matter of time before the Freelands realise that King Maximilian is no longer in a position to see to the safety of this fine city and the lands about. And we can be sure, that this will not be ignored. It will be seen, by our enemy, as a weakness to exploit. An opportunity to strike a blow against Lordenor. A blow against our lands, and against our people. Every citizen of our kingdom must come to terms with this threat, from the soldiers in our fine army, right down to the smallest child on our streets.”
The soft murmuring began to take on a harder edge, one or two of the nobles nodding in agreement, others looking worried.
“But!” Tiernach raised his voice, and the noise quieted. “We shall not allow this blow to land. We shall not even allow our enemy the luxury of believing we are weakened. We shall defend our shores and borders with every last ounce of our strength, and we shall not fall,” the leonin’s voice echoed around the stone chamber as he raised his arm to point at his audience, sweeping his gaze along each row of seats. “This I pledge to you, lords and ladies: not one soldier of the enemy will set foot upon our land unpunished. Not one ship shall be allowed to bring the armies of our adversary to us and leave intact. For each and every harm the enemy may try to bring to us, we will stand firm and visit it back upon them tenfold!”
The noise level in the chamber rose considerably, several shouts of support sounded as Tiernach raised his hands, smiling slightly as he signalled his audience to settle. Aleana elbowed the brigadier in the ribs, then wished she hadn't as her elbow impacted his breastplate.
“That was not the plan,” she hissed at the lutrani, though aware it wasn't exactly his fault. “We are supposed to keep a tight defence and allow father to determine how to proceed, not to plan a counterstrike for every skirmish!”
“There's nothing I can do, Princess,” he said quietly. “Prince Kaja yielded the floor and hasn't asked for it back. Even as the house peacekeeper, I have no right to interfere. This is an entirely peaceful speech.”
Looking angry and rubbing her banged elbow, Aleana subsided, wondering whether to throw a boo into the next round of cheering. This wasn't going at all right, she should have had a good long talk with Tiernach before they started. She stared at Kaja across the distance, willing him to intervene, but the leonin seemed rather taken aback by his brother's words – and quite possibly just a little stirred. Leonin blood did tend to thrill to a call to arms... Please don't let Kaja be taking this in! It was bad enough with both Maximilian and Tiernach taking the aggressive line, the last thing that Aleana wanted was to find her family three to one against more peaceable solutions!
“Thank you, lords and ladies. I remind you that we retaliate such, not because we wish to,” Tiernach shook his head. “Not because we are a harsh, and merciless people. Bloodshed and violence are not the way of this kingdom. Lordenor is a land of justice, and honour, and freedom. But we shall respond such because we are a caring people, and because we protect our own! No child in this city, or any other in Lordenor need lose an hour of sleep for fear of our enemy because we shall protect them. We will stand strong and united against our foe, and we will be victorious!”
Scattered clapping began at the back of the room, swelling rapidly into all out applause. Several of the senators rose to their feet, bowing their heads in respect to the prince even as those next to them frowned slightly and looked uneasy. Glancing around, Aleana tried to note who was approving and who seemed to share her pained expression, but the sea of faces made it difficult to find those she knew.
Kaja stood silently against the wall behind his brother, mouth open slightly, unable to find any appropriate words, knowing that something had just gone very wrong with the day but having no idea quite what to do about it.
Tiernach beamed at the surrounding noblemen, looking quite overwhelmed by the applause and occasional cheers. Still smiling, he gestured for quiet, and when he next spoke, it was with a hushed tone.
“Thank you, lords and ladies, for your support. I shall do everything within my power to ensure that it is not misplaced. I have here,” he raised a scroll of parchment in his right hand. ”A list of measures I intend to take to ensure the defence of this great nation. Measures which I fully believe are necessary, as does the king, and which we shall implement as soon as possible.”
Kaja frowned. Stepping up behind his brother, he asked softly, “When did you discuss this?”
Tiernach turned his head. “Last night,” he answered quietly. “I found myself unable to sleep, and so, it seems, did father. We fell to talking and this,” he indicated the scroll, “was the result.”
“You might have discussed it with me!” Kaja exclaimed, keeping his voice too low to be overheard above the general noise that filled the room as the nobles turned to each other during the pause.
“You weren’t awake at the time, it seemed pointless to disturb you. Father had already made up his mind, so there was little to discuss anyway.”
“Even so,” Kaja protested.
“Perhaps you are right,” Tiernach sighed quietly. “I apologise, brother, it was careless of me. This is a stressful time, and I must confess that things are slipping my mind that shouldn’t. Rest assured, I shall not make this mistake again,” he smiled apologetically.
“All right,” Kaja frowned. “I suppose I can understand that... you aren’t the only one to be feeling the strain recently.”
“Exactly,” Tiernach’s smile widened. “May I continue? I think it will all make sense to you.”
Kaja hesitated, but Tiernach was looking at him with one of those expressions. The sort that begged for trust and acceptance, and which Kaja had never been particularly good at refusing. No, surely there wasn't enough cause to object. Yet.
“Go ahead,” Kaja sighed. “Not like I can object to father's instructions anyway. Just... you know, let's not become the bad guys. Defence over offence, that's our job.”
“I quite understand,” Tiernach nodded sincerely. “Don't worry, Kaj, everything here is for the best. Trust me, it will be all right.” He turned to face the senate again. “Thank you for bearing with us, my lords and ladies,” he said loudly. “The interruption was entirely my fault and I offer my apologies. Now then, where were we...?” he looked thoughtful as the room quieted around him. “Ah, of course,” he picked up the scroll, unfurling it across the lectern and looking down at it.
“The first of the measures to be undertaken is to increase the number of soldiers we can supply to the king's army. To aid this, it is the king’s intent that every noble family be given the power to nominate people under their jurisdiction for service, so that we are no longer reliant upon volunteers.”
A murmur went around the room at this.
“An excellent strategy, your highness,” a lupari on the front row of seats at Tiernach’s left spoke up. “Many of us have long asked for this, it is simply a shame that it must come in circumstances such as these.”
“Indeed, Lord Blackwood,” Tiernach nodded. “A great shame.”
“Surely this is a joke!” a greying vulpani in a long red coat protested, standing and leaning over Aleana's head. “Highness, are we seriously to believe that we are about to make drafting commonplace? The people will never stand for it!”
“Our people will see the necessity of it, and will comply,” Blackwood glared across the chamber at the vulpani. “And if not, then we shall have no choice but to insist upon the matter for their own good. We must stand strong against our foe, and if that requires us to bring a few cowards into line then so be it.”
“You aren’t seriously considering the use of force against our own people if they choose not to fight?” the vulpani looked outraged. Looking up at him, Aleana felt a small surge of hope. Odd to think that dissent in the royal court would bring such a feeling, but there it was, testament to the strangeness of the circumstances.
“If you were looking after your province appropriately, Oakroot, the people in it would consider it a privilege to join your soldiers and fight for defence of the kingdom,” Blackwood fired back. “Are you saying that you do not look after your troops properly? Officers mistreating the lower ranks? Underpaid, perhaps?”
“Don't be absurd!” Lord Oakroot snapped. “I don’t see...”
“My lords!” Kaja stepped forward and raised his hands, his voice commanding. “Calm yourselves please. This matter will not be aided by anger. Are you quite sure this is necessary?” he asked Tiernach.
Tiernach nodded gravely. “The need is most pressing,” he said quietly, his eyes roving across the benches around him. “You have read the reports, I am sure. I believe your province is along the eastern coast, Lord Undertree,” he called out, directing his gaze at to the left of the chamber. “Perhaps you would care to confirm how it is to be separated by the Freelands by such a narrow divide?”
The sciurel appeared rather shocked to be addressed directly, but recovered himself quickly. “Yes,” he nodded. “Of course I’ll confirm it. Over the past two weeks Freelands troops have overrun three small villages near Northline Canyon, both north and south of Fortitude. Those villagers that didn’t die fighting were sent running cross country with no food, water, or shelter. From what I can tell, only half of them made it to Plainsguard, and there's no safer place to run to within fifty miles of the coast. As to the rest... well, they remain unaccounted for. Perhaps some have made it to smaller towns, but it would have been a two day walk without provisions, even for the strongest. The oldest and weakest wouldn't have got half way...”
Lord Oakroot studied the sciurel for a moment, frowning.
“Do you understand now, Lord Oakroot?” Tiernach asked the vulpani, his tone firm but gentle, showing no hint of anger. “We cannot hold our land with our current military strength. We need more men on the line.”
The vulpani shook his head slowly. “I do not believe conscription is right in an enlightened society such as ours. A solider who fights because of fear is far less effective that one who volunteers because he believes in his cause.”
“That’s easy to say when your estate is in the heart of the kingdom. Nice long way from any action, aren’t you?” Blackwood growled, his one good eye flashing, but Tiernach motioned him quiet.
“I am sorry you do not agree, Lord Oakroot,” the leonin said calmly. “But nonetheless, I expect double the troops from your province. You are hereby granted the power to provide this by whatever means necessary. Whether you choose to gather the men by draft, offering higher wages, or by rousing speeches, I do not care, but you will supply those troops within the month. Do you understand, Lord Oakroot?”
Kaja watched the vulpani nod reluctantly. He wanted to tell him that he understood, that he agreed that drafting unwilling soldiers was wrong, but... was it? There were so many people at risk, and Tiernach was right that they needed more people on the front lines. It was a difficult choice.
“Now,” Tiernach spoke again, resting his hands on the lectern. “The second measure to be taken relates to the matter of supplies for the army. Specifically food, cloth, wood and metal – the principle consumables of an army. From here on, there will be an emergency tax directly on such materials as produced within Lordenor, requiring you to transfer a percentage of production directly to the palace, or to a nominated collection ground.”
“What?” this time it was a lupari a little to the right and two rows back from Lord Oakroot who protested. “Highness, with all respect,” he recovered quickly. “You are already asking us to turn labourers into soldiers, we're going to struggle to feed those men as it is, let alone if we send away the food that our few remaining farmers are able to produce!”
“I did not say all food,” Tiernach frowned. “I said a proportion. And do not worry about feeding the troops – most of them will be reporting to the same places as you will be sending supplies. We need resources and manpower alike to all come through official channels so that we can ensure a proper distribution of both. Is that not reasonable?”
“I... suppose so...” the challenger faltered.
“In this you must trust the king's judgement, lords and ladies of the senate,” Tiernach appealed to his audience as a whole. “He understands completely that the following months will be a strain, but he and I are in agreement that with dedication and effort, we can bolster our military and maintain or even increase resource production. However, it does require change, and it does require trust, and it does require loyalty. I do not believe any of you have ever had a word of complaint against my father’s rule. I ask you to trust his judgement now as you have in the past. Stand with us, and we shall overcome this danger.”
“We are with you, as ever, your Highness,” Lord Undertree spoke loudly, and several calls of agreement and scattered applause rang out through the room.
“Your Highness,” Lord Oakroot stood again. His tone was polite and measured now, but Aleana could see the tension in his hands as they pressed into the narrow bench between them. “I understand your position, and I understand his majesty’s decision. You ask for loyalty to the king, and you shall have it as you always have before. Might I ask, how much of our production do we need to commit to the state, under the instructions as left by his Majesty?”
“Of course you may, Lord Oakroot,” Tiernach nodded politely. “I intend to have each of you supplied with an information pack within a few days, but I can tell you that on average we will require approximately fifty percent of your production to be set aside.”
“Fifty percent!” it wasn’t quite clear which of the nobles had spoken, because at least a third of the room was now on their feet, including Aleana, though she hadn't taken more than two paces forwards before the brigadier grabbed her arm and hauled her back. She glared at him, but he shook his head.
“You can't interfere with the debate,” he told her firmly.
“Why?” she demanded angrily, but quite unable to dislodge his grip. “This is madness, someone has to say something.”
“Not least because you are not yet of age. You should be grateful to be allowed to observe at all.” He leaned closer as Aleana subsided, fuming, into her seat once more and spoke more quietly, careful to avoid being overheard. “I do sympathise, Princess, but watch. Prince Kaja may yet surprise you.”
“Tier,” Kaja put his hand on his brother’s arm. “That’s surely going too far! Their present tax is fifteen, not fifty!”
“I am well aware of this, Kaja, as was father,” Tiernach responded coolly. “It was our mutual conclusion that this higher tax is in the best interests of the kingdom.”
“Are you also aware that some of them cannot provide that much and still retain enough to feed the people in their province?”
“The king is aware,” Tiernach said loudly above the clamour, thudding his fist into the lectern with a bang that restored some level of order to the senate, eyes both angry, dutiful and excited turning their gaze towards him. “That it will be a difficult time ahead. He knows, that some of you are not experiencing a good harvest this year. He and I are aware, that you are concerned for your people.” Looking around, he met every gaze that offered challenge. “But I am also very much aware of the threat posed by the Freelands!” he paused for a few moments as a hush descended. “Lords and ladies, do you actually believe the king would allow our people to go hungry?” he asked softly. “Is that truly what you think of him? Is that what you think of me?” he continued, casting a sidelong glance at Kaja who suddenly felt deeply uncomfortable.
Tiernach sighed as the chamber fell silent again. “I apologise,” he said, suddenly and unexpectedly. “Perhaps I have given that impression of late. The war with the Freelands concerns me deeply, and if under its influence I have seemed cold and dispassionate, then I am sorry. I truly care for our people as much as I ever have, as does my father. Neither he nor I have any intention of asking you to provide more than you can spare,” Tiernach said calmly, his gaze sweeping across the senate. “We would never ask that of you.”
Kaja shifted slightly, feeling somewhat guilty for having thought otherwise, even if only for a moment.
“There will of course, be a fair assessment of the most efficient methods of contribution from each province. If you cannot supply food, we will not ask it of you. If you cannot supply metal, we will ask you for something else. You are not being asked to starve your people, or leave them without shelter. You will not be asked to sacrifice the safety of the people under your jurisdiction. You will,” he went on, his voice becoming firm. “Be asked to ensure maximum production efficiency of those goods with which your province is naturally blessed. You will be expected to explain to those in your charge the necessity for hard work during this time, and you will be expected to make intelligent use of manual resources. You will be expected to ensure that your mines, and lumber mills, and farms are worked to their maximum practical capacity. You will be expected to keep your people producing resources for the state at maximum speed. And if necessary, you will be expected to bolster your security forces to ensure that other expectations can be met.”
“Then what you are expecting them to do is form forced labour camps,” Kaja growled, putting his hand down on the scroll in front of Tiernach.
The younger twin looked at Kaja’s hand, then up to his face, his eyes hard and cold.
“What father and I are asking them to do is convey to the people the need to win this war,” he said quietly. “And I am surprised that you question that, brother.”
“And you know that the people will not stand for the workload you are expecting of them! You will work them into the ground then take away what they produce! That is no way to live, not for anyone!”
“We will be taking from them only what is necessary to ensure their survival. Our survival, as a kingdom,” he added, looking around the room.
“Prince Tiernach is right,” Lord Redclaw rose to his feet and turned to address the room from his position on the front row. “My good lords and ladies, you know as well as I that we are facing dire need for a stronger military. We know that without an army strong enough to protect our lands, we will fall to the Freelands. What Prince Tiernach says is true, and we must help him to defend this kingdom, and to do that we must take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that each and every one of our people works to their full potential. We can only hope that they understand this need, and are willing, at least for a time to put aside their own desires. We must all put aside our own desires. Our ambitions, our hopes, our dreams... they will all come to nothing if we do not stand united against our foe.”
“And what are we to tell our people?” a lutrani near the back called out. “When we demand that they work night and day, and then we take away their food and fuel?”
“The truth,” Tiernach said simply. “That if they do not, they will lose everything they have.”
“Highness, they'll just say that the threat is to the ruler of the kingdom, not to them personally. They won't take it seriously!”
“Yes,” the leonin said slowly. “They will. And everyone in this room who wants to grow old in peace and safety will take what I say next to heart. It has been decided that, in light of the present emergency, the police forces of Lordenor will henceforth be transferred into the military, and that the duties of peacekeeping shall from here on lie with each person in this room. From this point, each of you becomes a ranking officer within the military, and your authority within your province is absolute, second only to royal-order.”
“You can’t be serious!” Kaja exclaimed as the chamber erupted around them. “You’re declaring martial law!”
“Quite right,” Tiernach said smoothly. “It seems like the best thing to do, under the circumstances.”
“How can it possibly be the best thing to do?” Kaja growled. “Our justice system has always proved adequate and fair.”
“Not any more,” Tiernach replied, his cool demeanour never faltering. “We are at war, brother.” He raised his voice and addressed the room loudly. “The enemy may be nearer than you think. I have no intention of allowing spies and enemy agents to agitate our people further, and to avoid that it is necessary to improve the efficiency of our police force. The fastest, easiest, and best way to do that is to place them under your control. Your direct control. We do not,” he continued. “Have time to waste with petty matters. We do not, care in the least about a stolen loaf of bread, or barrel of apples. We can not spare the resources to process these matters, so I leave them in your capable hands. It is down to you, lords and ladies to maintain order in your provinces. Down to you to ensure that production quotas are met. Down to you to...”
“Threaten our people until they work themselves to exhaustion?” Lord Oakroot interrupted loudly, momentarily forgetting who he was addressing.
Tiernach regarded him coldly. “I hope that will not be necessary,” he said slowly. “But if it is, then so be it. Sometimes it is necessary to pressure a minority to ensure the well being of the majority, and this may prove to be one of those times.”
“Are you afraid you cannot maintain the law, Oakroot?” Blackwood barked harshly, a lopsided sneer on his face.
“I am not prepared to become the law, that is not my place, nor yours,” the vulpani glared back.
“The king’s word is the law,” Lord De Lance spoke suddenly from somewhere near the back, his voice cutting through the mutters around him. “As is the word of those he chooses as his representatives in his absence. That is how it has always been. What are we,” he stood and swept his arm around the room full of nobles. “If not extensions of his will? We are here to serve him.”
“Exactly,” a man on the fourth row spoke up, nodding. “It is by his choice that we oversee our provinces, and if it is his desire that we do so more directly, then so be it.”
“We are also here to represent and protect the people of our provinces,” Oakroot said steadfastly. “And that means ensuring a fair and unbiased justice system.”
“Lord Oakroot is right,” Kaja stepped forward, realising that something had to be done. “We of my father’s line have never presumed to rule with an iron fist, never believed ourselves to be above the law. And we do not now,” he finished, glaring at Tiernach, daring him to contradict.
Tiernach dared, meeting his twin’s gaze calmly. “Above the law, no. Keepers of the law, yes. What difference does it make if we take a more direct control, other than to increase the speed and efficiency of the system?
“Lords, ladies,” he appealed to the room. “What I ask you to do is help your king by ensuring his rule is maintained swiftly, and without unnecessary delay. You are,” he made a sweeping gesture. “The only ones we can trust with this duty in these times.”
“You can trust us, Highness,” Blackwood spoke up. “Your nobles are by your side, as ever, and we will maintain law and order as you command.”
“Here here,” a sciurel at the back encouraged. “We stand ready, your Highness. Your law is our law, and we shall enforce it as you see fit.”
“It is not our place to act as judge and jury,” another man argued. “The people expect fair and impartial law enforcement.”
“And how are we not such?” a leonin on the right challenged. “The only people who need fear our control will be dissidents, those who would undermine the security of the kingdom. Those who are good, honest, law abiding, and hard working shall be left in peace.”
“Who decides which of our people are honest, and law abiding?” a lupari in the middle of the back row called out. “We don’t have time to spare in a fair assessment of every minor infraction that happens in our province. How can we give justice to those whom we have to pass judgement on without trial or defence?”
“The king’s word, by nature, is the law, and the law is justice,” Lord Blackwood shouted above the increasing noise in the chamber. “Do you contend that?” he demanded, glaring at those who had voiced other opinions. The room quieted.
Tiernach nodded, and continued his address. “Your word in your provinces will be unchallenged,” he spoke loudly. “Your right, will be the right. Your justice, will be the king’s justice. And those who challenge you...”
“What?” Kaja demanded, standing on the other side of the lectern, looking Tiernach in the eye, noses inches apart. “What will you do to those who challenge this plan of forced labour and higher taxes? Threaten them? Threaten their homes? Their families?” he lowered his voice. “Their lives?”
Tiernach regarded his brother unblinkingly, a hush descending upon the room as the two princes remained locked in a battle of wills.
“Whatever the ruler of the involved province deems is necessary for the good of the state,” Tiernach said quietly. “That is, after all, the point at hand.”
“Justice cannot be dispensed by force or in haste, it must be upheld properly,” Lord Oakroot interjected, and several heads nodded in agreement.
“And it will be,” Tiernach said firmly, his eyes still locked on his brother’s. “I am not asking you to punish anyone who does nothing wrong. But refusal to act in the best interests of the kingdom is tantamount to treason, and I expect you to act accordingly.”
“Since when was it treason to refuse to work to the point of exhaustion and pay a tax so high as to be unable to feed your family?” Kaja asked harshly.
“Anything that would prevent us from surviving a war with the Freelands is against the interests of the state, and cannot be permitted,” Tiernach shot back. “Order must be maintained until the threat has been dealt with!”
“So what will you do?” Kaja demanded. “Punish anyone who complains? Silence everyone who calls out for moderation while you build armies and weapons?” His expression hardened. “Outlaw freedom until the war is over?”
“If necessary, yes,” Tiernach said.
“Father would never have agreed to those terms and you know it!” the older twin shouted.
“Strange then, that they bear his signature,” Tiernach said acidly.
“Which you are quite capable of faking, I am sure.”
“Would you care to challenge its authenticity?”
“Yes,” Kaja stated flatly, and punched Tiernach in the face, knocking him back from the lectern and onto the floor.
“I don’t know what in the seven hells you think you are doing, but I know that it is not what father said,” Kaja strode up to his brother as he rose to his feet, grabbing him by the collar. “And I have no intention of allowing this to go any further.”
“Stop this, Highnesses!” the brigadier stepped in, his role as house peacekeeper now not just allowing, but obliging him to act. Thrusting the princes apart, he interposed himself between them, glaring at each alternately. “We do not resort to violence in this chamber,” the lutrani reminded them sternly, apparently not intimidated by being a foot shorter than either prince. “If that is what you wish, take it outside and return when the matter is settled, but in here you do not fight each other!”
The twins both glared at the brigadier, but the dignified lutrani refused to back down, raising a hand to each of their chests to keep them apart. Despite his being a foot and a half shorter than either, such was the officer's presence that they both stepped back, growling at each other.
“If you can prove the orders are false, brother,” Tiernach spat. “Then you may challenge them. If not, then you, I, and everyone here will obey them.” He grabbed the scroll from the lectern and brandished it towards Kaja. “Unless you intend to defy the king’s orders?” he said coldly.
Kaja swallowed as the room hushed. He glanced around at the nobles as they looked on intently. Taking a deep breath, he chuckled ruefully.
“Well done, brother,” he said quietly, shaking his head. “I don’t know how you faked the seal and signature so well. I don’t suppose it matters, because you'll have done it well enough that I can’t prove that’s what you did.” Tiernach remained expressionless as his twin continued. “And I can’t blame any of you,” Kaja said, looking around the chamber, his gaze sweeping across the nobles. “For following these orders. There’s a good chance that they are the safest thing to do, at least with regard to yourselves and your families. But they are not the right thing to do. And they are not what I believe my father would do. No threat, no fear, no bribe could cause him to take away the freedoms of our people.”
Kaja’s eyes met Tiernach’s again. “I cannot follow these orders, brother. I will not follow them. If you choose to stand by them, then I must oppose you in that.”
“Opposing the king’s orders, brother,” Tiernach said quietly. “Would be treason.”
Kaja shrugged. “Yes, I… I suppose it would be, wouldn’t it?”