The 600th Anniversary
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This is what happens when we untangle the entire history of the Faldrean Empire in one week. Crazy noble ladies, a six-year-old spy kid, and the writer accidentally forgetting to kill their Emperor off.
“Tomorrow’s the six-century celebration for the Empire.”
There were two of them trotting down the street; male and female. She had long muddy-blonde hair swept back over her shoulders, smooth close-cut leggings and tunic, a sweet, enigmatic smile over guileless green eyes. He was tall for his age, scruffy and chocolate-haired, still mucky with grime though they’d picked him up weeks before. Turas didn’t like baths.
The six-year old scuffed a sleeve across his nose. Lydia looked at him disgustedly. She was a noble, he knew, and she didn’t like not taking baths. He didn’t care for her much.
“What’s it matter?” the street kid asked irritably, ducking under someone’s groceries and biting off a cough when dust blew up around his face. It was Skies, the sixth month of the year — the end of summer. Hot, windless and stifling in the winding streets of the Faldrean Empire’s capital, even this late as the sun bled its life out on the horizon. “’S not like we’re gonna get to go to the celebration.”
His nine-year-old companion sniffed and allowed a few steps to distance them. Noble-born, hmph — stuck-up even though now she was just a witch and a spy. Lydia wasn’t worthless, though — she was already a sharp fighter, and smart. And pretty — you could see it, lines of feminine grace waiting to wake; even now, in the flat-chested body of a young, careless waif. “You aren’t trying to tell me you don’t even know the legends?” she demanded icily.
“Yeah, sounds right.” Even now, far distant from the acts that would define him, he was an impudent little thing. The two wouldn’t meet again for a long time. They might not even remember each other when they did. But there was something ingrained deep in their characters that made them really hate each other, right from a glance.
Lydia sniffed again, tossed golden hair over one shoulder. “Every one hundred years, someone important in the government dies.” The words were crisp, as if spoken in well-practiced recital. “The Emperor, the Arch-Strategist, or the High General, or more than one of them. Only once was it not at the celebration, and then the Empress died of old age that winter.”
“Oh.” Turas considered the information, and shrugged carelessly. “So, when we gonna get t’ this meeting place? You said there’s gonna be a kid as’ll train me, right?” Not much point picking up with the Empire if you weren’t going to be trained, after all.
“What? Oh.” Lydia shrugged, and it was just as careless as her companion’s; somehow she managed to make it more graceful. It was odd — he was lithe, in a miniature catlike sort of way, but she was more like a waterfall. The image should have made her rougher around the edges, but it didn’t — it was more like the smooth glass of frozen water, paused in time but flowing underneath. “Devarrim is his name. You ought to be offended; he’s only twelve. Not much of a tutor.”
“Must mean he’s good,” Turas mused, dodging a horse and scratching at his neck in contemplation. Or because of fleas, maybe. “I c’n learn a lot from a good ’un.”
And he moved a little faster with a bit more bounce to his step, leaving a rather miffed Lydia in his wake.
“Boys,” she whispered to herself, a sort of private creed. “They never make sense.”
And she sped up as well, leaving the last rays of light to die in their wake.
— * — * — * —
It was the middle of the sexcentenary celebration of the Faldrean Empire, and Turas couldn’t stop marveling at his luck.
Devarrim was a pretty nice guy. Brown-haired and hazel-eyed, average height, pretty typical. Clever-fingered — like Turas, he’d once been a pickpocket. And he had this incredible smile — friendly and open in ways Turas really wasn’t at all familiar with but on encountering didn’t mind in the least.
Best of all, the Spymaster really liked him. So it was him and his new little protégé that got to hang around at the celebration.
The sun was high in the robin’s-egg sky, drifting hazily over the wood-and-stone buildings that had sprung up all around the Imperial Palace. It was a sweaty sort of afternoon — Turas, bouncing up and down in an attempt to see over the heads of the gaily-bedecked crowd, could have sworn he saw the air moving from the heat. Didn’t happen often, even though the Empire was the more southern of the two known kingdoms.
“Kid, kid!” Devarrim was laughing; he put a hand on Turas’s head. He was tall enough to do it without really reaching up — he hit his growth early. “Calm it down, the floats aren’t even here yet!”
“But I cain’ see ’em!” Turas was just fine to wail the words loudly, considering Dev wouldn’t give him a clout to the head for it. “Damn people are so tall —”
Devarrim didn’t start at the word coming from a six-year-old’s mouth. Lydia would have. “Turas, kid, you’re tiny. See those people there?” Turas nodded excitedly; a pretty rich couple, obviously, all decked out in furs despite the heat. It was like that for all the city celebrations — the nobles came down from their manors in their best, to show off, and the street folk dressed real normal in their best and tried their hand at picking off from the unusually abundant fare. Dev grinned at their backs and bent down to whisper in their ear.
“Soon as you hear the parade coming,” the words breathed across the space between them, “push past them. You’ll see just how polite nobles really are — even if you’re dressed decent.”
At this reminder of his clothing, Turas scratched at his shirt cuff. It was dark blue material, embroidered in gold. Pretty and well-made. And itchy. Dev shook his head, grinning, and swatted the scratching hand in a big-brotherly sort of way.
Neither of them noticed the lovely ornamental dagger the lady of the aforementioned pair had hidden up her sleeve.
Lady Arethe was quite fed up with her husband. Years of plotting, and he had decided to back out. The Giranei family had been working for years to get among the Great Fiefs, even get the Faldre family off the throne, and now he was going to back out! All because of one stupid fish.
You see, the Giranei family is the one minor barony distantly related to the Geysen duchy, the fourth Great Fief. The one that fueled that peasant rebellion during Emperor Peiren’s generation — yeah, you remember. Been in disfavor ever since the mercenary incident some fifty years back. In fact, the emperor killed the entire immediate family when that happened, diluting the distant noble blood even more.
But, see, way back in the time of the First Emperor, Geysen got its first duke. That duke was a distant relation of the Emperor himself. And, as Giranei had a distant relation to Geysen…
The problem was, Baron Echaiten seemed perfectly content to believe that someday he would somehow inherit the throne by this relation, despite the fact that the Emperor was to marry soon and would doubtless have a perfectly legitimate heir before two years were out. Or, worse, he just plain didn’t care. He’d chosen to announce it over their Geysen-caught fish dinner last night. [*]
Baron Echaiten and Lady Arethe were both born Giranei. Giranei only married Giranei anymore, in hopes of making their noble blood a bit more elevated. It was said that madness ran in the family because of it. Lady Arethe didn’t believe a word of it.
So, here she stood today. Lady Kisha had had some lovely contacts in the ranks of the Whisperers that she’d passed down to her great-niece before she was beheaded. Lady Arethe made full use of these contacts, and had it all set up. As soon as the Emperor’s procession got within decent range she’d draw her dagger, which was witch-charmed to alert certain…friends in the audience. The pommel had this lovely blood-red garnet that was the activation key, which she’d found a charming irony (though several of her spy friends had been a bit miffed when she gave them their matching pieces).
Ah, the sounds of the parade. Cheering and stamping from the crowd, the occasional whinny of an ill-trained horse, and of course those fool bleating trumpets Emperor Teirsye seemed to so favor. She smiled cruelly, touched a hand to her dagger —
And a stupid mucky street boy pushed past her, sending the sheath clattering to the ground.
Lady Arethe let loose a very unladylike stream of mingled curses and screeches, completely losing sight of her fellow plotters and managing to look perfectly mad without getting a fur-trimmed hair out of place. The people nearest her cast sideways glances in her direction and shuffled a few steps away. A short distance away from her, a young Whisperer was rubbing at his neck and grinning bemusedly, wondering if he should have exposed his quick little protégé to such a nasty stream of language after all.
And behind her back, Baron Echaiten bent down and picked up the dagger with a fond smile and a shake of his head. The baron had the luck of being only half Giranei, and was quite thankful of the fact. That wife of his would get into endless trouble without him, the poor woman…
The parade was over and the sun was setting once more, this time bringing with it a gentle breeze with the chill promise of autumn on its edge. Strange, Devarrim reflected, that the First Emperor had proclaimed himself on the edges of winter. But then, not everything about the Faldrean Empire was perfectly sane — and its politics were awfully bloody. Perhaps he’d done it under death threat.
Little Turas was whistling cheerfully at his side and bobbing along, a red-and-gold ribbon from some horse’s harness wrapped around his wrist. Somehow he’d managed to get ahold of it during the confusion of the celebration, and fully intended to keep it as a memento. Dev grinned down at him — it was nice to have a friend again. Somehow friends were even harder to come by in service to the Empire than they were in the city’s slums.
“So, what did you think of the parade, kid?”
Turas shrugged, an easy rolling motion. He didn’t look so ungainly without pretty Lydia to be compared to. “Pretty good. I seen better. Big crowd, though.”
“Yeah. There usually is. Turas, by the way, there’s a reason I had us go there today. In the future there’s going to be a lot of those for you. You were a street thief, so you’re not going to be assigned a village to watch — you’ll be doing odd jobs and guard duty with me. This is —”
Dev stopped; Turas wasn’t listening. The six-year-old was chewing a grubby thumb and staring off at the sunset thoughtfully, a slight frown marring his face. It was a dissatisfied sort of frown.
“What’s up?” his tutor asked. Turas glanced up, and shrugged.
“That noble witchgirl, the Lydia one, she told me somebody dies every year. I was wanting to see some’un die. Guess she was lying.”
Devarrim frowned as well, thoughtful. “No — she wasn’t. I completely forgot. Maybe a lesser noble died this time, and we’ll find out tomorrow. Or — maybe someone’s going to die later this year, before Rain ends.”
“Nah.” Turas shook his head and a little more bounce entered his step. “It was us, the Whisperers. There were somebody out there as stopped assassins, or something. You jus’ wait, we’ll hear ’bout it soon.”
With that oddly light statement, he bounced off towards the last of the dying light, and Devarrim shook his head and followed after.
And this, my friend, is why some orders are best left unexplained.
*Geysen is famous for its port and its military. The nobles are all knights. The commoners catch fish.
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