Eritan tried to relax. It should have been easy, closed away in his private library as he was, reclining in a pillowed chair with his favorite history in hand. The Sword and the Flame, it read in silvery letters on the front: one of the most thorough accounts of the rise of the Letaalese Empire. Covered was everything from Pirinaan’s rise in the north, to the first battles against the Heartan overlords, to the first Emperor Eritan’s political maneuverings. Eritan liked those last the most, of course. His namesake had been a splendid ruler and a better politician; he himself did everything he could to emulate that first emperor of Letaal.
But things just weren’t cooperating. While Eritan the First had drawn allies to his side and conquered recalcitrant territories with the aid of Pirinaan’s priests, Eritan the Third was finding that process to be much more difficult, even with the expanded resources of an entire empire, rather than the limited power of Jinda. Instead of fighting against pliable peoples like those in Heart and Tuul and Icefall, he was stuck with the intractable Tin and the wild Roeteli. And of course the Nera Nashan to the north, who were now attacking any Letaalese who dared ride north from Barrier.
With a noise of disgust, he cast aside the book. It fell with a muted thump on thick bloodred carpet, bouncing once to land open, face-down. With only half a glance at the tome, he reached to the nearest shelf and selected a different book. For Flame and Heart, this one, a famous romance about a priest in Heart who cast aside his duties to the Faith in order to woo a noblewoman. Eritan shrugged and opened it. There was plenty of lasciviousness in this volume to keep his mind off of politics.
A smirk spread across his lips as he read, the angle of sunlight shifting as the Dawn of Embers receded and midday passed. When the door to the small library opened, it was well into the second hour past noon.
Eritan looked up, unconcerned over the particular book in his hands, even when he saw that it was his wife. Short and slim, with a boyish figure and wide blue eyes under pale gold hair, she somehow managed to project an aura of command. Perhaps it had something to do with her dress, a stylish and sleeveless affair of gold and red cascading down to her ankles. Or the diadem sitting atop her wavy hair, with its five silver rays.
“Alaina, my radiant love!” Eritan said, setting aside his book with much more care than he’d shown his first choice of reading.
Alaina glanced at the title as she approached; her mouth tightened, but she did not speak about it. “Eritan, my Emperor.” She dropped a shallow curtsy. Her voice was surprisingly low, considering her appearance, but held a rich and alluring tone.
Eritan stood and took her in his arms. They embraced, and he felt a bit of his tension melt away against her warmth. “You know you need not show such courtesies to me in private, Alaina.”
She broke away and shrugged. “I have been busy today, and formality has been my duty. It is difficult to so quickly shed.”
Eritan raised an eyebrow. He reached for his glass of wine, hesitated, and asked, “Would you like some wine? I still have most of the decanter.” He nodded to the table next to the window, upon which sat three crystal cups shattering light into a rainbow on the carpet. A clear glass decanter rested next to the goblets, at least three-quarters full of a golden wine. He moved to pour her a cup before she could respond. “What duty had you so busy and formal on the Dawn of Embers?”
Alaina pursed her lips while her eyes tracked Eritan to the table. “I went among the people and aided in their efforts to clean the streets.”
“You what?” Eritan exclaimed, nearly spilling the wine he was about to pour. He looked at her with narrow eyes. “Why in all the shades of the Flame would you do that?”
Alaina grimaced. “I knew you would have this reaction. It is why I…neglected…to mention my intent before this. I did not actually get on my knees and clean, if that is what you were worried about. I went with a few of our men and had them help, while I spoke with some of the smallfolk and raised their spirits.”
Eritan frowned. “Nonetheless. You could have been endangered. The strictest penalties for unruliness on the Night of Ten Thousand Fires do not extend into today.”
Alaina sighed, glided forward silently over the rich carpeting, and laid a gentle hand on his arm. “I know, my love. But I recognize the importance of your plight with the priests. The Night of Ten Thousand Fires ignites many to greater zeal and faith. It should be only right for them to be reminded of the Imperial Throne, and your importance separate from the Faith.”
Eritan inhaled a sharp breath. His eyebrows, thin and dark above his equally dark eyes, lifted in surprise. “That is very shrewd, Alaina. I had not thought of that.” Inwardly he flogged himself for missing that. The first Eritan would have seen it, no doubt. Why should I miss it, then? He ground his teeth and finished pouring Alaina’s wine.
She shrugged, accepted the wine, and spun on her heel with a laugh. Eritan watched her go to one of the padded chairs and sit down; he marveled at his luck in this match. When his father demanded he marry the eldest daughter of the Lord of Icefall, Eritan had despaired—only to meet this beautiful girl, only a year younger than himself, and sharper than half the nobles in the Second Tier.
And then she grew into the role. He could not stop a smile from growing, despite his bitterness over her doings that morning. At twenty-three, she was a force to be reckoned with in the capitol. He could only imagine what she would be like with a decade or more of experience with the priests and lords and ladies of Letaal.
“I believe I will start a regular schedule of such things,” Alaina said from her perch on the chair, her legs crossed demurely before her. Her slippered feet barely reached the floor. “The people need to see that the Throne does more than hide behind these black walls.”
Eritan nodded, hesitant to agree to putting her in danger. “Are you certain it is wise? We do have enemies, after all. Putting yourself out in the open like that…” he trailed off, hoping her imagination would fill in the space.
But she only favored him with a light laugh. “Oh, I am quite protected with my Dragon Guards. And no priest would dare harm me.” She took a sip of the wine and made an appreciative noise. “This is quite good. Anyway, I think you should join me on one or two of these little expeditions. If my appearance helps with things, I can only imagine what the presence of the Emperor himself might do.”
Eritan pursed his lips and poured another glass of wine for himself as he mulled over her words. “Perhaps that would be, ah, workable.” He fidgeted, uncomfortable with the idea of exposing himself to the rabble and the crowds. “I would of course need to discuss it with Joraan.” Wherever the burning man is, today.
“Of course, my love,” Alaina said. “Joraan would be a splendid addition to the effort.”
Eritan tried not to grind his teeth. He did not like the idea of going out into the streets, but Alaina did have a point. It would help his stance in dealing with Selonius and the rest of the priests. He would need to convince Joraan that it was a bad idea, at least for Eritan to go. Or, rather, he would need to lead Joraan to that conclusion. It would be better if his advisor were to inform Alaina himself, without any overt meddling from Eritan. Yes, that would be best.
Eritan inhaled and tried to relax his shoulders. He took a sip of wine, letting it trail down his throat, and walked to Alaina. He smiled down at her. “Could we just…not talk of such maneuvering? I had my fill of the priests this morning, and enough dire news that I will need to deal with when I meet with the nobles and military tonight.”
Alaina looked up at him with those clear, blue eyes, and smiled. “Of course. Join me.” She shifted over, leaving him just enough room to squeeze onto the chair with her. “We can enjoy a moment together every once in a while, I think. No need to drive ourselves mad with the duty on our shoulders.”
On my shoulders, you mean, Eritan thought. But he did not comment, and instead put one arm around his wife and leaned into her, savoring the warmth of her, and banished thoughts of Avernen and priests and touring the streets. He could deal with that later.
Read the next chapter: “Rumors in Letaal”