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cup and her rings.
Valerius and Alixana laughed aloud. Both of them.
'And so we learn our lesson,' the Emperor said, a hand rubbing at his soft
chin. 'Like impish children caught out by their tutor. Rhodias is older than
Sarantium, the west came long before the east, and the queen of the Antae, who
was daughter to a king before she ruled in her own name, was always likely to
be aware of courtly practices.'
'You are clever and beautiful, child,' said Alixana. 'A daughter such as I
might wish to have had.'
Gisel drew a breath. There could not possibly be anything sincere in this, but
the woman had just casually drawn attention to their ages, her own
childlessness, Gisel's appearance.
'Daughters are seldom in demand at a court,' she murmured, thinking as quickly
as she could. 'We are only tools for marriage most of the time. A complication
in other ways, unless there are also sons to smooth a succession.' If Alixana
could be direct, so could she. There was an undeniable ripple of excitement
within her: she had been here almost half a year, doing nothing, suspended
like an insect in
Trakesian amber. What she did now might end in death, but she realized she was
prepared to court that.
This time it was Gesius who smiled briefly, she saw. She was conscious of his
measuring gaze upon her.
'We are aware, of course, of your difficulties at home,' said
Valerius. 'Indeed, we have spent a winter pondering ways of addressing them.'
There was little point, really, in not responding to this, either.
'We have spent a winter,' Gisel murmured, 'doing the same thing. It might have
been appropriate to do so together? We did accept an invitation to come here
in order to do that.'
'Indeed? Is that so? It is my understanding,' said a man dressed in figured
silk of a deep green, 'that our invitation and an Imperial ship were what
saved your life, queen of the Antae.' His tone, eastern, patrician, was just
barely acceptable in this company. The
Master of Offices paused, then added, 'You do have a savage history in your
tribe, after all.'
This she would not countenance. East and the fallen west again? The glorious
Sarantine heirs of Rhodias, the primitive barbarians from the northern
forests? Not still, not here. Gisel turned her gaze to him.
'Somewhat,' she said coldly. 'We are a warlike, conquering people. Of course
succession here in Sarantium always proceeds in a more orderly fashion. No
deaths ever attend upon a change of Emperors, do they?'
She knew what she was saying. There was a little silence. Gisel became aware
that glances were being cast-quickly, and then away-
towards Styliane Daleina, who had seated herself behind the Empress.
She made a point of not looking that way.
The Chancellor gave a dry cough behind his hand. Another of the seated men
glanced quickly at him and then gestured briefly. The musician, with alacrity
and evident relief, made a hasty obeisance and left the room with his
instrument. No one paid him the least attention. Gisel was still glaring at
the Master of Offices.
The Emperor said, in a thoughtful voice, 'The queen is correct, of course,
Faustinus. Indeed, even my uncle's ascension was accompanied by some violence.
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Styliane's own dear father was killed.'
So much cleverness here. This was not a man, Gisel thought, to allow a nuance
to slip by, if he could make it his own. She understood this, as it happened:
her father had been much the same. It gave her some confidence, though her
heart was racing. These were dangerous, subtle people, but she was the
daughter of one herself. Perhaps she was one herself? They could kill her, and
they might, but they could not strip her of pride and all legacies. She was
aware of a bitter irony, however: she was defending her people against an
allegation that they were murderous, barbaric, when she herself had been the
intended victim of an assassination- in a holy, consecrated place.
'Times of change are seldom without their casualties,' said the
Chancellor softly, his first words. His voice was thin as paper, very clear.
'The same must be said of war,' said Gisel, her tone blunt. She would not let
this become an evening discussion of philosophers. She had sailed here for a
reason, and it was not merely to save her life, whatever anyone might think or [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]