Excerpt: The Great Succession Crisis
In this excerpt from chapter five, Princess Anlei and her knight protector, Lord Corann meet Corann’s father and two of his half-brothers for the very first time.
“Make way. Make way for her Royal Highness, Anlei, Crown Princess of Beinan,” cried the herald as Anlei entered the state dining room where the reception for the most important suitors was already in full swing. Lord Corann kept a single pace behind her, visibly protecting her and yet not overly obtrusively. Anlei could feel the warmth of his body near her as she moved and felt glad for it in this intimidating setting filled with so many richly dressed Beinarians representing so much power and prestige.
Gazing around the room, she saw her parents, and then noticed several groupings of young men, many with their fathers. As her presence became noticed, Anlei attended to the posture and disposition of these men. Many of them were richly dressed with crimson belts, embroidery, and trims to their tunics. As a group they seemed to be somewhere between thirty and seventy yen-ars with an air of self-confidence and ego, mostly in their physical appearance, she could tell, by the way they preened and showed off as she passed. These men were obviously interested in a trophy wife, not her.
Overwhelmed by what felt like a wall of men wanting to devour her, Anlei clutched Corann’s arm, trying to conceal her fear. Corann put his hand over hers, trying to both comfort her and cover the fear in her hand, transforming the grasp into a secure escorting hold. “Courage,” he whispered into her ear.
Navigating away from the first group of young men as far as she could in the crowd, Anlei bowed courteously but did not approach them too closely. Suddenly an older gentleman wearing a Ten-arian broad sword turned into her path, stopping her in her tracks. His eyes were a bright grey and his hair was a medium brown that curled into wavy locks. He was 56.8 cun 寸 tall and very athletic in build, his muscles well defined under his fine pale yellow wool tunic embroidered in silver symbols. Just as stunning to Princess Anlei was the way his face and the way he carried himself reminded her of Corann. Suddenly she realized who he was, “Good afternoon, my lord. Would I have the honor of speaking to none other than Lord Cariadoc of House Ten-ar?”
Lord Cariadoc bowed graciously, “Indeed, Your Highness…but it is House Shem that I represent in your fair hall. Many yen-ars ago I gave my soul to the Shemai; though I am a brother of Ten-ar, it is my devotion to my faith that calls my heart first and foremost thanks to my lady wife. I am blessed, Your Highness, to be the father of and extend my name to many sons and daughters.”
“Not all, my lord,” corrected Lord Corann from behind Anlei. He knew it was against protocol to speak now, but he was eye to eye with his father for the first time in his adult life. Surely Cariadoc knew from his face who he was. “You have a son, your first born – and he is a Knight of Ten-ar.”
Cariadoc eyed Corann with veiled contempt, “You are Corann, I presume?”
“What are you doing here? Are you courting the princess?” demanded Cariadoc.
“I am vowed to her side as knight protector. No man shall harm her as long as I am alive. I have a sacred trust to fulfill, to stand always at her side in friendship and in service to her. Her highness is my dearest friend for whom I would gladly lay down my life if called upon to do so as a true knight of Ten-ar,” declared Lord Corann with pride.
“A beautiful woman of House Miyoo is a dangerous creature, Lord Knight Corann, I would be careful of falling to the magic of your charge. You may find yourself in regret one beinor.”
“Is that why you avoid me, Father? You feel some sort of regret that I exist?”
“You have no father, young one. All you have is a witch’s spell that entrapped an honorable man into dishonorable lust until you were made of that abomination. “
“I was more than a yen-ar old when you left, Father. You knew me as an infant and yet you chose to leave. Do not blame the prayers of House Miyoo for your actions. No one made you leave. Nor did anyone make you ignore me all these yen-ars. How many yen-ars did I train in the monastery – ever once did you speak to me, did you say my name, or admit that I am your son? I never asked much of you, only that you admit that you sired me.”
“The Shemai help us all that such a spell was cast over my body, that I ever laid with your mother, boy. Did I lay with your mother, the Lady Cordelia, until you were born of that lust? You want me to say it? YES. I did – for it there has never been a beinor of my life I have not felt the judgment of The Shemai on my head. He will judge all of Beinan for it; destroy us all because of my lust, because I was too weak to prevent your making. I have sinned and I can never undo my sin. This is why I never acknowledged you. You are a mark of shame upon my flesh, Lord Corann. You are an abomination before the god I worship. I beg my wife every beinor to forgive your making and in penance, I have given her many children, only some of whom have survived. My eldest sons, Kaleb and Janus are here. THEY are the sons of my hopes and dreams,” asserted Lord Cariadoc.
Anlei felt Corann’s slow temper rising. It was very difficult to stir Corann to anger, she knew, but this time she could tell, Lord Knight Cariadoc was actually insulting him enough to do it. Fearing for her friend for whom she cared deeply, her many yen-ars of training and practice asserted themselves, “Perhaps, Lord Knight Cariadoc, in a less formal setting the three of us may re-convene in a quieter place to discuss the past in more serene and genial environments. Perhaps this is not the best setting for healing old wounds which clearly need to be healed. Not speaking after all these yen-ars have obviously wounded both of you. If you are amenable, I would be happy to serve as arbiter in your dispute and help end this misunderstanding between you. I understand, my lords, that the past is unpleasant for both of you. But we ARE civilized Beinarian nobles, are we not? Have we learned nothing from the beinors of clan warfare when such misunderstandings were resolved at the points of blades and arrows, with generations of clan feuds, endless and needless bloodshed?”
Cariadoc tried to suppress a laugh and failed, his guffaw escaping his lips against his will, “Well, young one, you have trained your princess well. Perhaps this can be settled in more genial environments. That is, if you really do want a few xiao-shirs of clearing the air between us?”
“Lord Knight Cariadoc – father – I have wanted little else from you in all my life. Just to sit and TALK to you for a bit. I am sixty yen-ars old; I do not need a father per se. But I would like to know who you are and how you have lived your life since you left Lady Cordelia and me. And I would like it very much if you would take some miniscule interest in some part of my life. Right or wrong in what she did; I am innocent in this. I had no choice in how I was made or why,” answered Lord Corann.
Cariadoc softened, “No you had no choice, you are right. Your Highness, if you are willing to arbitrate, I am willing conference with your protector in, say, ten beinors?”
“Agreed,” answered Anlei.
“Agreed,” answered Corann.
“Until then,” bowed Cariadoc, leaving them both.
Corann and Anlei tried to recover mentally from the confrontation with Cariadoc which, by this xiao-shir, had left them both with headaches. Before either could move from their spot, even to look for refreshments, Prince Anwell, her younger brother, rushed up behind her, “There you are. Where have you been?”
“I might ask the same thing of you, Anwell. You were not at grandmother’s dinner when father, Corann, and I came back from the Ten-arian monastery. I’m surprised grandmother did not have your hide. You know how grandmother feels about those formal dinners. You – you – you….” Anlei could not finish her sentence.
Corann laughed behind her, “My dear friend, can I reasonably presume this is your brother Anwell? You’ve grown since last I saw you.”
“Friend? Or lover boy?” teased Anwell. “Father told me you two were kissing back there in house Ten-ar. Any truth, Lord Knight?”
Anlei eyed her brother with contempt, “Lord Corann, this is indeed my younger brother by seven yen-ars, Prince Anwell the Unready, 37 yen-ars old and still acting 17.”
Anwell returned her dirty look as Corann addressed him, “What is true, Your Highness is that I am the sworn protector of your sister and that it is my job to lay down my life in her personal defense should either honor or physical danger be threatened. I would hate to use my sword on someone as royal as your person, Your Highness, but as I said, my vow to her includes Her Highnesses honor.” Corann met his eyes steely, scaring the irresponsible prince.
“You wouldn’t….” implied Prince Anwell.
Corann put his dominant left hand on the hint and drew the sword two cun 寸 to demonstrate his intent, “I would if you pressed the matter. Do you intend to keep pressing it, Your Highness?”
Convinced at last, Anwell backed off, “NO SIR!”
Corann smiled and returned the blade to its natural position in its sheath, “I did not think so.”
Lord Prince Bevin, from a few zhang across the room, naturally saw the slight drawing of the Ten-arian sword and joined the conversation, “Is there a problem here?”
Corann answered him, “Your son does not respect house Ten-ar, Your Highness. I had to teach him a small lesson in…respect.”
Bevin laughed, “Well done, my lord. Carry on.” He strode off to resume his conversations with the fathers of candidates for Anlei’s hand.
Anwell’s expression changed, his posture shifting to one of great caution, his voice softening so that Corann and Anlei could barely hear him even after he put his arms around both and huddled the trio close together, “Actually, sister, I do respect your knight very much. But I had to know how trustworthy you are, Lord Knight Corann.”
“I don’t understand,” replied Corann, just as softly.
“I’ve been in this room longer than both of you and I’m not nearly as ‘unready’ as I seem to be, Sister. I just don’t want the throne in this political climate. After all, it claimed Prince Alastair’s life when I was just a toddler. That tells me that someone or something is very interested in seizing power for himself, someone prudent enough to realize that our little brother would have readily made a proper king successor for mother. Anyone with that sort of – political ambition is a danger to us all. I for one am not interested in dying at the hands of some social climber. A knight of Ten-ar as consort can protect this house better than anyone can—everyone in this family knows that. Why do you think mother managed to become queen? She married a knight. You think our father doesn’t have the skills to repel an attack on this palace? Sure he does…and the skill needed to avenge anyone who tries to kill mother, let alone succeeds. That is why; I think the assassin did not try to take mother’s life when doubtless he had the chance. The security recordings I’ve seen show that father was barely two steps away from mother when we were little. No murderer chances getting a knight of Ten-ar involved like that; they are too fierce of warriors with too many different weapons. Even the knights of Gurun mostly train with modern weapons, not the heritage ones from original home world,” explained Anwell.
The fine hair on Corann’s arms stood up on end under his tunic. Was Anwell saying was that he was actually playing this political game quite astutely, trying to avoid assassination and trying to keep his sister alive in the process? “How do you know so much about the training of knights of different houses, Your Highness?”
“What do you think I’ve been doing the past thirty yen-ars? Sister…I know you think I’ve been doing little more than playing our whole lives…you even came up with that awful nickname that seems to stick with me everywhere I go. But in truth what I’ve done is infiltrate most of the other houses, learning what they know and don’t know – especially what they won’t say in Council chambers. Our constitutional monarchy is much more fragile than anyone here seems to realize – or at least, if they know, they are not speaking of it. Taking an interest in martial arts and in technology is the perfect way to learn what they know, Anlei. I’ve travelled our planet – from Nan-li in Xi-Nan Fang to Belarn to Olos-Mir and beyond…. There is a predator in the fold, one very well hidden. I do not think you will catch him before it is too late. But you might prevent him from striking, Corann – if you can bring yourself to do what you know you must,” riddled Anwell. “The time to stop him is now. Do not wait for tonight, no matter what her visions may say. Stop him now, noble knight. He will strike in a way you will not see until too late – but will recognize from your own past, I think.” Anwell slipped away and melted into the crowd like vapor.
Anlei stood shocked, “He doesn’t…”
Corann’s senses from Lady Cordelia carefully marked Anwell’s words, “Oh, but he does. He’s just as house Miyoo as you are. There is no reason to believe he hasn’t foreseen something. He just doesn’t want to tell us outright anything.”
“Why do I feel afraid?” trembled Anlei.
“I think we both have a good reason to be afraid now, Your Highness,” replied Corann. Escorting her gently through the crowd, he brought her to a buffet table and found her a cup which he filled with the contents of a nearby silver pitcher filled with nanla wine. He handed her the cup, then filled one for himself and drank deeply. Both started to sigh a bit of relief and tried to relax.
“Have you tried the kelan fruit, it’s quite good?” offered a 55.5 cun 寸 tall bright blue-eyed nobleman with short blond hair. Lord Janus smiled at Lord Corann and Princess Anlei genially.
“No – I – we have not had the chance yet. Too much politics in this room for us to make it to any food,” replied Anlei.
“Are you here as a couple?” asked Janus.
“You may not realize this, my lord, but I suppose I am the lady this whole thing here is all about. I am Princess Anlei…this is my protector, Lord Corann, Knight of Ten-ar. He stays close to me to ensure all of you behave yourselves,” she answered.
“Oh, of course. Royalty can never be too careful these beinors. All the rumors of those kidnappings and so forth are enough to make any noble woman nervous. You know the older of my two sisters Lady Ecter had that happen to her. Her child, a daughter, is two yen-ars old now. No husband – and the bastard is quite proud of what he did to her, of course,” replied Lord Janus.
“I’m – I’m – speechless,” answered Anlei. “I have never met anyone who was affected by such violence before.”
Lord Janus eyed Corann, recognizing his looks, “Oh, I am sure that if one looks close enough, one will find these practices are more common than one thinks. But enough of our sorrows. This is a party and, if you will permit me, Your Highness, I brought you a gift that I hope you will honor me by accepting.”
Anlei deferred to Corann as Janus brought out a small box from a pocket and offered it to her, “Corann, what do you think?”
“I think you should be careful, Your Highness. You do not know this man and, whatever it is, you should not fully accept it without security fully testing it,” answered Corann cautiously.
Janus’ pride struck out, “Are you utterly paranoid or is that just your self-interest as a suitor of the princess talking that you don’t want her to accept a gift from me? What is it, Knight? Yes, I know who you are, Corann, son of Cariadoc of house Ten-ar. Oh, I don’t dare challenge you by the old rules…you could kill me in an instant and call it ‘protecting’ her. But what is really at play is that you want her for yourself. Everyone knows it. You’ve been in love with her for yen-ars.” Janus’ raised voice judiciously drew the attention of everyone in the room.
Janus’ words lashed at Corann. As Lord Knight Culain’s squire he had served as his master’s aide when the Great Council was in session along with Lord Eisiq and his squire, Lady Elda, the daughter of Lady Cara and her late husband, a knight of Gurun. Together, Corann and Elda had learned to recognize members of the Great Council by sight. In just the seven xiao-shirs since Anlei and his arrival, Corann counted at least twenty such councilors in the room, making Janus’ accusation politically damaging to his protection of the princess.
Corann stayed calm, remembering his training and avoiding Janus’ flagrant attempts to provoke him. Corann knew palace security protocols as well as any knight of Ten-ar, a factor of the close relationship between houses Ten-ar and Gurun. Standard procedure was to never let a royal accept anything potentially dangerous and unknown without certain tests being run. Tests for poisons, for enchantments, for technologies, weapons, and so forth had to be run. This had nothing to do with him. Any palace guard would have insisted upon it. No foreign object could be brought into the palace without first rigorous tests, much less offered to a royal. So how did this gift get past all that security? What had Cariadoc and his family done to bypass these protocols? How many tai-ors had been paid out as bribes to get this far?
Concerned about attention Janus attracted yet even more concerned for Anlei’s safety, Corann took the high road, “Anlei … there are rules for these things, basic security procedures that have to be followed in the palace. That he is offering this without my advanced knowledge tells me that something is wrong, that none of these rules have been followed. Your safety could be at stake. I know all of these words are designed to discredit me because he makes it sound like the issue is not your safety, but our friendship and my feelings for you. But I beg you. Listen to wisdom and reason. Do not accept this until all of the normal tests have been run. If you do not believe me, summon one of the knights of Gurun charged with protecting your mother during court. Every knight and guard in the palace can tell you this box is not on our list—and it has to be on our lists before it is allowed anywhere near a royal or a dignitary for that matter. Nothing presented to royalty comes to you without our first knowing about it. This is how we keep you alive in dangerous times. Please, I beg you…let me keep you safe.”
Anlei smiled at Corann, taking the box and handing it to him, “As you wish, Lord Knight Corann. My life is in your capable hands. Summon the knights of Gurun charged with palace security and begin testing this at once. If it is safe, I would be most pleased to accept the gift. If it is not, I think we both know what happens then.” As Corann moved to a nearby panel in the room to bring in security, Anlei took Janus aside, “That was very badly done of you, Lord Janus. Corann is my best friend and closest confidant. Humiliating him is not the way to win my heart. I know he loves me more than he will ever tell me. He knows I cannot return his feelings. We have…and understanding on this matter. But as friends, I am just as protective of him as he is protective of me. You want to win my hand and possibly my crown? That was NOT the way to do it.”
Shamed, Lord Janus bowed deeply, “Forgive me, Your Highness, I did not know. I thought more to play to the crowd – and to impress my older brother, Kaleb. My father loves Kaleb much more than me, you know.”
“Your father has given poor Corann nothing but contempt his entire life, something he does not deserve. Corann is the finest example of house Ten-ar I have ever known. There is no finer man in all of Beinan. If my father had arranged him for me, I would have felt lucky to be his wife.”
“Why didn’t you marry him? I hear he practically grew up around the palace, that he’s your grandmother’s protégé?” asked Janus.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I guess there is something intimidating about knowing someone is in love with you when your heart is just not there. I grew up in such a political world. I never had a chance to think about love. Corann is so…passionate, so tender. I guess I figured I would be a poor choice for a wife for him, that he deserves better than me.”
“Political marriages. Ever we arrange our lives around power and prestige, never love. We bed people we don’t want to spend any time with normally out of just pure…physical instinct or political obligation to procreate. And all the time, we feel like we would rather be somewhere else as we feel our bodies just automatically act. What a strange world we nobles live in. You gotta envy House Cashmarie for their ordinariness. They at least get to enjoy sex with their spouses.”
Anlei smiled, “You are very perceptive, Lord Janus.”
“Well, I am a son of Cariadoc. I suppose some good has to come of that.”
“Who is your mother?”
“Oh, the Lady Jebez of House Shem, a very fine but serious woman. She bore Cariadoc ten children, only five of us survived past forty yen-ars. She and father really enjoy being close. Naturally, my father doesn’t believe in using technology when it comes to affecting procreation, one way or the other. I think one or two of my siblings would have lived longer if he did…just using modern medicine to heal their illnesses. Instead, when they became seriously ill, we went to our religious house to pray and The Shemai chose to take them in death instead. Unlike your religion, we do not believe we are reborn after this life. We only believe in one life and once only. So my siblings are gone – never their like to be seen again.”
“Are you done talking to her?” asked a low voice from behind. It was the grey-eyed Lord Kaleb, the eldest of Cariadoc’s children by Lady Jabez.
Bowing, Janus introduced them, “Princess Anlei, may I introduce to you my older brother, Lord Kaleb, first born of Lord Cariadoc.”
“Second born,” she corrected. “You are the first born of your mother, but you do have an older half-brother, you know.”
“Temporarily,” sneered Lord Kaleb.
“Indeed?” squirmed Anlei, gliding over to Lord Corann and grabbing his arm. The tightness of her fingers said it all.
Kaleb turned to his brother, “So what was all that about?”
“A setback – for now – but there are a still a few shir-ors before the masquerade, brother. We still have time. See what we can do about that; this is not over, not at all,” schemed Lord Janus.