In Andor, as in other lands, it is often said that the dead walk in the night. Unlike in Cairhien, Tear, and Malkier, however, the Andorans do not believe the dead walk in the night's blackest deeps. Rather, it is said that they walk most often in the twilight just before dawn, when the day and night mingle, bringing the half-world closer to the waking. Watching the sky lighten to gray over the gardens in the Royal Palace, Eward Betaila could find no reason to disagree with the old superstition.
I am wreathed about with ghosts, he thought to himself, and I shall never be free of them. For three years, he had been Captain-General and chief advisor to his niece, Faera Alarice Betaila, by the Grace of the Light Queen of Andor, Protector of the Realm, Defender of the People—the woman it was whispered he had jammed into the Lion Throne to act as his puppet, for no man could wear the Rose Crown. The corpses they had stepped over to reach the throne were only some of the ghosts that haunted him. Others came from his years as High Seat of his House, playing Daes Dae'mar, the Game of Houses, as his father taught. He had played the Great Game for all he was worth for fifteen years, and now he was tired. Oh Light, he was tired. It shouldn't have been me. I was the second son! How could you die on me, Rik?
He rose and walked from the garden. His ghosts seemed to follow as he entered the palace, receiving and returning a smart salute from the guard on duty. The Queen's Guard was conscientious about watching the gardens, with good reason. It was through the gardens that Betaila had seized the palace three years ago.
Once in the halls, he passed under the portraits of those who had ruled Andor before—Ishara first of all and later Miranda the First, who caused to be made the Lion Throne. Ciella the Third, who history called the Cold, always seemed to be glaring, and her daughter Linesse, last Queen of House Annevin, looked out with what seemed to Eward mocking eyes. He tried to ignore the eight Meriaven Queens, especially the last. He'd never been able to meet the eyes of Amayne's portrait, who he had betrayed, not since the day he'd set the Rose Crown on Faera's head. I would that it had been different. I dealt in good faith, but the Wheel wove another fate.
He was surprised to see a guard at the door of the Queen's private study. "Her Majesty is within?" he asked. The guard nodded and saluted smartly. Eward returned the guard's salute and entered, as was his prerogative.
Faera, seated in her favorite chair, looked up on his entry. Just past her twenty-fifth birthday, she was a beautiful woman, with short red hair framing a delicate face. Tiny lines threaded around her bright green eyes, though; a sign of many sleepless nights. I did you no favors by helping you to the throne, Faera. At the moment, the Rose Crown sat not on her brow, but on the table in front of her. Behind her was a portrait of the High Seat Malain Betaila, Eward's grandfather. She gave him a pleasant smile. "The Light shelter you, Uncle. I hope the morning finds you in good humor."
"The Light shelter you as well, your majesty." Eward took the seat across from his niece—at Faera's insistence, he had finally dispensed with the formality of asking permission to sit in the royal presence. "I confess to some disappointment. I wished some time to compose myself before I spoke to you this morning, and so arrived at what I thought would be earlier than your wont. I see," he added ruefully, "I was mistaken."
Faera gave an elegant little shrug. "The Queen's work is never done, Uncle." Gesturing towards the pile of papers next to the crown, she added, "As you should well know, having spent most of my life preparing me for this."
"I suppose I should at that," Eward laughed softly, ignoring the slight touch of reproach in his niece's voice. "But surely your load has lightened somewhat, my Queen? After all, Andor is at least mostly behind you," which was true, so far as it went. The factions opposed to Faera's rule—mostly adherents of various Meriaven claimants, for the deposed Daughter-Heir Miranda was hardly the only woman in the old Royal House with a claim to the throne—had been pacified, with the edge of the tongue in some cases and the edge of the sword in others.
"You think a nation at peace is easier to govern than a nation at war? But then I forget," Faera gave her uncle a mocking smile, "you've never governed in time of peace. Betaila was at war with Meriaven for two hundred years before we took the throne. And your one attempt at a peace treaty was not a notable success."
Eward inclined his head both to acknowledge the cut and to hide the old pain in his eyes. "The Wheel wove our designs in its own way." Dealing with his old enemy, Queen Amayne, was not something he undertook lightly, but with Andor beset with enemies, it had seemed the right thing to do. His father, a hard, cold man with an unreasoning hatred of all things Meriaven, would have disagreed, he knew, but he had always been determined to avoid his father's mistakes—which might be why Henre Betaila's ghost was one that always haunted him.
"Indeed. The Pattern of an Age is a strange and wondrous thing," Faera's tone was dry. "Shall I call for tea?"
Eward shook his graying head. "Not on my account." He paused for a long moment, seeming almost lost, perhaps among the ghosts. "I wish to ask something difficult, your Majesty, and I fear tea and courtesy would only make my task harder."
The lazy morning pose disappeared as Faera leaned forward, back straightening. "You have my undivided attention, Uncle."
From its frame, the eyes of his grandfather's portrait seemed to look through Eward, who wondered what the old man, dead before his birth, would have made of him. Malain Betaila had been noted as a peacemaker. While he'd never quite surrendered the feud, he'd never pursued it, and in the last years of his life tried to restrain his more impetuous son. Dismissing yet another ghost, Eward took a deep breath. "I wish to leave, your Majesty," he said. "I wish to resign as Captain-General, and I have made arrangements to step down as High Seat of House Betaila in your favor."
Silence stretched for a long moment, almost a tangible thing. The Queen's expression did not change, but a long-fingered hand seemed to rise of its own volition, almost trying, it seemed to Eward, to touch the silence, to shape it into something useful, or at least understandable. Instead, she shattered it with flat words, her expression suddenly gone cold. "You wish to leave?"
He merely nodded.
"You wish to leave my service," the Queen repeated.
"I do, my Queen."
"May I know the reason why?"
"To be blunt, I am a liability," he said. "The people are becoming accustomed to your rule, Faera. You are the Queen who saved Andor when two foreign armies were on her soil, and they want to love you for it." Andor's eastern neighbor, Cairhien, had been difficult to evict, but once they had finally succeeded, rolling up Murandy had simply been a matter of getting enough men across Andor to the southwest. "You are also a usurper, even with Ryan on your arm. Convincing the rightful First Prince of the Sword to marry you was a masterstroke, but the people still want someone to blame for Miranda's fall. That someone is clearly me. As well you know, being far more adept at politics."
"This may be true—" Faera started to say, but Eward interrupted.
"You know it is, Faera. In the New City, they see me as the Dark Uncle reborn. There have even been whispers that I want to take the throne for myself, just like the Dark Uncle tried to do to Queen Alsbet." He smiled mirthlessly, "Even my name feeds the rumors. I can only imagine what they'd be saying if Father had named Rik and I the other way around…" Under his niece's quelling gaze, Eward subsided.
"As I was saying, Uncle, this may be true, but it should not concern you. I have no intention of dismissing you, as your counsel and experience benefits me far more than your reputation harms." Looking almost ashamed, she added, "Besides, it wouldn't be good politics."
"No, it wouldn't." Eward could have been discussing the weather for all the emotion in his voice. He had cultivated this distance, this dispassion, his entire life, in sharp contrast to his brother. Rikart Betaila had been full of passion and vitality, beloved of his House and his people, unlike cold, reserved Eward, but Rikart's passion led him astray time after time—into a bad marriage, shameful dalliances, and finally an early death. "If you dismiss me, it will be seen as a power struggle and you a weak queen without her crutch. Rivals that have sunk into the woodwork will emerge again. Whereas, if I resign—" he paused.
Faera filled in the blank. "Your exit can be shaped to meet my needs. Whatever the nobles and the people want to make of you can be made, because my hand will be hidden. Even if they do see a power struggle, they'll see it as a total defeat for you. If I order you away, you are too great a threat to have near me, but if I allow you to leave, you are of such little consequence that where you go does not matter."
"All of the people's misgivings have been loaded on to me, and when I disappear, they come too. With a daughter already to follow you, your reign will finally be truly secure." Eward crossed his arms and sat back, looking almost satisfied.
"Excellent, Uncle," Faera said. "You leave me with only one question." Another moment stretched. Faera's voice was soft, but intense. "Why are you really leaving, Uncle Eward?"
"I—" Protests died aborning on Eward's lips. He looked into his niece's green eyes and more ghosts seemed to look out at him. Lost Ilsabet, his daughter, his jewel; both his ill-fated sisters, wild Mertaine and tragic Katerine; his mother; his wife; Aunt Thiele, poisoned with hate for her brother—all Betaila woman and all gone, woven aside by the Wheel and the thread of his own destiny to bring this woman to the throne, to here, to now. "I'm tired, Faera." All dispassion was gone. "I'm forty-eight years old, and I'm tired. I want to go home."
Like a dam breaking, words came flooding out. The pain in his voice was naked, shocking. "I've carried this bloody feud on my back since Father died. I've had twenty years of it. I've lost my brother, both my sisters. My wife is gone, and my two eldest children. I've got three sons left—two don't know me and one hates me."
"Eamonn doesn't hate you, Uncle." Faera's tone was uncertain.
In short bursts the words came. "Like poison he hates me. He told me so, in those exact words. I'm not surprised. It's family tradition. I hated my father. Father hated Grandfather Malain." He gestured to the portrait. "Said he was weak. And Aunt Thiele hated Father, and Mer hated Father, and Uncle Garand hated everyone, especially himself. We Betaila are good at hate. We've had two hundred years of practice."
Having run down, Eward watched Faera struggle with herself. She's going to ask about Rik. "And my father?" Faera's voice shook slightly. "Who did he hate? Besides Mother, of course."
His brother's ghost seemed to laugh at him as he looked into eyes full of pain. A fine joke, Rik. I've failed you again and you laugh at me. How could I have not talked to her about you? "That's unfair, Faera. Your mother hated your father, not the other way around." He raised his hand to forestall interruption. "Rik gave your mother cause to hate him, but he was not prone to the emotion himself. He was the exception that proved the rule."
Faera's disbelieving expression spoke volumes.
"I did not say your father a was a good man, Faera, any more than I am. Rik was vain, arrogant, impulsive, self-centered, and devoted almost solely to his own pleasures. If he didn't hate, well, it was hard for him to love, too. He inspired love more than he gave it."
"But you loved him, didn't you?"
"Indeed I did. I don't know that I've ever loved anyone as much as I loved your father. I would have died for him many times over, but instead, I've lived for him, which has been much the more difficult."
"And yet you walk away from his daughter."
"That's beneath you, my Queen," he snapped, and for moment again he was the taskmaster and she the student. "I do not say that my desire to leave is not selfish, but you agreed the politics are sound. My leaving does not strand you, it helps you."
"By depriving me of my best advisor?"
"By ridding you of a rein you no longer need or want." For a moment, he looked away from his niece, again meeting the eyes of the portrait above him. His grandfather had tried and failed to end the feud between Betaila and Meriaven, failed where Eward had succeeded. As he met Faera's eyes again, he wondered if his grandfather would have approved of his solution. "I have made you a queen, Faera, and more importantly, I have prepared you to be one. I can do no more for you, and you know it."
"I didn't ask for all this, Uncle," Faera said, her gesturing arm encompassing not only the room, but the entire Royal Palace and Caemlyn itself. "You gave me no choice."Eward's voice grew brittle again. Ilsabet's face seemed to rise before him, reproving. "I was left with no choices either, Faera. My daughter died." "Aunt Katerine, then." Faera said.
Another ghost loomed. A door in his memory opened; her bedroom again that horrible morning. She'd arranged herself neatly on the bed, right hand on the coverlet. Blood fanned out in a pool leaking from her opened wrist. "Your aunt was not suitable." Forgive me, Kat. "And you were. You cheated to win even as a child. Can you honestly tell me, knowing who and what you are, that you would have been satisfied to let the crown pass to another?"
This time it was Faera who looked away. "I suppose not," she finally said. "I loved Ilsabet, too, Uncle, but she would not have made the Queen that I will. And either of us would make a better queen than feckless Miranda."
"Indeed," he said, bleak humor in his voice. "I suspect that your brother Corame did Andor a favor there." Corame's mad courtship of the Daughter-Heir of the late Queen Amayne had led to an unexpected pregnancy and a hasty marriage. Their shared exile in Ebou Dar had undermined Meriaven sufficiently for Betaila to make its move.
Faera's face hardened instantly at the mention of her brother. "I do not wish to speak of Corame, Uncle, now or ever," she said, tone clipped. "Your own departure can be justified; indeed, you have done a good job of it. Corame's defection has no such defense, and the less I think of him, the less time I waste in fruitless anger."
Before Eward could respond, the door to the study swung open. Unconsciously, his hand strayed to the dagger at his belt, but he let it fall as Prince Ryan entered the room. Barely twenty, with a face and carriage that made him seem younger, neither three years as Faera's husband and consort nor becoming a father had changed him appreciably. "Faera, I need to talk to you," he said, pausing as his eyes lighted on the room's other occupant. "But I see you're already busy," he added, voice going icy.
"Good day, my Prince," Eward said, a bitter smile twisting his lips. Ryan Meriaven may have reconciled himself to the need for marriage to Faera and even come to care for the woman who had usurped his sister, but he felt no need to forgive her uncle. Turning back to his niece, Eward was unsurprised to see her demeanor unruffled, all traces of anger gone. He made to rise. "Your Majesty, if you wish, we can continue our conversation at your convenience."
"No, Uncle." Faera motioned him to stay seated. "Ryan, I would ask that you also remain, as this concerns you as well. Uncle Eward wishes to resign from royal service."
Silence again stretched out for a long moment, before Ryan broke it with a shocked laugh. "A feeble joke, Faera," he said. "No matter what I might wish, I know Eward well enough to know he will never leave the seat of power."
"Perhaps," murmured Eward, "you don't know me as well as you think you do, my Prince."
Ryan shot the older man a black look. "Don't toy with me, Eward. I have little patience for you."
"I have little interest in toying with you or taunting you or dealing with you in any other way, Ryan." Eward deliberately omitted the title. "I have come to ask my niece and queen to release me from her service. As you are her husband, this affects you as well, so I have no argument if you remain. I will not, however," here he let anger touch his voice, "justify myself to you. I owe you nothing, Ryan Meriaven, beyond the duty one loyal Andorman owes another."
"Enough, Uncle." Faera raised a hand. "The First Prince of the Sword is not a bannerman for you to upbraid at will."
Eward subsided at his niece's gesture, but Ryan's eyes continued to rest on him. Both he and Faera waited to see what the mercurial First Prince would say next. Finally, Ryan blurted, "You're serious, aren't you?"
Eward gave him a bleak smile. "I am hardly known for jokes, feeble or otherwise, my Prince."
Ryan's expression hardened again, but Faera spoke before he could. "Indeed, Ryan, my uncle is quite serious. He wishes to retire for reasons of state, and," her eyes rested on Eward a moment before she continued, "personal reasons."
"Reasons of state?" Ryan asked.
"Uncle?" Faera asked, and Eward explained again how his resignation would help the Queen while his dismissal would hurt her.
Ryan looked unusually thoughtful as Eward finished. "I think I see the logic," he said, "though quitting the field seems to go against all honor."
Eward raised an eyebrow, once again calm and collected. If Ryan's words stung, he showed no sign of it. "You think there is no honor in retreat?"
"In retreat, yes," Ryan said, "but not in flight."
"This may be true, but statecraft is not warcraft, and questions of honor are meaningless. A ruler guards her people, not her honor, and if her officers must sacrifice their pride to save hers, it should be their pleasure to do so."
"Ever the teacher, Eward." There was no malice in Ryan's words, only amusement.
"Indeed," the older man said. "I might have been quite content as a tutor. Perhaps I will open a schola when I return to my lands."
"Will you remain as High Seat, then?" Ryan raised an eyebrow. "That would undermine your purpose in resigning, I think."
"Forgive me, my Prince. I spoke of my personal lands. As a younger son who married a small dowry, they are not large, but sufficient to my needs. My two youngest sons are there and the grave of my wife."
Ryan blinked, as if he finally understood what a price the man before him had paid to put the Queen on her throne. "I had no idea," he said.
"Alienne died shortly before my sister Mertaine," he said softly.
"I have fond memories of her," Faera said. "She was always kind to me." To Eward's ears, the words "And Corame," seemed to hang in the air, but if Faera was thinking of her brother, she gave no sign. "So when do you plan on leaving, Uncle?"
"When it best suits you, my Queen. I can be on the road today, if need be."
"Surely you will have time to visit Alarice." This, unexpectedly from Ryan.
"Should the Daughter-Heir wish, I will of course present myself before I go," Eward said, and a faint smile touched his face. "As she is only two, however, I suspect she is unlikely to request such a meeting."
"Her mother may, though," Faera said. "Perhaps before your departure, you will join me for a visit to the royal nursery. For now, there is much to arrange. Uncle, have you any suggestions for your replacements?"
"Martin and Layra will serve admirably at the head of your Royal Council, your Majesty." Martin Betaila, offspring of both Betaila and Meriaven, was of an age with Eward as was his wife, Layra, sister to the late Meriaven Queen Amayne. It had taken her even longer than it had Ryan to accept the new order in Andor, but her husband's persuasion and Faera's measured response to House Meriaven and her own children had finally swayed her. "Perhaps a Betaila can be chosen as Captain-General and offset any family concerns about Martin. My cousin Amtrim is level-headed and has the requisite experience."
"Excellent. Antrim is a suitable choice, and I had already resolved to place Martin and Layra at the head of my council should anything happen to you."
"As long as Aunt Layra sits near the head of the council, I have no objections," Ryan put in.
Faera eyed both men, husband and father-figure, carefully. "And what of First Prince of the Sword?"
"I am First Prince of the Sword," Ryan blurted."
"As Prince Consort, my dear Ryan, your duties will often take you from my side. I will need someone near at all times."
As Faera spoke, Ryan's eyes darkened. He had been First Prince for his sister, the Daughter-Heir Miranda, but she had left him behind when their mother died. In some ways, Eward thought, Ryan felt himself most responsible for the fall of Meriaven from the throne.
Faera's eyes again fell on her uncle. "What of your son, Uncle? He is here in Caemlyn and is the closest I have to a brother now."
To Eward, her request felt like a test. True, Eamonn was a logical choice, a man now at nineteen, and his father's heir. But under the logic was need—his niece's need to see that she was not being abandoned, that Eward would sacrifice for her even as he sacrificed her on the altar of family and royal duty. He restrained the desire to lash out—had he not sacrificed enough?—and merely nodded. "I have no objections. However, the choice must be his. Service such as this must be given willingly."
"I am sure Eamonn will serve," Faera said. "Now, Uncle, Ryan and I have much to discuss, and you have much to do before your departure on the morrow."
Will a bow, Eward excused himself, and ended his service to his niece and Andor. Although this result was at his instigation and very much his desire, he allowed himself some regret as he walked through the hallways of the Palace. Passing below the portraits of the Queens he made himself stop before Amayne and, after a long moment, looked up at the woman he'd made common cause with and then betrayed. Amayne's death and the chaos following it had prevented their treaty from being ratified. Rather than wait for the missing Miranda, he'd chosen, or been forced, to seize the throne for Faera. She will be a good queen, he said in silent apology, and your blood will sit the Lion Throne as long as there is an Andor. Her eyes showed compassion, he thought, and acceptance, traits he hadn't noticed in the living Amayne, though of course had hadn't looked for many years. A sense of peace, peace that had been absent from his life far too long, stole over him as he left the hall to return to his own quarters.
His quarters though grand, were sparsely furnished. In his youth, he had been a soldier, even serving in the brutal Winter War between Andor and Cairhien, and he still retained many soldiers' ways. The one luxury he allowed himself was a large hardwood desk with intricately worked legs. He sat himself and spent several hours completing the last of his duties as High Seat of House Betaila, finishing with the public proclamation of his abdication and Faera's succession.
Setting aside the sealed instrument of abdication, he sat back to wait. As he expected, there was a knock on his door a scant ten minutes later. "Come in, Martin," he said.
Sure enough, Martin Betaila walked in, an amused look on his face. "How do you do that, Eward?"
"Practice, my dear Martin," Eward said, affecting the calm, slightly superior demeanor he always used with his mercurial cousin. "Work is the key to everything, even seeming omnipotent."
"So you always say." The amusement in Martin's face faded. "The Queen spoke to me."
"I assumed she would," Eward said, "or I would have summoned you myself."
"You're really leaving?"
Eward said nothing, only nodded.
"Are you taking the Palace with you?" Martin half-smiled. "I always thought you were about as permanent."
"I'm not as old as the Palace, Martin." Eward's answering smile was slightly bitter. "I only feel like it. Sit down, if you wash. I've a new Domani brandy if you'd like a drink."
"Thank you, but no," Martin said as he sat. "It is only noon, and I've much to be about today. A head full of brandy fumes will not help with that." He steepled his fingers and stared at his cousin. "So you're really leaving."
"I haven't changed my mind in the last minute, no." Eward said, slightly nettled.
"What will Faera do with without you? You're her chief advisor and right hand."
Eward barked a laugh. "Hardly. Faera is her own best advisor, and she needs no support from me. My leaving will make her throne more secure, not less. I am, as you know, not the most popular man in Andor."
Martin's laugh was more genuine. "An understatement, I think. And here you have such a winning personality."
Eward gave his cousin a black look. "I could be the greatest gleeman west of the Aiel Waste, and I would still be hated, Martin. As you well know."
"You may be the Dark Uncle, cousin," Martin smiled, "but Miranda was no Queen Alsbet. Even Layra realizes that now."
"Of course." Eward quirked a mocking smile. "Which is why your wife goes out of her way to make me welcome, invite me to dine with you, and arrange visits with your children."
"Well, she does need someone to blame for her niece losing the throne."
"She and all of Andor. I'll gladly carry that blame with from away from Caemlyn and dump it in some river near the Cairhienin border." For a moment, his eyes unfocused. "And then I'll live peacefully on my own lands and get to know my sons. Perhaps I'll write my memoirs."
"Be sure to be kind to me," Martin laughed again. Martin had always laughed easily, Eward noted. "Or at least have the grace not to share them until after I am dead."
"I will do my best," Eward said, with the half smile that so often seemed the best he could muster.
"So why did you wish to speak to me?" Martin asked, suddenly more serious. "You do not need my permission to leave or to write your memoirs. And I cannot imagine you wish to reminisce about our happy childhoods." An edge came into Martin's voice, and Eward suddenly felt the harsh chill of more ghosts around him.
As cold and brutal as Henre Betaila had been with his children, Eward's childhood had been a garden of delight compared to Martin's. Garand Betaila, Martin's father, had been a violent drunkard and Emorin Meriaven, Martin's mother, had died young, possibly at her husband's hands. Theres had not been a love match, but a failed attempt to patch up Andor's deepest division foisted on them by the White Tower. Eward used to wonder if Martin was sane; now he wondered how Martin was sane.
"I have no such desire," he said. "Let our ghosts rest in whatever peace they may find." Without waiting for Martin, he continued, "I wished to let you know that with my departure, most of my responsibilities will fall on you."
Martin blinked, shock clear in his voice. "Surely, you do not mean to make me Captain-General and High Seat? I've never led anything more than a pair of horses."
"The titles will go elsewhere of course, Martin, but even with the Queen as High Seat, you will be the face of Betaila." Almost Eward smiled at his cousin's shock. Almost. "You are the senior living male of the main line and a member of the Queen's High Council. More, with Layra, you will be the head of it. You see?"
"I see," Martin said, with a frown. "I see you're leaving me in a situation I neither need nor want."
"On the contrary. I'm leaving you in a position for which your skills and talents are eminently suited. You've been playing the Game of Houses, and playing it well, since your marriage, and you are far more popular with the people than I am. The Prince and Eamonn, and likely Cousin Antrim, will be the Queen's right hands, but you will be her left, and likely the more effective."
"Flattery, Eward?" Martin laughed. "From you?"
"Not flattery, Martin. Honesty."
"A much rarer commodity. I think I may want that drink, now."
"As you wish." Eward inclined his head, then rose and walked to a sideboard. From the crystal decanter resting there, he poured a generous dollop of brandy into two delicately blown glasses. To both, he added a drop of water from another decanter. He handed Martin one of the glasses before sitting.
Martin took a long sip. "Ah, Domani brandy. One of the pleasures of wealth and power."
"One of the few," Eward added, after his own sip.
Martin's eyes met Eward's over the rim of the glass. "I can't help but wonder what you'll do without ready access to the best brandies."
"Rely on my beloved cousin to send me a barrel every now and again?" Eward said blandly, and Martin laughed again.
Eward took another sip and met his cousin's eyes. "My time is past," he said soberly. "Giving up Domani brandy is the least of what I'm letting go. But I leave my house in order, and I find it is worth it." He gave his cousin a sharp look." I'm trusting you, Martin, to make sure House Betaila stays in order."
Martin took another long sip from his brandy. "I appreciate the trust you've placed in me, Eward. And I swear under the Light that I will do my best to see that your trust is not misplaced.
"Thank you, Martin. That means a great deal to me."
"And is it so hard," Martin said in a soft voice, "to admit that your family means much to you as well?"
Ghosts seemed to rise about Eward again—his wife, his sisters, his lost children—but he gave no sign. "Not at all, Martin," he said. "Everyone knows I care about my family. Now, telling people face to face that I care for them, well, that's not the Betaila way."
"Well," Martin said, tossing down the last of his brandy. "I think many Betaila ways can stand with changing." Eward felt his cousin's searching eyes on him, and suddenly wondered what Martin was about. "You know I hated you for a long time. It was only when I came back to Caemlyn before Amayne died that I even began to think of you as human."
Eward said nothing, but inclined his head in an invitation for Martin to continue.
"But in the four years since then, I feel like I've come to know you as well as anyone since Alienne died. And it bothers me that people see you as evil, because I know you're a good man, and I value that. You're the only member of the family who has treated me with anything approaching decency, and I appreciate it. I love you cousin, and I will miss you. I only wonder if Andor knows what it will lose when you go."
Emotion welled in Eward, a sense of abiding love for his mercurial cousin. For a moment, he was unable to speak, so overcome was he. Eventually, he choked out a response. "Thank you, Martin. I am sorry that I've never been able to tell you that I love and respect you. It's always been very difficult for me to acknowledge my feelings, moreso since my wife and daughter died. But even though we haven't always been on the same side, you've been like a brother to me these last four years, more than Rik was for the last years of his life."
He rose and offered his cousin a hand, but Martin pulled him into a rough embrace. "Go with the Light, cousin," Martin said.
"And you," Eward responded, through the tears in his eyes. Without another word, Martin broke the embrace, leaving behind a stunned, but not displeased, Eward.
He took his noon meal alone, shortly after Martin left, and then saw to the more mundane aspects of his impending departure. He made sure his horse was properly groomed and those of the two guards who would accompany him, both Betaila men dating back to his brother's day, as well as readying a pair of packhorses for his goods, as he intended to travel light. After gathering his possessions in the palace, he took a trip to Betaila House in the late afternoon. His cousin Antrim, who was acting as Steward of the House, greeted him warmly and accepted the news of his departure calmly. After an hour sorting mementos—letters from Rik, from his wife and children, decorations from his time as a soldier, some slim volumes of leisure reading—he bade farewell to Antrim and made his way back to the Palace as the last light of day faded into to twilight.
He'd expected to dine alone again, just him and his ghosts, but a royal summons awaited him when he returned. He took some time to make himself presentable before making his way to the Queen's dining room. There he found Faera, along with Ryan, and awkwardly enough, his own son. Eamonn Betaila, at nineteen, was half-a-hand taller than his father with the lean grace that two years as a soldier had imparted. He rose to grasp his father's hand with wary courtesy. "Hello, Father," Eamonn said, and his voice was touched with a slight chill. "Her Majesty informs me you will be leaving Caemlyn tomorrow."
"Yes, my son," Eward said, releasing his son's hand and taking his seat at the Queen's left, opposite Ryan. "I was planning to inform you this evening, to avoid interfering with your duties."
"Of course," One side of Eamonn's mouth dropped. "Duty above all. Isn't that right, your Majesty?"
"Come, cousin," Faera said, and her gentle tone hid a hint of steel. "I wish to have a quite meal with your father before he goes. If I wanted to discuss my duties, I would still be in the throne room."
Eamonn subsided, but not without a harsh look for his father, who had the good grace to ignore it. Conversation started again and turned back to politics as the first course, dumplings stuffed with duck and cheese, arrived. This time, Faera made no attempt to steer the conversation away, and in fact, commented in a lively fashion. Soup and vegetables followed, along with a discussion of wheat tariffs in the north of Andor. Eward was pleased to note that Eamonn had a very solid grasp of the issues, though he took care not to show approval lest his son take it the wrong way. Finally, the main course, suckling pig stuffed with honeyed capers, arrived and the conversation fell into a lull.
"So, Father," Eamonn's voice fell into the lull. "What are you plans now?"
Eward felt his son's pointed glare, and clamped down firmly on his anger and self-loathing. "I am returning to our lands to the east. Perhaps when your duties allow, you will visit. After all, they will one day be yours."
The reminder of his dead brother and sister were not enough to quell Eamonn, nor was Queen Faera's glare. "Going to become a gentleman farmer, Father? I cannot see you spending your days ordering chickens around and manipulating cows."
Ryan chuckled at that, but Eward ignored him. "Did it ever occur to you, my son, that I might be leaving because I wish to stop playing politics?" He let a little of his anger show. "Or do you take your opinion of me from alehouses and idle gossip?"
"I can hardly take it from you, Father!" Eamonn snapped. "You are a stranger to me, and always have been."
"That is uncalled for, cousin!" Faera said. "I had hoped we could at least have a civil meal together, but I see I was wrong."
"Do not be too harsh, my Queen," Eward said gravely. "My son's grievances are at least somewhat legitimate. Perhaps if I were to withdraw, dinner could conclude peacefully."
"Stay where you are, Uncle," said Faera, "I have need of you yet."
She turned to her cousin, but Eamonn had already risen. "Have I your permission to withdraw, your Majesty?" His words were measured and respectful, but everyone at the table could feel the anger behind them.
Eward could tell Faera was weighing whether to corral her wayward cousin or to accept his request as sufficient acknowledgment of her position. Finally, she nodded. "You may withdraw, cousin. Be available, though, as I may send for you this evening."
With a curt nod, Eamonn left. ward's eyes lingered for a moment on his son's empty seat before meeting his Queen's. "What do you wish of me, my Queen?"
Faera smiled. "Nothing so onerous, Uncle. Come visit Alarice with me and i will hold your service to me fulfilled."
Eward returned the smile. "I think this task will not be beyond me. And it will be far more pleasant than many I've had."
The royal nursery was actually a complex of rooms, most as yet unused until Alarice should begin her schooling or siblings joined her. For now, the little Daughter-Heir had a suite of three rooms set aside for her use, a bedroom, a receiving room, and an all-purpose playroom where she spent most of her time under the watchful eye of a pair of nurses and several Betaila guards.
When Eward and Faera arrived, the little girl was playing on a toy horse, rocking back and forth for all she was worth. She had no idea that the lacquered piece had come all the way from Tarabon, nor would she have cared if someone told her. She did know, however, that she was to stop playing when her mother arrived, so she stopped rocking and hopped off the horse without even being told. She gave her mother a near-perfect curtsey.
"Hello, Mother," she said, the words clearer than most two-year-olds could manage. "And hello, Uncle," she added as she saw Eward behind her mother.
Eward, for his part, gave her a bow almost as deep as he would give her mother. "Hello, your Highness. We've come to visit."
"That's nice," the little girl said. "Play with me?"
"If you wish," he said, and quirked a smile. "I'm not very good at play, though. I'm out of practice, though."
She considered that as her mother watched without speaking. "That's sad," she finally said, little face frowning. "I help you." Eward took her offered hand, and she led him across the room to a large toybox, from which she dug several dolls and began telling him their life stories. Her vocabulary was limited, but her inventiveness was not, and he found himself wondering why he hadn't spent more time with this remarkable little girl. With a sudden pang, he realized that he hadn't spent much time with his own children at this age, or any other age. He sighed heavily, an action that did not escape his grand-nice.
"You sound sad. Why you sad?"
"It's nothing, your Highness. I need to speak to your mother for a minute, but I'll be back."
"Okay," she said as he rose. "You talk to Mother. I play."
He nodded gravely and she returned her attention to her dolls.
"She's a clever child," Faera said from behind him.
"Yes," he agreed. "She is quite remarkable."
"Was I like that at her age?"
"Quite frankly, my Queen, I do not know. I wasn't around very much in your youth." Eward grimaced, remembering that he was also a stranger to his own daughter Ilsabet at that time. "I was traveling, either with the army or for your father when you were small. By the time I came to know you, you were well into childhood."
"And now you will be a stranger to her," Faera said.
"Perhaps." Eward chose not to rise to the bait implicit in his niece's words. "I said I wished to go home, not that I would never return. Or maybe you will foster her to me when she is older. Your father had planned to do the same with you."
"But instead he died, throwing everyone's plans into chaos." Faera didn't bother to hide the contempt in her words. "The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills."
"Indeed," Eward said. "And if the Wheel wills, she will do well." He met his niece's green eyes one more time, looking for clues to her. He fancied he knew her better than anyone else living did, but in many ways, she was still a stranger to him. She's so controlled. Just like me, he thought, and appreciated the irony. But she's also quite brilliant. The student has long since surpassed the teacher. "You will do well, too," he said, and meant it.
"Thank you, Uncle," she said, and was interrupted by a small someone colliding with her legs. "Come, Mother," little Alarice said, and grabbed her hand.
"This would be a good time for me to go, I think," Eward said.
Faera nodded. "I will come, but first, say good-bye to your uncle."
"You going?" Alarice said, looking up at him.
Eward knelt to meet her eyes. "Yes, your Highness. I have to go see my own children, your cousins Jorinn and Rikart."
"I see them too?"
"Perhaps someday, Alarice. For now, I must say good-bye." He gingerly embraced his niece, unaccustomed to the close contact. When did I become so cold? For her part, Alarice hugged him with the unreserved love only toddlers can manage. "Good-bye, Alarice," he said, voice catching as she released him.
"Will I see you tomorrow, Uncle?" Faera asked as he stood.
"If you wish, my Queen. I suspect, however, that it makes more sense for us to part here and for me to leave quietly in the morning. That will fit nicely with the idea that I've resigned in disgrace."
"You are undoubtedly right, Uncle." Faera said. "I will bid you good-bye then."
Eward bowed deeply. "Good-bye, my Queen. It has been my honor to serve."
"Thank you, Uncle Eward," Faera said gravely. "I thank you again for your service. I would not stand here as Queen without your aid and loyalty, and I will do what i can to see that you are remembered as you are, a loyal and true servant of Andor."
"I can ask no more," he said, and left before his niece could see the unshed tears in his eyes.
The next morning, he rose before the sun and prepared his departure. His liegemen prepared the packhorses while he saddled his own horse, Victory. So engrossed in this task was he that he failed to hear another's approach. Thus, he was shocked to look up and find himself meeting the eyes of his son.
"Good-day, Eamonn," he said carefully, even as he signaled the men to withdraw. He wasn't sure what his son wanted, but he was determined not to provoke a confrontation if he could avoid it.
"Hello, Father," Eamonn said, diffidently. His eyes seemed a little wild. "I spoke to Faera last night."
"Apparently, I am to be the First Prince of the Sword in Corame's place."
Eward nodded. "The Queen so advised me yesterday."
An edge came into Eamonn's voice. "And you supported her, no doubt."
"I told her the choice was yours, son."
Taken aback, Eamonn did not speak for a moment. "You've never said anything like that before," he finally blurted.
"No one has ever asked as much of you before. What Faera is asking of you is a very intense, personal bond, one which may consume your entire life. If such service isn't given willingly, it is worse than useless."
Eamonn gave his father a suspicious look. "What make you so sure?"
The look Eward gave his son was almost amused. "I have some experience. Your Uncle Rikart made such a request of me after our father died." A sudden thought struck him and he frowned. "I fear I may have served him too well. For too long, I have put the needs of Rikart's children over mine, especially since Ilsabet died. I gave Corame and Faera an extensive education, but I shunted your brother Eward and you into military service to ensure that your cousins had primacy. Given events, the irony is rather appalling."
"Is that why you're leaving now?" Eamonn's voice was no longer hostile.
"In part," his father said. "I doubt your brothers will figure in the politics of Andor, but I would like to see them educated."
"And what of me, Father?"
"You have little need of me, son. I would it were different, but it seems the best thing I can give you is an apology for failing you as a father."
"It seems cold comfort now," Eamonn said, though his voice held no anger.
"To me as well, son," Eward said, and extended a hand.
Gingerly, Eamonn took it, and met his father's eyes. "What should I do, Father? Should I accept Faera's offer?"
"Only you can answer that, son. It is hard to live for others, but it can be just as hard to live for yourself."
"You would do it, though." Eamonn's words were not a question.
"You are not me, though. Nor do I expect you to be." Eward looked into his son's eyes and found hurt and confusion, but also a healing. He suddenly knew how to add to that healing. "I know I have failed to show it, but I do love you, Eamonn, and I am proud to be your father, no matter what you choose."
For a long moment, Eamonn said nothing, though his eyes grew moist. "I have longed to hear you say that, Father," he finally whispered. "For years I feared that I had failed you in some way, that there was a reason you spent your time with Ilsabet and my brother Eward when you weren't with Corame and Faera."
"Never say that," Eward said, his own voice thickening. "It was I who failed you, my son, but you have grown to be a fine man despite me."
"Will I be a good First Prince of the Sword, do you think?"
"You will do well at whatever you set your hand to, my son, but if the Wheel weaves it so, I think you will be a fine First Prince. Your cousin will have no reason to fault your service."
"Thank you, Father," Eamonn said. "I love you, too."
Tears started in Eward's eyes. "Thank you, my son." The two men embraced, trying with their brief contact to create a lifetime of bonds. All too soon, however, their embrace ended. Eward led Victory from his paddock as his son watched. His men took that as a signal to reappear, leading the packhorses.
"So this is it?" Eamonn said, and actually smiled at his father.
"This is it," Eward said, returning the smile.
"Any last suggestions?"
"Take care of your cousin," Eward said, "no matter how you choose to serve. And visit little Alarice often. She's an amazing little girl, and she'll welcome someone who treats her like a person and not like the Daughter-Heir. Most of all, son, don't make my mistakes."
"Of course not," Eamonn said, and smiled impishly. "I'll have plenty of my own to make." Just for a moment, he looked so like his Uncle Rikart that Eward again felt his brother's ghost watching, not with mockery this time, but with a calm approval. "All shall be well," his brother's voice seemed to say, and for the first time in a long time, Eward Betaila believed it.
Waving one last time to his son, he swung himself into the saddle and left his ghosts behind.