“There you are, Your Grace,” Opus exclaimed as soon as he saw Rome. Rome started to correct him – he hated all that Grace stuff – but then gave it up. The best thing for tonight was to simply endure.
“They’re all waiting for you. They’re terribly annoyed.”
Rome gave him a stiff glare that Opus ignored.
“This way, this way.” Opus fluttered on ahead and Rome followed. The floors seemed terribly slippery in these shoes. The soles were definitely too narrow. One wrong move and he’d topple right over on his side.
They came into what Rome thought of as the Torture Room by a side door. This was where he had to sit when he was greeting any official delegation or presiding over any royal function. It was also where he heard petitions from the wealthy and powerful – the common folk had to petition in a much smaller chamber – and he hated it. At one end of the long room sat his throne on a raised dais. It was carved from the same kind of stone the tower was built of, dark green limestone laced with veins of quartz. It was the only thing Rome liked in the whole room, mostly because he’d designed it himself. It was strong, simple, and plain. Strong enough to prop up the palace wall in a pinch. That was the sort of thing he liked. He’d like to redo the whole palace the same way except that it would be such a nuisance and Opus would probably torment him so badly he’d end up having to kill the man. It had been enough of a fight just getting his new throne in here and getting the servants who carried the old fancy throne to “accidentally” drop it and break it on the stairs.
The rest of the throne room was way out of hand. Carvings and bas-relief filigreed with gold covered every inch of ceiling and wall space that didn’t have either a tapestry or a niche with some statue in it. A massive, deep pile rug of rich purple covered the floor and more statues stood on pedestals around the room. A chandelier with about a thousand candles and twice that many cut stones hung from the ceiling. Rome thought it was too gaudy, like a bad whorehouse, but without any women.
Quyloc was already at his place beside Rome’s throne, dressed all in the green that he favored, his head lowered, apparently lost in thought. His white-blond hair gleamed in the light. In contrast to Rome, his clothes were fairly simple, though there were ruffles all down his sleeves and some sort of headpiece jutted up from behind his head and spread out like a fan. Rome lit up with a wicked grin when he saw the fan. Even Quyloc hadn’t escaped completely.
Other than Quyloc, some guards standing at attention around the walls, and a scattering of servants, the room was empty. Opus was nearly hyperventilating. “Please hurry. They are all waiting in the hall, my Lord. You must be seated before we can begin announcing them.”
“Whatever you say, Steward,” Rome said, taking his time getting there. Let them wait. Who was in charge here anyway? He sat down on the throne, brushing aside the cloth-of-gold that Opus had clearly laid over it in an attempt to cover it up as much as possible. He leaned towards Quyloc as the doors opened and the herald announced the first guests. “I like the fan. What’re you supposed to be, some kind of peacock?” He chuckled.
Quyloc looked up, his eyes distant, unfamiliar. What was he seeing? Rome wondered. Did he look on other worlds even at this moment? Then Quyloc’s thin lips lifted in the old sardonic grin Rome had seen so many times. “You’ve a lot of room for talk, puffed out like a starling rooster. I believe the heart-shaped ruby is the perfect touch.”
“I know,” Rome groaned. “How long do you think this thing will last?”
“Hours and hours,” Quyloc said cruelly. “Most of the night anyway.”
“I can’t breathe in this collar.”
“You should try my fan. Something pokes me in the back of my head every time I move.”
Then the first guests were mounting the dais and Rome had no choice but to look at them. These people he knew, at least by name, from the affairs he had attended while still a commander. Lord Atalafes and his wife. They knelt before Rome, their expressions unreadable, though Rome felt what it cost them to kneel to him and he rejoiced in it. Maybe the night wouldn’t be a total loss after all. Atalafes was a stout man, what had been heavy muscles giving way to fat in his old age. There was a sharpness to his gaze and a suppleness in his movements that made Rome think he might have been a fierce opponent once. Might still be, despite his years. “Macht Rome,” they intoned in unison, bowing their heads. Rome grinned down at them. He was enjoying this.
“Good of you to make it,” he said cheerfully. “We’ve missed you around here.” From the corner of his eye he saw Quyloc’s lips twitch in a smile. Lady Atalafes murmured something in return, while whatever Lord Atalafes said was lost in gritted teeth.
Then a third person ascended the dais and knelt beside them.
“Macht Rome, my daughter, Marilene,” Lord Atalafes said. She wasn’t bad looking, Rome thought, with that raven dark hair and those doe eyes, but her chin and her nose were too sharp and her real face was lost under mounds of rouge and blush, her body impossible to see inside a dress that seemed to be all bows and ribbons. He wondered how many bows he’d have to pull to get that thing off her. She gave him a long look at her cleavage as she bent over, watching him from underneath her eyelashes. He didn’t miss the coldness in her eyes. She didn’t like him any better than her parents did. She was only flirting with him because they told her to, because a marriage to the macht would help their fortunes considerably, maybe even put them back in the palace. He gave her a leer and a wink and she paled slightly.
The next couple approached the dais with not one but two daughters, though from the sharpness of the taller one’s features Rome had a feeling she was a shrew in the making, if not already fully accomplished, and the shorter one was as big around as she was tall.
He recognized the next noble too, fat, sweating Lord Ulin Tropon with his child bride, a girl too young to show any curves yet. Tropon had made more than one joke at Rome’s expense when he was still a commander fumbling his way through state dinners. He was all politeness now, and careful to avoid Rome’s eyes.
It was surprising how many of the nobility had daughters of marriageable age. Some of the daughters favored him with sly, seductive smiles, others blushed and turned away, but every parent watched with the same wolf eyes. Clearly they hoped to take back by marriage what they could not take by force.
The last person to approach the throne was not someone Rome had expected to see. He gave her a big grin as she reached the top step. “So when did you become a follower of Protaxes, FirstMother?”
Nalene FirstMother drew herself up haughtily and folded her hands within the voluminous sleeves of her white robe. Her only adornment was a heavy gold Reminder. Her bald pate gleamed as if oiled. “I am here that they may see me,” she replied, her heavy jaw clenched tight. “That they may know it is not too late to change their ways.”
A few days back Nalene and several of her Tenders had stood on a makeshift podium beside the fountain at Heaven’s Edge Square at dawn and preached to the people about Xochitl and the dark days to come. After what the FirstMother had done to that man in the street no one bothered them, though few took them seriously. He hadn’t either, until Quyloc came to him and told him in no uncertain terms that he was a fool if he didn’t keep an eye on the woman. Since then he’d had a man attend every morning and report what he saw and heard. What he saw was that the crowds were growing. People were starting to listen.
Then Quyloc stepped forward. “Kneel, woman,” he hissed. “You are in the presence of your macht.”
She gave him a heavy-lidded look but did not respond, which seemed to make Quyloc even madder. Rome said nothing, only watched. This one was going to be trouble someday. He wondered if he should rid himself of her now. Normally he did not much go in for all the bowing and scraping that kings and nobles and such required, but when it came to the nobility of Qarath he was a stickler. They needed to remember what their places were. Would the FirstMother require the same?
Slowly, grudgingly, the FirstMother knelt, and he saw one hand come out of her sleeve to touch something on her chest, hidden under her robe. That would be her sulbit, though he had heard through his men that she and her sisters were calling them the Mother’s Claws, and spoke of them openly at the dawn worship. He wouldn’t mind getting a close look at it. When he’d asked Quyloc what they were, Quyloc got mad. Said he’d like to know the same thing. Quyloc was staring hard at her, as if trying to see through the heavy fabric. The FirstMother lowered her head and Rome saw her lips moving in prayer. Then she stood and moved away without giving him another look, as if she’d already forgotten he was there.
She drew a number of hostile looks as she moved across the room to take her place against one wall, but none was as malevolent as that thrown by Cynar, chief priest of Protaxes. He positively hated the Tenders and the FirstMother most of all. Twice already he had come to see Rome to complain about them, furious that they had official sanction. But he said nothing to Nalene himself. It was clear he was afraid of her.
Quyloc was still glowering at her, though she paid him no more mind than she did the rest of them, her look one of someone who is lost inside herself. One hand still lay over her sulbit protectively. Rome knew how much Quyloc hated the Tenders, but he seemed to really have it in for the FirstMother and he wondered why. What had she done to make him hate her so much? Had they met before? He’d have to ask Quyloc about it sometime.
Then Rome realized that no one else was approaching the throne and he stood up and rubbed his hands together. Finally. Time to eat. He was starving. And he’d been poking around at the back of his collar and he thought he might know how it was hooked on. With a little luck he might be able to get it to come free and look like it just fell off by accident. If he stepped on it, also accidentally, it would probably be ruined. He didn’t really think he could swallow with the thing on anyway. Opus materialized at his side hissing.
“What now?” Rome grumbled.
“First the ritual.”
“How do you talk out the side of your mouth like that?”
“Do sit down, Macht. You mustn’t embarrass yourself.”
With another grumble Rome sat. He was going to find a way to make Opus pay for this. Maybe announce that he’d decided to have the entire palace painted orange, inside and out. The man’s heart would probably give out.
Silence fell suddenly, the subdued babble of voices dying out as Cynar strode to the center of the chamber and raised his arms into the air. His robes were slashed yellow velvet with orange silk under sleeves. Around his neck hung a double strand of carved beads and a gold medallion. He had a long, gloomy face and lips that were too small to cover his horse teeth. The hollows of his eyes had been blackened. For a long minute he simply stood and glared at the crowd. From somewhere an unseen player started up on a drum. The drumming grew louder and stronger, reverberating off the walls of the chamber. Slowly Cynar lowered his arms and the ritual began.
Rome leaned back in the throne, crossed his ankles and closed his eyes. Somehow he just knew this was going to be a long show.