1. The Artist
The young man bowed low as he entered the sitting room. Being allowed into the private apartment of the Queen of Elenia was not something he ever imagined, let alone being specifically requested.
"Your Majesty," he said.
"Master Talen," the queen replied. "We thank you for your time. Will this room be suitable?"
Talen looked around the room. The bright sunlight streamed through several windows bathing the chamber in a warm light. The walls were bare stone, devoid of the dark tapestries that covered so much of the castle's interior.
"Yes, Your Majesty, it will work out fine," he said. He observed the Queen closely as he set up his easel; for although he had been her subject all his life, this was the first time he had ever seen her up close. She was still young, perhaps only five or ten years older than he, he decided, but care lines creased her face as she bent over her writing desk. Hers had not been an easy life, he thought, despite the gilded surroundings, and he faintly remembered there had been some troubles in the kingdom when he was a child.
"I am ready whenever you are, Your Majesty," he said at last, and the queen looked up from her writing.
"I am at your disposal, Master Painter," she said with a wry little smile, dropping the royal pretense. Talen suddenly felt much more at ease.
"If you would simply sit there and talk with me, I will complete my sketches and be out of your way."
"So tell me," she said, "how did you come to be a Master Painter? You are quite young for such a position, no?"
"No younger for the job than you are for yours, my queen."
"Ah, but I did not have a choice in the matter, I was born into this role."
"There are some who would say the same about me," Talen replied as his charcoals danced across the page.
"Oh?" The question was laced with a demand for the story.
Talen obliged. "I discovered early on that I had a talent for two things: drawing and thievery. I quickly grew bored with school and soon discovered that nimble fingers can stumble upon all sorts of interesting treasures - when they're not busy sketching."
"And just how did you move from larceny to such a respected position?"
"I got caught," Talen said somewhat regretfully. "I miscalculated the length of time it would take to - ah - enter the home of a nobleman, and he caught me in the dining room. While he was trying to figure out what he wanted to do with me, I blurted out that the painting he was so proudly displaying in his sitting room was obviously a forgery, and moreover, I knew the forger who created it. Well, that stopped him in his tracks, and he demanded to know how I could tell. So we struck a bargain. I would give him all the information he needed to prove that the painting was a forgery, and he would overlook my unauthorized excursion into his house."
The queen's eyes opened wide. "So you were old Randon's 'source of information'?" She clapped her hands in delight. "Oh how marvelous. He never would say where he got his claims, but every single one was upheld by the experts he consulted."
Talen gave a small bow. "That is gratifying to hear, Your Majesty. And since you plainly know the nobleman in question, I don't think he'd mind me telling you that it was he who sponsored my entry into the artists' guild. I was soon kept so busy with my drawing and painting that my fingers rarely had time to itch for other things. And now, I believe, I am done taking up your valuable time," he said, finishing the last touches on his final sketch.
"What, already! May I see?"
Almost shyly, Talen handed over the several large sheets that he had covered in sketches of the queen. They captured her face in a variety of expressions, and there were even several of her delicate hands.
"I'll assemble a complete sketch in my studio and then add the color. If Your Majesty has a particular dress you would like me to include, I would be most grateful for a sample of the fabric and perhaps a sketch from your dressmaker for the shape of the neckline."
"Of course." The queen then drew herself up a little straighter in the chair. "We are most pleased with your work, Master Painter," she said, reverting to royal formality. "And we eagerly anticipate seeing the finished product."
Talen bowed low again, as several servants carried his supplies out of the room. "I am humbled and honored by Your Majesty's praise, and I shall endeavor to live up to it."
He backed out of the room, and just as he turned around in the hallway, the queen's voice floated out after him.
He turned back. "I expect to see you back here frequently. You are as much a storyteller as a painter, and I could use some good cheer."
"As Your Majesty commands," he replied with a smile, and left the castle with an extra spring in his step. The portrait of the queen would be his Master work, he was sure of that.
2. The Emperor of Thieves
It had started out as idle speculation, a way to pass the long, rainy days in Emsat. He never quite thought it would amount to anything. Of such thoughts are destinies made.
After the events in Tamul and Cyrga, life had settled down for the royal family of Elenia, of which Talen was now firmly considered a member. He and his brothers entered their training in due course, and were well on their way to becoming Pandion Knights. And that's when things started to fall apart.
Talen's first hint that something was wrong was when he was summoned to the palace late one summer evening. When he arrived, he found the queen's eyes were red from crying, while Sparhawk and Danae wore identical expressions of concern and displeasure.
"Platime was murdered," Sparhawk said without preamble, and tossed a bundle of clothing at the former thief. "We need you to find out what happened and who's in control. As far as I knew, you were the closest thing Platime had to a successor."
"I don't have the time or resources to spare on unauthorized bandits and the like," Ehlana said firmly. "Make sure whoever takes over upholds all of the agreements that Platime had."
Talen was stunned for a moment, but quickly rallied. "Of course. If you could send someone to check in with Stragen - "
"Already done," Danae interrupted. Her mother frowned but did not contradict the statement.
Talen raised his eyebrows in question, and Danae nodded very slightly. Flute would be making an appearance, then, or perhaps there would simply be an appropriately timed visitor. Talen still wasn't sure what to think of the fact that the Princess of Elenia was actually the Styric Child-Goddess, so he tried not to think about it too hard. It did seem to come in handy at a time like this, however.
"Then I will proceed without delay to the vast underbelly of your lovely city," he said. Ehlana rolled her eyes, but there was a faint smile tugging at the corner of her mouth, as if in spite of her best efforts to remain solemn.
Two days later, Talen's investigations were brought to an abrupt halt by the arrival of Ulath. Talen caught Sparhawk looking suspiciously at his daughter, but Danae was too skilled in maintaining an innocent facade to give anything away.
"Stragen's dead," the Thalesian knight said bluntly. "Melidere is holding things together by sheer force of her will, but she neither wants nor thinks she can hold the position long-term. Something about thieves not being able to see past the fact that she's a woman, no matter how many of them she kills off."
Ehlana winced, but nodded in agreement, as did most of the others in the room. Then Talen felt all eyes turning towards him.
"What?" he protested. The silence spoke volumes. "Alright, fine. Tell the Baroness that she needs to hold on for a couple more weeks. That will give me time to settle things here, and find someone I trust - relatively speaking, anyway." He turned to Sparhawk. "You do realize you're going to have to reconsider your career plans for me, don't you? I can't be a Pandion novice, run the thieves in Cimmura and be in Emsat all at once."
Sparhawk scowled and grunted. "I'll consider it."
"I'm afraid I need you more than God does right now," Ehlana said with a lopsided smile. "I'm sure He'll understand."
"One of them will, anyway," Talen replied with a wink.
Which was how Talen found himself running the thieves in two cities before his twentieth birthday. It wasn't until Meland, who somehow escaped the attacks that took out Platime and Stragen, began to feel his mortality, and named Talen his successor, that a certain conversation came back to the still-young thief.
The thieves' council is very close to being a government now. About all it really needs to qualify is some single leader, he'd told Sparhawk and his father so long ago. And suddenly, despite all probability to the contrary, it looked like he was, in fact, going to end up as that single leader.
Emperor of the Thieves, indeed.
Now he just had to worry about the fun and profit - and staying alive, of course.
3. The Churchman
"It's your fault, really."
"Oh?" The large knight in black steel turned to his companion.
The first man, dressed in the somber cassock of a Patriarch, tugged at the chain of office around his neck. "It is. If you hadn't been so insistent on teaching me Church history, I never would have become so interested in it."
"You," the knight said, pointing a finger, "were an ignorant heathen. Someone had to do something about it."
One of the guards appeared at the doorway and bowed slightly. "Patriarch, the Archprelate is ready to see you now."
"Want to come along?" the churchman asked his friend.
The knight shrugged with a creak of armor. "Sure, why not. If you're going to blame me, I might as well see it through, right?"
The guard bowed again. "Very good, Preceptor. If you gentlemen would follow me." He led the two men through the hallways of the Basilica to the private chambers of the Archprelate.
"Sarathi, Patriarch Talen is here to see you, as requested. And Preceptor Berit is here as well."
"Berit?" Dolmant's voice, though it sometimes quavered with age, was still strong. "Come in, come in, this is a welcome surprise."
The guard bowed and stepped out of the way, and the two men entered the room. They both knelt to kiss the Archprelate's ring and then Talen took a seat in one of the chairs. Berit remained standing.
"Forgive me, Sarathi, but..." Berit trailed off.
Dolmant smiled. "Though it has been many years, I do still remember the difficulty of sitting in full armor. What brings you to our humble home?" The Archprelate's hair was now as white as his robe and, sitting in a beam of sunlight as he was, he seemed to take on an other-worldly appearance.
"I was consulting with Kring about the breeding program he has been working on for us and decided to pay a visit on my way back to Demos. It has been some time since Talen and I had a chance to catch up, and I had word of his brother to bring him."
"All is well, I trust?" Dolmant asked, and Berit remembered that the Archprelate's ties to the family went back even further than his own.
"Very well. Khalad finally agreed to become one of our permanent instructors."
"Our enemies are shaking in their boots at the caliber of horsemen he will produce."
"And so are the novices," Talen added wryly.
"A little suffering is good for their souls." Dolmant then turned to Talen. "It should come as little surprise to you why I have called you here. With the passing of our beloved brother Emban, I have been without a first secretary for a fortnight. At one time I might have been able to keep up with the demand, but alas, even I feel the years catching up with me. Therefore, I ask you, my brother, will you be my first secretary and assist me in guiding our holy mother? And promise not to fleece too many of our brethren along the way?"
Berit only just managed to stifle his laughter. "You know him too well." The Archprelate winked at him.
"I would be honored, Dolmant," Talen said seriously, although his eyes were bright with laughter. "I, too, feel the loss of Emban most keenly, and will do my best to live up to his legacy."
"I know you will, my son."
"Who would have thought the first time we brought you here, that you would not only end up in the Chruch, but as Sarathi's first secretary?" Berit asked with a trace of wonder.
"God's ways are mysterious," Talen replied with a straight face.
"Indeed they are," Dolmant agreed, and the three men spent a moment in relaxed contemplation.
4. The Diplomat
"He's never going to make a very good knight, Sparhawk. Not unless Aphrael wiggles her fingers and makes him about twice as big in most directions." The Queen of Elenia had her determined look on, which only served to make her more appealing, at least to her husband.
Despite the fact that he was clearly losing the argument, Sparhawk smiled faintly. "Strange, I remember Talen saying approximately the same thing to me on several occasions."
"And didn't that tell you something? We're both right, and you know it. He's got Elys's build, not Kurik's. The first time you put him in full armor, he's going to collapse."
"So do most of us," Kalten pointed out from where he lounged in a chair nearby.
"Not helping," Ehlana said through gritted teeth.
"Sorry, Your Majesty," Kalten said perfunctorily, although his grin said otherwise.
"My point is that pushing Talen through the Pandion novitiate is a waste of his innate skills. I know you're trying to do what's best for him, but is this really it?"
"What do you suggest then?"
Ehlana began pacing around the sitting room. "As you know, I've been in fairly regular communication with Sarabian and Oscagne. They've taken great pains to impress upon me the fact that now that we have more or less normalized relations, it really would be a good idea to have a formal ambassador in each court."
Kalten burst out laughing. "You really want to make Talen a diplomat? We're doomed!"
"Isn't he a little young?" Sparhawk asked mildly.
"Right now, yes. But my thought was to send him off to Oscagne to learn how to be one. Let's face it, gentlemen. The kingdoms of Eosia have always been close enough that we don't really need formal diplomats. When I want to yell at one of my fellow rulers, I just send a letter. Or go in person. But Sarabian is right, we need to establish diplomatic ties with the Tamul empire, and not just personal ones. And right now, we don't have anyone qualified to do that."
"So you were thinking to send Talen over there, learn the trade, and then what? Come back and teach others?"
"What if you sent over some of the novices from each order too? There are always some novices who will never make a good knight, but are smart enough to be a good administrator." Both Sparhawk and Ehlana turned to Kalten in surprise. "What?" he said defensively. "It was just an idea."
"Don't ever change, Kalten," Ehlana said and kissed his cheek fondly.
Several days later, Talen shuffled into the council chamber, limping slightly.
"What happened to you?" Kalten asked.
"Couldn't get a block right. I'm fine with a lighter sword, but I just can't move the stupid broadsword fast enough," Talen replied sullenly, flinging himself into a chair.
Ehlana didn't need to say "I told you so." Her expression said it loudly enough to be heard in Chyrellos.
"Were you serious when you told Itagne that you wanted to learn how to be a diplomat?" Sparhawk asked, heroically ignoring his wife's look.
"If it'll get me out of being pounded every day, I was dead serious."
"Talen. . . "
"I'm never going to be a very good knight, Sparhawk," Talen said, suddenly serious. "I can learn all the tactics, and the magic is fine, but when it comes to actually putting on the armor?" He shook his head. "My brothers are built for it. I am . . . not. I'm better suited for a dagger in the back than armored combat."
"How would you like to learn to fight with words rather than edged weapons?" Ehlana asked with a self-satisfied smile.
"Truly. We have never particularly had the need for diplomats before, but now that we have more open communications with the Tamul empire, Oscagne is encouraging me to establish true ambassadors in Sarabian's court. We were thinking to send you, along with several others, off to Matherion to learn from the Foreign Service department there, and form the base of Eosia's diplomatic corps."
Sparhawk had only seen Talen's eyes go as wide once before, when Kurik openly acknowledged him as his son, and the look of awe and gratitude on the boy's face was similar; the Prince Consort was forced to admit that, as usual, his wife's instincts were spot-on. The lad would make an excellent diplomat. Provided, of course, that they could keep him out of any international incidents along the way. Speaking of which.
"Just remember, Talen, diplomatic immunity doesn't start until after an official appointment has been made."