Drou stood guard outside the door and waited nervously for news. The Residence was quiet now, slowly returning to some semblance of order after the night's chaos. She heard the familiar steps of booted feet, less steady than usual, and saw the night guard coming down the corridor on his usual rounds.
She tensed as he approached. She’d woken up only a few hours ago to the sound of alarms and the smell of smoke. Not knowing what was happening or what else to do, she’d taken Gregor away from the burning wing and into her own room, then stayed with him until he fell asleep on her bed. She didn’t know what she was supposed to do now.
The guard came up to her and read the question in her eyes. "It’s - The Emperor is dead. It’s confirmed." He stopped and swallowed before going on. "I had the news from Commander Illyan himself."
Drou leaned back against the door and closed her eyes. “How?” she asked weakly. “Who killed him?”
The guard shook his head, looking even more nervous than before. "I don't - there are all sorts of rumors. You’ll hear –" He shook his head again and continued down the corridor. Drou stared after him and repeated his words in her head.
The Emperor was dead.
It was over. She found herself blinking away tears as she struggled to absorb the words. All the days spent living in fear of the Emperor's anger, trying to shield Gregor, watching the Emperor's eyes and wondering when she would find his armsmen hauling her to the dungeons - it was all over. Gregor was safe. She was safe. Drou felt as if she could sit down on the carpet and weep.
But before she could even move she was interrupted by a commotion from below. Drou became suddenly alert as she heard crashes and the sound of raised voices. Then she heard the unmistakable sound of a nerve disruptor being fired. Without stopping to think, she pulled out her stunner and ran to the end of the corridor and down the stairs. She heard the crack of disruptors again and again, and men shouting. She stopped in the middle of the staircase, overlooking the grand reception hall, and stared in shock at the tableau before her.
Men were standing around the room, their faces pale and frightened. Some of them were Residence guards she knew. Other guards, along with five armsmen, were kneeling on the floor, disarmed, with weapons aimed at their heads.
Commander Simon Illyan stood framed in the doorway, surrounded by ImpSec men with drawn weapons. More spread into the room from behind him. Illyan held a nerve disruptor in his hand, and the body of a Vorbarra armsman lay crumpled at his feet. Other men lay fallen nearby, some in green uniforms and some in black and silver. Drou couldn't tell if they were stunned or dead.
“Anyone else?” Illyan asked, sweeping the room with a cold gaze. There was silence. “Traitors,” he spat. “I saw it with my own eyes. The Emperor betrayed by his own guards. His own sworn armsmen.” He gestured with his empty hand. “Take them all away. Downstairs. The Prime Minister will decide how to deal with them when he comes.”
The remaining men moved hastily to obey, looking shaken out of their wits. Drou felt the same, even though she couldn’t help but enjoy the irony of the Emperor's men locked in the dungeons where they had taken so many others. She could not believe it. But Illyan’s memories did not lie.
She came slowly down the stairs and stood at the back of the room as Illyan went on, giving orders left and right, sending men running this way and that, sending messages to Service Headquarters and the government. He did it all so fast that none of the soldiers had a moment to think. But Drou, silent and unnoticed in the back, had nothing else to do.
Gregor was the Emperor now, she realized slowly. And Grishnov, she supposed, would be giving the orders. Drou felt relieved. She did not care about the politics - Grishnov was a strong leader and no madman, and he would need Gregor to rule.
"Prime Minister Grishnov is on his way to the Residence?" Illyan asked, and Drou's attention returned to the present.
Lieutenant Misra, one of the Emperor's junior secretaries, came forward with a comlink in his hand. "No, sir," he said uneasily. "The Prime Minister's security reports that there's unrest in the city. There are people gathering at the Ministry, sir. With weapons."
"Indeed?” Illyan looked back in the direction where the prisoners had been taken. “It would appear that one of our traitors has leaked the news."
"Yes, sir. The Prime Minister has requested military support to clear the streets."
"No." Illyan's voice was bland, emotionless. "If there's going to be trouble, the Residence requires a security perimeter. The political officers have demonstrated on many occasions that they are capable of looking after themselves. They can have the municipal guards for support, if they need them."
"But, sir--" Lieutenant Misra stammered. "The Prime Minister –"
Illyan fixed him with a sharp look. "Lieutenant. Do you believe that protecting the Ministry of Political Education takes precedence over the Imperial Residence?"
The lieutenant swallowed. “No, sir.”
Illyan gave him a slow nod. “Then get the commander of the city’s garrison on the line for me. As well as the duty officer at ImpSec headquarters. Now."
Drou blinked at that, for it seemed clear to her that the priority should be to get the Prime Minister - the presumed Regent - to safety. Illyan had a far better understanding of these matters than she had, but still... Perhaps Illyan was not thinking clearly, like the rest of them. He, after all, had seen the Emperor's death with his own eyes.
She stopped. Illyan had seen the Emperor die. He had said so himself. But if it had truly been at the hands of the Emperor's own guards, then how was Illyan still alive, even unhurt? Why had he not died in his Emperor's defence? How had he escaped to get to ImpSec and gather support?
"Sir-" she began.
Illyan looked up and his gaze met hers for the first time, and looking at his cold, dangerous eyes, Drou was certain. Illyan was a traitor.
She stood still, possibilities running through her mind. She could denounce Illyan here and now. But who would take the word of a woman over that of the Emperor’s most trusted commander? And how many of the men surrounding her - the men who had helped Illyan take the Residence, who were carrying out his orders without question - how many of them were traitors as well? How many were Illyan's allies? How many had made the same connections she had, and had chosen to do nothing?
Illyan had seized the moment. Hehad command of the Residence. And with Serg’s twisted chains of command, the man who held the Residence could get away with much. Drou felt suddenly, desperately afraid. She’d thought they would be safe now. She had been wrong.
Illyan had seen her moment of understanding too. “You have no business being here, Miss Droushnakovi,” he said. “Stay with the Prince.”
She drew herself up and looked Illyan directly in the eye. “Yes, sir,” she answered, not knowing where the courage to speak came from. “I will stay with the Emperor.”
Illyan stopped and stared at her for a chilling moment, and Drou felt abruptly certain that he would not hesitate to kill her too, if she got in the way of his plans. She turned around and went back up the stairs, averting her eyes from the armsman's body that still lay crumpled in a corner.
She went straight to her room. The first thing she did was to turn around and lock the door behind her. Then she went to the drawer where she kept her weapons. She unlocked it hastily, put away her stunner and took out the nerve disruptor she had never used. Her hands trembled as she checked the charge and the safety.
She turned to see Gregor watching, awake and wide-eyed. “Droushie?” he asked softly, looking at the weapon in her hands. “What’s happening?”
Drou stopped. Gregor hadn’t called her that since he’d been five. It was rare even to hear him speak - he'd been so very quiet ever since Kareen died, even to her. She swallowed hard, then went and sat down beside him on the bed. “Gregor,” she said softly, covering his small hand with hers. "The Emperor - your father - is dead."
Gregor stared at her, blinking hard as if he couldn’t process her words. “How?”
"I don’t know." Though she thought now that she could make a good guess about who had killed him. "But he is dead." And then she added, “You are the Emperor now.” Gregor looked even more frightened at that.
By blood and law, it was true. But even Drou, a prole, a stranger thrown into the world of the High Vor and their intrigues, knew that it didn’t always work that way. She pulled Gregor into her arms, held him close and kissed his hair as he started crying softly. He was just a child, too young for any of this. Just a child, she thought fiercely, remembering Illyan's cold eyes. Not a pawn on your chessboard, Simon Illyan. Not anybody's pawn.
If only Kareen had lived. Kareen would have understood what was going on, would have handled the situation. Drou didn't know what to do, but Kareen would have, and Drou could have followed Kareen’s orders without fear or hesitation. If only she had not fled to Vordarian. If only she had taken Drou to protect her.
Oh, Kareen, she thought, as she had every day for the last few months. Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you trust me?
But she knew the answer. She had seen it in Kareen’s eyes the last time they had met. Kareen had kept Drou safe, so that if she failed - as she had - Drou would remain alive to look after Gregor.
Drou's oath had technically been to Serg as her Emperor. A month into his reign, she had known she could feel no loyalty to him, could feel nothing but disgust and hatred. But she had stood by Kareen's side, had watched the Empress's quiet strength and resilience, had seen her desperate need for a friend and protector. In her heart she had given her personal oath to Kareen, and she had held to it.
And she couldn’t stop now, couldn’t betray Kareen’s trust. Drou held on to Gregor and thought hard. She knew ways out of the Residence that even Illyan didn’t. She could take Gregor out if it came to the worst. But what then? Illyan would have half the garrison of Vorbarr Sultana around the Residence. And even if she got past the soldiers, where would she take him? Drou couldn't even begin to understand the political intricacies of such a decision. She imagined trying to hide in Vorbarr Sultana with a seven-year old boy, living as a hunted fugitive, and then thought suddenly of her parents and brothers, and she felt tears in her eyes once again.
But if she had to do it, she would. For Kareen. For Gregor, this child who was so much like his mother.
Drou got up from the bed and knelt down on the floor, face to face with Gregor. “Gregor,” she whispered. “Look at me."
Gregor stopped crying slowly. He wiped his face and rubbed his eyes. Drou waited until he was looking at her with solemn attention on his face, his expression reminding her forcibly of Kareen. "No one is going to hurt you," she promised. "I won't let them."
She would protect him. She would serve him if she could, as she had served Kareen. And she would not fail in this service. Slowly, she took Gregor's small hands and placed her own between them. Drou did not know the formal words of the liege-oath, but she silently vowed that whatever happened, Gregor Vorbarra was and would remain her Emperor.