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Betrothal Negotiations

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“No,” said Csethiro. “No. We will not. I will not.”

The lieutenant sputtered. “But Dach’osmin Ceredin, it is our oath."

”“It is our wedding night.” And all the nights thereafter, she thought, dread twisting in the pit of her stomach. The thought of losing her virginity, of begetting a child, while Lieutenant Beshelar watched was simply too much.

She locked eyes with Maia, then, almost by chance, and she realized that he was having the exact same thought. Had had it more than once, as a matter of fact. He looked calm, but she had watched him enough that she knew when he was frightened and sad. It happened far too often.

“Perhaps,” Maia said diffidently, “if it were only Kiru Athmaza in the room?”

She felt a rush of entirely unaccustomed warmth come to her at Maia’s kindness. She knew what he was trying to do. He was trying, as ever, to compromise, to ensure that both her dignity and that of his servants could be preserved. With no thought for his own.

She admired him for it. Really, she was coming to admire Maia perhaps more than a woman in such a political alliance ought. It was something she ought to put a stop to, eventually.

She almost acquiesced. Almost let it go, made it another in the long string of sacrifices she must needs make for this marriage. One thing only stopped her: the minute relaxation she had noticed in Maia’s shoulders when she said she would on no account permit the Emperor’s nohecharei to witness the consummation of their marriage. He wants this even less than I, she realized.

“Serenity, please,” Lieutenant Beshelar said. “You know what we would have to do, should we fail in our duty. Please allow us to do it.”

Considering that Maia had famously had to witness another of his nohecharei’s revethvoran, Csethiro thought that comment in extremely poor taste. She also knew it was the strategy most likely to work on Maia.

But Csethiro was not as kind a person as her betrothed, and for the first time she realized that might be to their advantage. He works so hard to balance the needs of others, but who does so for him?

Maia went pale, or as pale as his goblin-dark skin allowed him to get. “Beshelar, I—we...“

Csethiro made her voice cut like the sword she loved. “We think it grossly unfair, Lieutenant, that you would take advantage of our fiance’s care for you so.”

Giddy fear assaulted her as she realized what it was she had just done. I’ve interrupted the Emperor. She was fairly certain that was prohibited by about eighty different laws.

“We are certain that is not what Beshelar meant to do, Csethiro,” Maia said softly.

Since she had already put her foot in it multiple times, there was no way she was backing down now. “Perhaps not,” she admitted, “but it is what he is doing, all the same. He knows that you would never wish to cause him pain, and is relying on that to get his way.”

“His Serenity must be guarded,” Lieutenant Beshelar spat out. “Dach’osmin, our role is hardly ceremonial.”

“We agree entirely,” Csethiro said. “His Serenity must never be without adequate protection.”

“Then you will cease this useless protest?”

“Hardly,” Csethiro said. “We merely propose a bit more…flexibility in the arrangements. We wish to be alone with our husband in our bedchamber. You are not satisfied that he will be protected while there. Therefore, we propose that we duel you so that you may be satisfied as to our ability to guard His Serenity. If you win, we will give up the point. But if we should win, then you and your partners agree to remain in the outer chamber while we are there.”

She was proud of her ability to deliver this proposal calmly, as if ladies challenged the Emperor’s guards to a duel every day. Inside, though, she wasn’t calm at all. They will mock me, she thought. As ever they have.

Lieutenant Beshelar, though, did not mock. Instead, he looked like he was about to succumb to apoplexy. “I…I…what?”

“A duel,” Csethiro repeated. “Between yourself and us, so that you may know we are capable of protecting the Emperor.”

She did not want to look at Maia then, but she knew she must. If thou can’st duel for thy Emperor, thou can’st surely see his face.

And his face was delighted. Perhaps the gods had given her the right spouse, after all.

Beshelar sputtered. “But you can’t.”

“Why not?”

She already knew what he would say, though. It was what they all said. “You’re a woman.”

“So is Kiru Athmaza, and His Serenity is pleased to have her guard him.”

“Even if you were to win,” said Beshelar slowly, “besting us in a duel does not mean you could best the Emperor’s attackers! What if someone were to come upon you in the middle of…of congress?”

Cala Athmaza, Beshelar’s partner, who had been standing silently by the wall, could suddenly take no more, and doubled over laughing. “C-congress, Beshelar?” he wheezed, after several long moments during which he was unable to recover himself.

“Cala,” Maia rebuked mildly.

“We think,” said Cala, “that Beshelar is just scared.”

“Cala, enough.” There was nothing mild about that rebuke. Csethiro felt her spine stiffen. That was the thing about Maia, she realized—you saw the shy, quiet boy, and then he would do something and you would remember that he was an Emperor.

“Beshelar, we will not make you duel if you do not wish to. We do, however, think our betrothed’s proposal quite sensible. Csethiro,” he said, switching to the familiar first, “I have long wanted to see thee fight. Perhaps if Beshelar is unwilling, thou wilt show me, sometime?” His voice was tremulous, hopeful, as if he feared she might refuse him. If he were any other man at all, she would be sure he was mocking her.

But he was Maia, and they could deny Maia nothing. “We will do it,” Beshelar said gruffly. “But we will not hurt your future empress, Serenity.”

“We should hope not,” said Maia. “Indeed we were going to caution you both to have care, for you are both precious to us, and we would not wish any harm to come to either of you.”

Csethiro felt her face flood with heat. It’s merely that he does not wish to see us hurt. He would not mean anything more by it.

After she had changed into suitable attire and armed herself, both combatants bowed to the Emperor and then to each other. Then Csethiro forgot how discomfited Maia’s declaration made her feel, forgot even what she was fighting for, and lost herself in the dance.

Beshelar underestimated her, and was not used to dueling. He left her several openings she could have taken, and did not parry quickly enough. She was tempted to toy with him.

Were this someone trying to kill Maia, thou would’st not take that chance. It wasn’t very long before she had Beshelar knocked off balance with the point of her sword at his throat.

“Best two out of three?” Csethiro said brightly.

When she got back to her chambers that evening, there was a package for her, with a note from the Emperor.


My apologies; I fear I have committed a breach of etiquette when it comes to duels. I know that as my champion, I ought to have given thee a mark of my favour before fighting, but I did not wish to insult my nohecharis thus. Allow me to do so now. I believe this gift could have no more worthy bearer.


She lifted the covering on the box and gasped.

It was the sunblade of the Ceredada, the one she had given him for his birthday, now returned to her. Some might have called it an insult that he rejected her gift, but she knew that was not what he meant.

Loyalty. And trust.

The blade was a thousand years old. She would not use it even if she still could. She couldn’t resist, though, taking it up and giving it one experimental swing.

It fit her hand well.