Diryish Pollus sat upright, refusing the lulling too-soft pillows, pulling his silk nightshirt snug around his wrinkled old neck. Here in private chambers all his veils were removed, though everyone of lesser stature still went covered. It was late enough that he was alone in what would have been darkness, except for the alabaster lamps glowing from the massive stone posts of his warmed cocoon of a bed. His concubine’s veil fluttered slightly where she’d hung it on the hook, a faint blue and gold salute out of the shadowed red silk depths.
He didn’t seem to do much in the bed nowadays having aged to the point where sleep was a rare visiting friend and sex more an exercise in cuddling warm young flesh to his withering body.
This night he’d worn out his young courtiers, the last of whom he’d sent to bed an hour ago, wrung hollow. He’d worn out his masseurs and his current favorite musician, who had left his Unkalo leaning drunkenly against the wall when he’d been dismissed and staggered away. The soft, even breathing of the concubine was as silken as her exotic blond hair as she slept over on the edge of the bed, snuggled alone, wrapped in a feather quilt. It made him feel protective, even fatherly, considering that he kept her, cherished her, more for her beauty than anything else, the way an art collector cherishes his elegant Trovian Marbles. It was odd that the young, with all their boundless energy during the day faded away in the long depths of the night. Oh, not at first but night after night had them wilting like flowers in the desert sun.
He was tired, but not in a way that sleep would help. He cherished no illusions that even could she fire him to the point of forgetting his age, and engender a child on her, it was unlikely that he would still be alive long enough to see it born. He looked over at the closed door where his secretary had laid out the scrolls of relation, the records of the Imperial line, for his perusal after the funeral of his great grandson.
The Empire deserved a strong Heir, preferably a man grown. He frowned at the memory of his fine sons, Racinein, then Hakum, both riding off to war and glory, one brought home, crushed and bloodied, the other buried in the Trovi desert. Then the elder Tyrian, dying suddenly of the lung-seize fever.
Accidents, illness, war, disaster. In the night he counted the role of his dead. The girls – Jeannu, Ciari, and Stetira -- dead in childbed or soon after, despite all the best physicians and the best they could do. He rubbed his hands over his face, now that there was no one to see his weakness.
He slowly worked his way to the side of the bed, put his thin feet into the plush slippers waiting. Slowly tightened the tasseled belt before tucking his leathery, age-spotted hands into his sleeves that he didn’t have to look at them. In his gut, on the good days, he was still the dashing young warrior with the dangerous eyes ready to leap onto a War Moa and lead his troops into slashing, bloody victory. On his bad days he felt as though, perhaps, he’d missed his own death and was merely sitting in the immobilized corpse, in too much pain for it to be truly dead.
He closed the door softly behind himself and sat down, waiting. A tap on the inlaid door, a servant slipped in with a tray, bearing hot milk. I am an infant again. The Emperor thought, half disgustedly, half compassionately for himself. I used to drink coffee, even this late, and sleep sound after. No longer. Milk.
“Dukir.” He address the man who had set the tray down and against all protocol sat down on the cushion opposite as though he were an equal, or nearly.
“Your Radiance.” His bow was deferential enough. He was a thin, quiet man who could pass for servant in a plain veil, or a Radiant Lord in gold lace. The Emperor’s spymaster was losing most of his hair but the mind under the shining scalp was one of the reasons Diriyish was still as solidly on his throne as when he’d appointed the man. He was the fourth who had occupied the position and was, perhaps, one of the best.
I’ve worn out three other spymasters as well as my own flesh and legitimate blood. Now I am forced to the same decision my own ancestor was. Dukir was also old enough that the Emperor felt almost comfortable with him, the closest thing to a friend the Radiance of Lainz could have, especially in the writhing snake-pit of courtiers scraping and maneuvering for every scrap of power they could accrue to themselves.
“What word, old man?” The Emperor asked, smiling over the heated milk that he held but didn’t yet raise to his lips. Spiced brandy had, certainly against the advice of the Enlightened doctor, been quietly added. Water Blessings on you.
The spymaster snorted. “Old man, indeed.” He filled a cup for himself and raised and eyebrow. “You are my elder brother in all things but blood.”
“Indeed. My compliments to the apothecary.”
“The apothecary would have preferred mulled wine but that would have been too easy to scent.” A shared, secret smile. They sipped together, for an instant merely two old men sitting together on their cushions. It was an indulgence the Emperor seldom had and had only Dukir to offer him that particular gift.
The spymaster set his cup down with a sigh. “Radiance, none but one of your bastard sons had children of their own, as you know. But Riyish Talain, your old friend…married well and though he died before the last war with the Milar and his eldest son died in that campaign, there is a possibility that he may have had a child or children; only rumors and one or two of those speak of girls.”
“Riyish always was a good friend. And he did his duty by his Empire and his friends. And I made certain that the marriage went well, especially once my own Father went down to the Dark.” One bastard line that only two people knew of, all of the other principals being dead. It wasn’t enough to give any true relief. Less like a wadi in the desert and more like a darker patch in the sand hinting at a hope of moisture below. It could yet be a frenzied hallucination brought on by a dying man’s desperation. Diryish let out his breath with a puff of lip. But before he could say anything, Dukir… still thoughtfully sipping his spiced milk broke in.
“One thing I have noticed, Radiance.” He rubbed one hand on his veiled cheek. “Not only is your own line peculiarly prone to dying young… so are your known bastards. And all their male children.”
“Ah. Not just the usual accidents of a Warrior house?”
Dukir’s eyes were bleak in their nest of wrinkles. “No. But with your permission I will look into it.”
“Yes. Personally, I think.”
“Of course, Radiance. But I have very good investigators following up on your potential Heirs.”
“I’ll leave it in your hands. At the moment I will not begin any kind of serpent hunt in my own court yet. That would be premature.” A snort of laughter from the spymaster.
“Yes, Radiance.” He rose and bowed himself out at the Emperor’s dismissing wave, taking the tray with him.
As the door closed behind him softly, Diriyish set his empty cup down, staring blankly across the piles of scrolls delineating the Pollus clan lines. He was angry that the pattern hadn’t become apparent until now, until after little Tyrian’s death. Until after the deaths of all his children and grandchildren, but there was no one to focus his rage on. Not yet. He had to leave the searching up to Dukir and trust that he would flush out any real plot.
Creaking, he rose and blew out the lamp in the office, before drawing his robe off, dropping it by the side of the bed for a servant to pick up in the morning. He pulled the feather quilt softly away from Mariush; gazing down at her smooth, calm features. Some day she would realize the marks of her life on that glowing face but for now it showed nothing but smooth, alabaster skin.
He laid his brown old hand on the pillow next to her face, enjoying the contrast, watching the quiver of her pale, pale lashes against her cheeks as she, in the depths of sleep became aware of his gaze. When those luminous eyes the color of the Dry season sky opened and blinked in bleary surprise to see him so close. He smiled at her as he waited for her mind to come back out of the country of sleep.
She stretched and smiled back. “Radiance, you like seeing me all mussed like this?”
“It is the best place to see any woman, not the worst, whatever they believe.” He leaned closer and laid his thin, cool lips against hers. He might be old. He wasn’t dead yet. She started giggling as he began to tickle her out of her feather nest. While he no longer had the physical stamina of a young man he certainly had technique to compensate, rising out of long years of diligent study. With her help, they’d both get some sleep. After.