“You serve Prince Ansil?” Nevynne’s eyes widen. “Then he has not gone mad, as everyone believes?”
“Mad with grief he was,” Sedwin says. “For a time. He is recovered now, and has his senses once again about him.”
“But if he lives, why does he not come forth to claim his throne?”
“The secrets of the Lost Prince are not mine to reveal. All I will say is that he is in hiding, for there are many questions he needs answered that concern his safety.”
“What kind of questions?”
“I can speak only of the task that was given me and Garroth,” Sedwin says. “The Prince wishes to know why the Guardian would send her lieutenant, Lord Osdath, on a hunt of long years for one little boy. What significance this knowledge may have to My Lord, I cannot say. But I was bidden to discover it, and so I shall. I have no other answer for you. But know that in aiding us, you will be aiding the heir to the throne of Hestia.”
“Then aid you I will.” There is a new gravity in Nevynne’s voice. “I will do all that is in my power to help you accomplish your task, or die by your side attempting it.”
“And I will, too,” Stellia says, though she hopes very much that dying will not be necessary.
“Even,” Garroth says, “if it should mean going against the wishes and designs of Our Most Exalted Mistress, Her Holiness the Guardian?”
“If such a choice should have to be made,” Nevynne says, “I will remember who it was that protected my family of old, and who instead regards as virtuous and holy the one that slaughtered them.”
“Well spoken, My Lady. Though I would not repeat such words outside this room.”
“Now, enough of this grave talk,” Sedwin says. “I am glad we settled this, but we have a duty to our weary bones, as well.”
To this, everyone murmurs their agreement. Except for Stellia.
“I have one more question, if you will answer it.”
“What is it?”
“I know you cannot speak of the affairs of Prince Ansil,” Stellia says. “Or why it is that he sent you on the errand in which Nevynne and I have joined you. Nor do I need to know this, to pledge what aid I can offer to your Lord, who is My Liege as well. But is there nothing more you can tell me, about the reasons Lord Osdath chose Till, out of all the boys he sought out over the years of his quest?”
“Unfortunately, I can tell you no more now than I did last time we parted, outside your village,” Sedwin says. “We know only one thing for sure of Osdath’s quest. He set out on it less than a week after Emperor Thedric died and the Prince went missing.”
“You think there is a connection,” Nevynne says.
“Does it not seem likely? Six long years Osdath searched, with a persistence and patience that soon earned him the byname the Seeker among his peers and servants. So high a lord, and so long a time. Without a doubt he would have searched six years more, had it been necessary. Your brother is important, Stellia, terribly important. Somehow, his fate is linked to that of the Imperial House.”
“Who knows?” Nevynne snickers. “Maybe the Guardian wants to put him on the throne.”
“That would seem hard to imagine,” Sedwin says. With a glance at Stellia, and in a firmer tone, he adds, “Still, it’s not a laughing matter.”
“Forgive me,” Nevynne says. “But it is bewildering, that the Guardian has not chosen a successor in all this time. I know the Imperial line has been in decline for some time, but there’s still no shortage of cousins once and twice removed that have a claim.”
Stellia frowns. “What do you mean, in decline?”
“Prince Ansil was an only son. So was Thedric. There have been fewer and fewer male heirs in recent centuries, even though by law the Emperors of Hestia have the right to more than one wife, to safeguard the succession.”
Stellia turns to Sedwin. “Is this true?”
He nods. “In the past, an Emperor might take four wives at the very least, often six or more. The privilege has not been exercised in a long time, however.”
“But why does the Guardian not crown one of Prince Ansil’s first cousins, then?” Stellia asks. “They are of the Sacred Bloodline, are they not?”
“Many at the Imperial Court have been murmuring the same question,” Sedwin says. “But she refuses.”
“Why? It’s been six years. How can she not have given up?”
“Think about it, Stellia. A cousin might have a rightful claim. And technically, he would be of the Sacred Bloodline, yes. This is not a question of succession laws, however, but of the very meaning of man’s covenant with the Shaper. It is said that the line of Vulth reaches back all the way to the Penitent King himself, by whose sin and atonement the Faith was brought into this world in an age before the reckoning of history, and that the Shaper Himself fated the House of Vulth to rule the world. For two thousand years, the title of Emperor has passed from father to son, without fail. Imagine what it would mean to the Faith, if after all this time the Sacred Bloodline were broken. Because broken it would be, in the eyes of the Faithful, if the crown passed to some mere cousin so-and-so.”
“And so a savior in hiding is worth more than a score of petty kinsmen, no matter how ready and available,” Nevynne says. “Is that it?”
“In so many words, yes. It’s why the Guardian will crown no one until the sight of Prince Ansil’s dead body forces her to do so.”
“Then the Lost Prince must come forth!” Nevynne cries, and jumps to her feet. “How long can a savior remain hidden before everyone believes that he is dead, whether his corpse is found or not? Is the Prince blind to the evil and deceit that are spreading unchecked in the world without fear of justice?”
“I’ll teach you fear of justice, if you won’t curb your tongue,” Garroth says. “Do you presume to know better than Our Lord what he must do?”
“But what is he waiting for? The moment he reveals himself, the people will rally to him, common folk and nobles alike. You know this as well as I do! What do the Guardian’s designs and schemes matter next to that? If she even has any! All she cares about is gathering the heathens of the world into the Faith, no matter what butcher claims to do the dirty work in her name.”
A sudden gust of wind howls through the alley outside the inn. The timbers groan with its onslaught, and a cold draft stirs the candle flame. Stellia shudders and clasps her elbows. “Maybe the Prince thinks the Guardian is a threat to him.”
“Nonsense,” Nevynne says. “What harm could the Prince have to expect from her? She wants nothing more than for him to take the throne.”
“So she claims,” Garroth murmurs. Stellia has the distinct impression that the remark was not meant to be heard by anyone.
“These are not questions for us to pursue further this night,” Sedwin says. “It’s been a long day, and tomorrow’s bound to be no shorter. I say we all pipe down and let the storm sing us a lullaby.”
While everyone busies themselves with preparations for sleep, Sedwin sits on his bed by the window, watching the snowflakes hurtle past in the night. Stellia wonders what troubles weigh on his mind. He turns, and seeing her look at him, he smiles.
Realizing that she has been staring, she blushes, and averts her eyes.
NEXT: Faces in the Distance