It did not take long for an end to the battle once the horsemen were committed. Once again, fortune had smiled on Ardeo, allowed him to commit his troopers at just the moment when the enemy’s morale was at its lowest. With Marcus’s own horsemen plunging in from the opposite end, the enemy collapsed, attempted to flee. The piercing cohort took its cue from the fleeing enemy, chasing after it. In a conspicuous display of military skill and courage, they managed to enter Taren’s city gate, and seize possession of it. Ardeo and Marcus had moved as quickly as they could to follow the cohort in, and very soon, the rest of the army was pouring into the tightly contested gate. Before the Tarens could stop them, two legions had already broken into the city, with a third on its way.
Aware they had lost, every last surviving fighting man had fled from the field, shedding their armor and weapons on the spot. With great difficulty, Ardeo and Marcus managed to restrain their pillage-hungry soldiers, threatening immediate execution to anyone who disobeyed. By sunset, there was no more resistance, and Odacer himself entered the city, escorted by Karadord and his Guardsmen. Ardeo and Marcus met him at the entrance to Flaccus’s palace.
“What took you?” Ardeo called out lightheartedly.
Odacer leveled an amused look at his kinsman. “Mopping up is not an elegant operation, Ardeo. You, Marcus, and the commander of the cohort certainly distinguished yourselves today, but there is more to battle than the thrill of the charge.”
Ardeo smiled, still covered in sweat and dirt, his cloak and armor in not much better state. “That’s why we’re waiting here. We wanted you to enter first, do the whole formal acceptance of surrender thing.”
Tilting his head back, Karadord frowned. “Flaccus is surrendering?”
“Yes,” Marcus answered. “I sent my cavalry to secure the docks. No ships have sailed. And all the gates have been sealed. No one has left the city.”
“That is…not in character,” Odacer finally said. “Andrej Palev, I hope you won’t mind lending me your Guardsmen while we go inside.”
Karadord shook his head. “No, I do not mind at all.”
Warily entering Flaccus’s palace, the heavily armed troop moved carefully, watchful for the slightest sign of betrayal, the noblemen in their center no less wary. The obvious displays of wealth and splendor were lost on all present, as Ardeo and his kin were indifferent to such things, while the Imperials were inured to it, already accustomed to the far greater displays in the Emperor’s capital.
When they finally entered Flaccus’s audience chamber, the noblemen stopped, in shock. Flaccus, unmistakable with his fair features and fine clothes, was chained to his throne. Heavy iron links kept him bound, unable to move, while a gag had been stuffed into his mouth. Standing beside him was a woman wearing a dress of Imperial scarlet, a tall, elegant lady with hair the color of fire, skin as fine as alabaster, and eyes that contained more than a hint of the ocean’s sea blue. Her physical beauty combined with the fierce intelligence in her eyes made for an intoxicating combination.
“My name is Valena Orguja Theron, Princess of the Imperial House,” she said in the precise accent of the Imperial city, facing her…guests? It was impossible to imagine this woman as anyone’s prisoner.
She studied each man in turn, her sangfroid easily surpassing that of her brother’s. Her eyes dismissed Marcus and Ardeo, settling on Odacer with complete assurance. “I take it that this was my brother’s doing?”
The older man inclined his head gracefully. “It is indeed, Princess Valena. However, I do believe that Andrej Palev is in a better position to explain everything.”
With smoothly polished grace, Karadord explained everything to Valena from the very beginning, starting with Ardeo’s victory over the Fianna on Firesoul’s Plain. From the moment Karadord had indicated Ardeo’s person, Valena had focused her attention on him, and her gaze made Ardeo uncomfortable, to say the least. He had once heard his father mutter that when a woman looked at you like that, she was weighing every last thing about your person, and it was quite possible she was able to divine everything from his exact weight to the last time he had had his underclothing washed.
“Enough,” Valena said when Karadord began to elaborate on the discussions that had gone on in the Imperial court as to why Flaccus had rebelled.
She moved gracefully down the dais where Flaccus still sat in chains, impotent. “Would you like to know why this man rebelled?”
“I daresay it is of great interest, Princess Valena,” Karadord responded smoothly.
“Yes, you would certainly think so, Karadord,” Valena replied. “This…man, and I use the term loosely, was never the slightest bit interested in loyalty to the Empire. What he wanted was to bring back his precious Respublia in his own image. My divorce was just a pretext he needed to give his cause some legitimacy.”
Her bitter half-smile caused chills up Ardeo’s back. “After all, how can you genuinely rebel against your rightful overlord when your wife is still a virgin?”
Odacer, at least, was startled. “You remain a virgin? But why…?”
Valena’s half-smile faded away, and her tone of voice left no doubt as to how direly unhappy her life had been for the last few years. “That thing in his throne has no interest in women. His preference is for little boys.”
Ardeo saw Odacer, Marcus, and Karadord each reflect the horror and disgust that he himself felt. His hand itched to remove his sword and behead Flaccus on the spot. But he did not get the chance to beg Karadord and Odacer for the task, as Valena marched toward him, stopping right in front of him.
“And now I find I am to marry someone else,” she said, her voice detached, cold, disinterested. “Once again, I am being used by a male of my family as a tool for some sordid task. Why in the world should I look forward to exile in cold Iyaza? Why in the world should I marry you? I’m officially divorced from that…pervert. I’m free. Why should I give up my freedom?”
Valena looked away from Ardeo to glare at Odacer and Karadord before they could so much as open their mouths. “And don’t give me that duty rubbish. I’ve had a bellyful of duty. Duty sent me away from my beautiful home to this far-off place, and put me into the hands of a disgusting creature. Duty forced me to remain silent, since Father could do nothing to save me without risk of rebellion. Duty forced me to ignore things that even now make me want to vomit. Not one word of duty!”
As this fierce woman swung her eyes away from the older, ostensibly wiser statesmen to him, Ardeo felt himself at a loss of words. He had originally dreaded this encounter, had been as enthusiastic about his coming marriage as he would have been about a dragon eating his horse. But now that he had actually met her, he was confused, uncertain. She was unlike any woman, especially any noblewoman, he had ever met before.
She was certainly beautiful, easily one of the greatest beauties of the Empire. She was intelligent, tough, and resourceful; witness her survival in the court of a husband who had no use for her, and her capture of an enemy of Imperial Sandora. Her bloodline was the best in the world, and her dowry was more than most nobles made in a decade. She was eligible in every sense of the world. She was as tough as a Fianna, as beautiful as a goddess, and as brave as a dragon. Ardeo was smitten.
But there was more to it than that. Ardeo could sense it. She was not an empty-headed noblewoman; the prime occupations of her life were not clothes, jewels, and gossip. She was an intelligent woman who had been damned by her father into an unhappy marriage, and who had probably suffered as much from being stifled as she had from being neglected. She wanted to be free. That was impossible, of course. No one was ever free. Freedom was an unattainable lie that people kept reaching for. But he could at least offer her the lightest of shackles.
Ardeo got down on one knee before her. “I swear to you, Princess Valena, that if you marry me, I will not treat you as chattel. I will not neglect you, nor will I shove you into some corner to do nothing more than produce babies. I will treat you as your intelligence demands it. I will treat you as my equal, and share my power and authority over Iyaza with you. P’iedro’s Oath on it.”
Silence reigned throughout the audience chamber. P’iedro’s Oath was the most ironclad oath anyone could swear. Even the Emperor himself was bound by such an oath, and should he dare break it, the War of the Sin would seem like a mere inconvenience compared to the consequences, both in this world and the next. Not only had he sworn the oath, he had done so on his knee, something that he would only have to do before the Emperor himself. For long moments, Valena studied him, her expression inscrutable.
Finally, when even Ardeo was forced to conclude that she was going to reject him, she extended her hand toward him. Ardeo felt hope soar within him as he grasped her clean, dainty hand in his dirty steel gauntlet. She smiled at him, the first time her expression lacked hostility. “I think I like you, Ardeo Vellus. I think I may grow to love you. So I will marry you, if you are willing.”
Ardeo smiled triumphantly. Besides all the benefits this marriage would bring politically, he did like her, and he thought she was right. There were seeds here for friendship, and perhaps, even love. “I would be happy to.”