Rouya entered the council chambers where her father would hold daily meetings with his ministers to find it bustling with activity. She took in the sight and felt caught off-guard as if she didn’t quite belong there, even after having already met with the lords and governors in the Great Hall.
Maps of the universe were sprawled out on tables with figurines on top of them and men on all sides deeply locked in what could have been a game.
Satrap Markus looked up, stroking his chin and smiled. “Princess Rouya, you look better. I’m glad you could join us, Your Highness.”
Rouya approached the six men and gave them each a curt nod before turning her attention back to Markus. “I called for you.”
“So you did, but as you can see we’re rather occupied at the moment,” Markus said, removing a figure from the map and tossing it over his shoulder. “I trust you did well in cementing the nobility’s faith in the crown.”
“It would have been more convincing if you’d been there alongside me. What’s all of this and how can I help?”
Markus chuckled for a moment before realizing she meant it. “I’m not sure there’s much you can do here. It might be for the best if you continue nursing our diplomatic ties.”
“You don’t think I can fight?”
Silence creeped into the room as everyone stopped what they were doing to listen in on the conversation.
“You’ve been through a lot and I don’t think we should burden you with any of this. I’ll remedy the situation.”
“Out,” Rouya said, clapping her hands. “I want you all out! We need to have a word in private.”
Markus’ face hardened as the people around them flocked to the doors. He took the initiative once they were alone. “That was an unnecessary loss of face.”
Rouya pressed her lips together and studied his face. The creases and graying hair of a middle-aged man. “I believe you’re suffering from a misunderstanding. That I might have not made myself clear enough. I cherish your service and respect your loyalty but I’m not a bystander in all of this. We’re talking about protecting my father’s achievements and the people I represent.”
“With all due respect, you don’t have any experience as a military commander and haven’t participated in any past battles.”
“Then teach me,” Rouya snapped. “You’re my advisor, so advise me. You just took a piece off the map. What was that?”
“The garrison at Alamash. Only fifty men there so it doesn’t surprise me that they were overrun in the night.”
“And what are you going to do about it?”
“Do about… Alamash?” Markus raised his brows, his lips twisting into a slight grin. “Nothing at the moment. It doesn’t hold any strategic value. I’m reforming our units out on the Frontier by pooling them together.”
“That’s unacceptable,” Rouya said in a firm voice. “What impression would it give to our people if we abandon our positions to the enemy?”
Markus scratched the back of his neck, visibly frustrated by her reprimands. “Very well, and when the next garrison falls or the next twenty? What will the people think when the bodies and defeats are piling? Avoiding defeat is sometimes the only victory one can hope to achieve. Land can be recaptured but the loss of life weighs more heavily.”
Rouya, fearing another defeat, solemnly nodded and wandered around the council chambers. Lush map tapestries hung from the wall in the various styles of the local people. Rouya herself was only half Aequillan. Her father sacked the city of Bailong and took the princess as his wife nearly twenty years ago.
The Aequillans saw themselves as the center of the universe and the other races as increasingly barbaric which left a stain on her claim.
“How am I going to restore order when I can’t even get people to attend the meetings I arrange?”
Markus came up to her and laid his hand on top of hers. “If it were easy, then everybody would do it. Give them time to warm up to you and you’ll win them over soon enough. I could be of even more service to you if you were to lend me your Nazar so I may launch a counterattack to help stabilize the situation.”
“Give you Evelyn?” Rouya glanced down at her chest and fumbled with the circular piece of glass. “I’ve grown accustomed to her presence and I don’t think I’ll be able to find a good night’s rest without her watching over me.”
“I understand. I’ll just have to make do with the resources given to me.”
“I promised the lords I’d challenge the other summoners to a duel to fight over the Battle Maidens one by one rather than a full-scale invasion.”
Markus slowly set the papers back down on the table and met her gaze. His eyes were fixed on her with a fire hidden behind them. “That would be a very foolish mistake and one I hope you aren’t actually thinking of making.”
Rouya felt taken aback by his words. It made perfect sense to her for a leader to save the lives of their people by minimizing the conflict. Summoning was still very much new to her, but she intended to give herself enough time to train until she was at Markus’ level. Which was why she brought the topic up with him at all.
“You can either criticize me or help me increase my chances of winning. Either way, I’ll do what I think is right.”
“What makes you think any of the other bearers would be willing to fight you in the first place? I’ve seen some of the most noble fighters out there die because people don’t win playing by the book. If you decide to step within their reach, they’re going to send everything they have at you.”
Rouya raised her brows. “Sounds like security around the prison cells would be lower in such an event. I promised you I’d help get Adelaxia back and haven’t forgotten my word. Besides, I’m denting their honor when I challenge them. They’ll be sure to accept in order to show me who’s the better.”
“No offense but Kalim would best you within a matter of seconds.”
“Then it’s your job to make sure it doesn’t come to that. I’ll be counting on you to help uphold the family honor.”
“I’ll need time to think it over and you should be preparing for your coronation once the mourning period has ceased. You’re to be the Empress and I can’t stress how important it is for you to convey the message with certainty to all.”
“Ah, Captain. I was meaning to speak with you,” Satrap Markus Relius announced as he crossed the hall to meet Helodion.
“Of course, my lord,” Helodion said with a bow. He intended to meet with the princess before her coronation and cheer her up. He knew what it was like to lose people he held closely and the princess lost her entire family.
“I have to thank you for your swift action. It’s because of you and your men that we managed to liberate Kyrare as soon as we did.”
“It’s my duty. If only we’d been there earlier, we might have been able to save the emperor himself.”
Markus raised his arm and indicated for Helodion to follow him into a less populated corridor. “There’s been a tremendous loss here for everyone. It’ll take days before we manage to identify all the dead. I was wondering if you happened across a woman with child on your way here?”
Helodion raised a brow, thinking of Lady Calisma who had warned him about the attack on the palace. “Many women have children with them. I did not keep track of them during our ride to the palace.”
“Of course. I was merely hoping more had managed to flee the rebels and might have sought protection at Fort Larcin.”
Helodion met Markus’ gaze. “Fort Larcin is quite far away for most of the nobility to travel to. I believe they would have been better served in the citadel but I don’t believe they’d been given much of a warning to escape.”
Markus stroked his chin. “Yes, I suppose you’re correct. I’m sorry to say this but the empire is still in need of your service.”
“Lord Irul hasn’t informed me of any recent developments.”
“This comes from the princess herself. She’s quite unpleased with the loss of territory on the Frontier. I’ve begun pulling forces together for a counter-offensive. With the capitol secure, you and your detachment should make haste and join the effort.” Markus lowered his voice. “We can’t allow the rebels any more victories.”
“My station is here. I’d need it in writing for me to redeploy my troops.”
“They’re the princess’ troops and you serve in her name. I’ll get you the paperwork but you should make provisions for your departure.”
Next time on Battle Maidens …
Episode 10 – An Evening Intrusion