Of course she had run.
She still wasn’t used to trusting people and he’d dropped it right on her.
Apparently he was still an idiot.
Oh well. Trin had handled it. In a few days Ember would have calmed down completely and he’d be able to talk to her alone about it. Hopefully without another nervous breakdown. If he could find the time with everything else that was going on.
Ean set his eyes on the high interior wall of Jone’s Shield, shining the silver-white of hahrax-wood in the late-afternoon light. Inside was the Empire’s representative, cut off from sight of Salshira like most other visitors, but probably already far too aware of what lay within. Especially of one thing that lay within. How to send her away? Was there a way to do it without giving offense? Was there a possible compromise?
Would it matter?
The Empire always found an excuse if they really wanted something.
“You’re really going to tell the Empire to jump off a high cliff?”
Ean glanced at Kaim, sitting in the row across from him.
“I brought you here to shore up the defenses, not question my leadership.”
“Of course, my prince.”
Ean looked back to the town again.
“But I thought someone should ask you to reconsider provoking the whole Skahlian Empire for one outsider.”
Ean kept his eyes on the town.
“Kaim, if you continue to refer to your new sister as an outsider I’m going to start questioning your status as my brother.”
“She’s playing you…”
Ean’s view of the town narrowed.
Calm down. Calm down.
He relaxed his eyes and face muscle by muscle.
I’m yours Yahsaw. Give me patience.
Or slap him. That would work too.
He shook his head to himself and took a deep breath.
Let it out slow.
He looked at Kaim. Honest. Concerned.
“Are you even aware of how blind you are? Of how stupid and hateful you sound at this point?”
Kaim’s eyes went wide.
“Your words are murder. MURDER. Who are you listening to? Answer me. WHO are you listening to? Because it’s not Yahsaw.”
Kaim pushed back against the side of the traincar, flattening his wings slightly to the sides against the glass.
“I’m not… Ean. I…”
Ean realized his hands were clenched and vibrating.
Calm down, Ean. Calm down.
“Ember is not a problem anymore, Kaim. She’s a cripple. Report to the Akahllis while you’re here and get some counseling. That’s an order. I want your mind on Jone’s Shield, not Ember.”
There was a pause.
“Yes, your highness.”
* * * * * * *
The Shaldan guard showed Ean into the meeting room where the Empire ambassador was waiting. Plush green upholstery covered all the dark, heavily carved, murako-wood furniture, and landscapes showing various views of the lands outside Salshira covered the maple paneled walls. In between two couches there was a low hahx table, set with a steaming silver pot, a full set of condiments, and a tray of simple but excellent delicacies, mostly cheeses and dried meats, but also fruit.
The ambassador sat on one of the couches, wrapped in a gold-embroidered blood-red dress similar to a Salshiran formal dress but with lightweight hooded mantle. The ambassador looked up as Ean entered and set her hahx cup down on the table to lower her hood.
Rich chestnut hair ran down over her shoulders, decorated with narrow braids and what had to be Kirtak feathers, forming a shining frame for a perfect oval face centered by dancing brown eyes and a cheerful smile. She spread her long ears out to the side in a sign of submission as she gave him a short bow.
Liltan. She was Liltan.
Ean gave her a short bow in return and took a seat opposite her. Before he could reach for the pot she was already pouring him a cup, complete with a dash of honey and cream. Not too much, just enough. How he liked it.
He snapped his eyes to her and studied that calm bearing.
Salshiran? Kirtak feathers were an old, old style for his country. More likely…
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Prince Ean,” she said in Hahkaht.
The Kehgrohl dialect, from the Liltans in the far east, in the forest of the same name. Still a free territory, according to the most recent reports.
“The pleasure is mine, Ambassador…?”
“KarTegan, your Highness.”
“You are from Kehgrohl Forest?”
“Once. Long ago.”
He studied her eyes. The wrinkles were faint, but she looked at least his age. The way she spoke, however, gave him the impression of much greater age. She was probably much more experienced than him.
“Welcome to Salshira.”
“Such as it is. I have never seen a nation so wary of showing itself. Though there are indications of wonders within. Citrus isn’t usually found so far from the equator. And in the mountains. And in summer.”
She picked up a tangerine slice and popped it into her mouth with another smile.
Ean glared at the offending fruit. Someone on the cooking staff was getting a reprimand.
“Our southern farmers are masters at getting plants to grow where they shouldn’t. It’s amazing what they can do with a few white walls to reflect light and some dark rocks to hold in heat.”
“What can Salshira do for the Empire?”
“Emperor Vohrskrain is prepared to commit eighty legions to acquiring Princess Rehksskarri. All professional, armed with muskets, pikes, cannon, and rockets. Lead by Garagrans and backed by even more auxiliaries.”
The smile was still on her face. The cheer still in her eyes.
Eighty… legions? That’s over four-hundred-thousand soldiers. Not counting auxiliaries.
“I have your attention, I see.”
“You don’t need threats to get my attention.”
“Of course not.” She inclined her head. “I need merely mention how important it is to Emperor Vohrskrain to have the Princess, correct?”
Ean sat up straighter.
“Why do you want her?”
“You don’t know?”
“To prevent a rebellion.”
“Yes. The Emperor doesn’t want there to be any question in the minds of Tenkreille’s remaining nobles whom they serve. Considering all the lives that were already lost liberating that country, it seems wise to provide for peace there, don’t you think? One life lost to guarantee safety for hundreds of thousands.”
“What about an abdication, instead? Signed by Princess Rehksskarri and witnessed by our King. Or witnessed by any nobles you want to bring here.”
The ambassador flicked her ears.
“Witnessed or no, it’s so easy for a Garagran to change her mind when a little power is to be gained.”
“I can assure you, Princess Rehkskarri isn’t in that game anymore.”
“She has said that to you? Very well. But seasons change quickly and minds more so. Emperor Vohrskrain’s offer is simple. Peace for the princess. Isn’t your entire country, and all the lives in it, plus peace and safety in Tenkreille, worth more than that?”
Ember’s face flashed in Ean’s mind. Laughing at the dinner table.
Another image flashed through his mind.
Sunfire Falls, the whole city, burning.
Yes. Yes it is worth it.
Ean winced as the voice snaked through his mind. It sounded exactly like his own.
“I am aware that you may be attached to the Princess at this point. It is difficult to turn one’s back on an acquaintance. Or a friend. But your father and the rest of your country may not harbor the same affections. Perhaps you should speak to them first.”
She smiled again.
“I’ll be here waiting as long as need be.”