Sunrise brooch centered over his throat.
Silver circlet balanced straight across his forehead.
Forest-green longcoat smooth. Gold sash tight.
New sword secure at his side.
Ean nodded. He was ready.
He turned away from the mirror on the wall of the King’s ready room in the Council Building and asked Ember and his father for their opinions with a look. His father nodded approval without smiling, while Ember only realized that Ean had asked a question when she saw his father nod. She had been somewhere else. Not just today, but also for all of the two weeks previous while both the Provincial and Popular bodies of the Council were assembled in full.
Ean waited until she was looking at him, then struck a dashing pose with his hand on his sword hilt.
Ember smiled. But it vanished quickly and she looked away.
Where was she? What was she thinking?
One life, or hundreds of thousands of lives.
That was where she was. Where all of them were. It was hitting her too.
What was he going to say to the Council? How was he going to answer that question for them when he was still struggling to accept it for himself?
He approached Ember and gave her shoulder a squeeze. She caught his hand and smiled at him again, with a little more strength.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
The door from the Council chambers opened and the floor chief, an ancient Liltan man named Selgan HarRekel scanned the room with his eyes, stopping on Ean.
“They are ready when you are, your Highness.”
His father stood up from his chair and beckoned Ean over. When Ean approached he gripped Ean’s shoulders and looked into his eyes. Ean saw the pride in those brown eyes, visible despite all the stress and exhaustion surrounding them from months of political struggles.
“I know you have spent much time in prayer over this for the past many months,” his father said. “We’ve prayed together once already, but let me say one last blessing over you.”
Ean smiled and bowed his head.
“Kai, strengthen my son in your righteousness and power. Give him wisdom and strength to continue to show your love as he already has, and to lead the people of Salshira in your ways.”
“Yes, Kai,” Ean said, and thanked his father.
“This is your battle, son, but you have my support. I do believe you made the right decision, the decision Dahnayl, or Shin, or Sahrah, or Jone, or any of the other prophets would have counselled. The decision Yahsaw himself counsels. Let the Tavarin name continue in you as it has.”
“Thank you, father.”
His father let go and Ean followed HarRekel into a room filled with over three hundred representatives seated in a seven-tiered amphitheatre that surrounded a stage and a simple podium. Scanning the gathered faces, many of whom Ean knew personally, he saw nobles, businessmen, ranchers, retired generals, elders, mayors, doctors, lawyers, and more, from almost every race found on the continent, though predominantly Liltan and half-Liltan.
He spotted Vagan HarBrathan and Aleahza Meakrun in the row up front, asking questions for the Isolation Party as representatives from the Provincial house and the Popular house respectively. They had other allies from the same party in that row, but they would be the most important two at this event.
He also spotted General Mahgdan, retired but widely respected, even though the other Generals still considered him young in private (this despite the fact that the gray-furred giant was now ancient for a Shaldan and becoming pretty rickety when he wasn’t sitting down). He was the leading Popular representative for the Fortress Party. Next to him was Banjan NirWelgat, a middle-aged noble from a relatively young family in the Tale province who had spent time as a mayor, an Akahllis elder, and a professor of theology at Skye University, now a Provincial representative for his home province and a leader in the Fortress party for the Missionary and Trade alliances.
Ean stepped to the podium and breathed out slowly, then laid out his notes and smoothed out the top sheet where it had become wrinkled. He looked up again and saw representative Meakrun darkening as she considered him with narrowed, reflective eyes. Around her on all sides the other representatives watched him with their own varying signs of agitation . None of them, no matter the party, looked eager to hear what he had to say.
Kai… Ahttah. Carry me.
His opening speech covered the situation with the Empire and their demands for Ember, along with the military’s latest information on the disposition of Empire forces and most likely estimates for losses in a full engagement. He funnelled all his points down to the question on everyone’s mind.
Sacrifice one woman, or sacrifice several hundred thousand.
His best response, the one he had submitted to the papers in a letter two weeks prior and again in several interviews, rested on the traditions of Salshira as a place that protected wanderers and guarded the rights of the weak. He called on the definition of justice that Kai gave them, that the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner not be forgotten, betrayed or abused. He summarized the nations and rulers that had been overthrown for doing otherwise, on Eddenloe, in the Scriptures, and in their histories of Dahnkahr.
Then he called on them in the name of Yahsaw to show the love and courage that all people were called too.
The entire time his mind was filled with the image of the Capitol burning, pressing in till it almost seemed to hover before his eyes as he spoke.
Did he believe any of this? How could he throw his people away?
How could they?
He reached the end of his prepared statements and signalled to HarRekel to open the floor to questions. As he looked up the electric lights seemed to flicker like small flames, and the whole room shimmered as if lit by leaping fires.
No. It wasn’t real.
Ean took a deep breath, let it out slow, and realized he had missed a question.
“My apologies. Could you please repeat the question, Lady Meakrun?”
Representative Meakrun slitted her eyes at him and her skin color deepened to pitch black.
“I said, Prince Tavarin, that you have assured us that Princess Rehkskarri is now a member of the Akahllis, a state that obligates us as her fellow siblings to look after a woman who is already in the position of a sojourner fleeing unjust persecution. Yet, we know that she came to our country as a thief, and that she lied about her identity before when it suited her. Now, when we need her continued assistance with our preparations against invasion, she is either incapable, or unwilling, to assist us. How are we to trust her? Should we risk ourselves for a deceiver?”
Ean felt a rush of heat run over his skin.
Except that she had lied.
But she wasn’t lying now!
How do you know?
Ean felt his thoughts fragmenting.
Yahsaw! Yahsaw, help! I don’t have answers!
“How will you convince us, your Highness? This woman is a mystery to us. Only you Tavarins have any experience with her.”
“What are you proposing?”
“Bring her out, and let us examine her ourselves.”
Whispers moved around the room. Hundreds of intent gazes, combined with nods of approval, told Ean Meakrun was far from alone in her desire.
They would tear her apart. Ember hadn’t been able to manage one reporter. How would she handle an entire room of politicians?
Ean locked gazes with Meakrun. He almost fancied that he could see himself reflected in those mirrored eyes from clear across the room. Tiny and pinned, like a mouse in a corner before a cat.
“I could raise it as a motion, if you wish, Prince Tavarin,” she said.
Ean had no doubt how that motion would go. He bowed his head and spread his ears out to the sides.
“Very well. I will bring her.”