Sonnedragon Serialization, Part 13

Front pages: maps, illustrations, family trees, etc.

Mara was like Eduarde Redlyon—that was the trouble. Dafythe had known it from his daughter’s squalling infancy. “How like her grandfather she is!” He’d heard the words too often. “His very image! See how she holds her tin sword! See how she sits her pony. She has his skill! His courage! Brave child, she does not cry out even when she falls and scrapes her knees! What a warrior she will be!” Eloquence was predicted in every childish lisp, bravery in each toddling step.

Like her grandfather, Mara was short-tempered. She could get angry so fast when she didn’t have her own way. Her voice rising—how like the Redlyon’s roars! Like the Redlyon, she was impulsive. She had his confidence that whatever she wished to do was right. Mara possessed the bravery of one who does not imagine death. Her ferocity when the spirit was upon her was frightening. Dafythe had heard from various sparring partners that his daughter was insensate to her own injuries. She fought on wounded until her opponent called a stop to the game. It was not remarkable to see her in bandages. Mara seemed unaware of the hard facts of reality, but she ploughed on all the same and never ran against the truth. His daughter, like his father, ignored the obstacles before them and shaped the world to suit their liking. These were the qualities the Redlyon’s subjects had most admired in their Emperor and sought among his descendants.

But those who worshiped the memory of the Redlyon hadn’t truly known him. The common-folk, the soldiers, the rural nobility of Eduarde’s day had had little opportunity to view their Emperor’s private life: they saw him in public ceremonies and pageants, heard his commands on the battlefield, heard his proclamations read. They listened breathlessly to the news of his latest victory. They sang ballads to his memory even before his death. The Redlyon’s legend grew swiftly beyond the living man.

Eduarde’s closest friends and advisors were long dead now. Even so, none had known the late Emperor so well as his sons. From Ouestminstre to the Louvre to Holyrood to Fotheringhay, the court of the Redlyon traveled regularly from one royal residence to another, the Princes Kharles and Dafythe always in their imperious father’s wake. Eduarde kept his sons with him from the time they were old enough to travel because he didn’t trust nursery-maids and tutors to see them properly brought up. His sisters alone had his trust. Only Norman royal blood was fit to instruct and guide Norman princelings.

In spite of the efforts of Aunts Anne and Klarys, the little princes had been a disappointment to their fierce father. Eduarde’s blustering, rough upbringing had made them timid children. Neither of them were much like him; neither possessed the warrior heart. They were not weaklings—his near-century and Kharles’s eighty-nine years were proof of respectable health—but they were bookish, thoughtful, cautious. Their dispositions echoed the emperors who had preceded their father: Robert the Good, Elizabeth III, the Sainted Adalemarde, Cordelia Pax. These Norman rulers had valued peace above the glories of warfare. They had wrought a bright pinnacle of civilization from a collection of barbarian kingdoms. His father’s reign was different.

Eduarde was not a ruler to delegate his duties. He wanted to see all the land that he’d been given by God’s Grace. He liked to direct his regents personally and administer the business of every realm. He delighted in meeting his subjects, hearing their praise. And, if there was dissent, he must put it down by his own hand.

The Redlyon was a bully, an absolute ruler with no check upon his powers. Fearless of God and mortal-kind, he did whatever he wished. He waged his yearly wars because he enjoyed them; he always assumed that the money to fund his campaigns was there when he required it. He pursued any woman who caught his attention, certain that he wouldn’t be refused. Humiliation came to any who hesitated in carrying out his commands. He spied on his courtiers and ruined the careers of the luckless who fell from his favor. He took what he desired and none dared oppose him. In Eduarde’s day, opposition was taken as outright treason.

People didn’t remember what it was like to live in a constant state of war, taxes high to support an enormous standing army, youths impressed into the Emperor’s service, goods requisitioned, homes continually endangered by invasion. However, Dafythe recalled that the Norman citizens of his youth hadn’t resented these hardships. They idolized Eduarde. When he was in their vicinity, they turned out by the thousands to cheer as he rode past, to glimpse him, to touch the hem of his cloak as if this simple contact conveyed some sort of blessing upon them. They believed their money, their children, their property well sacrificed in their beloved Redlyon’s cause. As for Eduarde’s intolerance of dissenting opinion, they firmly believed that those who dared disagree with the Emperor were traitors and deserved whatever punishment they received. In fact, Dafythe’s leniency was seen as weakness; no imperial personage should endure the insult of opposition.

In his seventy years as Duke, Dafythe had never executed any subject for treason. He’d never been able to endure the sight of blood, not since he had witnessed his first execution at the age of thirteen. A man had been hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. A great crowd had gathered. Dafythe remembered how they’d shouted and pressed forward to get a better view. He had clung to his brother’s cloak to avoid being lost in the milling as Kharles led him to the imperial dais where Eduarde stood. He didn’t recall why they had gone on that occasion. Had they been summoned?

By the time they’d reached the platform, the prisoner was already hanging by his neck from the gallows. His wrists and ankles were bound but his limbs twitched as if he continued to struggle against the ropes. When the executioner cut him open, the prisoner gave out a shrill cry. He was still alive! Dafythe realized. Still alive! Blood flowed from the gash, turned the dirty-white hose of the prisoner red, spilled onto the straw beneath the gallows. The crowd moaned, a long, lowing sound as if they experienced the pain themselves.

The man was cut down, his arms still bound behind his back. Dafythe saw then that he held a small silver cross in his hands; it slipped from between them as he fell. The man’s fingers moved, groped vaguely after it. It wasn’t yet finished. The executioner cut the bonds and kicked the prisoner to turn him face up. Then he took up an axe. The limbs were severed with four neat chops. Red spread and spread. The lips of the limbless form moved. Still alive! Sweet Jesus, Dafythe wondered even to this day, how could a man endure such mutilation and live on?

He had prayed then, a boy at his brother’s side. The world spun about him, red with living blood. The crowd murmured; the excited, pulsing rhythm of their mingling voices rose and fell in his ears like a heartbeat. Dafythe had wanted to hide his face against the folds of Kharles’s cloak. He would have fainted, but Kharles slipped a steadying hand around his and squeezed gently.

“Father’s looking this way, Davy,” his elder brother had whispered. “Shut your eyes if you can’t watch.”

But Dafythe had to watch. It was impossible to look away until the axe fell a final time, beheading the prisoner and ending his agony.

Dafythe had never learned what the man’s crime had been. Treason, he imagined. Perhaps the man had been a Spanish spy, or a Norman subject who had spoken out against the Emperor: Eduarde had executed others for that crime during the purges in the 1880’s. Several prominent nobles had gone to the block and members of their households were hanged during that dark period.

How many times after that had Dafythe stood with Kharles behind their father as bodies dangled from gallows or axes fell? How many decaying heads had he seen on the pikes at Traitors’ Gate? Twice more, he knew, he’d been witness to the same abomination.

Whatever the man had done, Dafythe believed that no crime deserved such punishment. The thought of spilling blood sickened him—not with the queasiness of the faint-hearted, but with a moral repugnance that any human being could take delight in deliberately killing another. To him, this was the prime act of savagery. Nearly two thousand years had passed since the Crucifixion, and humanity had progressed no further than this? He was appalled by the ease with which his father slaughtered his enemies. Eduarde might call them God’s foes, but Dafythe knew the difference. As a youth, however, Dafythe had kept his outrage silent. He was the Emperor’s son, but that was no guarantee that his opinion would be more well-received than any other.

He was more fortunate than his brother, for he’d left his father’s court at his mother’s death. Eduarde rarely visited the Northlands and Dafythe was more or less an independent governor. He was free to exercise his own ideas in his state policies, although his father intervened from time to time. Dafythe returned to Europe only three times during Eduarde’s reign.

He returned the first time for his father’s second marriage. The bride, Aline, Lady Rokhester, was a cousin from the cadet Kent branch of the imperial family. Younger daughters and sons of the Dukes of Kent were brought up especially as prospective spouses for princes. In fact, Aline had been intended as a bride for Kharles, but at her presentation at Ouestminstre, Eduarde was so charmed by this pretty, timid maid that he decided to marry her himself. The marriage was brief; Aline died at the birth of her one child, Agnes.

The second time he’d returned had been after Aline’s death. Dafythe had traveled to Paris for his sister’s christening and, as it happened, arrived in time for his step-mother’s funeral. After the two ceremonies, the Redlyon went to London to attend a trial. Dafythe remained with his brother. One night, they’d sat together in Kharles’s apartments and spoke of their hopes to restore the Norman Empire to its glory of old. Father was completely mad, Kharles told him in confidence. These recent purges of imagined traitors were evidence that he could no longer be trusted to govern responsibly. And if that were not enough, the Emperor planned to lead another campaign against Spain. Naufarre again. How many battles had been fought over that one little scrap of land? If Father could be persuaded to relinquish some of his powers…

They’d made plans that night. At the time, Dafythe hadn’t truly believed that anything would come of it—not until after the Redlyon’s death—but within a few months he began to hear that his father was indeed ceding responsibilities to Kharles. The trials for treason ended. Kharles reviewed the last cases personally and declared that there was insufficient evidence to support the charges; the prisoners were released. More astonishing, there was talk of establishing peaceful terms with Spain.

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