The panel of men staring at Maeryn would have been intimidating, if she were the type of woman to be easily intimidated. But she wasn’t. Though she was doing her best to appear that way and the men were buying it.
“Tell us the story again, from the beginning,” muttered one of the interrogators.
“I already told you,” she began, using the same emotionally stretched voice that she had used from the onset of this interrogation. “I woke up in the early morning and he was gone…” She trailed off as tears began to well-up in her eyes. She covered her face with her hands to show that this was all too much for her. The emotion she felt was real enough, but if Adair wanted the council to know what he was doing, he would have told them. He was definitely in some kind of trouble and she wasn’t going to be punished for it. After all, she was ignorant really. Adair hadn’t told her anything, probably to protect her. But he did seem different before he disappeared—distant, thinking to himself more than usual. Of course she didn’t include any of this information in her story. These men weren’t trying to help Adair; they were hoping to catch a deserter. The Empire had no tolerance for anyone who was not wholly devoted to it.
“I’m sorry,” she continued after pulling herself together. “It’s just…he is always being called out in the middle of the night for one reason or another. His position is very demanding. It’s as though the city couldn’t function without him.”
“On the contrary,” stated the man seated at the center of the table. “The city will function without him. In fact, it is the judgment of this council that all possessions and responsibilities of your husband will be given over to an appointed steward for a period of one week.”
The statement hit Maeryn like a wave, forcing the breath from her lungs. Under Orudan law a man’s possessions included his wife and children. The interrogator was trying to scare her into giving them information. It was working. She started to cry for real this time.
The interrogator’s voice rose so as to be heard clearly above her sobbing. He wasn’t about to repeat himself. “If your husband does not return in a week, then the appointed steward will gain ownership of those possessions and responsibilities.”
In the silence that followed, the words began to sink in. Maeryn continued to cry outwardly to show the interrogator that he had made his point, while inwardly she wept at the thought of Adair being replaced so quickly. How could they treat us like this, after all he sacrificed for them?
“Please find him,” she pleaded.
“That is all,” stated the interrogator and the whole panel of men rose to leave the room.
As they filed out the door, Thaddius separated from the group and came over to Maeryn. He waited until they were alone before speaking. “Adair left a message with one of my servants that he would be gone for more than a day. He wouldn’t have done that if he was deserting. I tried to tell them, but they wouldn’t listen. I’m sorry.”
Maeryn simply nodded in response, wiping the tears from her face.
Thaddius slowly backed up, then turned and followed after the other members of the council.
Maeryn counted to ten before she stopped crying. I think they were convinced, she assured herself with a smile of satisfaction. Men like that have no idea what to do with an emotional woman. They only know how to fight wars and give orders.
The following day, Maeryn stood on the balcony outside of her bedroom. The sun was well above the horizon and the city glittered with the yellow light reflecting off the surface of the water. She watched a procession of wagons and marching soldiers wind through the streets of the city. Red banners at the front and rear of the procession waved in the breeze, the gold eagle emblem of the Orudan Empire sparkling as it caught the sunlight.
“You’re not in charge yet,” she said to the man inside the covered carriage half a mile away. “You’re only a steward!”
The citizens of Bastul lined the streets, waving their hands at his carriage as it passed them. She was disgusted by him already. You would think the Emperor himself had come to visit us. Adair never flaunted his power; he didn’t need to. People tended to respect him because of his character first, and his power second. Unlike this man, who is obviously trying to make up for something he lacks!
The procession continued along the cobblestone road leading up to the mansion that Maeryn had called home for many years. The pace was slowed considerably when the road became a series of switchbacks as it climbed the hill. When the procession finally reached the top and entered the courtyard, Maeryn decided to go downstairs and meet this prideful man who thought he could take over for Adair.
Exiting the house, Maeryn walked through the garden situated between the guest wing and slaves’ quarters of the mansion. Adair had the garden built as a gift to Maeryn, following the customs of her ancestors. Trimmed trees and shrubs dotted the landscape, separated by rings of brightly colored flowers. The north end of this secluded paradise was open to the hilltop courtyard, containing stables, soldiers’ housing, and various other structures, all surrounded by a pale stone wall.
She stopped at the entrance to the garden and waited at the top of a short flight of steps that descended to the gravel courtyard. The last of the rearguard were just entering through the north gate when, farther to her left, a guard reached up and opened the door to the most expensive looking carriage of the whole procession. Maeryn was glad that she had sent Kael away at first light to spend the week with Saba. Until she knew what kind of man this steward was, it was better to keep her son away from him.
The man who climbed out of the carriage blinked at the harsh morning light as if he had just awoken. He was a tall man, taller than Adair, but much thinner. His jawline was narrow and coupled with his protruding nose, made him look like a rodent. He was dressed as every other Orud male of importance; he wore a pure white tunic underneath a metal cuirass. The sculpted abdomen and chest muscles of the cuirass looked out of place on his narrow frame. Over his clothing he wore a red cloak fastened at the left shoulder with a golden torc. He appeared uncomfortable in this elaborate style of dress. So you have no prior experience!
He smiled when he looked in Maeryn’s direction and spoke loud enough for everyone in the courtyard to hear him. “Hello. You must be Maeryn.” He spread his arms wide and lifted them up to the sky, keeping his gaze fixed on her. “Now this is a mansion fit for an emperor.”
After his brilliant observation, he strode confidently over to the garden’s entrance and climbed the stairs, stopping when he reached Maeryn. His height was imposing and he knew it. He stood uncomfortably close, by social standards, looking down on her. “I am Lemus,” he stated with a smile that was too big. “You may show me around my new home.”
“You’re to be a steward only,” Maeryn corrected, “until my husband returns.”
The tall man glanced quickly around the courtyard to see if anyone had overheard. Suddenly, he bent down until his mouth was close to Maeryn’s ear and she flinched in response. When he spoke his voice was a whisper. “If you ever speak to me in that tone again I’ll have that disrespectful tongue of yours cut out of your mouth. If the coward ever does turn up, he won’t be allowed to return to his former position.” When he straightened up to his full height, he still had a smile on his face. He gestured past Maeryn toward the garden. “You lead the way.”
The days dragged on and Maeryn’s anxiety increased. Her once optimistic attitude about Adair’s absence was being steadily worn down with every passing moment. It wasn’t unusual for Adair to be gone for long periods of time, but this was starting to scare her. It only complicated her emotions to be sharing a house with Lemus. The more time she spent with him, the surer she became of his mental instability. He had the look of a starved and unpredictable animal. After showing him around the mansion and answering hundreds of his questions, Maeryn tried her best to avoid him, spending most of her time on the balcony staring at the city below. On days when Lemus stayed close to the house, she would go with one of the slaves into the city and help shop for food and other supplies.
As the morning sun rose over the bay, Maeryn watched from her balcony as she always did. Clouds had rolled in during the night and the sun was struggling to warm the air through the gray blanket. The skies over Bastul only lightened to a hazy purple. It made everything look drab which seemed fitting to Maeryn. It had been weeks now, but Adair had not returned. She feared the worst, that he was dead. Nothing except death would have kept him away for so long. Tears began to well up in her eyes and blurred her view of the city below. There was bitterness growing inside her. To be honest, it had been there for some time. It was the Empire and its stranglehold on their lives that angered her.
When she first met Adair, he had taken refuge in her parent’s barn, having been wounded in a battle that took place a short distance from her home in the north. She nursed him back to health with her mother’s help and in time, got to know Adair. The two of them fell in love and when it was time for Adair to leave, Maeryn’s father begged him to take Maeryn. It wasn’t a difficult decision for either of them; Maeryn was the most beautiful woman Adair had ever seen, Adair was a kind and respectable man who offered a life apart from the harsh conditions in which Maeryn had been raised.
But Adair was a soldier, and she knew what kind of life came with marrying a soldier, though Adair’s love blinded her from that reality for a long time. He was a man of genuine character. The confusing part was how he could be so kind and still function as a soldier. Didn’t soldiers need to be rough and crude by nature in order to do what was required of them? When they were first married she used to worry about his safety for that same reason. However, it wasn’t long before Adair’s reputation on the battlefield made its way to her ears. Everyone said he had a way with people. He was a born leader. People listened to him out of respect, without having to be ordered. He inspired others by being ferocious in the face of enemies and he instinctively knew where and how to move on the battlefield. Slowly, his reputation earned him higher and higher positions of authority. Eventually he was granted the position of Colonel and with it, governorship of Bastul. But somehow, the enormous responsibility became a weight around his neck. And it wasn’t just Adair; Maeryn felt it as well. They started to feel trapped. Now Adair was gone. The probability of his death caused a loneliness in Maeryn’s heart that went deeper than anything she had experienced before. She was bitter that their lives always had to be in accordance with the goals of the Empire. The good of the nation always outweighs the good of individuals. She was tired of living a life dictated by others.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
The voice behind her was startling.
“The Southern Jewel is what they call it in Orud.” Lemus was staring past her and looking at the city which surrounded the bay and sprawled into the foothills of the mountain-range to the east. If he realized he had startled her, he wasn’t showing it. He seemed to be reveling in his newfound power.
Maeryn wasn’t sure how to respond and only managed to nod and smile.
“Now what do you have to cry about?” he asked in an almost believably caring tone, noticing the tears on her face.
She just looked at him and couldn’t manage to find any words. If he was dense enough not to realize, then he could go on wondering for all she cared.
He walked over to the railing and stood next to her. “I think I’ve been pretty generous so far,” he stated calmly. “You’ve had several days to yourself. I don’t know of many men who would wait that long for a new wife.”
Maeryn’s heart began to race at the sound of his lusting voice. She knew what it meant to have another man assume all of Adair’s responsibilities. She knew that her body would soon belong to Lemus as well, but the transfer of authority hadn’t been made official yet. It was clear that Lemus didn’t care.
“I need more time, please,” she whispered as she turned and walked into the bedroom.
Lemus’ footsteps came quickly behind her and she ran for the bedroom door in a panic. She only made it a few steps before Lemus caught hold of her braided hair, snapping her head backward with searing pain.
“I wasn’t asking,” he said with gritted teeth in her ear.
She scrambled to get away but he was too strong, using his full weight on her back to force her to the ground. She wanted to scream, but she knew that there wasn’t anyone to come to her aid. The only souls in the house were slaves who wouldn’t think of interfering. She was helpless and the only thing she could do was lie still.
She wasn’t sure how long she lay on the floor after it was over. Her hot face was pressed against the cool stone floor. Her eyes traced a crack in the stone as it meandered from underneath her nose to a point in the middle of the room where it fragmented into a dozen other cracks. She never noticed little things like that before. Probably because she was always distracted by how good her life used to be.
Maeryn struggled to her feet, moving slowly at first. Her body ached and her scalp was tender from Lemus pulling on her hair. As she stood in her bedroom she noticed the wet area on the stone floor where her face had been only a moment ago. It was proof that she had been crying, but right now, she couldn’t feel any emotion.
She watched her feet move in small steps toward the door of her bedroom and figured they must know better than she where to go. She felt detached, as if the whole thing were a story told by a friend that was now beginning to fade from memory. Maeryn’s feet continued to move and when they stopped, she found herself in the garden. A slight wind had picked up and the air was a little cooler than normal. The clouds were gone, but the sky was still hazy as if some invisible force was trying to dampen the sunshine.
She sat down on a low stone wall that ringed a flower bed, and winced at the pain it caused. She watched as the leaves danced in the breeze and wondered what it would be like to be a flower; no one to please, no one to bother you. All you would have to do is stand in the sun with your friends and be beautiful. People would admire you for what you were and they would feed you and take care of you. Without warning, a wave of sorrow overwhelmed her and the tears began to fall.
The following day, while watching the city from her balcony, Maeryn saw Kael and Saba walking up the cobblestone road. She couldn’t contain her excitement, turning to run back inside the house. After two steps, she stopped and doubled over in pain. Her excitement had gotten the better of her and she cursed her own stupidity. Her body hadn’t healed enough for her to run and she waited until the pain in her abdomen faded, leaving only a dull ache between her legs. By the time she got to the garden, the two were just entering the courtyard through the north gate. Maeryn walked down the steps and crossed the bare expanse between them, the gravel crunching softly underneath her sandaled feet.
Saba stepped to the side and watched as Maeryn bent down to embrace her son, moving carefully.
“Oh I’ve missed you,” she said, kissing Kael on the forehead.
He showed no signs of embarrassment, as others of his age might have. He just smiled and hugged her back.
Maeryn stood up, rubbing tears from her eyes, trying to regain her composure.
Saba made eye contact and gave her a questioning look.
Maeryn returned his gaze and placed her hand on Saba’s arm. “Well,” she managed. “I guess it’s time for you to meet him,” she said, giving Saba a wrinkled eyebrow as an answer. Taking Kael by the hand, she led them across the courtyard, toward the house.
Before they reached the garden steps, Lemus stepped out from behind the slave quarters and leaned against the building, exuding the arrogance that Maeryn had come to expect from him. “Come introduce yourselves,” he ordered.
Saba slowed his pace as if he knew, just by looking, what type of man this was.
Lemus straightened himself and came out onto the steps, stopping just before the bottom. His face was beaming with forced happiness and he appeared to wait patiently while the three crossed the courtyard and stopped at the bottom of the steps.
Lemus towered above Maeryn and Kael with the added height of the steps upon which he was standing, but was still only level with Saba. It was obvious that he was uncomfortable with this arrangement; it defeated the whole purpose of standing where he was.
“I am Saba,” stated the old man, looking directly into Lemus’ eyes. After a few seconds of silence, it was apparent that Kael didn’t feel like introducing himself. “And this is Kael,” he added.
Lemus looked down at the child and waited for him to say something. When nothing happened, he bent down and waved a hand in front of Kael’s face.
Kael did nothing but blink.
"Is your child deaf?”
Maeryn decided not to acknowledge the question.
“Or just a half-wit perhaps,” Lemus continued with a sneer.
Saba decided to comment on the observation. “It is difficult for a child to know what to say when confronted with a man of such power and majesty as yourself.” The statement was obviously sarcastic to those who knew Saba, but the serious way he delivered it confused Lemus, who took a moment to decide whether or not he agreed.
“Very well then,” he replied. “Come inside; you must tell me what you’ve been up to.” The four walked through the garden and into the house together but Lemus led the way and missed the smiles shared between the others.
Copyright 2008-2010 by Jason Tesar
Purchase the full novel in paperback or ebook (for iPad, Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, and more).
Or, click here for the FREE download of Book One.
Or, click here for the FREE download of Book One.