Worldbuilding. Worldbuilding as far as the eye can see.
I'm also a fan of romance for this series. If you'd like to explore the marriage of Csethiro and Maia; Csevet clearly pining after his liege and how that is resolved (with Csethro's involvement or without; everyone carrying a torch for the new emperor, who is clearly unaware; what Cala and Beret see while they're with him all the time, or want to see (or do cough cough); Maia asking advise from people about romance/the wedding/how to treat a wife either directly or indirectly.
I would also love to see some family time between Maia and the royal kiddos he's now in charge of. Or what his sister thinks of him. I just want to see this poor only boy happy, okay?
But most of what I love about this series is the world and political intrigue. If you're able to dropping in some old stories (you know, talk in world about how things used to be, or legends about why things are the way they are, all the historical and folklorish jazz) that would be great!
As the carriage rattled to a stop Maia breathed out slowly. In truth the last several miles had been a remarkably smooth ride, but as he stood his head felt strangely light, and he held on to the edge of the door tightly as he stepped down. The brisk breeze was a relief, clearing his head as it brushed through the long grass. Automatically he moved to the side to let the others out.
Wide wooden steps led to a broad veranda. He could see several figures standing in wait, likely servants to judge by the simple clothing in varying shades of brown. Behind him the carriage creaked as his bodyguard Cala stepped down, and Beshelar's horse stamped to a halt as he swung down from the saddle. Grooms rushed down from the steps, and one grabbed Beshalar's reins as the others hurried past. Maia glanced to the side, still in disbelief at the number of people following behind him. There was the guard, of course, a full troop of palace soldiers as well as his normal bodyguards. Their brass no longer gleamed quite the way it had upon setting out, and they were scattered about at apparently strategic points along the train. Four carriages were sitting high on their wood wheels, and five wagons were currently being led around the back of the small manor. The group was both smaller and larger than it had been a week ago. Fewer soldiers, but more carriages and wagons. Apparently a soldier could be expected to do without anything but food, but the heir presumptive and two princesses required not only food and clothes and things, but also people.
A child's high voice carried on the wind, and Maia felt some tension ease from his shoulders watching Ino chatter away a mile a minute at Idra and Mirean. Mirean, for her part, looked quite cross, walking quickly and leaving her siblings to follow in her wake. At a proper distance she paused abruptly and curtsied with improper haste, murmuring “Serenity”. Maia winced and beckoned her closer. He would never get used to the abrupt transition between private and public greetings with his family. His nephew and other niece meandered closer. Idra had to tug on Ino's sleeve to prompt the correct greeting. With barely a pause she launched back into her diatribe, demanding, “Where are the cows?” Mirean huffed, “We passed some this morning.” Ino turned to Idra, “You said there would be cows.”
Even patient Idra seemed near his wits end, so Maia spoke, “Perhaps we will go out riding and find them later.” Idra rallied, “Yes, we must greet Empress Csethiro first.”
With that settled, Maia turned and began to ascend the sturdy stairs. They were painted a dull red, which contrasted with the dark green and gray of the rest of the tall house. Maia felt a bit like he was climbing a clay cliff up to a foreboding forest. The servants provided a relieving splash of color. On closer inspection their dull clothing was topped with a bright array of elaborately embroidered leather jackets. It was likely their finest clothing. As they rose from their bows, he was surprised to see that many of the women were also wearing wide legged riding trousers.
“Your Serenity,” a breathless voice intruded, “Welcome to Cerdu Ranch, we will endeavor to make your stay more than pleasant.” It was a matronly woman, likely the head of the household to judge by the quality of her clothing. Maia could feel Beshalar's raised eyebrow beside him and she hastened to add, “Toru, head housekeeper,” she gave another deep bow. Not a curtsy, Maia noted with some puzzlement. “Thank you, Toru.”
Maia continued down the line of servants, with each one murmuring a polite greeting and introduction. Many of them were audibly nervous, and Maia hid a wince when a couple stumbled over their words. When they reached the end of the line he hummed in thought, “Are there no ranch hands? We were given to understand that Cerdu Ranch had quite the herd.”
Toru shuffled nervously, “Ah, there was a bit of... a delay. But I'm sure that they would be happy to greet you at a later time.”
“Of course. We presume that Empress Csethiro and Lady Venan are inside.” She visibly relaxed, “Of course, we have a bit of tea and refreshment after your long journey.”
As they moved forward, two of the maids hastened to open the heavy oak doors. The inside didn't match the imposing exterior. Bright yellow and blue wallpaper clashed cheerfully with the wooden floors and gilt furnishings. They were lead down a narrow hall into an abundant sun room. Behind them, tutors and nannies and manservants peeled away discreetly to freshen up or attend to their various tasks. Ahead, two ladies rose and curtsied as his name and title was announced. As he gestured them to rise he drank the sight of her in.
On first glance there were no changes, on second, there were many. Her curtsy slow, her clothes ill-fitting, rings missing, and her stomach obtund. Her face and eyes, however, were as sharp as ever. “Do you find me much changed, Serenity?”
“Yes,” he admitted honestly. As so often happened he felt his companions wince at his words. Csethiro laughed, “You haven't changed at all.”
“Did you think that We would?”
“Of course not. It would take far more than some Generals and a fancy uniform for that,” she replied fondly and then turned to her companion, an older woman dressed in old fashioned silks more suited to a ball than afternoon tea. “May I introduce my cousin, Baroness Venan.
She curtsied again, and Csethiro proceeded to introduce her nephew and nieces by marriage and they all murmured polite greetings. There was an awkward pause before Maia realize that they were waiting on him to sit. The servants carried in more chairs and plates for the two girls with a quiet franticness. Tea was carried in with greater aplomb and set down with a flourish.
Maia could hardly take his eye off of Csethiro. He nose remained crooked, the splotchy mole interrupting her pale white neck. All the small imperfections that had been smoothed over in her official portrait and Maia had almost forgotten. He wished that they were alone. She reached for her cup and against the delicate handle he was startled to realize the her fingers were swollen. She smiled wryly, “Despite how I protested, I have come to understand why ladies go into seclusion during their time.”
Maia hesitated, “The court would not be kind.”
“Worse. I don't have the patience for it now. I would have challenged a dozen nobles to duels, and run them through when they refused.” She took a sip of tea, “Venan has been patience itself.” Venan hid her smile behind her cup, “Not at all, I simply know when to leave the house for a long ride.”
“Oh nonsense, I have been a terror.”
Maia was pleased to see that the two women had become friends. They had only conversed via polite letters before she had left. Csethiro had mainly chosen Cerdu Ranch as the location for her seclusion because it wasn't her father's manor or any other self-important family member. Venan never visited court. With her husband dead and children married, she had little need or desire for royal favors. Marquess Ceredel had been most vexed, but had neither the power nor the subtlety to express it without appearing foolish.
“Empress Csethiro, will you teach us more sword fighting while we're here?” Ino asked.
“I don't know... have you been practicing?” The two girls proclaimed their dedication, Mirean forgetting her irritation in solidarity with her sister. “Well, I don't know that I'll be able to do much demonstrating, Idra will have to help.”
Idra was quite alarmed when his sisters turned their pleading on him, though he hid it well. He had regarded his sister's new found fascination with swords with equal parts alarm and disbelief. He, of course, had received lessons in swordplay since he could pick up a wooden practice stick. Thus far he had resisted his sister's attempts to let them practice with him when Csethiro was otherwise occupied. He clearly adored his sisters, Maia suspected that they were far closer than most families, but Idra believed their practice foolish at best. During one cold winter walk he had spoken diffidently to Maia that he feared that his sisters were overindulged and would endanger their position, or their future husband's position with such headstrong eccentricities. Maia reserved judgement. They were still young, and he found it difficult to deny them anything, especially when their childhood had already been so tarnished by the death of their father and the treason of their mother. Idra could hardly speak so honestly here, under the guiding hand of the Empress, the woman directly encouraging said eccentricities. He could only protest mildly and reluctantly assent to the will of the higher power. Maia grimaced, power and politics infected all his thoughts. His nieces adored Csethiro, desperate for a mother figure more equal to them as they outgrew their subservient nannies. Idra was more reserved, no doubt remembering his mother's manipulations, but he equally desired and needed a maternal influence. Idra submitted to Csethiro and his sisters out of a genuine desire to please. Maia only hoped that he would never see the day when Idra's keen courtiers mind was turned against his family again.
Venan regarded the beaming girls with disbelief, before visibly shaking herself and turning to Maia, “I understand that you have just come from an inspection of the southern border, Serenity.”
Maia grimaced, “Yes.” Her eyes widened in alarm, “Surely all is well?”
“Of course. We didn't mean to give alarm.” Maia gathered himself with a deep breath, “The soldiers are more than prepared to rebuff any bandits or... other disturbances that may cross over the border from Barizhan. You have nothing to fear on that account.”
“I imagine that the goblins are far too occupied fighting each other to concern themselves with us at any rate,” Ceredin said firmly.
“Yes,” Maia said softly.
With that, the last of the tea was drunk and excuses were made to retreat to rooms and baths.
After a quick bath and a quiet dinner Maia was shown back to the large room on the third room where he had changed. He suspected, based on the extensive feminine lace and lived in feeling that it was usually Baroness Venan's own room. In such a small manor there would be no other room suited to an Emperor or Empress. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Beshelar judging the rich furnishings and finding them inadequate. However he noted with pleasure, Csethiro's clothing and toiletries in the room as well. There would not be any awkward confusion over sneaking into each other's rooms. In the palace, the Empress traditionally lived in an entirely separate wing than the Emperor. That had caused no end of confusion their first months of marriage. Maia as always, afraid of overstepping, and Csethiro desiring some privacy, but perhaps not that much. Csethiro learned to be quite blunt to her awkward husband about when he was or wasn't wanted, and Maia learned to be confident in her ability to tell him her boundaries. Still, it never quite stopped being awkward, particularly in front of the constant audience surrounding the Emperor.
A rustle of skirts announced her arrival behind him. “I'll change in the bathroom,” she declared, paused then added, “If it pleases your Serenity.”
She shuffled inelegantly past. Her handmaids exchanged flirtatious smiles with his manservants, and the door closed on a giggle. He was undressed and redressed with characteristic haste and efficiency. Before he could become nervous he and Csethiro were standing alone in the room together, clad in their night things.
It had been so long since they had last seen each other alone. He couldn't remember all the things that he had been bursting to tell her just an hour before. He tried to hold her, and it was so terribly awkward that he began to laugh at himself, and then he pulled back, afraid that he had offended. She rolled her eyes and pulled him toward the bed.
After, he fell directly asleep, exhausted from his journey. He woke a few hours later when the bed shifted. Groggily, he turned to watch Csethiro clamber awkwardly back in to bed. “Is something wrong?”
“Yes,” she gasped, “This baby needs to get out.” He sat up, startled by the waspishness in her voice. “I can only hope that I get treated as well as one of their horses when the time comes.”
“Yes, I accompanied Venan to one of the stables when one of the mares was near her time. They were massaging her with warm milk and hand feeding her. When the colt was born they even read its star signs.” Maia blinked, that sounded borderline sacreligious to him. Csethiro caught is expression and snorted, “Apparently they've been doing it since they were all nomads in this region. Some story about a horse seeding star dust in the sky for the gods.”
Maia suddenly wondered what stories Csethiro had grown up with, and what stories they would tell their child. In the quiet a rustle and discrete cough brought his attention to a dark corner where Kiru had settled at some point after he had fallen asleep. Before he could blush, Csethiro murmured, “I let her in.”
“Ah. You may stay.”
“Thank you, Serenity,” she bowed, and resumed her relaxed stance, staring away from the bed.
“I would close the curtains, but I'll likely have to get up again and would rather not get entangled,” Csethiro said.
“Yes,” Maia laughed softly, “Yes, I'm sure it would cause quite the scandal if you broke your leg.”
Csethiro snorted, “The way my balance has been I'm more afraid I would break my neck. Someone sould cry 'Assassin' and you'd have to execute poor Venan and her cows.”
“Stars forbid.” Csethiro's humor could be too abrasive at times, but at others... it perfectly matched his dark moods. Maia muttered, “I wouldn't have to execute them. Just put them to work in a factory.”
Csethiro grabbed a few pillows to prop her up in bed, “The council is still being difficult?”
“Of course. The western lords have all banded together. Csevet says we don't dare push them further right now.”
“People will always resist anything that takes away their power.”
“I'm not trying to take away their power!” Maia hissed, his hands clenching. “Half of them don't even have factories, they just oppose anything that the western lords support."
“And the western lords support it because the eastern lords oppose it.”
“It's ridiculous! I can't stand to look the factory workers in the eyes, knowing it.”
Csethiro hummed in thought, reaching over and coaxing his hand open, “You need a new approach. I remember my father's balls. The western lords aren't as united as they might appear.”
“Yes, Csevet has been looking into it. A letter won't do, and I'm afraid I'm not subtle enough to do this sort of thing face to face.”
“You rely too much on that secretary of yours.”
Maia pulled his hand away, “If I rely on Csevet it's because he is a good and loyal friend, and the most capable man I know.”
Csethiro sighed, it was an argument that they had had before. “Where is he now? I didn't see him at dinner.”
“He returned to the palace after we left the border. I've been away too long and he is the only one I trust to keep an eye on things.” Maia eyed her archly, daring her to cast doubts on him again.
“Of course, he was the best choice,” Csethiro murmured lowly with a slight bow of her head. Maia winced to see her submit, but before he could apologize she continued, “However, he is not your only loyal subject. What of Idra?”
“He was born for this. He is well trained and intelligent. He could easily become your voice among the nobles.”
“He is a child.”
“Only until this summer. I'm sure Csevet already has plans for his coming of age ball and his marriage.”
Maia sighed heavily, “I hate to do this to him. I hate to use him like his mother tried to use him.” They sat in silence for a moment. Outside the wind was whistling, and the wooden house creaked loudly.
“He has a choice. He can become a hermit, or he can stay at court. He can use his influence at court in the service of his Emperor, or not,” her voice sharpened, “It's more choice then his sisters will have.”
The next day passed quickly, they chased cattle, dogs and rabbits. They tramped into dinner with dirty boots and wind tossed hair. Csethiro would not hear of any protest and had ridden with them. She was still perfectly graceful while on the back of a horse. Dinner was loud and boistrous. Even Idra forgot his perfect manners; chatting with his mouth full and reaching across the table for another roll.
Maia barely kept his eyes open long enough to undress and was asleep as soon as his head the pillow.
In the night he was awoken again, this time by Csethiro calling out for Kira. He jolted awake, “What's wrong?”
“Serenity, I'm afraid that you must leave,” Kira said as she strode to the bedroom door. She opened the door and spoke briefly to her counterpart outside, then bustled back to Maia. From somewhere she produced a robe which he quickly donned, already scrambling out of bed. He was halfway to the door when he realized that Csethiro was not following. He turned back to see her half sitting up, clutching one of the bed posts with white knuckles.
Heavy footsteps stamped down the hallway as he began hurrying to her side. The door opened and she looked up with a snarl, “Get out!” Kira stepped in front of him, blocking her from view. As Baronness Venan and one of Csethiro's hand maidens swept past Kira began herding him back as best she could without touching him. “Please, Serenity, leave her to her work.”
Maia soon found himself in the hallway staring at the closed bedroom door. “Beg pardon, Serenity.” He turned to see an unfamiliar elf with grey hair, dressed in rough servants clothing. She began to bow, stopped halfway and made an awkward curtsy. “I am the midwife. I helped deliver two of the baronness' children. Your wife is young and healthy. There is nothing for you to do now but wait.” Speech delivered, she pushed past him into the bedroom, firmly shutting the door behind her.
Somehow he was ushered into a small parlor. A fire was quickly built up and it cast dark shadows across cheerful flowery wallpaper. Somone had awoken his manservants and they tumbled in with wine and cheer. Maia couldn't bring himself to do more than sip broodingly at his wine glass. Gradually the late hour wore at them and they piled drowsily on the stuffed couch.
The heat from the fire flared oppressively on his cheeks as he passed in front of it. The floor board half covered by the rung creaked as he stepped on it again. Outside the window the grey light of dawn began creeping across the land. As he turned his hands brushed against the silk of his robe.
It seemed like all of the most importan events of his life happeed when he was in a night gown. It was an appropriate reminder of how unprepared he was for his role. As Emperor, husband... father. Maia always felt like he was scrambling to keep up. He could only hope that one day he would be a step ahead of something for once.
He was halfway through pacing the rest of the small room when he heard approaching footsteps. He turned expectantly, desperate for news. A wide smile greeted him. “Serenity, your son has been born.”
Upon re-reading the book I found I still greatly enjoyed the characters and plot but found the made up language extremely stressful to try and remember, and frankly it didn't add to the story. The glossary in the back of the book was helpful, but not entirely complete. So I substituted english words where they work just as well.