Horses were the wealth of Fife Magara. The illiarium mines, which mostly produced the green-shaded diamonds at an industrial grade, provided luxuries for the fife, but the horses bought the staples. Their Thoroughbreds consistently placed well in the race circuits, and Fife Magara Clydesdales and Charlemagnes were sought after by low-tech colonies for draft horses. Historical reenactors paid well for Magara-trained warhorses, both for heavy and light cavalry. Their Andalusian and Lusitano lines were currently second-string with entertainment troupes, but that was a new venture. With Jason’s recent acquisition of the rare Moyle stock, they would soon have unicorns to add to the offerings.
To Jeshen’s mind, though, the Charlemagnes were the current pinnacle of horseflesh. Specifically bred for fierce spirits and fiercer loyalties, they did well on the newer colonies where the native fauna had yet to learn to fear humanity. A herd of Charlemagnes — especially those schooled by Fife Magara’s trainers — were some of the most effective guards available to low-tech worlds. The breed traced back to a Clydesdale and Arabian mix that sacrificed a bit, though not that much, of the Clydesdale’s brawn for agile grace. Careful disposition breeding forged a line of loyal warriors out of the early gentle giants.
Sparing a curt nod at a brown Arabian gelding for Markus to ride, Jeshen grabbed his riding tack and approached his personal mount, a bay Charlemagne mare he had named Emma. Markus sighed and saddled the horse Jeshen picked out for him.
Jeshen took a moment to lean into Emma, burying his nose in her shoulder and breathing in her musty horse smell, a smell part dust, part fur, part sweat, and warm with the memories of childhood comfort. He wondered, not for the first time, what would have been different had he, and not his older twin, been given the responsibility of managing the Magara herds. There was never any question about Jason’s appointment as Herd Master; it was too firmly the traditional role of the House Magara Heir Major. But still, Jeshen gave himself a moment to imagine a world in which his father respected and appreciated his youngest son.
Emma nibbled at his hair, and the wuffling of her breath blowing across his face and thundering in his ears brought him back from his day dreaming. He saddled up and mounted. Seeing Markus walking his horse away from the mounting block, Jeshen started Emma jogging off to the far pastures, hoping the ride would settle his emotions.
While Lidari was one of the first planets colonized in this portion of the galaxy, xenoformology hadn’t matured as a science until a few centuries after the colony’s incorporation. The early terraforming efforts had mostly consisted of dumping chemicals and filtering toxins from the soil until it was capable of nourishing terrestrial plants. Hydroponic gardens had sustained the colonists for the first dicey decades, and they were still a mainstay of civilized farming. However, hydroponics could not provide as much bulk nutrition as soil-based farming, especially not for humanity’s herbivore cattle.
Despite the harsh measures taken to carve out a niche for the human immigrants, Lidari shared enough similarities with Earth’s biosphere that much of the native species adapted surprisingly well to the alien invasion. House Magara took pains to clear away the poisonous plants, which kept most of the native insect-equivalents away. Lord Pitor found the imalat vines particularly offensive. Jeshen sometimes wondered if it was a sign of his father’s back handed love that he felt so strongly about the native weed. He hadn’t liked it much before Jeshen had discovered how to refine the juice into an intoxicant, and liked it even less now.
Markus gave Jeshen a semblance of space, of privacy, by remaining a few body lengths behind his liege. Jeshen appreciated the gesture as he focused on the feel of the mare beneath him, the wind blowing over them, and the warmth of the sun overhead. He needed that physical grounding. If he allowed himself to dwell in his emotions he would spend the day in a childish tantrum, railing at the unfairness of the world. He let himself get so caught up in the present that he nearly rode over the burn scar marking the boundary between terraformed and native lands.
As tempting as the rebellious youth inside him found the idea of riding off the terraformed lands, the responsible adult he had grown into turned Emma aside to pace along that boundary. He had no need to risk the health of the horses by leading them into the temptation of the selenium saturated native flora.
Despite the determination, when Jeshen spotted the blue-gray bark of a star tree decorated in dark blue ropes, he took note, and when he saw that the vines had grown across the burn scar, he dismounted and dropped his reins. The flowering imalat vines, trailing indigo coils, dangled from the branches of a copse of elder oaks. Their petals (Jeshen thought they looked more like long bladed scales, but the xenos called them “petals”) gleamed with an opalescent violet.
He walked over to one of the vines and picked off a bud. The vine trembled and spat out a fine mist from the fresh wound. Jeshen inhaled deeply of the mild euphoric spray. He sauntered back to his horse and tucked the bud into Emma’s bridal. The mare shook her head and butted her nose into his chest. His tensions eased as the imalat’s breath spread through his bloodstream.
“My lord?” Markus asked, his gaze searching the horizon.
“I’m — I will be fine,” Jeshen said. “Peace blossoms are a good sign, aren’t they?” The nectar of the vine would be unsuited for distillation while the buds grew.
“So they say, my lord,” Markus said. His words were tight, clipped, and Jeshen could sense Markus’s upset almost as much by the tone of his voice as by the armsman’s sudden refusal to look at Jeshen.
“So they say,” Jeshen echoed, letting his words slur just a touch, a reflexive provocation. Even as he did it, exaggerating the effect of the imalat’s breath on him, he felt the urge to apologize. Markus wasn’t one of his detractors. He was one of Jeshen’s few allies on his father’s estate.
They were far enough from the main house that Jeshen was tempted to linger here, but even if the words choked in his throat, he could offer Markus the apology of leaving the imalat patch behind. “Would you please comm the grounds keepers, let them know that the wilds are encroaching here?”
Markus nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Jeshen mounted again and let Emma pick her pace while he headed them away from his own temptation. Upset with himself, with falling into the habits of his childhood, Jeshen lost the fight to stay focused on the present.
He had bitterly resented the twenty minutes that made his twin the Heir Major and Jeshen the Heir Minor before meeting Princess Isabey. He snorted in private amusement as he realized how thoroughly her Imperial Highness divided his life. “Before Isabey” was a series of disappointed keepers: nurses, tutors, his distant father and his father’s armsmen. It was a lifetime of “never-good-enoughs”: never smart enough for the tutors, never thoughtful enough for the nurses, never obedient enough for his father, and never strong enough for the armsmen. At some point, every one of his keepers held Jason up as an example of what Jeshen should be, but no one ever allowed him to try living up to his brother’s example. Every attempt to take on responsibility either ended in failure or scoldings for overstepping his bounds.
Jeshen hated that life, and he hated how simply filing the flight plan back to his childhood home had dropped the weight of all that frustrated disappointment on his shoulders. If not for the requirement to file the official Assignment of his new armsman in person at the Fife Magara District Office, he would have cheerfully continued to blow off his father’s summonses.
Her Imperial Highness Heir Minor Princess Isabey Delores Li May of the House of Smytter knew all too well what it was like to be the unwanted child of a powerful liege. Her audacity had drawn his attention and his wistful envy when he was first sent to court.
Jeshen tied his reins to the saddle horn and gave Emma her head while he tried to remember every detail of that first meeting with her Highness.
Jeshen’s first meeting with Princess Isabey had been at an evening ball, one Jeshen had been hoping to turn into his last at court. Thankfully, he had failed in that endeavor.
Lord Pitor’s latest admonishment to not fail him (again) had rained all over Jeshen’s hopes for making a success of becoming the Fife Magara courtier. Those words had presaged every major failure in Jeshen’s life to date. Figuring that if he was doomed to screw up royally (again) he might as well get it over with, Jeshen absorbed himself in the process of making Keistie’s Gin with the oddament of liquor’s that Lady Anagne had so kindly provided her guests.
Their hostess held a minor cachet with the courtiers. Her personal rank was barely sufficient to warrant an Assignment of armsmen, but she was considered on the rise socially. She had even been seen flirting with the Imperial Heir Major His Highness Prince Maynor. Or so the rumor mill said.
Jeshen privately thought she had started that rumor herself. He had told enough lies in his life, trying to make himself sound interesting and useful, to spot the tightness around the eyes, the slight quiver at the corner of a smile that gave away the anxiety of the lie.
A stir at the entrance to the ballroom dragged Jeshen’s attention from the wet bar.
“What’s she doing?”
“Just like her mother, no sense of decorum!”
“Her poor father!”
“I’ll lay odds she’s only here to embarrass her family again.”
The sussaration of quiet asides rolled over Jeshen like a tidal wave. The snark and priggishness of his fellow guests offended him, and Jeshen found himself aligning with the object of their scorn without a moment of consideration.
In the doorway a black haired child flanked by an armsman in the imperial colors of green and silver greeted their hostess. The child’s body was still androgynous with youth, but she wore her hair in an elaborate cascade of braids and an evening robe in tones of pale gray. The armsman’s patch was a sapphire blue and gold dragon perched on his right shoulder, the insignia of the Imperial Heir Minor.
The bastard princess was twelve, barely old enough to enter the day lit social scene. To arrive, apparently without invitation, without the escort of a family member, at a ball was a huge social blunder for the Families. For an imperial heir to do so was a potential riot, considering that every armsman not in the Imperial service was required to disarm immediately.
Jeshen watched the calm, confident manner with which her Imperial Highness surveyed the room. He met her gaze when it swept over him, saluting her with his drink. Her gaze returned to him briefly before she took their hostess by the arm and began making the rounds. Jeshen couldn’t help noticing that Lady Anagne’s complexion had taken on the sickly pallor of someone forced to eat their own words.
Armsmen began cycling their charges out of the room for a controlled disarming. When Jeshen and his armsman Trent returned, Elwin Todd of House Yarrowbaugh waved him over. Jeshen found himself trapped into a conversation with several younger sons and daughters, complaining about the status quo and speculating about the Princess Isabey’s purpose among them. He would happily have walked away, especially when he noted the presence of Karles Frerd, Heir Major Brachst, but Todd was one of his few genuine friends at court.
“Do you really think this isn’t something the emperor put together? It’s a demonstration of imperial power,” Todd’s current romantic interest, Miss Xingah, said.
“You’re obviously new to town, dearie. The emperor hates her. Why he didn’t just have her flushed, I don’t know.” That came from Frerd, a condescending arse if ever Jeshen had met one.
Jeshen knocked back the last of his alcohol and shook his head, not bothering to keep the disgust off his face.
“Did something I say offend you, Lord Horsefly?” Frerd asked, his eyes narrowed by the pseudo pleasant snarl on his face.
Smirking simply to annoy the man, Jeshen said, “Master Bore-st, I’m hard to offend, but your stupidity pushes the limits. Her family life has no bearing on what sanctions her family will impose on those who forget that she is still an Imperial Heir. If you can’t keep a kind thought for her on your tongue while she’s in the room, just be silent. I have no wish to be painted with your political failings.”
Frerd opened his mouth and started sputtering, but Jeshen just kept going, “It would also do you well to remember you’re talking about a child. Seriously, what kind of monster do you have to be to say something that heinous about a child? And, you have to give her this, whether she should or shouldn’t be here, she is, and she’s acting with a lot more decorum and grace than you have so far managed.”
A throat cleared to the side of them, garnering Jeshen’s attention.
Lady Anagne, still arm in arm with the Imperial Heir Minor, said faintly, “Oh, dear.”
Frerd didn’t pay as much attention. “You–! How dare you, you upstart little horse–”
“MISTER Frerd!” Lady Anagne said, cutting him off, her voice breaking with horrified shock.
Frerd turned his head, saw the crowd they’d gathered, and went through several shades of red as he bit down on the rest of what he had been about to say.
Her Highness held out her hand to Jeshen. “Magara, yes?”
“Jeshen Chambret, Heir Minor Magara, at your service, your Highness,” he said, bowing over her hand.
The princess held him to his word. The next day, a young man in green and silver livery hand delivered an invitation to join her Highness at tea in her private garden. It was the first time he met her Highness’s Knight Errors.
Lucien and Gwendolyn were the oldest, the siblings being untitled cousins of Princess Isabey’s great uncle Lord Haizmin. Jeshen found himself next oldest after them, with Beatrice, Joseph, and Ahrin much closer to her Highness’s age. They had yet to meet Margot or Rhessa.
It was an interesting affair, and as Ahrin calmed down, his nervous stuttering easing, Jeshen felt that he had, perhaps, for once, maybe, managed to avoid being dismissed out of the gate.
He soon became a frequent guest at the Princess’s teas. She enjoyed holding them in her garden, their armsmen distant enough to give them the illusion of privacy. She slyly suggested as he left the second tea, “Should someone ask, it might be best if you tell them I’m just asking you about horses.”
And she did. Occasionally. In between questions about how the people of his fife fared and how he was fitting in at court. Her questions about the Magara herds were the kind of informed questions that pushed Jeshen’s ability to answer, and gave him interesting topics to discuss with his twin.
Two months after Lady Anagne’s ball, Princess Isabey asked him, “Do you enjoy feeling powerless?”
The question came out of the sun for Jeshen. “I beg your pardon, Highness?”
“Yes or no: do you enjoy feeling powerless?” she reiterated.
“No! Absolutely not! What sane person would?” And with those words, Jeshen sealed his fate.
“Then tomorrow at sunrise, in your grubbiest, get dirtiest, workman’s clothes, your most loyal and trusted armsman similarly dressed, you will meet Rittar on the city side of the southern garden gate. Here are the coords. I have an adventure for you!” The smile she gave him was echoed by the Knight Errors, and it was an eager, charming smile, full of innocent mischief.
Jeshen didn’t have much time to consider the implications of Princess Isabey’s command. His father’s comm chime sounded on his neural network almost as soon as he left her Highness’s garden.
“Jeshen, where the hell have you been?” Lord Pitor didn’t even bother to say hello.
“Father! A pleasure to hear from you. How are you today?” Jeshen responded, hoping his sub vocal microphone would pick up the sarcasm in his response.
“I do not appreciate the mockery, boy! Now, where were you?” Jeshen watched his knuckles turn white in his lap as his father snapped at him.
“At tea, sir.” Perhaps if he pretended his father was simply his liege this would be over sooner.
“With whom? Where?” Lord Pitor asked again.
Nope. Jeshen couldn’t hold back his frustration. He snapped back, “You have my agenda, Father. You know exactly where and with whom I just took tea. What is the problem?”
“Oh, so you’ve really had tea with the Imperial princess about three times a week for the last two months? Really? What in the world would you even talk about with a twelve year old girl?”
“Horses,” Jeshen answered, his voice flat. “She’s interested in horses, wants to know what it’s like to race them. She and her friends have some good questions. They’ve started a few long talks with Jason for me.”
“I want your armsman’s Recall for each of the teas,” Lord Pitor said.
“Excuse me?” Jeshen asked, the severity of that privacy violation shocking him numb.
“I want the Recall in my comm link in the next ten minutes,” his father ordered.
“No.” The denial was instant and instinctive. There was no thought to it. The betrayal Jeshen felt at his father’s demand pushed out all room for thinking.
“As your liege, it is my right–”
“No.” Jeshen said, cutting his father off. “No, it’s only your right if you think I am committing treason against you or the Imperial family! And if you think that little of me, why the fuck haven’t you disowned me already?”
Jeshen cut the link.
He knew his father didn’t think much of him, that Jeshen often fumbled around in life, didn’t really have any place he belonged. He thought his father had just considered him incompetent, but he hadn’t even considered that his father would ever treat him like a traitor, like the worst, most dishonest, villainous scum possible.
Markus was his armsman on duty then, and even then, Jeshen had been routing his comm traffic through his armsmen’s nets. The shocked sympathy in the older man’s gaze had been unbearable. He only vaguely noted Markus reminding Trent, Kell and Mattau that it was illegal to answer questions about Jeshen’s activities, or to provide their Recall without either a warrant for treason or Jeshen’s permission.
Jeshen refused all comm requests for the next hour while he processed the shock, and he blocked comm requests from his family for the week following.
Markus gave Jeshen peace and solitude only until they got back to the Fife House of Magara in Lidarii City. As soon as the transit was safely parked in its hanger, he dragged Jeshen into the guard’s training center and turned him loose on the fight simulators.