Despite the lack of tears, Ducissa Ardia’s face was a mask of grief. She made every attempt to maintain a somber appearance, as she walked through the streets of Ifirium, escorted by the imperial guard following her nephew Emperor Akim’s funeral procession. It was important that the crowds saw her mourning the recently departed monarch. The truth was that Ardia had a difficult relationship with her nephew and his death felt like a relief, however she did care about who would succeed him as Ifresir. Akim had died childless and her husband Dux Tarjanis was the late Emperor’s uncle. Akim, whose health was failing, after years of excessive alcohol consumption following the tragic death his beloved wife Empress Aminn, had originally named him as his heir. Sadly, Tarjanis had contracted smallpox two years earlier and died of the disease. This forced Akim to change his will, naming his cousin, their son Vecatian as his new heir.
On that windy September morning, Ardia and her teenage son were on their way to the palace crypt for the funeral ceremony, after which Vecatian would be crowned as the new Ifresir by the imperial guard doing the honors. The Ducissa had spent weeks preparing for the day her son would ascend to the throne. Everything had to be perfect, right down to the finest detail. She and her son wore their finest black robes with the Erocatien family crest, a black shield with gold crown adorned with golden laurel leaves. It took her handmaids several hours to style her hair. Vecatian was shaved, his ginger hair was neatly trimmed and she even had them manicure his fingernails especially for the occasion. Yet, as they strode past the city’s main square, the eighteen-year-old Vecatian made no attempt to hide his frustration and discomfort. He wasn’t particularly pleased by the constant attention, nor the fact that his mother had a habit of showing him off at every opportunity, stopping at what seemed like every street corner just wave at the crowds.
“Are we there yet? How much longer is this going to take?” he asked impatiently.
“Oh, holy Lord of the skies! Vecatian… have some patience. You should start behaving like a real Erocatien. You’re the Ifrey Prisis, the Empire’s Golden Boy, and soon you will be the new Ifresir,” she stated as they approached the gates of the white marble palace.
A servant let them in, and together with the rest of the procession, the guards escorted them to the family crypt. As they descended the staircase, Akim’s coffin was placed on a platform in the center where the high priest stood. Ardia and her son took their places next to the priest as he proclaimed:
“Oh darkest of the Erai, Lord Makar, we gather here today to bid farewell to Ifresir Akim, son of Assilion Erocatien, as he prepares to enter your kingdom. We ask that your Morkrai servants grant his safe passage to your dark halls.”
He turned towards the Ducissa.
“Does Your Grace wish to leave a gift for Lord Makar’s queen in order to facilitate the Ifresir’s trial?”
“Yes, of course, it’s the least I can do for my dear nephew,” she replied, promptly removing a golden bracelet from her arm. She handed it to the priest, who carefully placed in the Emperor’s coffin.
With the ritual now complete, servants lowered the coffin into the empty spot in the tomb, next to that of Empress Aminn. Ardia and Vecatian remained silent while their guests paid their respects to the deceased Emperor, leaving flowers near the tomb.
After the funeral, the imperial guards escorted them and the other mourners out of the crypt, up the stairs and outside again, into the courtyard. The area was filled with imperial soldiers, all standing to attention, saluting them as they made their way to a platform with two thrones. They sat down, just as a tall, dark-haired soldier in his mid-twenties approached them, carrying a scroll and a golden laurel leaf crown. Ardia remembered his name; General Gekkanon, the head of the imperial guard.
He bowed to the duo, before declaring:
“Your Grace, as head of the imperial guard it is my duty to announce the new Ifresir, in accordance with the late Emperor Akim’s will.”
“Yes, of course, proceed,” she answered.
He opened the scroll and announced loudly:
“It states here, clearly written and signed by the Ifresir’s hand that:
I, Akim Assilion Erocatien, hereby declare my cousin Vecatian Lucius, son of Tarjanis Erocatien as my rightful heir. He is to succeed me as Ifresir upon my death.”
After this, he took the golden laurel leaf crown and placed it on Vecatian’s head.
“Therefore, I hereby crown you Ifresir Vecatian and pledge my allegiance to you as our nation’s sovereign. May your reign be long and prosperous. Long live the Ifresir!” he proclaimed kneeling.
All the soldiers and the funeral guests followed his lead, shouting “Long live the Ifresir!’ as they knelt before their new Emperor.
The sight of an entire army, ten thousand soldiers, all kneeling before her son was her finest moment. Ardia couldn’t help but smile. She was now the Ifresija, the Emperor’s mother. This was the day she had been looking forward to for a long time. And this was only the first part of the celebrations. As per tradition, the new Emperor was crowned first by his army who swore their allegiance to him. Later there would be an official coronation, in which her son would be crowned by a high priest in front of the whole court. For now, they had two weeks of rest before the main event.
After the ceremony Ardia and Vecatian joined the other mourners in dining room for the ritual feast. Her son spoke little during the meal, only interacting with their guests to politely respond to their questions or accept condolences. Vecatian was worn out after a whole day of marching through the capital, and ate ravenously.
“Right, it’s late and I’m tired. Goodnight mother,” he announced whilst passing an empty plate to a servant.
“Goodnight my dear. I’ll see you tomorrow,” Ardia responded before taking a sip of her wine.
After bidding goodbye to their guests and thanking everyone for coming, Vecatian left the room. He slowly made his way down up a staircase towards his cousin’s old bedchamber. He knew the palace well, having been living there for the past eight years. Ever since Empress Aminn’s death, Akim wanted to have his family close by and insisted that Vecatian and his parents moved into the palace from their villa in central Ifirium.
The room had been redecorated since the last time he was here, on the eve of Akim’s death. Vecatian recalled how ghastly pale his thirty-five-year-old cousin looked, as he spoke his final words. Akim, the man whose reign had brought out the largest territory expansion the Empire had seen in over a century, was a like ghost, his eyes were bloodshot with tears, and he kept pausing to cough up blood. His final wish had been to be buried alongside his beloved wife Aminn. Her death had been the final nail in his coffin. The High Council urged him to remarry to produce an heir but he refused, saying that no woman could ever replace his beloved Ifresija. Instead, he spent the final years of his life, drinking vast quantities of wine, until his liver couldn’t take it any longer.
Vecatian yawned as he sat down on a couch. A little too early for sleep, he couldn’t think of much else to do. He rose from the couch and headed out into the corridor where he spotted a servant. He instructed her to bring wine and fruit to his room.
He returned to his new chamber, and glanced around in search for something to occupy himself with. He hoped to find something interesting to read, but there were no books at all. Despite being an avid reader at the start of his reign, with a vast library at his disposal, Akim had lost his interest in books towards the end of his life.
Soon the servant returned with a jug of wine, a goblet and a bowl of fruit. She left these on a table by the side of the bed and bowed to Vecatian.
“Is there anything else I can do for you Your Majesty?” she asked as she poured the wine into his goblet.
Vecatian smiled as he had a better look at her. She was pretty, around his age, average height with a slender build and long legs, with shortly cropped, chestnut brown hair and pale green eyes.
“Yes, I would like you to stay here with me for a while,” he commented before helping himself to a bunch of grapes, “What’s your name?”
“My name is Bria, Ifresier.”
“Nice to meet you Bria. Please take a seat,” Vecatian made a space for her on the couch.
She obeyed, and sat down next to him.
“You’re Arhian aren’t you?” he asked after taking a sip of his wine.
Bria nodded before adding: “Is it really that obvious Your Highness?”
Vecatian smiled at her again. In the eight years he spent in the palace, he had grown accustomed to hearing the distinctive dialect of the former independent military province. His cousin’s wife had been an Arhian Princess and there were many Arhian nobles at their court.
“Yes, it is. Your accent betrays you. Only an Arhian would address me as Ifresier. Also, you have short hair. From what I recall, all unmarried Arhian women have short hair.”
“That is correct Your Highness. Arhian core values are modesty, discipline, and obedience. We show our modesty by keeping our hair short and not wearing jewelry until our wedding day,” Bria explained.
“I see… Fascinating,” Vecatian tossed an apple core back into the bowl, “So, Bria of Arhia, you’re a long way from your home province. Arhian law does not apply here in the heartland. I would love to see you with long hair, and I want you to grow it out.”
“As you wish Your Majesty.”
Vecatian drank the rest of his wine and promptly filled the goblet again before adding:
“Excellent. You’re very pretty,” he began to stroke her hair and delicate face, “I want you to stay here as my mistress. In respect of Arhian culture and their values, you will continue to wear plain clothes and I won’t give you any jewelry. Instead, I will shower you with flowers. As a good and obedient Arhian girl, you will show discipline by cutting your hair whenever an Arhian noble comes to visit the palace. Then you will grow it out again once they leave.”
Bria blushed and giggled, pleasantly surprised by the amount of attention. Vecatian swiftly downed the rest of his drink and placed the empty goblet on the table, before kissing her. Bria didn’t resist and wrapped her arms around him. Vecatian didn’t stop there though. They continued to kiss, as Vecatian tugged at her tunic and stripped it off before disrobing himself. Soon they were naked, locked in each other’s embrace. They proceeded to make love on the couch. The young Emperor had never been with a woman before, and he enjoyed every second of it.
Afterwards, Vecatian sprawled out the couch with Bria in his arms. He took a few minutes to catch his breath as he stroked his lover’s hair. They kissed again.
“Ermm.. Your Majesty….I…” she began.
“Oh please, there’s no need for such formality Bria, You may call Vecatian from now on…”
“Yes, what is it?”
“It’s late. I should probably go. The other servants are probably wondering where I am….”
“No, I want you to stay. You’re my mistress now not a servant. I want you sleep here with me tonight.”
“Alright, I’ll stay,” she replied as they rose from the couch and climbed into the bed. Vecatian smiled as he wrapped his arms around her before drifting off to sleep.
Vecatian couldn’t recall the last time he slept as well as he did that night in Bria’s arms. It was noon by the time he finally woke up and, much to his disappointment, Bria was nowhere to be seen. A door opened, and another servant entered the room with a new set of clothes, a fresh tunic and a pair of sandals. He bowed to the Emperor and left these on the bed before leaving. Shortly afterwards, Vecatian heard a knock on the door and a familiar voice calling out his name:
“Vecatian, is everything alright? May I come in?”
Vecatian swiftly dressed himself before replying,
“Yes, everything is fine mother.”
Ardia opened the door and entered the chamber.
“I was worried you weren’t feeling well since you didn’t show up for breakfast this morning…” she sat down on the bed next to him.
“I’m fine mother. I must have just overslept…” Vecatian responded.
“I see… Well, I figured that you should eat something now. We have a long day ahead of us. One of my friends has decided to pay us a visit here at the palace. Drusilla and her husband Clavius will be joining us for lunch,” his mother stated just as Bria entered the room carrying a bowl of porridge and a jug of apple juice and two cups.
She bowed to Vecatian, blushing as she placed the items on the table next to the bed. Vecatian smiled back at Bria before turning to face his mother.
“Right, well I better go and get ready. Enjoy your breakfast. I’ll see you later,” Ardia added.
“Yes, thank you mother. I’ll join you later.”
He waited until his mother had left the room, before greeting Bria with a kiss. He dug into his food, sharing some of it with Bria. After eating, he summoned another servant and ordered her to prepare a bath.
As the servant headed to the bathroom, Vecatian took Bria into his bed again. He simply could get enough of her, his gorgeous Arhian girl with her flawless skin, soft lips that just beckoned to be kissed and the wide hips he loved to caress.
After love-making, they spent a few minutes leisurely soaking in the tub, kissing and enjoying the floral aroma until the water grew cold. Afterwards, they wrapped themselves in towels and returned to the bedchamber.
“Right, I have some time before this lunch my mother arranged. So, I was thinking maybe we could visit the library. I could use something to read. Maybe something about Arhian history…?” he suggested as they got dressed.
Bria agreed and took his hand, as they strolled down the staircase, and towards the palace library located on the other side of the complex.
After a couple of hours of browsing from various books at the library, Vecatian reluctantly kissed Bria and bade her goodbye and headed to the dining room. She returned to his chamber with a three volumes of Arhian history, dating back to the time when the region was a separate kingdom ruled by the Laudinus dynasty.
Ardia was already in the room when he arrived. He pulled up a chair next to her and sat down, just as a servant entered to announce their guests.
“Your Majesties, the Marchio Clavius and Marchionissa Drusilla,” he proclaimed loudly.
The couple entered the chamber and bowed to the duo. Vecatian recalled seeing them with their daughter at the funeral, but he didn’t get a chance to speak to them during the feast. Drusilla had changed little in the eight years since he last spoke to her. She and Clavius had been good friends with his family for decades. They owned a large plot of land near the amphitheater in central Ifirium, very close to the Erocatien summer residence. Vecatian recalled the summers he spent chasing their ten-year-old daughter, the skinny, rosy-cheeked Loraila around their orchard. They would also swim in the lake and ride their ponies through the woods.
“Good afternoon Your Majesty,” Clavius greeted him.
“It’s a pleasure to see you again Ifresir and congratulations on your ascension to the throne,” Drusilla added as she handed a bouquet of red roses to the Emperor.
Vecatian took the flowers from her and placed them on the table before commenting,
“Thank you. It’s a pleasure to see you both. It’s been a long time. I hope that you have been well.”
“Yes, we have, Your Highness,” Clavius replied as they sat down just as the servants arrived with some chicken soup, sliced bread, butter and cheese.
Vecatian ate a few spoonfuls of soup whilst his mother spoke up:
“Yes, it has indeed been a long time, Drusilla… Too long in fact… Ever since Aminn’s death following the dreadful miscarriage, we’ve rarely left the palace. After the Morkrai took her away, heartbroken Akim started drinking heavily. Tarjanis really worried about him, so we agreed to move in to keep him company. Not that it helped much. Poor Akim was already beyond salvation. He left all his duties to my husband and High Council, and spent all his time drinking with whores. Three years ago, Akim nearly froze to death, after he sleep-walked into the gardens in the depths of winter. A guard found him lying on the ground by the fountain, after he had slipped on some ice. Then my dear Tarjanis came down with the red plague…” these final words caused tears to stream down her cheeks.
“I am terribly sorry for your loss, Ifresija,” Drusilla turned towards her friend, extending her arms.
Ardia spent a few minutes crying on her shoulder, before finally composing herself.
Vecatian finished his meal in silence and passed the empty plate to an awaiting servant. Like his mother, he had to admit that the past few years at the palace hadn’t been easy for his family. He could only hope that the situation would improve now that he was the Emperor.
The servants returned with a selection desserts including honey cakes, a bowl of fruit, a variety of multicolored sorbets, cheese and sweet wine. He helped himself to a honey cake and took a sip of his wine.
Clavius spoke up:
“And how are you doing Your Majesty?”
“I’m fine…Well, as well as I can be under the circumstances,” Vecatian answered after eating, “I’ve just been so busy lately. First with Akim’s funeral arrangements, now the coronation. I was in the library with Bria earlier, reading up on some Arhian history, in preparation for the High Council meetings.”
“Who’s Bria?” his mother interrupted as she helped herself to a raspberry sorbet.
“Oh, she’s my…em mm… my mistress…” he confessed.
“Oh I see… So that’s what you were up to this morning. And here I thought that you weren’t feeling well. When it turns out you wanted to roll around in the sheets with one of the palace maids.”
“Oh Ifresija, your son is still young. At his age, it’s hard to resist a pretty face. I say great for him. He needs something positive in his life, especially after such a long period of mourning.”
“Yes, I agree. Besides it’s perfectly normal and healthy for an Ifresir to have mistresses,” his wife added.
“Hmm…I suppose you’re right,” Ardia muttered before taking another sip of her wine.
Clavius consumed a handful of figs and washed them down with some wine, before asking:
“Didn’t Akim have some concubines as well?”
“Yes, there were a few… He may have rejected marriage proposals after Aminn’s death, but that didn’t stop members of his court from offering their daughters to him. He even agreed to have a few live with him in the palace. There were at least four at one point. All Arhian girls, from the noblest of families. I remember one was a real beauty with golden hair, a distant relative of his wife. I can’t recall her name though… Cornelia…Arelia….” Ardia responded.
“Aurelia…Aurelia Cornelian of House Tarkin,” Vecatian mentioned, “Yes, she was with Akim for a few months.”
Vecatian tried to remember the last time he saw Akim with his mistress. It was at one of his cousin’s parties. The kind of party that he had grown to loathe, as it didn’t take long until things got out of hand.
Like all Arhian girls of noble birth, Aurelia was a virgin and had a very strict upbringing, free from alcohol or parties of any type. Back in her home city of Naitoria, she wasn’t even allowed out of the household grounds without a male escort. But all that discipline fell straight of out the window, the moment she had arrived at the palace. As pretty as she may have been, Aurelia was no Aminn, and Akim had no intention of ever marrying her. Instead, he used her for sex and took her to his bed that same night. And from the moment on it was a downward spiral, as Akim spent most of his time drinking with her in his lounge. Sometimes they would invite some guests over for a party where the alcohol flowed freely.
Vecatian had had the questionable pleasure of attending some of these parties. He remembered one in particular, where his cousin did his best to get him drunk on sweet wine. Aurelia was so inebriated, she kept giggling until she passed out in the Emperor’s lap. Only fifteen at the time, two goblets of wine was all it took to make Vecatian queasy. The party ended abruptly when his father Tarjanis entered the lounge and saw the state his son was in. Furious, he lashed out at Akim. The Emperor apologized and had a servant escort Vecatian back to his room, where he remained for the rest of the night. Meanwhile Tarjanis stayed in the room, keeping a close eye on his nephew.
“Such a beautiful name. What happened to her?” Drusilla interrupted his thoughts.
“I don’t know to be honest. I guess he just got bored of her and sent her back to Arhia. Her parents probably tried to cover up the scandal marrying her off to some wealthy noble…” he responded.
“That poor girl… Anyway, speaking of marriage… Have you thought out choosing a bride? Our daughter Loraila has come of age.” Drusilla blurted out.
And there it was. The moment he had been dreading. His parents had been trying to arrange this union ever since he could remember. Vecatian allowed a servant to pour more wine into his goblet before asking,
“I will consider it after the coronation. And how is Loraila doing?”
“She’s very well. Thank you for asking. She’s at the bathhouse with some friends. She’s grown up beautifully. Such a sweet girl. And smart too. She loves reading poetry and music. You should hear her play the lute,” Drusilla replied.
“I would love to,” Vecatian answered.
They continued chatting until everyone had finished their meal. Afterwards, Ardia and Vecatian bade their guests goodbye before going their separate ways. Ardia returned to her chamber, where she summoned her handmaids and began discussing the flower arrangements and other decorations for her son’s coronation. Vecatian spent the rest of the day with Bria.
A fortnight passed as everyone began making the preparations for Vecatian’s coronation. The Emperor left all the planning to his mother, preferring to spend his time with his mistress. It was delightful two weeks of hot sex, swimming in his private pool, plus many hours of lounging around on the couch, reading books and cuddling by the fireplace.
Finally the big day came. On the morning of his coronation, his mother arrived with a dozen handmaids who helped Vecatian into his robes, a long black toga adorned with gold threads and the Erocatien coat of arms. The outfit was so elaborate, it took over an hour to dress him.
“You look stunning my dear,” his mother commented as one of the handmaids passed him a mirror.
He may have looked great, but Vecatian soon realized just how stiff and uncomfortable these robes were. He sighed, fidgeting as a handmaid attached rose shaped, golden brooch to his toga, while another applied some make-up to cover-up the tiny smallpox scars on his face.
“I think I could use a drink…Some mead perhaps…” he uttered.
A handmaid obeyed, quickly leaving the room and heading to the kitchen. She soon returned with a goblet of mead which Vecatian downed in a single gulp.
“That’s better…Is it time yet?”
“Almost ready…” Ardia took a golden chain from one of the handmaids, “I want you to wear this. It was your father’s.”
Vecatian put the necklace on. Finally the handmaids escorted him and his mother towards the throne-room where the entire court was waiting for them.
A high priest of Lord Ifir greeted them, as they sat down on their thrones before beginning the ceremony with a prayer to the god of the skies. Vecatian tried his best to look poised and dignified, smiling and waving at the crowds, as the high priest placed laurel leaf crown on his head.
The whole court reacted with a massive round applause and crying out cheers of “Long live the Ifresir!”
Vecatian glanced around the room, hoping to see some familiar faces, other nobles including some of his childhood friends. He spotted Loraila in the distance, as she stood up for a chance to catch a glimpse of the new Emperor.
After the ceremony, they all headed to the dining hall where a feast was held in his honor. Vecatian spent the first hour, eating and mingling with his guests, before deciding to sneak off into his chamber where Bria waited for him.
She threw her arms around him as soon as he closed the door.
“This outfit is ridiculous… Can you help me out of it?” he asked as he removed his sandals.
“With pleasure…” Bria grinned as she began to remove the ornaments, before unwrapping Vecatian’s toga.
Vectian quickly stripped of her tunic as they kissed. It took a while, but Bria eventually managed to undress him and they made love on the floor.
“Oh.. Much better…What a day. I’m so glad it’s over soon…” Vecatian whispered, stroking her hair after they had finished.
“Is it? I thought that this was just the beginning…Don’t you have to get back to your guests?”
“Yes, I probably should but not right now. Right now, I just want to be here, alone with you.”
They lay there on the floor for a few more seconds until Bria got up and began to get dressed.
“Right, it’s time for you to get back to the party.”
“Alright, I’ll go but on two conditions – I’m not wearing that outfit and you’re coming with me,” he donned his bathrobe before summoning a handmaid.
He ordered her to fetch a purple tunic for himself, a pair of sandals and a silken red gown for Bria with matching slippers.
The servant soon returned with the clothes, and left them on the bed before leaving the room.
Vecatian changed into the tunic and put his crown back on along with his sandals. Bria tried the dress on.
“You look lovely,” he whispered once she was ready.
“I…This is too much Vecatian. I can’t possibly go there with you. Your entire court will be there. All those noble families. I’m a nobody, just a servant from a poor background. Same as my mother. I don’t even know who my father is…”
The Emperor put his arms around her before replying:
“No, you’re not a nobody. You’re Bria of Arhia, my mistress. I’m the Ifresir and I want to show you off to my guests. Just remember you must address me as Your Highness in public.”
“But Vecatian, they will be other Arhians there. If you introduce me as your mistress, they will start asking questions about my heritage.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll figure something out. You came here as part of Empress Aminn’s household staff. From what I know of Aminn she didn’t just pick her servants from the streets. They were carefully selected. That means that you must have some noble blood in your veins, even if you’re a bastard child.”
“I guess it’s possible. I’m an orphan. My mother was a servant at a noble house.”
They kissed again, before stepping out of the chamber and heading towards the dining hall.
The musicians stopped planning as soon as they stepped into the hall. The whole court was silent as everyone stopped to bow to the Emperor. Vecatian casually strolled into the room with Bria, making their way towards where his mother and their guests lounged.
“Good evening my dear, I was wondering where you went off to,” his mother greeted him with a warm hug.
“Hello mother, I decided to have a little break… Oh and I would like you to meet my mistress, Bria of Arhia,” Vecatian announced.
“It’s an honor to meet Your Majesty,” Bria bowed to the Empress.
Ardia smiled as her son and Bria sat down. Vecatian accepted a goblet of wine from one of servants while a woman sitting opposite his mother spoke up:
“Good evening Your Highness…” she bowed before turning towards Vecatian’s lover, “So Bria, you’re an Arhian and yet I’ve never seen you at court before. Do you mind if I ask what is your full name and which house are you from?”
Bria was silent for a moment, pondering for a suitable response. There was a tradition for Arhian nobles to give their daughters three names, a given name plus the names of both their parents.
“Bria Larisan of House…of House Reinis,” she finally replied, stating the name of the nobleman whose villa her mother worked in at the time of her birth.
The woman took a sip of her wine before commenting,
“House Reinis…Interesting.. I never knew that Baron Reinis had a daughter..”
“Not with his wife, my mother was one of his mistresses,” Bria responded.
“Oh, I see… Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you Bria and Your Highness.”
Vecatian merely smiled, before deciding it was time to move on. He ordered the musicians to resume playing before taking Bria’s hand. They left Ardia with her guests and headed to the dance floor in the center of the room. They began to dance to the sound of lutes and lyres.
“Alright, so here’s the plan, you may not know who your father is, but there is one way to find out. We will need to find Baron Reinis so that he can confirm your story,” he whispered into her ear as they swayed to the music.
Bria nodded in response. They spent a few more minutes dancing, before heading to the other side of the room.
In his eight years at the palace, Vecatian had had a chance to meet most of the nobles of the imperial court and was well aware of some of the gossip that was going around. Reinis had a reputation for being a bit of a womanizer, who regularly cheated on his wife Baronissa Flora. It didn’t take the Emperor long to spot the Baron among the guests. Reinis was a tall man in his mid-forties with shoulder length, dark hair and a light stubble. He was certainly old enough to be Bria’s father. As the inhabitants of a former independent nation, Arhians had a tendency to keep to themselves, rarely interacting with the citizens of other provinces unless they needed to. Reinis was no exception. When the couple approached him, he chatted to one of the Colonels in the Arhian army.
Vecatian waited until the Colonel left in search of more drinks before approaching the Baron.
“Good evening Your Highness, and congratulations on your coronation!” Reinis bowed as he greeted the Emperor.
“Good and thank you Reinis. Allow me to introduce my new mistress Bria.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet Your Grace…” Bria said politely.
Reinis smiled before commenting, this time in his native dialect:
“It’s always a pleasure to meet a fellow Arhian. Whereabouts are you from Bria?”
“I’m from Naitoria,” Bria began but Vecatian interrupted:
“Actually, that’s what I was hoping to ask you Reinis. Bria tells me that she was born in your household but she has no idea who her father is. I was wondering if you could shed some light on the matter. Is it possible that she could be your child.”
“Yes, it’s possible Your Majesty. I had no children with my wife but there might have been some with my mistresses,” Reinis replied before having a closer look at Bria.
“What was your mother’s name?”
“Larisa,” Bria answered.
Reinis thought for a moment. “Larisa… Oh yes, I remember Larisa…I spent a few months with her one summer whilst my wife was away visiting her mother in the east. So…When exactly is your birthday?”
“I’ll be nineteen on the tenth of May,” Bria responded.
“Hmm… Larisa never mentioned that she was pregnant. I had no idea. I didn’t see her after that summer. Flora acquired some new horses and sent Larisa to work in the stables. I’m guessing that’s where she gave birth. On the tenth of May eighteen years ago I wasn’t at my villa. I was with Flora at my brother’s wedding in Naitoria.”
Vecatian allowed a servant to refill his drink before responding:
“So… Does that mean you acknowledge Bria as your daughter?”
“Sure, why not? Daughters have their uses, Your Highness. I’m sure my wife will be thrilled to meet her. I’ll visit the courthouse tomorrow to sort out the relevant paperwork,” the Baron answered before turning his attention towards the girl.
“Excellent,” said Vecatian.
Bria hesitantly stared at the Baron for a few seconds, unsure of what to say.
“Thank you, Your Grace…” she muttered finally.
The Baron smiled and held out his hand towards her, “You may call me father… Now with Your Majesty’s permission, I would like Bria to meet her family and step-mother.”
Bria glanced back at her lover, unwilling to leave his side.
“You should go with him Bria. Don’t worry. It will be fine. I’ll see you later,” the Emperor gave her a hug.
“If you say so Your Majesty… I’ll see you later,” said Bria.
“Enjoy the rest of your evening Your Highness, and don’t worry I’ll make sure your sweetheart returns to you by the end of the night. ”
Bria reluctantly took his hand, and together they wandered off to a corner of the room. Vecatian watched for a while, as Reinis began to introduce Bria to other Arhian nobles including his wife. He returned to the table where his mother was sitting with Marchionissa Drusilla and Marchio Clavius.
“Welcome back my dear, I see Bria has found her family…” Ardia commented as a servant refilled her goblet with wine.
“Indeed, she has,” Vecatian replied after sitting down.
“Well, I must say she’s a pretty girl… But still, I think that you can do better than the bastard child of some low-ranking Arhian nobleman… Now that you’re the Ifresir you should consider choosing a bride. There are many girls here who would make a fine Ifresija, ” his mother hinted before taking a sip of her wine.
“I will but not right now. I need more time.”
“Fair enough,” Ardia replied.
Then Drusilla spoke up:
“Oh, I almost forgot Your Majesty. Loraila has a special surprise for you.”
At this point, the music stopped, and a servant stepped onto the dance floor.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Your Highness, Marchio Clavius’ daughter Lady Loraila would like to perform a short piece she composed in your honor,” he announced.
There was a round of applause and a familiar face appeared on the dance floor with a lute in her hand. The skinny girl Vecatian remembered from his youth, was now a young woman with luscious, curly auburn hair, blue eyes which sparkled like sapphires, dressed in a green silken gown.
“Good evening your Majesty and congratulations on your coronation!” Loraila bowed as she greeted him with a smile.
“Good evening and thank you. It’s a pleasure to see you again Loraila,” Vecatian replied as he raised his goblet towards her.
“And you, Your Highness, I hope that you enjoy my performance,” Loraila responded as she grasped the strings of her instrument and began to play.
The Emperor smiled, unable to take his eyes of her, sipping his wine as Loraila played a cheerful tune and sang a song based on a book they read as children. It told the adventures of two mountain Enai, they wandered through the Lavinum mountains, chasing a cave troll, hoping to retrieve a large sapphire he had stolen from them. Her sweet voice combined with the melodic sounds of the lute was one of the highlights of the evening for Vecatian.
He waited until Loraila had finished her performance before clapping along with the rest of the audience.
“That was lovely. Thank you,” Vecatian smiled.
“I’m glad that you enjoyed it Your Majesty,” Loraila replied grinning.
Once the performance was over Loraila returned to sit near her parents. Vecatian finished his wine and wanted to speak to her but was not able to do so because Baron Reinis had returned with Bria.
“Thank you for a wonderful evening Your Highness. Here’s your girl as promised. Goodnight!”
“Thank you and goodnight Reinis,” the Emperor answered.
Bria sat next to Vecatian before whispering in his ear:
“Do you mind if we talk somewhere in private?”
“Sure, let’s go the lounge,” Vecatian replied.
He bade his mother and their guests goodnight, before leaving the dining hall and heading to the lounge with Bria.
As soon as they entered the room, Bria fell into his arms. They hugged in silence for a few minutes before Bria spoke up:
“That was so awkward. “The Baron only met me less than an hour ago and, yet there he was showing me off to all his friends and family like some prized possession.”
“That’s because you’re my lover. It’s a massive ego boost for any nobleman. Besides, look on the bright side. At least now that you’re his daughter you can attend more gatherings at my court without feeling embarrassed. Also, it won’t be long until he returns to Arhia.”
“I suppose you’re right. He plans to take me to the courthouse tomorrow morning, so that he can officially legitimize me as his daughter. Flora agreed to adopt me. She seems friendly. I like her. Apparently she can’t have children of her own and she’s always wanted a daughter.”
“That’s great. I’m happy for you,” Vecatian whispered before giving her a kiss.
“Anyway, I think I’ve had enough excitement for one night. Maybe it’s time we went to bed?” Bria suggested.
Vecatian agreed and they made their way out of the lounge, up the staircase and towards his bedchamber.
True to his word, the Baron and his wife showed up at the palace the following morning, shortly after Vecatian and Bria had finished their breakfast. Reinis explained his plan to the Emperor, in addition to the courthouse, Flora wanted to take his daughter to a tailor and buy her some new shoes. Vecatian agreed on the condition that Bria would return to palace afterwards. He bade her goodbye and they agreed to meet up later.
There was a lot for him to do at the palace. His first task was to attend a High Council meeting to discuss the state of the finances along with other issues. The senators explained that prior to his death, Vecatian’s father Tarjanis did all he could to ensure the treasury was in good shape. There was also the issue of Arhia, a former independent province, which Akim had permitted to retain its culture and customs, not to mention certain laws that were unique to the region. Vecatian made it clear that he intended to continue his cousin’s legacy by maintaining good relations with Arhia. Its citizens would be allowed to keep their regional dialect and customs, but they would still have to pay their taxes as well as provide military aid to the Empire should the need arise.
After the meeting, Vecatian joined Bria for lunch. Reinis had signed the legal documents, legitimizing her as his daughter making her now officially Bria Larisan of House Reinis. Flora had signed the paperwork, officially adopting her as her child. Though pleased with the news, Bria seemed relieved to learn that the couple were planning to return to Arhia soon.
“I told them that I want to stay here in the palace with you. I promised to write to them,” she informed him once they had finished their meal.
“That’s great. I love you and want you stay here,” Vecatian put his arms around her.
And so it was that Bria remained in the palace as the Emperor’s mistress. In the months that followed Vecatian did his best to focus on his duties, attending High Council meetings, carrying out reforms, dealing with legal matters and various administrative tasks. Yet he spent all his spare time with his Arhian girl, making love to her as often as he could. One day Bria rushed out of bed, heading straight for the bathroom, where she vomited into the sink.
“Are you alright Bria?” Vecatian asked once he caught up with her.
Bria shook her head, “No, I feel sick. I think I might be with child…” she whispered.
Vecatian took her hand and slowly led her back to the bedchamber, whilst a servant cleaned up the mess. As she lay down, he summoned a doctor to examine her. The royal physician quickly confirmed their suspicions, Bria was indeed pregnant with his child.
The couple were delighted by the revelation and left an offering of flowers at the altar of the fertility goddess Lady Era-Gragiya. Vecatian informed his mother of the good news, but much to his disappointment, Ardia didn’t share his enthusiasm.
“Just what this family needs. A half Arhian bastard….Bria is a no better than Akim’s whores. Your cousin would still be alive today if it wasn’t for those wretched sluts. You should be focusing on choosing a wife from a good family, who will bear your heir instead of wasting time with this harlot,” she scorned.
“No, it was Aminn’s death and alcohol that killed Akim. How dear you say that about your own grandchild, mother? This baby will have my blood. Bastard or not, he or she will be an Erocatien. My baby, whom I will love. I hope that you come to your senses soon, ” Vecatian replied.
Ardia remained silent and this marked the end of the conversation. Angry, Vecatian stormed out of the room.
“My mother may not care about this child, but I do. Bria, I love you and this baby,” Vecatian whispered once he was back in his chamber. He wrapped his arms around her, before putting one hand on her stomach in an attempt to feel the baby.
End of Part 1. To be continued…