163: I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do best isn’t very nice.
Kru’Nah steeled himself, setting his face into its royal mask. He must not be surprised. He must not act surprised. He must not show surprise. Or anything else, for that matter, but let all emotion come from his mother. Claudius would be most helpful on his side, he thought, but with Claudius, nothing was guaranteed. Kru’Nah needed to steel himself against anything that Claudius might say, too.
He stepped down from the sleigh. Attendants had come to take the Kreulans, but stood at a distance, glancing nervously about.
“Don’t mind them boys’n’girls, they know you’re here to take care of them. They’ll be good, I promise,” Claudius said. He turned and opened the door to the sleigh. The soldiers inside stumbled out. They looked around, confused, and murmured to each other. Only Tra’Khil managed to keep a mild air of stoicism and not appear too flustered by the strange turn of events.
The attendants approached with caution and unhooked the majestic beasts from the sleigh runner and led them down toward the stables without a single Kreulan causing mischief.
Kru’Nah turned to Claudius. “After you, esteemed relic of the Guardians.” He resisted nodding his head. He could show no sign of weakness or deference.
Claudius swept into a deep bow. Kru’Nah forced himself to appear impassive, though internally he struggled between cursing and thanking Claudius for this first grand test. Raising himself to standing and sweeping his arm in a final flourish, Claudius led the way into the hall. Kru’Nah followed him. Tra’Khil and his men followed behind.
The hall was dimly lit, a sign that his presence wasn’t prepared for. He kept his face a mask, but he knew that people would die for this. For her son and Claudius to arrive in an ill-prepared hall would make his mother livid.
Or would it?
Kru’Nah’s senses heightened and he glanced around. Just a few torches blazed from one-third of the iron baskets hanging from the gray stone walls. The bright tapestries of summer had been replaced by the warm, dark tapestries of winter. Chairs lined the perimeter of the hall, their use intended for guests of honor. The iron and pearl throne at the front of the room was conspicuously empty. There had been plenty of time for additional lights to be added and for his mother to be here.
Power play, he thought. His mother was showing that she was the one in charge in this castle and this hall and she would not be bothered to rush, not even for the relic of the Guardians. Dangerous move.
“Dangerous, indeed,” Claudius whispered.
Kru’Nah took a deep, silent breath and thought. He would make no move until she arrived. Would it be better if he continued to stand here or should he sit? To stand until she arrived would be to acknowledge her authority and power, which she certainly had here. But to sit would be to acknowledge that he was not subject to that authority and power. Could he trust Claudius to be truthful? He certainly could trust these men, but the few of them against whatever guard force his mother would bring in was certain death. But perhaps with Claudius here, the tables were slightly more in Kru’Nah’s favor.
“Would you care to sit, esteemed relic of the Guardians?” Kru’Nah asked.
“I’ve been waiting for you to offer it,” Claudius said.
Kru’Nah turned to his men. “Assemble chairs for seating. Enough for everyone.”
All the men separated, collecting chairs from the perimeter of the room. Three chairs were lined up facing the throne and the rest assembled behind.
Kru’Nah needed to decide quickly who would sit in the middle. Should it be him as the one taking over? Or should he give the seat of honor to Claudius? He needed to maintain what little power he had, but after the display of last night, he knew that he had no idea what real power was.
“Please, sit,” Kru’Nah said, indicating the middle chair.
“That is your rightful place, young prince,” Claudius said and sat in one of the outside chairs.
So it is, Kru’Nah thought. Not the spot for the relic, but for the next ruler. They sat.
Kru’Nah tried to decide whether he should try to track his mother down, or continue sitting here and wait her out. These games of politics and power were sometimes difficult to decide, especially now that he’d experienced real power. These political games now pricked at his impatience and he very nearly wished to storm the entire castle, demanding his mother come and face him.
On the other hand, if she could keep him waiting for hours, if need be, and have him still be calm and collected when she arrived, he would have the upper hand no matter how long he waited. He sensed no change or irritation in Claudius, though he wasn’t entirely sure he’d be able to sense it anyway. His men were becoming restless and uneasy. That he could sense.
Just as he was about to address the men, a side door opened and his mother entered. The lack of formal introduction set Kru’Nah on edge. He breathed calm into himself and rose, bowing deep.
“Mother,” he said.
“Oh off with the pretense,” she snapped. “You come to my castle entirely unannounced and I’ve only just learned that my only son has arrived home safely.”
Kru’Nah didn’t respond. She was baiting him into something, but he didn’t quite know what yet.
“And then,” she continued, “you bring the relic of the Guardians with you.”
Claudius rose. “My lady,” he said, his tone barely concealing the faintest hint of threat.
“Shall I simply execute the priests now?” she asked. “Or would you like to do that on your own?”
A smile tugged at Claudius’ lips. “And what reason would I possibly have to do that?”
“What else would bring you here other than to exact judgment on those you believe to be false or leading the people astray?”
“I am simply returning lost property, my lady,” he said.
Kru’Que’Nah closed into an unreadable facade.
“But if you wish to execute your own priests, my lady,” Claudius continued, “I would not stop you. After all, unjust banishment and execution is what you do best, is it not?”
She stiffened. Kru’Nah had managed to stay entirely still, even though Claudius’ direct accusation startled him at least as much as it startled her.
“And if I am?” she said.
“What is it to me?” Claudius said. “Alas, it’s the Guardians to whom you must answer. I am but the relic, not the priest, certainly not the confessor. Shall we bring the confessor?”
“The confessor is otherwise occupied with confessions,” she said through clenched teeth.
Claudius laughed—the laugh that rumbled from the ends of the earth and echoed out to the sky. Fear struck into Kru’Nah and he couldn’t help but clench his teeth together and breathe in quickly through his nose. He kept his eyes trained on his mother.
Uneasiness swept through her. Kru’Nah knew that feeling. It was the first time she’d heard the laughter. He felt the same way the first time he’d heard it, just last night.
“Well young prince,” Claudius said, turning to Kru’Nah. “What shall we do?”
“Call the confessor,” Kru’Nah said with no hesitation. This was his only chance to do everything right. With Claudius here, things had a hope of working. Otherwise, it was entirely likely that he and everyone with him would already be dead.
“And the rest of the priests,” he added.
A smile spread across the face of Claudius. “You heard him,” he said to Tra’Khil and his men. “Go, obey the order.”
They departed, leaving Kru’Nah, Claudius, and Kru’Que’Nah staring at each other.
Kru’Nah worked hard to maintain his stoic veneer.
His mother was less successful. Hate burned in her eyes.
Even here, even now, Kru’Nah struggled to feel safe. Unsafe from his own mother. This really was the end and he found he was not prepared at all.