Scene from Chapter Three – Capricious Deities!
“Children sometimes say the damnedest things that cause terrible problems. Will somebody PLEASE shut this young girl up?” – Emperor Thomas Medford IV
While Robert Theosoar was discussing terms with the Gladiators, Neshal was visibly shaking and close to sheer panic. “I do not think I can do this, Dr. Numil, I’m scared!” Neshal wailed, almost in tears.
”M’Lord Count Neshal Quicksilver,” Dr. Numil said formally, “I wish I was your age so I could have the opportunity you are facing. Do you have any idea how many other men would wish to do what you are scared of doing?”
Both Dr. Numil and Neshal were standing in the palace gardens with two of Numil’s assistants. The sky was a dazzling blue and the morning sunshine glistened off the plants and flowers. Dr. Numil quickly turned to Michael Korten and Boris Golitzen, to conclude several arrangements. “Please get as many gardeners as possible out into the central courtyard after Count Neshal and I head to the throne room. Be sure to find my granddaughter, Susan, as well, to assist us. We have to reinforce the west garden wall by the courtyard and it would be nice for all these haughty nobles seeing us working hard.” Numil dismissed them and turned back to Neshal who was still whimpering.
”I do not want to get married! Yes, we all celebrated my tenth birthday yesterday. But how can I just select some noble girl from a long line for betrothal? You said that most noblemen marry at age fifteen, so why do I have to pick one now?”
Numil straightened and tried to look severe though he was chuckling inside. “M’Lord Count, you already know the answer. After your daring and heroic rescue of our Arch Duchess Christina Medford, your life changed forever. Your exciting exploits have already swept throughout the Empire, and the Emperor has been literally bombarded with requests from aristocratic families about your marital status. Yes, it is overwhelming and I am delighted that you have not attempted running away from all of this. And please do not consider running, as you are being watched and protected constantly. But the sad fact is many nobles are betrothed while in cradles and marry at age fifteen. The idea is to produce as many future aristocrats as possible while allowing for changing family fortunes. Besides, you have an enviable lineup of twenty alluring and wealthy young ladies awaiting you in the throne room, ranging from ages nine to twelve. Some of them even have the beginnings of boobs and rounded hips already. Your selection will assist our Emperor with choosing which cities and province to settle you in once the civil war is over. Let me assure you that ALL the ladies assembled now are very pretty and are from Palamar’s most wealthy, influential and aristocratic families.”
“But should I not love the woman I intend to marry?” Neshal bravely quipped.
“What has love got to do with politics, noble titles, lands and power?” Dr. Numil shot back, more than a trifle envious. “And is it not possible that you may grow to love the lady you choose? Even if later you decide to love someone else, this is what adulterous affairs and scandals are for, to make life interesting. Privately, I wish I was seventy-three years younger and had your choices here.”
“I could ask the Emperor to ennoble you and then you could have my choice now,” Neshal suggested.
“Sadly, I am too old to, well, maybe I am still capable of impregnating someone, but my duties as Castle Gardener keep me too busy for families and children at my age. As you have seen, I have enough trouble just keeping track of my granddaughter, Susan.” Numil observed wryly.
“Even I know, Dr. Numil, that you have many more duties than simply raising begonias,” Neshal remarked. “Is this why you love your granddaughter, Susan, so much?”
“Yes Neshal. She is the Alpha and Omega of my life. She may even have my various tasks someday, though she is not yet as accomplished a gardener and physician as I am. Now, are you ready to do your duty? I believe the Emperor and the Arch Duchess of Medford will also be supervising your choosing and you will impress them greatly if you can accomplish this with a brave and calm demeanor,” Dr Numil declared.
The noble Count Neshal Quicksilver straightened his hauberk, adjusted his fashionable renaissance hat, repositioned his sword, and stood as tall as he could. “I guess I have no choice now, do I?”
“You have splendid choices to pick from, young man. This is what I am trying to make clear to you. Your friend Abigail will walk beside you and you can whisper any particular questions you may have as you proceed viewing everyone,” Numil said reassuringly.
Neshal smiled. “I still wish I could select Abigail, but even I realize that she is too old for me. Very well, Dr. Numil. Will you walk with me to the throne room?”
Dr. Numil smiled, bowed, and said, “I am honored, Count Neshal Quicksilver. May the Immortal Powers bless your selection and I pray that you may eventually grow to actually like, love and want your lady.”
Together they strode into the throne room. Neshal felt as if he was heading towards his own execution. Maybe not execution, but instead, lifelong enslavement.
The Imperial Palamaran throne room was now aglitter with morning sunlight, fresh air, and many aristocrats of all ages wearing every shade of the rainbow. Emperor Thomas Wilson Oakley Medford IV was proudly reclining on the Imperial Ruby Throne with a bemused and relaxed expression on his face.
To his immediate left, Arch Duchess Christina Medford was sitting on the stone chair usually intended for the Empress. Christina was also eagerly anticipating the upcoming spectacle wondering which noble tart Neshal would choose. Abigail Theosoar was dutifully standing behind Lady Christina’s chair and excitedly preparing for her expected role. On the left side of the throne room, over two hundred aristocratic parents, uncles, aunts and even grandparents were avidly watching the right side of the throne room with some interest, affection and curiosity.
Many palace servants, who were also in Dr. Numil’s employ, were intermingling with the nobles and hearing all sorts of comments and discussions such as: “Does not our granddaughter look exquisite in that butterfly gown?” and “My little girl has certainly grown up far more than I realized – sniff.” Almost everything mentioned by any noble in the crowd was noted and etched into memory.
Earl Nestor Marcus Pannonia was eagerly accepting bets and many other aristocrats present were placing wagers on “so-and-so,” being the fortunate young lady selected. A servant now hastily presented Nestor with a quickly scrawled note from Christina betting on a candidate which then became the odds on favorite. Nestor smiled and wondered if this meant “the fix was in” but was willing to believe otherwise since the betting pool only started about twenty minutes ago. “Why that one and not my own granddaughter?” Earl Nestor mused about Christina’s choice.
One matronly noblewoman named Baroness Phillipia Licinius Metellus noticed this wagering and upbraided several participants who were placing bets right in front of her. “How can you so brazenly gamble on these candidates who are your nearest and dearest? This is disgraceful and shocking behavior!” Then she quietly placed a wager herself on her youngest niece to “take it all and be chosen.”
When Emperor Thomas IV signaled a trumpeter to blow a cadence, everyone settled down and focused their attention to the right side of the throne room where all of the prospective consorts were lined up trying to appear as desirable as possible.
Twenty highborn girls ranging in ages from nine to twelve from the most respected, revered and especially wealthy noble families of the Palamaran Empire were lined up precisely with excited smiles fixed upon their radiant faces. Many of these prepubescent girls were being “presented” today for the very first time in adult clothing and each fervently hoped to be the lucky one selected as a bride.
Dr. Numil, for once, had not exaggerated at all when explaining Neshal’s celebrity status. News of Count Neshal Quicksilver’s exploits had traveled all over the Empire like wildfire, because his ‘rags to riches’ story caught the popular imagination.
Emperor Thomas IV had already welcomed everyone present and now addressed the attending crowd. “Count Neshal Quicksilver’s future is limitless therefore so is his prospective bride’s as well. Let us all pray to our Immortal Divinities that Count Neshal Quicksilver will make a decision blessed by fate! Now…actually where is Count Neshal Quicksilver?”
On cue, the noble Count Neshal Quicksilver, splendidly attired in the latest up and coming formal court-style nobleman fashions, along with a sword belt, entered the far side of the throne room, accompanied by Dr. Andrew Numil, the chief palace gardener. Several aristocrats snorted derisively at this, wondering, “Why is that old geezer here with the boy now?” though nobody actually said anything. Neshal came forward to the Emperor, bowed politely and waited.
Emperor Thomas IV rose, appearing very stately wearing the formal Palamaran crown. “Welcome, Count Neshal Quicksilver. I am proud to formally present you to all visiting aristocrats here, and am personally honored and delighted to be the official witness for your selection of a bride. Thank you for instructing Count Neshal, Dr. Numil. You may return to the imperial gardens with our thanks and gratitude.”
“Ever at your service, my Liege,” Numil replied, the picture of obedience and subservience, though privately relieved that he could now return to the garden courtyard. If what he suspected would happen after Neshal’s selection actually happened, his secret service would garner some priceless noble matchmaking information from all over the Empire by lunchtime. Dr. Numil turned, winked at Neshal and walked backwards bowing to everyone until he retired through the throne room entrance.
Emperor Thomas IV continued, “Will my lovely daughter, Arch Duchess Christina Cecilia Medford, now escort Count Neshal Quicksilver as he inspects these stunningly lovely ladies?”
“My Lord Emperor and Father,” Christina curtseyed perfectly and made her next suggestion according to protocol. “As a token for loyal service and devotion, I would like to call my principle handmaiden, Ms. Abigail Theosoar, forward, and bequeath to her the honor of assisting Count Neshal Quicksilver.”
Abigail stepped forward and curtseyed as Christina had done though not quite with the same grace. “It is my honor to serve the Emperor and Count Neshal Quicksilver.”
“Excellent!” the Emperor declared with his booming voice. “Count Neshal, please inspect every young lady in line once. Each lady will say her full name and one or two sentences as she wishes. When you have met them all, you may move back up the line again and you can indicate your selection by declaring her name and asking your intended forward to the throne with you. We will then complete the betrothal ceremony by investing you with lands and specific powers. Afterwards, we, the Emperor and Arch Duchess Christina, invite you both to lunch with us.”
Neshal, almost completely petrified, somehow managed to step next to where Abigail stood. Both turned towards the expectant line of noble young ladies about thirty feet away and began moving toward the front end.
Neshal quickly whispered to Abigail while desperately trying to stop his trembling. “I know I cannot choose you, so do you have any last minute advice for me?”
“Yes,” Abigail answered at once. “Pick someone who looks happy and excited. Why choose a sourpuss?”
“But they all look happy and excited,” Neshal lamented.
Everyone in the throne room settled down to watch the main event. All focused on Count Neshal Quicksilver. Neshal and Abigail reached the lady closest to the dais and prepared to proceed one at a time. When they both stopped at the first girl, Abigail asked with a projecting voice. “What is your name and title?”
The first potential bride smiled, managed to blush and said clearly. “My name is Baroness Lollia Emily Emerson from the province of Wakefield, M’Lord Quicksilver. My family lands include the city of Lightford by the beautiful waterfalls from Starlight Lake. You are a handsome boy, Count Quicksilver.” She smiled at Neshal and curtseyed. Lollia was ten years old, had nice long brunette hair, was slim and had dimples.
“At least this one has some manners,” Abigail whispered in Neshal’s ear. “You will have to ask the same question I did from now on.”
Neshal half-bowed respectfully and stared at Lollia for a moment. After a gentle nudge in the shoulder from Abigail, Neshal moved on to the next candidate. Neshal tried to square his own gait, look directly into the face of the next potential, and said, “What is your name and title?”
The next girl certainly had an aristocratic bearing. She was twelve years old, wearing a flowing dress which accentuated her height and her cosmetics were impeccable. “I am the Countess Hilderen Gertrude von Griswalda, your Lordship. My family controls the best harbors and the town of Clayton in Divesbur province. We are heavily involved with building the new Palamaran Imperial Navy warships. I will do my best to train you as a model nobleman and believe you would profit most with joining our family.”
Neshal again nodded and moved on. “I’ll bet that last one is probably a very wealthy catch though her nose is still higher than your hat.” Abigail quipped in Neshal’s ear.
As Neshal proceeded down the line, he observed several things about these young girls. All of them were very pretty, very proud of their families and land holdings, and also very domineering. Neshal saw in several faces, though, a thinly veiled contempt for his commoner background despite his heroics, and a desire to control him. When he was introduced to the
Vi-Countess Lady Stephanie Lynn Morgenstern from the province of Andover, she batted her eyelashes, pursed her lips, and exhaled very seductively. Neshal did not fully understand the gesture but he did pause an extra moment.
Abigail quickly nudged him and again whispered. “That one will cheat on you as soon as she is bored with you, the slut.”
At the twelfth girl, Neshal was actually rather surprised that he found an intriguing face with hypnotic eyes. Lady Lisa Livia Pannonia, Earl Nestor’s granddaughter from Kalchidus, smiled and her excitement for Neshal was infectious and obvious. She was eleven years old, had medium length dark honey brown hair and as she introduced herself, Neshal found his own manhood surprisingly stirring. She spoke with a full, low, yet resonant voice, “You have done amazing deeds already, Count Neshal Quicksilver, and our entire nation owes you gratitude for saving the Arch Duchess of Medford’s life. Please choose me. I will do my best to love, protect and defend you for the rest of our lives together.”
Neshal bowed and smiled at her quickly.
As he moved on to the next candidate, Abigail whispered again. “Old Earl Nestor Pannonia would be very pleased if you selected her. You might even give him a heart attack or a stroke.”
Neshal smirked a little and tried to absorb the next girl’s name and titles.
Near the end, Neshal was feeling a bit worn out. One young girl named Countess Jacqueline Licinius Metellus from Caephos province actually promised him “fine, strapping sons along with good sport in making them,” and she frightened him with her pelvic gestures. Another prospect named Baroness Alexandra Dagmar Everton from Doncastle province mentioned how strong he looked and wiggled her already noticeable chest at him. When finally the twentieth noble girl was presented to Neshal, he and Abigail walked back towards the middle of the line of ladies and faced the eagerly, expectant aristocratic adult relations.
“What do I do now, Abigail?” Neshal asked hurriedly.
“Thank all of these nobles for arranging your ‘most excellent,’ possible selections. Then pick one, and march up to the Ruby Throne with her. The Emperor will take it from there.”
Count Neshal Quicksilver stepped forward to address the breathlessly waiting noble audience. He stood tall and said in his fullest voice, trying to be more than his ten years, “My noble Lords and Ladies – I wish to thank all of you for arranging these marvelous choices for me and I hope everyone here will eventually forgive me for actually choosing only one.” Everyone laughed.
Then Neshal commended his soul to Epona Twilight the Horse Goddess, turned around, and said loudly. “Would Lady Lisa Livia Pannonia join me?” Lisa practically jumped out of her skin, squealed with delight, rushed over and grabbed Neshal’s outstretched arm. She kissed him on the cheek and virtually glowed with happiness.
The applause in the throne room was remarkable. Earl Nestor Pannonia actually shouted “YES! YES! He picked my youngest granddaughter! I win the betting pool…um…I mean… YES! I am honored and thrilled to have you as a grandson-in-law, Count Neshal Quicksilver! Welcome to the Pannonia family!”
While quick mutterings of disappointment and small leather pouches with coins were being surreptitiously passed about within the ranks of the assembly, Emperor Thomas IV replied jovially, “Actually, my Lord Earl Nestor Pannonia, it is your lovely granddaughter who is now joining the noble house of Quicksilver!”
Everyone began to cheer, clap, and laugh heartily. Lisa practically dragged Neshal back towards the Imperial Ruby Throne as Abigail merrily strolled behind them. Emperor Thomas IV and Arch Duchess Christina rose and everyone in the throne room settled down again. “My Lords and Ladies present. Count Neshal Quicksilver will now select his middle name and be awarded his hereditary fiefdom as a Noble Count of the realm.”
After some quick whispering among Neshal, Abigail and Lisa, Neshal bowed and said, “I am entering a famous and respected noble family and in token of this I select ‘Pannonia’ as my formal middle name. I wish to be known as Count Neshal Pannonia Quicksilver.”
Thunderous applause resumed and Earl Nestor Pannonia almost did have a stroke from his favorite granddaughter’s most fortunate stroke of luck, musing, “This clever and brave kid will be remembered long after I am gone and who knows what else he may accomplish? My youngest granddaughter will be a perfect match for him, though she can be a bit bossy, like most women.”
The Emperor wrapped a long silk scarf around one wrist each connecting Neshal and Lisa together and spoke again, “We now formally declare Vi Countess Lisa Livia Pannonia betrothed to Count Neshal Pannonia Quicksilver before all of you! They will marry on Count Neshal’s fifteenth birthday.”
Christina brought forward a pillow with two slim gold chain necklaces and two signet rings made with the rarest platinum. Emperor Thomas IV asked both Neshal and Lisa to kneel before him, and he placed the necklaces over their heads. After then presenting Neshal and Lisa their signet rings the Emperor motioned them to rise and said, “Count Neshal Pannonia Quicksilver is now awarded the Palamaran city of Tichenor and its surrounding county located in the province of Kalchidus. He is also awarded the office of Lord Commander of neighboring Ascaladon Fortress with control of its garrison.”
Astonished gasps at the Emperor’s generosity and then more applause erupted. The city of Tichenor, dedicated to the Wind God Silanus Tichenor the Just, was famous for their steel, weapon smiths and metalworkers, as well as the almost impregnable Ascaladon Fortress in the mountains nearby to the south. Countess Lisa squealed in Neshal’s ear, “Oooooh, I LOVE the mountains and thank you for choosing me as your Countess! She kissed him affectionately on the cheek again. Neshal felt his cheeks burning.
After several moments, the applause finally died down and the Emperor politely dismissed all of the nobles to the outdoor luncheon prepared for them in the Imperial Palace main Sun Garden. He invited Count Neshal and Countess Lisa to a private meal with him and Christina. The four of them left the throne room together from the left of the dais.
Christina signaled Abigail as a reminder, to observe their lunch from the spy holes and report back on everything she would notice about Lisa.