Isana had been to the great hall of the Senatorium only once before, during the presentation ceremony when she and several others had been brought forth in front of the realm as a whole and introduced as new Citizens of Alera. At the time, dressed in the scarlet and sable of the House of Aquitaine, she had mostly been too self-conscious—and, she could admit to herself now, ashamed—to notice how large the place was.
The Senatorium was built from sober, somber gray marble, and was ostensibly large enough to hold not only the Senate, which included the Senators and their retinues, but every Citizen of the realm of Alera as well. Isana had been told, at some point, that it could seat more than two hundred thousand souls, each and every one of them able to see and hear what transpired thanks to the cleverly arranged furycraft in the construction.
It resembled an enormous theater more than anything else. Upon the bottom and center of the Senatorium was the actual half-circle of seating of the Senate, presided over by the Proconsul, the Senator with the most votes within the body of the Senate itself. Then, rising in rank upon rank upon rank, bench seating stretched up and out for hundreds of yards. Looking down upon the Senate floor, one had only to lift one’s eyes up a little to see the First Lord’s Citadel, the heart of Alera Imperia, rising above the Senatorium.
“What’s so funny?” murmured Lady Placida.
“I was thinking how one couldn’t help but notice how large and threatening is the First Lord’s citadel up above us upon entering,” Isana said. “It’s hardly subtle.”
“That’s nothing,” Lady Placida replied. “When leaving, the view is of the Grey Tower. An even more poignant vista.”
Isana smiled, and glanced over her shoulder to see that Aria was correct. The Grey Tower, that unassuming little fortress, was a prison built to hold powerless even the strongest furycrafters in the realm—and was a silent statement that no one in Alera was beyond the reach of the law.
“One cannot help but wonder,” Isana said, “if whichever First Lord presiding over the construction meant the view to reassure the Senators or to threaten them.”
“Both, naturally,” Lady Placida replied. “Senators loyal to the realm first can rest easy knowing that personally powerful, ambitious men will always be held accountable—and the ambitious receive the exact same message. I believe it was the original Gaius Secondus who constructed the Senatorium, and he—oh my.”
Isana could not blame Lady Placida for breaking off in the midst of a sentence. For though the vastness of the Senatorium was generally more or less empty, hosting only the various retinues of the Senators and a few curious parties, allowed by law to watch the proceedings, tonight was different.
The Senatorium was filled to the top rows of its seats.
The noise of the crowd was enormous—a sea of talk, a thunderstorm of murmurs. More than that, though, was the overwhelming emotion of those present. None of it was particularly sharp, but there were so many people there that the accumulated weight of all that low-intensity anxiety, curiosity, impatience, irritation, amusement, and too many others to name hit her like a sack of grain.
Isana felt it when Lady Placida called upon her metalcrafting to shield her mind against the storm of emotions, and briefly wished that she could have done something similar—but she couldn’t. She simply ground her teeth for a moment, fighting back the surge of outside emotion, and found Araris’ hand beneath her arm, holding her steady, his calm concern a bedrock and a shelter against the tide that threatened her. She gave him a swift, grateful smile and, working from that solid point, methodically pushed away the other emotions to let them back in gradually, bit by bit, to give herself a chance to acclimate to them. Araris and Lady Placida stood on either side of her, patiently waiting for her to adjust to the environment.
“All right,” she said, a moment later, as other Citizens continued to file in. “I’m better, Araris.”
“Best we take our seats,” Lady Placida murmured. “The Crown Guard is beginning to arrive. The First Lord will be here any moment.”
They descended to the rows of box seats just above the Senate floor. While not specifically, legally granted to the High Lords, it was well understood who would be occupying those seats, and tradition had long since established which High Lord would occupy which box in the Senatorium at the infrequent assemblies of both the Senate and Lords.
The seats for Lord and Lady Placida were situated above the places of the Senators from the areas governed by Citizens beholden to them. Lady Placida took a few moments to descend to the Senate floor, exchanging greetings with several people while Isana and Araris sat down in the box.
“Lady Veradis?” Isana asked, recognizing the young woman in the box beside theirs.
The serious, pale-haired young healer, daughter of the High Lord of Ceres, turned to them at once, and offered Isana a grave nod. She was notably alone in her father’s section, and seemed all the more slender and frail for the open space around her. “Good evening, your Highness.”
“Please, call me Isana. We know one another better than that.”
The young woman gave her a fleeting smile. “Of course,” she said. “Isana. I am glad to see you well. Good evening, Sir Araris.”
“Lady,” Araris said quietly, bowing his head. He glanced around the empty box and said, with perfectly bland understatement, “You seem less well-attended than I would expect you to be.”
“With excellent reason, sir,” Veradis said, returning her attention to the Senate floor. “As I trust will be made clear shortly.”
Isana settled back, frowning, and studied the seating behind the High Lord’s boxes in general, where the visiting Lords and Counts as a rule settled in behind their own patrons. Behind Lord Aquitaine’s box, for example, was a sizeable contingent of finely dressed Citizenry, mostly sporting the scarlet and black of the house of Aquitaine, while the gold and black of Rhodes made for an only slightly smaller contingent in the seats behind that High Lord’s box.
By contrast, the sections behind Lord Cereus’ box, and for that matter, behind the box of Lord and Lady Placidus, were rather sparsely populated. And the section behind the empty box where the High Lord of Kalarus would have been seated was entirely empty of any citizen bearing the green and grey of the House of Kalare. That was hardly a surprise, given that the House was hardly in favor after Kalarus Brencis’ open rebellion against the Crown had failed so miserably and spectacularly.
But even so, the Citizens seated in that section were at its fringes, and wearing the colors of one of the other greater Houses. Surely someone would have been wearing Kalarus’ colors, if for no other reason than out of tradition and force of habit. Some of those families had been wearing those colors for centuries. Regardless of the actions of the most recent Lord Kalarus, they would not have abandoned their own traditional garb—indeed, many of the poorer Citizens of that region simply could not have afforded a new court wardrobe, given the devastation the rebellion had wreaked upon their economy.
Where were the Citizens from Kalare, from Ceres, and from Placida? What had Lady Placida not told them?
She felt a similar sense of concerned curiosity from Araris, and turned to him, expecting him to have noticed the same absences she had—only to find him staring intently across the Senate floor.
“Araris?” she murmured.
“Look at Aquitaine’s box,” he murmured quietly. “Where is Lady Aquitaine?”
Isana blinked and looked more closely. Sure enough, High Lord Aquitainus Attis sat in his box without the familiar, stately figure of his wife Invidia at his side.
“Where could she be?” Isana murmured. “She would never miss something like this.”
“Perhaps now that an heir has appeared, they finally decided to kill one another,” murmured a wry, familiar voice. “Though if so, I lost money in the pool the Cursors had going as to the victor.”
Isana turned to find a short, slight man with sandy hair smiling at them from the row above the Placidan box, his elbows casually resting on the railing.
“Ehren,” Isana said, smiling. “What are you doing here? I thought you were going to Canea with my son.”
The young man’s expression grew sober, and Isana felt him close down, concealing his emotions—but not before she felt his flash of weary frustration, anger and fear. “Duty called,” he replied, mustering up the effort for another smile as Aria returned to the box. “Ah, Lady Placida. I wonder if I could impose upon you for a seat during the First Lord’s address?”
Lady Placida glanced at Isana, lifting an eyebrow. “By all means, Sir Ehren. Please join us.”
Ehren inclined his head in thanks and swung his legs calmly over the railing, slipping down into the box with a rather cavalier regard for the solemnity of the Senatorium. Isana had to make an effort to keep from smiling.
Ehren had barely been seated when a single trumpeter blew the fanfare of a legion captain—and not the notes of the First Lord’s Processional.
Murmurs rose through the Senatorium at once as those seated all rose to their feet together—the First Lord only employed that protocol in time of war.
Gaius Sextus, First Lord of Alera, entered as the last notes of the fanfare rang out, flanked by half a dozen Knights Ferrous in the crimson cloaks of the Crown Guard. A tall, powerfully-built man, Gaius looked more like a man in his late prime than an octogenarian—except for his silver-white hair, which was, if Isana was not imagining it, even thinner and wispier than it had been since the last time she had seen him, several months before.
The First Lord moved like a much younger man, descending the steps from the Senatorium’s entrance to the Senate floor in rapid strides. He passed between the boxes of Lords Phrygius and Antillus—both of which were empty of a High Lord. Lady Phrygia was present, though an elderly, one-eyed Lord was evidently standing in for High Lord Antillus, and bore the signet dagger of the House of Antillus on a sash across his sunken chest. The murmuring rose to a low tide of sound as Gaius descended to the floor.
“Citizens!” the First Lord said, raising his hands, as he took the Senate floor. His voice, enhanced by the furycraft of the building, rolled richly through the evening. “Citizens, please.”
The Speaker of the Senate—Isana wasn’t sure who it was this year, someone from Parcia, she thought—quickly took the podium. “Order! Order in the Senatorium!” His voice thundered through the enormous theater like a titan’s, quelling the voices of the assembled Citizenry. Isana had the brief, uncharitable thought that the man probably found it quite satisfying. Though upon reflection, how often did the opportunity to have both the justification and the means to shout down half the Citizenry of the realm present itself? She could think of several days that she would have found it more than mildly satisfying, herself.
Once the noise had dwindled to a low murmur, the Speaker nodded and said, “We welcome you to this emergency convocation of the Senate, convened at the request of the First Lord. I will now yield the floor to Gaius Sextus, First Lord of Alera, so that he may present information of key importance to the realm to the august members of this assembly.”
Almost before he was finished speaking, Gaius had stepped up to the podium, confidently assuming the space the Speaker had been occupying a moment before. There was no sense of bluster or swagger in the movement, nor did the Speaker react with anything like chagrin—yet Gaius somehow managed to simply displace the man, the way a large dog will a far smaller one at the food dish, and did so as smoothly and naturally as if the entire world had been expressly ordered that way—and as a consequence, it was. Isana shook her head, simultaneously exasperated with the man’s sheer arrogance and admiring of his restraint. Gaius never used more of his considerable force of personality, will, or furycraft than he absolutely required.
Of course, he never let anything stand between him and what he deemed ‘required,’ either. No matter how many innocent people it might kill.
Isana pressed her lips together and restrained her thoughts on the matter of the ending of Lord Kalarus and his rebellion—and his city and its inhabitants, and all the lands around it and everyone who lived in them. It was not the time to once again review Gaius Sextus’ actions, or to judge them as acts of war, or necessity or murder—or, most likely, all three.
“Citizens,” he began, his sonorous voice serious, sober. “I come to you tonight as no First Lord has for hundreds of years. I come to you to warn you. I come to you to call you to duty. And I come to you to ask you to go beyond all that duty requires.” He paused, to let the echoes of his voice roll through the darkening evening. “Alerans,” he murmured. “We are at war.”