Fandom: The Goblin Emperor
Characters: Csethiro Ceredin, Eshevis Tethimar, original characters
Summary: Hiding in the shadows, listening to conversations not meant for her ... Csethiro Ceredin should leave this darkened corridor, but she doesn't. A tale in which an untoward action gives birth to mercy.
Edited by: None but myself. I obsessively read and reread; if there are mistakes, they are mine alone, and I will correct them once alerted to them.
Author's note: This was written for hamsterwoman for the 2015 fandom_stocking effort, and I heartily apologize to her for the late IOU delivery. I am truly embarrassed about my track record! This was my first foray into fanfic for “The Goblin Emperor” — which may be my all-time favorite comfort read, and in which universe I truly wish the author would continue to write.
Disclaimer: I do not own the universe of "The Goblin Emperor." All its characters (with the exception of an original character here or there) are the sole property of Sarah Monette, in her guise as Katherine Addison. I intend no infringement and take no coin, but thank her for allowing me to play in her sandbox.
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“Most assuredly we found the Emperor’s betrothed impressive at tonight’s ball. Why, did you not?”
“Amusing, yes, as a circus attraction is. Attractive, perhaps less so. And impressive? Not at all.”
In this late hour — the broad main halls of the Untheileneise Court were as dark as they would ever be, and most of the more powerful courtiers had long since decamped to their apartments, leaving behind only a scattering of minor nobles and their hangers-on — the three men chatting in the antechamber of an empty receiving room undoubtedly thought they were free to speak in something other than whispers about the newly betrothed daughter of the Ceredada.
Csethiro pressed her lips against what would have been an only slightly bitter laugh. Thou chose to slip from thy bedchamber and escape thy constant watchers and guardians. Thou chose to do something foolish, merely because thou wert restless and frightened of the future, and angry at thy own lack of control over it, more fool thou. Thou hast been treated to an unwanted vision of thyself for thy pains. Thinkest thou that freedom or privacy will ever be thine again? Now … if thou must be abroad in the small hours of the morning, against all propriety and good sense, use thy head, use silence, to listen and learn. She pressed back against the wall behind the pillar, into the shadows.
“Oh, come now, the answer must be obvious, even to a dunderhead —”
“And now we are a dunderhead?” The youngest of the three, his face flushed with wine, was glaring at the man next to him, a close relative, by the similarly blunt chins and unfashionably short noses; a brother, perhaps? She could not see the third man from where she had secreted herself.
“Peace, peace! Must learn to laugh at thyself an thou art to laugh at anyone else. Especially here at court. Remember, we are not,” the older man said, using the plural, “back home.” Despite his words, the older man seemed in good humor. His chiding was gentle and definitely brotherly. Csethiro recognized the tone; she had used it on her younger sisters.
“Aye, listen to thy brother, and thy better,” the third man said, with a much less gentle laugh. He it was who had called the boy a dunderhead.
I know that voice. Csethiro risked a quick look out from behind the pillar, then recoiled as if she had seen a snake. Thou hast seen one, and thou should leave. Now. She stayed, nonetheless, and listened.
“We shall tell thee the answer to thy question,” Eshevis Tethimar said, his countenance lowering, his face as florid with drink as his young companion’s. “The Ceredada woman is unseemly to begin with, forward with her betters, in no way demure or becoming, speaking too loudly, walking too fast, in all things too arrogant, although she seems, to the naive or unknowing, to be proper. And with this betrothal, her unfeminine vulgarities and conceit will only increase. She will bring disgrace to the Untheileneise Court and to the Drazhada.” It sounded like a rehearsed speech, but he declaimed it with real, and vicious, passion.
Why is Dach’osmer Tethimar spending time trading gossip in a darkened corridor with common courtiers, speaking so familiarly with them? She peered out again, glad of the shadows. Ah. That was why; there was a resemblance, although they lacked his aquiline and admittedly handsome looks. They were some level of cousin, then. Country cousins, by the sound of it, although the older of the two appeared to be more familiar with the ways of the court.
Tethimar continued speaking. “Her father is so desperate for advancement that he pretends Varenichibel’s half-wit goblin leaving is worth throwing her at him. And the goblin leapt at what the Marquess threw. We are much afraid that all that is said of him is true. And that leaves the Ethuveraz in the hands of a fool as well as a goblin.”
How dare he speak so of the Emperor, even if it is in a supposedly empty corridor, to junior members of his own house! He surely cannot think himself free from the risk that such talk would get back to Edrihasavar?
And why does he bother to speak so of me?
Csethiro was pleased to find that she was angry rather than humiliated at his words. She was sure others thought the same of her, and certainly her father was held in no great respect in the Untheiliniese court. Though, how like the man, to say aloud what others were at least civilized enough to keep behind closed doors!
Another quick look around the pillar; she was satisfied to see the other two men looking scandalized. The older one looked wary, almost frightened, as well; his ears were low. But Tethimar did not notice.
“Now he has the court hoyden, rather than someone more fit to be Zhasan.” His voice was pure poison, and Csethiro remembered how he dragged his poor frightened sister to her presentation to Edrihasavar, the look on his face when she could not keep up with him.
His sister … Of course. Thou art slow, thou half-wit. Of course he speaks thus of thee, with his own chance rejected.
“Surely Dach’osmin Ceredin is acceptable,” the youngest one said, apparently unaware that he was treading on thin ice. “She is said to be a friend of the Archduchess Vedero—”
He stopped abruptly, too late remembering that he should have avoided the subject. The silence was thick. Csethiro felt the back of her neck prickle. She didn’t want to, but she couldn’t help leaning out to see the trio more clearly.
“Arevis did not mean to—” The older brother did his best to sound casual, but the fact that his ears were now flattened to his head belied his attempt. “—to … denigrate thy—”
“She is not ours.” That was a snarl. The snake had become a wolf. Csethiro fought the instinct to flee, irrationally afraid that the slightest movement might capture his attention. “Edrehasivar hath broken his father’s word. Vedero Drazharin is beyond our reach. For now. But that will change, we assure thee.”
He stopped speaking, perhaps finally aware that even relatives might not be trusted to hear what he had said.
For now, eh? The wolf is growing careless. Csethiro shrank back again.
More silence, still thick.
Finally, Tethimar spoke again. He had regained some composure, it seemed, and sounded calm, almost pleasant. “It is late. We should not have burdened thee with our sorrow, no matter how unjust we feel it to be. We have tarried enough here, so we bid thee a good night.”
He moved so swiftly, not waiting for a corresponding farewell from his cousins, that Csethiro was caught by surprise. Cstheio Caireizhasan, let him not see me!
The goddess must have heard. Tethimar did not pass her way. He turned into a side corridor and disappeared from view, although his bootheels echoed long after he was gone.
“Arevis, it is time for thee to return home.” The older brother was calm, but tense.
“What? I have only just arrived, and I was to see Winternight at court!!” The boy — he was truly just a boy, Csethiro saw now — was indignant again. And possibly he was glad to be angry; anger is a fine antidote for fear, as Csethiro knew.
“I know, and I had planned to have thee with me through Winternight and well beyond, perhaps to the wedding itself.”
“What have I done, brother? I did not mean to anger Cousin Eshevis. I can apologize to him—”
“No, I would not advise thee to do that. It would only fix his attention on thee further.” The older brother spoke gently, softly, urgently. “And I believe he hath already determined us to be useless to him. That makes our position precarious. Didst hear me denigrate Dach’osmin Ceredin?”
“Yes. What of it?”
“I am the lesser for it, Arevis. Remember that. But know this; it is not safe, not even when one is of House Tethimada, to gainsay Eshevis Tethimar. I believe he hates the woman, who is certainly forward but completely honorable so far as anyone reasonable can see, almost as much as he hates Edrehasivar. Had I not agreed with his calumnies tonight, I — and thou — could have suffered repercussions down the road.
“Mark me well, brother; I saw something in our cousin’s eyes tonight that unnerves me almost more than his words. He is a storm about to break, and I do not know if it will leave our House undamaged, even the least among us. I am sending thee home, so that thou wilt be, an it be possible, untouched by the storm.”
Behind the pillar, Csethiro held her breath.
“What of thee, Norchis?” Arevis’ voice was small. He no longer sounded like a truculent drunkard.
“I have responsibilities here,” Norchis Tethimar said heavily. “I fear they must keep me in court. I wish with all my heart I could go with thee, but I cannot and there’s an end to it. But for you …” He trailed off for a moment, then continued. “ I recall that there is a merchant caravan leaving Cetho tomorrow for Amalo. The captain knows our father, so I will give thee a letter to commend thee to him. You will get little sleep, because you must be ready by six of the clock to leave court and head to the city, that thou canst travel with it. And Arevis?”
“Give my love to Father and Mother, along with a request to stay away from the rest of the family, especially those at Eshoravee, for the next while.”
“How can I tell them that? How can I say anything? An I say to beware of Eshevis Tethimar, Father would only become angry. He might head right for Eshoravee, demanding to know what’s toward, and get handed his head for his trouble. Thou knowest that.
“Besides, we are only far cousins to the Duke, the least of his house. Cousin Eshevis only spoke to us because he could not avoid us, and because he was drunk. Surely anything he has in mind would not redound to us?”
Norchis shook his head. “The Untheileneise Court is in disarray and flux, what with the matter of Chavar and the Princess of the Court. No one should consider themselves completely safe.”
Arevis Tethimar was sounding less and less like a dunderhead, and Norchis sounded like a man desperate to protect his family. Both now struck Csethiro simply as worried men, not vicious courtiers. She felt an unexpected and unwanted ache grow in her heart for the two.
Thou art a softer-headed fool than even thy enemies take thee for, she admonished herself. These two do not warrant thy sympathy. They are not thy friends.
Csethiro gave the tiniest shake of her head, willing herself away from paranoia, at least toward the two men she watched. Not friends, but not enemies. If they are afraid of Eshevis Tethimar, they are in good company …
But how to determine his true intentions? Others may speak just as ill of the Emperor and of me, only more circumspectly. Perhaps it was the drink speaking, and he will wake tomorrow as simply another horrible member of the court, who nonetheless is loyal.
But she did not believe that, which made her next step crucial.
I’ll think on it, Csethiro decided. And then I shall speak to Mer Aisava about it. He will help me to determine whether His Serenity should be told. I’ll do so after Winternight.
Satisfied with her course of action, Csethiro retraced her steps up the corridor and headed back to her own quarters, leaving the two worried Tethimada to their own concerns.
Winternight, and Eshevis Tethimar, came two days later.
Three days after that, Csethiro shocked a haggard Norchis Tethimar by visiting him in his modest quarters. The Untheileneise guard standing next to the door of the apartment let his eyes widen for moment, then ushered her inside and announced her to Tethimar.
“Dach’osmin Ceredin, we are … we are ….” He could not at first bring himself to look her in the eye.
“We do not wish to cause more consternation than we already have,” Csethiro said, as gently as she could, given the continued roiling of her stomach. She knew the man could have had no more idea of his cousin’s ultimate perfidy than she had had. She knew her fury was more at herself than anyone else, even as she knew that that, too, was foolish. But her stomach still burned. She took a deep breath.
“Osmer Tethimar, we do not ask you to understand why we say this — we ask you, in fact, not to question us — but we wish you to know that you and your immediate family are in no way implicated in—” she stumbled minutely, unwilling to name the traitor aloud, “— the crime that was committed at Winternight.”
There was an uncomfortable silence before Norchis Tethimar responded. “We are grateful for your confidence in us.”
Around the two of them, the apartment was almost bare. A small pile of boxes stood next to the wall, near the back of the receiving room, no doubt awaiting transport to some wain. It was painfully clear the cadet arm of House Tethimada was abandoning court and returning home to what he probably thought would be a landless future.
“If you are returning to Amalo, you can report this to your father, and your mother,” she said, launching into the real reason for her visit. “The Emperor absolves your immediate family of all blame or guilt in the treason of House Tethimada. Your holdings are not forfeit, nor are any of your family members subject to penalty. His Serenity wishes me to make clear to you that the one requirement he has is that your family choose a different name, to become your own house going forward.”
It had not been difficult for her to convince Edrehasivar of the innocence of the two men, and of her belief that their immediate family should be spared the extirpation of the rest of House Tethimada. He responded almost instinctively, she thought, to her observations of Norchis Tethimar’s love for his brother and parents.
It had been far more difficult to convince Lord Berenar and, perhaps more importantly, Mer Aisava. She had had to own up to her own late-night wanderings in order to explain herself, which embarrassment had been hot and less than comfortable. But she felt a responsibility to the two men upon whom she had, however inadvertently, eavesdropped.
Ultimately, she had had to agree to have responsibility for the new house. “At least for the time being,” Edrihasavar had said, watching her eyes and, apparently, satisfied with what he read there. His trust of her was heartening, almost endearing. Inwardly she had vowed not to disappoint him.
Norchis Tethimar’s strangled address brought her back to the present. She realized he was, finally, looking her straight in the face.
“Yes, our apologies … His Serenity has asked that we be your guarantor, for now. Are you willing to swear fealty, under a new name for your family? Will your parents?” She tried not to sound anxious.
He looked at her, lost, looking for some context or explanation. “We don’t — we don’t know. We would need to write a letter to them, or speak to them. It’s a week or more to Amalo.”
“Not by airship,” she said, glad she could offer something more than confusion. “The Elegance of Csedo leaves tonight. You can be in Amalo in only a few hours.”
Under other circumstances, his face would have been intensely amusing.
“We do not … we do not have the fare.”
“Osmer Tethimar, we would not have spoken of an airship had we not ourselves arranged for your fare,” Csethiro said with some asperity. She wanted to be done with this supremely awkward conversation. Thou hast not the right to complain when thou it was who set this in motion. She gathered herself, and continued more calmly. “A member of the Untheileneise guard, chosen by Captain Orthema, will accompany you, and bring you back to court with your answer. We believe in your ability to make your family see the Emperor’s mercy.”
To her combined unease and relief, Norchis Tethimar bent his knee deeply, making it a motion perilously close to prostration. He looked up at her.
“Dach’osmin Ceredin, we thank you. We thank you on behalf of our family. We will ensure our father’s understanding. And we will swear, on our blood, on our honor, that we will offer revethvoran before we, or any member of our family, ever prove disloyal to His Serenity.”
She allowed herself to smile slightly, and nodded her head. “We know you will be loyal. Now, you must prepare yourself. The airship leaves in an hour, and your chaperone will be here very soon.
“Will you allow us to take our leave?” She proffered another sop to his self-respect with that.
His nod was jerky. “We thank you. We … ask that we can send with you our most grateful thanks to His Serenity.”
“We shall do that. And we know you will be able to offer the loyalty of your house when you return to court.”
Csethiro curtseyed slightly, shallow enough for him to know that he had been honored, deep enough to lift the burden of supplicance from his shoulder. She turned to leave.
She didn’t turn around. “Yes?”
“I know you said not to question —”
“We will not answer you. We give you good day.”
Down the well-lit halls of the Untheileneise Court, Csethiro Ceredin walked, her steps too long, her edge too apparent, and her smile as broad as the halls in which she walked.