In fast procession, four dark carriages drove through the night, lit only by the streetlight torches, as they rushed towards the palace.
The vibration of their wheels across the cobblestone streets echoed ominously through the late-night hour, frightening the few people who watched the carriages pass with wide eyes.
The blackwood carriages were distinctively shiny and dark, and two of the carriages proudly bore the Ihar and Vale family crests, each of which pulled up to a stop in front of the entrance to the emperor’s private quarters.
The overworked horses shook their heads, froth at their lips, as the attendees moved to escort Gliad Vale and Maximilian Del Ihar off their carriages.
The emperor emerged from the entrance and personally greeted the two of them, observing that they both appeared fatigued from their long journey.
“Sirs!” The emperor opened his arms wide and embraced them each in turn.
“At your service, Your Majesty,” they answered, almost in unison.
“You must be tired from the long trip.”
The palace that had seemed to be asleep only moments ago, now filled up with curious noblemen and women of the court, all murmuring and vying to get a glimpse of the procession.
The Duke and the Marquis followed the Emperor into the Great Hall, followed by the curious nobles.
Behind them road weary soldiers carried a massive chest, their heavy footsteps echoing throughout the marbled hall and trailing dirt behind them.
At the Emperor’s nod, the servants shuttered the windows of the Great Hall, also known as the Mirror Room.
Then the servants drew heavy golden drapes across each window, further closing off the Great Hall from the outside world, before quietly retreating from the room.
The prying eyes of the gathered nobles were still glued to the chest, however, and the group’s demeanor was noticeably excited as they speculated about the contents of the chest, greedy anticipation in their eyes.
The emperor tilted his chin at the royal guards, who promptly rounded up the disappointed nobles and led them from the hall.
“Such quick intuition the greedy seem to possess.
As though they can smell gold and diamonds through the palace walls.” The emperor leisurely walked around the table the chest was on.
Marquis Gliad, took out a gilded dagger and pried a nail from the front of the rough wood chest, releasing the hinged top and opening the chest wide to reveal a huge unprocessed diamond.
“Oh my, this….
I see why Geore was so passionate about it.”
The emperor was clearly impressed, and uncharacteristically stunned, as he caressed the diamond with shaking hands.
A mine that contained such rare diamonds in a large quantity would amount to unparalleled wealth.
He could envision King Sergio shaking in fury once he knew what the mine could produce.
“Did you find out who has title to the neutral territory” The emperor pulled a chair closer to the table and sat to further examine the diamond.
Duke Maximilian poured himself a drink in the glass the servant left, fatigue heavy on his face.
“We have not yet, but its most likely one of the royals.
The sheer size of the land is too vast for standard noble to procure.”
Gliad bowed formally.
The emperor squinted up at him from his perusal of the diamond.
“I heard your son brought a guest from Geore.
Where is that guest”
He asked even though he already knew the answer.
Ian Sergio was a guest of Kieran, however, and even the Marquis didn’t know his precise whereabouts.
“If it is a meeting with Prince Ian Sergio you want, I can arrange it for the day of engagement, if it so pleases, Your Majesty.”
“Is it not possible to do it now”
“It’s quite late, Your Majesty.”
“Hm, I see.
I will officially invite him to the palace.
Treat him well until then.”
Gliad, bowing, glanced over at the duke who was sitting quietly.
Even today, there had been an assassination attempt while they were trying to leave the neutral territory.
But they didn’t know who was behind it.
They were fairly sure that Geore was behind the attempt, but they couldn’t be certain.
Plenty of people in the empire would be happy to take the duke’s head.
The duke had survived all the attempts thus far, but the toll of constantly defending himself from unknown threats and the pain from his wound had etched deep lines of exhaustion across his face.
Gliad himself felt the strain from dealing with the duke, who had been ill tempered and cutting the entire trip.
“The manor in town is not as secure as the palace.
I insist that you stay here where you will have the protection of the royal guard.”
Maximilian lifted his bloodshot eyes at the emperor’s suggestion.
Then he faintly smiled and nodded.
The threat of impending death shrouded Duke Ihar like a dark cloak, shrinking the once giant presence of the man who was hailed as the truly noble of the nobles.
“And you, marquis, should keep the diamond.
There are too many prying court eyes, and I fear that something may happen to it should it remain here.”
“That is a wise choice, Your Majesty.”
Gliad called his attendees and told them to take the diamond.
Duke Ihar, whose face was as white as a sheet, stood up while holding his stomach.
His wound had yet to heal.
Maximilian, his face strained by pain and fatigue, forced a smile and said to Gliad, “Contact Claude.
I miss my son.”