Sneak Peek: The Sleeping King by Cindy Dees and Bill Flippin

The Sleeping King by Cindy Dees and Bill Flippin

The Sleeping King is the first in an epic fantasy series, featuring the best of the genre: near immortal imperial overlords, a prophecy of a sleeping elven king who’s said to be the savior of the races . . . and two young people who are set on a path to save the day. We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

CHAPTER 1

Anton Horatio Constantine fidgeted anxiously in the solid gold doorway behind an Imperial secretary, who announced in the flat intonation of a deaf man, “Anton Constantine.”

Insolent bastard didn’t even announce his full name. As if he were a lowly servant himself.

“Bid him enter, already!” a male voice snapped.

Anton recognized the irritable tones of his mentor and sponsor at court, Archduke Ammertus, whose coattails he’d been shamelessly riding in the Imperial Seat, The archduke was not only an angry man, but also an ambitious one. The kind who would aggressively place his favored servitors in critical positions of power. Anton had parlayed his service in Ammertus’s army into continued service at court in hopes of becoming one of those favored ones.

His own relentless lust for power flared and he quickly tamped it down. With downcast eyes, he glided into His Resplendent Majesty, Maximillian the Third, Emperor of the Eternal Empire of Koth’s private receiving chamber. It was a much smaller version of the Great Golden Throne Room, but still fabulously opulent in its own right.

The floor was made of solid gold, as were the jewel-inlaid golden walls and ceilings. Even the line of servants off to the left were beautiful and perfect, as still as statues, deaf one and all.

The display of raw wealth was such that Anton felt faintly ill with envy. He could swear the green serpent tattoo on his forehead actually burned with jealousy.

“Come closer, Constantine.” The resonant, terrifying voice of the Emperor emanated from the black throne at the far side of the room.

Shock slammed into Anton. Maximillian himself was present at this meeting? What could it mean? Terror and avid excitement warred like serpents knotted in his stomach. Hastily Anton knelt and made his obeisance at the foot of a magnificent gold dais leading up to the sinuous carved obsidian throne in the shape of a flame.

He held his forehead to the floor until Ammertus cleared his throat and intoned, “Rise and bask in the glory of Koth, Constantine.”

Anton rose and assumed a ramrod-stiff position of attention before his ancient benefactor, an ageless warrior of a man with a thick, messy head of red hair. The archduke stood to the right and one step down from the Emperor in the position of the Emperor’s champion. Ammertus’s son and demi-scion, High Lord Tyviden Starfire, stood at his father’s right hand one more step down. Only slightly less violent and twisted than his sire, Starfire was possibly more ambitious even than Anton.

To the Emperor’s left stood his chief advisor, High Perceptor Iolanthe, mother of Maximillian’s daughter and heir, High Princess Endellian. One step below her stood High Marshal Korovo. Ammertus stood as representative of the Emperor’s nine archdukes and duchesses, while Iolanthe and Korovo served as his personal advisors. What topic could possibly draw so many of such power to this council? And why on Urth did they summon him into their midst?

“You served me faithfully as an Imperial Army officer in the Changing Lands of Kentogen, Constantine, and you served me well in Haelos.”

Ammertus’s words twisted around him, living things, probing the edges of his mind, seeking chinks in his mental armor. Anton blinked them away, immediately regretting the display of lack of control.

He forced his mind back to the topic the Emperor and his council apparently discussed today. Haelos? The northern continent? Why that?

Images rolled unbidden through his mind. Or perhaps were called forth by the Emperor’s will. Whether Anton wished it or no, the memories overtook him. A more uncivilized, uncouth place he’d never seen. The prisoners-turned-colonists who lived there, scraping a living from the untamed wilds, were little more than savages, criminals and malcontents banished from Koth to live or die as their will to work dictated. The continent’s natives were no better—a motley assortment of races, many of them monstrous half-breeds born of unnatural unions.

“Haelos has not been restless in a while,” Maximillian commented.

That was good. Right? Why then did he hear dissatisfaction in Ammertus’s answering grunt? Was that a flash of avarice in Starfire’s hooded gaze? Anton waited cautiously. He would not speak unless told to.

“His Resplendent Majesty has decided to grant the penal settlement of Dupree on Haelos the status of full colony. Which means its warden will need to be replaced with a governor.”

Was that why they’d summoned him to this meeting? Were they considering him to be governor of the new colony? Exultation roared through him before he managed to corral its rampage.

“You have served me loyally and well these many years hence, as well,” Ammertus declared. Emphasis on “loyally.”

He was widely known to be Ammertus’s man, as faithful a dog as the archduke’s own son. That the archduke saw fit to remind him of it in the context of this discussion was intriguing. A message to Maximillian that Anton was his man, mayhap?

Ammertus continued, “You are suited to Dupree as well as anyone. And of course, you safeguard the Emperor’s interests tirelessly at all times, do you not?”

He opened his mouth to agree most fervently that he lived only to serve the Empire, but a movement off to his right startled him into glancing away from the Emperor for a second. Horrified, he slammed his gaze back to the throne. To look away from the Emperor uninvited was an egregious insult to His Resplendent Majesty. Abject relief turned his gut to water as he saw that Maximillian, too, had looked over at the opened golden door and failed to notice Anton’s unpardonable breach of etiquette.

“What is it, Oretia?” Ammertus snapped.

Anton’s eyes widened. Oretia? The oracle of the Imperial Court? It was said the powerful Child of Fate had never been wrong in centuries of prophecies. Supposedly, it was she who foretold the death of the first Emperor, she who predicted the mysterious disappearance of the second Maximillian. It was also rumored that she was a key power behind this Maximillian’s throne for the almost thirty-two hundred years of his reign.

Given her age, Anton expected her to look old. He expected wrong. She was born of the extremely long-lived race of janns, her skin swirling with the colors of the elements to which janns aligned themselves. However, if the rumors of her age were accurate, the Emperor himself must have gifted her with exceptional longevity. At a glimpse—and that was all he dared allow himself out of the corner of his eye—she could pass for a woman of middle age, the sort who worked hard at preserving herself. Her bare arms were firm even if the mottled skin covering them looked somewhat leathery. Fine wrinkles crisscrossed what Anton could make out of her face, but as her scowl eased, her skin smoothed into a falsely young mask.

“A prophecy comes,” she announced in a surprisingly lush and throaty voice.

Ammertus retorted, “Write it down and show it to His Majesty later. We are busy now!”

Anton gaped at her scornful gaze, locked in anger with Ammertus’s. She dared defy one of the archdukes, only exceeded in power by the Emperor himself? Did she have a death wish? Belatedly, Anton remembered himself. He hurled his gaze back to Maximillian and missed the rest of the silent battle of wills raging around him. But the air fairly crackled with it, a faint, metallic smell of ozone abruptly permeating the golden room.

Oretia snarled, “Your petty politics can wait. The power building within me is unique. Olde magicks touch me this day!”

The Emperor’s eyebrows twitched into a momentary frown—a mighty loss of control for him. So. Olde magicks worried him, did they? Interesting.

Maximillian leaned back casually on his throne, whereas Ammertus leaned forward aggressively. “Is this prophecy about His Resplendent Majesty?”

“Would I be here if it were not?”

Maximillian ordered in a bored tone, “Tell me, then.”

“It comes an-o-n…,” her voice trailed off, taking on a singsong tone as she drew out the last syllable. “Ahh, the power of it. Perhaps I shall not share this after all.…”

Ammertus moved faster than Anton would have believed possible, launching himself off the dais and across the room to the oracle. The archduke embraced her head in his hands, shoving her up against a golden wall, staring into her eyes as if he would suck her brains from her skull. A visible field of energy built around the two of them, pulsing with almost sexual intensity.

“Sing for us, little Oretia,” Ammertus crooned.

Anton shuddered at the depravity and power in that voice. Gads, and to think the Emperor surpassed that power by orders of magnitude.

The oracle moaned, her body arching into a taut, vibrating bow, only her head still, trapped between Ammertus’s clutching hands.

“The end,” she gasped. “I see the end.”

“Of what?” The archduke was breathing heavily, something repulsive throbbing in his thick voice.

She spoke in bursts torn from her throat. “A nameless one … wakes in the wilds … shackles break—” Her voice broke on a hoarse cry and she sagged in Ammertus’s grip, clawing ineffectually at his hands on either side of her head.

“What?” he shouted, shaking her violently. “Show me.”

The force of that mindquake drove Anton to his knees, buffeting him nearly unconscious. His thoughts scattered, ripped asunder by that awful voice. Struggling to hang on to his fragmenting sanity, Anton stared up at the Emperor sitting at ease on his throne, completely unaffected by the massive mental energy flying through the air. His ageless face was devoid of expression, his eyes reflecting only bland disinterest.

Even Starfire seemed to be experiencing metal distress, and a look of concentration wreathed his features as he shielded himself from his father’s psychic assault. Iolanthe and Korovo did not appear mentally overly distressed by Ammertus’s outburst, but they did look mildly annoyed by it.

Of a sudden Oretia straightened in Ammertus’s grasp and, to Anton’s amazement, tore free entirely. She paced the width of the golden room, sparks flying from her hair as she whirled to stalk back. She paused before the throne, staring at it and the man on it, nodding to herself. The guards on either side of the Emperor tensed as she stalked up the stairs to stand directly in front of Maximillian, who might have been carved from the same obsidian as his throne for all that he reacted.

Her voice, preternaturally deep, resonated off the walls like a terrible storm. “Hear this, for I speak true. A nameless one comes. From the depths of the untamed lands to destroy us all. Olde magicks returned, change born of earth and stars. Greater than thee, Maximillian, Last Emperor of Koth. When Imperial gold is bathed in blood, your fate is written and cannot be undone. The end of Eternal Koth is anon.”

Profound silence enveloped the room. Everyone stared at the oracle standing defiantly before them, her head held high, the tips of her hair glowing in a bright nimbus around her.

The building fury upon Ammertus’s thunderous features made Anton cringe in spite of himself. He knew that look. The archduke was dangerously close to snapping. Ammertus had never been known as a reasonable or particularly stable man when crossed.

Anton was stunned as the oracle raised an accusing finger and pointed it at the enraged Kothite noble. “And as for you, Ammertus, Archduke of the Colonies. Your saga shall end in the Cradle of Dragons.”

Ammertus and Starfire both jolted at this. But it was Ammertus who drew in a long breath of outrage and fury, all the more frightening for how long it took him to fill his lungs. And then he screamed. “You lie!”

The mind blast accompanying the accusation knocked Oretia off her feet, flinging her backward violently. She must have hit her head, for she collapsed in a rag doll heap, spilling blood over the golden dais. She rolled bonelessly down the steps and came to a halt at Anton’s feet, a disheveled tangle of limbs and hair.

Terror for his own fate exploded within Anton. It was a cowardly impulse to think of himself first before the broken oracle dying before him, but he’d never claimed to be a hero. And he had seen just how insane Ammertus could be in the midst of one of his rages. Anton dived to the floor beside Oretia, not to aid her, but to hide behind her.

“She lies!”

This mind blast rippled through the air in visible waves, spreading outward faster than the eye could track to slam into everyone else in the room. From his vantage point on the floor, Anton watched the worst of the wave pass overhead. He grabbed Oretia’s elbows and yanked her body across him. Just in time, too, for the mind blast ricocheted like a living thing, now bouncing crazily throughout the space, smashing into any and all soft living thing, sundering flesh and blood more easily than the sharpest sword. Even Starfire hit the floor, arms thrown over his head and face buried against the steps.

Blood erupted throughout the hall as the servants fell like ninepins, sliced neatly—and not so neatly—into ribbons of meat and bone. Oretia took the brunt of the blast above him, bathing him in hot blood.

Her head turned slightly and he nearly gagged at the sight of her eyeball dangling out of its socket by slimy strands of nerve and vein. Her remaining eye locked on his, unfocused, glazing over with encroaching Death. She moved feebly, struggling to gather herself for one last effort.

Her flayed facial muscles twitched uselessly. Whether she managed to speak it aloud or merely projected it into his brain, Anton registered only a single croaked word.

“Remember.”

And then her bloody and broken body went limp across his.

Ammertus ranted and raved for several minutes, storming around the room, destroying anything and anyone who dared cross his path. Anton lay frozen on the floor, unashamedly pretending to be dead.

“Enough, Ammertus,” Maximillian said with quiet authority, all the more sinister for its lack of emphasis. “And henceforth, please refrain from slaughtering Children of Fate. Prophets of their power do not grow on vines, and I have use for them.”

Anton risked peeking up. The Emperor had not moved from his casually seated position. Starfire pushed cautiously to his feet, looking around at the carnage with disdain.

Anton stared at the destruction. The entire room was covered in blood. Floors, walls, ceiling—where there once was gold, now there was only obscenely red blood, flowing, dripping, clinging to every surface. When Imperial gold is bathed in blood …

Had the prophecy already begun to come true? What was the last bit? Oh yes. When Imperial gold is bathed in blood, your fate is written and cannot be undone—

“Get up.”

Anton lurched as Ammertus snarled from directly above him. The archduke’s fury had transformed to something bitterly cold and a hundred times more vicious than the screaming rage of the past few minutes.

“I have a job for you, Constantine.…”

 

Anton shook out his black court robe, sending the embroidered golden serpents on the sleeves dancing, their emerald eyes glinting malevolently. A mask of confidence was frozen upon his face as a matter of habit. But for once, it was truly a mask. He’d been meditating frantically since the earlier incident, and since he’d received the summons to present himself in open court to the Emperor.

Anton shivered in involuntary terror at the prospect of coming under Maximillian’s direct and public scrutiny. It marked the pinnacle of a courtier’s life … or its end.

Two stone-faced Imperial guards opened the massive amber doors before the milling crowd waiting to enter the golden hall. The air crackled with great events afoot this night.

The magnificence of the Grand Receiving Chamber of the Flaming Throne, as this room was formally known, stole his breath away as it always did when he first entered. The floor was solid gold, which accounted for its less formal nickname. Frescoes thickly encrusted with gold and rare jewels adorned the soaring ceilings. The chandeliers dripped with thousands of thumb-sized diamonds.

The scale of the golden hall was enormous, befitting the epicenter of the mighty Kothite Empire. From this space the Emperor’s power emanated outward across the massive southern continent of Koth and thence across the entire planet Urth.

But for all of its grandeur, it was the gigantic throne at the far end that utterly dominated the massive space. A long flight of golden steps led up to it, but the throne itself was black obsidian taken from the heart of Moten’s Furnace. It rose ten times the height of a man in the irregular shape of a rising flame—the Eternal Flame of Koth. The actual flame burned black in its great cauldron outside the Imperial palace, never waning, never weakening. The throne’s sinister curves and inscrutable surface were apt expressions of the massively powerful being who sat upon the seat carved into the base of the flames.

Anton had machinated so long positioning himself for this moment he could barely believe it had finally arrived. Rumors were already circulating at court that tonight he would be named governor of the newly formed colony of Dupree on the northern continent. For the past fifty years, Henrik Volen, Dupree’s longtime warden, had been in charge of taming the penal settlement. But tonight Volen was here, recalled home at long last by Maximillian.

The wealth, the power, the prestige of a full governorship … greed for all of it throbbed through Anton’s veins. An entire new continent his for the conquering, the possibilities were limitless—

Trumpets blasted demanding silence, and Warden Volen was called to the throne. An aging human, he looked and moved like a tired man as he laboriously climbed the golden steps using his weapon of office as a cane. Volen’s shepard’s axe had a narrow, pick-like head that doubled as cane handle for the elderly man. Life on Haelos was dreadful, and the fellow showed every year of his long service in the hinterlands in his stooped frame and haggard face. Volen would have been young and brash, full of big plans, when he last left this place. How odd it must be for the warden to walk among people who appeared not one day older now, while he stood on death’s doorstep, overtaken by old age.

Anton did not listen as the Emperor thanked Volen for his faithful service and relieved him of his duty as warden. Instead, he made a mental list of luxuries he would build into the new governor’s palace that he planned to make his first priority when he arrived in Dupree.

“Anton Horatio Constantine. Present yourself to His Most Resplendent Majesty.” The voice of the Emperor’s chamberlain emanated from the vicinity of the throne, its clever acoustics amplifying and broadcasting his voice across the hall.

It was generally believed that the Emperor could pluck thoughts right out of a man’s head; hence Anton performed one last quick thought check. It is a great honor to be here. Humbling. I am overjoyed to serve the Empire.

The Emperor spoke formally. “You have served me well, Anton Constantine, and have demonstrated initiative and leadership.”

And those were not just empty words, he thought with pride. Few in the Empire could have captured a Heart of Kentogen and brought it back to Koth or rescued the entire Kithmar clan of rakasha from Pantera and made them faithful servants of the Empire. The cat changelings were notoriously stingy with their loyalty to authority figures. But he, Anton Constantine, had converted them.

Even though he knew what was coming next from the Emperor, exultation leaped in Anton’s breast. He knelt and received a silken banner of the newly created Constantine heraldry and listened while the High Herald read it into the record—a palewise inverted golden sword entwined in a vert palewise serpent in an argent bend sinister on a sable field—with all the pomp and ceremony Anton could have hoped for. The coiled green serpent was identical to the one tattooed upon his forehead at birth. The heraldry had been granted to the line of Constantines by the Emperor himself in return for the family’s faithful service to Archduke Ammertus.

The Emperor spoke once more. “Rise and be known as Lord Anton Constantine henceforth.”

He’d done it! He’d become a Lord of the Imperial Court! He had raised his family’s fortunes like no other member of his house had ever managed. All the years serving in the Assassin’s, Slaver’s, and Merchant’s Guilds … all his work leading the Coil … all the drudgery of military service … it had finally paid off.

The Emperor gestured indolently, and a servant held out a long, tasseled pillow. From it the Emperor lifted one of a pair of magnificent golden short swords exactly matching the one on the banner. “These are infused weapons.”

Anton’s jaw literally dropped open. Infused? Not plated, or even made of regular gold, but infused? The magical forging process imbued the essence of the sword’s base material—high-quality steel most likely—with another material, in this case gold, at the most fundamental level of its existence. Maximillian turned the blade in his hands, examining the craftsmanship. The gold winked far too brightly in the light of the thousands of candles, as if it actually glowed from within.

Can it be? Is that Solinar gold? The substance, found only on the Sunset Isles, home of the solinari—sun elves—not only glowed at night, but also held the power to capture magic, and, furthermore, to cast that magic again at a later time. Solinar gold was among the rarest and most prized metals on Urth.

The Emperor planned to gift him with such a magnificent weapon of office? It shouted of just how high in Maximillian’s esteem he stood. The envy pouring off the other courtiers in the hall was palpable. Anton did not even try to contain his swelling pride.

A chamberlain turned to the retired Warden of Dupree, who still stood slightly to one side of the throne, and said formally, “The key to the warden’s residence if you will, Volen.”

The old man held his hand out, and in his palm rested a large, ugly iron key. The Emperor reached for the key just as a small disturbance came from behind the throne.

Anton spied Princess Endellian, Maximillian’s daughter and heir to the throne, slipping out from behind the giant stone flame carving. She was slender, almost waif-like, with long, dark hair that floated around her like a sable cloud. Her complexion was golden, her features vaguely elfish, with slanted, sultry eyes as black as her father’s throne.

Maximillian’s hand paused over the key.

Anton had to fight to tear his gaze away from the mysterious princess, forever caught in the bloom of young womanhood. He never made the mistake of underestimating the Emperor’s offspring, though. She was fully as devious and brilliant as her sire, if not quite as powerful. It was likely her mental manipulations that made males unable to look away from her. Maximillian listened as she leaned down to whisper in his ear. Anton caught snatches of the exchange.

“… oracle glowed … spoke in a strange tongue … prophecy appears to be about you, Sire … cannot force it from her mind … neither of us can read her … need your permission to use the sands…”

The Emperor frowned. Without a word of explanation or apology to Anton, he stood and followed his daughter through the private doorway behind the throne.

 

Endellian led her father quickly down the undecorated stone hallway to the special room where the Emperor’s personal oracles were housed, a plainly furnished but comfortable chamber. Her father’s chief torturer had no need for racks or hot irons to extract information from his prisoners. It was all much more civilized—and effective—than traditional blood, gore, and screaming.

Magically suspended in midair, this oracle was an aged woman who had lasted much longer than the majority of her kind. Normally, her interrogator did not have to resort to such measures to get her to talk. The Crone, as she was known, generally had no compunction compared to previous Children of Fate about giving up her visions. Perchance, the cynicism that came with age had helped her grasp quickly and well that resistance was pointless. Which was why, when the seer refused to give up her prophecy tonight no matter what persuasion or coercion Laernan tried, Endellian had fetched her father.

Lord High Inquisitor Laernan Zaphre, the Emperor’s personal interrogator and her half brother by way of their shared mother, reported briefly, “The Crone was speaking of Haelos before she abruptly refused to continue.”

Endellian studied her father’s torturer carefully. Layers of nuance danced in his words. An interesting man, Laernan. Handsome, of early middle age, he had stolid features, a sturdy build. Everything about him announced his dependability. He was the kind of man soldiers wanted at their back.

She stared into his wise, intelligent eyes and noted that their habitual sadness was more guarded than usual tonight. His special talent was to see into the minds of prophets. His father, the Sand Pharaoh of Kufu, was a Master of Time Magic. High Perceptor Iolanthe, their shared mother, was the sage council to Emperors of Koth. Together, his parents had passed Laernan an ability to look into prophets’ minds and see through the cracks in Time along with the seers. Whereas her father could brute-force his way past obstacles any mind placed before him, Laernan’s gift was one part surgery and one part subtle art.

If Laernan was alarmed by the things the oracle had been seeing and saying, Endellian, in turn, was alarmed. It took a great deal to perturb steady, unflappable Laernan. How on Urth had the oracle managed to sever his connection to her visions?

“The north seems to be much on my seers’ minds of late,” Maximillian commented.

Endellian had not paid much attention to the newly discovered continent since Ammertus led an army to it and broke the Council of Beasts. He did not manage to kill any of the Great Beasts, but he had captured a few animal lords before requiring rescue by her father’s personal legion, the Dark Amphere. The few who knew of it considered the expedition a failure. Not only had Ammertus failed to subdue the continent; but his near defeat had required Maximillian to unleash the third forgetting, and furthermore, forced Koth to begin its campaign for Haelos anew.

Her father stepped near the oracle, who struggled fruitlessly against the magic gripping her as he approached.

“Tell me what you see.” Her father’s command was accompanied by a burst of mental power designed to force the old woman’s thoughts into her conscious mind where Maximillian could read them.

Endellian watched the suspended Child of Fate carefully. As the prisoner’s unwilling eyes glazed with other vision, Endellian sought the source of this glimpse beyond the fracture in Time the seer peered through. But even as Endellian tried to trace the link, it slipped away from her.

“Ahh. There it is,” the old woman sighed.

“Tell me,” Maximillian demanded more dismissively than Endellian would have. Something in the prophet’s voice disturbed her. She sensed a seed of danger germinating.

“So powerful…,” the seer’s voice trailed off, then rose again in disbelief, “No. Truly? Is it possible?” The Crone’s staring eyes widened in something wavering between wonder and awe as she watched the vision unfold in the landscape of her mind.

Abruptly she laughed, a hyena’s cackling howl that made everyone in the room jump. And then she lurched within her restraints as if a bolt of lightning had struck her. She blinked and looked around the chamber. For all the world, it looked as if the oracle had been ejected from her vision. Endellian frowned, relieved that she had summoned her father.

The Crone announced to Maximillian, “The Mistress has reminded me of who I am. Shown me that hope is not lost. Resistance is not meaningless.” Her voice gained strength. “I will not give this vision to you, Maximillian of Koth. This is not the end of me. It is the end of you.”

Shock rolled through Endellian—a sensation she could not recall the last time she experienced. No one spoke thus to the Emperor.

Maximillian stepped forward and grasped the Crone’s throat. “Show it to me,” he ordered coldly.

“I will not … give … it … up.” The words sounded ripped from the oracle’s throat, as if her vocal cords were slowly being torn free of their moorings.

And then she shouted, “Unto the last, I shall resist thee, Usurper of All! You shall not have this final vision. Die blind, Murderer of Hope, never knowing what struck you and from whence—”

Her screamed curse cut off with a strangled cry, her body abruptly limp. Lifeless. The magics holding her aloft collapsed, and the Emperor cast her corpse down in disgust, a broken and useless toy.

“Shall I revive her, Your Resplendent Majesty?” Laernan asked emotionlessly.

Maximillian shook his head, staring thoughtfully at the body lying twisted at his feet. “It was not I who ended her life. The vision itself killed her and consumed her spirit in the process. Neither your skills, nor even mine, will bring her back. Her spirit is no more.”

Endellian’s jaw sagged. A vision so powerful it destroyed the seer who looked upon it? A prophecy that protected itself from the Sight of the Emperor? What strange magic was this?

The Emperor ordered no one in particular, “Clean that up. And bring me another oracle. The weakest one you’ve got. I shall have this prophecy. Now.”

 

Gabrielle Aquilla, the young Queen of Haraland, smiled carefully as gossip erupted around her. Why the interruption in naming a new governor? What crisis called the Emperor himself from his throne?

Privately, she considered Anton Constantine an extremely poor choice for the job. Whispered rumors had swirled around him for as long as she’d been at court of graft, bribery, and excesses of the worst possible kind. Even the Imperial guilds were said to despise him, and they were renowned for their corruption.

Her own astute and experienced husband had been mentioned as a possible candidate to become the first governor of the new colony. It wasn’t that Regalo Aquilla was a thorn in the Emperor’s side. Quite the opposite. If anything, Regalo was too popular and successful a ruler in his kingdom not far from the Imperial Seat.

Haraland, one of the largest and most prosperous of the hundred kingdoms of Koth, was blessed with a mild climate, fertile valleys, ocean access, rich mines, and thick forests. Not to mention a contented populace. More than enough to draw Maximillian’s suspicion.

Realizing the deadly turn of her thoughts, she hastily shifted her attention back to Anton fidgeting before the throne. Her impression of him was of a slimy social climber at best and a vicious whoreson at worst. She felt a frisson of sorrow for the colonists who were about to inherit him and his insatiable appetite for wealth and power.

“If you will excuse me, my dear,” Regalo murmured at her elbow, “I have business to attend to. Sir Darius, if you would escort my lady wife in my absence?”

“It would be my honor, my lord.” Her husband’s knight bowed courteously and took up a position at her side.

An automatic smile upon her face, she spied an old childhood friend who was also another young newcomer to court, wife of the ambassador from the Heartland to the Imperial Seat. The Heartland was the only known source of Heartstones, the magical stones that allowed dead spirits to return from the Spirit Realm to the land of the living. A massive organization of healers had sprung up around the use of the stones over the millennia, and its headquarters were in the Heartland as well.

“Come, Darius. Let us give our greetings to Lady Stasiana and help her feel welcome.”

Exotic and expensive colognes warred with one another all around her, and Gabrielle felt her breath grow short as she was forced to inhale the cocktail of fumes. She wended her way slowly across the ballroom praying all the while for the imaginary iron band that tightened around her chest from time to time to stay away tonight.

Some high functionary, mayhap one of the archdukes, must have signaled a dance, for abruptly the center of the floor cleared. The crush around the margins of the room became even worse. Her breath began to come in wheezing gasps. Air. She needed air.

Blessedly, Gabrielle spied a small opening in the press of bodies and slipped through it. Of a sudden the ambassador’s wife was only a few feet away, looking as bewildered as she had when she first arrived in the capital.

“Well met, Madame Ambassador,” Gabrielle said warmly.

“Gabrielle! I was hoping you would be here to guide me through this madness.”

“Welcome to court, Sasha.” They traded kisses on both cheeks as was the current court custom, followed by affectionate hugs.

“Is that your servant trying to dance his way through the crowd?”

Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder and laughed as Darius frantically dodged dancing couples in an effort to rejoin her. “That’s Sir Darius, my ever-faithful watchdog,” she replied fondly.

“This crush is terrible, and I confess, I am still afeared of crowds,” Lady Sasha murmured.

For her part, Gabrielle desperately needed to sit down and loosen her stays until her breathing returned to a semblance of normal. She glanced around. “Let us retire to an alcove. There is one just over there with its curtain open.”

“I do not have sufficient rank to use one,” Sasha murmured in alarm.

“You are the wife of an important ambassador now, Sash. You’ll be fine. And besides, I’m a queen.”

They giggled for a moment like the schoolgirls they had once been and, ducking Sir Darius again, made their way to an arched opening leading to one of many small chambers adjoining the golden hall. Ostensibly, high-ranking nobles were invited to rest and refresh themselves in them. But in point of fact, conspiracies and romantic trysts were the stuff and fare of these private niches. The two women climbed the steps to an alcove whose curtains hung open and paused for a moment to look out across the swirling kaleidoscope of dancers.

“Come,” Sasha murmured. “Your breathing does not sound good. The old affliction has flared up again?”

“Aye,” Gabrielle sighed. “It does not like the stress … and perfumes … of court.”

They ducked into the dim alcove.

“Well now,” a male voice said from within the alcove’s deepest shadows. “What manner of peacocks do we have here?”

Gabrielle flinched at the power vibrating through the voice. A Kothite lord. And she knew this one—or of him, at any rate. Tyviden Starfire, son of Archduke Ammertus and of the Corona of the Shattered Isles. A Dread High Lord by virtue of his father’s well-earned honorific,”Dread,” Tyviden was no one to trifle with.

Starfire and her husband had crossed swords with each other a few years back. Ammertus had been ordered by the Emperor to increase production of Black Ships, and in turn, Ammertus had sent his son, Starfire, to Haraland and Quantaine to increase the harvesting and preparation of the rare and magical ironwood from which the ships were built. Tyviden had promptly provoked the Forester’s Guild and shipbuilders so badly that all ironwood and Black Ship production had been seriously threatened and even temporarily ceased.

Regalo had stepped in and smoothed everything over, not only restoring but also increasing production. Tyviden’s anticipated glory at court had been quietly stolen by Regalo, and Starfire had not forgiven her husband for it. It was never a good thing to thwart an Imperial noble. Sooner or later, they always got even. And given Kothites’ indefinite life spans, they could be extremely patient in taking their revenge.

The iron band around her chest tightened even more as her anxiety climbed. “My apologies, Dread High Lord Starfire,” she said carefully. “We did not see that this chamber was occupied. We shall leave you to your rest.”

“Nay. The floor is crowded with simpletons and sycophants. Ladies such as yourself should enjoy better. Join me.” Starfire added, “I insist.”

Sasha glanced at her anxiously, and Gabrielle cursed silently. It never served to show fear to this particular Kothite. In her experience, he fed upon it like a drug. She stepped partially in front of her friend, blocking her from Starfire’s view.

“Tell me, Dread High Lord,” Gabrielle asked cautiously, “how are you enjoying the entertainment this evening?”

“I was sorely afflicted with a case of melancholy and suffering through these stodgy proceedings until you were delivered unto me, dear ladies. However, I feel my spirit stir in your presence.”

Gabrielle did not miss the innuendo in his words. Were it anyone of less rank who insulted her thus, she would call them out for it. She watched on grimly as Tyviden adjusted his formal court garb with a flourish. The white satin robe with its long ceremonial cowl was decorated at hood, wrists, and hem with the signature black flames of a High Lord. She didn’t need the blatant reminder of his rank and clenched her jaw against a sarcastic remark.

“The orchestra is magnificent, High Lord. Perhaps a dance would relieve the ennui of this gathering for you. Lady Sasha and I are planning to do that very thing as soon as we repair our appearances.”

Sasha took the hint and nodded in agreement with the lie about dancing. But Starfire did not take the hint and do the polite thing, which was to leave. In fact, he took a step forward and placed himself within a hair’s width of an inappropriate distance from Gabrielle. She eased one foot backward a tiny bit. Then the other one. Inch by inch, she backed away from him.

“May I convey a greeting or message to my lord King of Haraland?” she murmured.

Starfire studied her intently enough that her skin fairly crawled. His stare flaunted every rule of polite behavior, leaving her feeling vulnerable and on display. He replied silkily, “Not to worry, my dear. Your husband will certainly know when I decide to deliver a message to him.”

All the while, Starfire stared at her. She found herself alternately repelled and fascinated by the hypnotic power of his stare. What would it be like to have such an ability? Would she make people adore her like Endellian was said to? Or mayhap plant suggestions deep within their minds that even her victims did not know lurked there? She took a step forward. The possibilities were endless. And all of them were right there, in Starfire’s dark, beckoning gaze. Another step. The lure was irresistible. He would teach her all the secrets of it—

“Stop that!” a voice shouted from somewhere very far away. But the words barely touched her as she stared deep, deep into Tyviden’s mesmerizing eyes.

A fist shot past her so fast she barely saw it and smashed into Starfire’s nose with a sickening crunch of flesh and bone.

Starfire howled, and abruptly the spell upon her shattered, leaving Gabrielle disoriented and dizzy. Where was she? Oh yes. An alcove. With someone … who … of course, Sasha. They’d come upon Starfire by accident. And Darius had just hit him—

The ramifications of a common knight striking a Kothite lord slammed into Gabrielle every bit as hard as that fist had struck. Horror screamed through her. Darius would be permanently killed. His entire family tortured and enslaved. Perhaps the town he came from torched and razed. Starfire could choose to call Darius out in a duel and slice his mind to ribbons before doing the same to his helpless body.

And all because Darius had dared to protect her from whatever seduction Starfire had attempted upon her. The injustice of it burned like brimstone in her gut. As Starfire snarled in rage, she leaped forward, throwing herself bodily between Darius and the furious Kothite.

Darius’s knuckles looked shattered, and his face was draining fast of color. The pain must be intense. She looked back at Starfire quickly. His nose didn’t look particularly injured beneath a little blood on his face, and he seemed more shocked than anything else. But in a moment he would recover and explode, and her faithful servitor would be destroyed.

Her constricted lungs finally gave out and her knees began to buckle. Sasha placed a solicitous arm around her, steadying her. And mayhap Sasha attempted to provide moral support in the face of Starfire’s rage. Or mayhap she was caught in the same web of hypnotic seduction that Gabrielle had been.

“Sasha,” she gasped urgently, “find my … husband … bring him … quickly.”

The young woman blinked several times. A look of horror came over her face, and she fled the alcove.

Clearly in terrible pain, Darius took Sasha’s place at her side, bending down in concern to address her through clenched teeth. “Is it your breath, my lady?” Her malady was known only to those closest to her, but, of course, dear Darius was one of those trusted few.

Starfire raised his hands and brandished them like weapons, preparing to rend her man from limb to limb with his formidable magic. Despite his injury, Darius took a defensive stance in front of her.

A rose-colored glow began to gather around Starfire. A terrifying image of Haraland’s bravest, youngest, most trusted knight being shredded and disgraced poured over her. That was what Starfire had in mind for her man. The rose glow continued to build until it formed a wave of dread and despair that broke over her, so horrible and crushing she wanted to kill herself.

Darius trembled in front of her but did not yield his position. So brave and true he was. It gave her the courage to gather herself. To step forward, toward that frightening gathering of thought power. To cry out, “Sir Darius! I place you under arrest!”

Tyiden froze. He stared at her almost as if he did not comprehend her words. And then his face rapidly began to turn a violent shade of red. “Oh no,” Starfire snarled. “He is going to die. Now.”

But her outburst had cost him a moment’s concentration. And moreover, that moment gave Sasha time to race back into the alcove followed closely by her own husband, the ambassador from the Heartland.

“Your husband comes,” Sasha panted to Gabrielle.

Fury and chagrin danced across Starfire’s face.

The ambassador stepped forward, pulling a cloth out of his pouch. “Dread High Lord, are you wounded?” he exclaimed with slightly exaggerated concern. Gabrielle’s jaw dropped as he actually mopped a few specks of blood off Tyviden’s face as one might wipe a child’s nose.

“My mistake,” the ambassador announced in apparent surprise, stepping back as he realized Starfire’s face was completely uninjured. It was, however, approaching purple in hue.

The ambassador reached for Darius’s shattered hand. “The blood must have come from you. That looks painful. Let me heal it.” He added low, “I will not have time to do this slowly. I apologize.”

Darius nodded, which did not surprise Gabrielle. He’d been slammed with healing in combat enough times to be familiar with the sharp discomfort to come.

As the healer incanted his magic and thrust it into her man’s mangled hand, Gabrielle noticed Starfire gloating momentarily with pleasure, almost as if he sniffed Darius’s pain and found its scent seductively sweet.

Shuddering, she pulled the handkerchief from her sleeve and wrapped it tenderly around Darius’s healed, but still red and swollen, knuckles. Her knight’s fingers clutched the token tightly.

Afraid of what Starfire would do next, she made her way weakly to the arched doorway, which had the effect of forcing Darius to support her and moving him away from the depraved Kothite behind them.

She squeezed her man’s forearm in silent gratitude, then took as deep a breath as she could manage and called out, “Sir Darius, in the name of His Resplendent Majesty, Emperor Maximillian the Third, I place you under arrest for the crime of treason!”

Her declaration froze everyone within earshot. Treason was among the most serious of crimes.

Starfire burst out of the alcove, narrowly missing knocking her off her feet. He was all but snarling in fury. She had effectively snatched revenge out of his grasp by throwing her knight under the boot of Imperial justice instead. Starfire’s face shifted from fuming to outright fury. No question but she’d made a dangerous enemy this night, and it was personal, now.

“What is this?” a familiar voice demanded.

Thank the stars. Regalo. “My king,” she wheezed, “I request … an immediate hearing … in the matter of treason … committed by Sir Darius … against the person … of Dread High Lord Tyviden Starfire.”

Her husband started to move toward her in concern, but she shook her head slightly at him and he checked his step, frowning. He glanced shrewdly at Starfire’s enraged visage, Darius’s clenched fists, and her own hectic face. He knew her well enough to interpret the terror and desperation in her eyes correctly and go along with her odd accusation.

Regalo announced formally, “This man is under arrest. Take him away.”

Tyviden stepped forward angrily. “I invoke my right of vengeance over this cur for laying a hand on me.”

It was exactly this that Gabrielle hoped to avert. Once vengeance was invoked, Kothite nobles might legally contract with the Imperial Assassin’s Guild to murder the target of their vendetta, or, of course, they could choose to hunt down and kill the target themselves.

King Regalo replied smoothly, “I apologize, my Dread Lord, but according to Imperial law, you may not invoke vengeance at this time. An accusation of treason is so serious that it merits a hearing before the Emperor himself. Until His Resplendent Majesty has ruled in the matter, Sir Darius must remain a prisoner … and alive so that proper justice may be done. Do you not agree?”

Starfire looked apoplectic with fury, but also seemed to know himself outmaneuvered. With a growl, he nodded once, grudgingly.

Regalo waved over several Imperial guards to seize Darius, and Tyviden snarled, “I shall have my pound of flesh one way or another, Haraland!”

Regalo’s personal guard whisked Darius out from under Starfire’s sputtering rage and led him away. As they passed by, she murmured to the knight, “Ahh, Darius. I am so sorry.”

He paused long enough to reply, “It has been my privilege to serve you, my lady. If I am forfeit in defense of your honor, then the coin of my life is well spent.” He pressed something cold and hard into her hand, and she looked down to see his signet ring, mangled by the blow to Starfire’s face.

She pressed the back of her trembling hand to her mouth as her husband, his visage stony, followed the soldiers leading away his most faithful knight to face possible torture and certain death. All for the crime of protecting her from a vengeful Kothite.

“You are upset, Gabi. Perhaps a little privacy to collect yourself and your breath…,” Sasha murmured.

Burgeoning fear finally registered in Gabrielle’s overwrought mind. What had she just done? Nobody called themselves to the Emperor’s attention if they wished to live for long. Had she just ruined them all?

 

Endellian watched Laernan hand-signal a pair of deaf-mute guards to remove the lifeless body of the Crone between them. Moments later a heavy door at the far end of the room swung open and the same guards shoved forward a young man, little more than a boy, really.

Maximilian stalked over to the youth. “You will prophecy for me, Child of Fate. Tell me what the last oracle saw.”

“I do not know. I was not given the prophecy.”

“Then see it for me. Now.”

“That is not how the gift works, Your Resplendent Majesty—”

Maximillian cut him off. “There are ways to make it work thus.” He stared fixedly at the boy, and Endellian felt Time ripping in the youth’s mind. And then, without warning, the prophetic link was severed, cut off like wheat falling before a scythe.

Her father frowned. “Bring the Sands of Time,” he ordered one of the guards.

The fellow nodded and hurried from the room. In a matter of minutes a small chest was presented to Maximillian. He waved his hand across it, releasing the magical lock of his making . He opened the lid and lifted out a glass orb about the size of a melon.

It was said the orb itself was made from Sands of Time, too, fashioned by the master glassblowers in Scythia. They made infused glass harder than steel, able to hold and release magic energy without breaking and, in this case, magical enough in nature not to drain the delicate power from the sands within it. The sands came from Kufu, a loose conglomeration of desert trade cities that straddled several distant kingdoms and was home to Laernan’s father.

Maximillian carefully unstoppered the orb and poured out a small handful of the sands from the Lost Deserts of Time into Laernan’s palm. She suspected that, if her father tried to use the sands himself, it would draw unwelcome attention from the Accord in her father’s direction.

The Accord was a living contract. It bound all of the greater beings to its immutable laws and none were above its swift justice, not even Maximillian. Created at the end of the First Age by the Dragons of Haelos when a disastrous elemental war nearly destroyed all of Urth, the Accord bound all of its signatories and their descendants in an irrevocable pact.

If her power grew enough, it might bind her one day as well, but she had been careful never to put herself crossways of it. She’d seen a Time Warden, once—from a distance. They were created by the Accord to aid in enforcement of its laws and to adjudicate the Games, where elders vied for prominence and power without destroying the mortals around them.

In spite of Laernan’s gift of manipulating visions through time, he was not powerful enough in his own right to be bound too tightly by the Accord. Most seers were not talented enough to harness the magic of the sands, but Laernan was attuned to them by birth and able to use them not only to pull visions from seers but also to share those visions with others.

Her half brother murmured something in a tongue so ancient and strange that Endellian had no idea what it meant, and then he tossed the sand over the youth’s head. It was so fine that it hung suspended around the boy like glittering dust.

Laernan had described the effect of the sands to her once. He said it was as if invisible beams of light were suddenly revealed as they struck the tiny particles of sand. And each beam was a snippet of Time released from behind the Veil. In the presence of the sands, he could see the crisscrossing patterns of the beams and decipher the lightning-fast snatches of visions that leaked through the fractures in Time.

“Ahh,” Laernan sighed in satisfaction, staring fixedly at his invisible beams of prophecy.

Within moments the boy oracle began trembling almost too violently to stand and breathing too hard to sob as the unwilling vision was dragged through a crack in Time and forced into his mind.

Endellian felt her father mentally brace himself to hold off whatever force might try to claim the boy before Laernan captured the youth’s vision.

“Now then,” Maximillian said, his voice growing in power with every word he uttered. “Tell me true what you see, and tell me all.”

As the oracle continued to resist the vision flooding his mind, Laernan murmured gently, “Do as he says, boy. Work with us and your life and death do not have to be in vain. Otherwise, I cannot guarantee what will happen to you and every one of your blood … until the end of them all. Either way, we will have the vision. Such is the will of Koth.”

The Emperor was blasting the seer with such compulsion to reveal the prophecy that Endellian wondered how the boy still lived. The youth’s knees buckled before the Emperor’s power, and impassively the guards leaped forward, snagged him under the arms, and dragged him, whimpering, to his feet.

She felt Laernan insinuate himself into the young prophet’s mind, forcing the tear full open, flooding the boy’s head with vision upon vision upon vision, far too fast for her to register or process. How Laernan managed to unscramble that mess she had no idea.

“The end,” the boy gasped. “I see the end.”

“Of what?” Maximillian demanded.

The young oracle spoke in sobbing bursts torn from his throat. “No name … walks out of the wilderness … broken chains—” His voice broke on a hoarse cry and he sagged, dead in the guards’grips.

“You shall not have him!” her father snarled. Maximillian willed life back into the seer, driving the boy’s spirit back into him in spite of the force attempting to rip it out. Perhaps the boy’s stronger constitution allowed him to overcome the lethal effect of the prophecy more readily than the previous seer. Or perhaps Maximillian’s preparedness for this attack and his speed of reaction made the difference. But whatever the cause, her father was able to drag the boy back from the precipice of oblivion.

Of a sudden the oracle tore free of the guards and stood trembling, actual sparks flying from his hair and clothing. His eyes appeared covered by a milky film, as if the vision had blinded him to this realm and trapped him entirely in the grip of some unseen future. Endellian reeled mentally.Never had she seen a prophecy act upon its seer thus. She spared a glance for Laernan, who dealt with the oracles constantly, and even he looked rattled.

Laernan spoke, describing the vision the boy would not—or could not—give voice to.

“From the Dragon’s Cradle the heroes came,

Who break the hold upon the Black Flame.

Without a name or history stands bold

Heir to a blood both wondrous and old.

A true child of the roses will be born,

With flames of the first city to mourn.”

Along with his words, Laernan projected a series of images into Maximillian’s mind and hers. Even sorted and clarified by Laernan’s talents, the images still came so fast she barely had time to process them. Rebellion. Armies. Destruction. And blood. So much blood. Annihilation on a breathtaking scale and, finally, Maximillian himself’s destruction scrolled through her mind’s eye.

Profound silence enveloped the room. Endellian stared at the oracle standing defiantly before them all, a slender reed defying a mighty storm, his head held high, the magic of the Seeing casting a halo of light around him. Now that the Veil of Time was not only ripped but also temporarily demolished by the sands, images and visions crowded forward one on top of another through the conduit of Laernan’s talent.

“Erase him,” her father ordered flatly.

It was no simple order to kill the boy. A spirit could be contacted within the Void or even brought back from the Void, and her father wanted no record whatsoever of what the four of them had just seen to remain … anywhere.

Laernan bowed his head, looked over at the oracle, and projected a mental command to forget … everything. When the inquisitor was certain that the boy’s mind was completely emptied of everything he’d ever heard, seen, or known, Laernan nodded at her father.

“To the Flame with him,” Maximillian ordered dismissively.

Laernan signaled the guards to take the mindlessly staring boy to the Eternal Flame and cast him in, alive. The youth’s now-empty spirit would be flung directly to the deepest corner of the Void, rent into useless and, more important, irrecoverable, fragments by the Black Flame, and consumed entirely.

“An alarming prophecy,” Endellian commented cautiously, unable to gauge her father’s reaction.

“More alarming than usual, I suppose.” Maximillian replied with a shrug. “But I shall head off this doom as I have before. Our future is written by me, not some meddling being or unwashed mortal. Knowing in advance what Fate has in mind makes it easy enough to foil.”

True enough. She’d seen him rewrite both past and future to his own ends more times than she could count. Still, the nature of this prophecy’s arrival must surely give even her father serious pause.

Laernan spoke up hesitantly. “We have no more Children of Fate in custody, Your Majesty, and they have become exceedingly difficult to locate of late. Their sect is small and adept at hiding from our hounds.”

“Call in the High Lord Hunter and his hounds to find these mortals. Whatever resources you require to acquire more of them are yours, High Lord Inquisitor. I may have need of more of these Children in the days to come.”

“So shall it be, Your Resplendent Majesty.”

A diffident knock on the door just then turned out to be the Emperor’s chamberlain reporting a disturbance between two nobles that required Maximillian’s personal attention.

Her father muttered in disgust, “I leave the matter to you, Laernan. Meanwhile, I must go deal with the other children.”

Maximillian ordered the chamberlain, “Take these bickering nobles to my library. Now.”

She did not envy him having to referee the petty squabbles among his nobles. They never seemed to grasp that he had more important matters to deal with than their jealous arguments and transparent maneuvering.

Maximillian paused, thinking, and then murmured more to himself than her, “There is a prisoner in Dupree. I was planning to have Constantine’s wife, who is one of the Amber Mages, encase him in amber and send him back to me. But in light of this prophecy, it might be prudent to keep him in play. He must stay confined in the northern wilds, however, dead to all who knew him. A change in plans, then…”

His voice trailed off as his formidable mind examined the problem. Then, decision apparently made, he said briskly, “Have the astral rose brought to me from my garden. Now.” He also rattled off a list of magical components that indicated he planned to fashion a physical item of some kind. A weapon, perhaps.

Maximillian turned to her and asked, “Who is the greatest pyromancer at court among my lesser nobles?”

“Aurelius Lightstar, I should think.”

“Have him brought to me immediately.”

A pyromancer? Why a fire mage? A whiff of her father’s thoughts passed through her mind. Balance. He sought to balance an opposing magic. Ice. Winter. Hand of Winter—she reeled as the identity of the prisoner flashed briefly across her father’s mind. General Tarses lived? He had led the spectacularly successful invasion and conquest of Pan Orda, the great elemental continent across the Western Abyssmal Sea. He also had been tainted by the Hand of Winter—a powerful fae ice lord—while he fought in that elementally based land.

Tarses had been as close to a friend as it was possible for a man of Maximillian’s power and station to have, highly favored by her father, and for good reason. Tarses was a brilliant strategist, charismatic, and beloved by his troops.

However, Tarses had been changed by his only partially successful union with the Hand of Winter. How he’d been changed was anybody’s guess. Which meant he was no longer reliable or even predicatable to her father. And that could not be tolerated anywhere near the Golden Throne.

The story had been put out that Tarses died in glorious battle, soon after delivering Pan Orda to the Empire. She recalled well his triumphant return to court, in an air ship of all things, laden with wondrous gifts for her father—a bottled water elemental and close to a hundred diviners and dousers of things magical.

No doubt General Tarses languished in the deepest, darkest hole Haelos had to offer.

The components, the bright green magical rose from Maximillian’s garden, and the golden-skinned solinari fire caster were delivered to the Emperor within minutes. She recalled vaguely that Aurelius was the last of his line. She suspected the only reason he yet lived was his potential usefulness to her father. And lo, that day had come.

“A weapon,” her father mused, his gaze lighting upon the staff Aurelius carried. “A staff will do.”

Aurelius passed his hands over the magical components and rose laid out on a table before him. The perfect bloom’s petals trembled slightly, and then everything disappeared, replaced by a stunningly beautiful staff. Unlike lesser beings who must incant magics, and perhaps accessed the innate magic contained within certain components, her father had but to think a thing into existence. Such was the unity of his body, mind, and spirit in the production of magical energy.

Vines and leaves spiraled up the staff’s wooden length. At the top of it was an exact replica of the rose, but fashioned from wood as well. Only a green gem nestled within its delicate petals gave any hint of the living, astral rose it had been moments before. The only one of its kind to her knowledge, her father had been known to spend long hours gazing at it in his garden. What was so important that he had given up a prized possession thus?

Her father spoke. “You are now the Guildmaster of the Imperial Mage’s Guild of Dupree. Take this staff with you, Lightstar. Go to Haelos. There you will remain in service to me, awaiting my command to use this staff.”

Curiosity emanated from the solinari mage, but the golden-skinned elf did not dare to speak aloud as he accepted the weapon from her father.

Maximillian murmured, “Balance, Lightstar. You shall restore it to one who has lost his.”

Of course. Tarses. In light of the prophecy, her father must deem it time to recover his lost general. Maximillian must have imbued the staff with some sort of magic for restoring the general’s true nature to him and removing the taint of the fae lord’s magic upon him.

“Kane. Bring me Kane,” her father ordered abruptly.

Kane? ’Nandu’s son? The assassin? She did not have long to contain her curiosity over what Maximillian wanted from him.

Kane glided out of the shadows in a matter of seconds and bowed deeply before her father.

“You shall accompany this elf to Haelos. I charge you with his safety until further notice.”

Kane blinked in consternation. “That is not what assassins do, Your Most Resplendent Majesty—”

“It is what a son does for his mother.”

Her father’s snapped observation silenced Kane, who bowed again before moving to stand behind the stunned solinari mage.

Endellian also bowed her head respectfully as her father prepared to take his leave. Maximillian might not be worried by what Laernan had just shown them, but she had never seen the like. A prophecy with the power to kill? The end of the Eternal Empire? Or of the Emperor himself? Such a future might take considerable planning to avoid. Her intuition said the seed of powerful events had been planted tonight. It would take a skilled gardener to eradicate this weed.

Her father turned back to his chamberlain, who had been waiting patiently all this time. The servitor quickly filled in her father regarding a request by the King of Haraland for an immediate audience regarding a matter of treason. Treason? At the court itself, under her father’s very nose? Who would be so foolish?

While Maximillian was mentally distracted, she turned furtively to Lord Laernan for a quick word about the meaning of the rest of those visions she’d glimpsed.

“How do I look?” Gabrielle fretted. This would be her first-ever private appearance before the Emperor. It was imperative that she strike exactly the right note, not only for Darius’s sake but also for the reputation of all of Haraland.

“As lovely as always,” her husband replied soothingly. “You are the pride of Haraland. You could wear sackcloth and Maximillian would know a true lady stands before him. The only question in his mind will be why a young beauty like you married an old fossil like me.”

She paused in her fretting long enough to chide gently, “You are the noblest man I have ever met. That is why I married you.” She went back to twisting her skirts nervously. “Is there nothing I can say to save him?”

“Do not be foolish,” Regalo replied with an edge to his voice. “Darius is guilty, and traitors must die. If you were to abase yourself unduly, all of Haraland would lose face and status that have taken centuries to build. Every one of our subjects would suffer for your moment of weakness.”

Regalo spoke more gently as if to ease the harshness of his words. “Darius knows what he did and why. I am certain he is at peace with the consequences. He knows we will make his family understand that he sacrificed himself for us all and that we will take care of them. Even if he walks through the Flame tonight, he will have met a noble end protecting you. I will not forget that.”

Gabrielle did her best to share her husband’s faith in Maximillian’s justice, but it did not come so easily to her. Regalo saw the Emperor as the compass of the realm, guiding Koth through eternity, wise, all-powerful, and impartial, knowing things the rest of them did not. While people of other races lived and died, acquired and lost knowledge, Maximillian and his Kothite cadre were immortal, amassing vast stores of knowledge and wisdom in their endless lives. Regalo trusted the Emperor’s decisions implicitly. Her husband did not see Maximillian as vindictive or cruel; the Emperor merely did what was necessary to keep the Empire on course.

She was more inclined to wonder whether or not Maximillian was in a generous mood tonight, and how high a price he would extract from them if, by some chance, he chose to let Darius live. Of one thing she was sure. Although it might not be demanded of them in gold, there was always a steep price to pay for crossing the Emperor’s path.

“Sit, dear. Your breathing is not fully returned to normal, and the stress of an audience with the Emperor could set off another attack.”

She did as Regalo suggested, but only because Darius would certainly not survive any show of weakness from his sovereigns before the Emperor.

The Emperor’s chamberlain opened the door and gestured silently for them to come. Reluctantly, she followed Regalo down a grand corridor, which housed an art collection that would make the curator of any museum in the land weep with envy. They were ushered into the Emperor’s personal library. She hoped desperately that the location for this audience signaled that Maximillian did not plan to make a public example of Darius.

She and Regalo were led across an enormous high-ceilinged space, famed throughout the Empire for its priceless collection of trophies, and Gabrielle stared about in awe. There were books aplenty—a wonder in their own right, for they were rare throughout the Empire—but that was only the beginning of the marvels.

The husk of what appeared to be a giant eyeball was the first trophy she noticed mounted high upon a wall. Beside it were three identical and monstrously reptilian heads. She gasped, “Are those the heads of a chimera?”

Regalo looked where she pointed. “I do believe so.” Then he added under his breath, “Look at these.”

She gazed at a crystal bowl large enough to hold fruit punch for a hundred guests. It was full of gemstones in every color of the rainbow. “Are those…”

The chamberlain glanced over his shoulder and murmured casually, “Mindstones. From Mindor.”

Gabrielle’s jaw dropped. Each stone was said to be capable of storing a person’s entire lifetime of memories and knowledge within it. A single mindstone was worth a king’s fortune. Hundreds of them were heaped in that bowl.

Beside the bowl of magical gems rested a pile of technical sketches executed in astonishing detail and complexity. Upon second glance, she realized she was looking at blueprints for a Black Ship. Ever a fan of engineering, Regalo paused and ventured to lift the first sketch. She spied what looked like a schematic for construction of the massive canal that linked the Inland Sea to the great Abyssmal Sea many hundreds of miles away.

Regalo ran his fingers lightly down a tall, polished column of wood standing beside the table. “Teak. Do you suppose this is the last shard of Duskendar? I heard the Emperor possesses it.”

“The great teak treant?” she replied, stunned.

“His Resplendent Majesty awaits,” the chamberlain urged.

Regalo lengthened his stride and caught up with his and Gabrielle’s guide. A pair of golden doors loomed ahead and her heart pounded nervously.

“The Swords of the Dwarven Kings,” Regalo breathed.

Gabrielle glanced up and saw a magnificent pair of swords mounted upon a carved ironwood shield. Space for a third sword gaped empty beside the other two.

The blades were legendary, the most recognizable symbols of the great dwarven races. Deep Fang, the blade of the errock—deep dwarves—hung beside the Kelnor hill dwarves’ great sword, the Battle Brand. Absent only was Mountain’s Edge, the symbolic weapon of the Terrakin, the dwarves of Under Urth. The Terrakin claimed that it had been lost in battle, but rumors persisted that the Terrakin Kingdom merely hid the weapon from Maximillian.

Then her gaze locked upon the statue beside the door … not a statue at all, but a human being encased entirely in amber. Even Regalo’s eyes widened at the sight.

“Is he alive?” she asked no one in particular.

The chamberlain glanced at the frozen man whose open eyes stared back at them with eerie awareness. “I do not know. But His Resplendent Majesty does stop often to admire the piece. I sometime wonder if he … communicates … with the prisoner.”

Whether the Amber Man, the last thing the Emperor’s subjects likely saw before an audience with him, was merely a curiosity or a stern warning she did not know. Either way, she shuddered with apprehension as the chamberlain threw open the golden doors before her.

She stepped warily into a receiving chamber similar to, but on a much smaller scale than, the golden hall, complete with its own Black Flame throne. Maximillian stood before it conversing quietly with—

—Oh no. Archduke Ammertus. Starfire’s father and a madman of the first order. The man positively thrived on violence and death, suffering and misery. He terrified her a great deal more than Maximillian, who was marginally sane. At the base of the dais, a disheveled Darius knelt, shackled. Grief poured through Gabrielle and she let it flow freely. Let the Emperor see Haraland’s care for its own.

She and Regalo made their obeisances to the Emperor and she made sure not to skimp on the depth of her curtsy or the length of time she held it. While she was thus contorted, she heard a commotion behind her. Someone else made an entrance to the chamber.

Starfire hurried in and bowed briefly. “Your Resplendent Majesty, I attend at your request. My humble apologies for making you wait.”

Maximillian sat down upon his throne, taking a moment to adjust his robes. He looked up, casting a razor-sharp look at his assembled subjects. A look of decision crossed his face, and only then did he announce in supreme boredom, “Speak, Starfire.”

The chamberlain indicated that they could rise, and Gabrielle straightened. She was startled to see that Princess Endellian had slipped into the room and stood at her father’s right hand. The symbolism of her position was not lost on Gabrielle. A dangerous woman, Endellian, heir to a throne that would never be vacated by her immortal sire.

Gabrielle gritted her teeth as Tyviden gave a more or less accurate account of the events leading up to Darius smashing his fist into the Kothite’s nose, but spun in such a way that he appeared to be entirely the victim. It galled her that he was allowed to act so badly and her man was arrested for merely doing his duty.

Although kings and queens technically held similar rank to High Lords and Ladies, the reality was that Kothites took precedence above all others. The Council of Kings was also technically a governing body, but everyone knew they were merely a rubber stamp for Maximillian’s decisions. The Emperor might make a show of appeasing one of his powerful kings tonight, but in reality, Starfire was guaranteed to get away with his atrocious behavior. And Darius was guaranteed to pay.

Her indignation must have been palpable, for the Emperor glanced over at her more than once during Starfire’s recitation.

When the whoreson was finished, Maximillian asked with deceptive mildness, “Have you something to add, Queen Gabrielle?”

As much as she burned to defend her loyal defender, she must not. “No, Your Resplendent Majesty. Nothing.” The words were acid on her tongue. They ate at her spirit, which was, of course, exactly Maximillian’s intent in voicing the question in the first place.

Regalo took a breath as if to speak, then waited for the Emperor’s permission as protocol dictated.

“Speak, Your Noble Highness of Haraland.”

She took it as a good sign that the Emperor was dropping Starfire’s title and honorific, but using her husband’s. It was a clear signal of Maxmillian’s displeasure with his High Lord.

Regalo spoke formally. “If it pleases Your Resplendent and Just Majesty, we acknowledge Sir Darius’s error and cannot forgive it. However, I would like to offer the fire of youth and his extreme eagerness to protect his queen as explanation. He mistakenly perceived a threat where there was none.” Gabrielle caught the subtle emphasis Regalo placed on the word “mistakenly,” as if perhaps his knight had not been mistaken at all. Surely Maximillian caught it as well.

Her husband finished, “There can be no excuse for his rash and reckless behavior other than excessive zeal to serve.”

“Your knight punched me in the nose!” Starfire exclaimed.

“Would you not love to have ten thousand knights as eager as Darius and so devoted to you?” Regalo observed dryly to Maximillian.

Gabrielle noted that not by a single hair’s breadth did Regalo’s gaze stray toward Starfire, even though that last comment was clearly a veiled criticism directed at the High Lord.

Maximillian’s eyes flickered briefly with amusement at her husband’s smoothly delivered dig. She spotted a hint of annoyance in the Emperor’s eyes as he glanced over at the High Lord, who had obviously caused this whole stew. Gabrielle closed her eyes in a moment of abject gratitude. The stars bless Regalo’s skill at reading the Emperor’s moods. Perhaps there was a minuscule chance Darius would escape this debacle alive, after all.

The Emperor sat silent upon his throne until she thought she might die of the suspense. Was it possible he was rethinking his decision? Turning his attention away from the insolent mortal who punched a High Lord and toward the failings of the High Lord, himself?

Abruptly the Emperor ordered, “Let the prisoner stand forth.”

Darius was dragged upright. Stoic to the last, he stood at attention and stared straight ahead at nothing. Pride for Haraland’s native son swelled in her bosom.

“I find your devotion to your queen touching. I also find you guilty of treason against the person of Dread High Lord Tyviden Starfire. And in consequence, I hereby strip you of…”—a pause, and then Maximillian uttered lightly, “… everything.”

He said that last word so simply, so matter-of-factly, that the import of it did not fully register upon Gabrielle until he leaned forward on his throne, glaring down at Darius. “You shall have no country, no queen, no rank.” The slightest of pauses. “And no name. Henceforth, you will be known as … Krugar.”

Gabrielle suppressed a shudder. Krugar was the name of a nasty little man in Haraland whom Darius had caught tricking unwed mothers into indenture under illegal contracts that amounted to slavery and working them and their young children nigh unto death. Darius despised the fellow and for good reason. The Emperor must have plucked the name from Darius’s mind as someone her knight hated.

Now why would the Emperor take away Darius’s name? The rest of it was no great surprise. But his name?

Ammertus made a sound of disgust, bit off quickly, but not before enough of it escaped to express his opinion of the Emperor’s sentence.

Maximillian was speaking again. “As for you, Krugar. I shall leave your memory intact that you may know him whom you insulted, and that you may never forget the reason for your fall from grace. If, however, you make any attempt to contact any person or persons from your past, they will not live long enough to utter your true name.”

The extent of the Emperor’s punishment dawned slowly on Gabrielle. Darius would have no home and no title … but furthermore, he would have no honor, no reputation that lived beyond him, no noble death. He had been banished to obscurity, never to be remembered, never to be spoken of fondly by family, friends, or his fellow knights. Even his honorable sacrifice for her and for Haraland was to be stripped from him. For a knight, it was a more cruel punishment than death.

The Emperor was speaking again. “I banish you and your zeal permanently to Haelos to spend the rest of your days serving me in the Imperial Army.”

So. The Emperor had plans for her knight. Except he was her knight no more. Sadness flowed through her. Such a waste of a fine man. She amended her thoughts hastily. If Darius could be of more use serving the Emperor, then his life was not wasted, after all. Not in the least. An honor to have a Haraland man serve His Resplendent Majesty.

A … ripple … passed through the room, seeming to emanate from the throne. And a great, dark, surging power responded to the call. It felt as though a monstrous beast roused from the depths of the earth below their feet and heaved to life, spewing its evil with every breath. Alien, focused intent to destroy rolled over Gabrielle’s mind like air surging from a smith’s bellows, and yet her hair did not stir in the awful breeze of its passing. She frowned, and found herself blinking a few times to clear her head.

She realized with a jolt that the Emperor was speaking once more and she was not attending to him. “… beloved queen shall remain here, bereft of your protection—another shame for you to live with, Krugar.”

Shame … and a threat against her. The shackled prisoner must be a Haralander, although she could not place his face. Krugar’s gaze flickered briefly toward her at Maximillian’s words. He, too, had caught the implied threat. If he stepped out of line or in any way failed the Emperor, the consequences would land upon her head.

Gabrielle winced. It was not that she feared the Emperor’s wrath, although she certainly did. Any sane person would. But she winced at how thoroughly Maximillian had locked this man, Krugar, into his punishment. For the barest instant something felt strange about that name, but then the feeling passed.

Maximillian continued, “You shall be sent to the furthest outpost of the Empire buried in the most remote forest of the northern colony, Krugar, where you shall impart your zeal to serve me to the Imperial Army legion there. Whether you succeed or fail, live or die, I leave to you and your own industry or lack thereof. You shall depart immediately.”

Gabrielle murmured the ritual response along with everyone else in the chamber. “So shall it be.”

Regalo touched her arm, reminding her to make her obeisance to the Emperor. She did so with alacrity. This Krugar fellow would live, at any rate. Not many prisoners who came before the Emperor could claim that.

“My deepest gratitude for the mercy and wisdom you have bestowed upon my house,” Regalo intoned as he bowed beside her.

A foreboding that great events had been set in motion this night filled her for a moment, but then the Emperor spoke, erasing the sensation. “Indeed,” Maximillian replied as dry as dust.

Oh yes. Repayment for tonight’s favor would be demanded. And part of it would be the agony of anticipation while she and her husband waited to learn the shape it would take.

 

Endellian turned to her father the moment the golden doors clanged shut behind the departing Haralanders and the prisoner. She murmured in alarm, “Father, we and the archdukes talked about this. I thought we agreed you would not call upon … that thing … again, so soon. It has been barely a century since you released its power in the north.”

Maximillian snapped, “Have a little faith in me, Princess. I see clearly what needs to be done. This was necessary. Let us not forget I have ruled for thousands of years. I do not invoke such power lightly!”

“I worry about you—”

He waved a dismissive hand. “Speak of it no more.” But his tone was more affectionate than angry. And in truth, she should accept that he was, at all times, in control of everything within his Empire. For a bare instant she wondered what it would be like if he were not, and a shudder of dismay rippled through her. She’d heard the stories of mad Maximillian II, and it was a bad time for Koth.

She subsided behind her father’s shoulder, her worry not entirely assuaged. Great avalanches began with one tiny pebble. Then another. And before long the entire mountain was crashing down.

“As for you, Tyviden…,” her father commented, jarring her from her dark thoughts.

The High Lord bowed elaborately to Maximillian. “My gratitude is boundless that you took swift action to punish that cur, Your Majesty.”

She picked up speculation in his voice. Curiosity. He, too, wondered why Maximillian had resorted to such terrible and dangerous power to wipe out the name of a simple soldier. Too smart for his own good, Starfire. Always looking for an angle to manipulate and harm others.

The line of Ammertus thrived on others’ despair and fear, operated from a place of chaos and rage. While her father was a pillar of strength and control, of will over all, Ammertus and his demi-scion son were the polar opposite. It was no surprise that Ammertus had earned the honorific “Dread.” It fit him … and his son.

Unease settled in her stomach that Starfire and the line of Ammertus had come into play at this particular moment in time. It made an already-complicated situation even more complicated. Why the escalation of events, so many and so sudden? This confluence of disturbing threads was unlike anything she’d seen in her long existence to date.

She turned her attention back to Starfire fidgeting before her father. No matter how hard he tried to disguise it, she felt the frustration roiling within him. He’d wanted blood from Haraland’s man. Did he not understand that taking away a man’s identity, a man’s place in history, a man’s hope,was worse punishment than death? Her father had proven that over and over through the centuries of his reign by doing the same to entire nations, entire races. It broke them more surely than the most devastating war upon them.

A flash of Maximillian’s thoughts came to her mind. Ammertus and Anton Constantine were cut from the same cloth. She had to agree. At the end of the day, they were greedy, lustful, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing thugs. The old warden, Henrik Volen, had been firmly her father’s man, but Anton was … not.

“Have I not served you well, Your Resplendent Majesty—” Starfire started.

Maximillian cut him off, his voice resonating with irritation. “I know who got me my Black Ships.”

Her eyebrows lifted. Her father rarely slapped a noble—metaphorically—so openly. He must be more annoyed than she’d sensed. For his part, Ammertus seemed to soak up the tension in the chamber like a thirsty sponge.

Maximillian leaned forward, his voice growing in anger as he addressed Starfire. “By what right do you involve the Heart in a scandal at my court and potentially strain our ancient relationship with them? And then you anger the king of a powerful nation and a good friend of this throne? He ismy subject to do with as I will.”

Endellian contained a flare of amusement. Would Starfire be subtle enough to understand he’d just been told not to play with the Emperor’s toys? That he was replaceable, and he had shown himself not to be entirely and loyally her father’s man? She doubted it.

Her father continued, glaring, “You went too far this time, Starfire.”

Ammertus blustered, mayhap just now realizing the depths of his liege’s ire, “He’s young … impulsive … a small prank—”

Starfire added hastily, “My apologies, Your Majesty. I did not mean—”

Maximillian cut them both off. “You have offended the throne. Embarrassed yourself. Created tension and bad feelings with the Heart that I shall have to repair. For this, I am sending you away.”

“Where to?” Starfire managed to croak.

“Go south. To Georwell. Traverse the Bridge of Ice.”

Starfire and Ammertus stared, appalled, as well they should be. Although many Kothites had crossed the Bridge in search of fame and fortune, none had ever returned from the other side. The Bridge was not actually made of ice; rather, it was always covered in ice. It was made of titanwood and stretched south into the Sea of Glass as far as the eye could see. Given that it was giant made, one could assume it stretched across the entire sea to some unknown location. Being sent across it was tantamount to a death sentence.

Maximillian was speaking again. “Bring me back something … interesting … from the other side. New. Powerful. Impress me.” The real meaning of her father’s words hung unspoken in the air. Not only must you survive this test, but you must prove to me that I should reinstate you in my good graces at court.

Starfire stared thunderstruck and, for once, entirely speechless. Although she contained her reaction better than the High Lord, Endellian shared his shock.

What game did her father play at, now? Even the Emperor did not lightly sentence a demi-scion to death. They were the grandchildren of the greater beings, children of the scions of the greater beings, and immortal themselves unless brought to an untimely death by some special means.

Maximillian had taken a series of quick, forceful actions in the past few minutes that were entirely unlike him. Normally, he was thoughtful and deliberate in his decisions, diabolically so. Moreover, she got the distinct impression he was not finished, yet, this night.

Perhaps the oracle’s prophecy of the end had shaken her father more than he’d initially let on. Now was probably not the time to share what else Laernan had shown her, the other things the oracles had been revealing about this nameless threat destined to emerge from the wilds to threaten the Empire.

Anton fretted every second the Emperor was absent. So close. He could taste the heft and weight of yon iron key in his palm. His impatience to officially be the governor was almost too much to stand. He itched to examine his new swords more closely, but it would not be seemly to do so in front of the assembled court. Let them see him accept such a shockingly extravagant gift as casually as if it was his due.

A veritable eternity after he’d disappeared, Maximillian finally reappeared in the doorway behind the throne, accompanied by Princess Endellian. Anton barely refrained from scowling at her for her untimely interruption earlier.

“Now where were we?” Maximillian said. “Ahh, yes. A governor for Dupree.”

Anton took a deep breath and held it as the Emperor continued.

“I hereby appoint former warden Henrik Volen to be the first governor of the colony of Dupree.”

What? What is this? Anton exhaled so hard he nearly expelled the contents of his stomach as well. A joke. That’s it. The Emperor jested. The old warden looked nearly as flabbergasted as Anton, and shocked silence echoed in every far-flung corner of the Golden Throne Room.

“Come forward, Volen,” Maximillian ordered. The warden stumbled to Anton’s side, and the Emperor reached out to wrap the man’s gnarled fingers around the key already resting in his aged palm.

The Emperor’s voice lowered so the court at large could not hear his next words. “I sent you a prisoner some years ago with orders never to let him see the light of day. Do you remember?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Volen croaked.

“See to it he remains in the dark and never walks free.”

“So shall it be,” Volen muttered.

A seed of rage took root in Anton’s breast, growing rapidly into a living thing invading every corner of his mind. Why the colors presented to him? Why the cursed swords? Was this all an elaborate plan to humiliate him?

“Anton Constantine,” Maximillian said formally, “I hereby appoint you First Advisor to the Governor of Dupree.”

First advisor? The unfortunate whoreson who does all the grunt work, wades through endless piles of paper, attends to all the minutiae and gets none of the glory? None of the wealth? None of the power of a virtual king?

“Tread carefully, Anton!” the Emperor snapped.

Maximillian then devolved into a lengthy series of orders for the new governor regarding resource development, production, guild participation, and who knew what else. Anton jerked back to attention when the Emperor mentioned something about Volen naming guildmasters.

That was supposed to be his privilege. He’d spent weeks in consultation with Ammertus devising his list of appointees.

Volen mumbled, “I have given no such thing a thought, Your Resplendent Majesty.” The old bastard turned to him and had the gall to say generously, “You may name a guildmaster if you wish, First Advisor.”

“Kenzarr,” Anton blurted. “He shall be Master of the Slaver’s Guild.”

Volen frowned faintly but nodded his assent readily enough.

It wasn’t much. But the appointment would have to be enough. With his man in the Slaver’s Guild, Anton would have access to manpower. A little extra income skimmed on the side. Retainers here and there with specialized skills. And eventually, an army. It was so little in the face of what he could have had—

His enraged gaze lifted to Endellian. Two seconds. Had she delayed a miserable two seconds interrupting her father earlier, he would have been the governor of Dupree and not that doddering old fool Volen! Seething fury ripped through him as he stared at the great key now hanging from Volen’s hip, winking at him in the candlelight as if this had all been a great joke upon him. That key should have been his. Overwhelming desire to snatch one forth one of his new short swords and bury it the princess’s bosom roared through him—

Panic exploded across his brain as the direction of thoughts dawned on him. He revised his murderous thoughts frantically.

—I would, of course, only kill her if the Emperor so wished it and for the greater glory of the Empire of Koth.

Endellian threw him a murderous look that declared him exceedingly lucky to be standing in her father’s presence and not hers alone.

Anton was too appalled at his momentary loss of control to hear it. That slip had just cost him years. Cursing himself for being a thousand kinds of fool, he reluctantly conceded that, after revealing such violence to his liege, if anything even remotely suspicious were to happen to the new governor—should the old coot die of anything other than an unquestionably natural death of extreme old age—the Emperor would now suspect him.

Anton turned to face the court and descended the golden steps heavily. The overriding emotion emanating from the sea of faces smirking up at him now was derision. Amusement. He spied his wife near the front of the crowd in time to see her turn her back on him, a look of disgust on her face.

It had all been right there. Moments away from being his. The rage and ambition roiling in his gut formed a poisonous sludge with a life of its own. It took a name—revenge. Everyone present this night would pay for laughing at his humiliation. He would show them all. He would accomplish in the colonies feats beyond their wildest imaginings and would achieve such wealth and power that they would tear their hair with jealousy.

He cast his contemptuous gaze across the crowd … and caught the eye of one in the crowd who visibly shared his sentiments exactly. Ammertus. Yes indeed. There would be retribution for this night’s mischief by Maximillian.

The archduke made his way to Anton for a private word, which was not difficult to achieve given that suddenly no member of the court would speak to him.

Ammertus growled significantly, “You will do your best for the Empire and the Emperor in the colonies, will you not, Anton?”

“Of course, Your Dread Grace.”

“You and I have both seen the potential of the place. Develop it for the Empire. Exploit it to the fullest.”

The briefest mental image of a storeroom filled to the ceiling with gold, precious gems, and other riches flickered into Anton’s mind. He nodded infinitesimally. Message received. He was to squeeze the place until it bled.

“Do not ever relax your vigilance. Press hard and keep pressing hard for the Empire.”

“Of course, my lord.”

“Let no threat to the Empire arise on your watch, Lord Constantine.”

“Never, Your Dread Grace.”

“I trust my colonies into your able stewardship, Lord Constantine.”

Ammertus could not have been clearer. His man Anton had the archduke’s permission to do whatever he pleased in Haelos as long as the Empire’s political interests were served.

Ammertus leaned close and breathed in Anton’s ear, “I shall see to it you have short swords even more spectacular than those paltry toothpicks. And mine shall be infused with even greater magic.”

With Ammertus’s endorsement in hand, in the most guarded and secret corner of his mind Anton commenced scheming anew. Circumspect. Subtle. Patient. He must now be all of those things. Each one galled him to his core, but he had no choice after his earlier mental slip. He could no longer reach his goals by the simple, straightforward means he’d planned before. But his goal remained the same. Dupree and every ounce of its wealth would be his.

Copyright © 2015 by Cindy Dees and Bill Flippin

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