Sigmana clasped her hands together against the folds of her black mourning dress as they waited outside the doors. Too tightly, she realised, releasing them before her grandson noticed. She glanced at him and smiled sadly.
He must see confidence and perfect authority. He must learn from me in the years I have left, if he is to become the emperor this realm needs.
Her grandson was a handsome young man in his early twenties. He had a warrior’s build but noble features, with dark wavy hair held back by a silver circlet, and brown eyes warm enough to melt any maiden’s heart. He smiled in return, though there was a hint of reticence in his eyes.
“Do not show the emperor you have any hint of doubt, Justarian,” she scolded, narrowing her painted eyes. “He must have absolute faith in you. He is certain to confirm you as his heir. Your father is dead. I would give anything to call him back, but it cannot be. You must take the burden that was once destined for his shoulders. It is sooner than I would have liked, but the Lord of Fate has spoken and my son has been taken to Avathar’s silent halls.”
“Yes, grandmother,” said Justarian. His look hardened as he clenched his jaw. The doors opened silently and they both looked ahead into the darkened chamber. Shafts of light filtered between thick velvet drapes on either side of the room, forming a crisscross of light and shadow, through which dust motes danced idly.
A breath caught in Sigmana’s throat, as it always did when she entered the emperor’s throne room. It was a thing of beauty, made tragic by the fact that her brother the emperor could scarcely see it now, his eyes had become so bad. The white marble floor glistened with inlaid silver patterns, and spiralling columns rose up to a ceiling painted with such delicate human figures that she could spend hours looking at them.
She entered side by side with Justarian, walking past the red cloaked guards who stood beside the walls at intervals, approaching two figures who sat with a small table in between them. The emperor was seated on his carved throne of amber lemphos wood, and opposite him on a simple stool, his customary companion in these late days.
Between them on the table was a chequered grid, populated by pieces of carved onyx and white agate, arrayed in complex lines of battle. Sigmana rarely played shethaboard, but to her relatively untrained eye it appeared that the mage had a slight advantage.
Neither seemed aware of her presence. She watched her brother Talaxus as he squinted at the board, a look of profound sadness upon his lined face. Avernius’ death had aged him, perhaps as much as the curse; he looked close to a hundred rather than sixty seven, and his swept back hair had turned white as snow many years before. He had his embroidered red cloak wrapped tightly around him, as he did so often now. Always cold, he would say.
Sigmana looked a picture of health beside him. His younger sister by five years, she somehow still had the body of much younger woman and a youthful glow about her, though perhaps her flock of younger lovers were to thank for that.
“Your Majesty,” she said to break the silence. She curtsied and Prince Justarian gave a short bow.
She turned her attention to the mage, Malcorius, robed in black like a spectre stalking her brother. He scratched his short beard as he considered the pieces still left on the board.
“You are tiring my brother out with these games, Malcorius,” she said, irritated that he did not bow to her. “He mourns my son Avernius. He needs rest.”
The emperor turned toward Sigmana and Justarian. “I fear I will die of grief if I consider his loss too deeply,” he said. “Not long from now I must withdraw to the high temple of Avathar and take the death vigil for three days, in honour of my lost heir. For now, forgive me if I distract myself with more worldly concerns.”
Sigmana pursed her lips. “The temple will permit this?”
“It seems they have softened their view of me in light of this tragedy,” he said. “They will allow me to sit vigil beside his tomb, at least.”
He turned his attention to Justarian. “Come here,” he said, placing a withered hand upon his arm as the young man came to stand beside the throne. He pointed at the board.
“Do you play?” he asked.
“A little,” said the prince, “Though I rarely find the time.”
“A man should understand shethaboard, a ruler even more so,” he said. “Alas, I am an indifferent player, and Malcorius beats me more often than not. I spread my pieces too thinly, protecting against every threat.”
“His Majesty rarely takes the risks one must to win the game,” said Malcorius.
“I always try to learn from my defeats,” said the emperor. “So must you. We will talk later, about many things. For now, leave us, I must speak with your grandmother.”
Justarian bowed, then kissed Sigmana on the cheek and withdrew. When the doors had closed behind him, the emperor turned his rheumy eyes on his sister.
“He is my risk,” he said. “As soon as I announce that he will follow me, the plotting will begin anew. It is a brave monarch that declares a bastard his heir. Are you sure he is strong enough?”
Sigmana smiled. “He is strong, in his own way. He is growing in confidence, but he needs more allies. You would do the right thing to make him Crown Prince. His half sisters are too young and Leonidar would push to be made regent, only to undermine them and pursue his own claim. He is next after them. You would not want him as regent, would you?”
“Why not you?” asked the emperor, looking back at the board.
“I am too old for these games,” she said.
“And yet you are a fine player,” said Malcorius. “Presumably Calthos would be too great a risk? As grandfather to the girls he would be a staunch supporter of Thela and serve ably as her regent. He is one of the most powerful lords in the east, the reason you wanted Avernius to marry his daughter, as I recall.”
“He may serve too ably,” said the emperor. “He is not our blood, but with his ample family he could overturn everything we have fought for, when we are gone.”
“There must be no regent,” said Sigmana, staring at the mage. “We need a ruler. Justarian is the one.”
The emperor formed a steeple with his hands and rested his white bearded chin upon them. “Calthos is not family and we should discount him,” he said. “He may feel slighted but I am confident we could handle him. Leonidar is not close family. Regrettably, he could be just the emperor that many would look up to, until his rotten core revealed itself. To keep him quiet we may have to dangle some prize to Bartolomus and the other southern lords who back him,” he said.
“Bartolomus is powerful enough already,” said Sigmana. “We can turn to others for support, lords more deserving of reward.”
“Nonetheless, he holds the key to the south,” said the emperor. “We will need him close for now.”
Sigmana detected an undercurrent to the conversation, something she was missing. She glanced at Malcorius, who gazed at the board studiously. “Why?” she said.
“Malcorius informs me that the Arkavians are sending ambassadors here,” he said. “He saw it in the stone.”
The stone was one of the hidden mysteries of the Arcana Imperialis, the magicians’ guild of the empire. Sigmana had never seen it, yet she heard tales that through a tall black standing stone beneath the city, one could see for many leagues, and even pass from Salaskar to other places across the far flung lands. She was suspicious of magicians and their secrets, but she knew that Malcorius and his brethren had powers she could not hope to understand.
“So Tiragar has marched,” said Sigmana, turning her attention to one of the shafts of light. She followed it to the window and gazed out over the cascade of palace domes, down to the city below.
“Elegrainn’s claim to this throne has never troubled you before,” she said finally. “Why does it trouble you now, when her land is in such danger? She cannot threaten you.”
“I hunted a great deal in my youth,” said the emperor. “Never was a beast more dangerous than when it was cornered. She has plans here, be certain of that.”
“Then you must watch the lords that might be swayed to support her, as they supported her great grandfather,” said Sigmana, returning to her brother’s side. “Sevandus, for one. He could lead the north against you. Why not summon him here on some pretext, to better keep an eye on him?”
The emperor laughed. “He is already in Salaskar,” he said. “He arrived this morning, Calineri tells me.”
Sigmana was silent for a moment, watching as Malcorius moved one of the pieces on the board. As the emperor moved to pick up one of his pieces, she said, “Wait. You could profit from her dire need for help. We all could.”
The emperor clenched his jaw and frowned at the board. “We would profit by her death, I think. To admit her ambassadors as guests is a farce.”
“You want Bartolomus close because he is a potential enemy,” said Sigmana. “Is Elegrainn so very different? She needs something we have. Soldiers. If you can make her obligated to you, you could neutralise many of your potential enemies in one move. Sevandus, Haliastor, Perethir and others.”
“You would give her the thing she lacks,” said Malcorius, looking up from the board, “So she can become stronger, even more of a threat?”
“Of course not,” scolded Sigmana. “Think with your head, not your male pride. We must strengthen Justarian’s position against Leonidar, Bartolomus and the south. Added to this his stepmother Nemes will be displeased to see her daughters give way to a bastard, and with her father Calthos behind her she commands strong support. Sevandus and his friends would be just the foil we need to keep them all at bay.”
“Befriend wolves,” said the emperor, “And they will take the food you give them, and your hand as well.”
“We should tread carefully, to be sure,” replied Sigmana. “At least consider my suggestion. Watch them closely, but hear them out. Arkavia is in dire peril. We may find a way to bring them under the heel and make this game of yours a little less risky.”
The emperor nodded. “You have given me good counsel over the years, sister. I will think on what you say, but when they arrive I will deal with them.”
“You do not want me to speak to them at all?”
“Your grief for Avernius and your concern for Justarian’s safety are vulnerabilities they will exploit,” said Talaxus. “Your judgement is compromised, dear sister.”
“My concern is for the future of the empire,” she said, flushing. “Have you no care for what happens after you are gone?”
“Of course,” he spat. “But not so much that I will let some exiled girl dictate terms to me because I wish to shore up alliances at home. I would rather see this whole empire burn.”
“You cannot mean that,” she said.
He waved a hand. “I will listen to these barbarians, I will grant you that much,” he said. “But you must stay out of this. I tell you now, if she plots an uprising against me I will crush her and any that rise with her, as I did Gilthaneus. Though I am an old man now, I remember the bloody battle to drag him from this throne. The gods cursed me for it, but I swear I would do it again to protect what little family I have left.”
Sigmana lowered her head, frightened by the look in his eyes. His old temper had mellowed in his later years, but recent events had brought back some of the old fire. She remembered the days when the mob ruled the streets, blood ran in rivers and the city burned. She knew that some of the common folk called the emperor Talaxus the Godless, for the crimes committed in his name.
“I do not want to see those days again, any more than you do,” she said. “Appointing Justarian your heir would be the best way to avoid that, I am certain. For now, I will leave you to your game, if it so pleases you.”
He nodded. “Send the boy to me later, alone. I will test his mettle and judge for myself.”
She curtsied and withdrew, not daring to look up until she had reached the doors and the guards opened them for her. The emperor had turned back to his game, as though she had never been there.
- Opening scene from Hand of Ashaila (draft) - December 21, 2015
- Fantasy book giveaways - October 20, 2015
- Book giveaway for Knight of Aslath - September 24, 2015
- Should I enrol in Amazon KDP Select? - September 8, 2015
- Greatest Knights of Fantasy Literature - August 17, 2015
- Fantasy gods of Teth-Kiran - July 29, 2015
- Fantasy genre news 21.7.15 - July 21, 2015
- Knight of Aslath book launch giveaway - July 17, 2015
- Fantasy genre news 13.7.15 - July 14, 2015
- Book launch offer for Knight of Aslath - July 10, 2015