The Emperor sat on his balcony, brooding.
Tiraas was a city of lights. The streets were lit with hovering fairy lamps, and even at this late hour, windows blazed with the same magical light, except in the poorer districts, where they flickered with candles and oil lamps. Scrolltowers pierced the sky in all directions, the crystalline orbs atop them flickering in rainbow hues as they received and dispatched coded messages to all quarters of the Empire. Massive antennae atop factories pulsed and crackled with lightning, discharging the unstable residue of the magics within directly into the atmosphere. From the altitude at which he sat, he could even see, between buildings, the occasional blue streak of a Rail caravan as it arrived or accelerated on its way out of the city.
He couldn’t see the stars. “Light pollution,” they were calling it. Progress demanded its price.
Sharidan Julios Adolphus Tirasian, ruler of an entire continent, lounged back on his settee, dressed in a fairly modest robe of crimson silk. On the armrest beneath his hand sat a flat jewelry box, on which he occasionally drummed his fingers. Despite the awe-inspiring sight of his glowing city spreading out at his feet, despite the soothing incense wafting from the door to the harem wing behind him and the soft notes of a harp playing nearby—in fact, partly because of that—he brooded, dreading what he would shortly have to do. He was not a man to shirk duty, but this one would be painful.
The piece of music came to an end, finishing on a long ascending arpeggio. He drummed his fingers once more on the jewelry box.
“Thank you, my lord,” murmured the woman, setting her harp down at her feet. She rose from the ottoman on which she had perched and approached him from behind, kneeling on the settee and beginning gently to knead the Emperor’s shoulders. “I would feel more flattered if my music soothed you as it usually does. You are one great knot of tension tonight.”
Because you’re touching me, he did not say. It was the truth, but would have been a heartless statement; he was likely going to have to hurt more than her feelings before this was done, but needless rudeness was not in his nature. Besides, it was ridiculous; the whole situation was. She had done a lot more than touch him, and quite recently.
“Tell me what troubles you, my lord,” she murmured. There was no sultriness in it—that wasn’t her way—but in spite of himself, despite what he suspected, his blood warmed at her voice, at the way her fingers glided along his skin. Not for nothing was she his favorite concubine. Gods above, this was going to be painful.
“What troubles me?” He felt his own shoulders tensing further as he spoke, despite her ministrations. “What shouldn’t trouble me, Lillian? There’s been too much progress, too fast. It’s not just magical conveniences and technologies, or even weapons. Too many new ideas, too much travel and communication; the populace has been slapped in the face with the whole size of the world and the diversity of the people in it, and they’re reacting about as well as one would expect to their children growing up learning dwarven philosophy and elvish ideas about sex and love.” He sat up, leaning forward out of her grasp. “And the Church, may their own Pantheon piss on the Archpope in alphabetical order, has taken ruthless advantage to increase their own sway with the people. The Church and the Throne have always existed in a careful balance, but we are both militarizing. It’s tradition against progress all over the Empire, but this time both sides are militarizing.” The Emperor stood up and began to pace rapidly. “I’m sitting atop a fault line into which every citizen of my Empire is constantly pouring black powder and oil of combustion. Yes, I am troubled.”
“Well,” she murmured, gazing up at him with limpid eyes, “if you don’t want to talk about it…”
He halted, glaring down at her. The Lady Lillian Riaje was tall and lean of build, almost elvishly so, though her bronze skin and prominent nose hadn’t come from any elven bloodline. He usually preferred his women buxom and soft, but Lillian had always had a way of calming his tensions and carrying him away from his troubles that no other could rival. Even that fact was beginning to look damning, in the light of what he’d recently learned.
“Perhaps you didn’t hear me, my lady?”
“I heard you give a nice expository speech on current affairs, my lord,” she replied, smiling. Her dark eyes glinted with mischief, in that adorable expression that made him find her charming even when she said things for which he’d have other people banished. “It was well done, very succinct. But those troubles are simply part of the world in which we live, ailments like war, poverty and disease. Nothing that should drive you into such a state. You have never hesitated to share your burdens with me before, my master…I begin to wonder if I’ve done something to displease you.”
The Emperor drew in a long breath and let it out slowly. “You…have never been anything but a joy, Lillian.”
“There’s an unspoken ‘but’ following that compliment,” she replied after a pause. “Does this have anything to do with the four Hands lurking about just out of sight?”
He didn’t bother to ask how she’d known, did his best not to betray any surprise, though he had a feeling she could read him much too well for such dissembling. The Hands of the Emperor were his agents of choice, his voice and touch throughout the vast realm, as well as the last line of defense protecting him, even here in his home. A diverse group of men hidden behind their homogenous black suits, they had in common only their ferocious loyalty to the Throne and the high degree of their dangerous talents. Facing a Hand of the Emperor, one never knew exactly what his abilities might be, only that they were prodigious. He had chosen these four for their stealth; that Lillian had spotted them was more than merely troubling.
The Emperor turned his back on her, staring out from the balcony. Directly before him, across Imperial Square, loomed the Grand Cathedral of the Universal Church of the Pantheon, flanked on both sides by the central temples of Avei and Omnu. Not visible, but its presence very much felt, was the Temple of Vidius beneath the pavement of the Square itself. Avei had her stronghold in Viridill as well, but this square was the center of divinity and worship in the Empire. On its fourth border, the Palace seemed…outnumbered.
“My expository speech, as you put it, was immediately relevant,” he said finally. “The Archpope has taken to moving more directly, and I am not yet sure what to make of it. Most recently, he has made troubling suggestions about you, Lillian.”
“That’s a novel approach,” she said wryly. Most people—almost anyone sane—upon learning the Archpope himself had fixed his attention upon them, would have panicked. She was far too cool. “Subtle, but perhaps effective. The girls in the harem may not have political power but we do contribute to your well-being. At least, so I devoutly hope.” Her laugh was a throaty ripple of music. “Besides, if he can cut you off from the chance to produce an heir…”
He scowled, twisting his mouth at the reminder.
The Imperial harem had been built to house dozens; some of Sharidan’s predecessors had filled it to capacity and more. He was not so self-indulgent; there were only seven women in residence, and three of them belonged to his wife. The concubines were, as Lillian pointed out, not a luxury…or at least, not entirely. The Empire needed the Tirasian dynasty to continue, and there would be no heir from Empress Eleanora.
He counted Eleanora as his best and possibly only true friend, as well as his most potent ally in the shark pool of court politics; as such, he had chosen to respect the revulsion she felt at the prospect of sharing herself with any man. It was within his rights to force her to perform wifely duties, but not in his nature. So she had her girls and he his; they were an odd little family, but a strangely happy one. Yet there was still no sign of pregnancy in any of his mistresses. Lillian was correct: if the Archpope, or any of his enemies, could prevent that from coming about, they could throw the Empire into easily exploitable chaos simply by removing him from the picture.
Eleanora had not been pleased at being excluded from tonight’s business, but he needed her safe, elsewhere. Given how badly this could go…if anything befell him, she would have to hold the Throne against those who would try to seize it. The Empire’s needs must come first.
“I’m taking precautions,” he said quietly. “But I will not be bullied nor tricked into blundering. I am just…so tired of this maneuvering. The Empire has always flourished with the Church and the Throne both strong. We need that tension, the back and forth of power. Archpope Justinian seems determined to…” He trailed off.
“To win,” Lillian said.
The Emperor nodded. “Yes. He either doesn’t understand the nature of this game, or places his own ambitions above the greater good. I’m not sure which prospect I find more frightening.”
“How to defeat an opponent whom you cannot actually afford to vanquish?” She hummed softly to herself. “That is quite a puzzle. There is one encouraging thing: Justinian will likely expect you to meet him on the same absolute terms—that, or if you fail to do so, believe that you haven’t seen the true nature of his own game. Either way, perhaps it is you who can trick him into a misstep.”
“I love the way your mind works.” He turned to give her a sad smile. “Sometimes I regret not giving you a greater role in the palace. And not just you… Am I wasting valuable potential, keeping such clever women as…as pets?”
“I, for one, quite enjoy being a pet,” she said blithely. “It’s not for everyone, but I don’t miss having obligations. Milanda might like to have another outlet for her cleverness, I suppose…but by and large, we remain here because we love to be here.” The humor faded from her features, and she simply gaze up at him, into him. “Because we love you.”
It made the weight in his chest ache, because even if what he suspected proved correct, he knew that she spoke the truth.
“I have a gift for you,” he said, bending to pick up the jewelry box from the settee.
“You didn’t have to,” she said softly.
“That’s what makes it a gift, my love. Please.” Steeling his nerves, he held the box out toward her. Though he could not see or hear them, he knew the watching Hands had tensed, preparing to spring if it proved that they needed to.
“All I need is to be near you…but thank you. I can’t refuse an offering of love, now can I?” Lillian rose, giving him a sad little smile, and took the box from him. He stepped back twice as she turned it in her hands, thumbed open the catch and opened it.
A burst of golden radiance exploded on the balcony with the intensity of the sun. Lillian shrieked in pain and went staggering backward into a potted fern, flinging the box away. It clattered against the balustrade, spilling a masterwork diamond necklace onto the stone floor. The priceless piece of jewelry lay in a jumble, glowing furiously; a faint sound like bells hovered at the edge of his hearing.
That necklace carried the most powerful blessing that his considerable resources could arrange, the kind of holy magic that one might expect to find on a paladin’s sword, not a court lady’s ornament. Lillian scrambled backward, deeper into the plant, glaring down at it.
There was only one kind of creature that was harmed by holy magic. Any demon would be blinded and hurt by that blessing, but only one of immense power could have caused it to erupt so fiercely.
The moment the necklace blazed to life, the four Hands had plunged onto the balcony, two through the door into the harem and the others out of nearby windows. In the space of a second, two had bracketed the fallen consort and covered her with a pair of wands and a wizard’s staff; the remaining duo positioned themselves between her and the Emperor, both holding swords at the ready.
Sharidan felt something crack inside himself. He forced the pain not to show. Later, he would sit with Eleanora and grieve in peace. Now, a brave face was needed.
“That,” said Lillian reproachfully, “was a discourteous prank, my lord.” She carefully lifted herself out of the shrubbery, straightening her sheer robe and recovering a bit of dignity, though she kept well back from the blazing necklace. For all the attention she paid them, the two Hands and the firepower they had pointed at her might as well not exist.
“So Justinian was right,” the Emperor said, then heaved a sigh. “There is going to be absolutely no living with him after this… Please don’t do anything brash, Lillian. I’ve no wish to see you harmed, but it’s clear I can’t allow you to roam free any longer.”
“You always were such a clever lad,” she said fondly. He could just see her face past the shoulder of the nearest Hand. “Better when you have time to prepare, though. Come, you Majesty, you know anything you’d try to have your servants do to me would be more than merely harmful at this point.”
“I am Emperor,” he said simply. “I’ve done things that pained me before. Today, even. And I will again.”
“You and I both,” she replied, and flicked both hands at the two men holding weapons on her. One was sent hurtling into space over the balcony’s rail, the staff discharging a burst of lightning that cracked the stone at her feet; the other slammed into the wall of the palace with a nauseating crunch, wands tumbling uselessly to the floor.
Instantly, one of the remaining hands bore the Emperor to the ground, flipping the settee up into a makeshift barricade and tossing his liege behind it with one efficient burst of motion. The other lunged at Lillian, sword first. The Hand and the concubine were both cut from the Emperor’s view as he was unceremoniously shoved down, but he could not miss seeing the burst of flame that illuminated the balcony for an instant, nor hearing the man’s quickly stifled scream. A split second later, his last remaining Hand was yanked away with a cry of surprise, dropping his sword in the process. There came the sound of flesh striking flesh, then flesh striking stone. Then silence.
Sharidan snatched up the sword and rolled to his feet. It was obvious, now, how this was going to end, but he was determined to end it upright with a weapon in his hand, not cowering behind a couch.
The balcony had become a scene from a nightmare in the intervening few seconds. Everything was burned, ferns and flowers reduced to ash, rugs and pillows to smoldering scraps; Lillian’s harp was a twisted, blackened shape resembling an unfortunate piece of driftwood. Three bodies lay where they had fallen, two wearing Imperial black, one little more than a charred skeleton. All of it was illuminated sickeningly by the light of the gods, burning from that accursed necklace.
Lillian hadn’t even a hair or a fold of her robe out of place. Ignoring him for the moment, despite the sword he held pointed at her heart, she heaved a soft sigh, then stepped over to the necklace, bending to pick it up. The intensity of its blaze grew in warning as she approached; when she touched it, a shrill whine of protest rose in his ears, and smoke began to curl from her fingers.
“This really is a stunning piece of work,” she said calmly. He could barely see her through the glow now. “A fitting gift from an Emperor. I believe I’ll keep it, as a reminder of you, my lord. Since it seems I must leave you now.” With that, she lifted the necklace to her throat and fastened its clasp behind her neck.
A chime like silver bells rang out, and the glow abruptly vanished. The necklace, still smoking slightly but now inert, lay fetchingly against her coppery skin. He blinked in the sudden dimness.
It hardly mattered, now, given what was surely about to happen, but Sharidan’s heart sank further. He had never heard of a demon powerful enough to snuff out a holy blessing. That should not even be possible.
“What are you?” he whispered.
She looked up at him, and he was taken back by the pure hurt in her expression. “I wish you had less of the Church’s nonsense poisoning your mind. Of all the things I’ve been called, Lillian Riaje will do fine, at least for you. I am a woman who has shared your bed and your travails this last year, and never done you any wrong.” Again, she sighed. “Well, I can’t blame you for this, not entirely. The world is what it is.”
Lillian stepped toward him and he backed away, keeping the sword between them. “Stay back. Please.”
Shaking her head, she reached out to touch the tip of the sword with one finger; the blade instantly drooped as though made of rubber. Sharidan stared down at it for a second, then, shoulders slumping in defeat, dropped the ruined weapon to the floor with a clatter. “Whatever you intend to do, I hope you’ll do quickly.”
“Oh, Sharidan.” Lillian shook her head, gliding closer. She lifted her hand toward his face, but let it fall again when he flinched. “I want you to know a few things. First of all, your dynasty will continue. And your heir will be beyond the power of the Church or anyone else to harm.” Her lips curled up in a smile and she placed a hand against her belly.
“Oh,” he groaned. “Oh, no.”
“Second…despite what the Church and the Pantheon have said these last millennia, I have never been humanity’s enemy. And I have never been,” she said, gazing intensely at him, “nor ever shall be, yours. I really will miss you, Sharidan. This last year has been the first time in so long that I’ve felt…happy.”
She stepped back, and smiled at him again, sadly. “Goodbye.”
Then she was just…gone. Only the faint scent of sulfur remained.
Roughly sixteen hundred miles to the northwest of Tiraas, at the rim of the space-altering magical prairie dubbed the Golden Sea, a mountain rose from the flat ground. Eight thousand years ago, during the celestial war in which the current gods had risen, when this region had been a stagnant swamp filled with crawling horrors, the mountain had been raised by a now-forgotten deity, a long plateau into which his fortress was hewn. A millennium later, a cataclysmic attack by a rival had destroyed him and made the stones of the earth run like water, sinking half the mountain into the ground and leaving the hidden fortress in ruins.
Now, the drunken mountain was a wedge-shaped interruption of the prairie, with a little town at its base and a citadel of learning at its peak. And deep within, even still, darkened halls filled with mysteries far better not disturbed.
Professor Alaric Yornhaldt pondered the nightmares snoozing under his feet as he walked through the halls of the Unseen Univeristy in his dressing gown and robe. It was a habit of his, when he couldn’t sleep, to pace the corridors and ponder what lay below. Magic, especially magic of the slumbering, half-forgotten kind, was at its most dangerous just when you thought you had a handle on it.
This night, he thought sourly as he passed the door to Professor Tellwyrn’s office, it was refreshing to be able to worry about his old standby instead of worrying about starting the semester with the University’s president and professor of history absent, as he had for most of the past week. Tellwyrn had come traipsing in this afternoon, a few hours after the last of the students had arrived, looking disgruntled but not sullen. Long experience told him this meant that her quest had failed and she’d taken a little time off to work out some of the disappointment. He wondered how many people were dead and how many lying tangled in their sheets, wearing blissful smiles and lacking the use of their legs. Arachne typically left a few of each in her wake when she decided to let her hair down.
Just as he came abreast of the study, an explosion occurred within that rattled the door in its frame, accompanied by a scream.
“Arachne!” Yornhaldt bellowed, his annoyance of a moment before forgotten. He grabbed the doorknob; locked, of course, and bespelled against his customary tricks. Backing up, he rammed his shoulder into the wood.
The door had held against the pyrotechnics but was not up to resisting two hundred forty pounds of frantic dwarf. It burst off its hinges and tumbled inward in pieces, Yornhaldt staggering in atop it.
His first sight was of Professor Tellwyrn, sitting on the floor against the far corner, her face blackened and glaring at him furiously. He relaxed; if she was angry enough to glare, she wasn’t badly hurt.
“What have I told you, Alaric?!” she shouted. “How many times? If you hear knocking and screaming in here, I am either amidst a delicate experiment or masturbating and your assistance IS NOT REQUIRED.”
Professor Yornhaldt took a moment to straighten his robe, surveying the office. Papers were blown about, heaping in the corners like snowdrifts, and the chandelier hung crookedly, but nothing else appeared to be damaged except for the utterly pulverized scrying stand that had stood in the center of the carpet. It was now two cracked halves of a crystal ball, a charred map and a few sticks of kindling. The carpet was going to need cleaning, too, if not outright replacing.
“We go through this every time you scream and I break in,” he rumbled, “and I have yet to catch you doing either of those things. I usually find you either on fire or wrestling something you’ve accidentally summoned, and on one memorable occasion, glued to the ceiling. How in blazes did you manage to blow up your scrying equipment? There’s not enough magic in that to light a candle.”
“Hmph.” She surged athletically to her feet, unable to repress a small smirk. Over the years Yornhaldt had grown adept at handling Professor Tellwyrn; the fastest way to soothe her annoyance was to give her a chance to boast when she’d done something clever. “Well, I discovered that you can significantly boost both the range and receptivity of a scrying attempt using the energy-to-matter component of a conjuration spell, with a few tweaks.”
“You…you did…” He blinked in confusion, then a thunderous scowl began to grow on his face. “Arachne, that sounds like an excellent way to unintentionally conjure up whatever you were trying to scry on. Which, I gather, was the interior of a furnace. Is this what happened the day you had this place knee-deep in venom-spitting saberfish?”
“Don’t be absurd, I was making bouillabaisse.” She half-heartedly brushed ash from her vest, then reached up to pat at her hair. “Besides, desperate times, inventive measures, and all that. I’m out of leads on the exploding girl problem and I would prefer to pursue this without interrogating Miss Falconer, who has enough concerns of her own.”
Yornhaldt’s scowl deepened. “You used a conjuration spell to scry on demons? Woman, have you gone utterly insane?”
“No more than when last we spoke.” She leaned down toward him. “How’re my eyebrows?”
“Full of soot, but still there.”
“Ah, splendid. It’d take all night to re-grow them, and I can hardly start class without.”
“Damn it, Arachne, take this seriously! If a student had done something so reckless you’d toss them off the mountain! Are you trying to open a hellgate in your office?!”
She stepped around behind her desk, pulled open a drawer and produced a hand mirror. “Nonsense, if I wanted to open a hellgate, I’d do it in the men’s room in the music building. Have you seen what’s written about me in there?”
“What were you doing in the—Arachne!”
Tellwyrn paused in rubbing soot from her face to peer down at him in exasperation. “What?”
Yornhaldt stomped over to the desk and leaned his fists upon it surface, glaring at her. The pose was less effective than it might have been, given that the desktop was at chest height on him. “What. Happened. Here.”
“Oh, that.” She flicked her fingers at him dismissively, causing a tiny puff of soot. “I was having a measure of success, at first. Scanning for current demon activity, since I wasn’t sure yet how to combine my modified scrying spell with a time-bending spell, and that’s the kind of thing that tends to break reality if you do it wrong.” Yornhaldt clapped a hand over his eyes, which she ignored, continuing to scrub at her face while she talked. “I found quite a sizeable spike in Tiraas.”
“In the capital?”
“Unless they moved the capital while I was frontier-hopping, yes, it’s in Tiraas. More precisely than that I wasn’t able to tell, which means it was in a warded location. Which means the Imperial Palace or the Grand Cathedral; I’ve cracked everyone else’s wards. Cracked the Palace wards, too, but they change them every few weeks. Sharidan has been annoyingly careful about security since the vodka elemental incident.”
“Still think that was funny?”
“More so every year. Anyhow, I was trying to narrow my focus on whatever demon—and it had to have been a really big one, probably more so even than Vadrieny—when whatever it was did something very extravagant and the feedback blasted my scrying table.”
Yornhaldt leaned back from the desk, stroking his neatly-cropped beard with one hand. “…do you think we should warn the palace?”
“I guarantee,” she said dryly, “they already know, and are dealing with it. All that would do is raise awkward questions about why I was trying to scry on the palace. This new Emperor is a pretty reasonable fellow but his grandfather tried to have me kidnapped for that once.” She sighed reminiscently. “Now that was a good time. Nobody knows how to throw a proper kidnapping anymore.”
“Then what do we do?”
“We?” She cocked her head to one side. With half her face still smudged with ash and her blackened hair sticking up every which way, she looked like an inquisitive jungle bird. “I am going to back off and try a different approach in a few days, depending on when I have time. We are going to go to bed. We’ve got the freshmen first thing in the morning, and I want you alert for that, Alaric. I’ll want your opinions of them right after classes. Oh, and also, I’ll need to get Stew up here to fix my door, apparently.”
He grunted. “Fine. As long as you’re not going to detonate yourself again tonight, bed sounds very inviting. Who knows, I might actually sleep.”
Yornhaldt turned his back on her and stumped back to the blasted door, but paused just before entering the hall. “It looks like you’ll need Stew to scrub the walls out here, too.”
“What’s that?” She slipped around the desk and came to peer over his head.
On the corridor wall outside Tellwyrn’s office, facing the door, words had been burned into the stone.
MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS
“Ah. Heh…fantastic.” Professor Tellwyrn rubbed her hands together, grinning with manic glee. “They never bother to send warnings unless you’re getting close.”
Yornhaldt turned ponderously and jabbed her in the stomach with a thick finger. “Arachne, enough. You need to drop this.”
“I beg your pardon?” Her eyebrows climbed. “You are, I trust, aware of the usual effect of telling me not to do something?”
“Then get over it!” he roared. She blinked in surprise at this out-of-character display of temper. Yornhaldt rubbed at his eyes with a thumb and forefinger, collecting himself, before continuing. “Arachne, we’re not adventurers anymore. There’s no dungeon to loot, no princess to rescue or war to intervene in. We’ve got eighty students for whom we are responsible, and provoking the powers of hell itself is more than merely foolhardy; it’s a betrayal of that trust.” He heaved a sigh, finally looking up to meet her eyes earnestly. “I’m not telling you to give this up, since I know you wouldn’t anyway. And with the Falconer girl here, I’ll agree that it is our business. But this—” he pointed at the message “—means it’s time to take a step back and come at this from a different, less provocative angle.”
Tellwyrn heaved a melodramatic sigh. “There you go, being the voice of reason again. I remember when we used to have fun, Alaric.”
“The necessary cleanup after you’ve had fun just isn’t in the budget,” he said wryly.
“Yes, yes, fine, of course. I won’t have time to fool with it for at least a week anyhow, with classes starting up. I’ll think of something more subtle. And now,” she added gently, pushing at his shoulders. “Go to bed.”
“Promise me you will too.”
“Oh, no worries on that score. Omnu forbid I should have to face the little monsters at less than my best.”
“Good night, you crazy witch.”
“Night, y’old worrywart.”
As Professor Yornhaldt strolled off toward his own rooms, he found he wasn’t worried about the unknown horrors lurking beneath their feet at all.