By Alex Mykals (AKA PsiDraconis)
There was silence around the table, as those seated tried to comprehend the enormity of what they had just learned.
"It's not possible!" Duke Travos Arlen announced, throwing a slightly tattered scroll to the table in disgust. "You're mad, all of you!"
Imperial Palatine Larss Marrin sighed and ran his hands through his greying hair tiredly. "I wish it was," he said. "I wish we were. Unfortunately, there is just too much evidence, gathered from too many independent sources."
"It's true," War Marshal Berak Dan rasped, his voice practically near tears. "I didn't believe it myself when Larss brought me the preliminary proof, and I nearly threw him into the dungeon under suspicion of treason." The way he looked at the Palatine in question was decidedly unfriendly. The War Marshal and the Dynast of the Imperium's chief Palatine had hated each other for over two decades, only their mutual loyalty to the Dynast allowing them to work together. It was a loyalty that was seriously shaken by the recently discovered documents, and now the two seemed to have reached another odd understanding in their mutual sense of betrayal. "However, it was my agents who intercepted that particular piece of… correspondence." He waved a hand disgustedly at the scroll Arlen had discarded.
"And it was one of my Acolytes who came to me and testified under oath and Compulsion to the events described in this," Imperial Magus Terati added, holding up another document as though it was a particularly old pair of unwashed undergarments. "It's unmistakable. The Dynast has been… Tainted." Her expression showed that she would like nothing more than to burn the Demonic Taint from her liege with all her Power-fuelled fury. The Imperium's most powerful Magus had been an unwavering defender of the Realm from Demonic threats, and if she could be somewhat overzealous at times, her actions were understandable considering the threat she regularly faced.
"But how did it happen?" Palatine Gren Kurak asked, his voice baffled and lost. "Surely there must have been signs."
Palatine Marrin rubbed his eyes. "In retrospect, the signs were there. His Majesty's gradual weakening of our northern defences against the Orcs. The reduction in adventurers' bounties. His decree allowing unlimited worship within our borders. I know, I know," he said quickly, forestalling Palatine Kurak's imminent objection. "I agree that the tolerance and acceptance the decree was intended to promote are certainly positive things. However, we also can't argue about the increase in Demonic worship since then, as well as Dynast Rachek's reluctance to root out such Taint more aggressively." The Palatine shrugged wearily. "Seen from this new vantage point, the entire issue becomes suspect."
Down the table, Pontifex Noven, the central religious leader of the Imperium, nodded, frowning, but she didn't speak.
"Is it true that His Majesty actually sent a treaty offering to the Red Waste Orcs?" Duke Browen, a small, nervous man, asked timidly.
"He definitely sent something," War Marshal Berak growled. "Somehow I don't think it was a recipe for roasted burik fruit." Just as the Imperial Magus' mortal enemy was the Demonic hordes, so the War Marshal's true hatred was reserved for the Orcs and Goblins that infested various parts of the Realm. He had already lost two sons and a daughter in various battles and skirmishes, and had no mercy.
"And let us not forget his latest 'Consort,'" Duke Nablis spat, his features twisted into a sneer. "How he can associate with that Elven whore is simply beyond my comprehension. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if she's the one filling His Majesty's head with such corrupt ideas." While the War Marshal's hatred was specifically aimed at the various monstrous creatures who regularly attacked the Imperium's citizens, Nablis' prejudice was far more broad, encompassing all the Unhuman races both within and without the Imperium. "I heard he's considering marrying her. Would the Throne even accept an Unhuman bastard?"
Magus Terati frowned. "I don’t know," she murmured. "We still don't know the exact criteria the Throne measures, beyond the fact that only the closest blood descendant of the previous Dynast may sit. There are suggestions in the Power-weaves that Humanity is a requirement, but it's inconclusive at best."
"Regardless, I have to agree with Duke Nablis," Palatine an'Marrin said. "Although I cannot agree with him about… Unhumans in particular. Specifically, the Elf's influence is unfortunately likely. I sent some very discreet inquiries back to her homeland, but it seems the Elves are… reluctant to discuss her. This suggests—"
"It suggests they have something to hide!" Nablin snapped. "They can’t very well admit that one of their own escaped before she could be executed for consorting with Demons!"
"Regardless," Marrin repeated, "it is not something we can ignore, especially in light of this other evidence."
"So what do we do?" Arlen asked frankly. "What we're discussing here comes perilously close to treason."
"We're not suggesting an overthrow," War Marshal Berak said firmly. "However, we cannot simply dismiss this information, either. I would suggest that we confront His Majesty and request an explanation. Privately at first, but if he refuses to answer we must bring public pressure to bear."
"That seems the most reasonable option," Palatine an'Marrin agreed reluctantly.
"So when do we do this?" Palatine Kurak asked, squirming in discomfort at the thought of confronting his Dynast.
"His Majesty returns from his visit to Parnas Demesne tomorrow," Marrin replied. "I don't think we can afford a delay in this. Either tomorrow evening or the next, I would suggest."
"Tomorrow night or the next," the War Marshal agreed with equal reluctance. "And may the Gods have mercy on us if we're wrong."
The night was never truly dark in Cynestol. With a population of a half-million souls, it was a true hub of commerce, and the merchants' warehouses, shops, and stalls rarely closed. Most ran through the night. The wealthier businesses could afford permanent thaum-lights, but even the poorest spent what they could on lanterns, torches, and even candles.
Because of this constant riot of light and colour, few noticed the new flashes that lit up the sky over the city. All of a sudden, though, a rumbling boom echoed through the streets, and almost as one person, the inhabitants looked up. For perhaps the first time in its history, Tyrassus fell silent.
Another flash streaked across the heavens, and all eyes traced it back to its source: the towering, Power-spun spire above the Imperial Palace. A true masterwork of both Power-weaving and more mundane engineering, the spire reached nearly a quarter-span into the sky, outstripping everything in the city. A few citizens occasionally speculated that its builder, Jarlan the Second, Third Dynast of the Var Imperium, had been compensating for some shortcoming in his intimate life. Never in the hearing of any of the Imperial Sentinels, of course.
The spire was regularly lit in Power-created lightshows on holy days and celebrations, but never with this much ferocity. Multi-coloured light shot from its windows, along with gouts of flame, and other, less recognisable emissions. As the enraptured citizenry watched, a bolt of lightning crackled down from the cloudless sky and grounded itself on the gold-covered roof. It was followed several heartbeats later by another rolling rumble of thunder.
A few of the more astute inhabitants of the city began to realise that there was no guarantee that whatever was happening in the spire would stay confined to the structure, and started pulling goods back into their shops, slamming shutters closed, or making a general almost surreptitious retreat towards the nearest of the city walls. The rest were too fascinated by the lightshow to move.
That unmoving state lasted only until, with a blast that threatened to deafen everyone within a hand of spans, a part of the roof and wall of the spire exploded upwards and outward in an explosion of black flame, arching up and over the city in a long, lazy arc. The quasi-stillness shattered, and as one body the watching crowds turned and stampeded away from the carnage. There were so many people, however, that the panicking, screaming mob could hardly move, and hundreds were crushed to death in the stampede. More died as pieces of the spire crashed to the ground, destroying houses and people, and starting arcane fires that spread unpredictably. More destruction followed as massive blasts of Power spilled from the spire, no longer fully contained by its walls. Bolts of lightning, fire, and pure light escaped to gouge holes in sections of the city in a display of Power greater than anyone had seen in centuries. A huge, glowing, translucent Dragon, the Dynast's symbol, reared over the spire and then struck downwards at some unseen enemy.
And then it was over, although many of the city's inhabitants didn't notice initially, too occupied with crushing mobs, fires, and other less predictable forms of destruction. The glow over the Dynast's spire flickered once, twice, and then faded completely.
It was over.
Imperial Palatine Larss Marrin—though technically he no longer had an Dynast to advise—slumped wearily to some steps, looking far less like one of the Imperium's most powerful men, and far more like a tired, grimy old man. Around him soldiers from the Imperial Sentinels rushed back and forth, along with work crews, Healers, and lesser Thaumaturges.
It's finished, Marrin thought incredulously, and it's just begun. Deep inside he felt a thrill of exhilaration bubble its way up through his stunned apathy.
Part of him had never truly believed that the plan could succeed, but the Palatine had played matters with epic skill. Identifying those in the Imperium powerful enough to consider taking on Dynast Rachek—The late Dynast Rachek, he corrected—had been simple. Discovering just the right stimulus that would goad them into action had been slightly harder, but still no real task for anyone who had spent two decades honing his ability to read the inner motivations of everyone at court. Much trickier had been constructing the "evidence" which would play on each individual's innate prejudices and blind spots, and then seeing to it that the information was discovered by its intended target. It had been imperative that not all the "proof" come from Marrin solely, as a single person happening to find all of the so-called evidence of the Dynast's corruption would have drawn instant suspicion.
War Marshal Berak had been blinded by his hatred for the Orcs, Goblins, and other uncivilised Unhuman races, and the thought that the Dynast would consider parleying with the beasts was anathema to him. It had helped that the Dynast had, in fact, advocated a lessening of the vehemence to hunt the creatures down ruthlessly, although the ruler's concern had been more for the Imperial soldiers who were going into harm for questionable tangible benefits.
The decree allowing all forms of worship free rein in the Imperium had also been real, as had the inevitable increase in Demonic cults, but most of those "faiths" were pitiful things at best, and would be hard-pressed to conjure up an original thought, let alone a Demon Archlord. Imperial Magus Terati had not seen that ineffectualness, seeing only a weakening of vigilance against Demonic corruption and Power. It had been difficult to arrange for one of her Acolytes to overhear the "Dynast" discussing with the Sumani Ambassador the gifts a Demon Lord might bestow on its followers, but not impossible. Pontifex Noven had been less committal to the idea, but the thought of Demonism infiltrating the True Temples was manifestly abhorrent to her. Besides, it was an open secret that she and Terati were lovers, and she had evidently been swayed by her bedmate's opinion.
Duke Nablin's outright bigotry had been so strong that he had actually convinced himself of the Dynast's guilt almost immediately, aided by his disgust at the thought of his Human liege taking an Unhuman lover, even an Elven one. Duke Arlen had been more cautious, but the weight of the evidence, so logically presented, had convinced him in the end.
The remainder of the conspirators—although they would, Marrin hoped, never come to think of themselves as such—had largely followed along in their superiors' direction, ties of blood, money, and patronage ensuring their loyalty.
Once they had been convinced, the only remaining deception had been to get the Captain of the Dynast's Own to believe that the group seeking audience with his Dynast were actually send to assassinate him. It had certainly helped that Captain was an unbelievably paranoid man, in addition to being unshakeably loyal, something that had actually served him well over his many years of service. This time, however, his suspicious accusations had caused tempers to heat—aided by Marrin's subtle nudges on both sides—until someone had snapped. The Palatine still didn't know who it was, and would likely never find out, but within heartbeats blood had been drawn. The Dynast's Own had defended their liege with all the uncompromising fervour for which they had been selected, and eventually Power had been thrown. That had only served to justify Magus Terati's suspicions of Demonic gifts, and she had wasted no time in calling in reinforcements of her own.
The Power battle had surged to completely overshadow the merely mundane conflict, as the Magi of the Dynast's Own had traded spells with Terati's Power-weavers to mutual chaos. It would be days before a detailed account of the battle was finally worked out, if ever, but eventually the defenders had been pushed back into the Dynast's apartments themselves, overwhelmed by the strength Terati could summon.
Then the Dynast himself had entered the fray, and that had ultimately been a surprise to everyone. Terati especially, it seemed likely, as all reports had her most puissant defences crushed by the Dynast's first bolt. It was probably going to require a reading of her residual aura to positively identify her body. It had been well-known that the Dynast was a powerful Magus in his own right, and he had naturally had access to the best teachers in the Imperium, not to mention an arsenal of Artefacts second to none, but it was clear that nobody had suspected just how potent he had become. The results of that battle were the gaping holes in the spire itself, and the entire structure's integrity web was dangerously unstable.
Wouldn't it be ironic if His Majesty actually was in thrall to a Demon Lord? Marrin thought wryly. It would explain a few things. That was unlikely, however. The Dynast and the entire court were scanned regularly for signs of Demonic possession and mental tampering. What had concerned the conspirators had been the possibility that the Dynast might be working for a Demon willingly, of his own volition. The Palatine shook his head, wincing as an ache reminded him of the large bruise purpling his forehead. No, more likely that Elven wench of his taught him a few new tricks.
The Dynast's Elven Consort had disappeared in the battle, and nobody seemed to know whether she had been killed in the fight—disintegration was quite possible—or had somehow managed to escape to safety. Marrin didn't care either way. What was important was that the Dynast was dead, and now the Palatine's plans could proceed.
He didn't know how long he had been sitting, but Marrin looked up to see War Marshal Berak picking his way carefully over the debris of the hall, clad in full armour. The Palatine made sure none of his thoughts were showing on his face, and instead plastered on a vaguely sympathetic expression. Berak had been not only the master of the Dynast's armies, but had also been his ruler's true friend, and his devastation was obvious. Still, he had grimly put his own grief on hold during the crisis. Given how much he and Marrin hated each other, the Palatine's sympathy was a little unusual, but everyone had been acting erratically since the Dynast's death.
"Larss," Berak said, not bothering to hide his weariness. "I've been looking all over for you."
The Palatine winced. "I was planning to head to my offices." He waved a hand vaguely in their direction. "Unhappily, it seems my offices have no roof, and are now being occupied by several large pieces of masonry."
"Ah. My apologies." Berak's expression was grudgingly accepting.
"What's the status of the military?" Marrin asked.
Berak sighed. "All garrisons have been placed on high alert. My generals have been ordered to enforce a state of emergency in their jurisdictions if they deem it necessary. Town Patrols have been doubled to discourage rioters and looters. All border fortresses have been ordered to go to full war readiness." He shrugged, his armour clinking. "I don’t expect any trouble, but…"
"… you always expect trouble," Marrin finished, and this time his slight smile was genuine. No matter what their personal feelings, he knew that the War Marshal was a highly efficient and dedicated individual, and that was the kind of person who was useful.
"What about on your end?"
"I've ordered all town councils and overseers to send daily reports for the immediate future. Curfews have been announced across the Imperium. I've also taken the liberty of having the borders closed for the time being."
The War Marshal nodded reluctantly. "I'll tell the border garrisons." His tone turned even more reluctant. "And the Heir?"
"Farran has been placed under maximum guard at his estate. We'll keep him there until you deem the situation secure, and then bring him here for the coronation."
Berak scowled. "Farran. You're sure that— You're sure His Lordship is the Heir?"
"I'm sure. The Linemasters have already confirmed it," an'Marrin said, his agreement with the War Marshal's disgust plain in his face.
The Palatine actually agreed fully with the War Marshal's opinion of Armiger Farran, but in reality he considered such objectionable traits in anyone else actually to be an asset in this boy. Barely twenty summers old, Farran had grown up surrounded by the trapping of nobility. He was not stupid by any means, but he was intellectually lazy, at least when it came to responsibility. Put him in front of a gaming board or card table, or even engage him in a conversation on philosophy or mathematics, and the boy actually gave the appearance of competence. He was affable, charismatic, and completely ineffectual at making real decisions.
All of which suited Marrin's purposes admirably, since Farran had been subtly groomed for years to follow the Palatine's lead. Dynast Farran on the throne would leave Marrin as the actual ruler of the Imperium.
"I'll let the Throne have the final judgment," Berak muttered.
The Crystal Throne certainly lived up to first part of its title, but barely qualified for the second. A huge block of apparently seamless crystal, it could blind a man if placed in full sunlight. Its interior seemed to shift from time to time, parts changing from cloudy to intensely clear, and some had sworn that they had caught glimpses of Human figures, Pretenders from ages past, trapped within the stone. For that reason, it was usually hidden away in an obscure hall, covered in a majestic cloth—it was a part of Imperial culture, after all—until it was dragged out for the purpose for which it had been created.
Actually, Magi throughout the ages had never been able to confirm just what the Throne's original purpose was. All that was known for sure was that Regald the First, First Dynast of the Var, had ordered its creation by his chief Magus—although some speculated that the thing had actually been found intact in some ruin somewhere—and had decreed that it would thereafter infallibly confirm that a new potential Dynast was, in fact, the closest blood relative of the previous one.
And it had worked. Nobody quite knew how, but somehow the Crystal Throne could unmistakably determine that an Heir was the next in the Line of Succession. There had been Pretenders, of course, those who thought that they could fool the Throne in some way and claim the Crown. They had sat on the cold crystal and promptly never been seen again. There had also been accidental Pretenders. The Throne apparently did not consider legitimate birth to be a criterion for selection, as had been proven when Armiger Thalassas, son of Dynast Dannon, had taken what everyone thought was his rightful seat and vanished. A frantic search had followed, and finally a young seamstress had been found, the first actual offspring of Dannon by a serving girl. She had become Dynast Ly-Hala the First, to the consternation of everyone in the court, and had reigned for over eighty summers.
A result of this unexpected side effect was that many Dynasts no longer bothered with official marriage, and were much more careful about the offspring they created in their dalliances.
If the Throne was quite obviously crystal, it took some small amount of imagination to see it as a chair. There was a tall, sharp-edged "back," but the "seat" was a mere roughly horizontal ledge, on which a grown man or woman could sit with a little caution. Altogether, the Artefact looked vaguely organic, as though it had grown in place in some bizarre cavern, and been mined, rather than created.
The recently deceased Dynast had died a fairly young man, without children—legitimate or otherwise—which meant that his closest living relative was his cousin, Armiger Farran, who would soon become Dynast Farran the Sixth. The facts had been scrupulously checked by the Linemasters, who were responsible for carefully recording the lines of the Imperium's often tangled noble families, and they had announced their certainty that Farran was next in line.
Which was what had brought the festivity that ran throughout Tyrassus and the Imperium on this day. The death of the previous Dynast had been a blow to the morale of the citizens, but the coronation of a new Dynast was cause to cast aside old sorrows and embrace the potential of the future.
Nowhere was this more prevalent that the Great Hall of the Imperial Palace, which was bedecked by flowers, garlands, and finery. Illusions had been cast for the occasion, making the room even more grand, and magically-restrained birds fluttered among the columns far overhead. A long, deep purple carpet ran the length of the hall from the massive gilded doors to where the Crystal Throne hulked, an odd combination of glitter and shadow.
That dichotomy could also describe the mood of those fortunate to be present for the coronation itself. When so many important and powerful men and women from throughout the Imperium, and beyond, were crammed into a single room a certain amount of tension was inevitable as strong personalities consciously and unconsciously battled for status. However, the undercurrent of tension this day was even stronger than it would normally be. No matter how careful the Linemasters were, there was always the unconscious acknowledgement that they could be wrong, which meant there was always a tiny but constant concern that the coronation could turn with shocking suddenness into an execution. And nobody would know for sure until the Heir seated himself upon the roughly chair-shaped naked stone.
Larss Marrin chatted and joked with various dignitaries as he made his way towards the Throne, and didn't even bother to disguise his enthusiasm, though nobody suspected the true cause. It had been over three Eyes since the death of the previous Dynast, and finally all his years of preparation and planning would pay off. He had just come from speaking with Farran, who was earnestly praying to the Gods that he be found worthy of the Crown, as was expected of an Heir. Nobody could fault the young man's intent and desire to actually rule well, but the visit had also confirmed the unbreakable hold the Palatine really had on his decisions.
The Palatine finally reached the base of the dais on which the Throne sat, and nodded discreetly to a page in colourful livery. The boy immediately vanished, and a few moments later a long, sonorous tolling sounded throughout the hall. It, and all the official words that would be spoken here today, was being carried on weaves of Power throughout the city, so that the common citizenry could witness their sovereign's assumption of rule.
The gathered personages fell silent with admirable haste. Several heartbeats later, a door behind the Throne opened, and Lord Farran emerged, a solemn expression on his earnest face. Farran was dressed simply in a plain brown tunic and breeches, as befit someone who was not yet officially confirmed as the Heir by the Gods, through the medium of the Crystal Throne. He came to a stop before the Throne, looking admirably humble and penitent.
As High Priest, Noven bore the task of administering the ritual oaths. The woman had aged in the Eyes since the battle that had claimed her lover, but had expressed her determination to insure that the Imperium continued, and make Terati's sacrifice worthwhile.
Now she stood in full regalia, heavily be-robed, the ten multicoloured Eyes of the Gods looking sternly down on those assembled from the top of her staff. That staff was the symbol of supreme religious power in the Imperium, representing as it did the ten most powerful Gods.
"Who are you, Lowly One, who stands before the Crystal Throne?" she intoned.
"I am Farran kel'Ruahn, and I stand to be judged in the Eyes of the Gods."
"For what are you to be judged?"
"It is my wish to claim the Throne of Var, to serve the Imperium as best I am able."
"And how do you claim Bloodline?"
"I am the son of Jhura ban'Ruahn, who was the daughter of Dynast Warran, who sired Dynast Rachek the Senior, who sired Dynast Rachek the Junior. Thus is my Bloodline established."
Noven nodded solemnly and struck the dais with her staff. "Then sit, Farran kel'Ruahn, and be judged."
There was dead silence as the Pontifex stepped back. Farran took a final breath, and then lowered himself to the Crystal Throne with a trepidation he couldn't entirely conceal.
For a moment there was no reaction, and then the Throne came to life, a white glow emanating from it. The glow brightened, and Farran could be seen within, his eyes closed, eerie coruscating lights playing over his body in a double-hand of colours, as though searching for something. Then his eyes opened in shock, and the multicoloured lights drained away. At the same time, the light from the Throne flared even brighter, becoming too intense to look at. It threw everything in the hall into stark relief, and then a thin, inhuman wail echoed through the room. With shocking suddenness, the light blinked out.
The Throne was empty.
There was utter shocked quiet for a hand of heartbeats, and then the hall exploded into excited, half-panicked conversation. Pontifex Noven had to bang her staff loudly on the floor several times before she could be heard. It took her a moment to speak.
"Farran kel'Ruahn has been found… a Pretender," she announced in a shaky voice. "The Heir is not confirmed." The ritual phrase completed, she hurried down the steps of the dais, carefully not looking at the Crystal Throne sitting with deceptive passivity.
Palatine Marrin stood in total shock. Even he had been convinced that Farran was the next Heir—that had been the whole point of the plan, after all. He had studied the Linemasters' records scrupulously, searching for any hints of hidden mistresses or bastard offspring in the related families, and he had been as sure as he could be that Farran was the one.
There's a Lost Heir out there somewhere, he thought, his mind racing, trying to work out how this situation might be salvaged. Part of it locked onto the image of the Dynast's Consort, all dark beauty and Elven grace, and wondered. Human-Elf crossbreeds were rare, but not certainly impossible. It was something to consider at length when he had the time.
The other part of his mind was already trying to figure out how to turn this to his advantage. If we don't find the Heir soon, we'll have to form a Regency Council, he thought, the beginnings of a plan already forming. And as for who might be selected to lead the Council… A mental smile formed. The only two truly likely candidates were himself and War Marshal Berak, and the military leader would almost certainly fight tooth and nail to avoid the "honour." Which left Marrin in virtual control of the Imperium. It was not as ideal as being the puppet master behind a single figurehead, since he would have to deal with the forceful personalities, politics and factions that were sure to form in a Council. However, if he could surreptitiously keep them at each others' throats, while promoting himself as the compassionate "neutral party"…
The future was looking promising indeed.
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