At the time about which I am writing, the empire existed more as an ideal than a reality. All believed that that period after Fanuiloth extended the boundaries of the empire had been a golden time, a time of civilised peace and plenty, of tolerance and justice. It was the ideal to which all ostensibly aspired, though actuality was far different. There were a number of millennial cults which periodically threw up a new pretender to the amethyst throne, but none ever progressed beyond failed insurrections and pointless riots.
More serious were the noble aspirants – with money, prestige, power and a ruthless devotion to their own interests, they could have been formidable opponents. However no duchess from the nine duchies would have accepted rule by another, so claimants to the throne always cloaked themselves in a mantle of concern for good government, restoration of ancient values, reform. Nevertheless, competing ducal families were seldom deceived. No ducal claimant really stood a chance without the support of the existing emperor. The obvious exception was the Carnias, as rulers of the largest duchy, with possibly the oldest linage of any ducal or royal family in the empire.
Forath ys Jarain – History of the Emperor Vordath I
The Duchess of Carnia’s city villa hummed with voices, the scratch of fiddles, the soft harmonies of saxophones and flutes. It sparkled with lights in the black night, a warm refuge from the crisp southerly gale which ransacked the leafless plane-trees in the avenue, driving the poor to huddle behind walls, and the guards to crouch closer to the braziers. Patrika was there, as a guest, but Cappor’s chief spy was never really at ease or off duty. She had been pleased to receive the elegantly printed invitation – it made a more direct approach unnecessary, and she wanted to see who attended the Duchess’s functions. No doubt the Duchess wanted to see her, too.
The smell of hot wax from the candles, burning tar from the torches, scent and wine, dakh, other subtler drugs infused the air. The guests – nobles, merchant princes, wizards, whores, assassins – glittered in purple and gold, emerald and crimson and bronze. Costly jewels sparkled like tiny suns on ears and necks and noses. Half the nobility were represented there, and there were coroneted heads or their heirs from eight of the nine reigning ducal houses.
Only the Duke of Cappor was not present – but then he was the king-emperor, and even for the Duchess of Carnia, he was unlikely to attend. He was a shy man, and some long-ago personal misfortune had made him melancholy and a semi-recluse. Patrika knew that he had not wanted the throne, but he had done his duty. However, his innocence and unwillingness to make a fuss had made him turn down Patrika’s offer of protection, magical or any other kind. Not that Patrika intended to pay much attention to her monarch’s wishes.
After her vision, she was afraid. The duchies were independent in all but name, and Patrika knew that the new Panthron would not be able to stop them taking nominal independence from the amethyst throne if they wished it. Only fear of the Roidan kept them in the alliance – and she knew how weak the imperial troops were, despite appearances, and how powerful the Roidan and their allies. She could not shake off the feeling that matters were coming to a head.
High-class courtesans of both sexes from the lower city mingled with the wizards and necromancers, guests of the rich and powerful. The psychic scents of power and pain, of tainted minds and mage-powers, of guilt and suffering and lust, thickened the atmosphere like smoke. She shut her mind to the telepathic row, sought her spies with her eyes instead.
Tilthon, indulging the Duchess’s current taste for decadence and opulent violence, his beautiful face deliberately disfigured by a tattoo of roses and thorns, his black leather exciting and incongruous among all the sleek silk, his dagger worn ostentatiously on his hip, setting off the bulge in his crotch. He was useful, but his past and his unhappiness made him unreliable. She allowed her eyes to linger a little too long on his slim body, her mind momentarily distracted by a surprising desire. Really, she was getting too old for this.
Handsome Steppan, deceptively innocuous, his topaz eyes misleadingly sleepy, hadn’t come, though he too had been invited. He was a brilliant spy and a powerful wizard, but his talents had been needed elsewhere – he was somewhere in the southern forests.
Varda, beautiful, ruthless – her best operative. How many webs did she run delicately along, her sting ready to dizzy or kill? Patrika could only guess. But for the time being, she was hers, she believed. She hoped so. She was fond of Varda, of all her troupe of wizards and spies. She felt Varda’s ironic emerald eyes on her, and smiled to herself.
Patrika could see among the guests the Duke of Flautiria, the ruling Duchess of Scarn, with her dissolute son. (Perhaps Tilthon might find a weak point, gain an entrance there?) All the ducal houses knew that the Panthron Nyal’s grip on the throne was weak. Would his sister get him first, or would they? Did the Duchesses want ineffectual Nyal, harmless and yielding, or his ostensibly charming sister, the vile Makala, her surreptitious essays into necromancy already tainting the scent and feel of her mind?
She would have to find out, quickly.
Pressing, it was true, but the names ringing in her head were Vordath and Fanuiloth, with visions of a sacked city waiting for its conquerors.
The conspirators were seated in her grace’s private rooms, with glasses of the best Jernan brandy warm in their hands. Giant pine logs blazed in the old-fashioned fireplace. The Duchess served them herself, a great honour, but also a precaution. Not even the most faithful servants knew what was afoot. The din of the party outside concealed their discussions as effectively as any wizard’s incantation.
“He suspects nothing.” The speaker was a grizzled old man with hard eyes. “I was talking with him this morning.” He had been a general in the imperial army. He had sworn to uphold the empire and its legitimate ruler.
“His sister, however, is not so gulled.” The Duchess gave an icy smile, her eyes as black and flat as jasper. “We must get both together if we are to succeed.” There were nods. Everyone in the room was well acquainted with the people they were discussing. It is one of the pleasanter perversions of the nobility that they prefer to murder those they know.
“You have an assassin. . . . ?”
The Duchess nodded. She thought of his lithe grace, his ruthless ardour, his uncompromising viciousness, and smiled with velvet cruelty. She did not doubt that he loved her (though she was mistaken), and she was fond of him. But when this was over, he would be dispensable, his knowledge dangerous to the new Panthra.
She would miss him, a little.
“To victory and success,” she said.
“Victory and success,” they repeated.
Then they began to fill in the details of their scheme.
At a hold far from Cappor, in the mountainous highlands of Roidan, a curl of wrought gold, a torc with countless tiny opal, topaz, onyx, emerald, sapphire eyes lay on a cushion of sooty velvet within a crystal cage. It sang to itself, of death and power, desire and perversion, treason and suffering. Numerous lives taken had added to its awareness and fell might. Coiled close round his neck, it was with its master when he sucked the existence from a street urchin at the moment of joint climax, when the power created – and taken – is at its greatest.
That was just a snack.
The main course was a white mage, a gentle harmless soul with more power than she knew, and too little awareness of evil. She was travelling quietly by herself, humming a contented shanty. The torc felt its master’s sudden hunger as he sensed her power and her enticing vulnerability. A dark joy coursed through their linked psychic web, a hunger for power and pain. The old lady felt the irresistible tug of the summoning. She fought desperately. Her horror and panic, her unavailing struggles, and then her agony as her living heart was wrenched from her chest, were sweeter than orgasm. The torc rejoiced in its increased strength, and entwined its blood-lust with its master’s, their ecstasy temporarily quenched, their power enhanced. Soon we will have more, thought the man, glorying in his power, the pain, the life he’d just taken.
In a network of caves hundreds of feet up a precipitous overhang, a shaman, on her haunches before the fire, watched these scenes in the flames, fingering the magical artefacts dangling round her neck, fretting at the fraying complexities of the web. They might plan, but she had plans, too, and she had the powers of the Great Spirit and the Earth on her side. But she was afraid that it would not be enough, and with the web waning, and its weakening speeding up . . . .
The one prophesied long ago, with unknown, hidden enemies, the webs of life and love and treachery. She was tired, and fell into a doze, waking to again see the face clearly in the ruby glow of the embers. Mother, what was she to do? She was so old, so tired, and so many things needed attention. For a long time she watched and thought, despair and worry slowing her like a drug, her wings rustling uneasily behind her.
© 2007 Nigel Puerasch. All rights reserved. Romantic m2m fiction at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Nigel_Puerasch/ and at http://groups.google.com.au/group/Nigel_Puerasch
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