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The Merchant of Chaos
Copyright A Strange Geek, 2007
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The skies were still deep with the twilight prior to dawn. Imperial soldiers stirred, stretched, and set about preparing for the day's battle ahead. Their Commander sat down to a nice breakfast prepared by his personal servants as the men under him milled about, putting on armor and checking weapons.
The din faded to an uneasy quiet, save for the curious murmurs of the men. The Commander emerged from his tent into the dimness and was witness to a curious sight. Several large, diffuse orbs floated serenely past the defensive line and over the camp. They were thin and wispy, like loose gas, yet each glowed like a lamp, bathing the entire area in a pale blue radiance. The men looked up and stared at it, pointing and commenting to comrades.
Above the quiet rose a rolling thunder from the south. By the time the Commander realized what was happening, the sound had been joined by that of sword against sword and warning shouts of men.
The Commander yelled orders and his men fell into line. But by the time he had managed to recover from the surprise early attack, Duric's army had smashed through the defensive line, and aided by the Mage-light, quickly found their way to the heart of the camp.
That was all Mage Q'holan would do directly on the battlefield, and even that was in violation of Guild rules. He refused to do anything that would directly lead to men's deaths, such as conjure Mage-fire to rain down upon the Imperial lines, as several of Duric's commanders had attempted to browbeat him into doing before Duric intervened.
Yet it was significant, as it would allow Duric to defeat this legion before the second one could arrive to reinforce it, and give him that much more time to reach the Palace.
Rithas slammed his fist on the table. "Gods damn Lord Duric! He is a sorcerer!"
"It's more likely that he has a sorcerer, my Lord," said the scout. "We spotted fading Mage-light. It is likely they were able to illuminate the battlefield to allow for an early attack."
Rithas pointed to one of his adjuncts. "You. Alert the camp. Hurry the men in completing their preparations. I want to move out in less than a candlemark."
"Yes, my Lord, at once!"
As the first adjunct left, another turned to Rithas. "Lord General, with all due respect, if you had ..."
"I don't want to hear it. We had no idea that Q'holan would turn traitor."
The adjunct stared. "Q'holan? The Emperor's Prime Advisor?"
"That is the only Mage that could possibly have joined Duric's ranks. If he had one before now, he would have used it."
"I thought they were supposed to have some sort of code against directly interfering in war."
Rithas made a sour face. "Yet they enchant weapons for use by the navy. No, they change their rules to suit them, same as everyone else does when they play politics."
The adjunct looked dubious, but nodded anyway.
Rithas turned to the scout. "Return to your unit, keep track of Duric's movements." The scout saluted and left. He turned to the remaining adjunct. "Do you know anything of the other legion, the one that was sitting to the west of the Palace yesterday?"
"Yes, my Lord, they are on their way to assist. It's a bit of a scramble for them, since they are weakened and don't have full compliments of archers or horsemen." He paused. "And there's no guarantee they will get there before Duric reaches the Palace."
Rithas nodded. "They don't have to, so long as the Imperial Guard can delay Duric's entry enough. Then they can hit Duric's west flank." He picked up the map from the table and rolled it up. "All right, let's get this tent broken down."
"It is good to hear from you again, Rennis," said Roquan as the sun rose above the trees to the east.
"I'm sorry I didn't contact you sooner, but things have been rather busy for me lately," said the Farview image of Rennis.
Roquan nodded. He had noticed that Rennis looked even more lean than his usual slim figure, and his eyes looked tired even in the imperfect, shimmering Farview. "Do you have news of those Narlassi girls that I sent you?"
"Yes, I applied the counter-agent that Vanlo sent with them. They were quite upset and frightened for some while afterward. It took a few days to get one of them to even talk to anyone."
Roquan frowned. "Yes, I feared as such."
"But there is some good news. I found a village with a Maiden Elder who was sympathetic to their barren condition. They're going to wind up as indentured servants for probably most of their lives, but it was the best I could do."
"That is better than I could have done, Rennis. I am in your debt. Have you heard from Doran?"
Rennis sighed. "His heart condition seems to have gotten worse. He is stressing out too much over the war. He had another episode like he had at your Manor. His Healer has confined him to bed for awhile."
"Perhaps very soon he will take a turn for the better. Duric contacted me last night. Today he makes the final push for the Imperial Palace."
Rennis let out a relieved breath. "Great gods, don't tell me this nightmare is almost over."
"I certainly hope so, Rennis. He said there were some complications, but that he received some unexpected assistance. He would not tell me the details."
"Perhaps he will tell you later." Rennis paused and smirked. "If you can get an audience with him, that is."
Roquan allowed himself a small smile. "One hopes that Lord Duric will not let the position go to his head."
"Well, be careful. Don't expect that you'll have your own personal line to Duric all the time. He'll have to treat you like any other Overlord after that, or the others will start yelling about favoritism."
Roquan nodded. "I have said this before. I simply want to go back to being an Overlord. I will have no need to curry political favor from him."
"Not even against Trennan?"
Roquan raised an eyebrow. "Has he said something about me?"
Rennis grinned. "He's been grumbling about you being insufferable after Duric becomes Emperor."
Roquan shook his head. "I would have hoped Trennan would understand me better by now. Or that they would be talking about Freya instead."
"Freya? Freya who?"
Roquan's eyes became ice.
"Sorry. But that should give you an idea of how much talk is going on about her."
"That is what I had feared. They would let me dispose of her without a word of protest, yet they would bring me before a Conclave because of Amanda."
"And just how is Freya, now that you bring it up?"
"Withdrawn. She will barely speak to anyone."
"And she's not just planning another escape?"
"Not that I can see."
Rennis nodded. "I guess she simply can't cope with reality. I'm just glad she didn't hurt Amanda more than she did."
"Amanda is quite resilient. She seems to have handled it well."
"And what about Sirinna?"
Roquan heard the anxiety in his voice. It is likely that Rennis had tried scrupulously not to harp on her since the conversation began. Rennis had likely been waiting for this very moment. "Amanda is helping her cope, better than I could have," Roquan admitted.
"You realize what this means, don't you? About them, I mean?"
"Yes. I cannot split them up. Ever."
Rennis grinned. "Guess you'll have to see if a client will take a package deal."
"To be honest, Rennis, I do not know what to do with them. After all this, I cannot see either of them returning to the life of a slave."
Rennis chuckled. "So you're going to get even more radical on me."
"No, not radical, simply facing reality, as you had put it."
"I know, but I have to kid you about it. I want to find something to laugh at after this is all over." Rennis paused and sighed. "Really, though, I think everything about the Overlords is going to change after this."
It had been nearly a decade since Z'haas had stepped into this chamber. His footfalls across the colored tiles arranged to artfully depict the Oceanus crest echoed against curving walls of blue-gray marble. This was a "trophy room" of sorts. It was here that an Emperor would display expensive gifts received from other nations or grateful Nobility. Symbols of power were placed here as well, usually those that signified great things that the Emperor had done during his reign. The room was emptied each time a new Emperor came to the throne.
Despite this chamber having been neglected by the current sovereign, servants dutifully kept it clean, the gold polished, and the silver untarnished. Not that Z'haas had much to add to this chamber after the first part of his rule. Once he had become obsessed with rooting out Oceanus' enemies, the chamber became forgotten.
Z'haas ignored all the items gracing the walls save for one. At the opposite side from the door was a large sword, still in its scabbard, held upon a plaque mounted on the wall. It was the sword that had been used in Z'haas' formal coronation, and then given to him as a gift, as was the tradition at the time.
The Emperor carefully took it down from its plaque. He held it in his hands for a few quiet moments. Memories flickered through his head of that ceremony so long ago. His brother had been there. He had said not a word of dissent when he had been passed over for the throne, despite wanting it very badly. He had never begrudged Fenric his due and remained loyal to a fault.
Z'haas' eyes narrowed. He grasped the hilt of the sword and slid it from its scabbard. From behind him came the sound of booted feet running heavily through the corridor. The Emperor held the sword aloft and turned it one way and the other, watching the light play on the gleaming blade.
Z'haas said nothing as the guard ran into the chamber and stopped just past the threshold.
"My Emperor, we cannot find him anywhere!" the guard huffed. "Mage Q'holan is nowhere to be found, and no one remembers seeing him since yesterday."
"He is not here," Z'haas said in a seemingly unconcerned voice.
"We tried to search the grounds outside, my Emperor, but the enemy ... Lord Duric's forces are close at hand ..."
The Emperor lowered the sword and thrust it back into its sheathe. He calmly wrapped the belt about his waist and secured it before he turned around. "If you do see him, wherever he is, or whatever he is doing, kill him," said Z'haas in a cold voice.
The guard's eyes widened. "But my Emperor, he's a Mage ... we cannot ..."
"You will do as I say or you will be executed for treason. That goes for anyone in this Palace from now on that refuses to obey me or that questions my orders. Is that clear?"
The guard came to attention. "Yes, my Emperor!"
Z'haas walked up to him, one hand on the hilt of his sword. He carried his head aloft in a most regal stance as a real Emperor should. "Activate the Imperial Guard. Man the battlements and ready all defenses."
"Yes, my Emperor."
The guard started away, but the Emperor grabbed his arm.
"Tell them I expect every last man to give up his life to protect me. Tell them that my life and the life of Oceanus, is more important than their mortality."
The guard nodded nervously. "Y-yes, my Emperor."
Z'haas watched him go. He glanced behind him, his eyes darting about the chamber as he pictured in his mind's eye where he would place the heads of both Rithas and Duric. Satisfied, he nodded once and left, heading for the audience chamber.
The Imperial line was momentarily shattered by Duric's lightning pre-dawn advance but not completely broken. The Imperial Commander broke off the attack and fell back to a last set of defenses at the outer edge of the Imperial Palace grounds. As Duric closed, longbow archers rained dead-eye arrow fire from the battlements, forcing Duric to slow his advance. By the time he had reorganized his attack to deal more effectively with the resistance, reinforcements arrived from the west.
The weaker legion turned out to be no match for Duric's defenders on the west flank, but it was a drain on resources and time. Duric's first attempt to punch through the Imperial line to reach the Palace was thrown back, but casualties among the Imperial soldiers were mounting at an alarming rate.
Their already threadbare morale was reaching the breaking point, but that of Duric's army soared. Seeing victory within their grasp, the men were eager to try again, and this time they would be sure to break through and confront the Imperial Guard, the absolute last line of defense. From the start it had been a battle of time as much as it was of men. And while Duric was winning the latter, he was about to suffer a defeat on the former, for it was then that Rithas' legion arrived.
Yet Rithas had not counted on Q'holan standing within the ranks of Duric's men. Knowing that Q'holan was with Duric did little to help. Because Q'holan was the Emperor's Mage, the magic-based defenses of the Palace were tuned to him. Even though he had left, since there was no other Mage to take over for him, he was still linked to those defenses. Thus he still controlled the Mage-sight wards.
When Rithas split his legion, he sensed the mass movement of soldiers and was able to deliver a warning to Duric. He had just enough time to rearrange his flanks so that instead of enveloping Duric's army as he had hoped, Rithas' legion was forced to meet them head-on on terrain favoring Duric.
They would not hold out forever. Rithas' legion was fresh and Duric's army was growing tired despite their high spirits. Duric had to concentrate the bulk of his forces on penetrating the Palace. He had to hope that Q'holan was right, and that the Emperor was coherent enough to take out Rithas.
Lord General Rithas strode through the halls of the Imperial Palace, holding his head aloft, tall and proud. His footsteps were measured and deliberate, as if every movement was crafted to convey supreme confidence and force of will.
Behind him trailed three soldiers from his own legion, marching in step, arranged in a loose triangle. They attempted to look self-assured as well, though they did not accomplish it as well as Rithas. Nervous glances were occasionally exchanged between them, and one swallowed hard as they approached the corridor that would lead to the audience chamber.
Less than a candlemark ago, Rithas had told them of his real purpose. They had been shocked but perhaps not quite surprised. They were anxious and feared for their lives, but they were totally loyal to Rithas. They believed in their hearts that Rithas would be a better Emperor than Z'haas ever was, and thus were willing to follow the Lord General to the end.
Rithas received respectful salutes from those in the Imperial Guard that he passed, as he once commanded them directly. Some looked at him hopefully, thinking that perhaps that was his reason for his arrival.
Rithas turned down the corridor to the great double doors of the audience chamber. The two guards drew their swords as was part of their routine, and stepped before the doors. "Stop and state your business," said one of them crisply.
The Lord General came to a stop, his men stopping a breath later. Their hands gripped their crossbows tightly. "Lord General Rithas, commanding the Northern Forces and the Fifth Legion," said Rithas formally. "I wish an audience with the Emperor for matters of his security."
The guards nodded, then swiftly lowered their weapons. "Yes, the Emperor is expecting you," said one of them.
Rithas simply nodded once. He thought it a little odd that the Emperor would actually be expecting him, but he supposed that Q'holan's Mage-sight wards had told Z'haas of his approach.
The guards pulled the doors open. Rithas waited until they were open enough to accept him and his men as one unit. Uncertainty flickered in his soldiers' eyes as they started forward. They made note of where the interior guards were on either side of the door. They scanned the chamber for any other defenses and saw none.
Their eyes fell upon the Emperor and his throne. This was the first time any of them had been in his presence. They did not falter, Rithas having chosen his confidants well. They slowed their advance as Rithas continued forward, until they came to a stop not too far past the guards at the doors. They waited for the signal.
Rithas strode forward until he came to the edge of the dais. He dropped to his knee, giving the Emperor a reverent bow. The Emperor paused a long moment, leaving Rithas where he was. Without a word, he rose from the throne and slowly descended the dais.
Rithas heard Z'haas footfalls, and wondered if he had somehow missed hearing the Emperor say "rise." He did not want to take the chance, and remained where he was. It was best not to alert Z'haas and to continue to play the part of the loyal Lord General.
The Emperor stopped three arm lengths from the kneeling Rithas. With a sneer, he grabbed the hilt of his sword and yanked it from the sheathe. Rithas jerked his head up and looked at the sword in shock.
The two guards at the doors surged forward. One had run his sword through the soldier in the center before the man could turn around. The other two spun around, crossbows at the ready. The second guard was upon on of them in an instant. The soldier had no time to switch weapons. He swung his crossbow to parry the blow from the sword. The other soldier brought his crossbow to bear on the first guard.
The shot was true. The guard's blood-stained sword clattered to the stone as he groped at the bolt sticking out of his neck, blood bubbling from his mouth. He uttered a choking sound and fell.
There was a strangled noise from his compatriot. He turned in time to see his friend slide from the guard's sword and crumple to the floor. He threw his crossbow aside and drew his own sword. As he prepared to meet the remaining guard, the doors opened. Several bolts whipped through the air and converged unerringly. The remaining soldier fell.
More guards entered the chamber, swords drawn. They and the surviving member of the inside guards, his sword now stained bright crimson, stepped forward and leveled the points of their swords at Rithas.
Z'haas leveled his at Rithas' head. "Stand up, traitor."
Rithas first took a look at the carnage behind him, then turned his gaze back to the Emperor. It did not waver as he slowly rose to his feet.
Z'haas nodded to the guards. One of them stepped forward and relieved the Lord General of his sword. Rithas did not even flinch, keeping his eyes locked on Z'haas.
"You are not only a traitor, you are a fool," the Emperor sneered. "So many opportunities to usurp me when you were head of the Imperial Guard. Did you not have the stomach for it? Did you obtain your courage only when you were many leagues distant?"
Z'haas paused, baring his clenched teeth as the sword trembled from the tightness of his grip.
"Why did you not deliver this Palace to Duric when you had your chance before the start of the war?" Z'haas screamed.
Rithas shook his head. "No, that was not the way it was," he said in a voice of remarkable calm. "Not at all. I had no such thoughts."
"Why do I not believe you, Lord General?"
"Believe what you will. But I will admit to you that the seeds were planted. They were planted the day you murdered a young woman in cold blood. The day you became judge, jury, and executioner."
"The day that it ceased being about leading Oceanus and became you clinging to power."
"Be silent! I will hear no more lies. I will not be fooled by your words, for your deeds speak far louder. I should have ... I ..."
His eyes widened. Several of the guards also glanced nervously behind them. Rithas simply turned his head calmly.
Shouts of men and heavy footfalls through the main corridor drifted faintly to them. The sound rose in volume until the floor trembled from their hurried march. After reaching a crescendo, it faded as it moved to the south end of the Palace.
A moment later came the metallic clangs of sword-on-sword and sword-on-shield.
"It's started," Rithas said. "Duric's breached the outer defenses. His men are in the Palace, or about to enter it."
The Emperor's sword trembled. His eyes glistened.
"I might still save it," said Rithas.
Z'haas blinked and stared.
"I might still drive him off, or make the cost of victory so high that he cannot stomach it. Right now my forces are in the command of my adjunct. He is capable, but not proficient. He cannot hold his own against Duric."
Z'haas' teeth ground together. His fingers tightened.
"Let me take command of them, and I will ..."
Rithas never finished his sentence. He gave the Emperor a surprised look, then one of final acceptance. "S-so be it ..." he murmured as his head slumped. His body slid from the Emperor's sword and fell lifeless to the stone floor.
Z'haas stood, panting, the arm holding the sword falling heavily to his side as if the weapon had become too heavy to hold. The tip scraped along the steps as he ascended the dais. He fell into his throne and set the sword across his lap, staining his clothing with Rithas' blood.
One of the guards turned to the others and barked an order. The other two reached down to pick up the Lord General's body.
The guards looked up. "My Emperor?"
"I said leave it! Tell all the guards to join in the defense of the Palace. Defend it, defend me, or do not bother coming into my presence again."
The guards exchanged a look. "Yes, my Emperor," said one of them uneasily. All three hastily exited the chamber.
The Emperor stared at the body. He let out a deep sigh and folded his hands over the sword, oblivious to the still wet blood staining skin and clothing.
"One traitor killed. Another awaits," he said to no one.
Rithas' death could not be concealed. Too many people held Farviewing pearls bound to him. Each one charred, cracked, and in some cases, shattered, at the moment of the Lord General's violent demise.
No one else knew of Rithas' plans outside of Dollas' clan or the three soldiers. The adjunct in charge of Rithas' legion had no idea, thus he could only assume what made the most logical sense: that Duric had managed to penetrate deeply enough into the Palace to catch Rithas unawares and do away with him.
Enthusiasm and morale plunged. What use was there now, with Duric so close to victory? Once he was in power, he would order the legion to stand down. Why continue to fight and risk losing life or limb, when it was all going to be called off in short order anyway? They would simply serve the new Emperor.
The fighting between Rithas' legion and Duric's army began to wind down. It became little more than a holding action. Lord Duric noticed and decided to take a chance that it was not simply a trap. He took the strongest forces from each flank and used them to overrun the defense perimeter set up just at the entrances to the Palace.
Duric blew a hole in the final defensive lines. Now his soldiers poured inside, battling the Imperial Guard corridor by corridor. These Imperial soldiers, the absolute final defense, were unfailingly loyal to Z'haas, and few would back down.
Captain Gonnon pounded his fist on the table, nearly upsetting his goblet of rum. "I've heard enough, Lord Admiral!" he shouted. "All your words tell me is that I should strike now!"
"And for what?" Vortas thundered, bolting to his feet. "By the time we sit down for the evening meal, there will be a new Emperor on the throne! Do you believe the likes of Lord Duric will tell you to attack a gods-damned Manor?"
"You write off Z'haas too soon for my comfort, my Lord. As long as he is still upon the throne, he is the Emperor. And if I attack now, perhaps there is a chance that he will remain on the throne."
"Your assessment defies logic, Captain. How do you believe that any military action here will somehow miraculously stop Duric's advance?"
Gonnon looked exasperated. "I don't know. But I am sworn to protect the Empire and the Emperor, and I feel if I do nothing, I am turning my back on that duty."
"And if you were anchored off the coast near the Imperial Palace, I would expect you would do your duty in that regard by attempting to bombard Duric's rear guard. That would make sense. But there simply is no connection here! And I will remind you again, Captain: you are working under the auspices of the Charter. No Emperor can rescind that by fiat. It is likely an attempt to do as such that started this war in the first place."
Gonnon stared at Vortas for a long moment before finally falling heavily into his seat. "Tell me the truth, my Lord. You want Z'haas to be dethroned."
Vortas slowly sank into his chair. "My political views are not important," he said in a flat voice.
"I believe they are in this case."
Vortas let out a windy sigh. "Even if I wished such a thing, I am in the same position as you. I am too far away to affect it either way. That is my whole point all along. We are not players in this game, we are only spectators. We can cheer on our side, but little else."
Gonnon picked up his goblet and drained about half of what was left in one go. "Do you know why I joined the navy, my Lord? Why I fought to reach this rank?"
Vortas reached for the gourd and poured himself some rum. "Enlighten me, Captain."
"For the glory. For the thrill. I had some vague hope that we might actually see some real action, that some other nation would be foolish enough to rattle their saber at us."
Vortas frowned. "You were wholly misguided I would say."
"Perhaps. But it is what it is."
"And is that what you had hoped for here, Captain?" Vortas asked. "Did you hope that once you started raining Mage-fire upon the Manor, that some hidden emplacements might start firing back?"
Gonnon paused, then solemnly nodded.
"Then consider this an important lesson in reality. We don't always get what we want, and more importantly ..." He paused to take a long drink of his rum. " ... you should be careful what you wish for."
Lord Duric surveyed the damage to the corridor as he approached the group of soldiers standing at the end of the hall to the audience chamber. One of them turned and saluted at Duric's approach. "My Lord, we have not found the Emperor anywhere else in the Palace, he must still be in his audience chamber, or his personal suite," the soldier remarked.
"And there is no way he could have slipped out of the Palace?" Duric asked.
"No, my Lord, not that we know of. I suppose it may be possible he found a side entrance and is with Rithas' legion."
"That's unlikely, my Lord," said the adjunct at Duric's side. "As much as he mistrusts even his own people, and as obsessed as he is remaining in power ..."
"Yes, I understand," Duric said. He stepped forward and looked down the corridor to the double doors. There were no guards whatsoever. It was strangely pristine, the only hallway that had not seen some sort of fighting.
Lord Duric sighed. He had hoped that Z'haas would have left on his own. That would be a tacit abdication of the throne, and it would spare him the ugly task of a confrontation. He did not want to kill Z'haas, he simply wanted him out of the way.
"My Lord, I would advise you do not go in there yourself, at least not at first," said the adjunct.
"I agree, my Lord," said the soldier. "He may have kept a contingent of Imperial Guard in the chamber as a final defense."
Duric nodded. "Take your men and open the doors of the chamber. Inform me what you find."
The soldier saluted, then turned to his men and shouted orders. He gathered a contingent of ten men and advanced down the corridor.
"He is there, I know it," the adjunct said.
"Most likely," Duric said. "But I can always hope that he did the sensible thing. Even to him it must be obvious that it's over. Already the fighting has stopped outside."
"But two more legions are still on their way from the west. One may arrived before nightfall."
Before Duric could answer, the soldier came jogging back, looking mystified. "My Lord ... the Emperor is there, in the throne room, but ..."
"But what, soldier?"
"But he's alone. Just sitting on the throne with a bloody sword across his lap. No one else is with him. Not a single guard. And there are five dead bodies. I don't understand it, my Lord."
Duric frowned and nodded. "Very well. Take you men into the chamber and arrange them around the throne, but leave a respectable distance. Keep your weapons trained on him, but you will hold fire unless Z'haas does something obviously hostile towards me."
"Yes, my Lord."
"Wait, you're going in there?" the adjunct cried, alarmed. "Why not just have the men ..."
"I will not send in an execution squad. I will not set that sort of tone. There has been enough of that sort of thinking."
The adjunct nodded meekly and subsided.
Duric smiled very slightly. He clasped the young man on the shoulder. "I know, you were only concerned about my safety, but I have to do this myself if I am to have the gall to claim the throne for myself. I have to earn it, and that means taking responsibilities such as this head-on."
The adjunct slowly smiled as well, and his pride for Lord Duric swelled. "Yes, my Lord," he said more confidently.
Lord Duric turned away, let out a breath, and marched smartly down the corridor, past the soldiers flanking the door, and into the audience chamber.
His footfalls were so loud to his own ears as he stepped over the threshold that he had to stop. The enormity of this moment, both personally and historically, struck him with a blow more powerful than any opposing army could deliver. He was about to take something that he had never wanted from a man who may, in his own warped way, truly believed he was doing what was best for Oceanus.
He had to pick his way around several dead bodies. From their attire, it was clear three of them were Imperial soldiers, and the fourth an Imperial Guardsman. His eyes fell upon the corpse near the foot of the dais, and the blood splattered on the stone beneath it. From the uniform it could only be Rithas.
Duric resumed his forward march. Soldiers stood in a loose semicircle, their crossbows raised, but not quite trained on the Emperor, as if none could quite bear to do it just yet. Duric stopped at the base of the dais. He looked up. Z'haas stared impassively back, not having moved at all. He might as well have been a statue.
Duric was at a loss of what to say. He had no idea how this confrontation would go, and thus had nothing firm in mind. After a moment's thought, he settled on something he hoped sound appropriate and avoided any chest-beating on his part.
"My Emperor, your forces have fought well. They defended with honor. But it is over. The fighting must stop. No more men need to spill their blood any further."
There was a long moment of uneasy silence. The Emperor continued to stare at Duric, unblinking and unyielding. Finally, Z'haas rose from his throne. The sword lay pointed down at his side. The soldiers watched carefully, fingers tightening around their crossbows.
"You are a traitor, Lord Duric," said Z'haas in a clear, high voice.
Duric said nothing. There was no defense against the charge. In a way, it was correct, but it had been a necessity.
Z'haas started very slowly down the steps. "A traitor," he repeated. "Like Rithas before you."
Duric's gaze flicked to the sword. He saw the dusky stains upon it and on the Emperor's clothing.
The Emperor gestured to the body. "See what is done with traitors, Lord Duric. They meet justice by my hand."
The sword rose. The soldiers' crossbows rose along with it.
Z'haas was halfway down the steps. Duric looked into the Emperor's eyes and saw nothing. No sense of understanding or recognition. It was as if the Emperor believed it was just himself and Duric in the room.
"Stop," Duric called out. "Do not do this."
The Emperor did not heed. He raised the sword higher and continued walking. Fingers tightened on triggers.
"You are an enemy to the Empire!" Z'haas' voice rang out. "You are a traitor! Insurrection will not be tolerated! The Empire must be preserved!"
"Stop!" Duric shouted, holding up a hand. "Stop and look around you!"
Z'haas did indeed stop a few steps from the bottom. His head turned slowly to one side, and then the other. His eyes glistened. The sword trembled.
"I will allow you peaceful exile," said Duric. "I do not wish to take your life. Do not force my hand. Please."
The Emperor returned his gaze to Duric. His teeth clenched. His eyes blazed. He gripped the hilt with both hands and lifted the sword over one shoulder. "Death to the enemies of Oceanus," he snarled and began his leap.
Duric took a step backwards and ducked as bolts whipped through the air, making soft whistling noises as they sliced the air. Each one impacted with a sickening sound.
The leap never finished. Z'haas fell awkwardly down the remaining steps of the dais, the sword clattering loudly across the stones. Several crimson, shining stains of blood spread out over his clothing. He made one final, rasping noise and went limp.
The soldiers slowly lowered their crossbows, many looking stunned at what they had done. They exchanged looks, as if somehow expecting retribution.
There was a commotion at the door. Duric turned in time to see his adjunct and several regiment commanders burst into the chamber. One of the commanders looked around in shock. "My Lord! I was told that you ..." The commander stopped short when he saw the body of Z'haas on the floor. He looked at Duric questioningly.
"I did not want to kill him," Duric said somberly. "But he left me no choice."
The commander saw the other dead body and the blood-stained sword and understood at once. He nodded in acknowledgment.
Duric let out a deep breath. "It's over. That's all that matters. It's finally over."
The commander drew himself to attention. "Yes, it is over, my Emperor."
Before Duric could respond, the commander fell to one knee. The others followed suit, then the soldiers in turn. All bowed their heads.
"All hail, Emperor Duric Z'garon of the Oceanus Empire!" the commander cried out.
The words were repeated by the others, their voices rising with pride and carrying into the hall, where another contingent of Duric's soldiers heard. They, too, repeated the pledge. It spread through the rest of the Palace, and then out into Duric's camp.
It reached the ears of the soldiers of Rithas' legion. They paused for a moment and looked at one another, as if none of them quite wanted to be the first to succumb.
Finally, a contingent facing Duric's army sheathed their weapons and shouted the words. Slowly it spread through the rest of the ranks. The fighting ceased. Now they could stand down. They could see their families again. They had survived the war. It was over.
And through it all, there was only one thought in Duric's head.
The easy part is over. Now the real work begins.
There came a gentle knock on the door to Vortas' cabin at dusk. "Enter."
Captain Gonnon slipped quietly inside with a small sigh.
Vortas nodded. "Yes, I take it you received the same Farview that I did."
"I suppose I should be grateful to you, Lord Admiral," Gonnon said in a low voice. "I likely would not have been seen in a very good light with Emperor Z'garon had I obeyed Z'haas' orders."
"I surmised as much. And your orders now?"
"Strangely enough, he has told me to remain at anchor and await further orders."
Vortas nodded. "I am not surprised. He may be having trouble convincing other Fleet Captains of the change in command. The navy is the one component of the military under the Emperor's control, save for the stipulations in the Charter. Many of them were hand-picked for their positions by Z'haas."
Gonnon smiled uneasily. "Including me. He seemed to be okay with me."
"He contacted me first," said Vortas, leaning back in his seat. "I informed him that you could be trusted."
Gonnon nodded. "Thank you, Lord Admiral. So do you believe there is still a danger to the Manor?"
"The Emperor wishes to insure that Z'haas had not given similar orders to other fleets."
Gonnon frowned. "I do not relish the thought of opening fire on fellow Oceanus ships."
"Neither do I, and I doubt it will come to that. It is a precaution and nothing more. He will likely let you set sail within a day or two once he has confirmed the locations of all the fleets from the merchants."
"It's hard to imagine this happened. I guess I just assumed Z'haas would be on the throne until I retired. He was a fixture, you know?"
Vortas stood up. "Things change, Captain, and all we can do is cope with it." He stepped up to Gonnon and clasped him on the shoulder. "I will return to my ship this evening and head back to Boddas' fleet in the morning. Things are well in hand here."
Gonnon smiled at the note of confidence. "Please inform me if there is anything I can do, my Lord."
Vortas nodded and smiled as well. He stepped past Gonnon and left the cabin for the last time.
Dusk deepened to twilight.
"I believe everything is under control now, Tarras," said Duric. "All the legions have reported and have sworn fealty to me. I am still a little leery of the fleets, but so far each one is where they said they are. I hope to get a complete report on them by this time tomorrow."
The Farview image of Tarras nodded. A very tiny smile played at his lips as his eyes darted around Duric's frame. "It seems the throne is not as opulent as I had been led to believe, my Emperor."
Duric smirked. "That's because I am sitting at a desk in the Emperor's -- in my -- private office in the Imperial suite. I'm not sitting on that throne until I have had a chance to call in an architect. That place is more like a mausoleum than a throne room. Even then, I plan to spend as little time on it as possible."
"You will need to now and then. Foreign ambassadors and other dignitaries expect it. And I suspect Lord Uras will pitch a fit if you met him anywhere else."
Duric raised an eyebrow. "He is coming here? He could at least let me get the blood cleaned from the floor."
"He is coming overland, not by Portal. Claims his 'old bones' can't take Portal travel anymore. You should know he has appointed himself your adviser."
Duric rolled his eyes. "Let me guess. He feels he is the only one qualified to teach me how to be an Emperor."
"I would not dismiss all of his advice, my Emperor," said Tarras. "He does know how the game is played. You simply need to gently inform him that you intend to change the rules."
"Damn right I am. And really, Tarras, can you of all people please call me Duric?"
Tarras shook his head sadly. "Unfortunately I cannot, my Emperor."
"Cannot or will not?"
"A little of both. I can still hear the reluctance in your voice for your position. The best way to force you to accept it is by observing the proper protocol, my Emperor."
Duric sighed. "I suppose so. There will be a lot to get used to."
"You are off to a good start. And you are unique in that you have allies in both the Noble Lords and the Overlords. Most Emperors can only hope for tacit acceptance. Is your old province Keyas provided for, my Emperor?"
Duric nodded. "Yardon is not the best, but he's capable. He will be a fine Noble Lord given time." His eyes clouded. "The best one for the job is no longer with us."
Tarras nodded solemnly. "Would that this victory could bring her back ..."
"Let's not go there, either of us. This was never about her. I don't want to make it about her now."
"Now a question for you," said Duric. "How goes the preparations at the Noble Lord Palaces?"
"Finished as best as they can be," Tarras replied. "If a mass invasion by Portal does come, we will be ready."
"I have been in touch with Roquan. He wishes me to send some men to the two Manors that were abandoned and find the records that their Overlords kept concerning their slave transactions. It could tell us what Noble Lords would be most at risk."
Tarras nodded. "Very good. I suspect they may get lucky regardless and take a few of the more lazy or complacent ones, but nothing that could not be handled with the Imperial legions."
Duric considered. "That's a sticking point. According to the Charter, I should disband them."
"Unless there is a clear threat to the realm, my Emperor. And this time we know what it is and can concur. You will get no argument from the Noble Lords on this matter, and I am sure Uras will confirm that."
"Thank you." Duric leaned back in his seat and stretched. "I hate to end this, Tarras, as it helps to talk to a familiar face, but I am bone-weary and I have a lot to do tomorrow."
"I understand. Good day and good luck to you, Emperor Z'garon."
"Good day, Lord Tarras."
Twilight faded to night.
"Is it over, Amanda?" Sirinna whispered urgently in the darkness as she clutched Amanda. "Is it really over?"
Amanda hugged her tightly back. "Yes, Sirinna, it is, Master Roquan told me earlier. Z'haas is gone. The war is over."
"And the ships ...?"
"They're still here, but they're not going to attack." Amanda closed her eyes and let out a long sigh of relief. "We're safe, Sirinna."
"Does this mean things will go back to normal?"
Amanda broke off the embrace and looked into her lover's eyes. "What do you mean?"
"I want things to be like they were, Amanda. Or at least most of it. I just want to train you and be useful to Master Roquan, a-and ..."
Amanda sighed softly. "Sirinna, there's always going to be something different because you're different now. I don't think you'll be satisfied with what was normal before."
Sirinna let out a heartfelt sigh. "You're right. I just ... I just don't want to worry about things so much. You can't imagine how happy I am that this war is over. I don't even understand all of it and I'm still glad."
Amanda smiled. "So am I. At least there's someone good on the throne now."
Sirinna beamed. "Yes, and you were his slave at one time! Perhaps he will want you again at some point. You'll get to live at the ... um ..."
Amanda's smile turned wan.
"I did it again. I slipped back into Trainer mode. Of course I couldn't see you leaving, Amanda."
"I know. But I doubt he will want me. I don't think he will have the time for such things."
"Leaders should always make the time for such things. It keeps their stress down."
"What's so funny?" Sirinna asked, though she was chuckling as well.
"You really will always be a Trainer, Sirinna, and there's nothing wrong with that. And you will always be useful."
Sirinna slowly smiled again and kissed Amanda tenderly.
On the other side of the world, the morning sun rose higher into the sky, illuminating the holy mountain in snow-capped majesty. Jollis found her on the balcony, looking out over the gardens. He came up to her and slipped an arm around her slim waist. "So lost in thought are you this morning, Shella."
"You will be leaving me again soon," she said in a soft voice.
Jollis paused. "Yes."
Shella continued to stare across the landscape, her eyes flitting up to the temple. "I think I had forgotten how much I missed you."
Jollis' arm tightened around her waist.
"But you cannot say the same about me, can you?"
Jollis let out a small sigh. "No."
Shella turned to him. She let him take her into his arms. Despite her somber mood, she felt her skin flush warm at his touch. He still excited her. "Did I enter your thoughts at all, my little Wanderer? Did you at least have a passing thought?"
"Of course I did, Shella."
Shella placed a hand against his chest. "Please, do not lie to me. If you did not, it is okay to say so. I know about your mental disciplines of blocking everything out that could distract you."
"And you relegate yourself to a mere distraction, Shella? It distresses me that you would sell yourself so short."
Shella's lips curled into a hint of a smile.
"Is this why you remained a Companion? So that you could be with me again when I returned?"
Shella's smile widened. "Now who is selling whom short?"
"Forgive me if I offended ..."
Shella laughed softly and tapped his nose lightly with her finger. "I need to work on your sense of humor. No, Jollis, that is not exclusively my reason. If I were not a Companion, I would be free to see whomever I wished."
"And would you have seen me in that case?"
Shella paused. "Ah, perhaps we have found it. Perhaps I was afraid I would not. That I would find another interest. Perhaps that is it."
Jollis looked concerned. "That is not a reason to remain a Companion. It must be ..."
A mellow chime sounded through the apartment. Shella slipped out of Jollis' arms as Jollis gave her a forlorn look. "Answer it. It is likely important."
Jollis lingered for a moment, then rushed from the balcony. "Be welcome," he called out.
The door opened, and a Cohort entered. "My Wanderer, it has happened," he said excitedly. "The war has concluded. Duric is on the throne."
"Very good. Contact Master Kyllos at once. I will meet him upon the Field of War."
"There is one other thing. The fleet at the D'ronstaq Manor still lingers. We do not believe it will attack the Manor any longer, but it is still anchored."
Jollis nodded. "A complication, but one that can be turned into an opportunity. Stop at the Portal facility on the way to Master Kyllos. Inform them that we will be needing the ocean Portal after all."
The Cohort bowed his head and seemed to hesitate.
"A problem?" asked Jollis.
"It is just I cannot believe that it is finally over. The war, that is."
Jollis smiled. "Ah, the war may be over, my friend, but for us, the work has only now truly begun."
|Main Page --> Completed Works --> The Merchant of Chaos --> Chapter 44 of 49|
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