He had only returned to court that day. Now, as evening fell, he prepared. The clothing he had ordered was waiting for him. A bright blue robe in silk brocade—hundreds of peacock feathers embellished the train. He slipped his arms inside and wrapped the robe across his chest, smoothing the rich fabric over the simple white linen under-robe he wore. He fastened a broad green belt at his back to hold the whole in place, pulled on gold gloves and examined himself in the mirror. He smiled. It was the most ostentatious thing he had ever worn and his tailor had outdone herself. Perception was everything. At court he was seen as a bauble, a vain young dandy. It was always better to be underestimated in his line of work.
He brushed his long blonde hair, leaving it loose to hang across his shoulders. Then he rummaged through pots and bottles until he found the right shade of blue. Just a little across his eyelid, a sprinkle of gold. He slipped a gold ring over one glove—it was a gift from the Emperor, a rare token of his favour and a reward for services rendered. Only he and his patron knew what those services were. The third person was dead.
He took his narrow, razor-sharp stiletto, sheathed in its plain black scabbard and slipped it into the top of one boot. It was a workmanlike weapon, practical. It was the only thing he wore that favoured utility over form.
The Festival of Gifting was upon them and many of the Empire’s most powerful people gathered in the Great Hall for an evening of celebration. It was a good excuse to make an appearance and a plausible reason for the return from his home province. Ostensibly, he returned home to visit his father, who was Governor. Actually, he was about the Emperor’s work.
He padded down the arched corridors of the palace. His boots, made of the softest leather, didn’t make a sound. He always took care of the little details. He could never be sure when he would need to move silently.
The main palace was built on a grand scale and the doors to the Great Hall were no exception – they rose up in a great wooden arch, carved with the symbols of the kingdoms that had been subsumed within His Empire. It was a reminder, and not a subtle one, to those who entered, that they were vassals. Antion, the Master of Ceremonies, caught his eye as he approached.
“Serin, you are expected.”
Antion gestured to the guard and they pushed the great doors open for him to enter. He could see through the archway that there were already a great many gathered.
“Thank you, Master Antion,” he said, lowering his eyes as he passed. These small gestures, he found, pleased the court functionaries. He had so little rank – the youngest son of a provincial governor—he barely cared to hold himself above those others. They all lived at His mercy. Serin was favoured at that moment – but hours from now, days, weeks, who knew?
Through the doorway, he paused and looked across the vast hall towards the dais that rose along the far wall. Bright witch-lights hung down from the intricately tiled ceiling, setting the white marbled walls and floor aglow. The Emperor sat on the throne, alone on the far dais, black clad and still. Serin bowed and, as he did, dark eyes met his. A slight incline of the head. A signal the Emperor wished his presence after the celebrations had ceased.
Serin straightened and searched the room for a familiar face. He noticed with pleasure that the eyes of the court were on him, taking in his clothing, his beauty. He knew he was beautiful. It was a professional necessity.
“Serin!” A young man strode towards him, drink in hand, dress uniform immaculately pressed and polished.
“Captain Lelantos. I had thought you on campaign.”
The young Captain flashed him a toothy smile. His flushed complexion suggested he had already drunk too much. He leaned a little too close to Serin.
“We butchered them to a man,” he said in hushed tones. “General Gelan grew impatient.”
Serin noticed the strain in his face, saw that the smile was a mask. He could smell the sharp sweat of the man. Panic, fear.
“Tomorrow we will talk, I promise. We will walk together in the Emperor’s meadows and you can tell me what’s on your mind,” Serin promised. “Tonight is a night of celebration, my friend. Have a care.”
He kept his tone light but he flashed his friend a sharp look of caution.
“You are too good, Serin,” said Lelantos, relaxing a little.
Serin lowered his eyes and gave a little laugh, as though Lelantos had just complimented him on his outfit. He felt the eyes of the court upon him still. Perception was everything.
“Will you find me a drink?” he asked in the hope of distracting the Captain and diffusing the tension.
“Of course,” replied Lelantos. “Forgive my terrible manners.”
He went looking for a servant and Serin watched him carefully. He had never seen the man in such a state; Lelantos was a rising star in the Imperial Army, feted for his skill, his looks, his charm, feted for his ancestry and his pure blood in an Empire where such things had been officially swept away, but which remained in the minds of the Anean conquerors. He had the black hair and sharp features of the Anean people who had, through the Emperor’s might and leadership, come to conquer half the known world. Serin’s own blonde hair and gaunt frame betrayed him as a mere provincial, no matter what his personal charms.
He saw the Emperor’s spy-master, Megea, out of the corner of his eye. She noticed him, he felt sure, but gave no indication. He did not expect her to acknowledge him publicly. His work for the Emperor was not widely known.
Lelantos returned with both the drinks and an older woman in tow who Serin recognised as the Emperor’s treasurer, Thalia. She was renowned for both her wealth and her wit and had somehow avoided the Emperor’s wrath, where so many others had failed, so that she had lived to be older than most of the court. Although, in truth, that was not much of a claim. Negotiating the vicissitudes of the Emperor’s will was a young person’s game and most retired to the provinces if they lived to grow grey. She was a handsome woman with deep set eyes and an aquiline nose. Her plain, burgundy robe contrasted starkly with Serin’s own flamboyant contrivance.
“Serin, so glad you could join us for the Festival. And our good Captain has returned victorious, as ever. How fortunate we are to have such brave young men.”
She smiled at them both as Lelantos pursed his lips in amusement and handed Serin a goblet of wine. The band struck up a note.
“Ah! The dancing is about to start,” she continued brightly. She seemed oblivious to Lelantos’ expression but Serin would not have been as blasé. He could see that wine had made his friend bold and reckless. Thalia was no fool. “My daughters are both in attendance for the first time.”
Serin followed her gaze to the foot of a nearby pillar. Two women, the older and taller of the two in dress uniform, the younger, in a delicate gown of pale blue, stood talking to each other and laughing. They seemed oblivious to their mother’s social manoeuvring.
“Your daughter has returned from campaign as well?” Serin asked.
“Only an honour guard around the provinces, my dear. Not up among the savages like the Captain.”
Serin kept his expression neutral as he thought of the kingdom adjoining his home province, to the north, which Lelantos’ General Gelan had so recently crushed. They were no more savages than his own people, though they had held out much longer. It was some twenty years since Serin’s father had first bent his knee to the Emperor. Serin had been a baby at the time. He shot Lelantos a hard glance, hoping his friend would take a hint.
“Do you think your daughters would do us the honour of a dance?” Lelantos asked, his years of social training finally clicking into place.
And it would be an honour, Serin thought, as Thalia led them over to her daughters and made introductions. Even for Lelantos, it would have been a good match. For Serin, it was unthinkable. He held back a little as his friend followed the proper form. Lelantos was his father’s one child, heir to his house. And Serin knew too well that eldest children must always go first. He waited to be paired off with the younger daughter.
Aphea—she had an open smile and a pink cheeked glow of youth. She had a softer way about her than her sister, as is often the way with younger children, and lacked the haughtiness he associated with the Anean elite. As he led her to the floor, she grinned.
“I wish I had the confidence for such a robe. It takes one’s breath away.”
He held her in the formal style, arms stiffly aloft, one hand on her shoulder, his other held her hand. He bent his head and spoke in a low voice.
“It is harder to take these risks when you have so much to lose.”
She turned and raised her head so that their eyes met and then she gave a simple nod.
“There are expectations, that is true. Ahh! See how pleased my mother looks that Captain Lelantos dances with my sister. Our father was a great warrior, you know. She has always admired such men.”
Serin looked to Thalia and then to Lenlantos. His friend seemed to have pulled himself together now he had a distraction and was chatting and laughing with his partner.
“They would make a good match,” Serin said.
The dance began, slowly at first. He watched the other couples. Tomorrow, invitations would be sent. Parents would meet to plan unions, to build their own little empires.
And so it went. The life of the court. A rhythm that he had learned to follow, a pattern he could dance out without a thought.
It was perhaps his tenth dance. Thalia’s favour had brought him more partners than he could have hoped for. The dancers bowed to one another and the rest of the room applauded. Serin noticed the Emperor stood as he clapped. The room hushed as those assembled bowed towards the dais. Then He turned and walked out of the hall down the low corridor to His temple. It was not unusual for the Emperor to leave such gatherings early and, that night, He would have gifts of His own to give. The music struck up once more but Serin withdrew. He made his excuses, said his goodbyes, and, at length, followed down the temple corridor.
Priestess Ersa stood by the door, waiting to admit those who had an invitation. She recognised him from his many visits.
“Serin,” she said, “My apprentice will show you to a room.”
He gave a slight bow and stepped through the bronze door. Beyond was a long, low chapel built of plain, unadorned sandstone – the contrast with the Great Hall was striking. Rows of priests knelt in prayer towards the stone table which served as an altar, their faces contorted in agony. Serin noticed an older man knelt nearby had blood dripping from his ear. Prayer was exacting. The power the Emperor drew from each of His faithful through prayer left even the strongest debilitated. Serin looked away and noticed Ersa’s apprentice waiting for him to follow. She led him down the side of the chapel and along a narrow corridor until they came to a simple wooden door. He had been this way before and he knew the protocol.
“Thank you,” he said and opened the door. He stepped through into a small, windowless room, identical to all the others in that corridor. The door clicked shut behind him. The only furniture in the room was a couch placed along one wall.
Serin reached down and slid his dagger from his boot. One did not meet the Emperor with a concealed weapon, no matter how favoured. He placed the weapon, still sheathed, at the foot of the couch and then took two steps back and knelt, head bowed. He did not know how long he would have to wait so he took the opportunity to clear his mind. Mental discipline was key to any dealing with the Emperor. He was not omniscient, but He could pick up surface thoughts if He wished. Serin had made a study of disciplining his mind so that he never risked his master’s displeasure. There was an orchard beyond his father’s garden where he had often played as a child. In winter months, he had made a point of rising earlier than the rest of the household and running out to see the fresh, crisp snow, newly fallen, unspoilt by any footfall. It was towards that white vista he now looked with his mind’s-eye. He had not set foot across the perfect white blanket until later, when his older brother had come out to play and they had thrown snowballs at one another, getting under the feet of the exasperated staff.
The door clicked open and Serin felt a shiver down his spine as he sensed the Emperor’s presence.
“My little bird,” the Emperor said, his rich voice filling the room with ease. “Always pitter-pattering around in the snow. They should have named you Robin.”
The Emperor was endlessly amused by his people’s custom of naming their children after birds. It was not much favoured now, of course. An Imperial name was a more fortuitous thing to bestow. Serin kept his head bowed and felt the Emperor pass by, running a hand lightly through his hair. The Emperor came to a stop before him and crouched down on one knee. One finger traced Serin’s jawbone and stopped at his chin, lifting his head up. Serin met the Emperor’s black eyes as He looked Serin up and down. His skin was pale and hard like flawless ivory, save for the dark caverns from which his eyes sparkled blackly and his thin, greyish lips. Serin could not have said how old He was – certainly He looked no older than when they had first met at his father’s villa and the Emperor had told his father to send him to court. Serin had been twelve. Ten years ago. The Emperor wore his black hair close cropped. His clothing was simple and functional—black trousers, boots and a quilted jacket. He had no need to impress and rarely favoured court robes.
The Emperor’s lips stretched into something like a smile. “One day, I will grow too jealous of the world’s claim on you to let you go.” Serin kept his breathing level, kept his mind as clear as a winter’s day. “I found myself thinking of you when you were away. I had them fetch me a little bird—your namesake. I kept it in a cage but it did not like these warmer climes, I think—it pined for its homeland. Such a pretty little yellow head.”
The Emperor stroked his hair. Serin’s heart juddered in his chest.
“Did you do as I asked, little bird?”
“Tell me.” The Emperor clapped his hands together and stood. He noticed Serin’s dagger on the floor and stooped to pick it up. He pulled the blade from its sheath and turned it over in the torchlight. “I sometimes wonder if, beneath your beauty and your soft wiles, there lies a heart as cold and sharp as this blade.”
He sat on the couch, still holding the dagger. Serin waited but the Emperor said nothing more, so he began.
“I returned in time for the harvest. As you know, it is a tradition of my people to celebrate this time.”
“To give thanksgiving to their false gods?”
“The gods are no longer honoured, but the tradition remains. Those that were once nobility gathered at my father’s villa. I could sense something strange in the atmosphere, but when I questioned my father and brother, they seemed genuinely oblivious to the mood amongst some of their guests. I ingratiated myself amongst them—the restless ones. Those that muttered in dark corners of what once was and might still be. More than one invoked the name of the old gods. I began to suspect that your concerns were founded, but it was difficult to distinguish the nostalgia from the insurrection, it took such a subtle form. I resolved to flush them out.”
As he warmed to his story and watched the Emperor relax, he stood and began to act out the scene he described.
“I offered to perform—to sing on the night of the Harvest Moon. That day, I went to the nearest town and had one of my robes adapted for my purpose. I recalled an old story of the hunter god riding up to the sun goddess on his chariot, pulled by his wolves. I couldn’t remember the details—I was too young to have learned the old tales. But it was enough. I found a seamstress to work a sun, a moon and a wolf symbol onto my robe. It was subtle. I chose a robe that was already embellished so as not too draw too much attention. I knew that those I wanted to trap would notice anyway.
“When I was very young, I was cared for by a nurse-maid who sang the old songs. I had learned to sing them at her lap. I could still remember the words, as one can when something is learned very young. Amongst the more fashionable songs I sang that night—of the seas of fair Anea, of the love left behind on a long campaign—I inserted one of the folk songs that told of the Harvest Moon. It was just a little song.”
He began to sing. He knew it pleased the Emperor to hear him. It was, as he had said, just a small song. A simple plea to the spirits of the land to bless the harvest, to the Sun to shine, to the Hunter to please her so that she would not rage and burn. He sang in the Imperial tongue, though the original was in his native language. When he had finished the Emperor leaned back and smiled so Serin took up his tale once more.
“As I had hoped, I did not need to seek out the traitors. One of them came to me. She had once been a chief’s wife and, when he was killed, she had taken his position as leader of the Vatoni tribe. She is well respected among our people. Linnet, she is called. She approached me as the night drew on, when the wine was flowing. She praised my singing and my beauty. I allowed her to seduce me. That night, when we were alone, she began to speak of the old ways. I was careful not to lead her, but she needed little encouragement. She asked me to return with her. She said there were others who supported her cause. Who still yearned for glory and to honour the old gods. She spoke of the former chiefs of the Anderi and Sagantes. It seemed the conspiracy had already spread widely. They sought help from beyond the border, from the kingdoms to the north and the east.”
He fell silent. The Emperor smiled and he felt a wave of relief flow through his whole body.
“Bravo,” He said and put aside Serin’s knife. He came up to Serin, very close. Serin bowed his head and wished that he was not so tall. The Emperor was not a man to look down on.
“How prettily you tell it, little bird. I cannot say how much this work you have done pleases me.” The Emperor took his hand. The hand with the ring. The Emperor held the ring between two fingers and frowned. “We are beyond such trinkets now, I feel. And yet, there is a question which remains. What should be done about the negligence of your father and brother?”
Serin felt the blood drain from his face and he fought for control of his emotions. He thought of the white snow falling, covering over his panic as it began to surface.
“As you will,” he said. It came out softly as he had hoped. He managed to keep his voice steady.
The Emperor stepped back but still held his hand. He enfolded it in His own and pressed it to his heart.
“I will spare them, because of the love I hold for you.”
Serin let his breath out slowly, let snow fall over his relief. Only his gratitude he allowed to surface, his devotion.
“How perfect your obedience is, beloved. I ask only that my subjects are useful and obedient, yet what a lesson you could teach these ambitious fools about my court, these panderers and flatterers and leaching parasites. One day, when I have no more tasks for you, we will teach them together.”
“Do you wish me to return to my homeland?”
“No, no. I would not bloody these hands further.” The Emperor took both of Serin’s hands and turned them palm up. “I have baser creatures to do such deeds. You have taught me your value is higher. I will not use you as an assassin again.”
The Emperor let Serin’s hands fall. “It is the Gifting Day and, besides, I must give you some token for the work you have done.”
Serin sunk to his knees and bowed his head once more. It was a much safer place to be. He felt the Emperor’s hand on his head.
“I wish to teach you a rune of making. It is powerful magic Serin, the language of creation and destruction. I have come to realise that your mind is a gift to me—I will not squander it. For each task that you complete, I will teach another rune. The first for you will be the rune of life. In this way, you will not age as others age. Your beauty will be preserved.”
Serin closed his eyes. He did not know how to react to the gift. He felt the cold touch of the Emperor. As cold as the grave, He was. He moved, He spoke, but there was no breath, no warmth, in the man. Is that what he would become?
“What is this fear?” asked the Emperor. “I did not think you so timid.”
The Emperor grasped his hair and forced his head back so that Serin could see those cold eyes staring down. Serin realised he had allowed his thoughts free reign for a moment. He pulled them back, layered over them with ice, set a blizzard on them, hoar frost. From the depths of his heart, he pulled his fragile love for the Emperor, hung about with guilt and self-loathing. He pulled up his gratitude that the Emperor had seen in him a spark of potential and had plucked him from obscurity, for the training he had been given at court, for the work that thrilled him. These things he offered up. He felt the Emperor’s hand relax. Then his Master did something unexpected. He sat down on the floor in front of Serin and began to speak in quiet tones.
“Here, little bird, is a story for you. When I was young and headstrong, I looked at the world and I wanted it. I did not learn songs at my mother’s knee. I learned the Anean arts—how to lead, how to inspire, how to flatter, how to deceive. In those days, we did not have arcane arts as other lands did; it was from those meagre skills we wove our magic. I rose swiftly, for I was always a good study. My early victories were entirely mundane. But I was as curious as I was ambitious. In other lands, I saw unfamiliar lore, tantalising arts, and I wanted those as well. I was not cautious in those days—I had no insight into the cost I would pay. I stole ancient tomes, sometimes I simply took the entire library; I captured mystics, I hung sorcerers upside down and shook them until their secrets fell out; I broke open tombs and plundered grave goods, heedless of the curses that rained down on my head. I absorbed all the knowledge I could—I ate greedily and sometimes too fast. Runes from the north-men, the magic of death from the south, crude hexes from the bog dwellers of the west, spirit taming from the east—it was all meat to me. But, you might say, as the years went on, I have suffered a little indigestion. My flesh bears testimony to that gluttony. But I have also learned from those mistakes. So don’t fear, beloved. I will not let you stray into the Sunless Land as I have done.”
Serin met the Emperor’s eyes, as hard and black as beetle shells. His love was not a soft thing—it came like waves and wore him down. His confidences were corrosive—when His story was told, it overwrote history, family, nation. Serin felt himself slipping away.
“As you will,” said Serin. There was nothing more to say.