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Hammer Of The Earth
By Susan Krinard
LunaCopyright © 2006 Susan Krinard
All right reserved.
It was a prison. A luxurious prison, to be sure, furnished in royal style and adorned with every comfort a king's son might wish. Quintus had not seen its like since he was a young boy, not even in Danae's opulent quarters.
He thought it must be a jest, a condemned man's last view of a life he would never have. A life he had never wanted.
Quintus sat in an ivory-inlaid chair, exhausted from a long night's pacing. No one had come to see him since his transfer to Nikodemos's custody. He had expected far less pleasant accommodations, where he could remind himself with every clank of chains and breath of stale air that he was Tiberian.
But he'd been spared a painful and inevitable death at the High Priest Baalshillek's hands only to face a prospect as bitter as it was unthinkable.
He was the half-brother of Nikodemos, ruler of the Arrhidaean Empire, nephew of Alexandros the Mad. How the absent gods must be laughing.
I am Tiberian.
He slammed his twisted left hand on the chair, relishing the pain. Why had his father not told him? Why had he been allowed to grow to manhood believing that he was a true-born son of Tiberia, of the Horatii, ancient in loyalty and honor? Why had the family of Horatius Corvinus taken the terrible risk of raising the emperor's condemned bastardson?
Quintus stared at his crippled hand. Philokrates had known. Had he been the emperor's agent from the moment he had come to the Corvinus household until he had revealed himself as Talos and fled to the palace? Had he bribed Quintus's adoptive father, or threatened him with a fate worse than mere conquest?
No. No bribe, for Quintus's family had not been saved. And Nikodemos hadn't known his half-brother lived. The only man who could answer Quintus's questions was the one he had loved most and never dared trust again — Philokrates himself.
Quintus jumped up from the chair and resumed his fruitless pacing. It didn't matter how he had come to be here. His future was dubious, at best. He was caught in a war between emperor and High Priest, between his two deadliest enemies. Nikodemos might exploit or discard him, depending on his usefulness — welcome him as long-lost kin or throw him into the sacrificial flames.
But that would be the high priest's Baalshillek's desire. No, if Quintus was to die, it would be by more common and secretive means. And if he were permitted to live...
I will never be a tool. Not his nor the rebels', not even for my own people.
No common tool could turn in the hand of its master. But Quintus bore in his own flesh a weapon that Baalshillek greatly feared. Boldness and courage would count with Nikodemos, but Quintus must be cunning, as well, if he were to survive Baalshillek's machinations. He couldn't afford a moment of weakness.
His thoughts flew to Danae and the last time he'd seen her, playing the part of his hostage. She must have convinced Nikodemos of her innocence; if Quintus saw her again, it must be as if they were truly enemies.
But she might know what had become of his friends, the companions who had earned his respect and loyalty in the fight against the Stone. Rhenna of the Free People; Tahvo, shaman and healer of the far North; Cian, the shapeshifter who was neither wholly man nor beast but something of both.
Were they still in the city? Had they, too, been captured? Or were they dead by sword or evil Stonefire?
No. I will not believe it....
The door to his chambers swung open. A pair of grim young palace guards snapped to attention, spear-butts hammering the tiled floor. Two more soldiers stood behind them.
"You are to come with us," one of the guards said.
"To the emperor."
The time of judgment was here. Quintus straightened the simple chiton they had given him, adjusted the himation to cover his left arm and joined the guards. They were well disciplined, Nikodemos's men, but they had none of the too-perfect bearing that marked the Temple Guard. They were human, unbound by the Stone. But they would kill him just as swiftly if the emperor so commanded.
The guards marched their prisoner down stone corridors decorated with frescoes of victorious battle, through several doorways and into a wide, columned anteroom. A bust of Arrhidaeos, Nikodemos's father — and Quintus's — stood watch at the golden double doors at the end of the antechamber. "The emperor holds court," the guard captain said. "You will bow and hold your tongue until he addresses you."
Quintus stared straight ahead as the doors swung open. A vast space lay ahead, echoing with whispers and the shuffling of sandaled feet. War banners hung on the walls, and gold glittered on slender necks and bare arms. Braziers lit the windowless room, carrying the fragrance of rare incense. The voices of flute and lyre mingled in sensual flirtation.
Nikodemos sat on his golden throne like the king he was, thickly muscled arms draped on the lion-faced arm-rests. Tumbled hair almost covered the plain circlet on his brow. He needed no elaborate headdress to proclaim his position.
His most trusted advisers, a dozen older men and officers near his own age — commanders who had led Nikodemos's troops to victory again and again — stood at the foot of the dais. Danae sat on a stool at his knee. She wore a sheer chiton that left her right shoulder bare, and a fall of delicate golden bells spilled from her neck into the shadow between her breasts. Her hair was arranged in delicate flaxen ringlets. Her gaze was cool, sweeping over Quintus as if he didn't exist.
The other courtiers — the remainder of Nikodemos's favored Hetairoi, or Companions — followed her example. They laughed and posed as if they expected to be judged on the grace of an offhand gesture or the curve of a well-plucked brow. A few armored men stood among them, stolid warriors who bore the look of seasoned veterans. Quintus had no love of their breed, but at least they would weigh a man's worth by the strength of his sword arm and not the cut of his tunic.
With the lift of one finger, Nikodemos silenced the musicians, and all eyes turned from his face to the door.
The escort started forward. Quintus matched his steps to theirs, maintaining a soldier's bearing. He would show these effete courtiers that a Tiberian faced his fate with impeccable honor and courage. If these were to be his last moments on earth, he would not disgrace himself in the eyes of the empire's champions.
He stopped of his own accord before the guards could bar his way closer to the throne. He bowed his head the merest fraction, acknowledgment and no more. The courtiers murmured. Danae hid a yawn with slender fingers.
"Quintus Horatius Corvinus," Nikodemos said, drawling each syllable. A cupbearer obeyed his negligent summons and offered a bejewelled chalice on a chased silver platter. The emperor drank, wiped his fingers on a cloth of white linen and waved the servant aside.
"Son of Arrhidaeos," Quintus said.
Murmurs grew to soft cries of outrage. Quintus stood unmoved, legs braced apart, hands at his sides. This was not his emperor, nor his lord. He would not call Nikodemos "brother."
"Son of Arrhidaeos," Nikodemos repeated. "As you are." The hall fell silent. The courtiers looked from their emperor to Quintus. An older man, standing near the foot of the dais, muffled a cough behind his hand.
Suddenly Nikodemos laughed. He slapped the fanged lion's head under his palm, shaking his head.
"It is polite of my Hetairoi to pretend they know nothing," Nikodemos said, "but I doubt a single one of them is unaware of yesterday's events. Is that not so, Danae?"
She smiled at him, turning Quintus's blood hot and cold by turns. "It is, my lord."
"No one knows quite what to make of it," the emperor said.
"Do you, Iphikles?"
The old man of the muffled cough bowed and met his master's eyes. "Such things do not happen without purpose, Lord Emperor," he said. "But I cannot tell what that purpose may be."
"A wise answer." Nikodemos leaned back, stretching his legs. "Who could have predicted the appearance of a royal son believed long dead? Certainly not Baalshillek."
Courtiers tittered. Quintus noted which men kept straight faces, finding it less than prudent to mock the High Priest even in the emperor's stronghold.
"My brother," Nikodemos said. "Such a strange twist the Fates have brought me. And now I must judge what is to be done with him — a boy raised among my enemies. Raised to defy his own father's empire."
Quintus felt heat rise under his skin. Nikodemos was baiting him, hoping for some betrayal of untoward emotion. Waiting for a vehement denial...or capitulation.
He would get neither. Quintus held his brother's gaze and said nothing. "Alexandros," someone whispered. "Is it truly possible...?"
"Do some of you still doubt?" Nikodemos said in the same tone of lazy amusement. "Uncover your arm, brother. Let my people see how the Stone God left his mark upon you."
Quintus didn't move. One of his guards reached for the himation. Quintus raised a clenched right fist, slowly unfolded his fingers and drew the cloth away from his left arm.
Gasps sighed through the room like a rushing wave. Quintus let them look their fill and then readjusted the fabric.
"You see why my father sent young Alexandros away as a babe, to be raised in safety," Nikodemos said. "Or so he believed." He nodded to his right. A guard brought another man forward — Philokrates, blinking in the dim light, his hair a wild, white halo about his head. "I owe this reunion to Talos, who served Arrhidaeos so ably."
Talos, builder of war machines. Quintus hadn't met his former teacher since he'd learned the ugly fact of Philokrates's true identity, but he detected no change in the old Hellene. If anything, the inventor seemed more confused and uncertain than Quintus had ever seen him.
"Tell me again, old man," Nikodemos said. "Is this my brother?"
Philokrates turned his head slowly and gazed at Quintus. His brown eyes held no expression. "It is, my lord."
"And my father gave him into your care, to instruct while he lived with his adoptive Tiberian family?"
"You told me of his presence in Karchedon so that he could be of service to me, did you not?"
"Yes, my lord Emperor."
"And because you hoped to save his life from the High Priest, believing that I would show mercy."
Philokrates bowed his head. Nikodemos stroked his freshly shaven chin and half smiled at Quintus. "What would you do in my place, brother?" he asked. "If I were the rebel who had killed your men, threatened your chattel, defied your authority — would you show mercy, or risk my continued treason?"
Quintus returned the emperor's smile. "I would never be in your position."
"Such humility," Nikodemos said. "Such foolish courage. But you expect to die, do you not?"
"I expect the same fate as any of my countrymen."
"You refer, of course, to the rebel Tiberians." Nikodemos addressed his Hetairoi. "Should we admire his loyalty? Iphikles? Hylas?"
A beautiful young man stepped from the ranks of Hetairoi and flashed kohl-lined eyes at Quintus. "Perhaps he may be given a chance to prove himself, my lord."
"Indeed. But can the loyalty of such a man be altered?"
"Only if that man is wise enough to recognize his error."
"That may take some time, Hylas. Would my brother prefer imprisonment or death?"
Quintus opened his mouth to answer, but Hylas spoke over him. "He need not be lonely in his captivity," he said slyly.
Nikodemos laughed. "Not if you have your will." He looked sideways at Danae. "Perhaps he prefers other company, my dear."
"I prefer no company in this hall, Nikodemos," Quintus said. The emperor sat up and frowned. "I think my noble brother would choose death," he said. "Do you have a last request of me, Corvinus?"
The Tiberian name was like the whisper of a cold blade against Quintus's neck. The decision had been made, and there was nothing left to be lost.
"Withdraw from Tiberia," Quintus said. "Set my people free."
"I am much too fond of your country for such a sacrifice," Nikodemos said. "What do you wish for yourself?"
"An honorable death."
"Honorable. If by that you mean on a sword and not in the Stone God's fire..." He gestured to one of the officers. The man saluted smartly and bowed to his emperor. His face was seamed with old scars, and he clutched a battered plumed helmet to his cuirass. "I can think of no better man than the commander of my Persian mercenaries to perform such a task. Vanko?"
The soldier moved to stand beside Quintus and drew his curved sword. Quintus looked at Danae without turning his head. Her lips were parted, her eyes glazed with sudden fear. She believed Quintus was about to die.
Quintus had sworn to her that his life wouldn't end in Karchedon. He'd been so certain. He had achieved nothing...nothing to make this death worthwhile.
"My lord," Danae said, her voice slightly hoarse. "I beg leave to retire."
Excerpted from Hammer Of The Earth by Susan Krinard Copyright © 2006 by Susan Krinard. Excerpted by permission.
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