Read an Excerpt
Sometimes the way a man dies is more important than how he lived. —Vespasian Augustus I, Emperor of Rustannica
He was born into a world filled with treachery, dark magic, and unresolved war.
His coming had been foretold, and his birth was a joyous event among the few mystics considered worthy to witness it. As his mother gave him life, she and her newborn were surrounded by an azure glow. Soon the glow faded to reveal the crying child for whom the hopeful Pon Q’tar clerics had waited so long. They named him Vespasian Augustus I, and it was he who was destined to lead his country to final victory over Shashida, the southern nation that had for so long threatened Rustannica’s way of life.
Immediately after the child’s birth, his mother and father were taken away. Five veiled wet nurses would take turns suckling him, ensuring that no singular attachment would form in his heart and perhaps mar his later devotion to the clerics who would shape his life. The child was everything; the woman who birthed him and the man who sired him were little more than living suppliers of unique bloodlines. The boy would be raised alone by the mysterious clerics. One day those same mystics would grant him rule over their nation.
The Pon Q’tar had explained the boy’s sudden appearance and amazing blood quality to the citizens of Rustannica as wondrous gifts of magic that were to be welcomed, rather than omens to be feared. The citizens quickly took Vespasian to their bosom, and as he matured they hungered constantly for news of his upbringing.
He had been born thirty-two Seasons of New Life ago. Today, more of Rustannica’s enemies would die.
Small numbers of captured Shashidan soldiers were usually killed outright on the battlefield by the Rustannican Imperial Order. But if the captives were numerous, they were brought in chains to Ellistium, Rustannica’s capital city. There, most would be forced into slavery; the remainder would be condemned to fight one another to the death in the “games,” a lavish spectacle staged in Ellistium’s great coliseum.
Vespasian raised one hand and held it out to Persephone, his empress. Smiling, she placed her palm atop his, and they strode out into the morning sunshine.
As the couple entered the vast coliseum, they were showered with colorful rose petals gleefully tossed down by Persephone’s many handmaidens seated in the stands above. At the sight of their revered rulers, the crowd rose to their feet and roared.
The great coliseum was the largest structure in Ellistium. Its curved stone walls, four tiers high, were covered with colorful mosaic murals depicting a variety of fearsome beasts. On each tier, ivory statues of previous emperors stood in huge carved niches.
The coliseum could accommodate one hundred thousand spectators. As he surveyed the quickly filling stands, Vespasian knew that no seats would go unsold today. These were the first games in nearly three months, and the populace was eager for blood. The mighty Twenty-third Legion had recently been ordered home after a successful campaign, and many Shashidan soldiers had been taken prisoner—sufficient numbers for a full fifteen days of games.
Open arches built into the four tiers allowed light and air into the passageways by which the eager mob entered. Colorful banners fluttered atop the curving walls. Two great red canopies, unfurled from opposite sidewalls, extended nearly to the center of the arena. Their far sides were attached to towering solid turquoise columns that had been sunk into the arena floor. Each column was topped with a gold statue of Vespasian dressed in full military regalia.
The morning sun glinted off the statues and filtered through the red canopies, giving the sand-covered floor the appearance of having already been bloodied and whetting the crowd’s appetite for the spectacles that would soon unfold.
The emperor looked from one end of the arena to the other. Massive iron gates stood in the walls at each end, their twin doors guarded by stern Imperial Order centurions. Over each portal was inlaid an elaborate inscription in pure silver. Above the northern doors the inscription read: The Gates of Life. The southern one read: The Gates of Death.
The emperor’s private box was a lavish affair of elegant blue marble furnished with two ivory thrones, along with simpler chairs reserved for privileged advisors and guests. In each of the four corners, banners of purple and gold fluttered from onyx columns, and ivy vines graced the walls. A purple silk canopy lay stretched between the four columns over the box, shielding the emperor and his entourage from the hot sun. In one corner stood the nervous Games Master, the man responsible for the smooth management of the upcoming spectacle.
The emperor’s box was flanked by two other elaborate boxes. The one to the left was reserved for the Imperial Order’s eighty legion tribunes, though only those few not afield in the seemingly never-ending war against Shashida would attend the games.
The box to the right was reserved for the Priory of Virtue. All twenty seats were carved from solid ivory and lined with red velvet cushions.
The moment the emperor and empress sat down, Shashidan slaves appeared with a multitude of delicacies: wine, sweetmeats, shellfish, grilled breasts of game birds, and boiled eggs; piles of cakes, pastries, and tarts, all sweetened with honey.
As Persephone settled into her chair, the crowd continued to roar and the last of the rose petals fluttered down. She casually employed the craft, causing a golden wine goblet to rise from a tray and float toward her. As she took it in her hand, she turned to regard the man she loved more than life.
Although her marriage to Vespasian had been arranged by the Pon Q’tar, Persephone had been smitten at first sight. To her initial dismay, the same had not been true of her intended; but with time, he had come to return her love. The only shadow over their marriage was her failure to produce an heir. Repeated physical examinations of the empress by the Pon Q’tar clerics had produced no answers. Even their cleverly concocted fertility potions and specially designed enchantments had not helped her to conceive.
Persephone knew that she had been chosen only because of the unusually high quality of her blood. The Pon Q’tar had searched long and hard for a young girl of such highly endowed blood. Persephone had been forcibly taken from her parents at the age of three and, like Vespasian, had been raised and trained by the Pon Q’tar clerics. Her instruction in the arts of magic, politics, and war had rivaled Vespasian’s in every way—but her specialty was palace intrigue, and some confidants dared to whisper that no one outshone her in that area, not even her husband.
She smiled as she regarded Vespasian beside her. He looked splendid in his dress uniform. Dark blue leather armor adorned with elaborate silver filigree covered a shiny black tunic. He wore dark blue filigreed leather greaves and gauntlets and black sandals. His purple and gold cape was attached to his armor at each shoulder, and a golden dress sword in a filigreed scabbard hung at one hip. In celebration of the games, the traditional crown of laurel leaves fashioned from solid gold sat atop his blond curls.
As she regarded him, Vespasian turned to look at his wife. His dark blue eyes met her light blue ones, and he reached to stroke a strand of her long blond hair. She was wearing a gown of vibrant red silk. Golden snakes wound around her upper arms, and matching earrings hung from her lobes. She looked radiant. Leaning closer, Vespasian gave her a conspiratorial smile.
“I hope that you don’t mind attending the games today, my dear,” he whispered. “I fear that they have become a way of life.”
Persephone smiled in return. “I enjoy the spectacles as much as anyone,” she whispered back. “You know that. Besides, my place is with you. The palace is wild with rumors that there is to be some form of entertainment today. I must say that I’m curious.”
Vespasian nodded. “Along with the usual lot of criminals and professional combatants, newly captured Shashidan skeens will participate today. They were recently taken by the Twenty-third Legion.”
“Did they give up any useful information?” Persephone asked.
Vespasian shook his head. “We heard little that we did not already know.”
As he looked back out over the massive crowd, Vespasian couldn’t help but be reminded of the immense importance of class structure in Rustannican life. There were four distinct levels, and one’s position in society was irrevocably determined at birth by the nature of his or her blood.
The “krithians,” those lucky few born with fully endowed blood that complete command over the craft of magic, were protected by special laws and privileges, and considered to be the cream of the Rustannican Empire. Below the krithians were those born with partially endowed blood. They were known as “hematites,” or simply “partials.” They, too, were able to call on the craft, but their gifts were limited to the craft’s organic side, such as herbmastery. The next class of citizens was comprised of those with unendowed blood. Called “phrygians,” they were unable to summon the craft in any form. The lowest class was the huge multitudes of slaves, also known as “skeens.” By way of continual captures and new births, the slave population had grown so much in recent years that it made up a full third of Rustannica’s population.
Regardless of age, gender, or blood type, all skeens were captured Shashidan soldiers, civilians, or their descendants. Those not chosen to supply fodder for the games were sold at auction by the government in Ellistium’s great forum on the first of each month. If they had once been magic practitioners, the craft was immediately used to wipe their memories clean of the ability to call upon their gifts, thus ensuring that they would never again present a threat to the empire.
As he surveyed the swelling crowd, Vespasian sat back in his throne, thinking. Most Rustannicans believed that their nation’s strength lay in her vast legions and her treasury of gold. But they were wrong. Rustannica’s real power lay in the continuing survival of left-leaning endowed blood. That was the true ruling factor here, and nothing would ever change it.
Twelve more people entered the emperor’s private box. The seven men and five women greeted Vespasian and Persephone warmly, then took nearby seats. These august mystics made up the revered Pon Q’tar. Protected by time enchantments, each was scores of centuries old, and some had even taken part in the ancient revolt against Shashida and the start of the War of Attrition. Their many responsibilities included ongoing craft research, advising the emperor and empress, and overseeing the day-to-day operations of the legions. Each cleric was dressed in a bright white robe, its folds gracefully draping from the left shoulder to the right thigh. A deep burgundy border ran all along the garment’s length, signifying its wearer’s lofty office.
Shortly after the Pon Q’tar arrived, the crowd quieted—a sign that the women of the Priory of Virtue were filing into their box on Vespasian’s right. They wore diaphanous white gowns; matching veils fell from simple gold circlets to cover their faces. No other jewelry adorned them, and no badges or symbols of their sisterhood were evident. As they took their seats, the First Mistress of the Priory, also known as the Femiculi, bowed to Vespasian. He bowed in return, and the crowd quickly returned to its raucous ways.
Soon thirty of the imperial tribunes appeared. They were in full dress uniform, complete with gold and red horsehair-combed helmets and blood-red capes. Each man saluted Vespasian by thumping his closed fist against his golden breastplate, then quickly opening his palm and extending his arm straight ahead. They then removed their helmets and took their seats.
By law, each tribune and several of the centurions serving under him had to be krithians trained in the ways of magic as well as warfare. Groups of lesser mystics called Heretics of the Guild also accompanied each legion, to offer additional strength and guidance in the craft.
Once his officers were in place, the First Tribune came to join Vespasian in his box. Lucius Marius had been Vespasian’s closest friend since their earliest days when they took their military training together. After Vespasian, Persephone, and the lead Pon Q’tar cleric, Lucius was the highest ranking person in Rustannica. With a smile and a respectful nod for Vespasian, Lucius placed his helmet on the floor and bent over Persephone’s hand to kiss it.
Persephone liked Lucius. Despite his reputation as a rake and a great lover of wine and gaiety, Lucius was good company and a wise counselor. She returned his smile and handed him a goblet of red wine.
At last, Gracchus Junius, the lead Pon Q’tar mystic, quietly rose from his chair and approached the emperor, a worried expression on his aged face. Vespasian placed a hand on the mystic’s shoulder.
“What bothers my old tutor?” he asked. “This is to be a happy day!”
Without answering, Gracchus produced a wax tablet diptych from the folds of his robe. The diptych’s covers were made of solid gold held together by two jeweled rings.
Vespasian recognized the unique book immediately. It presence meant only one thing: The Oraculum had word for him. If Gracchus was willing to present an Oraculum diptych to his emperor in public, the news had to be of the greatest urgency.
Taking the book into his hands, Vespasian gave Persephone and Lucius a wary look. Persephone pursed her lips; Lucius raised an eyebrow. Vespasian returned his gaze to his cleric.
“It has been some time since she has spoken,” he said quietly.
“Yes, Highness,” Gracchus said in his gravely voice. “And her newest pronouncements are not reassuring.”
Vespasian looked at the book to make sure that Gracchus’ personal red wax signet seal was still intact. “Is the news bad?” he asked.
Gracchus paused to look out over the restless crowd. In some areas, squabbles had broken out over the best seats, and the widespread drunkenness and debauchery that usually accompanied the games had begun sooner than usual.
“The news is distressing,” he said finally. “Perhaps you should start the games before reading the diptych. The crowd becomes restless.”
Vespasian shook his head. “I will read it now. Let the mob wait a little longer.”
With a snap of his fingers, he called Gaius, the Games Master, to his side. Once a slave and arena combatant himself, the grizzled old man had long ago lost one eye and several fingers to the games before being given his freedom by one of Vespasian’s predecessors. Granting freedom to a slave, criminal, or enemy of the empire who had fought well in the arena was rare, and only the emperor could bestow such an honor. In his twelve years as Rustannica’s ruler, Vespasian had never done so.
Now Vespasian looked up into the Games Master’s remaining brown eye. “Give them the bread,” he ordered. “That should placate them for a while.”