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Josan was hungry. And as his hunger grew, so too did his unease.
Missing a single breakfast would not harm him. It was an annoyance, but nothing compared to the true hunger he had experienced during those weeks in the northern wilderness when he had fled the twin perils of imperial justice and his growing madness. But those days were behind him. He had come to terms with the soul madness that had been inflicted upon him, and had yielded himself to the empress's justice. To his astonishment, in return for his obeisance she had spared his life—commuting a death sentence into mere imprisonment.
Not that he was called a prisoner. No, he was a most honored guest, given his own apartment within the imperial complex. And if the walls of that apartment were riddled with spy-holes, so that every moment of his life was observed, waking or sleeping, he knew better than to complain. There were far harsher alternatives.
His life was carefully scripted, as if unvarying routine was proof against treachery. Each morning he rose with the dawn, washed, dressed, and ate a solitary breakfast of hot porridge or cold soup, depending on the season. Then he would study his scrolls until it was time for lunch. After lunch he would take the two hours of exercise he was permitted, walking through the imperial gardens under the watchful eye of his escort. Returning to his rooms, he would read and meditate until it was time for dinner. When the sun set, he went to bed.
On the third day of each week, Ferenc came to play tiles. A minor clerk in Proconsul Zuberi's office, Ferenc had subtly tried to elicit information in his first visits. But Josan had deflected every question, and in time Ferenc had ceased his interrogations. He still came once a week, but now they played at tiles in silence, conversing only to discuss the game. Josan did not know why Ferenc continued to visit him, but he was grateful nonetheless.
On the last day of each week, a monk of the Learned Brethren delivered new scrolls for Josan to read and collected those that he had finished. Josan was never allowed to speak with the monks; instead they handed their precious burdens over to one of the slaves, who ensured that the scrolls were thoroughly inspected before they were passed on.
It had been three months before the empress had entrusted him with parchment and pen. The only communication he was allowed with outsiders was the weekly list of books that he sent to the brethren. Sometimes the books he requested were delivered promptly, and at other times his requests were ignored. There was never any explanation, which left him to wonder if another scholar was researching the tomes he had requested, or if they had somehow been deemed subversive.
His routine varied only slightly with the seasons. In the cooler months, he studied in the morning and took his exercise in the afternoon, but once spring came he reversed the pattern, taking his exercise in the morning, when there were fewer people around.
Occasionally the empress would summon him, breaking the monotony of his existence. Months had passed since the last execution she had required him to witness, but there were still formal occasions during which he was displayed as a symbol of her power. A proud man might have balked at being cast in such a role, but Josan knew better than to test the limits of the empress's patience.
He had played the role of Prince Lucius for ten months now. It had been even longer since anyone had called him by his true name. Now entire days passed when he forgot that he was playing a role, that Lucius was not who he was. He had allowed himself to sink deep into his role, knowing that any lapse might mean his death.
Yet none seemed to question his transformation from dissolute prince to studious scholar—perhaps because reading was the only occupation that he was permitted. It was fortunate that none of Prince Lucius's former friends came to see him—there were few left alive who could claim to have known him well, and they were far too intent on putting distance between themselves and the traitor. And as for the books he requested, he knew better than openly to request works on magic, instead reading histories of the early years of the empire and children's tales, gleaning what small nuggets of information he could from among their pages.
Yet for all that it had chafed, the unvaried routine of his existence also protected him. He was safe as long as he drew no attention to himself and gave the empress no reason to question his loyalties.
But now his routine had been broken, and he did not know what to make of this change. Could it be as simple as the servants having forgotten him? Though the servants were forbidden to gossip with him, yesterday he had overheard one of them tell his guard that Princess Jacinta had gone into labor. The birth of the long-awaited imperial heir might well have overwhelmed the palace staff, already burdened with the preparations for the public celebration of Empress Nerissa's birthday. At such a time, it would be easy to overlook the needs of a single man.
Or had the breakfast been tainted? It had been months since anyone had tried to poison him, but it would be foolish to believe that his enemies had forgotten him.
But neither would explain why no one had arrived to relieve the guard outside his door.
Not for the first time, he cursed his ignorance, which chafed far more than his confinement. A simple question to one of the palace functionaries would relieve his mind, but instead he was reduced to guessing blindly, constructing one improbable hypothesis after another.
Restlessly he paced his study, watching as a square of sunlight crept slowly across the floor. Time passed, and still no one came. Finally, nerves stretched taut, he broke the routine and opened the door to the corridor.
It swung inwards, revealing Balasi standing guard outside. By his calculations, Balasi had been on duty for nearly eight hours, rather than his normal four-hour shift. Yet neither Balasi's posture nor his carefully blank face revealed any hint of the unease that he must feel.
"Something is wrong. Did you send a servant for information?"
Balasi did not answer. He did not need to. The thin walls that made it so easy for others to spy upon Josan also made it easy for him to overhear his guards. Balasi could not leave his post, but it had been nearly two hours since he had asked a passing maid to take a message to his commander. It should have taken her no more than a quarter hour to deliver her message, and another quarter hour for an answer to return. The lack of response was damning.
"It is foolish to wait here. If Pirro is drunk, he will be in trouble, not you," Josan said, though by now he doubted that matters were so simple. "I will accompany you while you report to Farris."
"I have my orders. I am to watch, only. When Pirro comes, he will let you know if you are permitted to leave."
"And if Pirro never comes?"
"Someone will," Balasi said, his expression indicating that the conversation was over.
Josan was not satisfied. "Are you not curious? No one to bring breakfast, now your relief has gone missing? What if you are needed?"
"I have my orders. As do you." Balasi did not raise his voice, but he did not need to. He was as unyielding as one of the marble pillars in the great audience hall. Josan would have had better luck arguing with a statue.
He wondered what Balasi would do if Josan tried to push past him. Would he restrain him? Beat him as if he were a common prisoner instead of a royal hostage? Or would he simply follow disapprovingly, waiting for someone to tell him what to do with his recalcitrant charge? Josan was allowed to leave his rooms once a day, after all, and though Balasi was not his usual escort, that did not automatically mean that Josan was confined to his rooms.
He hesitated, weighing his need for information against the possible consequences. The empress would not look kindly upon an altercation between him and his guards. And it was foolish to risk her displeasure over something that might turn out to be nothing more than mere forgetfulness.
At last, he decided that he would wait until noon, when Pirro's replacement would normally arrive. If there was still no sign of either the guards or the servants who would normally have brought his meal, then Josan would take action. By then, he might even be able to convince Balasi of the rightness of this course of action.
No sooner had he made this resolve, however, than he heard the sounds of raised voices and rapidly approaching footsteps. Balasi turned in their direction, his left arm shoving Josan back inside his room, while his right hand grasped the hilt of his sword—a reminder that he was not only Josan's jailer but also his protector. No harm was allowed to come to him, except at the empress's command.
Proconsul Zuberi was the first to appear as he rounded the corner that led to Josan's apartment, accompanied by a half dozen guards.
"Stand aside," Zuberi ordered.
Balasi did not move. "My lord, I have my orders."
It was a bold act, since the proconsul was answerable only to the empress herself.
"Stand aside from the traitor, or I swear you will share his fate." The soft menace of Zuberi's voice was far more intimidating than a shouted threat. Behind him, the guards hefted their cudgels.
Josan was not surprised when Balasi merely nodded, then stepped to one side.
Now that Balasi no longer blocked his view, Josan could see that Zuberi's tunic had brown stains at the hem, as if he had knelt in filth.
Not filth, he realized. Blood. The stains were old enough to have dried, and yet the normally fastidious Zuberi had not bothered to change his tunic.
"What has happened?" Josan asked.
Zuberi came forward and slapped Josan hard, the unexpected blow rocking him back on his heels.
"Traitor," Zuberi hissed. "Murderer! I warned the empress not to trust you."
"I have kept my vows to the empress. I have done nothing—"
Zuberi struck him again. This time Josan braced himself for the blow, keeping his gaze fixed on Zuberi's face even as the pain blossomed.
Whatever was happening here, was happening with the empress's tacit or explicit consent. Zuberi was powerful, but he was no fool. He would not go against the empress's wishes. Some terrible deed had been committed, and the man they thought of as Prince Lucius was being held to blame.
"Nerissa should have killed you when she had the chance," Zuberi said, forgoing the empress's title in his rage. "I will not make the same mistake. You won't be allowed to live long enough to profit from your treachery."
"I demand to speak to Empress Nerissa. To hear from her own lips that she has found fault with my obedience."
And to give himself a chance to defend himself from whatever crimes Zuberi believed he had committed.
"Nerissa is dead, as you well know," Zuberi said.
Only Balasi's indrawn breath broke the silence that followed Zuberi's pronouncement.
The bloodstains on Zuberi's tunic suddenly took on ominous meaning.
Josan's heart raced, and he knew his face must have paled.
"If the empress has perished, then I regret her loss. But surely logic must tell you that I had no hand in this act. It was only her patronage that kept me alive."
Empress Nerissa had been secure enough in her rule that she had tolerated the presence of the former renegade prince, the last living link to those who had ruled Ikaria before her grandfather had taken the throne. Her eldest son, Prince Nestor, was unlikely to feel the same way.
Shock turned to rising dread as the depths of his predicament became clear. Even his innocence would not be enough to save his life.
"Enough. I grow tired of your lies," Zuberi said. "Take him to the Rooms of Pain and do what you will as long as he is kept alive until he can be properly executed."
As Zuberi stepped aside, two guards came forward and seized Josan by the arms. He did not struggle, but that made no difference. A third clubbed the back of his head, and then they began to drag him away, not giving him the chance to find his feet.
It was a short journey from his apartments to the stairs that led down to the supposedly secret cells where the torturer Nizam and his minions held sway. Josan had been here before, and he did not relish his return.
He was halfway down the stairs when a push from behind propelled him forward. His arms flailed, but there was nothing on which to catch himself, so he fell forward, striking the stairs with his right shoulder, before tumbling over and over until he crumpled into a heap at the base of the stairs.
His vision blurred and he could not see the faces of those who stood over him. His right shoulder burned with agony, but the arm itself was strangely numb. His mind raced, but reason could not dispel the terror that welled up inside him. He knew what awaited him, and a broken arm was the merest taste of what was to come. Nausea roiled his stomach as a hand seized the front of his tunic and began dragging him down the corridor.
They threw him in a cell, and for one brief moment he wondered if it was the same cell he had occupied during his earlier visit. Then the first guard swung his cudgel, and there was no room for anything except pain. He tried to count the blows but lost count after the first dozen.
Pride abandoned, he began to scream.
* * *
As chief advisor to Empress Nerissa, Brother Nikos was seldom called upon to act in a spiritual role. Head of the collegium of the Learned Brethren, he had long ago delegated his religious duties to lesser monks, leaving them to offer prayers to the indifferent gods while Nikos reserved his energies for temporal matters. Some in the court had been known to mutter that Nikos wielded too much influence for one who called himself a monk, but these were the mere grumblings of those who had no power of their own. If the empress preferred to have him at her side dispensing advice rather than meditating in the collegium among musty scrolls and ancient tomes, who was he to question her judgment?
The last time he had served as priest was three years before, when he had officiated at Prince Nestor's wedding. Now he was called once again to take up his role as priest—this time to lead the public mourning for Prince Nestor's bride, who had died yesterday after giving birth to a stillborn son. The twin losses had shaken the imperial family, especially Prince Nestor, who had grown unaccountably fond of the bride that politics had chosen for him. Empress Nerissa, though normally free of the sentimental weaknesses that governed her sex, had chosen to delay the public announcement until today, to give the prince a chance to grieve in private. Once the announcement was made, the needs of the empire would take precedence over private mourning.