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London, England, 1724
The people lining the streets of London cheered while General Dominic Raikes rode to his doom. Not that they had any idea what awaited him at Firehame Palace, and if they did, he doubted they would care. He resembled the elven lord too much for that. Yet he had won the final battle and they hailed him as their champion despite his elven white hair and pointed ears.
Young women threw flowers from upper-story windows, the petals flickering through the air like snow and coating the dusty streets with color. Gray skies covered the sun and in some places the buildings nearly met above the streets, further shadowing the riders' passage with gloom. The glassfronted shops had been locked up as their owners joined the throng in the streets: painted harlots, street urchins, costermongers, servants, and the occasional prosperous Cit, distinguishable by his white wig. The fishy smell of the Thames overlaid the stench of the streets as his troops approached Westminster Bridge.
Over the murky waters the flaming turrets of Firehame Palace beckoned Dominic onward. He shook back his war braids and straightened his spine and glanced back at his men. They had cleaned their red woolen coats as best they could, and lacking wigs, had powdered their hair to resemble the elven silver-white. They had polished their boots and buttons, brushed their cocked hats. Despite their stern faces, Dominic could see the glitter of pride in their eyes and nodded his approval at them. They returned his gesture with wary respect.
Dominic turned and sighed. They were brave, good men, every one. Some he owed his victory and life to. He would like to oversee their promotions himself but it would be too dangerous. He didn't know the personal life of a single man, nor did they know of his. Dominic had grown used to his solitary existence, yet sometimes he regretted the necessity of it.
The hooves of his horse met the road at the end of the bridge with a crunch of pebbles. The noise of the crowd faded as they neared the open gates of Firehame Palace. Red flame jutted from the top of the stone pillars flanking the entrance, danced along the outlying curtain walls. Dominic halted his mount for the span of a breath, studying his home with the unfamiliar gaze of one after a long absence. Elven magic had tinted the stone walls a glossy, brilliant red. Warm yellow flame slithered up the stone, whorled over the buttresses, making the entire structure shimmer in his sight. The towers soared above the three-storied palace and Dominic's black eyes quickly sought out the tallest, looking for a flicker of wing, a jet of red fire. But he could see no sign of the dragon and so flicked his reins, urging his horse into the courtyard. Dominic wanted nothing more than a bath and then the quiet of his garden or the sanctuary of the dragon's tower. He knew he wouldn't manage any of his comforts until he'd been tested in fire.
He thrust away the memory of pain and dismounted, feeling his face turn to stone, his body conform to rigid military posture as he crossed the paved courtyard and ascended the steps into the opulence of Firehame Palace. Several of his officers followed, although many decided to forgo the privilege of coming to the attention of the Imperial Lord of the sovereignty of Firehame.
The back hallways they marched through displayed the magic and wealth of the elven lord. Delicate tapestries that rewove their pictures every few minutes covered the walls, and thick rugs of rippling ponds and bottomless chasms carpeted the floors. Dominic breathed in the scent of candle wax, perfume, and elfweed, ignoring the portraits framed in gold with their moving eyes that followed his passage. At the end of summer the air in the corridor still felt chill against his cheeks. His ears rang from the silence. Then Dominic opened the door leading to the great room and the thunder of applause broke that brief moment of quiet. He paused, waiting for his men to compose themselves, then started down the middle of the enormous room through the crowd of gentry that awaited them.
Fluted columns lined the sides of the hall, capped with ornately carved capitals that supported archways even more ornately carved with golems, gremlins, and gargoyles. Courtiers milled between the stone supports, a riot of colorful silk skirts and gold-trimmed coats. Full court wigs of powdered white sparkled with the addition of the ground stone the nobles used to imitate the silver luster of elven hair. Buckled shoes flashed with diamonds; ceremonial swords sparkled with ruby and jet.
The smell of perfume became overwhelming, and Dominic suppressed the urge to sneeze. He kept his gaze fixed on his goal, the dais of gold where the elven lord Mor'ded waited, but he caught the faces of the courtiers from the corners of his eyes. The lustful gazes of women-and more than a few men-followed his every movement. Despite their fear of the elven, humans could not resist their beauty, and Dominic had inherited more elven allure than his half blood warranted.
When he reached the Imperial Lord's throne, Dominic stared at Mor'ded for longer than he intended. Silvery white hair cascaded past broad shoulders in a river broken only by the tips of the elven lord's pointed ears. Black, fathomless eyes stared coldly into Dominic's own, the expression robbing them of their almost crystalline brilliance. Smooth, pale skin glistened like the finest porcelain over high cheekbones and strong chin. A full mouth, straight nose, high brow.
When Dominic looked at the Imperial Lord, he might as well have been gazing into a mirror of his future, for although his father must be over seven hundred years old, he did not look a day over five and thirty. And despite the thickness of his elven blood, Dominic aged at a normal human pace. In ten years, Dominic would look like the man before him. Dominic dropped to one knee and bowed his head, war braids dangling beside his cheeks and eyes fixed on the marble floor. A wave of silence rolled across the room until he could hear nothing but the breathing of his men and the rustle of the ladies' silk skirts. "I have won the king, my lord."
At his words, the room erupted in applause again and Dominic stood, gazing at his father, hoping to see a glimmer of pride in those cold black eyes. He had fought for years to achieve such acknowledgment. Imperial Lord Mor'ded smiled, revealing even white teeth, and cut his hand through the air, signaling the court to silence. He stood with a grace no human could possess and stepped down from the dais, one hand wrapped around the black scepter that enhanced his magic. Dominic's eyes flicked to the rod, the runes carved on it swirling momentarily in his sight before he quickly looked away.
As a child he'd been constantly hungry. He'd been stealing food off the sideboard in the grand dining room when his father and court had entered. He'd hidden under the table and his father had sat, the triangular-shaped head of the scepter jutting beneath the crisp white linen. Dominic didn't know what made him reach out and stroke the forbidden talisman, for everyone knew only one of true elven blood could hold it without being flamed to ash. But he hadn't tried to wield it, had only touched it, and since then he couldn't look at it without feeling strange. As if the thing possessed a conscious awareness of him. It bothered him that he had such a fanciful thought. Mor'ded reached his side and placed his other hand on Dominic's shoulder. The chill of his long fingers penetrated the heavy wool of Dominic's coat. "After a hundred years the king will finally be returned to his rightful place. Thanks to my son, the champion of all Firehame."