The heroes of The Phoenix Guards are reunited a mere five centuries later...just in time for an uprising that threatens to destroy the Imperial Orb itself!
This is the story of the conspiracy against the Empire that begins in the mean streets of the Underside and flourishes in the courtly politics of the Palace where Khaavren has loyally served in the Guards this past half-millennium.
It is the tale of the Dragonlord Adron's overweening schemes, of his brilliant daughter Aliera, and of the eldritch Sethra Lavode.
And it is the tale of four boon companions, of love, and of revenge...a tale from the history of Dragaera, of the events that changed the world.
The Khaavren Romances, set in the world of Vlad Taltos's Dragaera:
1. The Phoenix Guards
2. Five Hundred Years After
3. The Paths of the Dead (The Viscount of Adrilankha, Vol. 1)
4. The Lord of Castle Black (The Viscount of Adrilankha, Vol. 2)
5. Sethra Lavode (The Viscount of Adrilankha, Vol. 3)
The Baron of Magister Valley [standalone]
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Five Hundred Years After
Chapter the First
Which Treats of Matters Relating to the State of the Empire, And Introduces the Reader to The Emperor and Certain of His Court.
UPON THE FIRST DAY OF autumn, that is, the ninth day of the month of the Vallista in the five hundred and thirty-second year of the reign of His Imperial Majesty, Tortaalik I, of the House of the Phoenix, a messenger arrived at the Imperial Wing of the Palace and begged an audience with the Emperor.
Before delving into the source and content of the message, we trust we will be allowed to say two words about the messenger herself, because this will provide an opportunity to set before the reader some of the conditions which prevailed at this time and in this place, and will thus equip him to better understand the history we propose to unfold.
The messenger was a young woman of perhaps four hundred years, whose roundish face, stocky build, and straight, short brown hair without noble's point, all indicated unmistakably the House of the Tecklaa diagnosis easily confirmed by the roughness of her skin and the calluses on her hands. But far more interesting than her fallow state (if we may be permitted such a word to refer to her appearance as provided by nature) is her cultivated state, or the woman as she presented herself to those who guarded the Imperial Wing.
She was dressed in the yellow, green, and brown of her House, but the yellow was the pure, bright color of those flowers that grow in the lower valleys of Tursk, and took the form of a silk blouse embroidered with russet needlework of an exceptionally fine character. Her leather riding pants were also russet, and flared widely around her boots, which were dyed the bright green of new grass and had wide extensions in the form of wings emerging from the heels. She wore, as well, a woolen cloak of a tan color, with a clasp in the form of a dzur, wrought with fine silver wire.
These details now having been placed before the reader, let us make haste to follow her progress, which has not halted for our indulgences; while we have been describing her dress, the Teckla, whose name is Seb, after stating hermission, has been granted admission into the presence of His Majesty the Emperor, and we can, therefore, follow her and hear the delivery of this message ourselves.
Because, being a Teckla, she could not be given a safe-conduct badge, Seb was escorted by one of the guardsmen on duty, a certain Dragonlord called Tummelis e'Terics, who brought her to the officer on duty, who looked the Teckla over briefly but thoroughly before signifying, with an almost imperceptible nod of his head, that she could pass. This was all taking place, be it well understood, in the First Antechamber (or the Last Antechamber, as some have it, but we will hold to the usage of the historians of the period of which we write, and hope that our readers' perspicacity will surmount any confusion this causes), which connected to the First Lower Level Imperial Audience Chamber, to give its official title, or the Throne Room, as some historians have it, or the Portrait Room, as it was actually called.
At the point at which we begin our history, it has just passed the quarter-hour after the third hour after noon, and the Portrait Room doors are, consequently, standing wide open. Seb, notwithstanding her House, walked with full confidence among the nobles and courtiers who milled about the room, who in fact filled the room to the point of straining to the utmost the ingenious cooling spells that the Athyra Marchioness of Blackpool had set upon it.
At length, upon reaching a point directly before His Majesty, where waited Brudik, Lord of the Chimes, Tummelis, her mission accomplished, gave the messenger into Lord Brudik's care. This worthy, who had held his post for some fifteen hundred years, turned to His Majesty and announced, in his droning voice, "A messenger from Her Highness Sennya, Duchess of Blackbirdriver, and Dzur Heir."
His Majesty was just then amusing himself in a customary way, between bantering conversations with various courtiers: He was attempting to make himself angry, then sad, then happy, in order to make the Orb, which rotated above his head, change color. He was, as usual, achieving only indifferent success, wherefore the Orb glowed with the pale red of annoyance, which changed instantly to a delicate green as, at the Lord Brudik's announcement, he looked up with an expression of mild interest.
"Ah," he said. "From Sennya."
"That is it, Your Majesty," said Brudik.
"Well," said His Majesty, trying to remember if he had ever heard the name Sennya, and, if so, in what context, "then, let the messenger come before me."
As the worthy Seb steps up to address the Emperor Tortaalik, we willpermit ourselves to quickly sketch the changes that have occurred in the outer, and, to some extent, the inner character of His Majesty since we last had occasion to bring him to the attention of our readers, which was at the beginning of his reign, in the history of The Phoenix Guards.
The Emperor, we should note, had changed but little in appearance. He had begun to paint his fingernails, forehead, and ears (all of which on this occasion were a bright red that set off the gold of his costume), and he now wore diamonds on all occasions, in the form of rings, bracelets, earrings, headdress, and necklaces; but neither his face nor his physique had undergone any transformation excepting only the addition of a few lines in the former and a bit of settling in the latter. Our readers will remember his delicate skin, of which he took greater care than ever, bathing every day in scented oils; his pale blue, narrow eyes; and his fine, yellow hair, which was of medium length and curled inward below his ears.
As for those aspects of his character which are not readily visible, we may say, with the perspective that only distance brings, that the fundamental shift in his personality had begun some four hundred years earlier, when he was forced to exile his sister for taking part in an attempt to introduce poisons into his drink through certain specially prepared goblets which were impenetrable to the mysterious powers of the Orb, although not, as it turned out, to the more mundane abilities of Gyorg Lavode. In point of fact, it is certainly the case that Tortaalik's sister had been the chief mover behind the entire affair, which information His Majesty did his best to suppress, although whether out of affection for his sister, a desire to limit the scandal, or for other reasons entirely, we will not speculate. But he had certainly changed since then, becoming gradually, over the course of the next few centuries, at once whimsical and morose, devoting much effort to idle amusements, and much time to doing nothing whatsoever, this pursuit being occasionally interrupted by sudden and short-lived periods of intense interest in the doings of the State of which he stood at the prow.
Of the many changes in the makeup of the court, the two most significant were the retirement of His Discretion, the Duke of Wellborn, and the appointment of Jurabin to the position of Prime Minister, which, in combination, gave His Majesty the inclination and the leisure to pursue his own amusements, such as they were. The reader may rest assured that, if these two changes have more far-reaching effects than we intend to describe at this moment, we will discuss them as occasion warrants.
The messenger, Seb, to whom we now have the honor of returning, performed the proper obeisance before His Majesty and said, "I bring you, Sire, greetings from the holdings of Her Highness, Sennya, and I bear herwishes that Your Majesty will deign to hear the message she has done me the honor to entrust to my care, and which she desires me to impart to Your Majesty."
"The greetings," said His Majesty, "are acknowledged. And we are anxious to hear whatever intelligence you bring us."
"Then, Sire, I will at once relay this message."
"And you will be right to do so. Is it written?"
"No, Sire, it was entrusted to me, by Sennya herself, from mouth to ear."
"Then you may deliver it the same way."
"I shall do so, Sire," said Seb. She cleared her throat and began. "This is it, then: Sire, Her Highness, Sennya, faced with a personal crisis of the most extreme character, begs to be excused from the Meeting of the Principalities. She hopes she has not too much incurred Your Majesty's displeasure by making this request, and hopes, moreover, that Your Majesty will do her the kindness of granting it."
His Majesty frowned, and the Orb took on a slight orange cast. He then looked around, and his eyes fell on the barrel-chested form of Jurabin, who was moving, or rather, bulling, his way through the courtiers to reach the throne. His Majesty stirred impatiently; Seb appeared quite at ease, although a few courtiers noticed that a certain amount of perspiration was evident at her temples.
Jurabin arrived at last, and leaned forward to allow His Majesty to whisper to him. His Majesty quickly explained what had transpired, and Jurabin, upon hearing the news, looked at His Majesty with an expression of mild surprise, and accompanied the look by pronouncing these words, "But, Sire, what question does Your Majesty do me the honor to ask?"
His Majesty flushed slightly, and the courtiers, who were unable to hear this conversation, noticed that the Orb darkened. "In the first place, Beespatch," said the Emperor, referring to Jurabin by title, as His Majesty always did when annoyed, "It was my opinion that you, as Prime Minister, ought to be made aware that yet another Delegatein fact, an Heirhas backed out of the meeting. Other than that, I have not done you the honor to ask you a question, although, if I may make a suggestion" His Majesty's voice was heavy with sarcasm"you may want to consider whether we ought to no longer accept excuses of any kind. If this continues, no one will be at the meeting at all."
Jurabin perceived that he had, perhaps, annoyed His Majesty a little. He said, "Forgive me, Sire. My poor brain is straining to bear what is, perhaps, too much of a load, and so if I am brusque with my sovereign, believe there is no disrespect intended."
His Majesty relaxed, and signified with a wave of his hand that it was of nomoment. Jurabin continued, "If my advice in the matter is of any use to Your Majesty"
The Emperor signified that his advice was welcome.
"I would say that by refusing to accept these excuses, Your Majesty would run the risk of being called a tyrant. Moreover, this is only the forty-sixth cancellation, which means we can still expect over two hundred delegates, which seems to me sufficient."
"Mmmmph," said His Majesty. "That depends how many more cancellations there are."
Jurabin bowed, but did not reply, seeing that he had convinced the Emperor, who then addressed the waiting messenger with the words, "Very well, the request is granted. Give your mistress my warmest regards."
"I will not fail to do so, Sire," said the messenger, who then backed away from His Majesty, bowed low, and left the room to return to her mistress. As she left, the Emperor turned to his Prime Minister and said, "I wish to have two words with you, Jurabin."
"Of course, Sire. I hope I have not been so unfortunate as to incur Your Majesty's displeasure."
"No, no, but this last messenger has brought to mind certain matters, and I wish to discuss them with you."
"As you wish, Sire. But allow me to point out that the time Your Majesty does your courtiers the honor of spending with them"
"Is up even at this moment, Jurabin. Will you grant my wish for a few minutes of conversation?"
"Of course, Sire."
"Then attend me. We will go to the Seven Room."
"Lead, Sire; I will follow."
His Majesty rose, whereupon all of the lords and ladies of the court who had managed to find chairs rose as well, and the entire assemblage fell silent and faced his Majesty, who sketched them a perfunctory salute. He looked around for the officer on duty to escort him, and found this officer standing imperturbably at his side.
"The Seven Room," said his Majesty.
The officer bowed, and led the way through the throng, which parted before him. The Emperor and the Prime Minister followed at a leisurely pace; the Orb, a pale green, serenely circled His Majesty's head as he walked. Upon leaving the hall via the Mirrored Doors, which a servant hastily opened, the officer led the way down the Teak Passage, up the Green Stairway, and so to the room with seven walls where His Majesty most liked to hold private conversations. The officer himself opened the one door to this room, and, after satisfying himself that the room was unoccupied, stood aside for His Majestyand the Prime Minister to enter, after which he closed the door and placed himself in front of it.
His Majesty sat in his favorite chaira gold-colored chair with thick stuffing and a small matching footrestand indicated that Jurabin should sit as well. When the Prime Minister had done so, in a plain chair facing His Majesty, the latter said, without preamble, "What have you been doing, Jurabin, about the finances of the Empire?"
"Sire," said Jurabin, who appeared to be caught slightly off guard, "I have been doing all that can be done."
"And that includes?"
"Not a day goes by, Sire, that I do not endeavor to find some new economy. Today, for example, I"
"New economies, Jurabin? Is that all that can be done?"
"That is all, Sire, until the Meeting of the Principalities."
"Ah, yes, the meeting. The meeting to which we have just received yet another cancellation. Jurabin, if the meeting is to take place, the Princes and Deputies ought to begin arriving within the week."
"Perhaps, Sire," said Jurabin; who, while he seemed mildly startled at His Majesty's sudden interest in matters of policy, did not appear unduly concerned about the presence or absence of the Princes and Deputies.
His Majesty shifted impatiently. "Will you deny, in any case, that this rash of cancellations has the smell of conspiracy?"
Jurabin cocked his head. "There is a certain fragrance, Sire, but sometimes we think someone is cooking fish, when, in fact, we are only near the ocean."
"I usually know when I'm at the shore, Jurabin," said His Majesty.
"How is that, Sire?"
"Because my feet are wet."
Jurabin bowed at this witticism His Majesty did him the honor to share, and said, "Well, then, Sire, are your feet wet?"
"If there is a conspiracy around me, Jurabin," said the Emperor, "I am unable to see it."
"It is not, perhaps, a conspiracy, Sire," said the Prime Minister, "either around us here, or among the Princes."
"It is not?"
"Then, you are saying that perhaps it is?"
"That is not precisely my meaning either, Sire."
"Well then," said the Emperor, "What is your meaning?"
"To speak plainly"
"The Gods!" His Majesty burst out. "It is nearly time for you to do so!"
"I believe that many of the Deputies are, quite simply, afraid to appear."
"Afraid?" cried the Emperor. "How, Sennya, a Dzurlord, afraid?"
Jurabin shrugged. "The Dzur are brave enough when faced with battle, Sire; many of them have no special courage to face less tangible dangersespecially dangers they do not comprehend."
"Less tangible dangers? Come, tell me what you mean. Are they afraid of me, do you think?"
"Not you, Sire; rather, of each other."
"Jurabin, I confess that I am as confused as ever."
"Shall I explain?"
"Shards and splinters, it is an hour since I asked for anything else!"
"Well, then, this is how I see it."
"Go on. You perceive that you have my full attention."
"Sire, the Princes have been called, as is the custom, to determine the Imperial Allowance for the next phase, which begins in less than fifty years."
"I prefer," said the Emperor, "to refer to it as the Imperial Tax."
"As you wish," said Jurabin. "Though it can hardly be considered a tax, when, unlike the other Imperial Taxes, the Houses set their own portions, from a total amount which is, by law, determined by the Empire."
"Nevertheless, the term 'allowance' offends me."
"Very well, Sire. To continue, under Imperial Law, dating from the Sixth Cycle, the Princes will meet and come to some agreement about the portion each House must pay."
"Yes, yes, I understand that. Go on."
Jurabin cleared his throat and continued. "Yes, Sire. The issue, just at the moment, is difficult for the Princes."
"That's just it, Jurabin; what makes it so? Or, rather, what makes it more difficult than usual?"
"Well, in the first place, there is the House of the Dragon, which demands that its entire portion be waived, to offset the expenses of raising armies."
"Raising armies? For what reason do they raise armies?"
"There are encroachments of Easterners in the South, Sire. In addition, there are Teckla rebellions threatening in several western duchies. We have received petitions for Imperial aid from the Duke of Atwater, the Duke of Lonerock, the Duchess of Greatworks, the"
"Well, but I had thought we had made peace with the Easterners."
"Sire, there are many Easterners, and they do not all speak with each other, nor do they adhere to each others' treaties. The agreement Your Majesty had of the kingdom east of the Pepperfields at the beginning of Your Majesty's reign still holds, but there are others"
"Hmmph. A sloppy way to do things, it seems to me. They should be brought under a single banner."
"That, Sire, is what the House of the Dragon, through its Heir, Eastmanswatch, is proposing."
"How, Eastmanswatch is behind this?"
"According to my sources, Sire"
"You mean your spies?"
Jurabin shrugged. "It seems that the Duke opposes such an action, but nevertheless brings it forward on behalf of his House, which favors it."
His Majesty shook his head, as if refusing to consider the internal politics of the House of the Dragon. "Well," he said, "and the Teckla? Has their House been asked about these uprisings, and warned that the Heir of the House may, under law, be held accountable?"
"They pretend, Sire, to be unable to meet the demands placed upon them, due to crop shortages, caused by general climate changes in the West over the last two hundred years, which has led to thirty or forty seasons of drought, which trend is expected to last well into the next phase. This same drought has caused their demand for a lessening in the payments they make to their landlords, and has also led to numerous uprisings, which seem to be continuing, perhaps even increasing."
"Drought? Haven't we sorcerers for that sort of thing?"
"The cost, Sire"
"Ah, yes, the cost. Well, what of the cost?"
"The House of the Athyra has claimed that, should they call up the required sorcery, they would be unable to pay their portion."
"They have said this?"
"Yes, Sire, through their Heir, Tropyr."
"Well, that hardly seems unreasonable."
"And as for the lessening of the payments, can't this be done in an equitable manner?"
"Sire, most of those affected are of the Houses of the Jhegaala and the Lyorn, and the matter has been taken up by the lorich, to study the legalities. But, as an Imperial matter, naturally the lorich charge heavily for their services, and"
"Yes, Sire. Especially as the Vallista are adamant on maintaining the full payments"
"Yes, Sire, most of the mines in the North are owned by Vallista, and they depend on trade with the West to feed the laborers, who have been growing restive, due to short rations. This has resulted in lower production, which, in turn, reduces the amount of shipping, so the House of the Orca is claimingextreme poverty among many of its nobles, and will have a great deal of trouble in contributing to the Imperial AllowTax."
"How, there is more?"
"Various of the poorer Houses have banded together, to prevent the more powerful Houses from taking advantage of them."
"It is always thus."
"Yes, Sire. In this case, the Tiassa and the Jhegaala have formed an alliance along with the Dzur and the Iorich, while the Hawk, Tsalmoth, Jhereg and Issola are supporting the Orca and the Lyorn. The Teckla might have come to some sort of agreement with the Yendi; we are unable to be certainone never knows what the Yendi are doing."
"It is very confusing, Sire, but it seems the alliances are shifting a great deal, and everyone is trying to guess who will be forced to pay heavily, who will be able to escape paying heavily, and whether the Imperial Treasury will, in fact, be able to operate at all."
His Majesty fell silent for a moment, then said, "These alliances"
"Can we break them up?"
"We have been trying to do so, Sire."
"With what results?"
Jurabin made a slight shift in his chairalmost his first movement of any kind since they had begun speaking. The Emperor was aware that this indicated that the Prime Minister was somewhat unsure of himself. "Sire"
"The alliances have been increasingly unstable, in part due to our efforts."
"The result is none of the parties are strong enough to stand against your will."
"That is good, I think."
"Yes, Sire. But it also means that many of the Princes and Deputies will be unable to avoid offending the Empire, or their own party, and in some cases, however things go, they will be certain to offend both."
"And that is why many of them, either from fear or confusion, have been backing out of the meeting."
His Majesty thought over all that he had heard. At last he said, "You ought to have brought these things to my attention years ago, Jurabin."
"I'm sorry, Sire, if I have erred. But"
"But nothing! I would have settled it at once."
"How," said Jurabin, frowning. "Settled it?"
"And, if I may be permitted the honor of asking a question"
"How would Your Majesty have settled it?"
"In the simplest manner, Jurabin. I would have commanded the Athyra to bring out their best sorcerers, and to solve this drought before it reached this stage."
"But, Sire, the cost"
"Is nothing compared to the cost of ignoring the problem, Jurabin. With the drought removed"
"So is the largest source of revenue for the Empire, Sire."
"Yes, Sire. If Your Majesty had commanded them to bring the weather to heel, they would have been within their rights to refuse Your Majesty any contribution whatsoever, and, moreover, they would have done so. We then would have no funds for the Imperial Army, and would have to demand mercenaries to defend the eastern borders."
"But the House of the Dragon could pay heavily."
"Indeed they could, Sire, but they would not do so."
"They would not? Why would they not?"
"Because, Sire, if the House of the Athyra was not forced to pay, because they had provided services to the Empire, the House of the Dragon would demand the same right, and justly, too. If they didn't, the Athyra would gain economic power over them, and those two Houses are ever struggling with one another for much of the same land in the Northeast."
"And yet, there ought to be some money left in the Imperial Treasury."
"Very little, Sire. We will, by budgeting carefully, be able to survive to the end of the phase, until the new taxes are prepared, but"
"But where has the money gone, Jurabin? I know that by the time wheat has been harvested and turned into flour, and the flour reaches the market, it has already been taxed four times, and"
"Five times, Sire."
"There has been no large war"
"No large war, Sire? The war with Elde Island was not large?"
"Jurabin, it lasted a mere five years, and if our casualties were more than ten thousand, someone has deceived me. And, moreover, we won."
"Sire, there is no more expensive war than one fought on the sea, for each time we lose even a skirmish, at least one ship has been taken or sunk, and the smallest frigate in the fleet cannot be replaced for less than ten thousands of imperials. And in the Battle of Redsky Harbor alone we lost eleven frigates and two ships of the line, and we won that battle."
His Majesty paused to consider these statistics, then said, "But the War Tax should have seen to those expenses."
"Sire, that tax was necessary to raise money to prosecute the war, and there was little time to raise it, so we sold Bills of Taxation to speculators, mostly Phoenix and Dragons, who still own those Bills."
"Still? Well, we shall take them back, and use them to raise taxes for the Empire."
"Take, Sire? Your Majesty would invite civil war?"
"Well, then, we shall buy them back."
"With what, Sire? The least of them is worth twenty thousands of imperials."
"The Gods! Perhaps that war was a mistake, Jurabin."
"A mistake, Sire? But without it, the pirates of Elde Island would have utterly prevented our trade with Greenaere, Holcomb, and Landsight, which would have bankrupted the House of the Orca."
"Oh, the Orca!" said his Majesty scornfully.
"Yes, Sire, the Orca, who are politically allied with the Hawk, the Tsalmoth, the Jhereg, the Issola, and the Lyorn. Yes, Sire."
His Majesty shook his head, sighed, and looked thoughtful for several moments. Then he said, "Well, but surely we could survive, at least for a short time, without taxes from the Dragon and the Athyra."
"Sire? Without two of the three largest contributors to the Imperial Treasury? Perhaps we could, if that were all, but"
"How, if that were all? It is not?"
"What more is there?"
"Well, Sire, we are of the House of the Phoenix, and you are Prince, as well as Emperor. What will be the contribution of our House to the Imperium?"
"I must ask our Deputy, who is the Princess Loudin, to whom I have delegated this matter."
"I have asked her, Sire."
"And has she given you an answer?"
"Yes, Sire. She has said that the House is on the verge of bankruptcy."
"Those were her words, Sire."
"But how could this be?"
"Because, Sire, the House, in its own name, and many of us as individuals, have made certain speculations"
"You know, Sire, that we are a small House, and none of us, except perhaps Baroness Highplane and Countess Nolanthe, have large holdings, so it is by speculation that, for the most part, we"
"What speculation, Jurabin?"
"Primarily, Sire, to certain Dragonlords, counting on funds they will receive from the Empire for military operations, and to certain Athyra, counting on actions to appease the climate. These operations have been delayed, pending the Meeting of Principalities, and the"
The Prime Minister stopped speaking, for his Majesty had stopped listening, but was, rather, sitting with his head leaning back, his eyes tightly shut. After an interval, the Emperor spoke, saying, "Jurabin, do me the kindness to summon my physicker."
"Yes, Sire. Is it the headache?"
Jurabin rose at once and left to find the physicker, leaving His Majesty with his head in his hands, and the Orb an ugly brown as it circled His Majesty's head. The physicker, whose name, by the way, was Navier, though it is not our intention to fully introduce her at this point in our history, arrived in due time, bringing with her tea made with certain herbs that were used to cure the headaches with which the Emperor was afflicted on those rare occasions when he tried to understand the workings of the Empire he ruled.
After administering the treatment, the physicker remained to make certain His Majesty felt better, after which she took her leave, and a few minutes later, the Emperor, seeing that it was approaching his dinner hour, rose to leave. He opened the door, and found himself facing a familiar figure, that of the officer on duty, the Ensign of the Red Boot Battalion of the Imperial Guard.
Copyright © 1994 by Steven Brust