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1 They came to watch the children burn. The royal criers had gone about the city the night before, calling out the news that Dowager Empress Jilana and Prince Regent Vrath would appear before the royal assembly at the auspicious hour to issue an important announcement. One that they had all been waiting to hear for over a year. That was the official word. The unofficial word, passed shivering through the body of the great metropolis like a fever through a favela, was that there would be a Burning. The imperial palace would not confirm this; they did not deny it either. People believed the rumor. They always do. They came from far and wide, high and low, leaving work unfinished, doors unlocked, food half eaten, eager for entertainment. Who could blame them? After all, it isn’t every day one gets to see princes and princesses burned to a crisp. People packed the avenues and roadways, sat atop rooftops and terraces, crowding every dusty field, every mud-tracked street, every bylane leading to the palace. Children sat on their fathers’ shoulders or on their mothers’ hips. Caste was ignored; class, forgotten. Merchants and traders, hunters and farmers, priests and soldiers, all stood jostling one another. Two million perspiring bodies anxiously awaiting the royal proclamation. Runners awaited, the reins of their mounts in hand; horses, camels, elephants, wagon cart trains, and other transports all ready to depart for cities across the known world, for the outcome of a Burning could change the course of history, influence the rise and fall of empires, or launch a thousand wars. Inside the magnificent palace stronghold, the great Senate Hall was thronged from wall to wall with kings, princes, ministers and merchant lords, preceptors and traders, as well as ambassadors from a score of distant foreign lands. Even the sentries posted at each of the thousand and eight pillars of the vast hall were pressed back against the cold stone by the crowd of humanity. The influence of the Burnt Empire extended not only to the far corners of this continent, but the entire civilized world. Traders and priests crossed oceans and deserts, mountain ranges and war-torn regions, braved barbarian hordes and bandit bands, to visit Hastinaga, City of Elephants and Snakes. There were ambassadors with ebony complexions as dark as Dowager Empress Jilana’s as well as pale-skinned foreigners with yellow hair, strange garb, and stranger tongues; men from the East with long beards and drooping mustaches; allies, tributes, and even royal emissaries. Some were of dubious loyalty. A few had warred, allied against, or otherwise opposed the expansion and growth of the Burnt Empire, before being compelled by force, expedience, or simple economic necessity to join its ever-burgeoning expansion. Many of those present had ancestors who had been present at the legendary founding of this capital city. More than a few had lost ancestors in battles or rebellions against the Krushan. Former enemies or past rivals, they were all as one on this historic occasion. In place of poison-tipped daggers, they brought honeyed words. In lieu of arrows and legions, they offered rich tributes and exotic gifts. All present, without exception, bowed their heads with humility before the fabled and feared Burning Throne.2 At first glance, it looked like nothing more than a big rock. As first impressions go, this was a perceptive one. If seen in a different setting, in the high rocky mountains of Kalimeru perhaps, or the desert wilderness of Reygistan, or even the inhospitable forests of Jangala, one would have passed it by without a second glance. It was just a rock. Yet it was not a rock at all. The jet-black substance perfectly emulated the appearance and texture of a rock. Yet unlike any ordinary rock, it was imbued with deep, powerful sorcery. For one thing, it evaded the human gaze. The obsidian-dark surface drank light as parched earth drinks rain. The jagged texture made it deadly to touch: a passing graze could strip the skin off one’s arm with the ease of a shredder. Most importantly, if touched by living flesh, it burst into flame instantly and did not cease burning until the unfortunate limb or individual in possession of said limb was completely and conclusively consumed. Stonefire, as it came to be known, did not simply burn you. It devoured you.