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Critcism, please! posted 31 May 2006 in Member Written WorksCritcism, please! by Erthaelion, Candidate

AH... It cut off half way. Thanks for reading, WP. Here's the rest.

It is said that only the Magi of Arabel possess more knowledge concerning the cosmos than the Hailatasi. For centuries their hereditary priests have mapped the skies, plundering what knowledge they can from the movements of the Heavens. And though I have never seen their temples, I shudder to think what wisdom they might contain. What frightens most, I think, is that none may ever know.

- Tuecarius, The Imperial Chronicles

My Regency goes well, Brother. For who would dare foment against their Sublime Emperor? There are those who already worship you as a God.
But I worry for you. There are murmurs in Luralius that your Spear-Bearer and trusted General, Saladuecon, has ambitions of his own. Dynastic ambitions. Be careful, my Brother. Perhaps it is time that you return home. Luralius would give you a welcome all the world would remember. Perhaps Hailatas is too far. I know you believe your army invincible, but you yourself are not, Attalon, my sweet, godlike Brother. I beg you to remember that.

Enekleas I, Letter to Attalon II, First Emperor of Luralius

Alone in his private apartments, Mithratus Kallikos II sat bent before his polished mahogany desk, his eyes roaming across a scroll of rich papyrus - a missive from one of his Satrap-Governors. Once again, the news was decidedly comforting - precisely as he had feared. He had read several such missives in recent weeks, having decided he no longer trusted the chore with Teladorus and his secretaries. Any number of conspiracies could be changing hands, he had realized, and it was only sensible that he ensure the loyalty of his servants beyond the confines of the Imperial Precincts.
So far his efforts had been fruitless. He had found nothing of value. Nothing of even the slightest significance. No plots. No treason. Nothing that might affirm the apprehension in his heart.
A faint knock at the great bronze doors of his apartments stirred him from his reverie. Mithratus sighed in irritation, pinched the fatigue from his eyes with thumb and forefinger. His body slaves, he imagined, come to prepare him for sleep. Or perhaps, he couldn’t help but hope, word from one of his Generals…
Consumed by a pang of curiosity, he abruptly rose from his desk and approached the doors, his stride brisk. His eyes momentarily drifted to the chalcedony cameo that adorned his panelled wall - a depiction of the great Emperors of antiquity enthroned among the Gods. Then he strode between the gilded lions that marked the entry to his antechamber. He paused before the engraved doors. After a calming breath, he shoved them open, his heart thundering with anticipation.
His ardour was extinguished when he glimpsed the timid figure squirming and fussing with the sleeves of his robes in the shadows of the corridor. Mithratus scowled in frustration and scorn, then brusquely turned from the doorway.
“What is it, old man?” With haughty disdain he marched to the heart of his chambers, certain the old fool would follow.
“Lord Emperor,” Teladorus began, his tone apologetic, “an emissary has arrived.”
Mithratus resumed his seat at his desk, not deigning to look from his scroll as he spoke to the old ingrate. “At this hour? Who?”
The High Chancellor of the Imperial Court approached his desk with the ponderous dignity of the elderly. Mithratus heard the bronze doors close behind the man and began imagining scenarios he might concoct to explain away a sudden, accidental death. A fatal fall? Mithratus smirked. Maybe it was too late in the night for blood. Tomorrow, maybe, he would find a better opportunity.
Teladorus clasped his hands together at his waist, his face slack with embarrassment. “From Hailatas, Lord Emperor.”
For an astonished heartbeat, Mithratus sat utterly still, eyes unfocused, thoughts racing. Hailatas. As far as he was knew, no Emperor of Luralius had ever hosted a delegation, whether of peace or otherwise, from Hailatas. Only in the days of Attalon, Luralius’s all-but-invincible First Emperor, had that far-away nation’s conquest ever appeared feasible. Now Hailatas had become the legend of an impossibly wealthy and exotic land, spoken of in the manner of a regal but increasingly-senescent royal wife. In distant antiquity, long before the ascendance of Luralius, the Divine Kings of that desert kingdom had been the most feared potentates in the Valasian Sea. But now they possessed neither the strength nor the authority to be demanding audiences with the Emperor of Luralius. Let alone arriving uninvited. The presumption alone was outrageous.
Numbly, his palms braced against the smooth surface of his desk, Mithratus pushed himself to his feet. “What do they want, Teladorus?” An echo of the words he’d uttered to Diodotus of Cayranus afflicted him with sudden panic. Did the man have the audacity to warn Hailatas of his plans? Surely he had seemed to possess audacity in excess…
But this?
Could this mean he would have one more enemy to deal with? One more war for him to somehow win?
But the Gods have been appeased! Or so he had thought…
“They would not say, Lord Emperor. They demanded to speak with you at once. They say it is a matter -”
“Demanded?” Mithratus roared, storming around his desk to confront the old minister. “They would make demands of me?”
Teladorus cringed from the furious aspect of his Emperor, helplessly bowed his head to his chest. “I-I said as much at first, Lord Emperor, but they were most insistent. I fear this matter is as serious as they say… So I allowed them to believe that you may see them tonight…” His voice trailed away pleadingly, a child begging mercy of his domineering father.
Mithratus opened his mouth to rebuke the old man, but then paused, struck by a sudden insight. Who better to confirm his fears than this old windbag? “You think Diodotus has repeated my words to the wrong people…”
His eyes wide with relief, Teladorus nodded emphatically.
“I thought as much,” Mithratus said in weary dismissal.
“But it only makes sense, Exalted One. Why else would they come now? Why else would they be so insistent?”
Disturbed by his vehemence, Mithratus slowly turned away from his High Chancellor. For a moment he could only stare dazedly into the flames of the oil lamps that adorned his desk. Finally, when he could sense his Chancellor’s growing unease, he muttered, “Send for my body slaves. Delay them for as long you can, Teladorus, then have these men brought here.”
He could hear the rustle of the old man’s silk robes as he bowed, but he acknowledged nothing. Even before he heard the bronze doors grind shut to announce the Chancellor’s departure, he was behind his desk digging through sheaves of papyrus.
Hailatas. The very idea beggared belief. Mithratus leaned back in his chair and brought a hand to his cheek in contemplation. Who had the Divine King sent to treat with him? And who, for that matter, was the Divine King? Did the title still even exist? Or had it, like so much else that had once defined that ancient nation, become obsolete? Mithratus shook his head in stunned exasperation. He could remember much of what the palace tutors had taught him in his youth, but never, it seemed, could he remember enough.
Recently, in particular…
Never in his life had he been so desperate for knowledge. After the mad evening with Diodotus of Cayranus, he had become increasingly aloof. At the urging of his ministers, the young scholar had been set free mere hours after their brief meeting. Keeping him was dangerous, Teladorus had fairly screamed, and would only increase the already substantial enmity between the Saladuecons of Galeapylus and the Imperial Court. Mithratus had agreed, albeit grudgingly. Given their straights, it had made little sense for the Empire to be unlawfully detaining the servants of their enemies.
Then, for a time, it had appeared that matters in Luralius were improving. Shortly after Diodotus departed, Mithratus had found himself standing alone amid the porphyry columns of his palace, his eyes riveted on the deepening gloom of the sky. For hours, it seemed, he stood in silence, restively awaiting the inevitable appearance of the star that heralded his doom. The doom of his dynasty! But what more could he do? What more, save wait?
Then the stars had begun to press their brilliance through the dark mantle of night. But the one star he had waited to glimpse - the one star that truly possessed meaning! - had never appeared. It was simply no longer there…
Never before had an absence caused such commotion. Many in Luralius dismissed the star outright, claiming that the Gods had at last been appeased, that the hundreds of gold-horned oxen the royal priests had sacrificed at the Emperor’s behest had finally sated their thirst for blood. Even the augers and astrologers of the Imperial Court began to gainsay their initial catastrophic conclusions.
Mithratus had been delirious with relief. Only the mounting hostilities between his Phalanxes and the Kelgaroi tribes of the North had apprised him of Luralius’s true peril.
But then the news had reached the Palace: the Kelgaroi had been broken.
At first, Callistares had been infuriatingly sceptical. Mithratus was incensed: how could the old fool not see? The Gods had been appeased. Order was returning. Of course, Mithratus knew very well the source of the man’s doubt. Not even he, the great General Without Peer, had pacified the Kelgaroi with such effortless facility.
“Surely,” Callistares had exclaimed in one council, “this is some trick, Emperor. Someone tries to play us for fools!”
Mithratus had almost agreed. Words his father had once uttered returned to him unbidden. “They are savages, Mithratus, a people born to bring death. Their man-children are born to the sword and the spear and the bow. They care for nothing but warfare and plunder. They know neither honour nor remorse. They are not to be respected, Mithra. Only feared. ”
How could he not be sceptical? For centuries these same illiterate brutes had plagued the Northern provinces with fire and death, murdering and pillaging relentlessly despite the valiant efforts of the Imperial Army. Even Attalon, perhaps the greatest Emperor in Luralius’s mighty history, had failed to exact tribute from the Kelgaroi tribes.
And now some nameless general had broken the backs of these savages?
For days, he had avoided sleep. He’d spent his nights poring over scrolls and treatises written by historians and Imperial generals on the Kelgaroi: of their anarchic method of war, their ruthless savagery in battle, their practice of severing the hands and feet of enemy captives and leaving them for carrion. And the more he read, he soon found, the more terrified he became.
Only when the victorious Luralian general, a young noble by the name of Porthios Scaevan, had returned to the Capital were his fears finally allayed.
He had triumphed. His dynasty was safe. Plunder was counted, spectacles prepared, and sacrifices arranged. Luralius, it appeared, was once again secure.
If only it had ended there…
Days later, Percalaus Valerus, the notorious general who had reputedly fomented against his Emperor, had entered Luralius - in chains. It seemed that a party of auxiliary phalanxmen had chanced upon the delinquent general by night, apparently travelling west with only the meanest retinue of slaves and bodyguards. Having heard their Emperor’s decree against the former High Imperial Officer, the soldiers quickly seized and shackled the man, beat him into submission, then dragged him back to the Capitol.
At the mere thought, Mithratus shook his head in disgust. Paraded in manacles through the streets like a common criminal. Beaten and bloodied, deprived of all dignity by the very men he had led to victory. It should never have come to that.
But it had. He had heard as much. Whether traitor or not, no High Officer of the Imperial Phalanx should be forced to endure such indignity. Such shame.
Then to have these mercenaries, these cowards, paid in gold for Percalaus’s capture? Paid with gold from the Imperial Coffers? Of all the outrages! Teladorus had very nearly overstepped his authority for the final time.
Haggard and humiliated, Percalaus Valerus had been taken into the custody of the Principate Army, smuggled to the Palace under cover of darkness and finally brought before the High Chancellor. After hours of brutal interrogation, the old wretch had been prepared to have the man killed.
Had it not been for Archamenas, Mithratus’s admirably loyal Grand Treasurer, things might have ended very differently. Having one dependable man in his collection of despicable ministers had, in the end, proven invaluable.
Drawn to the sound of the wounded General’s screams, Archamenas had entered the Palace’s Hall of Audiences to find the bloody interrogation well in progress, and had immediately fled to warn his Emperor of the High Chancellor's unwarranted actions. Fully intent on killing both Percalaus and his seditious minister, Mithratus had stormed into the Audience Hall in full ceremonial armour, his eyes wide with bewilderment and incredulous wrath.
But the sight of the General’s broken form had stilled his hand. Surrounded by a herd of black-gowned Court ministers, Percalaus’s head was hung in abject shame, his body smeared in blood, his shockingly-thin arms chained behind his back.
Mithratus shoved his way into their midst. Teladorus had fairly gasped, staggering from his path. Clamorous with shouts and harsh questions only moments before, the pillared hall had abruptly fallen silent.
With his left hand Mithratus drew his sword, aimed its tip at the bloody breast of the former High Imperial Officer. With his right he pointed at the huddle of his trembling ministers, reducing them with his furious gaze. “This,” he screamed, “is not justice.”
Teladorus had crept forward, his shoulders hunched. “Exalted One,” he muttered, “I wished only to do your will-”
Harsh laughter. “You wished only to curry favour, you old wretch.”
“Were my father still Emperor,” Mithratus continued, “you would all be flayed alive for this.” He looked to Percalaus, who was eyeing the sword the way a starving man might eye a rotten onion - as though considering the inevitable.
But Mithratus had only sighed and lowered his blade. “Be thankful I am a more merciful man than he.”
Again Mithratus regarded the broken General. “I would remind you, my one-time General, that you may leave here tonight an Officer of the Imperial Army, or you may never leave here.” He removed his plumed helm and tossed it toward his baffled High Chancellor, his gaze never straying from the defiant eyes of Percalaus Valerus. “You stand in the presence of your Emperor. In the presence of justice. Speak only the truth.”
And Percalaus had done just that.
“I spoke against you Emperor, but what I said was not treason. I said what I said for the sake of my men. The men who fight and die in the East while their Emperor acknowledges neither their efforts nor their deaths.”
Breathless, Mithratus blinked in consternation, suffered a moment of unaccountable shame.
“Why do you say this?”
Then Percalaus’s face had become the very image of indignant fury. Even then Mithratus had known he would never forget that face. Nor would he forget the words the man next spoke. “You in Luralius speak of the Kelgaroi as though they were Demons of the Beyond. But you know nothing of Demons. I promise you, Exalted One, that it will be the Insacai, and not the Kelgaroi, that will one day put our Immortal City to the sword.”
Stunned silence. Mithratus’s eyes had rounded in horror and revelation.
He had heard those words before…
His father had said much the same to him before he’d died. And Mithratus had believed him. He’d have been a fool not to. All his long life, Arius Kallikos I had spat the name “Kelgaroi” like a curse, like the name of a despised rival or a petulant slave. But when he spoke of the Insacai, his voice would always possess a curious blend of awe and dread, as though he invoked the name of a frighteningly capricious God.
“The Insacai...”
For several instants, Mithratus had stood dumbfounded. He realized then that he had been remiss. All along, he had known this. All along he had known that the nomadic horsemen of the Eastern Steppe were the greater threat. And yet he’d heaped glory upon this Porthios Scaevan, piled wealth upon the Armies of the North. All along…
Chastened, Mithratus stared down at the man, moved to penitence by the sight of his tears. “You’re right, General. You speak truth.”
Mithratus stared into the wall of glittering lamplight before him, shaken by an image of a burning Luralius, the sight of his City, the glorious City of Cities, overrun by the elemental might of the Insacai. Not while I breathe.
He had forgiven Percalaus then and there. He had offered the man anything - rank and riches for his men, land, women, and even the title of Spear-Bearer of the Empire, commander of all the Armies of Luralius, for himself. Though flattered, the General had declined, claiming that his newborn seed, a boy named Prophilus, was now the sole object of his concern.
Unchained and cleansed of his wounds, the General had gone on to speak of the alarming strength of the nomadic warriors, and of the fortuitous turn of fate that had seemingly saved the Eastern Phalanxes from destruction. For no apparent reason the Insacai had simply disbanded, disappearing into the Steppe mere days before the imminent confrontation. It was rumoured that a prince had been born in the distant East, and that the horde had turned from battle to begin their pilgrimage home and pledge allegiance to this newborn child. That, Percalaus had claimed, and that alone had saved the Empire from their wrath. “Next time we may not be so lucky…”
Humbling words. Humbling, terrifying words.
Mithratus massaged his temples, ran his hand across his smooth-shaven cheeks. So far his spies had heard nothing of this young warlord, this Chieftain who would no doubt grow into a scourge upon the Imperial frontiers. No matter how many eyes he possessed, he realized, there was still far too much he simply could not see.
It was not long after the scandal with Percalaus that the whispers had begun - whispers of treason. It was said that Teladorus was conspiring in secret with several of his Imperial Satrap-Governors. And though Mithratus had been loathe to believe such claims, he couldn’t help but admit that if anyone had the resources, if anyone had the sheer temerity, it was Teladorus.
What was the old ingrate planning?
Mithratus pursed his lips and swallowed at the pang in his throat. Nothing terrified him more than the thought of losing his hegemony. Perhaps this was why he demeaned himself in this way. Night after night, searching for treachery across scrolls of papyrus. Night after night, reading the reassuring words of fawning worms. Ever since he was young, he had considered such tasks far beneath an Emperor’s contempt. But why, then? Why, if he was so frightened, did he not simply have these whoreson Satrap-Governors killed? Replaced with ones whom he could trust?
Because, he thought, I trust no one.
Another gentle knock at his doors. A rush of cold terror thrashed through his innards. Jolted from his thoughts, the prospect of the emissary’s early arrival struck him bodily, deprived him of all breath. Then he remembered his earlier instructions to Teladorus, and some semblance of calm returned. His High Chancellor was a deceitful snake, but in small matters such as these his obedience was indisputable. It was the sole reason, Mithratus supposed, that the man still lived.
The Emperor rose from his desk, bellowing his assent. The great bronze doors exploded open, and within moments his chambers were overrun with the palace’s stewards, lighting censers and frantically preparing the apartment for this impromptu audience. His body slaves followed bearing vials of perfume and his ceremonial armour.
He hurriedly exchanged his simple linens for a glistening silk robe, forgoing his armour and weaponry on this occasion. What reason did he have to look the conqueror for these foreign dogs? What could they expect, showing up in the depths of night like beggars at his door? Then to expect - no, to demand! - an audience with the Emperor of Luralius? They were lucky he hadn’t had them castrated and flayed alive…

Through the crowd of slaves and frantic ministers, Mithratus briefly glimpsed the wizened figure of his High Chancellor. Dressed in the official red silk robes of his station, the man pressed through the throng of servants, his eyes fixed upon his Emperor. Mithratus affected to ignore his approach as his body slaves arrayed him in finery: his golden diadem, his gilded sandals, and the signet ring that proclaimed his rank.

“Exalted One,” he said, breathless with what Mithratus could only presume to be exertion, “the envoy will arrive shortly. I’ve come to brief you.”

His expression impassive, Mithratus stood motionless while his limbs were rubbed with perfumed oils. “Brief me on what, old man?”

“I have spoken with the Hailatasi. I am to be your translator for these proceedings.”

Mithratus scowled involuntarily, faintly shocked by the old man’s knowledge. “You speak their tongue?” The Hailatasi spoke an old and convoluted language, one that had fallen out of use across the Valasian Sea several centuries ago. “How is this?”

The High Chancellor’s expression slackened in imitation of innocence. It was understandable, Mithratus thought, for the man to mistake questions for accusations. In the presence of the Emperor, all questions were usually as much.

“I studied in Galeapylus for a time, Emperor. When I was a boy… I thought you knew.”

Mithratus felt chills of suspicion tingle through his chest. “Is this another of your games, Teladorus? One more scheme against your Emperor?”

For an instant, the old Chancellor appeared thoroughly mortified. Despite the commotion in the chamber, an uncanny hush had fallen between them.

“I swear, Lord Emperor, it is not…”

Mithratus let his lips twist into a sneer as he glared down on the aged man. “So be it, Teladorus. What have they said?”

Recovering his composure, the High Chancellor straightened and folded his arms across his stomach. He stepped closer, glancing nervously to the slaves about them, and in hushed tones said, “They say they bring news of The Star.”

The fury and tension of moments before was forgotten, squelched by a throb of curiosity. Frowning, Mithratus stared into the old man’s rheumy eyes, said nothing.

“They would tell me little more,” Teladorus continued, his expression at once troubled and thoughtful. “But they did ask me one disturbing question…They asked whether any of your wives had recently given birth to a child.”

Wives? Child? What kind of questions were those?

“Surely they must know I have no wives.”

“But as you know, Exalted One, the Hailatasi have paid no heed to the events beyond their borders for centuries. They undoubtedly think you no different from the Saladuecons.”

Mithratus nodded, his expression calm despite the terror lurching through him. It was, he admitted with some reluctance, a likely interpretation. While the Saladuecons of Galeapylus had succumbed to the extravagant degeneracy of the East, the Emperors of Luralius had remained - though not immune to scandal - entirely incorruptible. The Aregallian Palace could boast no harem, and only rarely had its chief occupant married for reasons other than political alliance. Could the Hailatasi be that ignorant?

But it was not the indecency of the question that troubled him so deeply.

His hands trembling, Mithratus banished his body slaves with a mere glance, then barked, “All of you, out!”

Shocked by his outburst, Teladorus flinched visibly, looked to his sandalled feet. One of his slaves, who had moments before been pouring wine from an amphorae into a mixing bowl, stared dumbfounded at him before fleeing in terror, spilling wine across the black marble floors in the process.

Again the doors ground shut, punctuating the silence between Emperor and High Chancellor.

“You worry,” Teladorus muttered, “that this has something to do with what Diodotus said? About a child of House Telcoaros?”

Mithratus spun to face the old man. “Could they know of that?”

A shrug. “The Hailatasi are an ancient people, Emperor. Perhaps they know even more of it than we do.”

“But why, after all these years, would they offer us their knowledge so freely?”

“Perhaps they aren’t offering their knowledge.” Teladorus stopped, his expression pained. “Could it be they’ve come to see that this child - if the legend is in fact true - dies?”

Yes… Yes! Suddenly it all made sense. After all, it was the Hailatasi who, millennia ago, had sacked Mykantos - burned the hallowed city to the ground! Killed the Last High King as he lay weeping for his people! His tutors had told him as much… Perhaps the Hailatasi had come to finish the task they’d set before themselves all those years ago.

Mithratus shook his head in dismay. How could he have forgotten? And to have Teladorus, of all people, remind him… A moment of anxious disbelief accompanied this thought.

The old fool never failed to astound him. Just when he’d thought that he had outlived his purpose, that old age and depravity had robbed the man of both loyalty and intellect, he offered insights such as these.

Mithratus stared hard into his wrinkled face. “So you think they mean to kill me, as well, old man?”

Again, the old man merely shrugged. “Perhaps…”

His eyes narrowed, Mithratus regarded his aged Chancellor warily, smirking all the while. Did Teladorus have gall enough to simply indulge his Emperor’s paranoia? Perhaps he did…

But whether warranted or not, his suspicions would have to wait one more night. Turning for his desk, Mithratus said, “Have guards placed throughout the chambers, Teladorus. We’ll not make these worms wait any longer to look upon the Emperor.”

Teladorus’s robes whispered against the marble as he withdrew from the apartment. After what seemed only a few heartbeats, the High Chancellor returned, a retinue of Principate Guardsmen in tow. Mithratus stood motionless behind his desk, casually observing the old man as he positioned the soldiers through the apartment. He shook his head imperceptibly, even smiled at the man’s doddering senility. Seeing Teladorus bark commands was, he thought, perhaps as ridiculous as imagining the old fool as Emperor. He half expected his soldiers to laugh at the ancient ass, so comical was the sight.

But no… Now was not the time. These were great matters. Their Emperor’s life was at stake. This, they no doubt knew, was no time for laughter.

Through the sound of the High Chancellor’s prattle, Mithratus could only faintly hear the knock at his door. When it came once more, heavy with insistence, he felt as though a great hand had been clamped about his chest.

Teladorus fell silent, glanced to his Emperor. Then, clearly rattled, he turned for the doors and, seemingly to no one in particular, whispered, “They’re here.”

Mithratus strode to the heart of the chamber, his eyes flitting to the soldiers that lined the alabaster-paneled walls. The reflection of flames from nearby censers rippled along their gilded cuirasses. He smiled, reminding himself that each of them - if it ever came to that - would die for their Emperor. There was some comfort in that.

A steward entered and conferred briefly with Teladorus. Mithratus watched, frowning. After sending the man away, Teladorus scurried feebly to his Emperor’s side, muttered, “They come.”

The bronze doors swung open, and two men entered his apartments, their steps rigid, their faces solemn, sedate. Even through the gloom, the sheen of gold was immediately discernible. Mithratus smiled. The Divine King had sent his best.

He turned to his minister, who kept his eyes fixed resolutely forward. Soft enough to not be heard, he whispered, “Have they been checked for weapons?”

Teladorus nodded stiffly, but otherwise made no reply.

The two men passed through the antechamber and came to stand at the threshold of the greater apartment. One was young, perhaps similar in age to Mithratus himself, and outfitted in the manner of a soldier. A corselet comprised entirely of golden scales draped his torso; golden armbands - stylized serpents, Mithratus guessed - adorned his wrists and biceps. His long dark hair was curled and braided ornately. The other was elderly, his body soft in the way of men born to luxury. He wore a broad golden collar studded with lapis stones and brightly-hued beads. His head was shaven and fairly shone in the light of lamps and censers. As Mithratus had so often seen depicted in relief, their eyes were rimmed with kohl, making them appear at once fierce and regal. Even so, Mithratus could not help but feel disappointed at their apparent mortality. Part of him had expected to see his divine kin to walk through those doors.

Nevertheless, there was something profoundly disconcerting, he decided, about glimpsing the legendary in the flesh. Suddenly everything around him - the ranks of soldiers lining the walls, the clouds of wafting incense, the Hailatasi striding towards him with fluid grace, even the frail features of Teladorus in his periphery - appeared curiously submerged, as though the very room had been consumed by the absurd inertia of nightmares. Unaccountably dizzy, Mithratus found himself altering his pose, struggling to retain both balance and dignity. Then, unable to cope with both preternatural still and buzzing silence, he stepped forward, raising his arm in salute.

“The Empire welcomes you, emissaries of Hailatas.”

Teladorus translated, speaking a series of fluid, measured syllables in rapid cadence. The older man replied in that same lolling, rhythmic tongue. He bowed, but only slightly, then gestured to his companion in introduction.

“I’m afraid their names confound me, Exalted One,” Teladorus began hesitantly. “But this man -” he indicated the older, portly man - “says he is the Divine King’s High Priest and Principal Auger.”

“And the other?”

“The Grand General of the Divine Host.”

Mithratus raised his brows, smiled crookedly. “Is that so…” Impressive. The Divine King had indeed sent his finest. But why?

The High Priest continued his inane prattle, his expression stern.

“They have traveled across the Great Sea,” Teladorus related, his eyes clenched in concentration, “to bring news of dire importance.”

Mithratus frowned, transfixed by the High Priest’s flapping jowls. “What news?”

At the High Priest’s next words, Teladorus’s eyes grew wide with alarm. “They say a child of ancient blood has been born in Luralius, Exalted One. A child of an ancient line of Kings…”

Mithratus turned to his High Chancellor, but his gaze remained fixed upon the Hailatasi emissaries. “How could they know this?”

“He claims-” Teladorus paused, seemingly intent on the High Priest’s babble. His expression darkened, and he looked up at his Emperor in astonishment. “He says that the Star proclaims his birth, Exalted One.”

Baffled, Mithratus took a hesitant step forward, then barked, “What does his birth mean?” An image of Percalaus, battered and bloody at his at his feet, surged through his thoughts with the force of cataracts. His son? Prophilus, was it? Was he important, somehow? He trembled, felt his mouth grow dry at the thought. What does this mean?

Teladorus’s words came to him from what seemed a distant place. “He speaks of a Dark god - the Lord of Blood. He says that the time of his return approaches…”

Mithratus nearly laughed aloud at that. Dark Gods… A Lord of Blood? What kind of nonsense was this? Why did all these fools insist on bothering him with myths? And how much more of this lie, he wondered, did they expect him to tolerate?

By now, the truth had become more than clear to him. The Hailatasi had been warned of a threat. Obviously they had been in league with Diodotus. Now they were using this lie to get close to him and then kill him. Of course, it was possible this child was, in some way, a threat to them as well... But one of far less immediacy.

Smirking with contempt, Mithratus regarded the High Priest narrowly. “Teladorus?”

“Yes, Exalted One?”

The Emperor glanced over his shoulder, glimpsed the gilded lions of Luralius that framed his lavish bed. “You can be certain of your translation?”

“I can.”

“And this child… What is the significance of the child? What does he have to do with this God?”

Teladorus asked the man, his tone lilting with condescension.

After a moment’s pause, the High Priest responded with increasing impatience.

Mithratus tilted his head back towards the High Chancellor, awaiting his reply.

A moment of uneasy silence passed.

“Well?” Mithratus snapped. “What does he say?”

“He says…” Teladorus trailed away in obvious distress. He swallowed, then continued: “He beseeches you to see this child safe. He claims the child will have many enemies. Powerful enemies who wish to see him dead.

“He says that if this child were to die, we would all be doomed.”

Mithratus whirled to face his stupefied minister, his eyes wild. “Why? Who are these enemies?”

“The-the Lord of Blood,” Teladorus stammered hastily. “He of Wrath and Woe… Or so this man says.” Then he shrugged as though to say, I know not what this means.

An implacable cold descended on Mithratus - the cold of malevolent rage. Clearly these Hailatasi took him for some gullible boy. Calmly, his movements poised so as to conceal his fury, he turned away from the High Chancellor, approached the Hailatasi emissaries. “How can I protect him if I don’t who he is? Where he is?”

With mounting irritation, the Divine King’s High Priest replied to Teladorus’s translation, gesturing avidly as he spoke.

“What does he say?” Mithratus snapped over his shoulder.

“He claims that they expected to find the child here,” Teladorus replied. “He says they believed that the child may have been your own.”

Gaping, Mithratus looked to the glossy marble floor, his expression perturbed. Was it possible? Could one of his slaves have hidden this from him? Fled from the Palace to save the life of her illegitimate progeny? It had happened before.

But that simply wasn’t possible. His blood - divine as it clearly was - couldn’t possibly possess the pedigree of ancient Kings. His grandfather, Mithratus Kallikos I, had been a lowly field officer before his remarkable rise to power. Before that… It was forbidden to speak of anything before that. There were penalties, harsh penalties, for speaking of anything before that.

Mithratus breathed deeply, blinking in silent rumination. The cold, once merely an intimation of the unthinkable, now threatened to overwhelm him. Perhaps tonight, he reasoned, would be a good night for blood after all.

“And if he was here... This child.” Mithratus abruptly cocked his gaze forward, glared fiercely into the eyes of the nameless Hailatasi Priest. “What would you do with him?”

“Lord Emperor,” Teladorus whispered plaintively, “is this-”

“Ask him!” he roared without looking from the emissaries’ painted eyes.

Though he obviously harbored misgivings, Teladorus promptly obeyed. But before he could finish, the Grand General interceded, his dark eyes bright with challenge.

“He wishes to warn you, Exalted One, that this is no time for petty mistrust.” Anguish and dread came to animate the High Chancellor’s expression. “He begs you not to be a fool.”

Stunned by his audacity, Mithratus glowered at the Hailatasi general, his chest heaving with wrath. You would dare insult the Emperor?

"He also says," Teladorus continued, "that far more than the Empire is at risk in this matter, Exalted One. He begs you to see reason, to trust them in this..."

Mithratus smirked, overcome at once with amusement and disgust. "Is that so?" Though startled by the intensity of the man's reply, the Emperor remained unmoved. A gifted liar. One could never trust, his father had once told him, a people infatuated with knowledge. And the Hailatasi were nothing if not that.

A staggering sense of conviction seized him. Whatever foul deeds these Hailatasi ingrates had come to commit, whatever lies they hoped to spread, they would go no farther than this room. He would not allow the Immortal City to be polluted by their presence. Their lies.

And the cold had become unyielding…

“I will keep my own counsel,” Mithratus said, “on who is to be trusted.” Then he turned away from the emissaries, strode passed his High Chancellor and moved to stand behind his desk. “This audience is over, Teladorus.” The Emperor of Luralius stared at the young Hailatasi Grand General for several moments, gifting him with a sardonic smile. His farewell. “Kill them. Kill them both.”

Teladorus turned to face him, his rutted features slack with astonishment. “But, Lord Emperor…”

Mithratus said nothing, watched with cold dispassion as his guardsmen drew their swords and stepped forward as one. At least, he thought, their loyalties are clear.

The Hailatasi Grand General muttered something indecipherable, then with an agility born of urgency drew a gilded knife from the armpit of his corselet. The young man lunged forward, plunged the blade into Teladorus’s back. The old man gaped, his eyes rounded in pain and incomprehension. Then he slumped against the mahogany desk and fell to the floor, inert.

Mithratus stumbled backward, nearly collapsed into his chair. He yelped in panic and disbelief. Teladorus? The Hailatasi General shoved his desk aside, spilling lamps and papyrus across the floor. A womanish scream pierced the air, and Mithratus glimpsed the High Priest’s fat body crumple to the ground, riddled with wounds. Stunned, the Grand General spun to face the approaching soldiers. A merciless flurry of iron. The clash of metal against marble…

Then it was over. The nameless General’s body lay alongside the High Chancellor’s - mangled, limbs slack, fingers twisted in rigor.

Mithratus smiled and clenched his fists. Glory and ecstacy. Malice and might. Once more he had overcome. He truly was indomitable, a God among fools. He looked up to his Principate Guardsmen, stepped forward to congratulate them with his mere touch. They bowed their heads, held out their bloodied swords in submission. Mithratus knelt, silently appraising the dead Grand General’s fabulous armor. A pity to have ruined it. Then he looked to the lifeless form of his High Chancellor and snorted in aversion.

Strange, he thought, that he could feel so cold despite all the man had done for House Kallikos.

But perhaps it was only fitting. The Gods did not mourn the loss of mortals.

His gaze flickered up, caught a small, sluggish movement. The High Priest. The man lay bleeding, groaning in agony, blinking as he stared up at the gold-fretted ceiling. Mithratus stood, grasped a sword from one of his guardsmen, then came to loom over the dying Hailatasi Priest.

Their eyes locked, and Mithratus whispered, “Who bid you do this?”

Nothing. The High Priest blinked up into his eyes, but could make no reply.

“Leave us,” Mithratus snapped over his shoulder. “Send someone to clean this mess.”

His soldiers quickly complied, filing from the apartments without a word. Barked orders percolated down the palace corridors.

Alone with his would-be killer, Mithratus gripped tight the ivory hilt of his short sword. “Was it Saladuecon? Diodotus himself? Who?”

The blinking ceased. The High Priest gasped, coughed frothy strings of blood, then went utterly limp.

Overcome with wrath, Mithratus raised his blade, brought it down upon the man’s chest. Justice. Again and again, until blood covered his face and arms, until the man’s body was no more than a heap of lacerated flesh. Justice... That was the sum of his wrath.

Eternal, divine justice.

Only the sound of his doors grating open abated his fury.

Callistares strode into the apartment, his plumed helm tucked beneath his arm. His eyes widened in horror and revulsion as he scanned the Imperial Bedchamber.

“Emperor…” Breathlessness. “What has happened here?”

Mithratus smiled, tossed his sword to the floor. He closed his eyes and breathed deep, fairly trembling with the memory of his fury. “An assassination attempt, High Tribune. You should be proud. Your men responded admirably.”

Callistares stood dumbstruck. He peered past Mithratus’s shoulder, scowled when he glimpsed the body of the High Chancellor. No doubt the man would be riven with grief. He and Teladorus had been friends for many years…

Years in the service of House Kallikos.

Mithratus sighed. “Yes… Unfortunate, that.”

“Unfortunate? Lord Emperor, I must know what has happened here. Your High Chancellor is dead!”

Mithratus shrugged. “I think it quite obvious, High Tribune. These ingrates arrived at the Palace and demanded an audience with the Emperor. I indulged them for a time, then decided they were no longer worthy of my ear. They had, of course, actually been sent to kill me.” Turning away from the man, he smiled once again. “As I said, your men saved me. I am most pleased with their conduct.”

Slaves scurried like vermin through the room’s gloomy perimeter, shrinking from the confrontation between the Emperor and his Counsel of War. Lamps were retrieved and relit; scrolls were arranged across his desk.

Wincing, Callistares paused over the dismembered corpse at the chamber’s heart. “Who were they, Mithratus?”

By now, the slaves were dragging the corpses of Teladorus and the young Grand General from the apartment. Mithratus looked on, racked by a sudden pang of dread. By tomorrow, he had no doubt, all Luralius would know of this outrage. Something he simply could not tolerate.

“Hailatasi,” Mithratus said numbly. “They were Hailatasi.” He did not, however, tell the old General just who the emissaries were. Or of the impact their deaths would no doubt have upon the Empire. He had no time for the man’s concerns tonight.

Callistares kept his eyes lowered to the gore-littered floor. “What did they say?”

Mithratus brought a blood-smeared hand to his face, fingered the gold-and-carnelian diadem that crested his brow. “They spoke of House Telcoaros. They said a child of ancient blood was born in Luralius, and that he must be kept safe.”

The High Tribune regarded him with tear-filled eyes. “You didn’t believe them.”

Mithratus sneered, wearily shook his head. “No.”

The great bronze doors slammed shut. A chilling silence fell over the room. Callistares pursed his lips and stepped forward.

“Do you not think the coincidence too… alarming to be mere coincidence, Emperor?”

“You mean what Diodotus said.”

Rubbing his bearded cheeks, Callistares nodded.

“You think there could be some truth in this madness?”

Callistares frowned, blinking tears from his eyes. “I don’t know.” The High Tribune affected to wipe something from his lips. “But surely you don’t think they would travel so far to try and kill you in this manner?”

“And why else,” Mithratus snapped, exasperated, “would they come here, General? Hmm?”

Callistares sighed audibly. “You think Diodotus told them of your father’s plans.”

Rather than reply, Mithratus narrowed his eyes in cold scrutiny, then lowered them to his desk.

“They came to tell you of this child,” Callistares continued, his tone heavy with reproach, “and you killed them.”

“The man had weapons, Callistares! Weapons. In the presence of the Emperor!” That alone, Callistares would understand, had warranted their deaths.

The High Tribune acted as though his Emperor hadn’t just spoken. “Perhaps this child is more important than we know.”

Struck mute by disbelief, Mithratus simply stared at the man. No words would come. Callistares had never been one to voice idle fears. Nor had he ever been one to believe in foolish myths. Myths were beneath the concern of mythic men. But if even he could be concerned…

“They told you something about the child, didn’t they?”

Blank-faced, Mithratus could only nod. It seemed that the man read his expression as though it were a battlefield. “They said if he dies, we are all doomed.”

The hiss of billowing censers filled the silence.

“Emperor,” Callistares said at length. “As far as we know, only one child has been born to the Great Houses in the past several weeks.”

“Prophilus Valerus.”

Callistares nodded in his periphery.

“Have the boy watched, High Tribune. Watched carefully....”

“Of course, Lord Emperor.”

“That will be all for tonight, High Tribune. Tomorrow we will make arrangements for Teladorus’s passage into the Realm. The appointment of a new High Chancellor. And I must speak with the Master of Records about anything concerning House Telcoaros. I must know the truth behind all of this. ” He exhaled heavily. “But it must wait until tomorrow.”

“Yes, Emperor. Of course.” A nervous pause. “You will be…staying here tonight, Emperor?”

Mithratus frowned. It hadn’t yet occurred to him that some may find it strange that he remain here after an attempt had been made on his life. It wasn’t as though he lacked safe refuge outside the Capitol. There was his pleasure villa in Sardanum, his gardens in Carindesa - places that would afford him some time away from the mayhem that would surely grip the Palace after this affair.

But he could not leave. Leaving could be perceived as cowardice - as weakness.

He smiled. “The Emperor will remain here, Callistares.”

“As you wish, Exalted One.” Callistares bowed shallowly, then turned to withdraw. The voice of his Emperor halted him before he reached the doors.


The High Tribune turned to face his Emperor. “Yes, Exalted One?”

Mithratus brought his hand to his face in thought - but there was nothing left to decide. “Have the slaves who removed the bodies… silenced. See to it yourself.”

“As you wish, Lord Emperor.”

Alone at last, Mithratus rubbed his forehead, his thoughts stricken. Only days ago, his sole purpose had been maintaining control over the Empire. But now…

Now it seemed that everything had changed. Teladorus dead. His Empire apparently secure. All things being equal, he should have been elated.

Yet there was no reprieve. No sense of harmony or conquest at what he’d wrought.

Only more heart-gnawing uncertainty. The Hailatasi had seen to that.

For what seemed hours, Mithratus sat desolate, staring into nothingness. Everything he had ever heard or read about the Hailatasi tumbled through his mind like smoke roiling in the wind. Then, from nowhere, the words of his father - words he wished he had forgotten - came to him unbidden.

“They are the most ancient people in the Valasian Sea, Mithra. When our Capitol was a shepherd’s village, they ruled the entire South and East. The knowledge they keep is boundless…”

Yes… His father had spoken those words when he was but a boy. It was the first time he’d entered that very same hall where he’d met Diodotus. Words that had ignited the curiosity of a young would-be Emperor.

And that same curiosity, dimmed with age and worldly responsibility, suddenly burned bright with newfound purpose. Could they know something of this child? Something he didn’t?

I must know that they do! I must!

The people of Hailatas, he was certain, could not be trusted. But perhaps, he hoped, their knowledge could.

Either he would their knowledge, or he would have vengeance.

Vengance... And with it, glory.

He would accomplish what no other man had accomplished. Not even Attalon...

Hailatas would be his. It would take take time, patience, planning, and strength - so much strength! - but it would be his.

You are strong, Mithratus! You are!

But the shadows, relentless in their torture, clamoured: No, Mithratus. No, you are weak...

Here, beyond the scrutiny of his innumerable servants, Mithratus lowered his head to his hands and wept.

That night, before he crawled between the gilded lions that framed his bed, he scratched a simple message across a sheet of blank papyrus.

Mithratus Kallikos II, Emperor of Luralius, to Diodotus of Cayranus. Greetings. view post


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