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Chapter 1


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THE LAST HEIR

by Shannon McDermott

CHAPTER 1

 

TELNARIA, the City of the Emperors, was quiet, and it was dark. The lights set to illuminate the Palace, the monuments, all the city's great buildings—all such lights were dark this evening. The black-crepe cloth was hung throughout Telnaria and the people had darkened their houses. The standards were lowered over the city, and every fourth hour a doleful refrain sounded.
    It was the second time in five years that Telnaria had clothed itself in mourning for the death of an emperor.
    At the Royal Palace, a man stood on a narrow balcony, the Palace dark behind him. His hands rested on the parapet and he was gazing out. He could barely see as dusk faded into night, but his imagination carried him to the Great Plaza, which spread out before the Court of Justice. On the Court's terrace, before the crowded plaza, every new emperor had stood and taken the oaths of his office. Kinlol knew every step of the ceremony, the minutiae, the old, exalting words. He could guide his imagination through it.
    But today the thought of it brought him no comfort, no pleasure. It only reminded him of the Empire's troubles—and the Empire's troubles were his own. The emperor had been young and strong and no one had expected his death. Kinlol's own surprise had faded, usurped by a growing heaviness. This was more than a tragedy. It was a crisis.
    The faint hissing of an opening door came from behind, and light from inside the Palace. It hissed again and the light vanished. A man joined Kinlol at the parapet. He didn't need to look to know that it was Gawin Gaelin.
    “Well?”
    It was a single word, spoken low, though there was no reason for it. “We must take counsel,” Kinlol answered. There was no reply, so Kinlol continued, “The Empire needs an emperor.”
    “It has one.”
    “In no practical sense.”
    Gaelin went on, as if unhearing. “Alexander Cyneric Alheenan the Fifth, son of Emperor Judah, descended in straight line from Alexander the Mighty.”
    “Fine names, but only names, Gaelin. The child is seven years old. He cannot rule.”
    Gaelin sighed and leaned against the parapet, head bowed. He said nothing.
    Kinlol was disturbed. His friend's posture implied defeat, or at least weariness, and he did not like that.
    After a moment, Gaelin spoke softly. “Must we talk of this, tonight of all nights? We buried the emperor just today. The Empire won't crumble—”
    “We have already waited too long,” Kinlol interrupted. “Already people are turning away from the emperor's death and looking towards the future. They are beginning to wonder who will rule. We must have an answer. We must let no one take advantage of the situation.”
    Gaelin sighed. “Who can we put on the throne? Alexander is a child; he can't rule. And there is no other heir—no one who can assume the throne until Alexander is ready. That is the only provision the law has made for this eventuality.”
    “No man knows the law like I do,” Kinlol answered. “And rare is the scholar who knows our history as well. I know that law and precedent have failed. And don't you see that that is exactly the point?” Kinlol looked at Gaelin and felt his impatience rising. This lethargic sorrow was unacceptable in any official, even if his wife was the emperor's sister. Kinlol considered this no time for softness and spoke his next words deliberately, “That is why weakness and indecisiveness are the last things we need.”
    Gaelin straightened up, not liking Kinlol's words or tone. He looked in his direction, but he could barely see him. “Is that a rebuke, Kinlol?”
    “No, Gaelin,” Kinlol answered coolly. “A reminder. We have no time for dallying.”
    “I await your brilliant ideas with bated breath.”
    “Sarcasm.”
    “The blindingly obvious,” Gaelin shot back. “If you have anything worth saying, say it. Otherwise I'll rejoin my wife.”
    “Very well, Gaelin.” Kinlol paused, and when he spoke again it was in a much different voice. “As Chief of Justice I am an expert in the law—in all its precedents and particulars, in its history, traditions, and foundations.”
    “Impressive litany—to say nothing of long,” Gaelin muttered. He knew Kinlol didn't deserve it, but he was still irritated with the man and was in no mood for one of his little Council speeches.
    Kinlol went on, ignoring him. “Alexander is emperor, as the law decrees. The law has no regulation or precedent for transferring his authority to any outside the Royal Family. In fact, the Ancient Code forbids that the emperorship be reduced, or taken from the line of Alheenan, till it or the Empire itself perishes.”
    Gaelin stared out at the city, and it was nearly swallowed in darkness. “And so you are saying,” he said slowly, “that we shouldn't appoint a regent.”
    “Cannot, by the Ancient Code.”
    “So Alexander is emperor, and the Empire will be managed by the Council of Chiefs—”
    “As always.”
    “But always the emperor has managed them. Alexander cannot, and if he does not rule the Council—”
    Kinlol's voice was calm, businesslike. “We will rule the Empire.”
    “Is that legal?”
    “It is not illegal.”
    “Is it wise?”
    “It is shrewd, Gaelin, very shrewd. This way we can care for the Empire and protect Alexander until he rules. They will both be safe in our hands. Don't you realize how dangerous it would be to appoint a regent? And that's our only other option! A regent would take the emperorship—when would he give it back? If he wasn't willing, how could we make him? No one can fight against the power of the emperorship.”
    “What sort of man do you think we'd choose?” Gaelin demanded.
    Kinlol half-shrugged, unperturbed by his incredulity. “It hardly matters. The regent would rule for years—ten at least. That's long enough for any man to learn to love power—love it more than anything.”
    “You have so little faith.”
    “Experience and history teach me to have little in humanity.” Then Kinlol turned—not exactly congenial, but certainly comradely. “Gaelin, we have served the Empire and our emperor together for years. And now—now still, now more than ever—it is our duty to serve them. We must retain the emperorship for the house of Alheenan.”
    “Kinlol, no matter which course we take, the house of Alheenan will be deprived of the emperorship. Neither the Council nor the regent would take the title emperor, but under both the house of Alheenan will lose all its power.”
    “The difference, Gaelin, is in whose hands the power will be.”
    “Yours.” The statement was almost an accusation.
    “Exactly.”
    Gaelin drew a breath and let it out slowly. “So little faith in humanity,” he said. “So much in yourself.” His voice was soft. He felt the irony of it, and he felt he should feel angry. But his thoughts were churning and he had no time for anger. “I wish, Kinlol,” he said after a long pause, “that I could say you were wrong.”
    “And you can't?”
    “I don't know yet.”
    “You will—”  
    Kinlol's question was broken by a soft hiss, and the balcony was suddenly flooded with light. Gaelin stood a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the light, and then turned towards the open door. A man stood there, bowing slightly.
    It took Gaelin a minute, especially with the light shining behind him, but he recognized the man: The commander of the Emperor's Guard.
    Kinlol was quicker in turning than Gaelin and quicker to speak. “What is it, Colonel?”
    “By your leave,” the colonel said, “let us move inside. I have a message.” He walked through the door and stepped to the side, letting the other two pass him, and then the door closed.
    “Yes?” Gaelin asked.
    “I have a message for Emperor Alexander.”
    “Who sent that child a message?” Kinlol demanded—but beneath his gruffness there was the same flicker of uneasiness that Gaelin felt.
    The colonel studied both their faces and lifted his right hand, giving the men a good look at his compad. Kinlol supposed he was going to read off the message, but then he held out the compad to him.
    Kinlol accepted it, and found its screen blank. He looked over at the colonel, and—increasingly disturbed at how this was proceeding—Kinlol touched a key. Immediately an image appeared—the seal of the Assembly, seven pillars and one bright star ...
    Kinlol looked up quickly, his eyes shooting to the colonel. “Where did you get this?”
    The colonel looked at him, his expression inscrutable. “A delegate came to the Palace and delivered it—a leader from the delegation of Norphatt. The Assembly”—his voice took on a note of declaration—“begs permission from Emperor Alexander to convene.”
    The old formulation was not so much a request as a notification. Kinlol lowered the compad, knowing now exactly what had been programmed into it. He looked at Gaelin; Gaelin raised his eyebrows, his expression asking him what he had expected. Kinlol looked away again, his brow furrowing, his eyes growing thoughtful.
    The colonel stood in silence, watching them both.

It was not a large room and it seemed smaller yet, filled with a long oval table surrounded by broad-backed chairs. Elymas Vonran, Premier of the Assembly and chair of this meeting, sat at the head of the table. Leading men of the Assembly ringed the table, serious and ready for their business. Their chosen spokesman entered the room, returning from the Palace, and their eyes fixed on him as he made his way to the table and sat down.
    He did not look around, but looked straight at Vonran. Vonran raised his eyebrows. The man nodded slightly and then, shifting his gaze to include his other colleagues, said to them, “I went to the Royal Palace. I said I had a message for Emperor Alexander that was to be received by the commander of the Emperor's Guard—not any servant. Colonel—” He stopped, grasping.
    Vonran knew the colonel's name, but he did not supply it. One of the other delegates said it. “Kereth.”
    “Colonel Kereth,” the spokesman continued, “came out to me and took the message.”
    “That is all?” asked Vonran.
    “That is all.”
    Silence. Garin Dorjan spoke the question that hung in it. “But we don't know what he will do with it.”
    “That question needs no Solomon,” said Vonran. “He cannot keep it to himself, and he knows that telling the child is inadequate. He will share it. Whomever he chooses—any official, any servant of the emperor, even the Lady Mareah—our message will soon be known to the Chiefs.”
    “If it isn't already,” said the delegate from Norphatt. “Some of them were at the Palace when I arrived.”
    “Will the Council oppose us?” asked Nemin Ziphernan. A new delegate in his mid-thirties, he was the youngest man in the room. Vonran hadn't invited Ziphernan; his name had not been so much as mentioned when this meeting was planned. But though he was surprised, and less than pleased, when Ziphernan arrived, Vonran said nothing of it. The potential benefits from doing so were quite outweighed by the potential harm from offending Ziphernan and whatever delegate he had wrangled an invitation from.
    Now Vonran glanced at the younger man as he answered his question. “The Council is only men—only eight men. Chief Kinlol has the senior position on the Council. He will oppose us—and the other Chiefs will follow him.” Vonran turned to Dorjan. “Garin, how many provinces have responded to the notifications we sent?”
    “Most of them. They will be sending their delegations to Telnaria as soon as possible. The provinces we have not received confirmation from are Lithia, Siym, Anarett, Verz, Charim, and—” Dorjan sighed and finished, “And Regial.”
    Regial had one of the largest delegations, for it was very populous, if also very poor. It was on the outskirts of the Empire, sharing a border with Far Vothnia and cutting a long, lonely line across Unknown Space. There was no province further from Telnaria; the journey would be longer for their delegation than for any other.
    And it was a well-known fact that if Regial didn't consider one of the Assembly's special sessions worth their time, they wouldn't send anybody at all.
    “Regial is unpredictable,” someone said.
    The leader of the delegation of Tremain, Colten Shevyn, spoke up. “Between the delegates who are already in Telnaria and the ones who will be arriving, we should make quorum within three days.”
    There was a flurry of response to that. “What shall be our first order of business?”
    “Hold forums—”
    “We must make an official declaration—”
    “But even if we have quorum—”
    Vonran held up both hands to stop the voices. When he had silence, he said, “All these are necessary questions. By all means keep them in mind. Think, consult, debate. But don't stake anything on false assumptions.” All eyes were on Vonran, and he paused to let the tension build. After a moment he continued, “Even if we make quorum, it's no certainty that we can begin our business.”
    “Why not?” demanded Shevyn.
    “The Council will oppose us, Shevyn. Never make plans without taking into account your opponents.”
    “What can the Council do to stop us?” demanded Ziphernan. “It is the law that the Assembly can conduct its business when it achieves quorum.”
    “It is not the law that the Assembly can make decisions about the emperorship,” Vonran answered.
    “There is nothing in the law at all about our current situation,” Dorjan pointed out. “The Council has as much—or as little—authority as we.”
    “And that, my friends,” announced Vonran, “is the sum of the situation. The Council and the Assembly will decide the ruling of the Empire, without either the law or the emperor.”

It was well after midnight when Elymas Vonran finally stood on the steps of his Telnarian home. It was a warm night and the stars were out, brighter over darkened Telnaria than they had been for years. But the delegates' meeting had kept Vonran late and he did not linger to enjoy the night; he barely noticed it. Shifting his compads from one hand to the other, he keyed the security pad—discreetly positioned to one side of the front doors, close to the jamb—and then stood, palm extended, while a light swept his hand. The doors swung open and he slipped in quietly.
    Vonran knew some men who had their servants stay up, or the house kept lit, until their return, even if it was closer to dawn than sunset. Vonran had never approved, and sometimes his disapproval bordered contempt. He set times in his house and he saw to it that they were kept. It was for his household's good running, and he didn't change them. Even when his work kept him late, his household still retired at the proper time. His wife was its only member who had ever waited up for him, and she was gone now. When Vonran stepped into the foyer he didn't bother to turn a light on; he was comfortable in the dark and he could move easily in it. He had lived in this house for thirteen years and he moved soundlessly in it, even in complete darkness. He crossed the foyer and climbed the circular staircase up to the second floor. There was another foyer at the top—a small one—and then a dimly lit hallway.
    Vonran touched the light panel, increasing the light a little. Time to make his rounds. He was closest to Zelrynn's bedroom, but she was fourteen years old and no longer needed to be checked on every night. He crossed the hall to another room and stood in the doorway, trying to see by the faint light spilling in. He could make out Lydia tangled up in her blankets, and Vera— He leaned forward, straining his eyes, but after a moment gave up and walked, as quietly as he could, to the bed beyond Lydia's. Vera was there, sure enough—but it was wise to be sure. Vonran left and headed to another room—the smallest bedroom, right next to his own, where little Calanthra slept.
    Dianthe and he had chosen that name for its beauty, but when, after months of waiting, they finally held their baby, it seemed too long—longer than the little girl who owned it. She had quickly become Cala to her family. Now, nearly four years later, they still called her by it.
    Standing in Cala's doorway, Vonran again couldn't make out his daughter in the rumpled blankets. He came up to the bed and found it empty.
    His heart beat faster, but he wasn't worried, not yet. Sometimes Cala got out of bed at night. She never went far: she was afraid of the dark, empty rooms. She either went to Zelrynn's bedroom, or, more likely—
    Vonran hurried to his own room, turning the light on as he entered. And there on the bed, Cala was fast asleep.
    Vonran stood and looked at her a minute, alone on the large bed. He felt, for the first time, a pang of guilt at not having come home that day. Ever since she was given her own bedroom Cala would sometimes pad to her parents' room, favorite doll hooked in one arm, and climb into the bed. Vonran had not had his wife's tolerance of the habit, despite its infrequency. But after Dianthe died Cala started coming into his room more often than she stayed in her own, and Vonran's patience had no limit. He had lost his wife and he hardly knew what to do for his girls, and if Cala could be comforted even a little, he was willing.
    As the days turned to weeks and a year passed, Cala came less and less. Occasionally she still wandered into her father's room. And tonight he had been away.
    Sighing inaudibly, Vonran put his compads on an end-table next to the bed. He leaned over and covered Cala properly. Then he pulled off his boots and went into the bathroom, coming out in a few minutes ready for bed. Vonran sat up on the bed and, picking up a compad, clicked it on and began to review the notes he had made that day. Most of them were about convening the Assembly and notifying the emperor, and that night's meeting. Settled business for the most part, nothing he needed to remember or do. Six provinces hadn't confirmed yet, but he expected to receive confirmations from five of them the next day or, at the very least, the day after.
    Regial, though. That province was a different question. One of the delegates had called them unpredictable, but he didn't think they were. He didn't think anyone was. Everyone had their way, and if you understood it you could predict what they would do. But Regial's way was not Telnaria's way, and the affluent men of the Assembly were often at a loss how to deal with the free-minded provincials. For himself, Vonran intended to treat them in a way that didn't usually occur to his high-society colleagues. He would treat them as equals. In the morning he would call the prefect of Regial and the leader of their delegation.
    Vonran came to a note near the end: Ziphernan. The young delegate obviously had plans for his place in the Assembly. It'd be worth it to keep an eye on him—and find out, if Vonran could, what friend or mentor had provided the invitation.
    Vonran closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall and worked his final evaluation of the day. He had accomplished all that he had wanted as well as he had wanted, and he calculated what progress he had made towards his goal. It was good, but this was still very much the preliminaries. As hard as the work had been, he considered it only stretching his muscles. The real fight was still to come. He had to unite the Assembly and lead it to defeat Kinlol and the Council. That was the battle that would win him his spoils. Uniting the Assembly was a task in and of itself. He would have to undercut his political opponents, persuade the delegates and the leaders—it was like herding cats sometimes—dealing with their thousand different designs and motivations, to make his goal theirs and them a force that would follow him to win it.
    One step, one day, Vonran reminded himself. One step, one day. He opened his eyes and looked over at Calanthra. Vonran stretched out a hand and rested it, lightly, on her hair. All his other daughters had hair dark like his own, but this one had her mother's honey blond hair and the same gray eyes. Vonran was still, his mind turning down old pathways, and a quiet, familiar pain crept back into his heart. After a moment he roused himself and lifted up Cala. When she didn't make a sound, he carried her to her room, laid her down and covered her. He leaned down and kissed her forehead. “Sleep well, Cala,” he whispered, and returned to his own room. The night was slipping away. He had five hours before he needed to begin the next day and he wanted to get sleep while he could. Exhaustion bred error and weakness, and Elymas Vonran had no tolerance for either.

Colonel Adon Kereth, commander of the Emperor's Guard, was in his office, pecking restlessly at his computer. It was late—at the end of the third watch—and no one had asked or expected this of him. He could have gone home hours ago, but he remained in his office at the Palace's security center.
    Kereth did not, in any definite way, want to be there. He couldn't sleep and even if this had been a normal night as far as businesses were concerned, he wouldn't have wanted to go into the city. And there was no one waiting for him at home. But there was nothing keeping him at the Palace, either. He had nothing to do; the past hour or so he had spent waiting for the morning's reports to come in. Before that he strolled through the Palace and its grounds, but his men—who knew that their commander should have been in bed, where most of them would heartily like to be themselves—had started looking at him strangely. So Kereth retreated to his office and looked for work that could hold his attention. He'd had little success, but it didn't matter, not that much. Boredom wasn't what was fueling his restlessness.
    It was uneasiness. Kereth had met that delegate and heard his message—not particularly pleased by the haughty demand that was his summons, but he found overlooking insults to often be the better part of valor. He had retreated to an alcove off a broad corridor where he could stare at the compad and no one would see the commander of the Emperor's Guard looking befuddled. He looked at it, turning over his options in his mind. Obviously, he had to show it to someone; keeping it to himself had to violate some regulation or law. And as for showing it to the emperor—well, Kereth guessed this emperor would need help reading every other word. The long words favored for governmental formalities tended not to be in seven-year-olds' vocabularies.
    Then he considered other people. The emperor's personal servants might be entrusted with such a message, but, honestly, what would any of them do with it? Exactly what the good commander was doing in the alcove. As for the empress—well, the Lady Mareah couldn't have done much herself, and Kereth much preferred not to bother her. And so, the emperor's officials. Kereth did believe that Chief Kinlol and General Gaelin were still in the Palace.
    So he had delivered the Assembly's message to them, after an exasperating search. He didn't know why the two men were conversing out on the balcony in the dark, and he didn't care for the looks of it. Still, Kereth wasn't much disturbed by it. But the whole incident had left him with a sense of uneasiness that he couldn't shake. As the night wore on, it deepened to an almost awful presentiment.
    And here the third watch found him, sitting in his office, waiting for the morning's reports to come in. He knew they came in overnight, but apparently it was still too early to be receiving most of them. He was beginning to consider this ridiculous, considering how late it was.
    With an air of disgust, Kereth put his computer into lockdown and stood up. Time to take another walk. Soldiers were never hurt by having their commanders wander in unexpectedly, and he needed the activity.
    Kereth strode through the halls, head high, military carriage flawless. He was walking through a part of the Palace sealed off from the public when he nearly collided with a man turning the corner. The man drew to a full stop and, without missing a beat, swept his hand up in a salute.
    Kereth returned it. “I thought you were already off duty, Captain Dilv,” he said, archly ignoring the fact that he himself had been off several hours.
    “I am,” Dilv replied, falling into step beside Kereth. “And now I'm going home. Just finished some busy work for the bureaucrats. Sent in my reports.”
    Kereth nodded, wondering if there were now reports waiting in his computer, wondering what Dilv would think if he knew how Kereth had been waiting for his busy work. Kereth turned his head and suddenly noticed two guards standing sentry next to—a tapestry? Kereth stopped and stared at them.
    Dilv also stopped, looking at them, then him. “When the empress forbade any guards in the family's rooms, we blocked off all possible entrances.”
    “I know there's a reasonable explanation, but ...” He pointed to the tapestry. “An entrance?”
    “Behind the tapestry, sir. Servants' stairwell.”
    Kereth shook his head. “That's near the kitchens.”
    “Well, the one they use now. This is the old one. It's a kind of leftover from before the major reconstruction of the Palace more than a hundred years back. That was when they expanded the Palace and created this security center. All this area we have now—it used to be the kitchens and other servants' rooms. That's why that stairwell's there—and now it leads up to unused bedchambers. In fact, in most of the modern plans of the Palace, it doesn't even show up.”
    “We should fix that,” Kereth murmured, smarting over his own ignorance of it. How had he missed an entrance to the emperor's chambers?
    “If the colonel orders it,” Dilv said. The men walked in silence for a few minutes, and Kereth was almost startled when Dilv suddenly gestured. “I never expected to see the black-outs up again so soon.”
`    Kereth looked over to the windows and the black covering that had been put in place over them. “No one expected the emperor to die.” He glanced over at Dilv. The captain looked grave, almost troubled.
    “What will happen now?” he asked.
    Kereth thought of the stairwell they had just passed that led up to the Lady Mareah and her son, the young emperor. “The whole Empire is wondering that.”
    “And the great ones will decide.”
    For a moment Gaelin and Kinlol stood before Kereth's eyes. “Aye.”
    “And we?”
    “We have our duty, Captain,” Kereth replied, letting a note of sternness creep into his voice.
    “I am a soldier, Colonel,” Dilv answered. “I know my duty and I do it. But there will be change, sir.” Captain Dilv brought up his hand in salute. “By your leave, sir. My wife is expecting me.”
    Kereth returned the salute, watched the man turn smartly and march out. His gaze was drawn to the covered windows in the outer wall. Unexpected. And now the great ones must sort the matter out.
    Well, he was no great one, no wise man. But he knew this: The Assembly and the Council were getting ready for a fight. He'd seen it in the delegate—he was like a man delivering a challenge. He'd seen it in Gaelin and Kinlol when he gave them the message. He didn't know who would win, or what it would mean if either one won. But Kereth could smell the fight coming, and Dilv was right: There would be change.
    And Kereth knew then that it didn't matter, not to him. As commander of the Emperor's Guard he'd been given a charge and he had sworn before God to keep it. His duty was to protect the emperor, and that never would change. Whatever happened now and whatever followed, he would stand by his emperor to protect and serve him.
    Kereth drew himself up to attention, hardly aware that he was doing it. “Long live the emperor,” he said aloud in the empty corridor. “Hail to Alexander the Fifth.”