Absalom watched the herald curiously. He seemed barely beyond his teens but he was Alaurian and their look was often deceiving. What was obvious was his nervousness. The boy shifted from foot to foot, and his hands clenched frequently. Enough that he was in danger of crushing the parchment before he had a chance to deliver the message.

He shook his head in some amusement. The boy had best hope the old man was in a good mood for this audience. He had grown more and more irascible of late and it did not take much to annoy him. And a herald that took so little care of a message to the imperial court could have sent him into a rage easily enough, even before.

The heavy golden doors opened, drawing his attention. One of the stewards appeared in the doorway, beckoning to the messenger. The boy started, swallowing visibly and Absalom smiled again, hiding it behind a fist. The boy, managed to get ahold of himself and, squaring his shoulders, stepped toward the throne room. Absalom fell into a practiced step, two paces behind and one to the right. Far enough that he would not crown the boy but still close enough if he was needed.

To his credit, the boy kept a steady pace as he approached the throne. It was often over-whelming for those unaccustomed to the Imperial Place. Absalom remembered the first time he’d made the same walk the boy was making now. He’d been nervous enough he’d been surprised he hadn’t rattled inside his armor. If the boy was that nervous, he hid it well.

 

The throne room was quieter than most days; less than two dozen people in attendance and maybe a quarter of those were member of the imperial guard. The rest were advisors, courtiers, functionaries. And, of course, the old man himself.

Absalom glanced ahead to the throne. A single solid piece of basalt, carved centuries before then shaped and polished by the years. The black rock stood out, sharp and solid, against the white marble that paved the room and sheathed its columns. Even as the focal point of the room, it seemed almost out of place among the finery surrounding it. Most of the other furnishings; the tapestries, banners, even some of the other seats, were more ornate than the throne. But there was something about that throne that drew the eye, not just its plainness. The weight of its history, perhaps.

The old man sat the throne as he always did, his robes a splash of gold against the black. The circlet of gold about his temples was all he had ever worn as a crown. It nestled snugly against the black and grey of his hair. There was more grey now than black, more than had ever been when he first sat the throne. More even than when Absalom had first come to serve at court. More lines in his face too, and the hands resting on the arms of the throne were more gnarled. But both his face and hands retained their strength.

The Lord Chambellan stepped forward and both Absalom and the messenger drew to a halt. Absalom maintained his distance. He’d never liked the Chambellan. The man acted far too superior, to everyone save the old man, for him to be likable. True, his station meant he did out-rank most of the court but his attitude wore that rank like armor. And anyone who was a subordinate could be dismissed at any time.

“You bring a message from the Viceroy of Alauria.” He said to the messenger. He had a high nasal voice that seemed to Absalom to be one step away from the braying of an ass. Not that far a step either, he told himself.

Although his tone suggested it wasn’t a question, the messenger answered it as if it was.

“Nay, milord.” The boy had a surprisingly high voice, almost girlish. There was the usual sing-song rhythm, common to all Alaurians.

The Chambellan frowned, unaccustomed to being contradicted, even in as simple a matter as this. “Where does your message come from then?” He said sharply.

“With respect to you, Milord Chambellan.” The boy replied. “I am not permitted to say.”

“Not permitted?” The Chambellan seemed surprised. And angry. “Need I remind you where you are?”

“Nay, milord.” The boy said again, refusing to cower before the Chambellan’s scowl. Absalom’s opinion of him went up again. He continued carefully. “My instructions were most specific. I may only reveal the name of the author if this message if the Emperor commands it.” He moved his eyes to the old man on his throne then back to the Chambellan. His face paled. “An enchantment was used to ensure the matter.”

“An enchantment?” The Chambellan scoffed and there was some sycophantic laughter from some members of the court.

Not from Absalom. From his position behind the messenger he couldn’t see the boy’s face but he could see the tension in the boy’s body, the tremors that belied his fear. Absalom felt his hand slide involuntarily along his belt to the sword sheathed at his side.

“This is the Imperial Court of His Majesty Parnassus the Fourth, boy. Not some Dahkish tavern.” The Chambellan drawled, and Absalom saw him glance about the court, playing to his audience. “We will have no peasant superstitions here. Now tell me who gave you this message.”

There was silence in the throne room as everyone waited for the boy to crack. When he did not respond, Absalom moved carefully. He side-stepped slowly, sidling around so that he could see the boy’s face, without leaving his post.

The boy’s mouth was moving but no sound passed his lips. His eyes looked panicked and Absalom glanced toward the Emperor. The old man was leaning forward with interest.

“Who gave you the message, boy?” Parnassus said, his voice deep and resonant, despite his aging frame. The voice was not unkind, or impatient but it caused the Chambellan to freeze. His mouth was already open to harangue the messenger again but his words died. The hesitation was only momentary. He turned to the Emperor, his manner moving with practiced ease into obsequiousness.

“Your Excellency.” He began. “There is no need…”

“I know, Ragosh.” The Emperor replied, raising a hand and the Chambellan fell silent once more. “But this tires me and if my words are what this boy thinks he must hear…” He let the sentence hang for a moment, then turned his attention back to the messenger. “Well, boy? Where comes this message?”

When the boy did not respond immediately, Parnassus snapped. “Answer me, boy. I am your Emperor.”

 

Before the words had even died out, the boy’s body snapped into full rigidity. His face, previously scared, became almost blank. His mouth opened and instead of the Alaurian accent, the voice that came from his lips was harsh and guttural.

“Greetings, Parnassus.” The voice said, causing a gasp from many of the court. “You will take this as notice. By now, Alauria and its people are no longer part of your empire. Now, they belong to me. Do not bestir yourself against me and I will seek now further quarrel with you, at this time. Should you make any attempt on my sovereign borders then you may expect the same treatment as your Viceroy. I hope my messenger here will convince you of the truth of what I say. Hear me well, Parnassus, and do not risk my wrath.”

The voice cut off and the boy’s body sagged. For a moment everyone, including Absalom, stared at him in amazement. Before any could find their voices again, the boy began to shake. Blood began to trickle from his eyes and ears, dripping onto his white robes. With a gasp, more blood burst from his mouth, a fine spray that caused the Chancellor to leap backward in shock and disgust. The boy crumpled to the floor and Absalom smelled the rank odor as his bowels let go.

 

It seemed like everyone began to speak at once. The babble was close to overwhelming but Absalom pushed it away from him, focusing on his duty. The body was a good ten paces or more from the Emperor but still… He made a quick hand gesture to the Guardsmen and, with a smooth efficiency, they moved in to about the old man.

Parnassus himself seemed as stunned as the other members of the court. He remained in his throne, staring at the corpse of the messenger. None of the guardsmen were willing to touch him and risk his ire so Absalom crossed to the throne in a few quick strides. He put himself deliberately between the old man and the body, forcing his attention away and onto Absalom instead.

“We should take you from here, Excellency.” He said, voice pitched low enough that it wouldn’t carry beyond the Emperor and the guards.

Parnassus blinked at him in surprise for a moment, then nodded and Absalom breathed a sigh of relief that he had chosen not to argue.

“See his Excellency back to his rooms.” He told the senior guard and received a salute in response. They paused long enough for the Emperor to raise himself from the throne and begin moving. Behind him, he heard the Chambellan vomiting.