The Great War began with a single death: that of the emperor, Adem Kapaton. People argued then, as they shall always, whether his hand was heavy to hold his subjects down or whether he was a shepherd who protected his flock from themselves. The arguments are empty. The pebble had fallen, and the ripples spread to touch every life in the system.
Journal of Arrival, 973
At last the greatdrums pounded. Horns blared. The electrified humming of strings added a flow like water through the airy brass and deep bass thrums.
The eight-meter wooden doors to the throne room began to open.
Freia’s heart pounded inside her chest on the same beat as the drums. The string-players leapt into a shrill series of riffs, and a prickle ran up her spine. Her brain knew it was all show, specifically composed music doing the same things as the vaulted ceilings of green marble and dreamy perfumes in the air. Yet her skin still broke out in gooseflesh.
She shifted inside the too-large olive tunic of her governor’s uniform, trying to find the place where it sat comfortably on the pads atop her shoulders. At least she looked like she had the figure of a bold leader from the outside. Underneath, she was still the nervous girl she had been the first time she had attended the Ceremony of Blessing.
The music had been a little different then, and the ceiling had seemed a hundred times higher, but Freia had the same sense of fearful awe. The emperor’s tricks worked well.
Her hand twitched. It wanted to reach out for her father’s strong, warm grip, as it had done then. She pulled it into a fist and squeezed until her nails dug into her palm.
He isn’t there. He’ll never be there again. The damned pirates of the Cloud had made sure of that.
Another shiver ran through her, and mist flooded her eyes. Freia took a sharp breath to quell them. She would not even let herself blink. The tears might fall.
Father and Mother had been dead for ten years now, and Thur ten months. She could not carry on mourning for them in public, weeping like a child. She was governor now. She owed them that much at least.
Then a tremor through her lungs that rattled her.
How many times had he stood to watch the ceremony, tall and resolute, as if he were the son of the emperor himself? Freia had been at his side at his first. She had held his arm as the doors opened, while he kept his own hands clasped in front of himself, looking more like a kavallier on guard than a boy plucked from the Questors a year before his knighting.
Then he was nine years younger than she was now, and he never even shifted his weight under the heavy felt governors wore. He was so strong. Freia’s throat closed up.
She let it close and held her breath. She could be as strong as Thur.
Her lungs ached, but she would not take a breath until she could do it smoothly. She was Governor Skuld now, the only Skuld left. Freia looked around to find something that would distract herself from memories of the dead. She had the living to worry about.
The room was crowded with the highest echelon of every faction in the System. Many of them had mingled, creating a tangled mush of their vivid telltale colors as they chatted politics, markets, opinions, and resources. For the most part, the room was divided into pockets of uniform colors.
The Confessors stood nearest the doors, their traditional blue robes decorated with relics and trim. Behind them, the garish green-and-yellow Medea stood staring at the screens they held in their hands, seeing everything through the camera-laden eyera that buzzed almost soundlessly overhead. The rest were in their own fields spread through the huge anteroom: the orange-coated Scearchers with their peering eyes, the visionary Tek in their gray and white, the humble pink and soft blue of the Healers, and the calculating Porters in their yellow and silver almost as bright as the Royals.
There were so many names Freia did not know. She would have to learn them all if she were going to be any use to the people of Myrk.
She stood as part of the cluster of governors, a pockmark of drab green among the array of faction leaders. Governor Nezzer had been speaking about Babilim, using words as grandiose and meaningless as the medals pinned to his chest. Freia had no medals, but she would earn hers.
She raised her goblet and took a sip of courage. It tasted sweet, and then a tang of bitterness struck the back of her throat. As if in agreement, the musicians in the alcove gave a burst of new chords
The doors had still not opened.
Freia narrowed her eyes to see clearly in the bright lights of the anteroom. She could tell the enormous doors moved only through the slow play of shadows on the intricate carvings.
“What is taking so long?” she mumbled.
Governor Wotan turned toward her. His sharp blue eyes stared out from the greying dark hair that covered nearly his whole head.
Freia tried suppress her shamed wince. She opened her mouth to apologize for interrupting his view of the emperor’s entrance, but then she realized it would only be doubling the mistake. She pressed her lips tight.
The long-bearded governor of Valhal leaned close to her. He was not tall, but his broad body made him seem like he was bigger than anyone next to him. There were no pads in the shoulders of his tunic, Freia could imagine that much.
She wanted to pull away, but she would not.
He came close enough she could feel the warmth of his body. Then he spoke through his beard with a voice of rumbling thunder.
“He’s stretching it out. Such a prima donna.”
Freia nearly laughed. She plunged her mouth into her drink and clamped her teeth down on the crystal.
Without a sound, the other governor leaned back into his place, as if he had never moved at all. Freia wondered how wide of a smile he hid under his beard.
She glanced back at the doors, still creeping just short of a standstill.
Around her, the crowd began to shuffle, restless. The music became louder. Freia could feel the air begin to rumble.
She realized her body was tense from anticipation. The emperor truly was a master.
Freia took another sip of the treacherous drink and let her eyes wander to the Royals in the center of the room, standing in their gold and purple. She knew only one of the many ministers, Treasurer Mamin. He stood a head taller than everyone else in the sprawling company, entirely bald but for his prodigious silver eyebrows that stood out a hand’s width from the sides of his head. Freia’s father had said that the gross value of the whole System was catalogued behind his cold gray eyes.
At the core of the court was Queen Ashera, and of course Freia knew her. The whole System knew that elegant face. She stood proud, her shoulders thrust back, dressed in wide stripes of gold that formed a gapped robe over her purple gown. Her tiara sparkled even though her head was motionless. She was ageless, statuesque. Not even the silky dark red of her hair moved as she watched the doors.
Freia had her own hair cut short, enough that it would never be in her eyes. It was more orange than the queen’s glamorous auburn, and it hung limp around her ears. Perhaps she could find a royal dresser here on Babilim that would be willing to come back to Myrk with her.
She rolled her eyes at herself. Not on the salary you could offer.
When she settled her eyes again on the rulers, she found Prince Fillip. He stood with his weight on one boot, an arm cocked behind his back while the other held his goblet in a pose of indifference. His unruly hair flowed like his mother’s but without her discipline. He wore a golden suit with so many outcroppings and oversized patches that it looked like plate armor.
The prince glanced up, and his violet eyes met hers.
Freia’s ears burned. She looked back at the doors, which were almost wide enough for a person to pass.
Any moment now, she told herself. Pay attention.
She couldn’t. The music was practically noise to her now. She looked back at the prince.
He was still looking at her.
Freia shivered again. This time she felt warmth grow out of the shiver. She looked away again and then back just as quickly.
The prince was still looking at her.
His gaze from his violet eyes seemed magnetic. Slowly, he smiled. His teeth seemed to flash in the midst of his dark face.
Freia tried to smile back. She was certain her cheeks just twitched. Doing her best not to let her hand shake, she raised her goblet.
The prince did the same and gave a nod.
She drank and turned back to the sidling doors. Her smile was genuine now.
Freia had met the prince every time before when she had come to Babilim for the ceremony. All the governors met with the emperor however briefly, and she had curtseyed while the prince bowed. The last time was nine years ago. He had grown up since then.
So had she. She tried to arch her back and puff her chest in the oversized tunic. Freia wondered when they would meet again.
A loud trill of the horns broke her thoughts. The strings died down as the drumbeats fell into an easy pace. Freia turned back to the doors.
A huge kavallier, his crimson armor shining in bright chandeliers, marched out with his gauntlets resting on the hilt of his sword. His helmet covered his face completely. The clatter of his armor and the thuds of his boots on the marble floor resounded even above the music.
More kavalliers followed in a line, these men with helmets but no masks over their faces. They carried banners, one for each of the worlds. Freia pushed herself onto her toes to find Myrk’s flag. The familiar bronze shield over the cloudy blue appeared at the last of the train, held aloft by Vale Ulf. His soft brown eyes stared directly forward in practiced attention.
Freia let herself grin, a broad grin, not at all like the clumsy flirting she had tried with the prince. She had known Vale since childhood, long before he and Thur went to the Order Grounds with aspirations of knighthood. The last time she had seen Vale, at the funeral for Thur, he was in his Questor reds. Now Vale wore the armor of the emperor’s guard.
Thoughts of Thur entered Freia’s mind again, and her smile faltered. Thur had worn his own reds as he headed the war-posse that charged into the Cloud after the pirates. Few Myrkers came back alive from that raid. Even Sheriff Hinry lost a hand and an eye.
The huge knight stopped, and the line of kavalliers fell into a tight order behind him. Horns blared again, and the thrumming of the electric strings made the air rattle. The greatdrums let out a loud beat, and the knights parted in step. They came to face one another, forming a corridor that led directly to the doorway, where the emperor stood.
Freia’s heart began pounding again. Even though she knew the emperor was playing the crowd like one of the stringers, she still enjoyed it.
“Such a prima donna,” she whispered to herself.
The emperor walked forward in slow, almost floating steps. He wore a flowing robe of all the factions’ colors, knitted so tightly that it seemed like a pool’s glimmering surface as he moved. Braided white hair hung down his back, capped by the simple platinum ring of the Imperial Crown.
Freia narrowed her eyes again to look beyond the glamor. Each of one thousand years weighed on the face of Adem Kapaton in wrinkles and crags. His eyes were sunken, as were his cheeks, yet they retained a brightness that showed his sharp wit.
This was the man who had guided the people cast off from fabled Irth. He had led their journey across the stars to a new home in the System. He had established law and encouraged peace as the colonies grew. His body was ragged with age, yet he still held before him the Orrery.
The crystal that represented the star, Skopi, rested on the gnarled fingers of the emperor. It was almost blinding in the anteroom lights, but Freia forced her eyes to look.
Around the crystal, the worlds of the System orbited on magnetic fields. The inner planets, just specks of emerald and sapphire, moved quickly while the larger masses of the two gas giants drifted slowly with their own habitable moons. The Gallows bore the five Femmani, where Wotan’s Valhal stood out in soft green. At the farthest reaches of the Orrery, there was blue Terrere with cloudy Myrk flashing around it.
Freia let out a slow sigh of awe. It looked too beautiful to be real.
The emperor stopped at the end of his kavalliers. He looked up into the lights and then raised the Orrery above his head.
The music had gone silent. Freia had not noticed until High Judicator stepped out from the holy cluster of Confessors and his footfall clattered in the breathless room. The other priests swung censers and began to hum, creating a low tone that made the goblet in Freia’s hand shake.
High Judicator raised his own hands up around the Orrery, his billowing azure sleeves rolling back to reveal bare flesh to his elbows. He sang, “Hear us now! We call upon the Grandfather. We call upon the Father. We call upon the Son, to bless this, our temporal…”
The emperor’s body convulsed. His chest rose, throwing his head back and his arms into the air.
The Orrey fell to the green marble floor and shattered with a deafening crack.
High Judicator fell back several steps.
The hum died. Someone screamed, and then a hundred voices joined in crying.
Freia’s goblet fell from her hand. She was meters away from the emperor, but she broke into a run. She had to dive through the stunned crowd to catch him. She had to do something.
A strong hand took hold of her arm. She tried to pull, but it held her fast. When she looked back, she found Wotan there, his blue eyes wide.
They twitched toward the emperor. “Give them space.”
Freia stopped pulling and looked back.
The emperor lay on the floor. On one side, High Judicator was drawing the Three Circles in the air, praying muttered words under closed eyes. The Confessors behind him wailed. On the other, the red-armored kavalliers dove to surround the fallen man. Vale had dropped his flag and now thrust out his arms to act as a barricade.
When the Healers arrived, toting kits filled with strange tools and herbs, the wall of red parted. Freia peered beyond. With his robe slid up halfway to his knee, she could see robotic pistons leading up the sides of his legs. They had done his walking for him.
The gap closed again, and all Freia could see was the barrier of red. She turned away. As she did, her boot fell onto some of the broken remains of her goblet. It crackled.
Freia pulled her boot up. Enough damage had been done this day.
She looked for a clear place to put her foot amid the clear shards of crystal. Most of them were rectangular blocks lying like corpses, yet there was a pair of small spheres still rolling. The bigger one was blue, and the yellow-white smaller one seemed to trail it as they went.
Freia held the glass between her thumb and finger. The tiny crystal representing Myrk still orbited the bluish pearl of Terrere, grazing her nails as it passed by them.
It had come directly for her.