Chapter 1 - Ghreman

"Rest is a luxury that only those without a knife to their throat can enjoy. Never let your enemies rest." - Renth Vhen, First Emperor of Kem.

Ghreman Vhen jerked awake like he’d been touched by live wires, and struggled to throw off his sheets in a panic. Alarms sounded through his bedroom, merging with the nightmare he’d been having. It took his brain a moment to register that his flesh wasn’t burning, and for the bodies on the floor to resolve themselves into simple shadows. The blaring siren, however, was quite real.

"Damnit, Ghreman. That hurt." A form stirred next to him in the bed, pushing silk sheets aside, and glaring at him. Nereis pushed the covers aside, her chocolate hair tangled and in disarray. She held a hand over her side, and Ghreman sheepishly remembered hitting something in his panic to free himself from the clinging fabric.

Ghreman pressed a panel on his nightstand, a polished steel button set into the wood. Silver lines flashed across it briefly and the blaring klaxon became muted, though still audible through the walls. The shadows that might still hide bodies, faded and disappeared as the lights in the ceiling provided a muted, gentle illumination. The destroyed city within his mind was replaced with the familiar sight of priceless paintings on the walls, fine hardwood floor softened by rich carpets and vaulted ceilings. All the trappings that were familiar, but so alien right after his nightmares.

"Sorry." Ghreman rubbed his eyes and worked to slow his breathing. "Nightmare."

"Again?" Nereis turned toward him, propping herself up with one arm. She covered herself with the sheet, displaying a level of modesty that she hadn’t exhibited earlier in the evening. "Belara?" Ghreman nodded and leaned back into the comforting hand she rested on his shoulder. "Rust. You’re soaked."

He remained silent for another moment, shutting away the memories of empty eyes staring at him accusingly. It took time, but he forced a smile, leaned down and give Nereis a peck on the cheek. He had to brush a lock of her hair out of the way first, using the silken feel of it on his skin to root him more firmly in reality.

"Go back to sleep. Looks like I’m starting my day early." He gave the world outside his bedroom and accusing glare. Before he could turn away, Nereis snaked a hand behind his head and pulled him back for a much slower kiss, filled with a familiar heat. Her mouth quirked up in a sleepy, sensual smile as she let him go and laid her head back on the pillow.

"Such is the burden of power, I guess." She closed her eyes and pulled the covers back over her, curling them about her like they were a cocoon. When she spoke again her voice was muffled. "Come back to me when you can, Emperor mine."

Ghreman Vhen, Emperor of Kem, thought long and hard about ignoring the Citadel alarms and climbing back into bed with Nereis. A look through the balcony window didn’t reveal even a hint of daylight, only the scattered artificial light of that began at the base of the Citadel plateau and continued across the Kem River.

It took a great amount of will, but he managed to swing his feet over the edge of his bed and stand. Muscles protested, and his vision briefly swam as his body joined his mind in protesting his chosen actions. Firmly ignoring them, he shrugged on his robe and slippers and stumbled out of his bedroom, careful not to make any noise that would disturb Nereis.

"Good morning, Lord Vhen." Wrenn, his butler, stood just outside the bedroom door, a hot towel waiting. Ghreman took it with a nod of thanks and rubbed the moist cloth on his face. Wrenn had a cup of coffee in a fine porcelain mug waiting for him. Ghreman took a sip, letting the bitter taste of the beverage bring his mind back into focus.

"Thank you, Wrenn. I needed that." Ghreman had long ago stopped wondering how the silver-haired butler managed to perfectly anticipate his needs no matter the situation. Nor how he was awake and dressed despite the ungodly hour. Had Ghreman forgotten a scheduled drill?

"Not at all, my Lord. Do you require your suit or your armor this morning?"

"My armor." Ghreman turned to the right and began walking, careful not to spill his wonderful, life-giving, coffee. Wrenn followed after him on their way through his spacious office that adjoined his bed chamber. Forgelights on the walls and ceiling were banked low, to be easy on Ghreman’s sleep stained eyes.

"I assume that Mistress Belenth will be sleeping in for a time." Wrenn’s voice and expression were both neutral, as if he didn’t care one way or the other. Ghreman knew, however, that his butler didn’t approve of his relationship with the scion of House Belenth. While, yes, their association was scandalous, very few members of the court thought it was a safe topic. Not since Ghreman had shot Nereis’ uncle for several uncouth comments at a dinner party. While it was only a flesh wound, it had made Ghreman’s stance perfectly clear when it came to matters of his private life. They were to remain private.

Besides, Nereis hadn’t liked that particular relative.

"Yes. Please make sure that she’s attended to when she wakes up."

"Of course, Lord Vhen." Ghreman watched Wrenn’s face for any sign of disapproval, but he simply nodded continued walking.

Ghreman’s suites took up an entire floor on one wing of the Citadel. While he technically owned two or more palaces (it was far too early in the morning to remember unimportant details), he spent the majority of his time here. Part central government building, part palace, part factory, part research laboratory and all unassailable fortress, the Citadel was the seat of Imperial might. The fortress stood atop a plateau that looked like nothing so much as a miniature mountain with a flattened top, towering over the capital city of Kemaire.

They entered the living room, whose large windows looked out over the city below. With the sun yet to rise, the capital was still mostly dark, but the forges and steelmills kept their fires burning all night long sending their plumes of smoke and steam billowing into the sky, mixing with the early summer clouds. Ghreman could just make out the smaller plumes of trains moving in the yard and an airship was only just pulling away from its docking platform. Though he wished to be sleeping, his Empire never really did.

"You should have something to eat, Lord Vhen." Wrenn drew his attention to a servant standing by the doors to the kitchen. This young man, at least, had the decency to look properly exhausted as he held a tray with a selection of pastries for Ghreman to choose from.

"If Kemiss arrives and doesn’t find me ready to fight an Incursion on my own he’ll peel the skin from my hide." Despite his words Ghreman selected a fruit covered pastry with a flakey crust. Wrenn watched him devour the sweet confection with a raised eyebrow but said nothing. The servant’s eyes were half-lidded and Ghreman doubted that he would remember the Emperor’s eating habits.

"The Lord Seneschal would never be so gauche as to criticize you in the presence of witnesses."

"Which is why he’ll wait until there aren’t any. You know what my uncle says about witnesses."

"I believe the term he used was ’a valuable tool and a cleanup item that should never be ignored’." Wrenn approved of things being tidy. Undoubtedly changing the phrasing from its more violent origin to one having to do with cleanliness made it seem more proper to the butler.

Finished with his quick breakfast, Ghreman once again led the way. They walked quickly from the living room into a long hallway. There were only a few doors off this hallway, but they led to some of the larger areas on this floor. On the left was Ghreman’s work shop, for when he wanted to practice his Forgecraft but didn’t want to descend into the bowels of the Citadel to work in the Foundry. To his right was his personal armory. Wrenn held the door for him, then took Ghreman’s empty mug as he walked through the door.

Inside, two servants stood ready with hot towels of their own. Wrenn took Ghreman’s robe and stepped back. The two men quickly wiped him down, then took soft dry towels and dried him. Neither of them spoke a word or made eye contact. Ghreman had long since come to terms with the enforced awkwardness of the whole process and stared straight ahead as they worked.

While Ghreman thought of this as his armory, it was really more of a multipurpose set of rooms. Here, the floor was made of gray and black marble as were the walls, which were trimmed with stone of a lighter color. The main room was large and square, with doors leading off to side rooms. Ghreman wished he had time to go and take a long soak in the heated bath through one of those doors. Unfortunately, with the alarm still sounding, muted though it was, his business was in the center of the room.

Once he was dry, the servants stepped back and out of the way. Ghreman stepped forward, kicking off his slippers and approached the crèche that stood in the center of the armory. In it sat the Imperial Armor, opened along the back and ready for him to step into. The black steel of the armor seemed to drink in the overhead lighting, save for where it glinted off the intricate silver Etching that scrawled along nearly every inch. The black steel helmet rested on a tall table beside the crèche, the featureless faceplate was the only piece of the armor free of the engraved silver runes.

Ghreman ducked his head beneath the back plate, maneuvering his head through the collar and slipped his arms into the metal sleeves. His skin erupted into goose flesh as the front of his body came in contact with the cold steel. He flexed his fingers inside the gauntlets, then clenched his fists twice. Power thrummed through the crèche at the signal, and Forgefire flowed through the silver Etchings in the armor. The back plate settled over Ghreman’s spine, pressing him tighter into the front of the armor as well.

Etched steel clasped shut about the back of his thighs and calves. Ghreman was now encased, from the neck down, in a layer of black steel that pressed against every part of him. This was the worst part of putting on his armor when it’s full weight was on him and he could barely move. If the crèche were to stop supporting him, he would simply fall over until a means could be devised to cut him out of the suit. Provided, of course, that he failed to initiate the Integration.

When he felt the metal close about his calves, Ghreman clenched his fists three times and held his hands closed. No. No, this was the worst part about putting on the armor. Fire raced through his body as the metal of the armor fused with his skin. Etched runes flared brilliantly as the Blackforge’s energy, Forgefire, flowed through his armor and temporarily undid the laws of physics and biology. Armor and flesh became indistinct, melded, then became one again in a rush of agony. Ghreman stopped his scream by clenching his jaw closed tight, focusing on that sensation and blocking everything else out.

He’d spent months, creating his armor, modeled after his father’s; carefully Etching every rune into the, then gray, steel. Every Emperor made his, or her, own armor. It was a right of passage. A test of skill, strength, and endurance. Mostly endurance.

The first time he’d Integrated with it Ghreman had passed out from the pain. It was no less agonizing now, but, like every Emperor before him, he’d learned to bear it.

Thankfully, the burning quickly subsided into pins and needles, then to cold stillness. Ghreman flexed his clenched fist, marveling again at how his metal skin flexed, lines of silver on his knuckles catching the light in the room. Clamps withdrew from around the grieves and the supports that had been holding him up, retracted. He stepped out of the crèche, the armor feeling as if it weighed no more than his robe.

Power, familiar and welcome, invigorated him. His exhaustion disappeared, wiped away by the energy flooding him, like an adrenaline rush. He flexed his arms and knees, ensuring that he was fully bonded to the armor. Ghreman worked hard to contain his sudden desire to run, jump, revel in the capabilities of his armor. Intellectually he knew it was a combination of the armor’s effects, and the sudden presence, then lack of pain. Instead, he focused on what came next and took the helmet off of it’s resting place.

Without giving himself time to think about what came next, he slid the helmet over his head and sealed the fasteners that hooked it into the metal at his neck. This time, the armor dulled some of the pain, but it was still profoundly unpleasant. Still, he made no sound of discomfort. He was the Emperor of Kem, and like his father, and his father before him. He would not allow weakness to come between him and his duty.

"The Lord Seneschal is here, sir." Wrenn kept his voice soft, knowing that Ghreman’s senses would all be raw after the Integration. Ghreman stepped away from the crèche, possessing a grace that he hadn’t a few minutes ago. Outwardly, he showed no sign of the pain that was still fading from the sensitive skin of his face, now fused to the featureless faceplate of his armor.

Ghreman wanted to groan or make a pithy remark. Something to distract himself from what he’d just done to himself. Instead, he straightened his shoulders and raised his chin with Imperial disdain. When he spoke, Ghreman’s voice was altered by the armor, low and resonant with a palpable menace. "Best not to keep him waiting. I would like to know who’s responsible for pulling me out of bed."

Next Chapter: Chapter 2: Jecks