And here, for all to read, is chapter three.
The hallway stretching before Eritan of Near Jinda, Anointed Protector of the Flame, Emperor of Letaal, was a spray of color. Very few men knew that it existed, or rather, knew that it was anything like it truly was. The colors of nearly every flame known to Pirinism were present, in one way or another. The floor tiles twisted in a pattern of blue and white, befitting the hottest part of any flame; reds and yellows and oranges adorned every tapestry and every cornice. There was no black, which would have stunned any commoner.
Eritan smiled to himself, grim, and held that thought. No black. Not even those blasted black-robed priests were allowed in these hallowed halls. Only those he invited personally could tread upon these floors. And the Dragon Guard, of course, but he hardly noticed those stalwarts anymore. Two strode behind him, as usual, but he did not need to look at them to know how they would look. Stoic, to a man, the Dragon Guard held his life close and would die on a whim. They were the best in the Empire.
The best, yes. Better than the flame-blasted Phoenix Guards those priests dredged up. They avoided saying it right out, but everyone knew that the Phoenix Guards were supposed to be a direct counterbalance to the Dragon Guards.
Eritan sighed, his feet tracing the familiar path down the corridor to the Morning Room. Breakfast would be waiting for him, there. His cooks never skimped, and were the best at what they did; it was a small blessing, each morning, knowing that at least one thing would be done as he wished that day. The priests seemed to do everything they could to assure that nothing else did.
The Morning Room was crowded, as usual, with attendants and cooks on hand to ensure that his food was acceptable. Eritan waved them away and settled into the plush, velvet-lined red chair waiting for him. Trays of food were spread out on the carved oak table, its dark grain shaped in interesting flame patterns. The ceiling above matched those patterns, painted in varying shades of red. The stand lamps lining either side of the room provided illumination with flickering flames, glinting off of the gold gilt that seemed to decorate every piece of ornamentation present.
He ate in silence, the servants hovering anxiously about the room. He knew that he was an intimidating man, with his straight nose, closely-trimmed beard, and short black hair. Men had been known to remark that he had eyes like augers, when he was angry. These days, it seemed that he was always living with anger. And it was all the fault of those priests.
Partway through his meal, Joraan entered the Morning Room. Eritan looked up in surprise; his chief advisor rarely broke his fast with him. Two servants darted from the room and returned with a second chair for the man.
“The priests are below,” Joraan said as he sat. He pulled a plate of meats over to him, and broke off a piece of wheat bread. “Selonius has some new proposition, it seems.”
Eritan grunted. “No doubt regarding the housing of priests in the nobles’ tier or some such nonsense. The man doesn’t understand limits.”
Joraan shrugged, not bothering to speak around a mouthful of bacon. The servants said nothing, of course, but Eritan knew that they would always be shocked by the informal way Joraan interacted with him. There were never any “Your Majesty”s or “if it please you”s where that man was concerned. He knew his place in the Empire, and knew it was nearly unparalleled. Only Selonius really stood close.
His morning already marred by the news of the awaiting priests, Eritan pushed his plate away. A servant was there immediately to dispose of it.
“Hurry with your food, Joraan. I would have you with me when I speak to Selonius.”
Joraan grimaced and stuffed in another mouthful of bacon. Familiar though he may be, he was not the Emperor, and he did have to do what Eritan said.
They departed the Morning Room and turned right. The multi-hued corridor leading back to Eritan’s chambers was left behind, and they descended a flight of stairs. Here, everything became black; adorned, yes, and ornate, but still black. The palace was in the First Tier, after all.
Two floors below, Selonius stood waiting in one of the audience chambers, a cluster of white-robed priests with him. Four Phoenix Guards waited patiently near the far doors, their burnished plate-and-mail dazzling with gold and enamel. Wings stood out from their helmets, and each had an intricate design welded onto his breastplate. They stood upright, but seemed discontent without their swords. They would live with it, though. No man, outside of the Dragon Guard, was allowed to bear arms within the palace.
Eritan looked at them with disdain. Selonius was a force to be reckoned with, but his lackeys were often lickspittles, braying their praises like donkeys and hoping to be given some morsel of honor from the mouth of the Emperor himself. The Phoenix Guards were not so bad, of course, but they were their own problem.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” Selonius intoned, bowing, when Eritan entered the room. His black robes hung from his built frame, folds rippling down his arms. “I trust you enjoyed the festivities, last night?”
The First Cleric stood in the middle of the audience chamber, quite properly not seated in one of the dozen chairs facing Eritan’s own reception chair. Where the reception chair was almost completely covered in gold and silver gilding, the other chairs were lightly cushioned and made of unadorned black wood. The purpose of this room was to make sure that all knew who was in charge.
Eritan squinted at him for a moment. Where is he going with this? he wondered. “I did, Selonius. You have outdone yourself, once again. The partying and bonfires in the streets was particularly ostentatious, this year.”
Selonius could not help but catch the condescension in Eritan’s tone, but he ignored it. Mostly. “We see no need to reserve our efforts where the Faith is concerned. What the people choose to do with the occasion is their decision.”
As if neither of them knew that Selonius’ priests were really the ones who’d started bonfires in the Tenth Tier the night before.
“Yes, well. I trust that you are seeing to the recovery of my city this morning. It would not do for the trade markets to be blocked up by remains from the celebration.”
Selonius blinked, taken aback for a moment. He recovered himself, of course, but he was clearly not happy about the rebuke. “Of course, Your Majesty. However, the logistics of the Night of Ten Thousand Fires was not the reason I seek an audience with you this morning.”
Eritan seated himself in his reception chair, finally giving leave for the priests to take their rest as well. Selonius took the central chair, directly across from Eritan, and leaned forward.
“You may continue,” Eritan said.
“Yes, Your Majesty. You see, there have been increasing reports from the north, regarding the Nera Nashan. Their raids grow ever bolder, and word spreads that Avernen aid them.”
Eritan grimaced and held his hand out. A servant approached with a full goblet of white wine. He sipped it, collecting his thoughts. The Nera Nashan, their northern neighbors, were always growing bolder. They would need to be dealt with, soon, but that was not the real issue. The Avernen, on the other hand, could cause real problems if they began to spread.
“The Avernen are troublesome,” Eritan said carefully.
Selonius nodded. It was rare that the Emperor agreed with him so readily. “They are. Renewed scouting parties have been sent north, after the last returned nearly decimated. Of four squads, not even ten men came back alive.”
“Troublesome, indeed,” Eritan said, and exchanged a glance with Joraan, who was standing behind and to the right of him.
“One man reports that their party’s Chaplain was next to useless, when they were attacked. I intend to question both the soldier and the Chaplain, personally, when they arrive here.”
“Useless? How can that be?” Eritan frowned. The Chaplains were an essential part of the Imperial Army. Without them, their forces couldn’t function efficiently.
“The messenger bore a note, and said that the Chaplain—a well-known and devout man named Artius—did not even attempt to summon his Faith in combat. No invocations were heard, no prayers spoken. They were not aided by the Flame.”
“More than troublesome.”
“More than troublesome,” Selonius agreed. “It seems that they only escaped from the Avernen by luck, and the actions of a few swordsmen. Those beasts are vicious, and came upon the scouts in ambush.”
“What do you intend to do about this, Selonius?” Eritan asked, his voice quiet. This could be a small victory, this morning. Despite the shocking news about the Avernen. “As First Cleric, it is your responsibility to maintain the Faith. If your priests are failing….”
Selonius swallowed visibly as Eritan’s words hung in the air. “This Artius will be investigated, certainly. Perhaps he will undergo the Crucible, if it is deemed necessary.”
“Good. We cannot allow such failures. The Empire rests upon the Faith, as you yourself have informed me on many occasions.”
“It does, Your Majesty. I would also suggest that perhaps the Chaplains be given more opportunity to reinforce the Faith among the soldiers. A new rank, perhaps, outside of the current command structure.”
Eritan felt his face darken. The man was trying to gain more influence in the light of this failure? “I think not.” His voice was curt. “Until I see evidence that your Chaplains can maintain their current responsibility, there is no reason for them to be given new powers. They are there to serve the Imperial Army, not command it.”
“But—,” Selonius began.
“Enough!” Eritan pounded the arm of his chair, not surprised to realize that his hand was balled in a fist. “It is enough that I have said so. Be glad that I have not chosen to take this investigation to higher ranks.”
One of the White Robes gasped, a spindly man who seemed taller than he was because of his build. A stockier man next to him glared in reproach, but even Selonius paled a bit at the threat. “We will discuss this later. Just remember, Your Majesty, that only the Faith has the right to internal inquiries. The Throne is separate.” He rose, gathering his robes about himself in indignation, and turned to go. His lackeys followed suit.
Eritan also rose, and stepped forward. He grabbed the sleeve of Selonius’ robe. The silk rubbed under his fingers. “Perhaps you would do well to remember that, too, Selonius. That separation goes both ways.”
Selonius jerked his sleeve out from Eritan’s grip with a glare and swooped from the room. The White Robes hurried behind him, and the Phoenix Guards stared a silent challenge at Eritan and his Dragon Guards before following.
Read the next chapter: “Dawn of Embers”