Eritan’s throne room was much larger than any of his audience chambers, even the one used just that morning for his meeting with Selonius and the other priests. This was more of a hall, with towering obsidian columns lining it, reaching to the vaulted ceiling above. Noble men and women clustered along the sides and around the columns, bumping elbows with high-ranking military men and priests in robes of blue and white and black. Their whirlwind of colors made a contrast against the stark black tiles of the floor and the black iron ornamentation along the walls. Even the tapestries were mostly black.
Eritan himself wore voluminous black robes, with wide, stiff shoulders to give him a more intimidating outline against the throne. He was used to the intricate carvings on the marble of his seat, the flames burning stoic and steady and white above his head. He could grant the priests that much, at least. Their decorations for his throne did lend a nice effect and put his features in shadows. While much of the hall was lit by flames hanging high in the air along the columns, the dais upon which sat his throne was mostly kept dark, with the exception of the flames above and behind his head. Eritan liked the setup.
To his left and down two steps sat chairs for Joraan and Alaina, though neither had yet arrived. Both chairs were comfortably accoutered with black velvet cushions, and they were of the sturdiest construction. Eritan would suffer no less for his wife and closest friend. Nevertheless, he would go on with his court if they did not attend; it would hardly be the first time Alaina and Joraan were both too busy for it, though usually Joraan was more available.
Eritan gave the crowd a few more minutes to mill around and become anxious before he rose and spread his arms in welcome. Neither his wife nor his advisor had arrived. “Ladies, Lords, Brightnesses. Welcome. I trust you have recovered sufficiently from the celebrations last night.” There was some smattering of laughter, which died quickly. “If only I could extend the levity of the Night of Ten Thousand Fires to tonight. Unfortunately, events outside and inside the Empire force me to my duties as Emperor.”
There was rather less noise made at this remark. The people gathered, staring up at Eritan’s silhouetted figure, knew that he only called the entire court together on rare occasions. Generally these gatherings were just for one group, just for the nobles or the priests or the military. They knew that this was important.
“Letaalese scouts were attacked by Avernen.”
The uproar was immediate. Nobles shouted and raised fists; ladies clutched at their lords’ arms. The military contingent would likely have been waving swords had they been allowed to enter into his presence armed. It was pandemonium, and Eritan let them go at it. He wanted them scared. If he were to be successful on this evening, he would need them all off balance. His proposals would not normally be met with much goodwill.
“Yes, this is dire indeed,” Eritan continued once the general hubbub subsided. Those gathered returned their attention to him, rapt. He wanted to cheer, but he kept his face and tone grim. “Our men were ambushed, with no warning given, nor quarter. The beastly Avernen have taken open action against us for the first time in over fifty years. We cannot let this go unanswered.”
Nods greeted his words. One of the captains in attendance actually shouted out in agreement.
Eritan raised his hand, palm facing them all. “That is not all. Word has come, as I am sure some of you know, that the Roeteli clans are once again raiding across the border into North Hareen, and even up to Last Lake.” Eritan had received that particular report some days previously, but withheld the news for just this occasion. “As is their custom, they carried off many women to sell in their slave markets; they burned those towns, and left the populations nearly destroyed. So far, no garrison has been able to curb these attacks. The Roeteli disappear into the barren sands of the East before striking again elsewhere.”
While the reaction to this news was not as pronounced as his statement about the Avernen—savages the Roeteli may be, but they were not inhuman monsters—it nonetheless had a deeper effect. A brooding feel came over the hall, and Eritan was once again glad for the shadows that cloaked his throne.
“The time has come for Letaal to take a stance of strength, once and for all. We are the largest, most powerful empire this world has seen. We cannot let these mongrels and monsters take their toll on us without retribution.” Eritan’s voice was like a whip, lashing at the officers and the priests. The nobles knew they were not responsible for this, but they were there to feel his anger and understand his power. “It is time for Letaal to once again bring new lands into the fold. The cleansing flame of Pirinism must spread and burn away the barbarism of these foreign peoples!”
A cheer went up, mostly started by the lords and ladies of Letaal. Many of the military men joined in, but Eritan did not see more than a handful of priests stir. He noted a cluster of White Robes off to his left, several of the faces familiar, in a tight circle around Selonius. The First Cleric wore his frown openly and met Eritan’s eyes when he looked that way, as if he could pierce the shadows around the Emperor and discern his gaze. Eritan looked away hurriedly, striving to keep his posture regal.
“Tomorrow, your orders will be given. Letaal should prepare for conquest!” His dismissal evident, the crowd began to disperse, filing away through the grand carved doors at the end of the hall. Eritan watched them go, a sense of victory washing through him. Only then did he let a small smile dawn on his lips. He felt strong. He felt like his namesake, clever and triumphant.
With a wave of his hand, he stepped down from the dais and two Dragon Guards appeared out of the shadows behind the throne. They flanked him as he slipped through a small side door and down the hallway toward his library. “Stay,” he ordered them, and entered, hoping to find Alaina inside. He wanted to tell her about his work.
Instead of his wife, however, he found a tall figure, swathed in black. “Selonius!” Eritan hissed, his eyes widening. “How dare you enter into my library without summons.”
The First Cleric frowned back at him with stony features, his eyes angry. “What you just did is the height of foolishness. There was a reason this empire stalled at its current borders. Roetel is a nightmare of sand and heat at the best of times; to ask for a conquering invasion is to stretch your hand into the jaws of a wolf. The clans will cease their squabbling and their raiding, and they will fight us with everything they have.”
“Bah.” Eritan waved his hand as if such a concern were nothing. “Everything they have? They are not strong enough to even truly attack North Hareen with any goal beyond nipping at border towns. The might of Letaal will break them, with the power of the Flame in support.”
“You take us for granted, Your Majesty,” Selonius said, his voice tinged with warning. “You think that it is as easy as walking across the border and muttering a couple of prayers. I assure you, it is not.” He shook his head. “There are things that you do not know about the Faith, secrets of the highest order. We are not infallible, nor are we invincible.”
Eritan’s mouth tightened. “Mind your tone, Selonius.”
“My tone? My tone is downright reasonable, compared to what you should be hearing right now!” Selonius advanced upon Eritan, his finger jabbing out to bounce off of Eritan’s chest. It hurt. “You want to overreach. Leave the Empire as it is. Send more soldiers to North Hareen and Last Lake if you will, but do not send them across the border.”
Eritan glared. “And Nera Nasha? Should I ignore the predations of the Avernen, and the increasing hostility of the Nashans?”
“No. That is important, and reinforcements should be sent to Barrier immediately. We should send priests, as well. I already know which two should go.” Selonius closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “But even that situation is your own doing. If you did not insist upon sending so many ‘scouts’ north into Nashan land—and I know what those scouts really are, believe me—you would not have incited the Avernen to attack. And the Nashans would be content with the frozen North, as they had been for hundreds of years. They would never have turned their eyes with any kind of seriousness toward the Three Gates.”
“You blame me for their attacks?” Eritan asked, incredulous. “You want to put their savagery on my shoulders? I should have you flogged.”
Selonius snorted. “You will do no such thing. Like it or not, your empire needs my priests.”
“And your priests need my Empire!”
They glared at each other, fuming, before Selonius tossed up his hands. “Very well. I will still send my Chaplains in support of your armies. But I advise you, do not invade Roetel. The Empire is large enough as it is. Pallonia was enough trouble to bring into the Empire, and it is still not totally pacified. We do not need more to deal with.”
Eritan fingered the fringe of his sleeve. “I thought we might look into Tin again.”
“What? Are you mad?” Selonius reached out as if to grab him, but stopped himself short. “Invading Tin was the biggest blunder Letaal ever made! We were soundly defeated on every front. The Tinnish wrought destruction on our priests, killed them without mercy. Our Missionaries never even had a chance to convert them.”
“That was a long time ago,” Eritan protested. “Our armies are stronger, now. Our priests are more numerous. Surely, if we could conquer Pallonia, Tin will present no true problem.”
Selonius covered his face with his hand. “No, Your Majesty. Tin is the worst idea possible. Better to invade the deserts of Roetel than to send armies into the mountains of Tin.” He looked up, his eyes widening. “Not that I am advising you to do so!”
“Selonius, let us be honest.” Eritan stepped away from the priest and went to his table by the window. He looked out at the flames lighting the black buildings of the First Tier, and up at the city rising away. “I am viewed as a weak Emperor. The nobles here pay their dues; they bow and scrape when I confront them, and then they turn around and belittle me to their peers. The governors in Heart and Icefall and Haven think I am nothing more than a little boy with pretensions. If I had not married Alaina, it would be even worse.” Eritan paused, reached for a glass, and filled it with wine. He turned and met Selonius’ eyes. Though the First Cleric had over a decade on him, Eritan felt for once as if he could talk to the man as an equal. “You know how important she is to me. How important she is for me.”
Selonius inclined his head.
“I cannot sit idly by and let my Empire be nibbled to death by foreign raiders and discontent among the nobles. I need to be strong, and I need to make a strong move now, in the face of this threat. The nobles must see that I am no child.” Eritan stopped and gulped at his wine.
Selonius watched him with careful eyes. “I understand.” He spoked slowly, his tone guarded and not at all angry. “I simply urge you to make these decisions with prudence. Consult your advisors. Speak with the priests and your generals.” He barked a short laugh. “And do not invade Tin.”
Eritan drained his glass, sighed, and poured himself another. He felt empty. Only minutes before, he had thought his commands clever. And now he was being told, once again, that he was a child and he should listen to the adults. “I am not a child, Selonius.”
Selonius’ eyebrows rose. “I did not say that you were, Your Majesty.”
“But you implied it. You tell me not to make my own decisions, to let those others do my thinking for me. It is patronizing, Selonius.”
Selonius bowed. “I apologize if it seemed I was saying that. I assure you, I was not. You are the Emperor. Your decisions are yours to make. However, as the Emperor, you have a wealth of resources at your disposal—not just in manpower, but in some of the wisest minds in the world. Use them. And use your wife. The Empress is a very smart woman. You could do much worse than to listen to her. Dig deeper, and make your decisions from a place of knowledge, rather than haste.”
“Haste is not my intent, Selonius,” Eritan said, frustrated. “I want to be smart about this. It is why I spend so much time here in this library, by the Flame!” He grimaced a bit, glancing back at the First Cleric to make sure that his oath hadn’t touched a nerve.
The First Cleric hesitated. “You have the drive to be a good ruler, Your Majesty. But there is still much to learn. You have only held the throne for four years. No ruler can be completely in control in such a short time.”
Eritan turned away. He looked down at the glass in his hand, the crystal glinting in the light of floating flames suspended in the corners of the library. He wanted Selonius to stop talking, to stop telling him how young and inexperienced he was—but he also wanted the man to go on. He wanted to know the secret to ruling well. He wanted to be Eritan the First, come again. “I will do my best, Selonius.” He put the glass down, still nearly full of wine. Eritan turned and straightened his back, though his stomach felt tender. “You may go, now. I must make arrangements for the morning. I have some people to speak to, before I make my final orders.”
Selonius bowed, deeper than Eritan had ever seen him do before. “As you wish, Your Majesty. I look forward to sitting down with you on the morrow.” As the First Cleric left the library, Eritan was sure he saw a smile on the priest’s face.
Read the next chapter: “Going East”