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Emperor and Clown

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(Book Four) Everything that could go wrong did.  Rap is being tortured to death in a dungeon.  Inos, locked in a loveless marriage to the tyrannical Sultan Azak, has disappeared completely. Aunt Kade is under house arrest in the palace—but Kade is not likely to put up with that for long. It is time for her to take a hand in events, and she knows exactly the five men she can coerce into helping her...   Prepare yourself for a truly stunning conclusion, for all roads lead to Hub, and it all comes together there: Sultan Azak, Thane Kalkor, Duke Angilki,  Imperor Enshandar, and the all-powerful wardens, but even the gods themselves cannot foresee the ending.

Sample Chapter

One

Naught availeth


1

Of all the cities of Pandemia, only Hub had no legend or history of its founding. Hub was a legend in its own right, and history was its creation.

Hub had always been. It was the capital of the Impire, the mother of superlatives, the City of the Gods. It sprawled along the shores of Cenmere like a marble cancer.

Alone among all the dwelling places of mankind, only Hub had never known sack or rape or the ravages of war. Forever it had lurked in peace behind the swords of its legions and the sorcery of the Four. Hub was graced by the spoils of a thousand campaigns and nourished on taxes extracted from half the world. Slaves in forgotten millions had died to build it, priceless artworks had crumbled and weathered away in its halls and gardens to make space for more.

It was the best and worst parts of a hundred cities, melted into one. Its finest avenues were wide enough to march a century abreast; its darkest alleys were slits where half a legion could have vanished without trace.

Hub was grandeur. Hub was squalor. Hub gathered all the beauty of the world and offered every vice. Its wealth and population were uncountable. Year in and year out, by ship and wagon, food poured into Hub to feed its teeming mouths, yet the humble starved. Hub exported war and laws and little else but bodies -- especially those in summer, when the fevers raged. The rich imported their wine from distant lands, but their servants drank from the same wells as the poor, and they infected their masters.

All roads led to Hub, the imps boasted, and in Hub the greatest ways led to the center, the five hills, the five palaces. The abodes of the wardens, the Red, the White, the Gold, the Blue -- beautiful but sinister, these were secret places, masked and buttressed by sorcery, and few went willingly to those. In their midst, highest and greatest, shone the Opal Palace of the imperor, seat of government and all mundane power.

To the Opal Palace came glory and tribute and petitions and ambassadors.

And to the Opal Palace came also, each in its own time, all the problems of the world.

At the center of Pandemia, Shandie thought, is the Impire. At the center of the Impire is Hub. At the center of Hub is the Opal Palace -- although that isn‘t quite true, because it‘s too near the lake to be really in the center -- and at the center of the Opal Palace is Emine‘s Rotunda, and at the center of the rotunda is me.

Am I, he amended hastily.

And that wasn‘t quite true, either, because the exact center of the great round hall was the throne, and he was standing one step down from the throne, on Grandfather‘s right.

He must not move. Not a finger. Not a toe. This was a very formal occasion.

And Moms had warned him: Ythbane was running out of patience with Shandie‘s continual fidgeting at state functions. Princes must know how to behave with dignity, Ythbane said, not twitch and shuffle and pick their noses on the steps of the throne. If he couldn‘t learn how to stand for a couple of hours, at least he would be stopped from sitting down for the rest of the day. Not that Shandie had ever picked his nose on the steps of the throne. He didn‘t think he really fidgeted enough that any of the audience could see. He didn‘t think he‘d earned his last few beatings, but Ythbane had thought so, and Moms always agreed with anything the consul said. And Grandfather didn‘t even know who Shandie was now.

Grandfather was on his throne, so he was the center of the rotunda, and the palace, and the city, and the Impire, and the world. From the sound of his breathing, he was asleep again. Moms was on his far side, also on the first step; but she had a chair to sit on.

Dad had stood here once, he remembered. Where he was. Moms didn‘t talk about Dad now, not ever.

Keeping perfectly still would be much easier if you could sit down to do it. Shandie‘s knees were shaking. His left arm was a torment of fire ants from staying bent, holding up his toga. If his arm fell off, would that be counted as moving?

Ythbane would probably beat him anyway.

He was still sore from last time.

Grandfather snorted and snuffled in his sleep. Lucky Grandfather!

One day I will sit on that throne, and be Imperor Emshandar V.

Then I will kill Ythbane.

That was a wonderful thought.

What else should an imperor do? First, have Ythbane‘s backside beaten -- right there, on the floor of the rotunda, where the fat delegate was still kneeling, reciting his nonsense. In front of the court and the senators. Shandie caught himself about to smile, and didn‘t.

Then be merciful and cut off his head.

Second, abolish these stupid, stupid togas!

Why should formal occasions require formal court dress, togas and sandals? No one wore them any other time. What was wrong with hose and doublet and shoes? Or even tights, which were the latest craze. Ordinary people never had to wear these ridiculous, scratchy, uncomfortable bed sheets. Sane, ordinary people hadn‘t worn things like these for thousands of years. Oh, my poor arm!

Abolish togas, that was certain.

And abolish all these dreadful formal ceremonies!

Why bother with them? Grandfather certainly didn‘t want them -- he‘d been weeping when they‘d brought him in. The birthday homages had just started, too. They would be going on for weeks. What sort of a way was that to celebrate a birthday, even a seventy-fifth?

A birthday was one day. That‘s what the word meant. Birthday!

Shandie‘s tenth birthday was just a month away, and he was going to have a one-day birthday. Mostly awful ceremonial, too, but a party with some other boys if he was good, Moms said.

The toga was hot and heavy. Sunlight blazed down from the windows in the high dome, casting his shadow at his feet -- but he mustn‘t look down.

The fat delegate from wherever-it-was came to a stuttering end at last, obviously as relieved as Shandie. He bent forward to place his offering beside the other offerings, then crawled back a pace and touched his face to the floor. Everyone looked up at Grandfather, and Shandie froze. Even his eyes. Don‘t blink while Ythbane is watching!

Grandfather was supposed to say something then, but all Shandie heard was another half snore.

As a consul, Ythbane stood at the head of the line of toga-clad ministers, nearest to the imperor. Shandie could feel those hateful eyes washing over him, looking for signs of fidgeting, but he stared rigidly across at the empty White Throne and did not breathe. Little tremors crawled over his scalp. If his hair stood on end, would Ythbane call that fidgeting?

Ythbane said loudly, "His Imperial Majesty welcomes the greetings from his loyal city of Shaldokan."

The fat delegate looked confused, but then realized he could begin his withdrawal. He had trouble managing his toga while crawling backward at the same time. Probably he‘d never worn one of the stupid things before in his life. Now he was rising and bowing, and so on. . .

The chief herald ponderously consulted his list. "The honored delegate from the loyal city of Shalmik," he proclaimed. This one was a woman, one of only two women today. She was very ugly, but these were northern cities, so maybe she had some goblin blood in her. Goblins had been talked of a lot just lately, although Shandie had almost never heard them mentioned until a few weeks ago. In the spring, a horde of the little green vermin had ambushed and massacred four cohorts of Grandfather‘s legionaries while they were on diplomatic business -- and tortured the prisoners to death! Marshal Ithy had promised Shandie he would punish them severely.

Twenty-four cities had delivered their birthday presents. That left four more to come after the woman. Then there would be some sort of petition -- the Nordland ambassador was waiting in the background. A jotunn, of course. He was old, but he still looked strong enough to take on a century single-handed. Maybe his hair had always been that pale color. He would have those creepy jotunn blue eyes, too. Ugly, bleached monsters, Moms said. Imps were the only really handsome people.

Emine‘s Rotunda was very big. Shandie wondered how many people it would hold, but if he asked Court Teacher he would just make Shandie work it out on his abacus. Circles were tricky -- was it times twenty-two, divide by seven, or the other way?

There were at least a hundred senators on the bank of seats around the north side, distinguishable from their guests and other notables by the purple hems on their togas. They certainly weren‘t keeping still. They were talking and reading and some of them were dozing, like Grandfather was.

The southerly seats held lesser people, even commoners, and they were being quieter, but he mustn‘t look around to see how many there were.

Emine II (q.v.), imperor of the First Dynasty, and legendary founder of the Protocol (q.v.), which brought the powers of sorcery under control by establishing the Council of Four Wardens (q.v.), occult guardians of the Impire. . . Without Court Teacher telling him to, Shandie had memorized a whole page about Emine and recited it for Moms, and she had been pleased and given him a candycake. She had made him repeat it for Ythbane that evening, and even Ythbane had praised him and almost smiled.

They were always pleased when he did bookish things well. They wouldn‘t let him do military things -- things with horses and swords, although those were what he really wanted, because when he grew up he was going to be a warrior imperor, like Agraine. He wasn‘t allowed to do boyish things with other boys hardly at all now. And ceremonial things he hated and usually got beaten after, for fidgeting at. The price of being the heir. Moms said, but it was all Ythbane‘s idea.

The woman delegate on her knees had forgotten her words. She stopped, turning ashen pale. Shandie felt sorry for her, wondering if the city fathers would order her beaten when she went home to wherever-it-was. The silence dragged on. No one helped, or could help. The line of ministers remained motionless, staring over her at the opposing line, which was made up of heralds and secretaries. Farther away, the large group of delegates-who-had-done-their-speech looked hugely relieved that this wasn‘t their problem. The small group of delegates-who-haven‘t-done-it-yet looked terrified.

The woman began all over again from first genuflection, gabbling the words in a shrill voice. The senators in their comfortable chairs were paying no attention.

Those spectator benches went all the way around, except where the four aisles were, of course, but they still left lots of room in the middle. And in the center of that big round floor were the two round steps with Grandfather‘s throne on top. Today was a north day; northern cities paying homage, the Opal Throne facing north. Halfway between Shandie and the senators, the White Throne stood on a single step. That place belonged to the warden of the north, but it was empty. Shandie had never seen a warden. Not many people had. And nobody ever wanted even to talk about them, even Grandfather, but he at least wasn‘t scared of them. He was imperor, so he could summon the wardens.

One day I will be imperor and use Emine‘s buckler to summon the wardens.

Even before Grandfather got old, he had not been frightened of the witch and the warlocks. They couldn‘t touch him, he‘d said; that was in the Protocol.

No one could use magic on Shandie, either, because he was family. Not that being heir apparent was much comfort when he was bent over Ythbane‘s writing table with his pants down. Any magic would be better than that. The poor woman came to an end at last; eyes turned toward the throne; Shandie stopped breathing again. The pins and needles in his left arm were making his eyes water. If he wriggled his fingers just a little, very slowly, surely no one would notice and tell Ythbane he‘d been fidgeting?

Ythbane spoke for Grandfather again; the woman scrabbled away; another delegate came forward to kneel.

Tomorrow would be East‘s turn -- eastern cities bringing greetings, Grandfather seated facing east, toward the Gold Throne. Moms and Shandie, too. The senators would have the eastern seats, facing west. He wondered how the senators chose who came on which day, because that wasn‘t the whole Senate sitting there.

Not long to go now.

It was awfully hard to keep his knees from shaking, and they did hurt. He tried to imagine the witch of the north suddenly appearing over there on her White Throne, although it wasn‘t really white, being carved out of ivory. Bright Water was a goblin, and hundreds of years old. He‘d heard people muttering that maybe she‘d set the goblins on the Pondague legionaries, but he knew that only East would use magic on Grandfather‘s army. What was the word? He‘d seen it in his history book. Pre-roga-tive! Prerogative (q.v.), whatever (q.v.) meant. Bright Water‘s prerogative was Nordland raiders, but it was silly of the Protocol to put a goblin woman in charge of jotunn sailors. South‘s was dragons and West‘s was weather.

If Bright Water ever did appear on her throne, then likely all the warlocks would appear, as well, each on his own throne -- Olybino and Zinixo and Lith‘rian. An imp, a dwarf, and an elf. That was silly, too. The Protocol should have made all the wardens imps, to protect the Impire properly.

One day, when Shandie got to be Emshandar V, then he would get to read the Protocol (q.v.). Only imperors and wardens ever did.

No sorcerer would ever come to a brain-melting boring meeting like this, though.

They were done! Now another herald was unrolling a scroll. Ythbane nodded.

"His Excellency, Ambassador from the Nordland Confederacy. . . "

Ambassador Krushjor came striding forward like a great white bear, followed by a half-dozen other jotnar, all shockingly half naked in helmet, breeches, and boots and nothing else -- dumb barbarians showing off their hairy chests and hey-look-at-that muscles! Ambassadors were the only people excused formal court dress. They were allowed ethnic costume. It did look silly, though.

Oh, Holy Balance! Shandie realized that he could use some of those muscles himself right then. His left arm was sagging under the weight of the train draped over it. He tried to raise it and couldn‘t. It wouldn‘t obey him. It was dead.

But Ythbane couldn‘t have noticed yet. He was eyeing the jotunn ambassador, and having to lean his head back to do it. The consul was not big for an imp, and the older man was an average-size jotunn. Some of the younger jotnar in the back were even bigger, with bushy gold beards. And muscles! Bet they could hold up a toga for weeks if they ever had to. Moms called the jotnar "murdering monsters."

The senators had fallen silent, as if this were going to be more interesting than. . . Gods! There, up in the back row -- how could he not have noticed sooner? Just in time, Shandie remembered not to move. It was Aunt Oro, right in there with the senators! He hadn‘t seen her in months. She‘d been away at Leesoft. His heart jumped, then sank -- he wanted to run to her, or at least smile and wave, but of course he mustn‘t move. He thought maybe he‘d twitched a little on seeing her, but Ythbane was still watching the jotunn, so it wouldn‘t matter.

She‘d understand that he must put duty first, and mustn‘t fidget on formal occasions.

Fancy Aunt Oro in with the senators! But of course she had senatorial rank. Much higher rank, really, because she was Princess Imperial Orosea. She even outranked Moms, who was only Princess Uomaya. So Aunt Oro could sit anywhere she wanted, but he‘d have expected her to have a chair on the steps of the throne, like Moms. He wondered when she‘d returned to court. He hadn‘t heard a whisper, and he was pretty good at picking up gossip, because he spent a lot of time around grown-ups and they tended to forget he was there.

Surely she wouldn‘t go back to Leesoft without coming to see him? He wouldn‘t mind a hug from Aunt Oro. It wouldn‘t be unmanly to let her hug him just once -- it wasn‘t as if everyone did. Or anyone, really. Of course it would be unmanly to mention the beatings. All boys got beaten, and princes were special and had to be specially beaten. So Ythbane had said last time, making a joke -- he‘d added a couple of strokes, saying Shandie was being impudent by not laughing.

If Aunt Oro asked any questions, of course, he‘d have to tell the truth, and if he was still limping. . .

"The matter of Krasnegar has already been settled, signed and sealed!" Ythbane was shouting. Bad sign. He shouted a lot these days. He‘d never shouted before Grandfather got old.

Shouting wasn‘t going to do him much good with the jotunn, though. The big silver beard parted to show big yellow teeth. "With respect, Eminence -- " He didn‘t look respectful. " -- the document we initialed was merely a memorandum of agreement. It was always subject to the approval of the Thanes‘ Moot."

"And you were to send it--"

"It is on its way to Nordland. I respectfully remind your Eminence, though, that Nordland is months away, and the Moot meets only once a year, at midsummer."

The ministers were whispering at Ythbane‘s back, the secretaries and heralds fretting and shuffling. The jotnar were smirking. Ythbane seemed to swell, all pompous in his toga with a purple hem. "So it will not be ratified until next summer--"

"Isn‘t that obvious?"

"--but until then--"

"No! Until the news reaches Hub! You do realize that the return journey will also take months?" The pale-skinned old man leered down at the consul, and his manner was so like the one Ythbane himself used on Shandie that Shandie almost disgraced himself by giggling. Ythbane would kill him if he did that.

Ythbane swung around and whispered for a moment with Lord Humaise, and Lord Hithire, and a couple of other new advisors Shandie didn‘t know; then he turned around to confront the ambassador again, his face dark as a postilion‘s boot.

"The wording of the memorandum was very specific. Until the Moot‘s decision is conveyed to his Imperial Majesty‘s council, both sides shall act as if the agreement has been ratified in formal treaty. The king will remain in--"

"King?"

"Oh. . . what‘s his name?. . . the former Duke of Kinvale!" Ythbane was snarling. He was ever so mad now, and. . . Oh, no! Shandie‘s dead arm had drooped so low that the train of his toga was starting to slide off it. God of Children! What did he do now?

" . . .and you were to nominate a viceroy pro tem, subject to. . . " The consul was growing even louder and madder. He would stay mad for days after this. Shandie needed to yawn. His toga was falling off him. He really needed to go pee. He wasn‘t much interested in Krasnegar -- he‘d overheard a few whispers that it was a sellout, that the Council had settled for a paper triumph and given the kingdom to the jotnar. If that was so, then Shandie would take it back when he was grown up and a warrior imperor, but right now he was too weary to care. Another pleat slid off his hand.

Ythbane had finished, but whatever he‘d said had not impressed the big blond bear.

"I am an ambassador, not a plenipotentiary, Eminence, as you know. I never professed to have the power to override the thane‘s personal rights in this matter. Indeed, if he chooses to press his claim, then the Moot itself would back him as King of Krasnegar. The thanes would never infringe a privilege of one of their own number." He glanced round at his companions, who grinned; then he added, "Not this one‘s, anyway!"

"Kalkor is a murdering, raping, barbar--"

Now the ambassador swelled, and to much better effect than Ythbane had managed. He stepped closer, his fair face ominously flushed. "Do I report your words to the thane as official Imperial policy, or as your personal opinions?" His bellow reverberated down from the dome.

Ythbane fell back a pace. The ministers exchanged worried glances; the jotunn flunkies grinned again.

"Well?" roared the ambassador, still wanting an answer.

"What‘th all the sthouting?" a new voice said.

Shandie jumped and looked around before he could stop himself.

Grandfather was awake! He was slumped awkwardly in his seat, but he was awake. His right eye was open, the left half closed as always, and he was drooling, as always, but obviously he was having one of his good spells, and Shandie was glad, glad, glad! -- they were so rare now! It was as if the old man had gone away, like Aunt Oro, and it made Shandie feel all cozy-nice to see him come back, although it would only be for a few minutes.

And Grandfather had noticed Shandie! He smiled down at him. "You‘re toga‘th come tooth, tholdier," he said quietly. But he was smiling, not angry at all! And Shandie must move to obey an imperial command, whether Ythbane liked it or not. Quickly he gathered up the fallen folds with his right hand, looping them back on his left arm, and he lifted that useless limb back into place and held it there. The pleating was an awful scrimmage, but it would have to do. He smiled briefly, gratefully, up at Grandfather, then turned to stare across at the White Throne again, going as still as a stone pillar again. Pity he‘d had no excuse to move his feet a bit.

Ythbane had recovered from his surprise. He bowed to the throne. "A discussion of the Krasnegar matter, your Majesty."

"Thought that wath all thettled?" Grandfather‘s voice was very slurred nowadays, and quiet, but the words obviously staggered the courtiers. Clearly he still understood more than they had believed.

"Ambassador Krushjor‘s views of the concordat--"

"Memorandum!" the ambassador roared.

"Whaz ‘e want?" the imperor mumbled.

Ythbane scowled. "He demands safe conduct for Thane Kalkor to come here to Hub to negotiate in person on a matter--"

"--he has the best claim to the throne of Krasn -- " Krushjor bellowed, much louder than the consul.

"--burning and looting--"

"--thane of Gark, and an honored--"

"--ever dares show his face--"

Then. . . sudden silence, with everyone staring up at the throne behind Shandie‘s left shoulder. If it wasn‘t sorcery, then Grandfather must have gestured.

"Kalkor?" the tired old voice whispered.

"Yes, Sire! The same murdering raider who has been killing and looting all through the Summer Seas for months. The Navy‘s Southern Command has been completely reorganized over the matter, as your Majesty will recall, but too late to stop this Kalkor escaping westward, through Dyre Channel. He sacked three towns in Krul‘s Bay and is now apparently in, or near to, Uthle. He has the audacity to propose that he sail his infamous orca longship up the Ambly River -- all the way to Cenmere!"

Ministers and secretaries shook their heads in disbelief. Senators rumbled with outrage. Shandie had been reading up on that geography just yesterday: the Nogid Archipelago, and the horrid anthropophagi (q.v.), and the Mosweep Mountains, and trolls. . .

"Worse!" Ythbane added loudly. "He, a notorious pirate, demands to be recognized as sovereign ruler of Gark, as if it were an independent state, so he can negotiate directly with your Imperial Majesty on the matter of Krasnegar. He furthermore demands safe conduct for--"

"Granted!"

Ythbane choked, stared, then said, "Sire?" disbelievingly.

"If he‘th here behaving himthelf, then he‘th not looting thomewhere elsh."

There was a long, shocked silence, then the consul bowed. "As your Majesty commands." The senators were glaring.

"When he leavth, tell the Navy," Grandfather said wearily.

Smiles flashed among ministers and secretaries and heralds. Ripples of mirth rolled through senatorial ranks. The jotnar scowled angrily. Ythbane even put on his smile face, briefly -- which wasn‘t a smile like anyone else‘s.

Shandie heard a sort of groan from Grandfather and desperately wanted to turn and look, but he daren‘t, and besides, he was suddenly feeling awfully sick in his stomach. There was a funny ringing in his head, too.

"Safe conduct for Thane Kalkor and how many men, Ambassador?" the consul inquired with icy politeness.

"Forty-five jotnar and one goblin."

Ythbane had already turned to give orders, but at that he spun back to Krushjor, "Goblin?"

Grandfather was snoring again. The sunlight was fading.

"A goblin," the ambassador said, "male, apparently."

"What‘s he doing with a goblin?"

"No idea. Perhaps he looted him from somewhere? You ask -- I won‘t! But his letter was very insistent that he will be bringing a goblin with him to Hub."

Suddenly the ringing in Shandie‘s ears swelled to a roar. The step swayed beneath him. He staggered and heard himself cry out.

As he pitched forward, the last thing he saw was Ythbane‘s dark eyes watching him.