The Importance of Public Image
Emperor Avadac Jarus Curigan, the thirty-eighth Emperor of Elora, was an impressive steel-gray figure in the high-backed armchair in his private study, watching the logs on the fire crumble in the flames as he waited for his favorite squad of Guards. He was a large man, built like a warrior with broad shoulders earned from years of swinging a battle axe. He had learned early, that few things suppress a minor revolt like the sight of their Emperor on a battle-trained stallion swinging an axe with a head two feet across.
He understood the nature of an idea, that by giving his subjects (the difficult ones, at least) a visual to fear, he would be less likely to actually have to rain down the fury of his army upon them. He had never been a fool, and through his cunning and careful attention to detail, he had been an extremely successful Emperor. He had been in few battles, less than he could count on the fingers of his hands, but he kept himself physically toned and ready should the need ever arise. To keep that image of a military threat in the minds of the more distant provinces, he always appeared in public in military uniform. His steel-gray hair and eyes emphasized by the black and silver design. He even made sure that his heavy mustache was perfectly trimmed in a severe line across his face.
His preoccupation on image and presentation was the reason that he preferred to have meetings with his subjects in the huge central audience chamber that had been constructed at the center of the Imperial Tower. It was a dramatic room, intended to impress any who entered with the power and severity of the ruler they had come to see. The grand hall was very grand, visually stunning with dozens of marble columns lining the second floor balcony. However, for meetings like this one, it would have been impractical. Those columns provided numerous hiding places for curious ears. As much as he enjoyed intimidating his subjects, he knew that the members of his Elite Imperial Guard needed no further illustration of his control over them. This meeting was one of the sort that needed to be spoken only in whispers while hidden in the shadows. If what he was about to command was ever revealed, it could cause a revolt in the Eloran Empire and all his years of careful planning would have been useless.
Two figures entered the room, one after the other. Sarenne Lauratt and Rajeren Aleris were the first to enter the room. The coranna and the mage always came in first. They greeted him with their standard, "Your excellence," and took their usual positions kneeling in front of the arm chair on the thick bear skin rug. They kept their eyes respectfully low, focusing their gaze somewhere vaguely around the height of his kneecaps. He had never been exceptionally fond of magians in general, but these two were some of his favorites.
Aiden Cairbre, the commander of their squad walked in last, sleek and sharp. They all wore the uniforms of the Imperial Elite Guard, black tops with bright silver buttons and piping and gray slacks decorated only by a black stripe down the side of the leg. Sarenne had a close-fitting skirt instead of the slacks. The emperor had chosen the Guards' uniforms himself. He liked them to seem like an extension of his own image and the Guard certainly looked impressive, a line of matching black and silver. The skirts for the women broke the look a bit, but he loved the sight of a woman's well toned legs and every last one of the miserable coranna looked like a piece of art. Not one of them looked older than twenty-five, and they all glowed with the same unnatural health and youthfulness. He wouldn't have gone to bed with one of them if his life depended on it, but looking at them was different all together. That he could do with no consequences.
Cairbre took his place next to Sarenne, but he did not greet the emperor. He never managed to present himself nearly as obediently as the others. Even kneeling on the floor like a dog at Avadac's feet, he had that look. It was the look of someone who obeyed only in appearance, as if his kneeling were merely an illusion, a deception. Aiden's eyes flicked up briefly, resting on the emperor's face, yellow-gold flashing in the dull lighting. The emperor suppressed a shudder. Cairbre's eyes unnerved him. They seemed more in place on a cat or a snake or, he admitted with a smirk, a dragon. That's what people called them, those strange eyes. Dragon eyes. They were a rare feature, one that seemed to be unique to the Cairbre line.
It made sense that a family like that one would be so marked, Avadac mused. The Cairbre family was a line with the history of always being on the winning side. They were remarkable warriors and every one of them had a legend of some exceptional military feat attached to them. Aiden's grandfather had led the battalion that finally purged the Grenedock from the southern territory, making it safe for colonists and securing the Empire's access to the valuable erdrium deposits that the area was famous for. It had made Avadac's father the most powerful Emperor that Elora had seen in a thousand years. Aiden's father had been responsible for defeating the Black Coranna's reign of terror and destruction more than two decades before. Thousands of people died at her hands, but Eamon Cairbre had singlehandedly defeated and captured her.
Aiden belonged to the Emperor in a way that his forefathers never had. They had always been military leaders in their own right, leading battalions of men who swore fealty to not only themselves rather than directly to the Empire. Aiden had joined the Guard barely a year and a half after he completed basic training. The Imperial Elite Guard, a fancy name for the Emperor's personal dogs, and Aiden was by far his favorite dog. Unlike most branches of the military, the Guard was under Avadac's control alone. They did not answer to the High Council or to any law in the land.
There had been members of the guard in the past who had abused that power. The people had feared and hated the guard for it, but Avadac was a wise politician. The value of the public's opinion could barely be overstated. He made a spectacle of one of his former Guard's punishment and the people had believed in him again. The Guard was still frightening, but the people believed in the Emperor. They believed that he held the leashes of his dogs tightly and that he would keep them safe.
"Get that table and chairs and bring them over here," he said to the kneeling trio. "I can't talk to you while you're groveling." Sarenne stumbled slightly when she climbed to her feet. The combination of high heels and numb knees, Avadac mused. The three did as they were told and quickly took their positions in their accustomed seats.
"The situation in Maiad Odur has gotten serious," the emperor said. Sarenne frowned, looking worried. "The unrest, as the papers are calling it, has finally come to a head. That damned cult seized control of Forentash." That damned cult was Gloray's Messengers, a small militant group of the much larger Church of Gloray. The Messengers were an extreme version of the larger church, although both were extremely conservative. They believed that magic belonged only to the gods and that magians like Sarenne and Rajeren were an abomination. They said that the cause of natural disasters was the lack of balance that the use of magic caused in the world. The Church of Gloray had been around for nearly two thousand years, predating the Eloran Empire itself. It had always been a minor voice in the empire, a tiny chatter of nonsense beneath the throbbing cries of the rest of the population.
However, in the last twenty years they had quickly grown in power and influence. Most attributed their success in recruiting new members to the increasingly violent natural disasters. It used to be a rare thing, but it seemed anymore that every week there was a new catastrophe. The Church of Gloray said that magic use was causing it. They claimed that as mages, coranna, and forges used their abilities to reconstruct areas after a natural disaster, they were actually making the next one all the more likely.
Avadac had invested a large amount of the empire's reserves into researching the cause of the natural disasters. The researchers were telling him that it simply wasn't possible. They'd babbled about rifts and temporal anomalies, and about a dozen other bizarre words that he hadn't bothered to remember. He knew what he needed to know, that his empire was not in danger because of the magic that it relied upon to function.
Despite this, the Church of Gloray had become a powerful entity and so far, the emperor had found it prudent to keep a decent alliance with them. He knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt that his military, even without the Elite Guard, could utterly destroy every last member of the church in a matter of days.
However, most of the public saw the Church of Gloray as a harmless group of eccentrics. They were people who wore rags and lived in caves, but did a lot of charity work. They were always ready and willing to help when there was any kind of disaster, so long as they didn't have to share space with the magians.
The main Church wasn't dangerous at all. It was the side branch that called themselves the Gloray's Messengers that were dangerous and militant. Unfortunately, the main church considered them a part of the whole and an aggressive military attack against them would have angered the church and possibly caused a public outcry. For bloodthirsty radicals, they were pretty damned clever. Unfortunately for them, the emperor was as well. One does not retain as power and influence if he isn't wise enough to know how to keep it.
Their fatal mistake was not in capturing the two coranna, but rather in taking control of one of Avadac's towns. In his mind, they might as well have stolen a jewel from his cloak or a coin from his pocket. Lunatics, he could tolerate, but thieves were out of the question.
"They've also captured a pair of coranna that were stationed there," he added. Sarenne drew in her breath sharply and straightened.
Avadac looked at her darkly. He did not appreciate being interrupted. Normally Sarenne was quiet and obedient. It was what made her his favorite coranna. "Who what?"
"Who were the coranna who are being held prisoner?" Sarenne asked.
Avadac shrugged, "I have their names here," he tapped his fingers on a slip of paper that he pulled out of his pocket. He unfolded it and read the names absently. "Sharia Gontas and Elen Rackill."
A flicker of recognition flashed across Sarenne's face, "Thank you, your Excellency."
Avadac crumbled up the paper and tossed it into the fire. "Friends of yours?"
Sarenne shook her head, "Not exactly. Elin was a student of mine about ninety years ago, but I haven't spoken to her in several decades."
The emperor nodded and suppressed a shudder. The way that coranna threw around phrases like "a few decades ago" always unnerved him. The knowledge that this slim, pretty young blonde wasn't actually a twenty-three year old girl like his eyes were telling him. She was well over two hundred years old. She had known not only his father, but his grandfather and was old when she'd met them. She had been born under the rule of his great great great great grandfather, Werelore Curigan, and he had been a young man then. He didn't like it, the way that coranna could watch emperor after emperor sit on the throne. Sarenne and her sisterhood would easily outlive him and would remember his reign only as a brief space of time, a few decades. He would never be "the Emperor" to them, only the current Emperor in a long string. He was one of many.
"You will extricate the two coranna. Escort them to The Everhana Train Station and procure them safe passage back to Aieh. Breah Lorish will be very glad to see them. She has been most insistent about their rescue," Avadac said.
Sarenne nodded with a bright smile. It was rare that this team, the one the emperor had called "Silver Dragon", was sent on a mission of rescue. Their assignments usually were a name or a list of names that were to be eliminated. Rajeren and Aiden exchanged a small, wary glance of relief. It would be a welcome change, Aiden thought, to come back with a grateful and happy prize rather than a gory trophy in a box.
"There is a second portion of this mission that is more important than the first. Should completing the first compromise the second, you are to abandon it," Avadac stared at them with hard eyes that brooked no disagreement.
"What is it?" Aiden asked darkly. He knew the man too well. The second mission was going to be rough.
"I want Parlant Dugavra's head in that box," he pointed to a familiar iron chest sitting next to the fireplace.
Rajeren swallowed, "That would be like an attack on the whole Church of Gloray! You are joking, right?"
"It is not in my nature to waste time entertaining my subjects, Aleris," Rajeren dropped his eyes, but Aiden stared at him coldly and unwaveringly.
"You understand why the second must not be compromised?" Avadac asked blandly and smiled at them. "No one must know. Do it quietly or eliminate any who could speak. And if you can't do that and get the coranna out, let them there."
None of them said anything. Curigan laid a thick envelope on the table. "Money, maps, the general paperwork that you lot always look for. You know the drill. Read, memorize, destroy." He dismissed them with a wave of his hand. They said nothing, but stood and quickly left the room, leaving Avadac to return his attention to the flames as if nothing unusual had taken place.
The trek back to their chambers was a silent one. None of the three had a word to say. Even Sarenne was uncommonly heavy, not grinning or chattering aimlessly as they made their way down the hall. The emperor was a cautious man. Early in his reign, after an unexpected assassination attempt had almost succeeded, Avadac had moved his personal chambers down ten floors onto the floor where the Imperial guards' barracks were. The Emperor's chambers were almost exactly the same as the ones that had been higher up in the palace portion of the tower, but here he had the added security of being surrounded by his guard.
The Imperial Elite Guard consisted of a surprisingly low number of individuals. There were seven squads in all, each consisting of three highly trained soldiers, a coranna and a mage. Each squad had a code name that was only known to the Guard, a sort of safety feature. All of their files were listed under their code name. There were also several other people who were considered a part of the guard, although they didn't actually belong to a particular squad. The most important of these was the communication liaison, Chrysanalys Reane. Because Coranna can communicate with one another through a technique they called "channeling". Only two coranna could do it, so it was necessary that there be one at the Imperial Tower at all times in case the squad in the field ever needed to communicate. There were lots of different methods that could be used to communicate, but only channeling was completely untraceable.
All members of the guard had quarters in the Imperial Tower. They were divided into small apartment-like spaces with a common area in the center and private bedrooms arranged off the center room. There was also a bathroom and a small kitchen that they could use if they were feeling particularly domestic. To Rajeren's knowledge no one but Sarenne ever used the kitchen, and she only used it when she wanted to make sweet cakes, cookies, or muffins. Those were usually dispersed throughout the Guard and rarely lasted longer than the day of their making.
Their quarters were still dark when they opened the door. Marken and Daigen Edoranth were the newest additions to their squad, barely being on the team for four months. They were still not through their probationary period, so they were not privy to the private discussions of missions. Further, it was Aiden's call on whether or not they were to go on the missions that the team was assigned and whether or not they would know the details of the missions. Although Rajeren and Sarenne had both served more years on the Guard, Aiden was the senior officer. All of them had enlisted on ten year terms, as was standard for the Guard. Rajeren and Sarenne had been members of the guard in the past, but had rejoined after Aiden. Therefore, although the two of them had more experience, Aiden was the command of the team. This position was mostly irrelevant as his team would generally ignore his position if they didn't agree with him. The Guard was largely an egalitarian group due to the numbers being so small and the variation in ages of the members being so vast.
Rajeren dropped down into a deceptively sterile looking couch in the center of the room. It was actually a remarkably comfortable piece of furniture. His long braid was caught beneath him, and he pulled it somewhat savagely out from under himself, the silvery rope flashing as he dropped it over the back of the couch. "He's an asshole."
"Rajeren!" Sarenne scolded, but her heart wasn't really in it.
"Well, he is," Rajeren replied stubbornly.
"Be that as it may, we all volunteered for this kind of work, and remember we're actually off to save some people for a change!" Sarenne smiled and kicked off her heels, leaning down to pick them up and dangle them by the toes in one hand. "I haven't seen Elin in years. I wish it were under better conditions, of course, but hopefully after we get those two girls out of there, we'll have a chance to chat a bit!" She sat down at the other end of the couch and leaned back, dropping her feet onto the coffee table and wiggling her toes.
"You're forgetting the part where we dump them at a train station and then go kill someone!" Rajeren snapped.
"I take my small blessings where I can, Rajeren!" Sarenne said. "You're still young yet. As you get older, you learn to accept little joys with all the bitterness, whenever you can." She smiled again, another gentle smile.
Sometimes Sarenne talked to them like they were children. Rajeren looked as though he was around thirty despite being nearly double that age, probably on the shy side of it although it was difficult to say exactly how old he looked because of his silvery hair. Aiden was non-magian and looked his real age of twenty-seven. Although Sarenne looked like she was in her early twenties, but was actually somewhere around two hundred and fifty. To her, they really were children.
"Gods, how can you be so obliviously positive? It's unnatural," Rajeren snapped, but was already calming down. Sarenne was like that. She had a nature that reminded you of the ideal grandmother. Sweet, understanding, and determined. Of course, despite that sweetness, she was a formidable warrior and ally. She would not have been eligible to be in the Imperial guard otherwise.
Sarenne smiled, "Its jut my nature."
"He really had me going there at first," Rajeren murmured."
"It's a solid move," Aiden commented. There was a moment of silence. They had all been in the Guard long enough to know that if the Emperor seemed like he was committing an act of mercy, it most likely covered up something even incredibly self-serving.
Using the capture of the two coranna as an excuse to send in his guard was brilliant, even Rajeren had to admit it. It gave him loads of plausible deniability. "Why no, I had no idea that Mr. Dugavra was hurt in the attempt to rescue those poor coranna. I am so sorry. Here, let me make a public apology and donate some money to your church!" Rajeren parroted, eyes closed. He rubbed his fingers at his temples.
"I don't want to bring the rookies," Aiden said, interrupting Rajeren's musings.
Rajeren dropped his hand into his lap and looked at Aiden with a frown. "You can't keep leaving them behind. They're grown men, and members of the Guard. They're not children."
Aiden ran his through his hair, unintentionally dislodging a lock of black hair from the leather tie at the base of his neck. "I think they would be a hindrance on this mission."
"A hindrance?" Rajeren repeated.
Aiden stared at him harshly. "This mission is too delicate. Daigen can be like a fucking bull in a china shop. He doesn't think, doesn't always listen. He's likely to go in shooting and not follow the plan at all."
"He's good, though. I've seen him shoot a walnut out of a tree at eight hundred paces. Do you remember that? On that escort to Crea Star? I'd never seen anyone make a shot like that!" Rajeren smirked.
"That's a perfect example of why they're not coming," Aiden snapped. "Do you not remember how we were ambushed less than forty-five minutes later?"
"We still don't know that was because of him. We killed all the bandits so it was kind of hard to ask them. Remember that part?" Rajeren countered. Aiden glared back at him but made no effort to argue with that particular point. He had been the one responsible for killing the bandits to the last man. He did not make a habit of taking prisoners, or leaving injured men to tell tales. It was always more efficient to leave no witnesses, and frankly he hadn't cared enough to find out for what reason they'd attacked the carriage. His mission was to transport the Governor of Corriska back to his home and his own guards, a duty that had been done well.
"I am the captain and I say they aren't coming. End of discussion," Aiden said, pacing back and forth.
"Since when does that matter? We are going to need as much help as possible on a mission like this one. So what if they're still a little green?"
Sarenne cleared her throat, "I agree with Aiden."
Rajeren gaped at her, "You what?"
"Maybe I'm not as impartial to the situation as I claimed to be. If leaving those boys behind makes it more likely that we get those girls out, then I'm all for it," she said, biting her lip.
"We need everyone. That's the best route," Rajeren insisted.
Sarenne looked thoughtful, "Daigen is too headstrong, and Marken is no help without his brother."
Rajeren sighed, defeated. "Are you certain? I trust your judgment more than his."
"Aiden might be very young, but he has been on this team longer than either of us. He is the senior here, as odd as it may seem," Sarenne said with a small smile. "Even so, I never agree with him unless he's right."
Rajeren threw his hands up, defeated. "We leave at sundown, like usual?"
Aiden nodded. "We should try to get some sleep. The next few days are going to be rough."
"Agreed," Sarenne said and turned to go into her room. "I can't wait to shove these in the back of the closet!" she commented, swinging her heels meaningfully as she closed the door after her.
"Sleep well," Aiden said to Rajeren.
The mage disappeared into his room similarly, closing the door behind him. Aiden was left alone in the dark. He stood at the window for a long time staring out into the inky blackness of the night. His heart felt heavy in his chest, and his mind was alert and racing. He sat down in the alcove, stretching his legs out onto the window seat. He unhooked the belt that held his sword's sheath and pulled the gleaming blade out. He stood the sheath against the side of the window seat and picked up the whetstone that he kept there just for nights like these and slowly began to sharpen his sword.
Several hours later, Aiden still sat in the window seat of the common area, slowly running a whetstone down the blade of his sword. The scraping of the stone against the metal was a soothing sound, a constant one. There was something about sharpening the blade on his sword that always quieted his mind and helped him relax. It wasn't quite day yet. That weak blue pre-sunrise light was casting a perfect imprint of the window on the stone floor. The glowing blue arc was crisscrossed with shadowy lattice. True sunrise wouldn't come for at least another thirty minutes. Until then, he had the quiet of the morning to himself.
He stopped moving his hands and dropped his head back against the marble wall. He let his eyes wander to the street below, what he could see of it. It was thirty stories away, and a part from the still-glowing bluish streetlamps, there was no sign of life. He couldn't even see any horses or carriages, something faintly for the streets of the imperial city, Ansalon.
One of the doors to the common room swung open and the doorknob hit the wall with a loud "thud". Daigen Edoranth blundered past Aiden and into the bathroom without noticing him. Aiden shook his head. The younger man never seemed to have any trouble sleeping. After a few years in the Imperial Elite Guard, that would change. Aiden resumed his absent-minded honing. It wasn't that Daigen was really that much younger than himself. He was only twenty-seven after all, but there were days when he felt much older. This was one of those days.
Daigen and his brother, Marken, had become a part of Aiden's squad less than a year before, and both of them showed great promise. They were both twenty-three, but Marken always seemed much older. He had a look in his eyes that Aiden recognized from his own reflection. The look that he'd seen more than he should have, knew too much about the way the world really was. Somehow, Marken had also seen too much of the face of mankind to really ever be secure in the world again. How could twins be so different, Aiden wondered. It made no sense, but they were like two sides of a coin.
The bathroom door swung open and Daigen stumbled out, scratching his bare chest absently with one hand. Aiden rand the stone down the side of his sword and Daigen jumped, looking at Aiden with the wild-eyed expression of a startled deer. He let out a loud curse in Corrish and said, "Gods Cairbre, you scared the shit out of me! What the hell are you doing skulking in the shadows?"
"I'm not skulking. I'm sitting here waiting for the sun to rise," Aiden shook his head and went back to his sword, pointedly ignoring the younger man.
"Wait," Daigen said, rubbing the sleep from the corners of his eyes, "You're doing the sword thing again! Do we have a mission? Did we get summoned?" He was suddenly alert. Only inexperience could make him so eager to get sent out on one of the Emperor's errands.
"I have one, as do Rajeren and Sarenne," Aiden told him. He held the blade up before his eyes, examining it carefully.
Daigen was annoyed, "Why am I even considered a Guard? I get the feeling that the Emperor forgets that we're even a part of Silver Dragon," he paused and looked reflective. "That's an incredibly stupid name, by the way. Why would you pick such a ridiculous code name?"
Aiden frowned, "I didn't pick it, Curigan did."
Daigen wasn't really paying attention. "I didn't sign up for this to hang around the tower, play-fighting and waiting for you lot to come back from your latest adventure."
Aiden slid the sword into its sheath and laid it across his knees. "Before long, you'll be swimming in blood spilled for the Emperor, Edoranth."
Daigen frowned, "I hate it when you say it like that."
The first beams of sunshine were breaking across the roves in the distance. Aiden hooked the belt to his sword around his waist and walked around Daigen. Although the majority of the imperial tower's inhabitants would soon be rising to their duties, the hallways were still dark. There was a stillness and a heaviness in the dark hallways that always left Aiden feeling unsettled. A place so old, it never seemed really empty, and there was always the slightest sensation that he may or may not have someone watching him, lurking around the next corner, or huddled behind the statues.
He hit the button on the lift and glanced over his shoulder. The damned thing always took forever to get up to the Guard's barracks. Gods forbid there was ever a need for them to hurry; it would have taken them twenty minutes to run down the stairs. He knew that there was no one there, but that itchy sensation that there was someone just out of sight irritated him. The pewter lattice of the lift door swung open and Aiden stepped inside, hit the button for the ground floor, and watched as the doors swung shut.