Author's Note: I wrote this story for NaNoWriMo last year. The first book is finished, and the second will probably be started sometime in August or September (emphasis on probably).

I intend to post the prologue today and the first chapter tomorrow, and after that I'll post a new chapter every Monday. Hopefully :)

Death and the Emperor

Book 1


'But I don't want to go among mad people,' Alice remarked.
'Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: 'we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.'
'How do you know I'm mad?' said Alice.
'You must be,' said the Cat, 'or you wouldn't have come here.'
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

The city of Esergot, in the year 2529

"How do we conceal this."

It was not truly a question, and neither woman present took it as one.

"We don't," Empress Linish said. Her voice was rather muffled, seeing as she had her face buried in her arms.

Chief Inquisitor Nimetath sighed. She turned to stare out the window, worrying at her lip. Normally she found the view from her office, of Zasordoth Palace's well-tended, carefully-planned gardens, to be soothing, a source of welcome relief from the madness of her job. Now the perfectly arranged flowerbeds with their profusion of brilliantly coloured blooms were a painful reminder of the man who ordered them laid out – and thus, of the mess they were in.

"My husband is a traitor. My husband is a traitor, and our enemies have learned gods only know how many of our secrets. What do we do, sister?"

It had always been like this, Nimetath thought distantly. No matter what disaster struck them, Linish always looked to her older sister for answers. It had been the same when they were princesses watching the balls at their parents' house. It was the same now one was an Empress and the other an Inquisitor. It never occurred to Linish that sometimes Nimetath didn't have the answers. Maybe no one did.

This time, Nimetath did have an answer. It was an answer she would rather not have to give.

"There is one thing we can do," she said quietly. Her voice seemed to come from somewhere far away. "What our family has always done when someone disgraced us."

Linish raised her head. Her face was wan and covered with tear-tracks. She spoke in little more than a whisper. "What you suggest is high treason."

"So is what the Emperor has done."

The sisters sat in silence for a long moment. At last Linish stood up. She smoothed down her dress, her face a perfect mask. The miserable, lost girl she had been a minute ago was gone, replaced with the cool, dignified Empress.

"I will review a list of suitable candidates for the throne," she said, her voice so soft that Nimetath had to strain her ears to hear. "I trust you can take care of... everything else."

Nimetath inclined her head. Like her sister, she had pulled up the walls she kept around herself while in public, and was now the Inquisitor who cared only for the good of the empire. "As you command, Your Majesty."

The door closed behind the Empress of Carann. The Chief Inquisitor stood by the window some minutes longer.

At last she sighed and turned away. She had an assassination to plan.

The House of Caranilnav has ruled the Empire of Carann for a thousand years, or so the history books say. Those same books say that the Empire was originally a mass of warring states and tribes, backward and uncivilised, until a girl training to be a priestess realised that she could do something about it. She conquered the countries with an army of peasants, freed slaves and disgraced warriors, and established a dynasty that has ruled wisely and justly ever since. And if occasionally the Emperors and Empresses have used force and what certain malcontents call brutality, well, such things are often unfortunately a necessity.

This is what the history books say. A different story is told behind closed doors. A story of a family that rules with an iron fist – sometimes wisely, more often cruelly, depending on the ruler at any given time. A story of a family built on marriages between brothers and sisters, and of the madness that results. A story of children being born with horrible deformities, and mysteriously dying shortly after birth. A story of children killing their parents, brothers killing their sisters, wives killing their husbands.

This is the story whispered in the shadows of the empire, never spoken openly. It is the story of a family who court Death with their every action, throughout their generations. And when you consider how eagerly they chase her, well. Is it any wonder that she chases them in return?

Stare into the abyss long enough, and it stares back.

The same is true of Death.