Author's Note: Here it is at last: the start of Death and the Emperor's sequel! The first book is finished, and I'll post a new chapter every Monday and Thursday. The second book isn't started yet. I may or may not write it for Camp NaNo July. We'll have to wait and see :)
The Brave Tin Soldiers Fall
Machine-guns rattle toy-like from a hill,
Down in a row the brave tin-soldiers fall:
A sight to be recalled in elder days
When learnedly the future we devote
To yet more boastful visions of despair.
– Robert Graves, Recalling War
"I hope you know how much I despise you."
Death's tone was cold as ice. Fate's laughter rang in her ears.
I know. Fate had neither body nor voice, but Her words filled Death's throne room as if they'd been screamed. But your thoughts matter not to Me. There is only what will be. You will do My bidding, whatever you think of it.
"I am no one's slave! Least of all yours!" Death shouted.
Fate laughed again. Death tightened her grip on her scythe's handle until it would have snapped if it had been made of any normal material.
You can do nothing but play the role I have assigned you, Fate said. You should find it quite an easy one.
She had miscalculated. Fate controlled the lives and destinies of every mortal and immortal in the universe, but at present She was in Death's kingdom. And when Death did not want someone in her kingdom, she could remove them forcibly. Even if they were supposedly all-powerful immortals. Death raised her hand. Fate found Herself – invisible and intangible though She was – being essentially shoved out of Death's realm into the void beyond. The gateway into the realm closed as violently and abruptly as a door being slammed in Her face.
Death picked up her scythe. It was time to pay a visit to Malish.
Rethli, Zjurkyu, the year 2537
At five years old, Lethil was sure of two things. One, she was a princess. Two, she would never be a queen. What she didn't understand was why.
She lived with her grandparents and saw her parents only once a year. She knew this was unusual. They weren't really her grandparents because her mother's husband wasn't her father. She knew this was even more unusual. But no one would explain this unaccountable mystery to her.
The man-who-was-not-her-father was Emperor of Carann. Lethil's mother was Empress Consort. So why would Lethil not be Empress? No one would tell her. Her grandfather shook his head and said she was too young to understand. Her grandmother told her she was happier not knowing.
She never dared ask her mother. Her mother was the only person she'd ever seen who looked like her, with dark skin and wide eyes. But her mother always looked at her as if she was something vile. Every word she said to her was spoken through gritted teeth.
Lethil never asked the man-who-was-not-her-father either. He didn't look at her with loathing the way her mother did, but there was something about him that scared her. When he looked at her it was as if he couldn't quite see her; as if there was something else eternally just out of sight that he was constantly trying to see. And when she looked at him she felt as she had when her cousin Fenye dared her to sit on a tomb in the family crypt.
She had a half-sister who would be Empress at some unspecified point in the future. Her sister lived in the royal palace. Her sister was only a toddler, but their aunts and uncles spoke of her with more respect than they ever showed Lethil. Why? No one would tell her that either.
There was something very odd about both her parents. And since her grandparents wouldn't tell her, she asked her cousin Sazua. Sazua was almost eleven. That made her very grown-up in Lethil's eyes. And Sazua didn't have a mother. She had a step-mother because her real mother was dead. That made her a sort of kindred spirit in Lethil's eyes: another sufferer from the incomprehensible lack of a parent.
When she asked, Sazua looked at her pitingly.
"It's not something odd with them, Lethy," she said. Her tone suggested Lethil was very stupid for not realising this. "It's you. They don't want you because you shouldn't have been born."
Sazua didn't mean to be cruel. In fact, she didn't realise she had been cruel. But her thoughtless words tore apart a little girl's world.
Malish under Jalakanavu was an unusually peaceful place. If you only looked at the outward appearance, that was. Officially, little Hadurman-Iqui was the ruler. But of course a three-year-old child couldn't rule an empire. So Hadurman played with toy soldiers and dozed through his tutors' lectures while his stepmother reigned in his name. It was a state of affairs that satisfied almost everyone.
"Almost" was the operative word.
Malish was like Carann in one respect. Both were less a cohesive empire and more a group of frequently warring tribes and states that were bound together by a common ruler, a common religion, and – sometimes – a common language. But Carann was well-used to female rulers. The founder of the empire had been a woman. Malish, on the other hand, had never had a female Iqui and only rarely a female regent. The gümentinöd, the generals who commanded the army, chafed at taking their orders from a mere woman. Even worse were the shulima'ilöd, the heads of the various tribes that made up the empire. Someone who wanted to stir up trouble would cause absolute chaos if they got the shulima'ilöd on their side.
So that was exactly what Prince Shuradin set out to do.
The Kingdom of Nirne prided itself on staying out of Carann and Malish's squabbles. It shared a border with both of them while retaining its independence. Queen Drazenmira Khaimevna Vyshnyova intended to keep it that way.
And that was why she didn't trust this stranger who had waltzed into her court.
The woman who called herself Rualnim Inonul claimed to be from a part of Carann that was being threatened by Malish. She didn't ask for Nirne's help. She didn't need to. Her mere presence in the court had already started murmurs of whether or not Nirne should help. But worst of all, she had wormed her way in Drazenmira's daughter's confidence.
Princess Losradan Drazenmiraevna was not the sort of heir who inspired great hope for the future of the kingdom. It would be more accurate to say the people dreaded the day she became queen. Her preference for parties instead of politics, her overly-expensive clothes, her utter lack of tact and her insistence on drawing attention everywhere she went had made her the court's laughingstock. And now Rualnim followed her around like an extra shadow.
Drazenmira watched. What she saw worried her.
Death also watched events unfolding in the three kingdoms. And what she saw worried her too.