Dramatis Personae

Carann

Artakane ast Carann: Queen of the Dozen Stars

Karani ast Katanes: Her adopted sister, daughter of the Baron of Katanes

Latharna Dhenloc: A Realtran-born knight and Champion of the Crown; the Queen's lover

Mardoban ast Orlanes: Duke of Orlanes, former Regent of the Dozen Stars

Pakorus ast Orlanes: His son

Gilgam ast Uran: An officer of the Royal Guard

Leilin Rehan: An officer of the Royal Guard

The High Prelate: Senior cleric of the Church

Ceana Preas: Ambassador of Realtran

Aestera ast Carann: Former Queen of the Dozen Stars and mother of Artakane, deceased

Katanes

Varas ast Katanes: Baron of Katanes, father of Karani and adopted father of Artakane

Danash ast Dakatis: The Baron's aide and confidante

Sakran

Darius ast Sakran: Duke of Sakran

Tariti ast Sakran: Darius's younger sister

Galen ast Sakran: Darius's younger brother

Naudar ast Sakran: Deposed Duke of Sakran

The Council of Dukes

Kallistrae ast Tantos: Duchess of Tantos

Ariana ast Tashir: Duchess of Tashir

Digran Tassis: Duke of Aurann, former rebel leader

Vashata ast Malakan: Duchess of Malakan

Menandrus ast Kern: Duke of Kern

Laodamia ast Nadar: Duchess of Nadar

Argus ast Rastam: Duke of Rastam

Karous ast Saunn: Duke of Saunn

Zahra ast Medes: Duchess of Medes

Artemisia ast Orlanes: Duchess of Orlanes, estranged wife of Mardoban

Realtran Kingdom

Luagh ar'Realtran: King of Realtran

Cuinn Murcadh: Prime Minister of Realtran

The Headmistress: Headmistress of Dansa Academy, a Pervai; her real name is Tlaylli

Brother Ronall: A monk and swordmaster at Dansa Academy

The Empire

Verus Licinius: The Emperor

Publius Vedrans Quarinis: His advisor, former Ambassador to the Dozen Stars

Tertius Quarinis: A senator, elder brother of Publius

Admiral Cassius Decimus: Head of the Imperial Navy

Veradis Quintius: His aide

Al'Aymar Alaen: An Adept in the Emperor's service, leader of the Adept Cabal

Al'Thai Amaru: An Adept in the Cabal

Gedeb Ashams: An Adept in the Cabal

Nicasius: An Adept in the Cabal

Other

Raqisat Al'Fajra: A member of the Alaelam Conclave

Shifrad Al'Kaib: Her bodyguard

Specter: An information broker

Shiran: An Adept

Midaia ast Carann: An Adept, half-sister of Artakane

The Neraida: Ancient beings

Historical Figures

Artax the Founder: First king of the Dozen Stars

Caelus Magnus: Founder of the Empire

The Prophet: Semi-legendary founder of the Church

Matari: Founder of the Alaelam Alliance

Prologue

Ordo Sancti Monastery, Imperium Primus, the Empire

Three-Hundred and Six Years Before the Founding of the Dozen Stars

Imperium Primus was a world of stone and metal, of mighty towers that glittered silver in the light of the sun, of palaces that dwarfed anything the ancients of storied Terra had ever dreamed, of orbiting shipyards that created and maintained the mighty fleets which sailed forth into the great dark, to bring all of humanity under a unified rule for the first time in more than a millennium, since the Third Republic had crashed in ruin. Imperium Primus, capital of the United Empire of Humankind; Imperium Primus, the center of the galaxy.

And yet, even in this world of mighty cities and great foundries, there remained some areas of green, where plant and animal life flourished and human construction did not dominate. These areas were not wild, not truly – they were preserves, created and set aside, carefully tended to provide some memory of what this world had been before it became the seat of Empire. Some of these preserves were large enough they might have made nations in their own right, and yet they were small compared to the majesty and power that surrounded them.

And they were not wholly devoid of human life. In one such preserve, not far from the Palatine City, a small building of stone nestled against the feet of a range of low mountains. It looked as if it might have been transported there from another time, some construction from old Terra before mankind claimed the stars, for those who made it sought peace and tranquility away from the bustle of Imperium Primus. It was a monastery of the Ordo Sancti, the Holy Brothers, monastics of the Church of the Cosmic Lord. It was a retreat from the worlds, a place of contemplation, of healing, and of learning.

The young man who stood at the monastery wall, looking out over the plains below, was one who had come there to learn. He wore the black robes of a novice with his hood cast back, revealing a shaved head and a dark complexion. He had lived most of his life in buildings like this one, for some said he had been born to the Church – his mother was a Holy Sister and his birth had been a scandal at the time, though she had since done penance for it. And he had inherited certain gifts from his father, gifts which the Church prized. The young man was an Adept, one of the most gifted to be born in decades, perhaps centuries, and today, he was troubled.

"I thought I'd find you here," a voice said behind him; the novice turned to find another young man roughly his own age approaching. He was tall and handsome, with angular features that hinted at his patrician origins, and his skin was an olive tone that made him significantly paler than his companion. "Father Abbot sent me to look for you. He missed you at morning prayers, Aurelius."

"I assume he's angry with me, then," Aurelius said, sighing. "I'll have to do penance later, then."

The other novice chuckled. "Well, he is," he said. "But he was worried about you, too. You're his prize pupil, after all, and it's not like you to miss your prayers."

Aurelius grinned faintly. "Whereas you would find a way to get out of them however you could, wouldn't you, Lucian?" he asked, and they both laughed. Lucian was Aurelius's closest friend – and, of the few Adept novices, the only one who could match his abilities. They'd long ago become comfortable with teasing one another.

"You know me so well," Lucian said, shaking his head. "It's not that I don't believe in the Lord – you know I do – but, well, I just think we would better serve out there doing things than kneeling on a mat mouthing the same old words a dozen times."

"The prayers help focus the mind," Aurelius said, serious again. "That's important for anyone, but especially for Adepts – you know that, Lucian."

Lucian snorted. "You're right, as usual," he said. "Still, I can't help but feel…" he shook his head again and fell silent. "There was another bombing in the capital last night. Did you hear?"

"No!" Aurelius said, dread welling in him. For years, now, the tensions between the patrician families – the gentes, as they called themselves – had been rising across the Empire. In some cases it was a matter of trade rivalries, in others, of ideology, and in still others, simple power plays. It had been simmering for some time, but in the last year, it had begun to come to blows, members of different factions openly attacking one another in the streets, with the Senate and the Emperor seemingly powerless to do anything. "Was anyone you know hurt?" Lucian had family in the capital; he was related to most of the major gentes.

"No, thank the Lord," the other novice replied. "No one was killed, though a few were injured. It was at a major flitter station, though. Whoever it was, they wanted to send a message – that no one can stop them. The Emperor's made his usual calls for unity, but I don't think anyone will listen." He turned to look out over the plains for a long, silent moment. "War is coming," he finally said. "You can feel it to, can't you?"

"Yes," Aurelius whispered. A full-scale civil war hadn't happened since the formation of the Empire, but with the way things were going – Lucian was right. The Emperor was weak, the Senate as heavily factionalized as the populace. War seemed inevitable, now. Would the Empire survive it? Would humanity?

The two novices didn't speak to one another for a long time, and then finally, Aurelius made up his mind. "I had a dream last night," he said.

Lucian snorted. "A shocking occurrence," he muttered, then his eyes widened in understanding. "Oh," he said. "You mean a dream dream, don't you?"

"I do," Aurelius said. Neither of them said the word prophetic, but it hung in the air. The elder monks didn't like it – knowing the future completely, they said, was the province of the Lord alone, and an Adept who tried was liable to be deceived by possible visions that never came true, or misleading ones that only showed part of what was to be. But the fact of the matter was that sometimes Adepts had dreams that came true. Aurelius had that gift particularly strongly, and he always knew when his dreams were of the future.

"Well," Lucian pressed. "What was it?"

"In my dream, I stood here, on this wall," Aurelius said, "and on the plains below two great star serpents fought with one another. One was red, and the other was white. As they did battle, I knew that the fate of all the universe depended on the outcome of that struggle. For long, they were evenly matched, and the ground shook and groaned beneath them, but at last, the white serpent prevailed and devoured the red, reigning supreme over all that it saw."

Lucian's eyes widened and he stepped forward, putting a hand on Aurelius's arm. "Are you certain?" he asked, expression intense. The star serpent was the greatest predator on Imperium Primus, though now they only existed in menageries; the white serpent was the symbol of Lucian's family. "Was there anything else?"

Aurelius met his friend's eyes and then shook his head. "There was nothing else," he said after a pause. "That's what I saw."

Lucian stepped aside and began to pace. "It must be symbolic," he muttered. "There haven't been wild star-serpents in this area for a hundred years. The white serpent triumphed – could it mean my father? Does it have something to do with the war? Does it mean… will my father be emperor?" Lucian's father was a leading member of one of the reformist factions; Aurelius had met the man a handful of times when he'd come to visit his son at the monastery, and had thought him a good man with noble ideas, but he had a hard time seeing him as a ruler. "Or will I…" Lucian stopped, shaking himself. He was training to be a monk, and monks and priests, under Imperial law, could not hold public office. "But wouldn't it be something to have that power? To be able to just make everything right? To stop the bombings and the fighting before they start…"

Aurelius put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Calm down, will you?" he said. "It was just a dream – it might not even come true. And it may not even mean your family at all. It just seemed so real – I just had to think about it and tell someone."

Lucian chuckled. "You're right," he finally said. "Just a dream. Probably nothing. Now, then, let's head inside, before Father Abbot comes out here himself and has both our heads for wasting his time." He laughed, but Aurelius thought he heard something strained in his voice. The dream had clearly meant more to Lucian than he'd realized, and his words troubled him. Maybe he shouldn't have shared the dream after all…

Or maybe, he thought as they both turned and walked back into the monastery, he shouldn't have withheld the last part, of the warrior in gleaming blue armor with a crown of stars upon her brow who had brought the white serpent low – but no, that part had been faint, and had come when Aurelius was waking up. It was probably nothing. Just his imagination, intruding on the vision.

The war which both novices had feared came not long after, shaking the Empire to its core, and when it ended it left a weakened Senate and an Imperial throne that had consolidated its power in its wake. Centuries later another war would come that would lead to the outer colonies breaking away, giving rise to new nations as the Empire's power waned. Still the United Empire of Humankind in name, but not in truth – though there were still those on Imperium Primus who dreamed the old dreams of power and glory.

Aurelius was there through it all, as was Lucian, for powerful Adepts live long, long lives – and both of them were very strong indeed. Their stories wove in and out of the history of the galaxy, and in time they took other names which they were to make famous. But neither of them ever forgot Aurelius's dream or the conversation on the wall that long-ago morning, and in time the events that were set in motion that day would lead inexorably once again to war – a war in which the fate of an empire and of the humanity it had once ruled would at long last be decided…