SIXTHMOTH, 9734 YEARS AFTER THE FALL OF WALISHA
SIXTHMONTH, 23 YEARS AFTER THE FOUNDING OF THE EMPIRE
The Emperor was dying.
Three men stood outside the door to the Imperial bedroom, silent. Inside, the man they had served, the man they had sworn themselves to, the man who had been mentor, father, brother, son, friend, and ruler lay dying and, for all the trio’s power, for all their wisdom and strength, they could do nothing.
The Emperor was dying.
The three men were as distinctly different as the lands that had bred them. One stood nearly seven feet tall. His pointed ears and slanted eyes spoke of his elven ancestry. The light-blond hair that tumbled to his shoulders and the sapphire eyes marked him as a High Elf and one closely related to the current ruling family. He no longer wore the crest of his own family – a bright sun shining on a blue background with the emblem of Hag’nassa etched in silver on the yellow orb – but his face told his lineage strongly enough for that. A second stood four feet tall with a barrel chest, thick arms, and stubby fingers. A full dark black beard hung nearly to his belt and his jet black hair was cropped close in a soldier’s bowl. His yellow eyes and black hair marked him as the son of the high-thane of the dwarves. The third man stood five and a half feet tall. He was well-muscled but wiry of build. In battle, he could move with a speed that confused the enemy. He wielded the spear and spells with equal ease. His long, deft fingers could strangle a man or manipulate his spell components equally well.
Strength, majesty, and magic. And yet, the Emperor was dying.
The door opened silently and one of the Grey Women motioned. The three men glanced at each other warily, wondering which of their number was being summoned. The Grey Woman gestured again and all three of them moved as one. When she did not ward any of them away, they walked through the doorway and into the bedchamber where the Emperor lay dying. The elf walked in front with the dwarf and the human flanking him as was their common practice. His longer reach would hold at bay any enemy lurking in the shadows and give them time to maneuver around, flanking it or keeping more from rushing behind them. It was a formation that was as natural as breathing to them, one they fell into without thought, even here in this place where their safety was assured.
“Wanderer take me,” the elf gasped when he beheld the figure in the bed. “Lan, you look so troubled and tired…”
The Emperor smiled wanly at the trio. His smile could not hide the strain and worry in his body. He had things to ask of them that they would not like. If they refused him…then all that they had worked for would be lost. He could see the horror in the elf’s eyes and knew that the long-lived man would struggle to remember the man he’d known such a short time ago and find him in this aged husk. The dwarf was more pragmatic and the young human…the Emperor had been old when the young man was born. Still, he knew it was a shock for them to see him so weakened. Once he had been just a foot short of the elf’s height. Once he had stood tall and strong as he led men into battle. Once he had traveled the length and breadth of the southlands and had even journeyed to seek the wisdom and see the wonders of the northland beyond the desert wastes. His grey eyes had been bright and clear then. His brown hair thick and curly. He’d had a wife he’d loved and a son he’d adored. And then the darkness came and stole them away. For nearly sixty years now, he had fought back the shadow that threatened them all. Twenty years ago, they had finally beaten their enemy, forcing them back to a quarter of the southlands. They held them, there. With the enemy at bay, the man had turned his attention to rebuilding the southlands. The five great kingdoms of his youth were shattered forever. He forged the ruins into one land with one mission. The Empire of Lanar’ya would stand strong against the Night-Souled. It had taken twenty years and all of his strength, but finally, all the peoples of the southland were united in purpose.
These three were representative of that achievement. The Emperor smiled and waved them closer. He had known them all for many years. The elf had been the first to join his crusade. The dwarf had taken longer to come around. And the young human who mixed metal and magic…
“I have a request for you,” the Emperor said, his voice so strong and deep it seemed to belie his weakened body. “None of you will like it.”
“We will do whatever you ask of us, old friend,” the elf replied, his blue eyes filling with tears at the sight of his friend’s age-ravaged body. “Forgive me,” he added quickly, bowing low, “we will do as you ask, my lord.”
“Enough of that,” the Emperor growled softly, waving away the obeisance. “I’ve enough ceremony foisted on me in a day to last a sensible man a lifetime. And yet, I have insisted on it,” he sighed. “I had no choice…”
“What is it you want of us, Lan?” the dwarf asked calmly. He was less impressed with the Emperor. He recalled all too well how his old friend could barely heft a hammer or handle a dwarven duel when they’d first met. In time, Lan had become a master at the warhammer and had even kept pace with the dwarf for a few hours of a duel. “We’ll do it. We’ll piss and moan like women, but we’ll do it.”
“Jevak, old friend,” the Emperor chuckled. “Thank you. Gerald, come forth and let me look upon your face,” he motioned for the human to step into the light. “These old eyes don’t see as well as they once did.”
The young man moved into the light streaming from the window. The Emperor gazed at his face, careless of the tears trickling from his rheumy grey eyes. “You are your father come back to us, Gerald. You are his very likeness. Did Jorash ever tell you how he came to join me?”
“Many times, Uncle Lan,” the youth replied calmly. “He said you were the greatest thing to come out of Tevrata. You were the one who convinced the three human kingdoms to ally with the elven nation. You even brought the dwarves into the pact. It was you who had the wisdom and the fire to stop those foul blood-mages.”
“I did not do it alone,” the Emperor sighed. “The elves had seen the danger before I was even a twinkle in my father’s eye. They tried to warn us but we would not listen…”
“To our sorrow,” Gerald agreed. “But the Night-Souled are contained now. We’ve managed to hold them in the northeast. The dwarves keep a solid watch on them. A shame we couldn’t push them into the desert but… Why wouldn’t you let us push them to the sands, Uncle? I’ve never understood that. Had we forced them to retreat northwest twenty years ago…”
“We would have lost everything if we allowed them the desert that divides,” the Emperor grimaced. “I saw that. We must hold them here. We must not allow our mistakes to multiply into the northern lands. Regardless of what comes, we must never allow them to move northward. That is the task I set for you, Gerald.”
“To keep an eye on the Night-Souled?” the young man asked, confused. Doing such a thing was the duty of every man in the Empire. “Uncle, I will of course…”
“No,” the Emperor said, shaking his head. “You must go to the desert. Gather up the men from your coterie and take them to the desert. There you will live and die. Raise up your children to maintain the watch. Ensure that no Night-Souled crosses the desert to the northlands. Even if you must fight the Empire itself to see it so, do this thing for me.”
“I will,” Gerald sighed. “I can take perhaps two thousand men and women with me. There’s little water or food in the sands but we’ll find what we can. Perhaps the Uvians of the north would consent to help us in return for our guaranteeing their peace.”
“The Uvians will,” the Emperor nodded. “And the Koch’tou as well. They know the desert. They will teach you to live and thrive there. But no further south than Sesnia should you or your people come. You will not be part of the Empire but you will hold its mission dear.”
“I will do this, Uncle Lan. But why?” he asked. His dark brown eyes shone with curiosity and he ran a hand through his coal-black hair.
“In my dreams, I see that the Empire will not last,” the Emperor sighed. “Even had I taken your advice, old friend,” he nodded to the elf, “and married again and gotten a son, it would crumble. If I left blood of mine behind, it would fall all that much faster. The Wanderer has allowed me to see some of the path beyond, my friends. If the Night-Souled ever escape our watch, they will cover the world. The only way to keep them here is to set a part of us against the other at all costs. I have seen that Gerald will rule these people and guide them on the path that ensures salvation. When the time of the Destroyer nears, his people will see true and guide the fated ones onto the path.”
“I will go to the desert then,” Gerald sighed.
“May the Wandering God guide your footsteps,” the Emperor said, giving his blessing. Gerald stepped back as the old man waved him away and gestured to the dwarf. “Jevak, you must return to your homeland.”
“Go back to that hole in the ground?” the dwarf bristled. “By the Stone, no! My clan considers me a raving lunatic for staying aboveground all these years. I’m not sure they’d let me back beneath the Ashmount…”
“Nevertheless,” the Emperor said firmly, “you must return. They are building the keep in the wrong place. You must have them move it back closer to the city. Do not let them build it across the valley.”
“Lan, old friend, are you sure?” Jevak muttered into his beard. “You’re practically giving the Night-Souled a paved path to waltz up if you move the keep across the valley.”
“It must be done,” the Emperor insisted. “Another keep will be built one day…but it will not be built by us. I cannot see who will build it but the way must be open or all will be lost before it can be won.”
“I…see…” the dwarf sighed. “Well, I guess I can try to live beneath the earth again. Perhaps it is time I returned and found me a likely lass. I don’t have to stay there all the time, do I, old friend?”
“You may visit Andral’avin’tharis on occasion,” the Emperor chuckled. “I know how you hate being parted from him.”
“Aye, he’s the only man topside who can keep up with me when I duel,” the dwarf laughed. “And I love tucking him into bed. Too bad his missus has the charge of that bit now.”
“Andral,” the Emperor said softly, “the heaviest burden I leave to you.”
“Anything you ask, Lan,” the elf promised swiftly.
“Wait until you’ve heard it,” the Emperor grunted, his eyes shining with a touch of his former strength. “I name you to be the Left Hand of the Imperial Throne. To lead its armies in war and in peace. To enforce the law, to oversee justice, to protect the Empire against threats internal and external. It will be up to you to name those you think best suited to other posts but all within the army or the Brotherhood you and Jevak started will report to you.”
“If there’s a Left Hand, who’s the Right?” Jevak interjected. Andral just stared at the elderly man, wishing Lan were about fifty years younger so the elf could throttle him.
“Brother Mysonar would have been my Right Hand,” the Emperor sighed, “but he proved false. If ever a time of true priests comes, then a Right Hand may be appointed. But, I do not foresee that it will happen. Andral,” he added, taking the elf’s hand in his own. “I need you to lead our people. I need you to hold them together. I need you to do this. I would send you home if I could but you married Jasmine and your own people will not welcome her or you any longer. You have made a great sacrifice for your love. I will not see it go unrewarded.”
“Lan,” the elf said tonelessly, “do not ask this of me. Jevak is a better battle commander. Gerald is a better strategist. I am barely adequate at…”
“Jevak has his duty. Gerald has his as well. You must do this, Andral. You must hold them together. When you feel life draining from you, then appoint another to the post. Or decide how another could be named to it. But it is vital that you lead the people through this time. You are long past the days of hot blood, old friend. You’ve lived near four hundred years already. I need you to give the next three hundred to our people. Please, Andral. Do this for me.”
“I will, Lan,” he sighed. “I’ll hate it but I’ll do it.”
“Thank you, my friends,” the Emperor sighed. He looked more at peace now that this business was done with. “I wish to sleep now. Please, go to your rest as well.”
The three nodded and left the room. The Grey Woman re-entered and began bustling about, checking the Emperor’s health and humming in a soft monotone. The Emperor had fallen into the light doze of the elderly. Closing the door behind them, the three strode through the newly-finished Heart Keep. Built at the center of the Empire, it was the heart that sent blood – men and treasure – to all reaches of the Empire. Already a city was forming around it. Andral stared glumly out one of the windows. The way that humans bred, they would probably need to build a second wall before he died.
“I hope Uncle Lan didn’t intend for me to leave right away,” Gerald said in the silence. “I will leave after he is gone.”
“I suppose that will be fine,” Andral muttered. “Jevak, you must know I do not want this assignment.”
“You’re the best suited for it,” the dwarf grunted. “I’d have flat refused it myself. Dealing with elves. Dealing with humans. Dealing with half-elves. And Wanderer help you, dealing with dwarves as well. Lan’s done a fine job juggling everyone these past twenty years. Still, you are the best man for this, my friend. You have patience and wisdom.”
Andral held his peace while they finished their walk through the keep. Once in the courtyard, they parted ways. Gerald returned to the barracks where his troops were waiting. He’d been training them in mixing steel and spells. Only a handful of the oldest men remembered stories of the great tournaments in Harstoni where magi and warriors had competed with and against each other for honor and glory. For most men Gerald’s age, the tales of the five kingdoms were little more than legend. Jevak headed into the small township surrounding the keep to sample the ale there and see what word he could find from his homeland. Andral continued down the dusty road – it was still being cobbled and paved – to the home he shared with his wife.
He paused before he reached it, studying it. He was pleased with how it had turned out. He had built most if it himself, keeping the natural lines of the lumber and stone. It would look odd set near the elven homes that inspired it. It also bore little resemblance to the human dwellings he’d seen. A mix of both, it belonged to neither. “Much like the pair that dwell within,” he muttered to himself.
“Andral!” he heard his wife calling from her weaving chamber on the upper floor. “I did not know if you would be coming back this evening,” she said as she leaned out the window.
“I suppose I could go back,” he joked as he grinned up at her. They’d barely been married a month and he’d spent the past two weeks sleeping away from her. The men of the newly-formed Brotherhood were still in need of training on the bow and the blade and he and the other two had waited to see the Emperor every evening until well after full dark. “I’ve always heard that fondness is inversely proportional to distance. Perhaps we should prove that theorem.”
“You and your silly philosophy,” she laughed. “I miss my husband. Do you think you could release him from duty long enough for us to share a meal and perhaps a bed? I’ve a garden that wants planting,” she blushed, her tanned face reddening as she hung her head sheepishly. Her long brown hair hid her face but Andral swore he could see her bright green eyes glowing behind the shield of her fawn-colored tresses. The elf felt his blood stirring and his grin widening. This was madness. This was utter foolishness. This was…
He lengthened his stride and entered the house. Jasmine had not been idle inside either. All of the boxes and trunks had been unpacked during his absence and the building looked more like a home now. He paused to admire her handiwork until he heard her skirts rustling at the top of the wood-carved staircase. Turning his attention to her, he basked in the rare sunbeam that had entered his life.
“You look half-starved,” she quipped as she smoothed her skirts over her hips.
“I’ve a hunger that you could help with,” he growled softly.
“Andral…the rumors say that…the Emperor…”
“Lan is dying,” Andral sighed, his good mood evaporating. “I’ll be surprised if he lasts the month.”
“He has no children to follow after him,” Jasmine gasped. “Who will lead the Empire when he goes with the Wandering God?”
“He has named me to lead the armies and administer to the realm,” Andral sighed. “I don’t want it but I’ll do it for him.”
“You will do well, my love,” she replied, her faith in her husband shining out from her like light from the sun. She walked down the stairs and wrapped her arms around his waist, burying her face in his chest. He let his arms encircle her shoulders and bent his head to breathe in the scent of her hair. “I know you think marrying me was a mistake but…” she whispered against his tunic.
“It was folly but it was not a mistake,” he said, more harshly than he intended. “So what if my family has cast me out? Our sons will still be of a proud lineage and our daughters will be as beautiful as their mother. I would rather have eighty years of pure joy with you than go a lifetime never knowing how this feels. And I would not dishonor you, Jasmine. Other men may take a woman like you for a dalliance but you took my heart three years ago. It will be yours forever.”
“I love you,” she whispered, raising her head to look him in the eyes.
“And I you,” he replied quietly. “Now, you said you needed my help in the garden?” he asked, affecting his most befuddled air. “You know how terrible I am with plants.”
“Well, I suppose if the Emperor can entrust you with the realm, I can entrust you with this task, difficult as it may be. I’m sure you’ll rise to the occasion,” she laughed as she kissed him. “Come Andral’avin’tharis sel Loriaska. The Emperor may die without a son but you won’t. Not if your wife has anything to say about it.”
Andral let himself be led by her. Eighty years he would have with her unless he were foolish enough to seek out those who trucked in magic against nature. Eighty years of love, blessings, and joy. Those eighty years would make the next centuries easier to bear as he obeyed the wishes of the two he loved most. As they neared the bedroom, he scooped his wife into his arms and kissed her until she beat against his chest, protesting that she could not breathe. He laughed as he carried her into the room, closed the door, and left the cares and worries of the Empire outside. They would wait for him. He would keep his promise to Lan. He would hold to his honor even if his family cursed him for a fool. He would do his best to ensure that his friend’s dream did not break or die with the Emperor. But, for now, he would let himself dream his own dreams. Tomorrow would be soon enough to pick up the burden fated for him. Tonight…tonight belonged to his wife.
In the barracks back at Heart Keep, Gerald studied the maps of the Empire. He would obey the request his uncle and his Emperor had set for him but finding men and women willing to give up the easy life of farming and trading in the fertile lands of the Empire would be difficult. Though no Night-Souled lurked in the desert wasteland, there were predators aplenty. Scorpions, spiders, snakes, sand wolves, coyotes, and carrion birds who did not always wait for their meal to be dead before they descended upon it. He sent runners to the library to bring back any tomes they could find about the desert that would soon be his home. While he waited for them to return, he drafted up lists of men he thought might follow him willingly into the desert. Tomorrow, he would do his duty to the Empire and begin his task. But tonight he belonged to the people he would lead.
Jevak quaffed ale and listened to bawdy songs sung by a girl whose mother had not been born when the war started. Songs of lust and love and the heat of battle. Songs that would fit in back beneath the Ashmount. He spied some of his own people nodding in time with the songs and slapping their table with approval. Human women were too tall for dwarven tastes but they were more nicely rounded than elven women. Tomorrow he would begin making plans to return to his people. He would begin thinking about the clans he could court daughters from. But, tonight he would enjoy himself and take a last glance at the place he’d called home for so long.
Back in the darkened bedchamber in Heart Keep, the Emperor smiled as if he could see his friends, his loved ones, going on to live their lives. He chuckled at the dreams that spun and danced before his fading vision. Tomorrow, he knew, would be a day of sorrow for them all. But tonight, they would live and love. Tomorrow would come with its duties, its burdens, and its heartaches. But tonight… Tonight was theirs. He had asked all of them he could.
With that wistful smile upon his wasted lips, the Emperor of Lanar’ya died.
Andral sighed as he studied the maps again. A mere three centuries ago, the Empire had been little more than three separate kingdoms connected only by two thin roads. Three centuries ago, before Lan had died and left him the work of completing the man’s task, the city of Centralis had been a keep surrounded by a few houses and granaries in the center of a plateau. A mere three centuries ago, Gerald and Jevak had stood with him as they put Lan’s body to the torch and scattered his ashes over the city he had built. Jasmine had been alive. His house had been filled with her laughter and her love.
Now, three hundred years later, the city of Centralis was a sprawling enterprise. It had grown quickly after the Knights completed their keep so that even in Lan’s day, it had been a bustling town. Today, only the broad avenues remained the same. Andral had been forced to order the dismantling of several sections so they could be rebuilt in better order. The taxes he had been forced the levy for that had nearly sparked a rebellion until the Tar’in’arska family had decided to give the Empire a generous gift of all the magical items remaining in the elven kingdom. Andral had been able to sell those to the magi for more than enough coin to finish the rebuilding of the city and the outer wall.
“I will have to decree that no more land be ceded,” he sighed, rubbing his eyes fitfully as the map swam in his vision. “At least the growth has slowed now that we have conquered the Preserves.”
The elf was still amazed at the changes three hundred years had wrought as he let the map roll up. The city of Centralis was just one of the many things that had changed. The city now spread out nearly five miles beyond Heart Keep. Heart Keep itself was two miles wide. Four broad, wide avenues radiated out from the four gates of the keep. North and south, east and west they ran, the beginnings of the Imperial Highways. Between each of the four avenues were smaller, though still broad, streets that led to a peripheral path that ran along the border of the city inside the second encircling wall. The eight roads divided the city into manageable sections. Each quarter was known for something, according to Lan’s planning and Andral’s own experience. There was the District of Light where the wandering teachers of the Wandering God could gather, rest, and compare their wisdom. The magi had also made their mark on that district, building several schools within it. Mageware shops and shops catering to the wealthier were housed in that quarter as well. To the south of the District of Light was the Steel District where the smiths plied their trades in steel, iron, silver, and gold. Tanners and weavers also worked there, the tanneries near the cisterns. Well-to-do farmers could easily afford to stay there when they brought their produce or trade to the city. To the east of the Steel District was the residential district where most of Centralis’s permanent citizens lived. Here were the greatest of the gardens Andral had ordered grown. The district had homes that would be comfortable for elves, humans, and dwarves. Andral had seen to that, designing many of the houses so that they coexisted together in harmony. His own home had been there until Jasmine died…
The last district was the Military District where Knights who did not wish to dwell in the barracks lived. It was the smallest of all districts and held more inns, bars, taverns, and vendor stands than the others. Jevak had made the Military District his home on his rare visits to Centralis. Andral smiled, remembering the last trip the elderly dwarven high-thane had made to see to the installation of the four great lifts. It had been the last trip for the dwarf. He had died two years later.
Andral sighed and turned his thoughts back to the Empire. It had been so hard to come to terms with Jevak’s death. The elderly dwarf had been the last living tie Andral had to the days of warring at Lan’s side, driving the Night-Souled back and purging the magi of those who trafficked in such foul doings. Remembrance of his friend’s death struck him as if he had only received the news yesterday instead of nearly fifty years ago. Remembering Jevak’s funeral brought to mind the way Jasmine had died. Though nearly two hundred and fifty years had passed since he laid her in the earth, Andral could still find tears in his eyes as he remembered being forced to watch her wither away until that last illness took her from him forever.
“The Preserves,” Andral muttered to himself, forcing his thoughts back to order. The two great plains to the east of Centralis had been sparsely populated three centuries ago. The fields of what had once been Tevrata and Harstoni bore little trace of the two great kingdoms. The cities had been destroyed during the centuries’ long war that forced the Night-Souled into the northeastern most section of the land. Even now, most of what had been Harstoni was under Night-Souled control. But, much of the rich, fertile plains had been reclaimed. Towns were being built on the ruins of the once-great cities of those forgotten kingdoms. The dwarves had finally cleansed their underground kingdom of Night-Souled, pushing them out of the passages and into the Poison Woods that had once been the Forests of Trevelayne. Andral knew that they would need to continue to battle the Night-Souled back until they had a more defensible boundary with them.
To the south, the elves had given up hope of reclaiming all of their former territory. With so many dead in the wars, they had little need of such vast holdings. The forests of Syl’aria were slowly reclaiming entire cities left abandoned when the populace, forced by attrition, migrated to towns where business and agriculture still flourished. Andral sighed as he thought about the diminishing borders of his former homeland. Now that the elves had turned their backs on magic and their magi entirely, the elven homeland would never again be the place he remembered. Still, he could not blame them for their actions. It had been among the magi that the Night-Souled were first created. It had been the magi who brought about the changes and the battles that devastated the Five Kingdoms. Yet, while it had been the magi, it had not been all magi. Many a mage had sacrificed himself to aid Lanarius and the Knights in driving back the Night-Souled and destroying them.
“I should send some forces to the south,” Andral said to himself. “There were those rumors of strangers venturing over the Frigid Isle far to our south. Best to keep a watch tower there in case there are evils from beyond that could threaten us.”
When his thoughts flowed towards the northwest, the elf could not contain his tears. Three hundred years ago, Gerald had set forth into the desert that divided the great Northlands from the Southlands. In the space of that short time, the people who followed him had forgotten that they were ever part of the Lanarian Empire. All that remained of that time in their memory was the need to defend the desert against those who dwelled to the south. Several times, the tribes had invaded the Empire, forcing Andral to build a stronger fortress and mark a line against their incursions. He hated the thought that he might be ordering the death of any of Gerald’s descendants.
“Father?” he heard a voice tugging him back to the immediate present. “Father, are you well?”
“I am fine, Rolan’arith’avis,” he said, turning to face his eldest son. The sight of the first child Jasmine had given him took his breath away. Rolan’arith’avis had his mother’s brown hair and emerald eyes. His face had the cast of his father, though, with its delicate, chiseled nose and high cheekbones. The youth’s lips were fuller than his father’s had ever been and the harsh lines of his chin and jaw were softened somewhat compared to his sire. Nearing his third century, Rolan had been married to another half-elf, half-human for nearly two hundred years. Andral had many grandsons and granddaughters to dandle on his knee as he aged from his prime and into his dotage.
“Why do you weep, then, Father, if you are ‘fine?’” Rolan asked, seeing the tear-trails running down his father’s face.
“I have been thinking about the past,” Andral replied. “About Jevak and Gerald and Lan. None of them would recognize the Empire they worked to build today. Of them all, I am the last survivor outside of elven lands.”
“Feeling old, Father?” Rolan asked with concern in his eyes. Andral knew that all of his children feared the day when their father would join their mother in the Wanderer’s Palace. However, the fear seemed particularly strong in his eldest child. Did Rolan fear that he would be forced to follow in his father’s footsteps, safeguarding and administering the Empire? Andral had never spoken of it since Rolan had decided to pledge his sword to the Knights of the Brotherhood. Now a lieutenant in his own right, Rolan had command of many divisions and spent much of his time away from Centralis battling Night-Souled and establishing law and order.
“Perhaps,” Andral admitted. He knew well that the golden luster of his hair had long since faded to silver. He’d been considered well into his prime when he’d taken Jasmine to wife. Now, three hundred years later, he was one of the oldest living elves in the Empire. Only a few of the Tar’in’arskas were older than he. Even the current head of the Loriaska family was young enough to be his son.
“You will never be old, Father,” Rolan said quietly.
“I had better be!” Andral retorted flippantly. “Elsewise your mother’s spirit will have to return from the Wanderer’s realm and haunt me until the day comes when I am old and join her. Ach,” he said, waving away his son’s worries, “I am old, Rolan’arith’avis. I have seen the passing of nearly eight hundred years. My time will come and then the Empire will need new life and new blood to lead it. Until the day of my death, however, it will be mine to care for. I promised Lan and I will not be foresworn. Lan would never let me hear the end of it,” he added in an undertone.
“Then I suppose I must prepare to…”
“No, Rolan,” Andral said, shaking his silvered head firmly. “You have been dutiful to the Empire. You have risked your life to defend it. You have shed blood to secure it. You have fought, protected, struggled, and striven. But only out of a sense of duty. I do not hold it against you, my son. You have always been dutiful and obedient. But, I will name a successor who has the love and passion for the Empire that you do not. I will not leave this burden on shoulders unwilling to bear it.”
“I see,” Rolan replied, his face a mask of perfect calm. Jasmine had always complained that she could never read her eldest the way she could the younger three but Andral knew that look well enough – it was a mirror of his own face. Rolan was extremely hurt and upset.
“Son,” Andral sighed, “I am not chiding you. If I believed that you were the best person to oversee the realm, I would name you to the post in a heartbeat. However, doing so would be unfair to you. I know how hard you have worked. I oversaw your training and initiation. But, still…why did you choose the path of a soldier when you knew your heart belonged to building up instead of destroying? I have watched you struggle against your own heart and wishes for too many years, my son, to give you a reason to struggle against them any longer. Go with your wife,” he pleaded. “Settle in the Southern Preserve. There are several flourishing town there now – largely thanks to your efforts. Go there and act as the commander for the Knights in that region and spend your days training and teaching and your evenings carving those beautiful sculptures your mother loved. Know you not that I have kept all of them in my quarters?” Rolan blinked in surprise. Any other person would have missed it but Andral knew his son as well as he knew himself.
“I…I…you kept them?” Rolan gasped.
“They are among my most cherished possessions,” Andral said firmly. “When I go to join your mother, I will take the carving of the rose you gave me after her death with me and give it to her. The rest I will have put on display throughout the Empire so that all might see that the Knights are not just soldiers, but men of heart as well.”
“I came to speak to you about another matter, Commander,” Rolan said after a lengthy pause. Andral had not filled the silence, knowing that his son needed time to rein in his emotions and calm himself. “Reports have come in from the Northern Preserve and the dwarven thanedom. The Night-Souled are on the move. Already they have struck the farms along the Lake of Sorrows to the east. Several dozen farmers were carried off and those who were left…they had to be killed,” Rolan said with a shudder. “Their minds were…gone. Even the elves could not heal them,” he added. “They report that there is some new breed of Night-Souled with the measure of a man that can devour the mind and soul of a person while feasting on his blood.”
“And you wish to go and confront them?” Andral asked quietly.
“Then I request that you gather your forces and go to rescue the Imperial citizens captured by our enemies. I also request that you keep yourself safe, my son,” he said softly. “I would not want to have to face your mother if you were to reach her ahead of me.”
“Aye, sir,” Rolan replied, saluting precisely. “I will return, Father. And I will think on your words. Whom will you name to lead the Empire when you are gone?”
“I do not know,” Andral admitted. “Perhaps I will name no one and let those who have led the various outposts select from among themselves. I will need to think on it further before I decide. It is strange,” he added with a small laugh. “In my youth, I knew exactly who would succeed whom on each throne of the Five Kingdoms. I knew my place in the world. Then came the wars that upset everything. Then came Lan who set it all aright again. He named me and now I find that I must name someone else when the day comes. I will think on it carefully, my son. For, by whatever I decide, the fate of the Empire will hinge upon it.”
“I know you will decide wisely, Father,” Rolan nodded. “The Empire has been lucky to have you. Would that you would be spared another five hundred years to see it through.”
“I don’t know about that, son,” Andral sighed, thinking with longing of the woman his son so strongly resembled. “I have been apart from your mother many years. I am glad I have you, though. You take care, now, and return to me. The Night-Souled are those who once set out to make themselves immortal. However, the true path to immorality is in you.”
“What do you mean, Father?”
“I mean that we mortals become immortal in our children. Which is why I would not want to lose you. Go, fight the Empire’s battles, Rolan’arith’avis, but return to me when they are done. Bring back that part of your beloved mother that you carry with you so that I can see you both reflected in your eyes.”
“Of course, Father,” Rolan saluted. “I will see you upon my return.”
“Wanderer see you safe, my son,” Andral said in blessing as his firstborn walked out of the room and on to his mission. “May the Wanderer see all of us safe.”
Forcing his mind away from his melancholy memories, Andral’avin’tharis sel Loriaska, the Left Hand of the Empire, appointed by Lanarius Treventos himself, went back to his chambers to administrate the realm left in his care.