I thought I'd start with something a little different, so this is the first chapter of an upcoming fantasy release. It's the first book of a trilogy I'm calling The Empire Chronicles, and the name of the book is Empire's Agony. For you history buffs out there, the storyline is very loosely based on the period in the Byzantine Empire when the Emperor Phocas takes power and is ultimately deposed by the Emperor Heraclius.
It's dark, militaristic, and ominous in tone, likely the kind of fantasy that would appeal to Crimson Worlds readers if they have an interest in an alternate genre. Anyway, here's the first chapter. This is an advanced sneak peak, so what you see here may get some future editing.
As always, I'd love to know what you guys think.
Imagine the empire. An immense and ancient land, stretching from the misty, snow-capped peaks of the Midworld Mountains to the glistening towers and tumultuous bazaars of the Jade Coast cities. And between, too many lands to easily name - the verdant, rolling horselands of Karelia and the northeastern provinces, rough and untamed; the fertile western plains of Plataea, breadbasket of the empire; the lush valley along the banks of Catarac, the mother of rivers, where grow the prized vines that produce the sought after Catara wines.
Yet this behemoth was a land in decline, and vaster still had it been in ages past, when its dominion extended far to the north, beyond the great mountain range, and west to the shores of the Unending Sea. Indeed, of old it had been but one of two empires, its imperial twin just as massive and powerful, sprawling over vast and arcane lands far to the mysterious east.
This eastern giant had fallen six centuries past, weakened by corruption and feeble emperors and overrun by the barbaric Horde, whose deathless khan, many whispered, still ruled over its decayed cities and enslaved people. The Southern Empire, for lifetimes now called simply the empire, stood resilient, shrunken but still strong, defended by its proud old legions and ancient knightly orders.
In the center of its domains, straddling the banks of the great river, rose the gleaming white spires of Elyssia, the imperial capital. The largest city in the known world, it was home to wonders spoken of by men in lands so distant they were forgotten - wispy legends lost to time, known no more to men of the empire, save perhaps on ancient maps long lost in the recesses of the imperial archives.
The Great Amphitheater, holding 80,000 spectators for martial games and spectacles unimaginable. The Imperial Forum, a massive bazaar, where goods from every corner of the known world were bought and sold. The Elyssian Colossus, the statue of Sirian Galvanus, the first emperor, standing 500 feet tall, its towering marble legs straddling the avenue leading from the main gate. In Elyssia one could find the greatest things built by man.
Now, the city was in a tumult, and its teeming masses - craftsmen, laborers, bakers, merchants, soldiers, slaves, thieves - more than half a million in all, had abandoned their shops and stalls and homes to flood into the muddy streets and gather in the gilded temples. For deep in the marble halls of the immense Imperial Palace, in an incense-filled room with gold-covered walls, amid the chants of somber red-robed priests, an emperor lay dying.
His sallow skin hung in loose folds, as if melting from his body, and wisps of thin white hair dangled randomly from his mostly bald and spotted head. Every few minutes a bloody coughing spasm took him, and a white-clad servant wiped his mouth with a silken cloth. Over the priceless bed coverings extended a single arm, once thick and muscular, now little more than bone covered with a thin layer of drooping flesh.
Sartorius Magnus had been a general, commander of the Prefecture of the East, who'd had no designs on the purple when his troops took the matter into their own hands and raised him up on their shields. They demanded he march on Elyssia and put a stop to the shameful spectacle that had allowed six pretenders to reign in ten years and had ended with the Imperial Guard murdering an emperor and auctioning the diadem to the highest bidder.
Grudgingly acceding to the will of his army, Sartorius marched on Elyssia and took the city almost without a fight, for the people opened the gates and assailed those few of the garrison who sought to bar him. His legions, hardened veterans of a dozen campaigns, sliced through the pampered and inbred Imperial Guard as easily as they would have slaughtered cattle. Accompanied by a crowd of soldiers, their blades still red with blood, Sartorius burst into the Great Hall, where he'd had it on good authority the Conclave was about to declare him an outlaw.
From a hiding place in the back of the Hall, two of his men dragged the cowering usurper-emperor from his hiding place. At a glance from Sartorius, one of them dispatched the whimpering fool with a single stroke, casting his headless body over the balcony to crash onto the intricate mosaic floor below, cracking several of the priceless tiles. The legionary removed the jeweled diadem from the severed head before casting that, too, over the balustrade. The victorious general stood stern-faced and motionless, clad in gleaming armor, like a golden statue, and he looked out at the stunned lords of the Imperial Conclave.
"What say you?" Sartorius looked out over the assembled nobles, his shout echoing off the great marble walls.
A moment of stunned silence was broken with a single voice, soon joined by others, and finally all, shouting again and again, "Hail Sartorius, emperor!" For long moments the chanting continued, as none would be the first to stop. Finally, the lords of the Conclave followed their new emperor out into the streets, where the mob had gathered. The seething masses roared, giving their deafening assent as Sartorius Magnus received the diadem from the bloody hand of a common soldier.
That was three decades past, and Sartorius had given the empire what it needed so desperately - a wise and capable ruler and a long and stable reign. Now that great warrior lay wasted and withered, and all wondered if a new Sartorius would emerge or if the city and realm would be plunged into another nightmare of unrest, bloodshed, and decline.
There were hushed conversations in dimly lit taverns, as hooded noblemen hatched plots to seize the throne. In the provinces, imperial army commanders nursed their own schemes, backed frequently by their soldiers but hindered by distance from the capital. Factions within the Conclave itself fought and argued, struggling to insure one of their own claimed the diadem. In the temples, the few worthy priests prayed solemnly for empire and people, but most bartered and traded their influence to the claimants, as if selling melons in the forum. The people of the city, the mob, were gathered in every public place, needing only the slightest spark to ignite a firestorm of rioting and murder. All hung by a thread, the waning life of one old man locked away in his death chamber.
And yet Sartorius Magnus would not die. Day after day the grizzled old solider clung grimly to life, and while still he breathed none dared act. Thrice the imperial doctor had declared the final struggle had begun, but each time Sartorius rallied back from the precipice and hung on, while in the shadows of the city the many plots hung frozen in the air...waiting.
"Greetings, general." The soldier pounded his chest and thrust his right arm forward in salute. He wore the white and silver armor and uniform of an imperial officer, but he was covered in dust, and his cloak was torn and wrinkled. "I apologize for presenting myself thus, but I bear tidings I knew you would want at once, and I have ridden day and night to reach camp."
"Sartorius?" The general asked the question, though he already knew the answer. Marcus Calorus was the Master of Foot for the Eastern Armies and the protégé of the emperor now dying in Elyssia. Tall and muscular, with piercing blue eyes and long brown hair fastened neatly behind his back with a silver clasp, Calorus had followed his mentor's footsteps into military command in the east. There were many who wanted him to follow further...to the Imperial Palace itself, though Calorus himself had no such desires.
"Yes, general.” Crispus Cestus stood at attention, staring straight forward. "The emperor lies gravely ill, and the city is as tinder awaiting a spark. Indeed, I have been seven days and nights riding here - Sartorius Magnus may already reside in the halls of his ancestors."
Calorus looked down at his sandaled feet, his eyes glazed over, lost in thought. The young officer facing him paused uncomfortably for a moment, glancing around the richly appointed tent, full of battle standards and trophies from Calorus' wars. Finally Crispus broke the silence. "When do we march, sir?"
Calorus didn't answer at once, for his mind had traveled back thirty years, to a place not far from where he now stood. Memories and dreams of his youth welled up within him, and for a moment the tent was silent save, for the distant sound of a smith hammering at his anvil. Finally he looked up with a curiously amused grin on his face. "March, Crispus? What makes you so certain that we will march? Think you I want Sartorius' crown?"
Crispus stared at his commander with a look of surprise. He began to reply, but stammered first before the words came. "But general, we must march on Elyssia. If not you, then who will take the purple? A corrupt politician? A courtier trading in falsehoods and blackmail? A merchant prince paying ill-gotten gold for the Ivory Throne? The army will not accept such as emperor. You know this. The legions will not allow a return to the Disruptions. They will demand a strong emperor. They will demand one of our own."
"Think you I am the only general in the empire, Crispus?" Calorus' reply was sharper than he had intended. Cestus was a loyal officer, and he spoke only what he believed. "There are many who desire the diadem, and some whose stature gives them no small claim."
Crispus fidgeted uncomfortably. "None, general, who would be universally acclaimed. Only you can unite the armies. If another commander marches on Elyssia he will be opposed. We will have civil war."
"And what makes you so certain we would not have civil war were I to claim the purple? For when Sartorius was raised upon a shield he commanded both the horse and the legions, but I am Master of Foot only. Sartorius had parchments from the grandmasters of two of the knightly orders, beseeching him to march on the capital and promising him their allegiance. I have no such guarantee of support."
"But the prefect command is vacant, and you are the senior general in the east.” It was clear to Crispus that Calorus was the obvious choice for emperor. A young warrior, still naïve and dazzled by his mentor’s stature and achievements, he could not imagine anyone opposing the general’s claim. “You are the de facto commander of the largest army in the empire, both horse and foot, and all know that you were close to Sartorius. Indeed, we know you are his chosen successor."
"Close?" Calorus spoke softly, wistfully. "Indeed, we were close once. As a father he was to me, and I like a son to him. I was with him when the chanting began among the soldiers, for they had just had news that Emperor Gaius had been slain and the throne auctioned to the highest bidder. There was outrage throughout the army, and cries to avenge the murder. It began among one company on the outskirts of the camp, and within minutes the entire army was roused, and thousands of men were shouting, 'Hail Sartorius, emperor!' Banging on their shields, with the trumpeters playing loudly, they crowded outside his tent, shouting his name again and again. I can hear it as though it was yesterday.”
The general looked up, he glistening eyes catching those of the younger officer. "Inside he stood, the tent flaps closed and, though at first he pretended not to hear, soon it became quite impossible to ignore. There were but four of us - Sartorius; Veska, his secretary; Columnus, another officer, who was later slain on the Eastern Marches; and myself."
Calorus was staring directly at Crispus, but there were ghosts before his eyes as he continued, his voice gentle. "I was but a junior officer, of the same rank you now hold, but Sartorius had taken a liking to me, and had become my mentor. Many times we would speak, for both of us were from Karelia, where there is naught but the raising of horses for those who stay close to home. One night, after several flagons of wine, he told me how he had become a soldier. 'I couldn't bear the thought of shoveling horseshit my whole life, Marcus,' he said to me, 'so when the buying agent for the Silver Shields came to purchase horses, I followed him back to their chapter house.' Alas, Sartorius, as I, was one of those rare beasts - a Karelian who did not ride well - so the Shields rejected his service. But the training master liked him and thought him of worth, so he was sent with an introduction to the headquarters of the Third Legion to become a foot soldier. Thus began his rise."
"When I arrived in camp, having left home for reasons not unlike his, I had no introduction, nor any fighting experience. The training master refused me and told me to bother him no more. Three times did I return, and three times he sent me away, the last with a harsh beating, for I had wasted much of his time. But Sartorius had been watching. He was then commander of the Third, and he was amused by my persistence. He brought me to one of his own decurions and ordered the man to train me. 'I shall make you a soldier,' he said, 'if you have inside what it takes, and if not, then you shall be my valet.' I had no idea what a valet was, so lest I end up in some terrible position I put all I had into the training."
Calorus stopped for a moment, as if willing himself from a dream. He laughed softly, then looked again at Crispus, eyes clear and back in the present. "Do you know what Sartorius Magnus said to the three of us in that tent, before he parted the flaps and walked into his destiny? He said, 'I fear, my friends, that I will not avoid this great fate, which is like to heap glory and riches on my shoulders, yet in the end shall destroy me.' With that, he sighed once, glanced at me for a moment, as a friend beseeching another for help he knows cannot come, and he strode out into the screaming multitudes.
"Like a demigod he looked, raised upon a great shield held aloft by a dozen soldiers, while every man in the army shouted his name. But I saw his face, and I knew that visage well. On it I saw despair and, for the first time, fear. Sartorius did not wish to become emperor, and in the end his misgivings were profound. It did destroy him, or at least all that made him what he was. Rarely did he leave the city after he took the diadem, though ever before he had craved the open spaces and clear skies above him. Less and less did he seek council from those he had trusted before, those who had bled with him in battle. Colder and more aloof he became toward old friends. The courtiers and politicians, they are as the undead, draining the soul from any who stray within their grasp. Longer than most did Sartorius resist the rot, but in the end he too was consumed.”
Calorus’ voice was soft, tinged with sadness. “Where he had been patient, Sartorius became arrogant. Where he had been merciful, he became harsh, even cruel. In the beginning he surrounded himself with true confidantes and advisors, but as the years passed he replaced them with sycophants and favorites. Five years it has been since I have seen him, and I tell you truly, Crispus, we did not part well. My old friend, my mentor, was gone, replaced by the stranger who sat on the throne. He was angered that I disagreed with him, where before he would have listened to my reasons and valued my judgment. When I left he told me not to return to Elyssia until he called for me. That summons never came. Now it never shall. Indeed, the prefecture would have been mine these past three years, but such is Sartorius' vindictiveness now, that he denies me the honor of the title yet burdens me with the duties. Have you never wondered why such a post remains vacant for so long?"
The young officer stared blankly for a moment, for the general had shared much with him, and he needed to consider what he’d been told. Calorus stared wistfully off to the side, lost again in old dreams, his fingers playing absent-mindedly with the hilt of his sword. Finally, Crispus spoke, his voice grim. "General, much have you told me, and I begin to understand your doubts. Yet still I am troubled. For if a great man such as Sartorius was corrupted by the diadem, what of all the lesser men, already vain and cruel, who would seize power given the chance? If you do not take the purple, then what creature is there lurking in Elyssia who will?"
Paradisio was the most expensive brothel in Elyssia, indeed, perhaps in the world. Through its unmarked double doors on the Venta Imperia, most of the city's elite walked at one time or another. On the top level of the multi-tiered white marble structure, amid the lush and fragrant hanging gardens, the ladies gathered together. They rested in the afternoon sun, talking about the only topic anyone was discussing in Elyssia, the succession. In the baths and on silk-covered lounges they reclined as the servants prepared them for the evening's clients. There are those whose tastes run to men and boys, and there were many establishments catering to such clientele, but it is women that Paradisio offered, the best in the world. The ladies of Paradisio were slaves, gathered from exotic locales as young girls and trained many years in the arts of pleasure. Though bonded to the house, they were pampered and well-treated, for they were extremely valuable.
The serenity was soon shattered, for the major domo walked out onto the terrace and announced that Bechalus Tersius and his entourage were downstairs demanding women. Normally, clients of such wealth and stature would be welcomed by the ladies of Paradisio, but not Bechalus Tersius. He was a brute, and his pleasure came from hurting the women he bedded. It was rumored that once he had even killed a girl at another establishment. Such conduct was not tolerated at Paradisio, but Bechalus' family was the wealthiest in the empire, and its influence reached the highest places. When Bechalus was barred from Paradisio, a parchment came the next day under imperial seal, urging that the ban be lifted. One did not refuse a request from the emperor, so now when Bechalus called, his requests were honored. The women accepted the inevitability, but they dreaded his visits nonetheless.
Of late, Bechalus had fixed his attentions on Lys, a slight young red-haired girl recently arrived from the Jade Coast. When she heard the major domo she burst into tears and ran to Calishah, who watched over her as she did all of the girls. Lys knew that Bechalus would ask for her, and when he had her, she knew he would hurt her.
Calishah was the most sought-after woman at Paradisio, which made her the most wanted courtesan in the world. Tall, with long black hair and brown eyes, she was beautiful, though no more so than any of the women of Paradisio. She had a presence, however, that was beyond the others, and none, it was said, could resist her charms. Great lords and merchant princes had offered immense treasures for her, but she would have none of them. For though a slave, Calishah bedded whomever she chose and did as she pleased. No girl at Paradisio had ever matched the amount of gold she brought in, nor the influence she could wield with a few soft whispers in the right ear. With her exalted status came much privilege, and with it she also accepted the responsibility to mentor and protect the other women.
"Shhh." Calishah whispered softly as she gently stroked Lys' hair. "Do not fear, for I shall handle Bechalus. I will not let him hurt you."
"How can you stop him?" The younger woman was distraught, sniffling tearfully as she spoke. "You know we cannot turn Bechalus away."
"Leave that to me. You remain here, and do not come down for any reason."
Calishah walked to the stairs, motioning for the other girls to follow. She moved with such grace she seemed to glide across the polished marble floors and float down the broad staircase, the rest of the women following behind.
Her silken gown clung to her provocatively and exposed just the right amount of her perfect, pale skin. She smelled faintly of lavender, and her dark mane was styled into loose, twisted braids, fastened with a series of silver clasps.
Bechalus may have his mind set on Lys, she thought, but she was confident that he would forget his recent favorite for Paradisio's legendary courtesan. Always before, she had refused him, for even requests from the palace did not compel Calishah. Indeed, though it was known to few, she had shared the imperial bedchamber more than once.
Bechalus Tersius was standing in the foyer waiting impatiently. He was tall and broadly built, though his once athletic physique had gone to fat in recent years. His dark eyes were sunk deep into his cruel face, and his brown hair was cropped short in a manner that had been stylish five years before. He was clad in the white robes of a Lord of the Conclave, and wore a red sash designating him as one of the Speakers. With him were three other Lords of the Conclave and two senior generals, as well as a fleet commander and a stooped over little man wearing a dark hooded robe. An uncommon gathering, Calishah mused, but she thought no more of it.
"Where is Lys?" Bechalus' voice was harsh and demanding.
"Bechalus Terisus…" Calishah purred seductively, walking up to him, placing her hand gently on his neck. "Lys is ill. But I think it is past time for us to enjoy each other, do you not think agree?
His mind had been set on Lys. She was easily frightened, and he enjoyed intimidating her. But it is said that no man could resist Calishah's seduction, and so it was with Bechalus. Indeed, it had been a day of great accomplishments, and he could think of no better way to celebrate them than to finally bed the famous first lady of Paradisio.
She knew his history, but she was also confident that he would not hurt her, at least not too badly. No man raised his hand to Calishah, for among her devoted lovers were generals who commanded 10,000 troops and shadowy spymasters who directed a hundred knives in the dark.
She took his rough pudgy hand in hers and led him back to her chamber as his companions made their selections. She was right. He did not hurt her too badly.