The high grasses of the prairie thinned after he passed the final milestone. They grew shorter, sparser, before fading into cracked soil and dust. The desert began where the eroded stones of the road ended, and with them, the Empire that had been his.
Forty-five days ago, before dawn, he slipped through a false panel in his private library. In the dark and narrow passageway, he removed his silk robe and jeweled slippers. He donned the tunic, boots, saber, and cloak of an imperial herald and took up his pack. From the corridor, into a musty cellar, through a trapdoor, down rusted rungs into the sewers. He emerged near the Philosophers’ Arcade as the merchants were setting out their wares and exchanged a letter of credit, sealed with his own signet, signed by his own hand, for a young black mare and one-hundred coins bearing his grandfather’s countenance. Minutes later, he spurred the horse through the Diamond Gate, into the crystalline light of the rising sun, her hooves and his heart pounding with an anthem fierce and wild.
He left the Wreath of Empire on the cool marble of his reading desk, its gilded leaves resting on his simple letter: I hereby abdicate the True Throne and all honors, privileges, and possessions implicit in my birthright. I do this willfully and freely, without coercion, influence, or remorse. Do not seek me. Brynthia endures.
They sought him, of course. His archmages would have peered into their basins and burning crucibles and realized he still wore the black glass band of his veiling ring. Heralds, outriders, cavalry and mercenaries swarmed the roads and countryside. But he changed clothes and horses and traveled swiftly. Nineteen days ago, he crossed paths with an outrider near a ford and took time to study a charcoal sketch of his former self, which bore only a slight resemblance to the tanned and bearded traveler who now carried a minstrel’s harp, wore a leather eye-patch, and spoke with the lisping accent of the easternmost provinces.
Before galloping away, the outrider shared news that Emilian’s cousin, Karel, had been confirmed as his successor, though the coronation would await the summer solstice. Karel was a handsome youth, clever enough, and fond of attention and ceremony. He would suffice.
He would suffice and undoubtedly spend his days as Emilian had chosen not to.
* * *
He stands on the most distant stone of the Empire, and once again, he must choose. He has set free his last horse, but it is not too late to turn around, to return to the imperial city before the solstice and reclaim the Wreath. I had a vision, he could tell his counselors and subjects, in which seven cloaked servants of the Gods bid me leave the Throne and journey into the Cloudless Sea, to lay down my life for Brynthia’s lasting prosperity. But at the desert’s edge, for my obedience, they halted me and bade me return …
Most would believe this—none would dare deny it — and he could live out his days as the most powerful of men, celebrated perhaps as ‘The Blessed’ or ‘The Magnificent.’ He could wed Lady Marindel, or sun-haired Lady Llian, have children and the opportunity to raise them in such a way that they would never see him as an impediment to the Throne. The Empire will not fade in his lifetime — however long — or the lifetime of his children, who may never be.
But he stares at the sand-worn stones beneath his boots and knows this: the Empire can become no brighter. His grandfather and father assured this. It can only fade — even as the Empire of Nuros, which the desert before him drowned long ago. Yet its ruins must still exist, and perhaps within them its vaults and libraries. And if the legends hold any truth, beyond the desert lies the Perilous Lake and the Isles of Dawn. He has a river flask on his hip, one of Archmage Kobrin’s masterworks; if he dies, it will not be of thirst.
And if he dies, perhaps he never deserved the Wreath of Empire and a life of unsurpassed power and ease. The wind gusts, rippling his cloak, and sand stings his cheek. A life you still have, a voice whispers in his mind. It is not too late.
The voice of a God’s servant, or the voice of fear? He closes his eyes and faces the desert, then the Empire, then the blazing sun.
Author’s note: I began with an image of a rider at the end of an ancient road and worked from there.
Now, for a chance to win a copy of Changes by Jim Butcher: The name of the empire (Brynthia) in the above tale is the name of one of the 4 kingdoms in a board game I loved playing years ago. For a chance to win Changes, please give us the name of one of the other 3 kingdoms from that game OR leave a comment about the Heroes series. Cheers, RR