The Emperor's Servant
by Owen Harrison
An even, masculine voice and black, leather protrusions interrupted the
Emperor's focus. He raised his head to regard the offending man;
handsome jackboots, polished thigh-cuisses, sword belt, bullet-proof
cuirass, and an immaculate closely-trimmed beard, creased only by a
pale scar running from cheekbone to jaw. The grey eyes were impassive
but not insolent. The Emperor blinked to acknowledge the man and
studied the immense ceramic floor-map for another moment, stepping then
from the brightly-coloured surface to his own boots.
"Your pistol." Without the least hesitation, Gregor, head of the
Imperial Guard pulled his left pistol and placed it into the Emperor's
hand. It was beautifully made, a varnished oak stock ending in a
snarling demon-head. The ramrod slid down the barrel easily and tamped
the waiting lead bullet.
"Is the other loaded?" The soldier nodded and began to reach for his
right pistol, stopping when the Emperor flashed his palm and returned
the man's left weapon to its shoulder-holster. He cocked the hammer
before he released it. The guard did the same on the other and followed
the Emperor from the room, closing both sets of doors and locking them.
The Emperor was sitting on a simple curule seat with a few officers
and advisors attending below as Gregor reached the throne-room doors.
The veteran made a gesture and the two Guards there cocked their
pistols, waiting a moment for a dozen of the others to do the same, and
they turned to pull the heavy doors wide. As these were the Hours of
War, the Harbinger of the Court did not announce either the titles of
the Emperor or those of the intruder. Nevertheless, the Emperor
recognized him immediately.
Lord Peter Ashling stepped into the Throne Hall, Gregor falling in
behind him, and strode its length as with the assurance of a man who
belonged there. Where others would stare at the statuesque Guard at
each alcove or at the stunning ceiling above, Lord Ashling looked at
the Emperor without break, and broke into a toothy white smile half-way
down. The Emperor responded with his customary toothless smile (a
smirk, his wife always teased) and an extended fist as both men met at
the bottom of the dais. Ashling knelt and kissed the ring; the Emperor
clapped the aristocrat's right shoulder affectionately and restored the
young man to his feet.
Ashling was a truly charismatic creature. His hair was blonde,
pulled tight over his scalp and braided down his neck, but his skin was
a slight tan. That exotic clash was only improved by large blue eyes
set wide and a lyrical voice with husky undertones.
"Your majesty is too gracious to receive this servant, truly."
"You know that's untrue, Peter. Tell me, though, how will you have this friend serve the realm?"
"Tell you how to serve the realm? Majesty, such a treasonous thought
could not enter this servant's head." The Emperor remained silent for a
moment with a paternal smile.
"And yet, Lord Ashling, you are here. Let's have it."
"Ah, majesty, the burdens of our dear Empire; I dare not add to them..."
"Come now, Peter, you know I'm as patient as I am miserly." Ashling
chuckled at that and let his features become an affected concern.
"Majesty, doubtless you've heard of the betrayal we all suffered
this last few days. That of Colonel Hastings?" The Emperor had not, but
he gave no indication thereby. It was more prudent to remain vague when
it came to the capabilities of the Empire's spies. But the young
"He... has deserted with the better part of my light cavalry. The
Eighth Hussars and the Third Chasseurs a Cheval, from Mathsa. My own
scouts followed them as far as the River Pris, where the bastards
forded and continued southeast. No doubt the cowards fear to treat with
me in the field. And well they should; with the royal approval I shall
root them out, every last one."
"After the siege, you mean to say?"
"Of course majesty, I've misspoken. I mean to say that, after
Marcheunant has fallen, I should like to take my cavalry and deliver
Hastings, not the justice that he wants, but the justice he deserves."
"Well said, Peter. And you require more men, obviously. But instead
of coming to me, why not ask the Minister for War in person, when
you've joined your army to his at Marcheunant?"
"Certainly, I have no doubt that Lord Burmingham will grant me even
more men than I require to destroy these traitors, and yet..."
"You fear that Colonel Hastings will return and attack your rearguard before ever you reach Marcheunant."
"Yes, majesty. Your mind is a wonder." Ashling's toothy grin
returned, subsiding when a loud voice broke in from the Emperor's left.
"Why has Hastings turned traitor? Did he abandon his Empire or his
commander?" Edward DuPont, Rear Admiral of the Blue, was a big,
bull-headed man, famous for his brusque manner and savagery at sea. His
distaste for the "girlish" aristocrat was evident at first
introduction, and now too, by way of ill-concealed sneer. The other men
around the throne looked on.
"Both, my dear sir. And you more than most should know that treason
comes easily to Mathsaens." DuPont's face twisted in rage (he was
Mathsa-born), and his beefy hands clenched for want of strangling, but
Ashling only smirked and turned back to the Emperor's furrowed brow.
"When you insult a friend, Peter, you insult me."
"I beg forgiveness, your Majesty."
"Colonel Hastings was raised to his rank before I was appointed to
command in his Majesty's army, and nothing... untoward struck me in his
roster or his person. Intelligent, yes, and ambitious, perhaps to a
fault, but never insubordinate for all that. It wasn't till I reached
the capital that I discovered he had a bastard brother I had executed
last winter for dereliction of duty. " The Emperor blinked.
"As for the cavalry, your Majesty may recall that we raised those
two regiments in Mathsa. It so happens that many of the officers came
from the excellent equine families on the western border, and that part
or the whole of their families have fallen on the side of the
Rebellion. Having killed me, or failed trying, it seems to me that
Hastings will attempt to join the garrison at Marcheunant and help
repel our Minister when he arrives. Or perhaps cross the Range westward
and ambush the man as he marches."
Andrew Weaving was a small, portly man with a disarmingly congenial
exterior. He was acting Minister for Intelligence while Lord Houston
recovered from pneumonia.
"Unlikely, my lord. At last measurement there was not less than three feet of snow in the mountain passes."
"As you say, sir." Ashling clasped his hands behind his back and
waited for the Emperor's response. It was long coming. The Emperor
climbed the throne-dais slowly, looking out the throne-room's famous
windows into the courtyard orchard below, and finally settled into the
curule's purple cushion.
"Why are you here?"
"Ah... Majesty, might you rephrase?"
"Why are you here? Why not send a messenger and continue your march?"
"Yes, well. We sighted men from the Eighth on the road, so a
messenger wouldn't have survived ten miles. Sending a larger force
south to batter through them might have worked for a time, but Hastings
would've simply given chase with one regiment or both and destroyed it."
"And yet you are here, my lord. How is that?" Weaving's voice was cordial, even melodious.
"Well, your Majesty may recall my uncle's hunting lodge on Dionysius. I believe you summered there once in youth."
"I know that country like the back of my hand, if I may so boast;
whereas my remaining cavalry and my enemies do not, save for Hastings
perhaps. So I encamped the army in the town of Quickriver Downs with
instructions to remain fortified there till my return, and took my
cavalry down Pris Road south and up some trails I know through the
Range. I don't think Hastings reached Pris Road before we left it; no
one challenged us. We came out via my uncle's lodge and rode hard for
the capital. And so here we are." Here again he clasped hands behind
hips and waited on the Emperor. The response was quicker this time.
"Gregor, how are you and your men on horses?"
"The best, sire."
"Excellent. Captain Ebele, you have three hundred dragoons in the
capital, do you not?" The taciturn Far-Southerner inclined his perfect
"And how many then besides in the City Guard?"
"Nine hundred, your majesty."
"Fine. You will have those dragoons ready for the journey north in
two hours, at the Nigh-Noten gate. Gregor, join him with the Imperial
"Yes, sir," they both replied. The Emperor smiled. At last their military habits overrode their courtly ones.
"Your majesty," Weaving piped in, "ought we send the Imperial Guard
away and leave the Citadel defenseless, and reduce the City Watch by so
"Our armies are in the field, Mr. Weaving. Peter asks for help, so I must answer with what I can."
"Your majesty's generosity is overwhelming. You are a true friend to
this servant." Ashling knelt and kissed again the Emperor's ring,
apparently ignorant of the tension amongst the Regentsmen.
"Ah, Peter. Just bring my soldiers back alive and that shall be
thanks enough. And by no means permit Gregor or Captain Ebele from your
sight; by good reason these men are known in the city." The tense
atmosphere relaxed, laughter running around the small group. Even Ebele
showed his teeth, though as always it was difficult to say he wasn't
"But Mr. Weaving has a point. Our enemies are in the North, but we
must still have boots here. Captain Ebele, have half your city garrison
move to our quarters here; my stewards will find room and food for
them." The soldier again inclined his bald head, and saluted. Gregor
followed suit and they both retreated, Gregor through the Map Hall and
Ebele the throne-room doors.
"Peter, bring me victory at Marcheunant, and the heads of these traitors."
"Yes, your majesty. I shall repay your favours in full." Ashling
kissed the ring one final time and stood, spreading his crimson cloak
wide with a flourish and walking from the Hall in the same manner he'd
entered it. Before the doors closed, the Emperor could see the outer
guards giving him back his sword and pistol. A silence followed the
wooden impact, disturbed only by a chorus of metallic rasping clicks as
the Guards eased their pistol-hammers.
"Come now. You are the Regentsmen, you must offer me your worst." Weaving answered him first.
"Jonathan, you trust that man too much. We all think this. Do not
cripple our defences so this man can go off chasing sprites in the
Rear Admiral DuPont was more blunt (to be expected, given his
history). "You're a fool to trust him at all. Men like that deserve a
well-made knot and some hungry dogs."
'Jonathan' Diego Escala, sole ruler of the Iridian Empire, appointed
for life and occasionally melancholic for the glory of his youth, fixed
the Regentsmen with a cold look. Then, he smiled widely. The advisors
felt their hair stand on edge, and Mr. Weaving in particular could not
disguise his unease.
"Gentlemen, you have just witnessed the first battle of a civil war
that may well destroy our beloved empire." There was an aghast,
grasping silence as each man looked at the throne-room doors and
desperately trampled through their memories of the morning's events.
Weaving was the first; his drawn countenance gradually disappeared
until finally he looked out to the orchard too. Lord Ashling was
mounted on a stupendous white stallion, trotting out between the trees
ahead a column of his gloriously attired mounted bodyguards, sixty-four
all. He threw a friendly salute to the windows above him, but only Don
Escala waved back, still smiling.
"And who won?"
"Me, of course, Edward sir. But Peter did admirably." The Emperor closed his eyes.
"Gentlemen. Gather your households to horse. Take nothing with you
but the clothes on your back. We shall meet at Southhampton Square once
Peter has cleared the city. Mr. Weaving, rouse my family to the same
and send in that damnable Wargsbane. We have some letters to write. Oh,
and Mr. Weaving: make the City Watch disappear." The other man grinned.
"Yes, majesty. I think I know someone for that." The Throne Hall emptied.
The Emperor remained, still smiling, enjoying the afternoon sun in
the Western sky. Peter had cultivated an indifferent expression, but
his eyes had darkened with triumph nonetheless as the Watch was divided
and the Guard surrendered. Only an aristocrat, only a young
aristocrat, the Emperor thought. But a part of him admired Peter's
arrogance; he himself had always tried to emulate it when he himself
was a young man.
"Thank God I failed."
The lad would have to be executed. He felt his smile disappear, and
opened his eyes. The orchard was in a fine bloom. The architect had
cursed him to his face when he asked for it. It's a star fortress, he
"Do you want cannons or apple trees?"
The damnable Wargsbane entered the Hall, limping along in a
perfectly ridiculous manner with calligraphy materials under his arms.
* * *
Come the evening, Gregor wondered if he hadn't exaggerated his
cavalry prowess to the Emperor. The aches in his joints and his chaffed
thighs faded, however, when he crested a snowy ridge and looked at the
sunset; a brilliant orange radiance that invested the western
plains-fog with flushed amber and made it glitter through the
snowflakes like a vast golden sea. Over his head the fiery sky gave way
to a profound blue, which itself became a starlit shroud ahead of the
column. Gregor could occasionally see Ashling's albino fur-trimmings
outlining his spotless crimson cloak and hear his laughter; between
them were the young man's bodyguard, attired identical to their
commander save that the cloaks were pure-black and the fur collars grey
speckled with white. They looked uncomfortable even so, having forgone
the use of their hoods out of pride. Gregor tolerated no such vanity in
his own men, who were arrayed behind him three abreast, helmets
insulated with uhlan-caps and armour hidden by simple grey wool.
Captain Ebele's dragoons were dressed with the same sense of utility,
so much so that Gregor could not distinguish the officers or even Ebele
himself from the rank.
"Sirs! We are nearing the lodge! Half-a-mile ahead." A freckled boy
cantered by, one of Ebele's outriders. One of Lord Ashling's Own was
next, trotting about neatly to ride flankwise with Gregor.
"Greetings, sir Gregor. Lord Ashling would like to extend use of the
lodge to you and your officers. It's eighty rooms and comfortable." He
was young as well, but built tall and broad.
"Tell Lord Ashling that I am grateful, but I'll be staying with the
men tonight." The whelp threw an as-you-wish in his direction and cast
a contemptuous look at the Guard before falling back to speak with
Captain Ebele. Gregor knew the Southerner's answer would be the same;
they'd both received emphatic instructions to remain with their men and
open their orders in the company of the other. The sealed letter rode
hot in his pocket, and his apprehension at the contents had ridden with
him through the long afternoon.
The stables were a tremendous sprawling affair on the forested
plateau below the lodge. It boasted room enough for the whole
contingent's horses and more. Gregor still found himself surprised at
the opulence of the lords; of course their sport must be quite as
magnificent as their estates, but then again he'd had little experience
of their estates. Lord Ashling and his men reached it first, so Gregor
called a halt for his men while they waited for the high-born to
dismount, unsaddle their horses and straggle their way to the lodge. He
waited until their laughter had receded entirely before he and Ebele
both led their men into the cavernous gabled space.
The wax was broken under a lamp held high. Their men gathered
'round, faces drawn grotesquely in the flickering light. On the outside
of Gregor's folded paper was a small note that read,
Have young William read this to you.
Ebele knew better than to laugh.
Young William was duly summoned and began to read the letter with a quavering but articulate voice.
You have been given instructions to open this at Sir Flemon's
lodge. Having done so, then: Lord Peter Ashling is a traitor to our
empire. Take him alive and bring him to me at the bridge crossing
before Grighton's Harbour. Do it now and leave tonight; failing that,
Hastings is very likely to meet you on the morrow and help Peter
massacre you all.
Yours, the Most August Emperor of the Iridians,
Governing by Acclaim,
Crowned by God,
Juan Diego Escala
P.S. Regarding Peter's men: kill them all.
© 2013 Owen Harrison
Bio: Owen Harrison is a recent Canadian college graduate who
enjoys reading, writing, flying and the outdoors. He's interested in
fantastic large-scale universes that feature social, political and
military realism along with various theistic elements forming the
E-mail: Owen Harrison
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