Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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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 general continued.

"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."

"Yes. Continue."

"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.

"Lord Ashling."

"Your majesty?"

"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."

"Yes."

"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 mahogany brow.

"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 Guard."

"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 many?"

"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 grimacing.

"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 woods."

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 yelled.

"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.

Dear Gregor,

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.

THE END


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 supernatural backdrop.

E-mail: Owen Harrison

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