The imperial courier struggled to stay on his feet as he slid from the saddle. Three long days he’d been on the road from Hyroth to the Crystal City, capital of the Empire. The horse next to him, covered in streaks of white lather from its extended exertion, was near collapse as well. It was the sixth and final remount of the string with which he’d started.
The order given had been clear: deliver the message of Baron Norak’s death and the defeat of the imperial army at the hands of the rebels with all possible haste. The order was included in the message he carried, and he knew his life depended on his carrying it out to the best of his ability.
Two imperial guards stared at him as if he would turn into some sort of assassin on the spot. Compared to his dust-covered and sweat-streaked uniform, their gleaming, polished armor fairly blinded him, reflecting the noonday sun high overhead.
A door opened at the far side of the courtyard. The courier struggled as he straightened to attention, pulling his shoulders back and erect despite his exhaustion. A purple-robed man in gold slippers and a polished silver skullcap emerged and strode across the yard until he stood opposite the courier, scanning his dirty uniform and bedraggled appearance with apparent disgust.
“Well, out with it,” the robed man ordered.
“I was told the message was for the Emperor’s ears only, uh, sir, uh, my lord.” The robed man wasn’t an officer, and the courier struggled for an appropriate mode of address.
“If the message is bad news, you do not want to be present when it is delivered to His Imperial Majesty. Hand it over, and I will take it in with the afternoon dispatches.”
The courier struggled to work up enough spit to moisten his lips and keep talking.
“By your leave, my lord, I have my orders. I was told to ride by the fastest route to deliver this message to the Emperor. I rode five mounts to death, and I fear this one will not carry a rider ever again. I must deliver this to the Emperor directly.”
“Well, it’s your funeral. You’ve been warned. The Emperor doesn’t care for his luncheon to be interrupted. If the news you are carrying is sufficiently upsetting — let’s just say, the Emperor has been known to literally kill the messenger.”
The robed man turned and waved a hand over his shoulder, beckoning to the courier to follow behind him. Shifting the strap of the shoulder bag that carried the written message, the exhausted imperial courier quickstepped forward to catch up and fell in a few steps behind the robed functionary.
The courier tried not to stare wide-eyed at the palace as the man led him through the marble-floored halls, past rooms hung with brightly-colored tapestries and paintings. Every servant and petitioner he passed in his journey through the grand building stared at him. He felt self-conscious due to the unwanted attention and pulled at his wrinkled and stained uniform, trying to brush some of the dust away.
The robed man stopped at a pair of double doors, painted in bright colors of red and gold, the imperial seal prominently displayed in the panels of both doors.
“This is your last chance, soldier. Hand over the message, and I’ll see you get a bath and ample reward for your service to His Majesty.”
Gulping his doubts down, the courier shook his head without saying anything. He didn’t trust his voice.
“Very well,” the other man sighed. “When you approach the Emperor, keep your eyes on the floor and don’t look him in the eye. As you reach the dais, bow and drop to one knee. Remain there until he acknowledges you. Only then may you stand and deliver your message. After you’ve handed it to him, step back to your original place and return to one knee while he reads it. If he dismisses you, remain facing him as you back away to the doors and into the hallway before turning around. Understood?”
The courier nodded.
The purple-robed man stepped forward and pushed open the double doors, revealing a room more massive than any the courier had ever seen before. The high ceilings rose upward to buttressed arches high above, and the walls stretched outward to either side before him in a broad square. The ornate floor featured marble slabs inlaid with mosaics of gold and silver, depicting scenes of people engaged in everything from sports to outright debauchery.
Wrenching himself back to the task at hand, he quickstepped to catch up again and followed the man in the robe to a raised dais at the center of the room. A large, round form reclined on a divan on top of the dais with several scantily clad women in diaphanous white and gold silks standing around him. One plucked grapes from a bunch held by another and placed them one at a time in the man’s mouth.
Realizing he was staring at the Emperor himself as he approached, the courier wrenched his gaze down to the floor and raised his eyes only enough so he could see the heels of the man leading him up to the dais. When the robed man stopped, the courier halted and dropped to his knees, his eyes glued to the floor in front of him.
“What is it, Decimus? You know I do not like to be bothered this time of the day.”
“I’m sorry, Your Majesty. This courier just arrived from the west and insisted his message is for you only. I tried to dissuade him and hold the missive for the afternoon affairs, but he was adamant.”
“Adamant, was he? He’s either a fool or a dedicated soldier. He’s certainly dirty enough. You could’ve at least cleaned him up a little.”
“He said it was urgent, Your Majesty.”
“Well then, let’s have it. Step forward, man. I will be the judge if this message is important enough to interrupt my lunch.”
The courier stood, his knees shaking so bad, he was afraid he’d fall over as soon as he put weight on them. Trying to step with confidence, he advanced to the edge of the dais and mounted the first step, eyes on the floor while he pulled out the sealed message. He extended it toward the Emperor. A pasty white hand snatched the letter from him, and he retreated until he’d returned to his original position and dropped back to his knees.
The crackling of paper announced the breaking of the seal and the opening of the letter from the Warden of Hyroth.
“Courier, do you know what is in this message?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Every imperial courier knew to commit messages to memory in case the original message was destroyed or damaged during delivery.
“Is it true? Has Baron Norak been killed and his army routed?”
“I’m afraid so, Your Majesty. I was likely the last courier to leave Hyroth before the city was fully besieged by the slave army marching on it.”
“I told that fool Norak to be careful. The prophecies were clear that the Opponent would be formidable and not easy to defeat.”
The robed man cleared his throat. “Sire, the Baron could be headstrong, that is certain. He must have underestimated the power of the Opponent. My council of mages and I have felt the power of his gateways once again. It is likely he’s returned whence he came.”
“You’ve put the plans we discussed in action then, Decimus, despite this setback with Baron Norak’s unfortunate demise? You assured me your wizards are up to the challenge.”
“All has been arranged according to your wishes, Sire.”
“Then the Opponent will return to us. This time, he’ll come to me on our terms, where he can be dealt with directly.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” The robed man, who the courier now knew was Decimus, the leader of the Emperor’s mage council, turned to leave. He stopped next to the courier.
“Uh, what should I do with the courier, Your Majesty?”
The courier stiffened. His fate was about to be decided.
“Reward him. He has served us well. Despite the bad news, we know the plan to deal with the Opponent once and for all is set in motion. Hal Dix will be my prisoner, and then I will show him what happens to those who defy me.”