And a final sample chapter, the first from the Markan subplot. The italics in the first part are deliberate!
Marka - Part I
The two boys were sent to the darkened storage room to polish the sword. They carried candle-lanterns and whispered ghost stories to each other, pretending they were too big and old to fear the dark. Being boys, they could hardly resist practicing with the sword, one pretending to attack the other when they finished polishing. When the Imperial Armorer arrived to give the weapon its monthly inspection, he sent the boys on their way, with an empty threat of a cuffing for disrespecting the ancient sword ringing in their ears.
The sword would not have minded being used for its intended purpose once again.
If it had awareness, which of course it did not, the sword would want to taste sweet, fresh blood, as in its distant youth. To be used as a weapon of war, taking lives in its owner's service.
But now, it served as nothing more than a symbol. Of government and administration no less, but still only representing some abstract ideal which had nothing to do with war.
Made from plain steel, its existence began in one of the many forges in Magiere. It could tell a tale of more than seventeen hundred years; it had seen empires rise and empires fall. It had seen yet more lands destroyed and ravaged, or annexed to stronger nations. It knew the euphoria of victory and the bitter taste of defeat.
Lettering, etched into the blade, had been worn to illegibility centuries ago, and the copper inlaid to enhance the etching gone long before that. The sword would miss the copper; though fresh blood had the metallic taste of copper.
Still the sword continued its existence, preserved only because of its illustrious owner, the man who had founded the first successful empire and began the long task of reintroducing civilization to a continent.
Whenever one of the man's descendants died, out came the sword, laid across the new emperor's lap to serve as a symbol and a reminder of what awaited whenever humanity abandoned order for chaos.
The sword had seen it all. Hope, success, victory, failure, loss and defeat. It had seen battles, it had seen hopes dashed. Wherever the Founding Mark had gone, the sword went too, and was used, perhaps too well used, to steal lives and secure victory.
And now, as the Imperial Armorer completed his monthly inspection, the sword was again returned to darkness. It had seen greatness pass and, if it had awareness, which of course it did not, would see greatness return.
But for now, alone in the dark, the Markan Sword waited.
Zenepha stared out of the window across rooftops towards the huge black pyramid that dominated the countryside and dwarfed the city built alongside it. Despite his position of power, he felt troubled.
The Eldovans' siege of Marka had been broken and the enemy forced to return home. The threat from Re Taura had abated, with the old mametain restored, the usurper dead and his army, if not disbanded, at least greatly reduced in size.
Lands bent knee to his rule, submitting once again to Marka's suzerainty, if not her direct authority. The Shadow Riders had returned from their long self-imposed exile and reaffirmed their vows; two gwerins who remembered the last Markan Empire had come home and accepted their collars, with a third almost two years old and already beginning her schooling.
But worries furrowed Zenepha's brow. Despite all his success, he still felt like a pretender, as if living a lie. A sylph, sold as a chattel to Marka's Supreme Councilor... His earpoints twitched. No collar had graced his neck for almost two years and he still missed it. No slave could be an emperor, even a sylph emperor, a caretaker before the genuine ruler stepped forward to take his throne. A human ruler.
He failed to convince himself and squeezed his silver-gray eyes shut. As his previous owner had pointed out to the Senate the day of his manumission, nobody really knew whether Zenepha had been born into slavery or not.
But surely all sylphs were born as property, the cost of their bargain with humanity, security granted in exchange for service, alliance with the more aggressive species, instead of competition and enmity. Then wild sylphs had showed up and given lie to his belief.
Not even he knew his early history. All left to him from his early days, from before, was a vague memory of a gentle touch and a strange tattoo of many black lines that permanently marked the inside of his left biceps. He wanted to believe the touch had come from his mother.
He could not even remember her face.
He felt uncharacteristic anger rise as he considered his stolen memories. Nobody knew the how or why, but he wanted them back more than anything else. He needed answers that he believed to be his right. Did he have a family who missed him? Did his mother still live? Zenepha ached for the knowledge to plug the gaps in his mind.
As emperor, he wanted to command the return of his memories. Still unable to believe it, he whispered the mantra.
"By Siranva’s Wrath: Emperor of Marka, Dominator of the World, Guardian of the Key, Commander of the Shadow Riders, Lord Protector of Gwerins; His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Zenepha."
Opening his eyes, he blinked a couple of times and felt no different. He still lived the lie.
Oh, he understood what had happened and even admired his former owner's cunning. There were many claimants to the throne, but only the two with the strongest claims had been invited to Marka. They met, they fought, and one captured the other. A clear choice.
Except that someone else decided the defeated claimant was now an encumbrance and murdered him, triggering events that led to claims being suspended and an unwilling sylph thrust onto the throne of the most powerful land in the known world.
Trickery had been involved of course, not least of all to himself. His old life had been quite comfortable, with a good owner and a loving wife, but he knew he could never return to that now. Come what may, that old and familiar life existed only in the past.
He missed it.
"I am a sylph," he muttered, as if to remind himself.
That humans had allowed his coronation still amazed him. Had his previous owner planned to make Marka a laughing stock?
But if anybody had ever laughed, it happened quietly and in private.
Had he really wanted to be removed from this unwelcome position, Zenepha knew he should have behaved very differently. But no, he'd played along and trapped himself.
His values and loyalties transferred from his owner to his country. He served Marka with the same diligence as he had Olista. He no longer belonged to one man, but to an entire nation and he made it his duty to serve them.
Then the siege cemented his position.
He had been nothing more than the figurehead. Yet people cheered him in the streets afterwards, soldiers cheered whenever he came close. Everybody pretended that they couldn't see blue skin, or silver hair, or earpoints, or anything else that marked him out as being non-human.
They pretended they had a real human as emperor.
Which they did not, of course.
Sylphs regarded him with awe. They had elevated him to something more than he deserved, treating him almost as a god and all but worshiping the ground he walked on. Wild sylphs, freed by Marcus Vintner, held him up as an example of what sylphs could achieve without human ownership. Civilized sylphs muttered that he was an exception, yet argued among themselves whether or not they should continue wearing collars.
Both groups of sylphs believed he stood with them.
But he did not. The simple truth was that he stood completely, utterly alone.
Despite what people believed, despite what they wanted, it had begun to unravel last year.
His staunchest supporter, Marshal Mikhan, had advised him to guard against Re Taura. Marcus's general had advised him to concentrate on the Eldovans. Zenepha had taken Mikhan's advice which, even if not precisely wrong, had not proved to best serve Marka's interests, and for the reasons Kelanus had so eloquently pointed out.
Everybody now knew that Re Taura really had planned to invade, but Zenepha now understood that island country could never occupy a continent, could never force its way to a land-locked city, take it and, most importantly, hold it.
Those responsible for siting Marka had chosen their ground well.
Until the winter, he had hoped that the senior people from Sandester, from Branad Vintner's lands, actively supported him because they believed his rule was for the best. They had ultimately shown themselves to be self-serving. Recalled to Sandester, all bar Branad's son Verdin, who had proved himself very loyal.
Trouble would come from that province, even if Zenepha had been assured that nothing would happen while he held the throne.
That left Marcus Vintner in Marka. Despite his name, Marcus was barely related to the Sandesteran Vintners, a cousin so many times removed that nobody could say they were even the same family.
Marcus had proved loyal, up to a point, but his hunger for the throne had not lessened one whit. His wife, Zandra, had most of the guilds in her apron and Zenepha knew they continued to campaign for their accession. He had used the Sandester Vintners as a counterweight, but now they had left for home, he stood alone against determined opponents. He realized that the Calcan Vintners waited for him to slip, with no intention of catching him when it happened.
And they were right.
Sold to Marka's citizens as a successful foray instead of a lucky break, the Re Taura business had proved a serious blunder. The Calcan Vintners had carried the day there.
Marcus Vintner's people (though not the man himself, who had cannily refused to commit one way or the other) had warned Zenepha that the Eldovans were the biggest threat. Marcus Vintner's people who defeated and put the Eldovans to flight. And Marcus Vintner's people who had now gone to Eldova to finish the job.
The people might still look to Zenepha because he was the emperor, but High Councilors and Senators alike saw that Marcus Vintner and his contacts decided almost everything now.
Zenepha gave a sylph's slow blink as he stared out of the window.
Only a question of time before Marcus replaced him. Except that Marcus Vintner remained unpopular with the Senate. Strange to think that senators, who had ridiculed the notion of a sylph emperor, were now his only counter against Marcus.
"Good morning, Majesty."
Zenepha turned on his heel and only just managed to stop himself from inclining his head. The creature stood before him was far older and infinitely wiser than he could ever hope for.
"Good morning, Samrita," he replied.
Most people and a few sylphs thought Samrita a human at first glance, until they saw her earpoints and cat-slit pupils of her hazel eyes. Both things showed a sylph connection, though there similarities ended. Zenepha would never understand how sylphs could produce gwerins, throwbacks to some human inheritance everybody had forgotten about.
Or did not want to think about.
Gwerins were also highly intelligent and valued as advisors. He had two.
The second of those gwerins slipped shyly into the room behind Samrita.
Silmarila was not shy, but she instinctively deferred to Samrita, something to do with the older gwerin being more experienced. Samrita had served Emperor Kylist, great-great-grandfather to Emperor Rono. And Rono was centuries dead, buried in the ashes of the second Markan Empire.
Both gwerins curtsied together. It would be the only one he received from them today. He might get called "Majesty" a few times more though. For some reason, the gwerins didn't see him as a sylph, either.
"Nata should be here soon with sweetbread and fresh water," he promised.
Samrita laughed. "We will have plenty to eat, I also sent Nynra to bring the same."
Zenepha smiled. "Let us sit," he suggested.
Their conversation stayed light. Weather, crops, the timber harvest. Small talk, while waiting for their refreshment.
Nata, perhaps thanks to greater experience, arrived first. She set her tray on the table between the three of them, and curtsied.
"Thank you, Nata." Zenepha smiled.
The small infertile's earpoints twitched, she mumbled something barely audible, and fled. Zenepha sighed.
"We were friends once," he said. "On my free day, I always brought her some bread. After becoming emperor, I offered her work here."
The gwerins exchanged a look. "An act of kindness," said Silmarila, who already knew Nata's history.
"I applaud," added Samrita. She cocked her head and all three heard the sound of ankle bells, growing stronger. "Ah! Nynra."
A moment later, the door opened again. Even now, months after her arrival in Marka with the Shadow Riders, Nynra's looks still gave Zenepha pause.
The infertile came from the far north, where sylphs had adapted and changed. Skin so pale it was almost colorless, with only a hint of blue. Eyes and hair were almost white, rather than silver, giving her a somewhat startling appearance to the uninitiated. Many in the palace believed Nynra to be some sort of phantom. The other sylphs - and not just infertiles - regarded her with awe, and even humans showed her more respect than they might to other sylphs.
More importantly, Nynra wore no collar. Both Silmarila and Samrita wore collars, made from red gold and encrusted with precious stones. Nynra had adopted the Markan custom of ankle bells for domestic sylphs, but refused to wear a collar. She hailed from Kelthane, where even infertile sylphs were free.
Yet she served. Both Nynra and Samrita feared that the free could not serve a slave, but nobody had ever questioned their arrangement. Zenepha happily left things as they were; at least one other civilized sylph in Marka did not wear a collar.
Unlike other servants, Nynra showed little obeisance, and Samrita made no move to dismiss her. Now refreshments were served, the gwerins came straight to business.
"Mansard's elevation to Marshal has met with surprising approval," said Silmarila, her dark-brown eyes calm. "With him being Marcus's man, I feared the Senate might not approve."
"Captain Crallin turned it down," said Zenepha. "And Lance-General Kestan has had to take command in the field since Kelanus went west. That narrowed the list of candidates."
"Just so," said Samrita. "And a reward for Mansard after being pushed aside by the Shadow Riders."
Zenepha grimaced. Until the previous autumn, Mansard had commanded the emperor's personal guard. The Shadow Riders' return had rendered that personal guard redundant, and Fared had long since replaced Mansard.
"With all the Sandesterans returned home, we have little choice," he remarked.
"Very true," agreed Samrita. "Trouble lies ahead from Sandester, I fear."
"Indeed." This was the crux of Zenepha's dilemma. He could renounce the throne in Marcus Vintner's favor, but that might spark rebellion in Sandester.
"They might settle for independence," added Silmarila, who had taken time to study Sandester and knew a lot more than Samrita about this subject. "Bringing them back under the eagle will be Marcus's problem."
"But not a good start to his reign," pointed out Samrita, a little testily. "He ascends the throne and is immediately faced with revolt."
"If he has any sense, he'll leave them to it," countered Silmarila. The gwerin had enjoyed several long talks with Kelanus about military tactics and strategy, and eagerly absorbed her lessons. She wanted no repeats of past mistakes. "Whatever Nazvasta decides to do, the rightful heir is loyal to the throne. Verdin is the key to pacifying Sandester. And that will - would - be my advice to Marcus should he ascend the throne."
"The boy." Samrita sounded unsure of Verdin. "Young. Eager. Dangerous."
"All young men are dangerous," retorted Silmarila. "This is why we guide them."
"If they listen."
Silmarila fell silent. She knew the truth of that too well. Despite the passage of centuries, she could not forget the pain.
"Verdin could plunge Sandester into civil war," continued Samrita. "His father renounced the claim and Verdin respects that decision. Nazvasta argues on a technicality that his brother's renunciation does not include him. He is not a descendant."
Silmarila sniffed. "A younger sibling," she said. "An interesting point in law."
"We have no law to cover this eventuality." Samrita's voice was gentle.
Zenepha marveled. Humans would probably come to strong words and shouting matches while disagreeing, but these two gwerins barely raised their voices.
"Other than the law of inheritance." Silmarila smiled.
Zenepha nodded. "But it does not specifically state that younger siblings are descendants," he said. "Only that they can inherit."
Nynra stared at him with her too-white eyes.
Samrita laughed. "I forget that your former owner made you read those books."
Silmarila's smile was at best polite. "Just so. But how can a younger sibling inherit a renounced claim?"
"A very fine point in law," said Samrita.
"But a valid one."
Samrita grimaced. "For it to be valid, we need a judgment first. Trouble is, I doubt if Nazvasta would recognize any ruling from Marka not in his favor."
"Assuming that such a ruling was not," added Zenepha. "A very high-risk strategy to seek one out."
Nynra spoke up. "But why bother? Your Majesty may reign for many years yet."
Everybody stared at the infertile. Even Zenepha had almost forgotten she considered herself free, perfectly at liberty to join in conversations.
The male sylph forced a smile. "Yes," he replied, vaguely, "I may." He tried to avoid the gwerins' combined gaze.
"We certainly hope so," said Silmarila, after a long pause. "But you must remember that our duty is to advise the emperor, whoever that might be."
Zenepha gave her a sylph's slow blink. He hoped he heard no threat in those words.