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I finally have an announcement about The Default King.

Since I'm really bad at keeping myself on track without deadlines or another form of accountability, I've decided to publish the story serially on Kindle. The plan is to post one section of 3-4 chapters on the first of each month, beginning November 2015 and finishing June 2016. This will give me time to fix formatting and, in the case of later chapters, finish final drafts.

One result of this is that once a section goes on sale, the chapters I've posted here from that section will go private to not compromise my sales. Anything that hasn't been published yet will still be accessible but once it's all up on Kindle, that means no more free rides (unless I make a giveaway promotion).

Here's the preorder link for Volume 1: Kaschar's Quarter.

www.amazon.com/Kaschars-Quarte…

If anyone's still reading my journals or anything I've posted here, thanks for hanging in there and reassuring me when I posted excerpts. This is happening because of the various beta readers over the years who told me I should finish the story. Now you get to see it begin and end.

Thanks.
I will tell you of my first experience with death. I was nine years old, perhaps ten; my paternal grandfather had just passed away. Though the case of death reported to the authorities was old age, I was to learn later that it was due to an over-familiarity with drink and lecher. Needless to say, the priest—having been newly transferred in from Meddelburg—was kept just as ignorant of this circumstance as was the civil magistrate.
After the prescribed mourning period, Timond Sartonné’s body was taken to the chapel for funerary administrations. My family sat in the front pew, though from our position I could not see my grandfather’s body. The service proceeded in much formality, from the lighting of candles as witnesses to the guardians of the abode of the blessed that the departed had not perished in sin—poor guardians they would be indeed if mere candles could shuttle my scoundrel grandfather past their gaze without question!—to the haunting benedictory dirge led by the priest.
As with all ceremonies of the Global Church, it was conducted in High Corastic rather than the “vulgar” tongue of Heilicon. My father, having taken to the classics in his university years, understood snatches of the ritual; these he noted to me in answer to my frequent questions. There was a sort of invocation, as I recall, directed toward the sanctified dead, to watch over the soul of the departed and ensure his safe entry into heaven. I also remember much chanting, though I am sure that few, if even the priest, understood their droning petitions word-for-word. All in all, an overwhelming spectacle, as I’m sure it was intended to be. It would no mean pauper’s grave for Timond Sartonné, who—though he did not merit the service rendered—was certainly not the most depraved individual to receive prayers at Saint Maunde’s.
This would not be last experience with death. Occasionally an aunt, cousin or business partner of my father’s would pass on, though I cannot say that their funerals had much of the same effect on me. From my perspective, all these were but marginal players in the great comedy of my life; one which would surely shuffle forward, act by act, until it had reached its joyous, laudable finale. Even my own mother, who departed this world far before great time, did so with such suddenness that I could hardly realize the import of her death until much later.
That is, until all of it came crashing down. I cannot say that I was ever particularly fascinated with death before that day, given how few my experiences had been, but I honestly could not avoid it. I recognized her face, pale and frozen as it was. I knew they were her clothes, despite the blood and torn fabric. I knew it was her body for all its appearance as a rag doll tossed carelessly down an abandoned flight of stairs. It was her, my Beate, and yet somehow my curiosity at her lifeless frame managed to overcome the soul-wrenching grief I felt; grief that is only known to those whose respective worlds have been destroyed.

- Words of the Emperor in Qepperdan, Matthieu Sartonné, as narrated to his page,
Jarun Hichame

Matthieu awoke to voices he could not at first understand. They surrounded him, some directly above him, others shouting from a distance. In an instant, there was a hand on his shoulder. More voices followed. All these things blended together in the delirium of shock and weariness to immobilize him entirely. He felt himself being rolled onto his back, until he stared directly up into a blinding sun. A handful of man-shadows danced before his eyes in the sunlight, speaking to him as if through a blanket around his head.
Soon enough, he could pick out words.
“Wot's 'e doin' 'ere in the muck?” said one.
“Looks right well-to-do, this'un does,” said another. A third man spoke from behind these two as he pushed his way forward.
“What 'ave we 'ere, a dandy from the city? Wot we doin' with 'im?”
“I say we bleed 'im right 'ere in the street.”
“I say you drop that pitchfork, Bernard,” said a fourth man, “or you will have no share in the spoils to come.”
“But Jan,” the second man protested.
“No,” replied the fourth man. “He may come in useful. Now pull him up out of that filth.” Bernard did, holding Matthieu under the armpits; he felt as heavy as a bundle of velvet.
“Greetings, sir,” said the fourth man. “My name is Jan Hassebeck, and I am leader of this company. And who might you be?”
Bernard released Matthieu so he could greet Jan, but as soon as he stepped forward the strength left his legs entirely and he collapsed again back onto the muddy road.
When he came to yet again, he found that Hassebeck's men had put him astride a horse when it was clear he could no longer walk. It was a speckled plow mare, not a war horse, and these were no soldiers, though they marched around two-hundred strong. They were farmers, down from the northern mountains where they had presumably hidden from the Mentite hoard.
His head still reeled from the heat when he finally spoke to Hassebeck.
“What do you want with me?” he pleaded. “Why take me back if everyone is dead?”
“Are they, now?” the man replied. “Well, that will certainly make this endeavor of ours much easier.”
“What do you mean?”
“The recovery of our prize would be much more difficult if the previous owners were still alive.”
“Then... You are robbers?”
“No, not exactly. We are not robbing but returning. Specifically, returning the spoils to those whose sweat purchased them. How many sovereigns in gold did the wheat merchants pile up while those who grew that wheat languished on gruel and dandelions? How many?!” Matthieu was silent. “Too many, I say. And how many textile vendors strolled the avenues in the finest brocades and scarlets while those who raised their sheep shivered and froze in rags? For too long have the masses been eaten alive to sustain a class that knows neither hardship nor labor. Let their soldiers kill each other; I care not for titles or borders, only the longest-held desire of man: equality. We learn from scripture that the proud and the rich shall be made low before the end. I tell you, that time is now upon us!”
Even if he had been capable of carrying on a conversation with Hassebeck, Matthieu had no desire to do so. A plunderer, nothing more, ready to pick over the bodies of his fellows for the scantest trace of gold or fine cloth. He distrusted him instinctively.
After several minutes of marching on in silence, Hassebeck and his men had brought Matthieu to the sprawled gates of the city. Once there, groups of men started branching off down the side streets and alleyways, picking their way delicately over corpses and not-yet-congealed pools of blood. Jan Hassebeck remained behind with Matthieu and a handful of particularly burly men who circled the pair just out of earshot.
“Tell us where else we must look for the treasures we seek,” said Hassebeck, “and you may yet live to see another sunset.” By this time, Matthieu had recovered enough to converse with the man.
“You should not need me to tell a hovel from a mansion,” Matthieu retorted contemptuously.
“I know you greedy wretches, always finding more unlikely places to covert your spoils. You must know of something: a cellar, a barn, perhaps an attic where a secret cache lies hidden.”
“Who are you?” asked Matthieu, changing the subject. “You are no farmer yourself, else you would not speak as one educated.”
“I do not have to be one of them to sympathize with their plight. After all, we humans all come from the same dust. Far be it from me to distance myself from another man simply because he is closer to that dust than I.”
“Then you lead these men?”
“I lead them to their goal, yes. Without cohesion, they would surely squat in their shacks as they have done for all these feudal centuries and never know anything different.”
“Then what do you hope to gain by doing this?”
“Why, what other reward could I possibly want than to surround myself with such men as share my vision?”
“You make of yourself a king.”
“In the end, my boy, the worms of the flesh feast upon the mean and mighty alike. I say let them feast! Death is the true leveler of man, for even their gilded trinkets won of my fellows’ toil will now return to those who paid in sweat and blood.”
“Wealth cannot save you in the end. It saved none here and it will not save you.”
“I say your greed is misplaced. The only reason you still live now lies untended in the mansions of the oppressors, ripe for the taking! It is in your best interest that you do only what I say and nothing more. Wouldn't want to end up like this poor wretch here, now would you?” Jan pointed with his foot at the twisted remains of an apron-clad townsman, sprawled on his back to display to the world a wicked gash across his belly.
“I thought as much,” he replied to Matthieu's silence. “Now let us find a suitable dwelling place for such esteemed company as this!” Motioning to his farmer guards, the company moved up the central thoroughfare and towards a formerly wealthy area of the burned-out city.
After more traveling, they came upon the Town Hall and its familiar array of corpses, attending banners and flies shifting in a lazy breeze. A regally vast structure of granite and copper, massive and intricately-carved columns flanked the entryway as a small army of winged grotesqueries stood watch along the roofline. Being granite themselves, there was nothing the weathered gargoyles could do about the filthy intruders invading their domain; they only squatted, silent sentinels to the ruin of their city. Tying their horses outside, Jan's little band entered the building through the charred splinters that had been the front doors.
A vaulted ceiling in a style now two centuries old rose above them like the arc of the firmament itself, and to all but the architecturally trained eye it seemed to be supported just as securely as that heavenly expanse. Just as Saint Maunde's Cathedral had once been before the crusaders' flames had claimed it as well, no columns rose to meet the arches above, which rested upon walls over a hundred feet high. Only a few lonely shafts of light penetrated the darkness inside, as the men customarily employed to open and close the shutters had either perished in the Mentite attack the night before, or had run off like so many others.
“Precisely!” Jan said as his voice echoed magnificently through the towering hall. “As fitting a place as any to organize ourselves, in the very halls where our oppressors used to sit! A fine congress we shall make here indeed.”
There were more dead here, though not as many as outside. It was evident by the broken benches and Mentite colors before them that some sort of barricade had risen and fallen here during the night. There were not so many flies in here but the stench was worse.
Their footsteps seemed to boom across the expansive entryway as Jan led Matthieu and the others to the main council chamber. Dignified portraits up above of mayors and lords past seemed to scowl upon their motley group, but they, like the gargoyles outside, were naught but powerless facsimiles. The burly farmers who followed Matthieu and Hassebeck into the hall seemed dumbstruck by the building’s grandeur, while Hassebeck himself looked upon it all with disdain.
“I was once like these,” he said wistfully. “Until I was cast out of heaven, as it were. It was their pride that kept me from the highest heights of earthly power, and it was my humbling that brought me to these people, simpler and less concerned with the material comforts of city life. How could one live in pursuit of riches when they lack even the food wherewith to eat? And so I came among them with promises of recompense, and now here I am, ready to deliver in full. If only you could understand the import of our actions here!”
“I see only a thief,” Matthieu said, “who cares for his own welfare and none else. With the gold of others, you will buy yourself an army.” Hassebeck laughed heartily.
“An army?” he asked. “Is that all your mind can conceive of? This is not a conquest that I seek for myself, but for them! Let the word of Heilicon’s fall spread out to encompass all of Corastia. All of the world!” Inside the council chamber, a row of carved chairs sat at the top of a dias. Hassebeck ordered his guards to remove all but the one in the center, gilded with a higher back than the others: the seat of Lord Alfonse Mennish Dolheilicon. Whether he had survived the night’s carnage was yet unknown.
“Clear these bodies out,” Jan said, pointing to a group of burly men armed with hoes and scythes. “We will need this place fit to receive guests.”
“Guests?” Matthieu asked. His legs had recovered somewhat by now but he still felt himself limping along after Hassebeck’s longer strides. “Everyone here is dead.”
“Oh, not everyone,” the other man replied. “I know your type, for they are mine as well. No doubt there are still people secreted throughout the city, waiting only for the quiet of nightfall to emerge again. Every cellar has its rats.”
Matthieu wished to be one of those cellar rats again. These men would only use him until he had nothing left to give. If there was a way out, though, he had not yet found it. Either time would show this way to him or else bring about his end at their hands.
“And when we find them,” Jan continued, “they shall be brought here to answer for their crimes. These I have no need to enumerate to you further; only prove yourself useful and you may partake in our new order as well. However, first you must see our efforts come to their fruition.” He turned to the two farmers nearest them, a brute and a wiry older man. “See this young man gets to sleep on something better than mud for a change. There is still much more for him to do.”
A grunt from the larger one summoned Matthieu after them. He struggled to keep up as they made their way down a long corridor. Some of the rooms they opened were empty while others held more dead from the previous night’s battle. Finally they stumbled upon one that held only a few bodies but more importantly for Matthieu, a pile of tapestries. Much softer than mud. Judging by the faded colors and rough forms of the men and beasts that marched across their surfaces, he guessed them to be over a century old.
“Here’s as good a place as any,” the wiry one said as he pushed open the door and guided Matthieu inside. “Mind you don’t wake the others.” Beside the tapestries lay a pair of men, one in the colors of Lemaste and the other in those of Mennish. A stained blade jutted through the former’s back while the latter bore the marks of a studded club across his broken face.
Had Matthieu not faced so much revulsion already, he would have turned at the sight before him. Instead, he merely turned away from them as he laid down on the tapestries, drawing out a dull haze of dust.
Sleep came instantly.
What felt like a moment later, the door slammed inward.
“Wake up,” a voice called. Matthieu did so and looked to the doorway with bleary eyes. It was the wiry man from before. “Jan’s got something for you to see.” His limbs were stiff but his mind felt clearer. He shuffled after the farmer, who did not speak again until they had reached the council chamber.
“Watch,” he said, pointing to Hassebeck. The man had seated himself in the gilded chair of the Lords of Heilicon, but what drew Matthieu’s attention first was the proceedings before the dias. A cluster of people in ragged finery stood under guard while a man and woman of their number faced Hassebeck midway between him and the others.
“You will die like the rest,” the woman said. “There is some foul sickness here. I can only suspect that the Mentites brought it with them.” Some of the farmers started shifting and murmuring to themselves. Hassebeck moved quickly.
“It is only a trick, my good men,” Hassebeck replied. “These wretches will do anything to keep you tight in their grip. Do not be afraid.”
“Ask your men if you think us liars,” the man said. “Send them over to Fish Market if they doubt us and let them see the bodies covered in rashes and sores.”
“I shall do no such thing. For all I know, you have laid some trap for us there. Let your fellows come meet us here on equal terms; a welcome change for this place, I should think.”
“There is no one left, I tell you,” the woman replied. “Everyone the Mentites did not murder in their beds either either died of the fever or fled the city. We are all that remains.”
“That and your treasure, you mean.”
“Is that what this is about? Your city is ash, its people slain and scattered, and all you can think of is gold?”
“No, not all. It is only a means to an end, which you and the rest will provide for us.”
“We will tell you nothing,” the man said.
“Not now,” Hassebeck replied, “but soon. Get these two out of my sight.” He gestured at some of the farmers. “Do whatever is needful.” Strong hands dragged the pair protesting from the room. It was quite a while before their screams finally faded.
“And now we continue,” he said. “Who will tell me what I need to know?” Silence met him; there was defiance in some eyes but most looked on the verge of tears. “No one? Then I shall have my answers from the survivors.” He looked to a hulking man clutching a bloody sword to fine to be his own. “Kill one of them until someone talks.”
The farmer hesitated. “They’ve done me no harm. I jus’ want my gold, that’s all.”
“Oh, but they have,” Hassebeck replied. “They feasted on the fruits of your labor while you shivered in the darkness. Is that not sinful enough?”
“And you are one to condemn us, then?” called a man from the crowd. The proud yellow-and-pink slashes on his doublet told Matthieu this man had been a soldier once, likely decades ago when such a garment had been in fashion. The intervening years had thinned his hair, if not his courage.
“I remember you,” the man said. “Hassebeck is your name. You once-”
“Yes, I did. I once sat here on the town council with other such esteemed gentlemen as Lord Alfonse Mennish and Gerhardt Feine. Tell me: where are they now? Did the noble Lord Alfonse leave you all here to die?”
“He perished with his household guards at the foot of the Victory Tower. A pity I cannot say the same for you.”
“Would that I could die a martyr’s death with one so good as he, but alas; I am left here to execute at least a little justice in this cruel world of ours.”
“This is no justice,” cried another man. “Thievery, more like.”
“You will all scream before the end,” Hassebeck said, rising from his seat with spittle flying from his lips. “And when you do, you will tell me what I need to know! Take them all away.” Only after the defeated nobles had been led away did Hassebeck turn to Matthieu.
“Quite the performance, was it not?” he said, removing a kerchief from his pocket to wipe his mouth. “The theater rises to its feet in wild applause.” Booming steps brought him before Matthieu, his face twisted in a devil’s smile. “Now that you have seen that I am serious, I ask you once more to cooperate.”
Matthieu wished he could ask Hassebeck why. Why separate him from the others? Why even keep him alive when he clearly valued the others’ lives so much less? It occurred to him that the rest must have had some dealings with the man in the past, before his storied fall. He determined that to voice such concerns could mean his death. Instead, he would attempt the man’s game. A trap it was indeed, but he prefered the trap he knew was there to the one he could not anticipate.
“I will give you what you want,” he replied. The look of shock on Hassebeck’s face was genuine.
“Will you now? And what brought about this change? Surely not the threat of punishment similar to these wretches.”
“I gave much thought to your kindness to me, as well as to their greed,” he lied. “What you said is true: it is not fair that one man should starve while another profits. You are right to share the city’s bounties with those who toiled for them.”
“Go on.” Hassebeck’s lust for treasure had taken Matthieu’s hook. Now was his chance to escape.
“I know a place not far from here. He was a competitor of my father’s. I saw his household dead as I passed to the Serpent Gate this morning.”
“How do we know you are telling the truth? Maybe you will just try and escape.”
“Nonsense,” he lied. “I can hardly run away. I have no love for this man, much less his gold.”
“Then go to it. These men will accompany you.” A trio of farmers approached with crude weapons in hand. “I await your return.”
His beloved’s home lay roughly halfway between the farmers’ court in the Town Hall and the Serpent Gate; horseback on the now-empty streets, it would be an easier journey than his first earlier that morning afoot.
The horses were still tied up outside the Town Hall, feeding on bunches of hay evidently scavenged from the ruined market. Matthieu started towards a bony gray mare when a rough hand took him from behind.
“You walk, scum,” the farmer said. “No sense lettin’ you run away.” Matthieu knew better than to respond, even with a look. The most dangerous men were those who had never known power until it was given to them with a blade. Some help those horses will be inside, he thought. He would have to hope that these men were as slow of foot as they were of mind, or else his escape attempt would end just as had those of the men and women in Hassebeck’s tribunal.
Though he felt more rested now than he had this morning, he still shuffled along through the mud as pitifully as he could without giving away his ruse. Arriving at the house would take longer this way; all the more time to conceive of a way to confound his captors and make it out of the city before they could catch him again.
Once inside, he could lose them in the wine cellars and climb over the garden wall. He thought of the stables and Master Kerns’ bay trotter, but he forced that little hope from his mind. Surely, the Mentites had taken the horses with them while the left the city to burn. Only his own strength could save him now; that and his determination not to die at his companions’ hands. If his legs could take him beyond the Falcon Gate and onto the road to Cyrnne, then he might be able to make the trees on the south. From there, he knew little enough about the forest to survive out there for long but it still offered his best chance to escape.
When the steps to Beate’s home came into sight, he only spared a single glance at her body, his eyes drawn one last time to the brilliant stains across the front of her dress. He offered up a silent prayer that the men with him would not mention her.
“Here it is,” he said. As the farmers rode their horses up the steps in search of a place to hitch them, Matthieu knew that now would be the test of his strength.
He ran faster than he had anticipated. One of the men shouted after him but it was too late; he had already made his way into the hall and up a flight of stairs before he heard heavy steps charging after him. Large as it was, the Kerns’ home was known to him as well as his own; they would not be able to find him here even with twice as many men as they had.
The library and its enviable collection fell behind him as he came up short of breath in a small bedroom. Inside, the bed was still made while the closet doors hung open to reveal an empty space. He tip-toed his way inside and lay down beside the bed opposite the door. Angry voices could be heard downstairs, sometimes moving closer but more often than not fading into silence. His heart nearly gave out when he heard one much closer, piteous where the others had been rough.
“Please, do not hurt me…” He knew that voice. His heart leaped within him at its sound: Heide was still alive.
“Heide?” he called. “Where are you?”
“Matthieu? Is that you?” It had come from directly in front of him, under the bed. Pulling the blankets up, he saw her there, cradled in old clothes and pillows. He wondered how long she had hidden here; her brow was moist with sweat. “How are you-”
“I should ask you the same. You have to come with me; there are men outside who want to kill me. I will not allow the same fate for you.” He took her hand gently and almost recoiled at the searing warmth. “We must leave now.”
When she had emerged fully, he saw that Heide could barely stand. Angry red blotches splashed across her face and arms like burns. No, he pleaded. Please, God, not her too. She hobbled after him for a few steps before it became clear that she would not be able to run with him. Stealing a single glance down the hall to make sure no one had followed him, he took Heide in his arms and edged his way through the doorway. She felt as light as a doll.
The hallway was clear; beyond were the kitchen and the stables. As he made his way to the first, Heide let out a weak groan. Matthieu caught her eyes through her grimace and shook his head. A single sound now could betray them. They entered the kitchen, where only a feeble wisp of smoke above the cookfire told that people had been here the night before. He knew not where Master Kerns’ household had fallen and hoped desperately that they were far from Heide. Step by step, they came closer to the back door that led outside to the stables when a shout rang out from behind him. He did not need to know what the voice had said, only that he had to flee before its owner found him.
It took all his faith to run out into the stableyard without first peeking around the corner. He suppressed a cry of joy at the sight of the gates lying in splinters before him; the horses were gone but at least their way was clear.
“Hold on tightly,” he whispered to Heide as he summoned all his strength and left the house and its occupants behind them forever.
I will now speak concerning the Evangelical Brethren, colloquially known as the Mentites. Now it was not uncommon, even before the war, to see a Mentite evangelist in the stocks, labeled as such, put on display for disturbing the peace. While this did little to hinder their proselyting efforts, it did do much to vilify them in the eyes of the common people, where devotion to the Global Church still ran high.

This is not to say, however, that the Evangelical Brethren had no success in Heilicon. They enjoyed a modicum of popularity among the wealthier sort, wherein their tracts were debated and discussed along with the other fashionable ideas of the day. They found a great stronghold with both the utopian idealists and the conniving entrepreneurs who could be found daily teeming in the salons and tea houses, clamoring for sparks of forbidden knowledge. We will see that just as an empty field is ripe for all manner of weeds and thistles, an empty mind is also ripe for all manner of mischief and falsehood.

Think of this, for instance: when I was a child, there was once a young couple who had a handsome newborn son. Several days passed by in tranquility until one night, on the order of the mayor, both parents were arrested and put to the Inquiry on charges of sedition and heresy. After several hours of interrogation and torture, they were summarily released and given official pardon by both the civil and ecclesiastical authorities. Their crime? They had named their child Leopold.

In the inquiry that followed, it was discovered that, due to the unfortunate child’s name, they had been suspected by neighbors of being Mentites. This particular time was a period of especially low public sentiment for the Mentite cause, hence the apprehension shown by the people towards a child named Leopold. The inquisitors divulged during the inquiry that—while under great duress of comfort—the child’s mother had incurred the couple’s release by indicating that while neither she nor her husband were Mentites, she did, however, have a kindly paternal grandfather named Leopold.

Upon questioning some of the older residents of the city, the town council gathered sufficient testimonies to attest that indeed, the said Leopold had existed but was now nearly fifteen years in the grave. It was also thoroughly proven that he was well-known as an upstanding citizen, and that he and family had been quite diligent in attending services with the Global Church.

In accordance with the discoveries of the Inquiry, the couple’s case was dismissed and followed by a certificate from the priest testifying to their faithfulness to the Church. It was also accompanied by an unofficial warning to quickly have their child’s name changed to something sensible, like Friedrich or Jacobus.

– Words of the Emperor in Qepperdan, Matthieu Sartonné, as narrated to his page, Jarun Hichame



Matthieu had fallen asleep curled up inside the wine barrel. How many hours had past, he was not sure; however, he noted that everything outside was quiet once again. It took a moment for the remembrance of last night’s events to return in full, but return they did. His mind was filled with screaming, the intruders in the cellar, and then an even more unnerving period of silence. Sleep had finally overcome him after what seemed like ages.

His legs were stiff when he stretched them across the length of the barrel. Reaching up, he pushed against the hatch on the top, only to find it just as securely closed as he had feared. Banging on it did no use and only hurt his fist. Looking down to the little spigot on the front, he thought to kick it. He could not stand inside, but instead he laid down with his feet against the end. Kicking both feet forward, he felt the moist wood budge slightly. If this barrel was as old as he believed it to be, then the wood must have been soaking in this wine for at least a century.

The second kick made a noticeable dent in the boards; one or two more, perhaps, and he would be free. A small trickle of wine must have been leaking out, for Matthieu could hear the soft patter of liquid on stone. Bracing himself against the sides with his arms, he prepared for one last kick against the wood. Sure enough, one more blow tore a hole in the barrel’s end the size of his head. Hands feeble with fatigue ripped at the remaining boards until enough of them were gone to allow his whole body through, and he slid out onto the stony ground amidst a flood of Kamischkan’s finest wine. Looking down at his once fine clothes now stained a deep crimson, he was as a bloody newborn babe stepping out into the world.

No sound came from the corridor outside or from the stairs beyond. Darkness met him on the other side of the splintered door; darkness and blood. Liesl Hardt had been a faithful cook, a lively talker, almost a second mother to Matthieu in the years since his own had succumbed to fever. Now here she was before him, her broad apron crusted with blood. He turned away in horror but could not lose the sight of her empty eyes on his own. What was that he had heard the Mentites say the night before? Kaschar’s quarter, they said. Kaschar, the Doromins’ grave.

That was the moment it all began to come together in his mind. All those years of reports that the eastern lords were gathering masses to their cause. The many shipments of wool his father had spoken of that he once sent to Cyrnne and the dear price paid him to secure the necessary dyes; all the colors of the Houses of Ment, Garrand, Lemaste, and other lords either members or sympathizers with the Mentite sect. The two men from the day before who came promising protection, but from what? Now Matthieu knew and it was too late to warn anyone.

But why attack Heilicon? Treasure? The Cyrnnish had grown wealthy enough on their own industry and besides, they were safer in their city. Their fortress churches above the Alabaster Gates had stayed the might of Toris for nearly a year, and that had been well over a century ago. The only other solution Matthieu could imagine was the fulfillment of all Lord Leopold Ment’s renowned preaching: the end of the world. A day of cleansing for the wicked and triumph for the just. If this was his doing, as the two men the night before had said, then there was little chance of anything left in the city outside.

He continued down the hallway, at first cautious of making a sound but gradually growing careless as his suspicion became knowledge: there was no one here left alive. He had not seen poor Anna Sartonné in death and now he felt himself pushing away the urge to find Martin, as a small voice giving him an even smaller hope. More silence met him in the dining hall, where broken tables and chairs littered the stone floor; this was where his father had been just moments before he had run screaming past the wine cellar. Behind one of the tables a familiar cloak mouldered in crimson and with that, Matthieu’s small hope was gone.

This house which had once held his entire life held nothing for him now. His only solace lay beyond the market square and towards the Serpent Gate on the eastern edge of the city. If Beate Kerns was somehow still alive in all this… He could not dwell on the thought long; he could only discover the truth for himself.

The sun that rose on the ruins of Heilicon seemed not to notice the scorched buildings or the corpses in the streets; it did not deign to pause for the smoke that still swirled around the collapsed, blackened shell of Saint Maunde’s cathedral or the blood that choked the canals and footpaths in the center of town. Neither did it halt in its course for the lone figure that trudged the muddy roads in search of anything left alive in the attack’s aftermath.

Matthieu knew not how many hours had passed since he first climbed out of his wine barrel. Upon leaving the remains of the only home he had ever known in this city, he had seen bodies uncounted strewn across his path. He recognized none of them at first glance, if only because his revulsion prevented him from taking a second. Many he had seen who appeared as having just died where they stood. Others looked as if they had suffered horribly for a time; still others were left in the streets from the initial attack by the Mentite armies the night before. These were recognizable by their wounds, the invaders having killed indiscriminately as they marched and burned their way towards the cathedral and city hall. While he did not stop to inspect more closely, Matthieu thought he recalled seeing priestly robes amongst the dead, though its body had been removed of head and limbs.

He stumbled as if in a daze, knowing neither how many hours he had lain in the cellar, nor if more enemies lurked in the ruined buildings all around him. The only sound he heard, save the squelching of his feet in the mud roads, was the morning wind howling out of the east as it cut through burned timbers and blackened stone like a wailing specter.

Matthieu spoke not a word: what could be said? His mind could only combat the horrific slaughter before him by imagining himself in another place altogether, separated from the material world as if by some transient fog. Eyes did not focus on the dead, eschewing even the most vibrant hues the garments of now-murdered aristocrats could muster, for fear of being called back to reality by a familiar face. And yet, in spite of his best efforts to avoid dealing with this reality, he barely noticed his feet beginning to tread a very well-known path; one that would lead him to either his only joy in this horror or the greatest blow that could yet be dealt to his wounded mind.

Why he had hopes that Beate Kerns would have been spared this awful destruction, he would never be sure. The desire to know for certain was sick, he knew, yet it drove him on most unceasingly. Much later, Matthieu would come to see this feeling in a similar way to the compulsion long ago in his university years which had driven him to attend a dissection theater. In a special demonstration given by one of the chief anatomists of the day, the secrets of the human body would finally be revealed to all willing to leave behind fear and dogma in order to comprehend man at his most basic level.

Fascination had overwhelmed him despite his mind’s protests that what he saw could not simply be; he knew there were bones beneath his flesh and lungs within his chest, but to see God’s most noble creation deconstructed and placed on exhibit like a specimen—or like swine at market—defied everything he had ever known about man and his exalted state in creation. So close to the angels, indeed; yet in death, even a king would appear no more regal than a butchered lamb.

Still his feet carried him on. More and more he saw the scattered tabards of Cyrnnish and Heiliconian soldiers: the blue-and-pink of Lemaste and blue-and-purple of Garrand were prominent, but many more wore Lord Alfonse Mennish’s gold-and-blue. Hundreds of corpses choked the market square and the steps to the town hall. Ragged banners writhed in the wind all around him. He gave it no mind; his goal was clear.

At last, he arrived to the steps of her home and there he saw her. She looked like a beautiful carnival puppet whose strings had been cut, sprawled across the stone in one of her finest gowns; the blood at her chest and mouth told of attack by a swordsman. Matthieu’s already overwhelmed mind was now numb, for too much death had passed before his eyes for him to realize what it meant that Beate Kerns, his beloved, was now dead.

What took the place of sadness was a fatalistic musing: this form that lay at his feet had been but a few hours ago a vibrant human being, and now it would never rise again. How silly the living creature must be, he thought, to imagine that he meant something to the universe. Of all the multitudinous ways to die, they all led to the same end: a jumble of meat, blood, and bone left like a glove without a hand to wear it. And Beate was such a lovely glove. Before, he would have thought it a shame to imagine that he would never know her as his wife, but now that was far from his imagination. He merely saw and accepted: Beate Kerns was dead.

It took all his significantly diminished strength to tear his glance away from her frozen face, now completely drained of blood. He knew this would be the last time he saw her in the body. His sick curiosity had been satisfied, and yet he felt no better for it. Drawing on the last of his will, he proceeded to the walls of the city. Several minutes of silent trudging brought him past the vacant market, flies now swarming over abandoned produce and meat. Here, a guardhouse stood a silent sentinel. There, a well-worn inn still smoldered where the Mentite crusaders sought to cleanse the city of the vice of prostitution. On and on the muddy road seemed to stretch, though at a brisk walk on a dry day it would not have taken more than a few minutes to reach the walls from Beate’s residence. Finally, Matthieu’s weary eyes caught sight of his destination.

The eastern Serpent Gate hung open, a gaping mouth upon the world. Matthieu squinted on account of the smoke and brilliant sunlight that spilled over the distant mountains and onto the ruins of his home. He was finished here, all obligations having perished with those he loved. Once he cleared the gate, he would enter the city’s farmlands that stretched nearly to the marshy river at the mountains’ foothills. After that, he presumed, his continued existence would be irrelevant.

He trudged along the road, already churned up by the fleeing mass of feet that had tramped through hours before. The mud was thick around his feet, weakening and pulling him down a little more with each step. Matthieu could not take anymore; the same sun that cared little for the skeletons of vaunted architecture behind him expressed no remorse for him either. In the blazing morning sun, his sight reeled from heat and exhaustion.

Gracelessly, his legs gave way under him. He crumpled onto his side as the muck oozed up around him like a gritty cushion. If he died here, who would know the difference?
I never wanted to be king. I had planned out my whole life from the time I was ten. At sixteen, I would enter the university in Leganne, where I would study law and classical philosophy. After graduating with honors at age twenty, I would return home, claim the hand of my beloved in marriage, and live out the rest of my days awash in philosophy and marital bliss.

It could have happened. My family was at no lack of means or support for my endeavors. My father was a merchant in dyes and linens, and my mother was no less well-established, having come into a tidy fortune at the death of her father. Surprisingly for their time, they were neither harsh nor cruel in raising me; in fact, they seemed to have an uncommon devotion to my welfare.

My future father-in-law was also no obstacle to my ambitions. He was a stern man, born of bureaucracy and the harsh realism which attends it, yet hidden beneath his public facade was a romantic heart. I believe that he secretly saw in me somewhat of a fulfillment of the abandoned dreams of his own youth, though for reasons of his own, he could not afford to show it.

In my eighteenth year, my plans were well into effect. My education was half completed and my every communication with my beloved only further assured our imminent and cooperative destiny. It was in this year, the seven hundred and forty-third according to the Common Reckoning, that it happened. What it was that happened, no one was entirely sure. Across the known world, it was nation against nation, prince against prince, neighbor against neighbor, and friend against friend. It was as if something had spoken to the common soul of man and caused him to go mad in an instant.

It is the prerogative of scholars now to determine which came first—the plagues or the wars—but as for myself, I do not think it much matters which came first. Knowing the stimulus does nothing to change the fact that our response was to panic… That our response was to die; for die we did, by the thousands if not millions. Those few who survived the wars and the plague could hardly be called lucky. Without exception, they saw their world collapse around them, reduced to naught but ashes and the gnawing memory of the departed.

I only hope that my emotion will not carry you away to unnecessary lengths of anger or pity. At the very least, let it be remembered that though we may have been deserving of many of our rewards, there is no room for the absolute in delving the hidden recesses of motive and action. As shall be shown hereafter, men—even in all their infinite cunning—can never fully escape the bands they craft for each other or for themselves, whether for good or for ill.

– Words of the Emperor in Qepperdan, Matthieu Sartonné, as narrated to his page, Jarun Hichame



The carriage bumped along the hardened road, worn into wide ruts by centuries of traffic. A little over eight days on this road now stood between the university in Leganne and Matthieu’s home in Heilicon, though it had been many a month since he had last seen its stout city walls or sat in prayer at Saint Maunde’s cathedral. Even longer still were the months since he had last seen his beloved Beate Kerns. Judging by his recollection of his own thoughts, Matthieu supposed he missed her more than he missed his own parents; such were the trials of his young love.

As this was the final day of his journey, Matthieu sought out the first sight of the city walls. Of the many times he had travelled this road between his home and the western port city of Leganne, which sat beside the east bank of the River Ellorin’s meeting with the Great Bay, he had never once failed to glimpse the city before his parents and other companions had. Even though he was alone now, he engaged himself thus regardless. In those previous journeys, he had discovered for himself the place where he could view the walls: first would come a series of low hills, followed by a southward turn in the road. From that place, he could look out the left-hand window of the carriage and spot his goal. Its weathered stones were comforting to him, bringing to mind the walls of his family’s own spacious home within.

The carriage had now passed through the hills and began its sweeping bend to the south. At last, the small dip in the hills rolled into view until the slender towers of Heilicon’s Lion Gate could be seen on the horizon, topped with little finger-like banners fluttering above pinnacles of red brick and gray tile. Though the current state of relative peace in the Ossiric League did not demand the great protection offered by Heilicon’s sturdy walls and foreboding gates, they still remained as symbols of a much more troubled and ancient age. The feeling of security within those walls was unmatched in much of southern Corastia, and certainly in Matthieu’s own heart.

Once again, the road curved toward the great Lion Gate as it passed through the sprawling fields which surrounded the city. These too had once been the scene of much bloodshed in an earlier time, but now the peasants who worked them had little to fear from the outside world. Off in the distance, Matthieu could see clusters of men and women shuffling through the shorn stalks of grain, preparing for the three days of Festival which would follow the current month of Harvest not one week hence.

This would be Matthieu’s first Festival as a man, and he planned on marking the occasion accordingly. His two years at the university had opened his eyes to a great many things, not a few of which he had experienced as a result of his privileged status as a student at the university in Leganne. Throughout much of Corastia, students like himself were granted much more legal protection than even townsfolk could claim, as they fell under the jurisdiction of the Church itself. Rumor and observation had shown Matthieu a world much different from the one that had managed to creep into what he felt had been a secluded and sheltered childhood. Awash in learning, the world lay before him as a field of fresh snow; he was the intrepid buck, eager to leave such marks on it as would be remembered until time itself wore them away as under the snows of some future day.

Such were the aspirations of a young man. All this he thought to be contingent on living exactly how he saw fit and nothing less, and it would start in one week hence. Though he certainly had many friends and acquaintances in Leganne, his oldest friends were here in Heilicon, along with the greatest public houses this side of the Ellorin. This time, his mother and father would not be able to prevent him from enjoying the festivities here. All he needed was a jug of wine, a purse of his father’s gold, some of his old friends also home in time for Festival… Perhaps he could even cajole Beate into joining him. Courtly love, as the romantic ideal of his time was called, was just that: an ideal, set down by frustrated celibates whose only love was for antiquated verse and the philosophies buried there in words none but the most learned could read anymore. Matthieu and his peers had no use for rhymes and pleasantries, except in the wooing of women.

A shadow fell across the carriage as it passed under the Lion Gate and into the city proper, bringing Matthieu abruptly out of his pondering: he was home. Even the stench of the city which had come to him from afar the day before was familiar in a way which brought with revulsion a strange sense of comfort. Heilicon, merchant capital of the south, was his home and here he belonged. Peering from the behind the curtain on the carriage’s small window, he was confronted with a row of public houses and taverns for those weary travellers who did not have such a home to return to as Matthieu did. It would not be long now before the carriage would bring him there, for his father had paid a hefty sum for this transport. Had the caravan leader not been an old friend of his father’s made over his years as a cloth merchant, such an arrangement would not have been possible at all. Even the road to Heilicon had its share of bandits, though the guard who had accompanied this caravan had ensured a voyage free of incident. Regardless, Matthieu was only grateful to be home.

Martin Sartonné stood conversing with another merchant, garbed more richly than was his father; it had always been his practice to reserve the best of his inventories for his most prestigious customers, so as not to diminish its grandeur by overfamiliarity. This merchant, however, evidently aimed to impress, braving the muddy streets near the central market in Lamatali silks and a gaudy hat topped with a high plume of Irritaschian peacock feathers. His father was not noble born, but the illegitimate son of an outcast lech and some unknown, perhaps long dead, tavern girl. Only untiring hands and a timely marriage into a junior line of the House of Weikern had saved Martin from a life of certain ignominy, and his manner showed that such as he had now was still new and uncomfortable to him.

Averting his attention from the merchant, who by now was gesturing in frustration, Martin caught the eyes of his son in the carriage.

“Matthieu!” he cried out, bidding a hasty goodbye to the other man. Pushing his way through the bustling crowd, he came to the side of the carriage as Matthieu opened the door. His father’s embrace was firm, bringing with it the pungent odor of the dyebaths. “You return to us safe.”

“Yes, father. We had no trouble along the road.”

“Then my silver was well-spent. Come now; your mother waits for us both.” Matthieu had brought little with him—a few books, enough changes of clothes to see him through Harvest, a clamshell container of chalk-hued lead powder he had purchased in Leganne for Beate—but the carriage still went on without them, bound for home as they were by another route. The streets of the market square were near enough to the stout wooden house Martin Sartonné had purchased shortly before Matthieu was born. It stood among shops and many more of its kind that had risen in recent years with the growing merchant class. No more was Heilicon to be a shadow of Leganne and its ports, but a trader’s haven in its own right. Had Martin been born perhaps a generation earlier, he would have shared his own father’s fate: name and honor drowned along with him in beer mugs and bosoms. Instead, name and honor were well intact, growing steadily with every caravan that trundled off westward to the Ellorin, loaded down with Torisia’s finest velvets and linens. Matthieu could not have been happier, unless of course Beate was finally at his side.

“I trust your studies are going well,” his father said.

“Well enough,” Matthieu replied in a flat tone. “I find philosophy and history easy tasks, but law is another matter.”

“Philosophy and history will not accomplish your goals, Matthieu. The League needs clerks and officers, not scholars.”

Your goals, Matthieu thought sullenly. Not mine. He had always ever had one goal, and he would see her this very afternoon, should his father permit. Wishing for God to permit accomplished little; Its hand was immaterial, while his father’s was as real as his own. It would be a great relief when that hand could no longer grasp him so tightly.

“You know, your mother would not be so silent if she saw your face.” At his father’s words, Matthieu found himself involuntarily scratching at the wispy patches of whiskers that sprouted from his jaw. He was barely a man when he had first left for Leganne, and had the face of a boy. Now he only thought to look his age. “I suppose neither will Beate.”

“If it troubles them so, then consider it all gone,” Matthieu replied. “But we shall see.” His father’s irritation was obvious, but he chose to not let it bother him as well. As they nearly turned the corner of a tavern, one of the last between them and home, a man’s voice called out from behind them.

“Oh, Brother Martin?” Matthieu turned to face the speaker and saw two men standing side by side, richly clothed in linen and each wearing a wide, rounded hat of silk. The one who spoke was slender as a candle, the look in his eyes like a cat observing a ball of yarn before he struck. To his right was a stockier man whose fingers held too many ill-fitting rings. He had never met these before, though they had the look of men in his father’s trade. However, it was not their clothing that made them stand out, but the manner of address they used.

Mentites, Matthieu thought. Only one of their order would address another as such, especially speaking to Martin Sartonné. His father was hardly religious, much less a devotee of the Cyrnnish heretic.

“Greetings, Brother Martin,” said the first man. “It is indeed a rare pleasure to see you again, as well as your son.”

“What do you want, Richard? And why this ‘brother’ nonsense?”

“Are we not children of the self-same god?”

“Yes, only I am most certainly not a part of your… brotherhood.”

The second man approached.

“Incidentally, that is our purpose in speaking with you. We have a certain proposition to make…”

“Excuse me if I decline prematurely. Matthieu, you go on ahead.” Matthieu ducked around the corner to listen to the strange pair out of sight.

“It would be quite tragical,” said the first, “if you were to refuse us.”

“Yes,” continued the second. “We have a most important offer related to your salvation and the salvation of your beloved family.”

“Salvation, is it? Now is that to be temporal or spiritual? Because you know as well as I that the city watch is more than willing to punish deservedly your peculiar brand of sedition. All it will take is one informant for the both of you to be in the stocks by nightfall.”

The first man feigned shock.

“Oh, Brother Martin, there is certainly no need for such threats! Why, we only wish to help you better your station by the means that our God has provided us.”

“I really wish you would reconsider,” said the second. “As you know, removal to Cyrnne is entirely voluntary for members of the Council.”

“I will not reconsider, nor will I entertain such as yourselves again. Now begone before I call for the watch!”

“So be it, Brother Martin,” said the first man.

“Heaven forbid any misfortune fall upon your household,” joined the second man.

“Is that a threat?! You bastards, it was not long ago that scum like you were pilloried for sport!” Martin cursed under his breath and turned to look for his son. “Are you still here, Matthieu?”

“Yes, father,” he said, turning the corner again. The men had gone back again the way they had came, though his father looked hardly the better for it.

“Your mother is expecting us, son. Let us not make her wait any longer.” They resumed walking back to their house.

“Will you really call for the city watch?”

“I may have to. Whether they are serious or not, I would certainly feel safer with a few night watchmen at our door. As for your mother, she will feel safer not knowing about our little encounter in the first place.”

The portrait hanging near the entrance to the dining room had been commissioned only a few months before the fever had taken her. Though it had not been executed in the finer style had by the royal family in Ossir, the artist had captured Martin and Anna Sartonné’s features well enough. His mother wore a gown of forest-green velvet trimmed in rabbit fur, shown opposite her husband in a red and black silk cloak. The faintest smile was visible in the corner of her mouth. In the last year since her death, this was the only smile that seemed to hold any meaning for Martin. It had been a solemn time for all who knew her, but his wounds had been the deepest. Matthieu reasoned that his own tendency to brood tearlessly when faced with tragedy was also his father’s.

Silently, they each lit one of the many melted candle stubs that stood on a low table before the painting. What words they had for her would mingle with the smoke, to ascend to her blessed station in the paradise of God. In this could Matthieu push away his doubts about theology; with all his heart, he wished it all to be so. His thoughts went to his childhood: bruises she had tended to, hurts immaterial that she had soothed, the way she could temper Martin’s impatience and anger as no one else could, a half-remembered song she used to sing as she sat him on her knee. If e’er again I see your face ‘neath skies of cloud or star, the first line had been.

He wondered if there were clouds or stars in heaven, should there be one after all. Perhaps, since the heavens were said to be above the earth, though he doubted that any man truly knew what was there. Despite his best attempts to put into reason all that the Global Church of the Ineffable God claimed to be truth, after all that his mind considered merely figurative or outright deception, heaven must also be real, if not for the rest of this maddened world, then for departed Anna Sartonné.

Supper awaited them by the time they had finished their devotions. The fare here at home was certainly better than the eight days and nights of hard cheese and harder bread he had on the road. Here, the loaves were warm and flaky, served with a stew of fresh lamb rather than the salted and dried hunks borne by traders. Apple tarts followed, echoing the harvest season that was upon them and Festival which was soon to come. Matthieu ate his fill of all.

His father waited until the servants had cleared away the last of the dishes before he finally spoke again.

“That was some sight last week, Matthieu. Could you see it well?”

“The comet? Yes, I saw it. In fact, many of us students met in the astronomy tower to view it.”

“And what do your professors have to say about it?”

“There are several theories. Professor Hartón believes it was another stellar body in orbit around the sun.”

“He is the one with the idea that we too orbit around the sun, no?”

“Yes. Of course, the theologians were in quite a row about that.”

“Really.”

“Why, yes. Actually, some of the younger monks believe the same as Professor Hartón. Even Father Mora agreed.”

“Professor Hartón is hardly a man of God, son. His theories have been disproven before, and so will this. You remember when you were a child, he claimed to have seen wings on Venera. Wings, Matthieu. His eyes have been failing since I was your age, and I fear his senses lag not far behind.” Matthieu was only grateful that his father did not still cling to the old beliefs about the other bodies that joined their earth in its yearly travel around the sun.

In ancient Corastia, the planets were quite literally thought to be gods; all that had changed with the rise of the Global Church of the Ineffable God was that they were now believed to be the domains of the angels, circumambulating the fiery throne of the one true God in a procession ordained since before the world began. Even then, many still believed their earth to be the heaviest point in the universe, a spherical center around which the rest of creation proceeded in infinite order. Despite the old superstitions in flying deities having died out centuries before, every child learned their names: Venera, Jexa, Prixa, Ferra, Emyra, Simora. In the place of these capricious gods was the Ineffable God, void of names as it was of passions and even gender. It seemed quite the curiosity to Matthieu that visible beings with human wills and faults had been supplanted by One that none could ever see or know.

“But father, you cannot reject his ideas simply because they are new. They only need to be tested.”

“It is not new knowledge I reject, but that which contradicts the truth. Besides, your mother and I did not go to such great expense to send you to university, all so that you could dabble in these ideas. You are to study law, so that you may one day serve the nation.”

“Why are you suddenly so concerned for my spiritual well-being? You hardly even attend services yourself.”

“And that is none of your concern. Heaven knows I am a busy man, and you should as well. All of this you see around you is more than I ever had when I was your age. I worked for every cop-”

“Yes, father, I know, you worked for every copper star you have, your father left you in the care of his landlady, whose own daughter nursed you with her own child. I know.”

“Have you no respect for all that I sacrificed to bring us what we have? All those years, following in Master Feine’s footsteps, managing his accounts, counting all those damned velvets…”

“You hardly starved living off Mother’s inheritance.”

“Has university taught you to be this disrespectful to your father? You certainly did not inherit it from your mother or me.”

“It has not taught me disrespect, only the need to open my eyes.”

“And yet we have never forced you to close them, son. After all, it is our money that allows you a luxury that few in this city can claim. Do not forget how much it has cost us to send you to university in the first place, much less to Leganne.”

“It is not you who has tried to close my eyes to the truth, but there are many who do.”

“For instance?”

“The Church, for one. Honestly, I wonder sometimes who believes in those old stories anymore: the fires of cleansing, the dividing of the peoples, and all the rest. Some of the monks at least are willing to accept the conclusions of modern science, but others are too-”

“Matthieu! I will not permit such heresies to be spoken in this house. You have spoken ill against your mother and I, which I have ignored, but you go too far to question doctrines known for centuries.”

“Known?! You have said it yourself that the priests themselves can hardly read Old Corastic, and yet they claim the right to interpret it for us! If the shepherd is lost, what chance do the sheep have?”

“You would talk of rights to me, yet you have neglected to tell me from whence your rights to speak to your own father in such a way have come. Get out, and do not come back until you can speak to me again as a son should.” Matthieu straightened so quickly that his chair tipped back behind him, clattering roughly on the stone floor.

“Hopefully,” he spat back, “it will be when you are prepared to hear reason.”

Matthieu fled to the only place he had ever known where he could be alone with his thoughts: the ancient wine cellar underneath the kitchen. It was stuffy and slightly damp, but his parents had understood since his early youth that if he was nowhere to be found, he was most likely brooding down in the cellar. Almost without thinking, he retraced his own footsteps through time and down a stone passageway to the bulky wooden door. It opened and closed again heavily, creaking on its thick iron hinges.

He paced the floor as was his habit when much was on his mind, leather shoes scuffing across stones laid down nearly two centuries before. Witty parries to his father’s verbal thrusts flitted about his thoughts, yet he knew that they would all go unsaid. It was not truly his manner to be as short as he had been earlier, yet in this case enthusiasm and anger had come to the fore. As much as he told himself that he had been in the right to say what he had, the regret began as an ache in the back of his mind and grew steadily, a trickle of light streaming into him like the gentle glow of the lamp out in the hall until it dominated his thoughts.

With this came more doubts, more regrets of words ill spoken and deeds undone. Though the anger at his father had now passed, what replaced it was just as virulent and aimed directly at his own heart. The entire predicament he had placed himself in was exactly that: his own doing and no one else’s. All this time spent on chasing a girl he had hardly spoken to or employment in a bureaucracy that bothered him little at all amounted to nothing if he could not govern himself as a man.

Was he really even a man if he still ran to the cellars like a child? The question ate at him, driving home all that his father had said earlier: Matthieu had not been changed by it at all. Yes, he had learned much from his studies, and had taken advantage of every boon granted him by parents and God, yet he was still as miserably alone in his thoughts as ever. He hated himself to his very core. What could a creature perfect as Beate want with one who loathed himself so? Why would a father continue to do so much for a son who gave only impudence in return? What would his mother say if given the power to respond to him when he called out to her through candles and paintings? If there indeed was a God in that heaven where Anna Sartonné had fled to, how stood Matthieu in Its all-knowing gaze? His mind cried out that a just God would see him for the man he wanted to be rather than just the man he was, but even his doubting heart knew that to be a lie. That perfect eye would fix him in Its gaze and burn him to annihilation of body and soul.

Frantic pounding on the heavy door roused him from his imaginings. A voice raggedly called his name: it was his father’s.

“Hide, Matthieu! For the love of God, hide!” With that, his father was heard no more. It took only a moment before he came to himself, leaping from the musty corner he had been sitting in and running towards the largest of the wine barrels in the back of the cellar. He had always wished to hide inside one as a child, picturing himself floating down the river in one of the greatest barrels, off to find adventure and buried treasure or some such thing. Right now, however, they could very well save his life.

He found the largest he could: it was an ancient Northern vintage, half empty from generations of entertaining visitors to his family’s home. It had even been there when his father bought the house before Matthieu was born. However, now was not the time for him to consider the value of the barrel’s contents, only to do what he could to survive. He clambered up the side, using the uneven bricks of the cellar wall to aid his climb onto the top of the container. His hands were unsteady as he flicked back the latch and threw open the lid; taking care not to fall off, he slid inside—sloshing in expensive wine halfway to his knees—then reached up and slammed the opening shut. He cursed to himself as he heard the tiny iron latch click back into place, flung forward again by the force of the door closing. It mattered not; he would not be escaping from this place soon.

There was shouting outside the cellar door: several men, later a woman screaming. His breath caught in his throat. As the voices approached, he could hear them laughing. He shivered in the cold liquid that surrounded him, disoriented within the pitch-black confines of the barrel. The shouting faded abruptly. He let out a desperate breath, thinking that perhaps the danger had left him, when suddenly there was more pounding on the door.

It was not his father. This was not knocking, but the sound of a great weight striking the thick wood regularly. Whoever it was obviously meant to break down the door. After a few more impacts, it finally gave way with a great clatter that echoed for what seemed like an age. Cautious footfalls could be heard coming from the ruined doorway, before one man spoke up.

“What do you think they have in here?”

“Looks like wine, Brother,” said the second, his Cyrnnish accent lilting as he spoke.

“Indeed. They will not be needing these anymore, the filthy drunkards.”

“Right you are. Say, care for a little sport? No one here to tell us off.”

“You mean to bust up these barrels?”

“Why yes, else they go to waste. Besides, these here are no good anyways. Shall we begin?”

A thud and a wet splintering sound to Matthieu’s right meant that the first barrel had been breached, and its contents subsequently sloshed onto the stone floor. He recoiled in terror, shrinking further into the wine of his own barrel as if anything he did at this point could spare him an assured death at the hands of the two intruders. A second was split, followed by a third, and then a fourth, all increasingly closer to his own. He did not know how many stood between him and the men outside; he only knew they were close and getting closer still.

More footsteps, this time almost directly in front of him. The gruffer-voiced man called out to his partner.

“And what about this one? Quite an old one, I should say. Should I break it as well?”

“Let me see,” said the other man, approaching. He was silent for a moment, and Matthieu did not allow himself to breathe as he heard the other man circling the barrel, even catching glimpses of torchlight as it flitted through the hatch on top.

“No,” he said. “No, this one is a Kamischkani, and a very old vintage at that. I would feel sorry to spill it all over the floor like the others. How about a drink instead? Just a little cannot hurt.”

“Are you sure? What if Lemaste finds out?”

“Nonsense! He will not know a thing. Besides, we shall make it a toast to our victory!”

“Hmm… If you insist, Brother.”

“I do insist, for it is not everyday that one gets to sample such a grand old Kamischkani as this one.” Matthieu heard the man pull the little cork from the spigot in the flat side of the barrel, and a steady stream of wine came pouring out.

“To Leopold,” cried the first man, “and victory over the children of darkness!”

“To Leopold,” replied the other in his deeper voice. They could be heard lapping the rich, dark wine out of their hands before replacing the cork. Matthieu could feel his lungs beginning to burn inside him, as he had not yet exhaled. He quivered out of fear and the throbbing pain in his chest, waiting only for this nightmare to pass.

“We should go, Brother. There is much more left to do.”

“Yes,” said the one with the sing-song voice. “Let us be on our way. This house has already been given Kaschar’s quarter anyway.”

They continued their conversation until they had left the cellar and proceeded up the stairs again, into the hall. It was only then that the air came bursting out of Matthieu’s lungs, followed swiftly by tears he did not care to stem. After all, if what the intruders had said was true, there was no longer another soul left in his house to see him weeping so.
In these, the end of my days, I set out to make a history of my comings and goings. I am still not sure how I feel about such an undertaking. While I do wish the rising generation would have some knowledge concerning the errors of our age, I also do not wish to force those of tender hearts to wade through the sorrow that did consume our world in those times. In this, I am torn between the desire to protect the curious from both apathy and horror. How can I warn sufficiently of our downfall unless I tell of its consequences? And how can I simply tell of the calamities that befell us without relating the causes? Therefore, I endeavor in this work to provide a history; not a scholar’s history, and certainly not a child’s history. In all respects, I shall try to make it a true history. Let the historians and philosophers work out the problems of our times, all while reclining in the comforts of hindsight. Let them ascribe our age’s downfall to any number of factors, from the Mentite War to the plague and everything else under heaven. However, they cannot glean from all their studies and suppositions the experience forced upon these two eyes or felt by these two hands; they can neither sound the depths of our grief nor summit the heights of our folly. All I can do is to offer what I have in all humility, if only in the hopes that you, the reader in some future age, may come away from these pages with more knowledge than we had. I therefore commit these pages to the future.

– Words of the Emperor in Qepperdan, Matthieu Sartonné, as narrated to his page, Jarun Hichame

Jarun Hichame had ascended these stairs hundreds of times in his years as imperial page, yet tonight felt different. Summoned by one of his fellows just as he had changed into his bedclothes, he was at first annoyed that the emperor would call him at such an hour. After all, did he not have servants outside his own bedchamber? He pressed on regardless, hoping to at least be useful briefly to his master before again retiring to bed. The candle’s dancing flame cast playful shadows across the stone passageway. Jarun walked as quickly as he could without putting out his only light, as the full moon was yet several weeks away. It had been not since childhood, when he was first brought to the palace following his father’s death in war, that he had stalked these corridors at such a late hour. Now, his usual boredom was displaced by curiosity. He arrived at the door to the bedchamber to find two guards standing watch outside, as was the custom.

“The emperor is waiting for you,” one spoke in a gravelly voice as he opened the door. Jarun entered silently. Once he had passed the threshold, the solid door was shut behind him. Silhouetted in front of a roaring fire was the emperor.

“Ah, Jarun,” he said. “It is so good of you to come at such an hour as this. I know it is late, but there are things I must get off my mind.” He spoke again, as if he could sense Jarun’s apprehension. “Come here, boy! Do not be shy.” Jarun found himself gripped by a strange reluctance. In all his years of service, it was rare that the emperor would say more than a few words of command to him. He was a servant, not an adviser. What advice could he possibly give to the ruler of the known world? Still, he did as the emperor commanded, seating himself in a chair across from his master. It was padded with the finest silk, usually reserved for the emperor’s own robes; rare was the page that would experience such luxury for himself.

“What is it you need me to do, my lord?” he said, his apprehension leaving him at his ruler’s strange manner.

“There is much weighing on my mind of late, Jarun. Things past, as well as things to come.”

“Forgive me for saying so but you have lived a long and full life.”

“That I have,” Matthieu chuckled. “That I have. Perhaps too full, some would say, yet I cannot do anything to change it. Nor would I…”

“May I ask if this is all you have called me here for?” The emperor took on a more serious aspect then. His eyes went to the fine embroidered rug at his feet, then back to Jarun.

“You could say so, yes, that I have summoned you here to tell you of my life. Truthfully, I could not sleep tonight, nor have I had much occasion to do so in several months. It is as if I am being constantly reminded of my own mortality, and the fear that my history shall be lost to the world haunts the moments before sleep takes me, to the point where it becomes altogether elusive. Waking, I dream of days past, yet real dreams are as fleeting to me as good fortune and old songs. One day, my boy, you will feel as I do, looking back across a life that has taken you places which you could not imagine. Tell me: what do they teach you in the university concerning my history?”

“Well,” Jarun replied, “they teach us how you defeated the usurper, Jerra Mianuchur, and gained the throne of Qepperdan for yourself.”

“And before that?”

“Not much is spoken of your birth country, my lord. I am afraid our lessons are a bit incomplete in that regard.” The emperor laughed again. “That is not too surprising, considering the land of my birth has changed so much since I left it as to be almost unrecognizable. I myself have not even seen it since I first left, when I was but barely older than you are now. A part of me wishes that such things would be forgotten, yet I know that would be a great disservice to future generations.”

“How so?” Jarun asked, puzzled.

“Do they also teach you of the Qenshi crusade? The Mentite War?” Each earned from the page a confused stare. “Goodness, do they not teach you anything in the university?” Jarun was silent still. “Why, when I attended university in Leganne all those years ago, it seemed that we were so awash in knowledge that our mortal minds could not contain it, as if our very beings were aflame in its glow!” The emperor looked Jarun in the eye once more. “And I suppose you would have no idea about Leganne, would you?”

“No, my lord,” he replied. A bemused smile flashed across the king’s face, exaggerated further by the flickering of the fireplace.

“Then that is why I must tell you my tale: so that I will no longer be the sole guardian of my history. Heaven knows that I have kept much to myself over these many years, not sharing my thoughts and remembrances… Perhaps, it was because I felt that to do so would be to open old wounds better left alone, or maybe it was that I feared growing close to anyone who could possibly use my own life story against me. But I know that you are not the kind of man to do such a thing, which gives me joy that I have not felt in a long time.”

“Excuse me, my lord, but may I ask why? Why you have chosen me?” It was a long moment before the emperor spoke again.

“I knew your father, Jarun. He was a good man, and I wish I had been able to shed tears at his death. How senseless a demise it was for a man such as he! Yet I was prevented by forces beyond my control from any showing of the proper emotions at that time…” The emperor looked lost in thought for a short while before he continued again. “He saved my life, and for that I am grateful to him and to his posterity. There is much in you that I also saw in him; do not forget that, no matter how long you live.”

“But what can one orphaned at my age know of their parents, except that which we learn from stories?”

“You forget, or perhaps they did not teach you, that I lost my parents as well, albeit under slightly different circumstances. I say slightly because it was also during a war, but a much different war than that in which we find ourselves involved today. It as if life is a many-act play, wherein the plot remains constant but old actors merely retire, to be replaced by new faces, worn by ancient hearts. Of course, many of the men who defined my life before I was emperor are now long dead, their glory as faded as their bones. Only I and my history remain.”

“Tell me of this history,” Jarun said excitedly. “Tell me, that perhaps I might help you shoulder the burdens; ease the pain.”

“We shall see if such pain can be eased,” the emperor responded wearily, “but if it can, I feel that you may be the one to do it. I only ask you this one thing.”

“What is it?”

“Are you ready for a very long night? Will you mind terribly watching the sun rise again and bleach out the stars that wheel ever above us before you complete even the beginning of my tale?”

“Yes, my lord. If it is what you desire, then I shall hear you out. All of it.”

“Do more than hear me out, my boy: listen. There is a vast gulf between simply hearing and listening, and if you are to learn any of the myriad lessons I wish to be taken from my life, then you must fervently do the latter. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes. I shall do my utmost.”

“Good,” the emperor said, relieved. “Then we shall begin.”
I just don't submit as much as I used to because most of what I write is currently in draft form on yWriter. It's a neat little program for compiling projects with a character and location database, chapter and scene divisions, word count, etc. I suppose I could post more things and update some of the old sections I'd posted but since I'm mostly either looking for feedback on the ones already here or heavily editing the ones that aren't, I think I'll just keep working on it all in yWriter for now.

These are my main current projects, for anyone who might want to know for some reason:

Divided House - military sci-fi light novel series of at least three books

The Default King - I can never come up with an accurate genre for this so I'll call it fantasy even though there isn't any magic involved, and this will likely also be a trilogy

Strawberry - anthology of near-future sci-fi short stories which tie into my "Stargazing" story but explore different characters

Ang Bihag sang Kataw - adventure story involving Philippine mythology and pre-Hispanic tribes, written in English and the Hiligaynon language

There are others on the fringes but I'm really not focusing on them at the moment. About half of them are sort of space opera stories while the other half are related to The Default King universe, including sequels and side stories that are still in the planning stages.

I have a lot to work on.

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:iconweirdandlovely:
WeirdAndLovely Featured By Owner May 27, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist

Welcome to CRLiterature!

 

We are so happy you have joined.  Our Journal is filled with community news and features that many find incredibly helpful!  Our #CRLiterature chatroom is always open for you to connect with fellow writers, provided you read our Chatroom Guidelines.  The gallery is open to News Articles that are in some way related to the literature community and the guidelines can be found here.  If you’d like to contribute writings, please look at our Favorites Submission Rules.  Any other questions should be directed to the admin team via notes.

 

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:iconrooboid:
Rooboid Featured By Owner Feb 15, 2014  Student Digital Artist
Just a random Deviant here to wish you a lovely day! :heart:

Keep up the fantastic work. :>
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:iconkayjensen:
kayjensen Featured By Owner Jun 18, 2013  Professional Photographer
thank you for the watch
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:icondefaultking:
defaultking Featured By Owner Jun 18, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
You're welcome! The pictures of yours that I saw looked like they'd be good as album covers. Was that intentional?
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:iconkayjensen:
kayjensen Featured By Owner Jun 26, 2013  Professional Photographer
yes in fact lots of my pictures are mostly inspired by music.. :) you need any?
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:icondefaultking:
defaultking Featured By Owner Jun 27, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
That depends on how productive my bandmates want to be :P
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:iconjpthart:
JPtHart Featured By Owner Jun 6, 2013  Student Photographer
Thank you! :aww:
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:icondefaultking:
defaultking Featured By Owner Jun 6, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
You're welcome! So many of your pictures look like they should be album covers. Was that intentional?
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:iconjpthart:
JPtHart Featured By Owner Jun 7, 2013  Student Photographer
It's not intentional, but it is kind of a dream of me to make album art on regular basis, so that's nice to hear! :)
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:iconczechbiohazard:
CzechBiohazard Featured By Owner Mar 25, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I love your Avatar. :3
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