The sounds of laughter, music, and joy filtered up through the folds of the Grahn Aur's tent and into the head of the chimerian, now completely alone and forgotten amid the revelries that had erupted throughout the encampment.
“Is anyone out there?” the chimerian shouted for the hundredth time, but to his surprise, this time there was an answer.
“Yes, someone is here.”
Vendis turned, but the relief he felt kindling in his soul was snuffed out at once. “YOU!”
Ethis bowed slightly with all his hands behind him after the chimerian custom. “Yes, Thedis of Salashei. What a strange fate that I have come to find you at last.”
“Thedis, then. I have not had use for that name in a long time,” Vendis said. “Perhaps you could tell me what happened to Thuri?”
“I found him and he was dealt with although in a rather circumstantial way,” Ethis said. “It cost me more than he was worth . . . far more . . . but then you would know all about that, wouldn't you?”
Vendis held his silence for a moment before he spoke. “So Drakis has returned.”
“But you don't really care, do you?” Ethis said, stepping closer. “The Salashei family has been hunting the High Council in Exile rather effectively for some time. The High Council ruled the families of Ephindria, keeping the meddling elves at bay. With the complicity of the Hueshei and Whylin families for trading rights with the elves, you took over the governance of most of the provinces. Did you really think that the High Council would simply let the trade families bleed them without exacting blood in return?”
Vendis raised his hands in front of him. “Listen to me, Ethis. We're both tradesmenâwe each have our skills to sell. You sold talents to Lady Chythal and the High Council in Exile. I sold mine to the Salashei, but that's no reason why we cannot strike a bargain between us.”
“Indeed?” Ethis said.
“These pilgrimsâfanaticsâthey're doomed,” Vendis said. “I know! I've lived among them. They had a victory, true, but I'm a wizard. I know that the Aer has returned to the land these last few days. Perhaps it is not as strong as it once was, but it is back. How long can this rabble survive against the Legions supported by Aer? The Council in Exile has been preaching the fall of Rhonas for so long that they barely believe it themselves.
are the future, Ethis; the Salashei saving the family of Ephindria by allying themselves with the elves . . . and you can be a part of it, Ethis! I can see to it!”
Ethis drew in a long, considering breath. “First, tell me: why were you pushing that Iblisi elf to come to Drakosia? Surely not to look for the fabled Drakis!”
Vendis shook his head.
“You were coming for me?” Ethis asked.
“Yes,” Vendis answered quickly. “I was coming to find you . . . to ask you to join with us.”
“Of course,” Ethis smiled. The chimerian reached up for the lock on the outer cage. He deftly picked it and opened the latch.
“Don't you worry about a thing,” Ethis said, reaching in for the second lock on the inner cage. “I want you to deliver my answer personally.”
It was late when Hegral returned to the command tent, remembering that they had left the chimerian there in the excitement of the dragons' arrival.
He found Vendis dead in his cage, both the inner and outer doors still locked. There seemed to be no violence done to the body, though it sagged horribly in death.
“Humph,” Hegral said, straightening up. “Saved us the trouble, eh? Well, good riddance!”
They waited in the Emperor's Court of the Cloud Palace at the center of the Rhonas Empire.
The enormous room with the sweeping pillars reached to the dome overhead. There, the mystical sun shone down from above, burning with the power of Aether gathered in from the ends of the Empire. It reflected off of the carefully angled oval panels overhead, softening the light and casting just the perfect shadows across the Emperor's features as he sat on his glorious throne on the platform floating on a cloud above the polished floor.
All around the Emperor's Court stood the ordered ranks of the various powers that struggled with one another to fulfill the Emperor's Will. Daramonei workers, Paktan guildleaders, the war-mages of the Orders of Krish, Nekara and Vash, Ch'drei and a contingent of Iblisi were all prominent as well as a plethora of individuals from the thirty or so ministries that made up the governance of the Rhonas Empire. Even their arrangement in the hall had been carefully determined and, in many cases, delicately arranged.
So it was that Sjei-Shurian, the Ghenetar Omris of the Vash was standing conveniently next to Kyori-Xiuchi, the Tertiaran Master of the Occuran as they both waited in the hall.
That they were both members of the secretive Modalis was, of course, no accident.
“I note that the Myrdin-dai are not represented at court today,” Kyori spoke quietly into the hall without turning his head, but his words were just loud enough to reach the ears of Sjei standing next to him.
“The Myrdin-dai have fallen from the grace of the Emperor,” Sjei said, likewise without turning his head from the magnificent spectacle of the Imperial throne. “Word of the failure of the Aether causing the loss of one of the Emperor's most beloved Legions in the northern reaches of the Empire was laid squarely upon the shoulders of your brother Order.”
“And Wejon Rei has not been seen among us of late,” murmured Kyori.
“Who?” Sjei said casually. “I don't believe I recognize the name.”
“Indeed,” Kyori replied with a slight smile. “Now that you mention it, neither do I.”
“Which puts me in mind,” Sjei said, “we appear to have an opening in the council of the Modalis.”
“Have you someone in mind?” Kyori asked smoothly.
“I believe I do,” replied Sjei. “Someone who has the Emperor's ear . . . someone who can move easily among the many Ministries and for whom access is eagerly granted.”
The great doors to the throne room opened with a stately motion. All eyes turned toward the portal.
Resplendent in a flowing gown, Shebin walked across the polished floor. The scarlet-colored dress had been carefully tailored to fit Shebin's figure, the collar framing her elongated head and ears perfectly. The red train fanned out behind her, brushing the floor as she floated on a smaller rendition of the Emperor's cloud. She floated upward, higher and higher, the train lifting from the ground as she approached the Imperial throne and the welcoming smile of the Emperor.
“I understand her procession started on the Isle of the Gods,” Sjei said quietly.
“In our own temple,” replied the master of the Occuran.
“It seems your Order is in favor once again,” Sjei nodded.
“Indeed, the Emperor smiles upon us and our service to his will,” Kyori smiled pleasantly as he spoke. “Services which he will need now more than ever before.”
“Has the Aether been restored in the north?” Sjei asked.
“It has,” Kyori's smile fell slightly as he spoke. “There are problems, however, which we will soon correct. We have taken control of the Northmarch Folds from the Myrdin-dai but . . .”
“Go on,” Sjei urged.
“Nothing of concern,” Kyori said quickly. “Aether is flowing northward at a troublesome rate. I'm sure we'll have it corrected soon.”
“I, too, trust that your Order will correct the problem soon,” Sjei remarked. “Now that the Emperor has adopted the symbol about which we shall forge a truly greatâand profitable conquest. Not a bad story, is it, Kyori? Poor little orphaned girl from the Western Provinces taken into the benevolent grace and household of the Imperial family?”
“A moving story indeed,” Kyori agreed.
Shebin floated across the boundary of the Imperial cloud, coming to rest at the foot of the steps leading up to the Emperor's throne. The Emperor stood to the sound of trumpets filling the hall, reached down, and took Shebin's hand.
The assembled crowd, noting their cue, erupted into applause and cheering. The sound of their cheers echoed through the Imperial halls, floated out of the Cloud Palace and onto the Garden of Kuchen below where the Third Estate citizens had gathered in anxious anticipation of this moment. The cheers in the garden erupted and, like a wave, spread through the throngs in the streets of Rhonas Chas, a chorus of approval and support.
“Cheer on, citizens,” Sjei said, applauding wildly. “We have our war!”
THE END OF BOOK TWO