The Imperial City, from whence every good thing flowed. This was the cradle of the nation that had unified every divided territory from the western edge of the Adaraat Desert all the way to the sea. This was the birthplace of all things just and fair, all things meant for greatness. And of course, the seat of the Emperor’s power could be nothing less than grand and breathtakingly beautiful. Far below, the colors of the sprawling city blended and rippled into each other like threads in a great tapestry, the red banners of the various districts twining all about with splendid, curated groves of exotic trees lining every roadway. Many generations before, this place once had another name, but the Emperor had decreed long ago that it would simply become the Imperial City. The Empire was therefore simply the Empire for that reason as well. Instead of attaching a name to it and making it only one of many, this reign was meant to be the one and only. Not an empire, but The Empire.
And that was what it had become. Under its authority, the people thrived. There were no more warlords, no more fighting, no more misery. All of that had disappeared. Even the most destitute of territories that had suffered from the worst kind of poverty and starvation were cared for now. The Empire conquered first the land, then the soul of it: this was how life should be, full of prosperity and peace.
There had been costs, though. The dragons that used to inhabit the land were gone now, and there were no more wild serpents in the skies. The Purge had made sure of that, the difficult decision by the Emperor to wipe out all the wild dragons that could not be tamed. In the final days of the great creatures, the warlords were still fighting tooth and nail over the last of them in the hopes they could still use them to fight back against the Empire, and they all perished as a result. Now the only dragons that existed in the land were those that hatched in the Imperium under the loving care of their human partners. A bloody history, but in the end, this was what it had become, and this was what it had always been meant to be.
Anzi leaned forward and pressed her palms along the dragon’s glinting blue scales, marveling at the cool smoothness on her skin. Maybe soon, she would be so lucky…She looked up at Colonel Bisset’s back and wished once more that she could ask him all the questions burning on her tongue. But even if it weren’t out of line to interrogate him that way, trying to talk would be pointless. High in the sky with the wind rushing in their ears, he would never hear her -
The dragon dropped into a sudden nose dive, and her stomach plummeted like a heavy stone thrown into a pond. She clutched at the knobs on the sides of the leather saddle, fingers wrapping around the hardened protrusions tighter and tighter as they dived toward the ground. Her eyes watered against the wind, but she refused to close them. The descent was the most thrilling part of the flight, and her heart thrummed in her chest with furious gusto as they cut through the sky, down, down, down.
When they finally leveled out, she released the breath she had been holding with a loud exhale. Would there ever be a day when she accepted this as calmly as the colonel did? He didn’t look the slightest bit affected. Even his white hair remained perfectly groomed, every strand still in place. That was the kind of poise she aspired to, but for now, she savored the last few moments of being airborne as she imagined riding her own dragon, taking to the skies and venturing forth to new lands, new worlds.
Here they were. Now they soared in wide circles, floating on warm thermals as they neared their destination. The Imperial Palace, right in the heart of the city. It was as grand and fearsome as ever with its gray stone parapets, hexagonal walls, and the river that circled around the entire structure with six stone bridges that led across the water into each gate. A hundred guards were stationed on top of the walls alone while a hundred more guarded the bridges, the gates, and the wide roads that connected the paths to the rest of the city. They looked like ants from this high up. She wished she could stay here forever, gliding on the wind and breathing in the crisp dawn.
When they landed, it was all too soon, but now there were other things to look forward to instead. Her blunted weapons needed replacing, and she needed a refitting for her armor in case she needed to gussy up for official induction. And - well, she ought to send a letter to Oza at the Tower, although she didn’t know if she really wanted to…It wasn’t as if he would answer. For now, she followed Bisset and slid off the dragon to stand on a grassy, open courtyard in the middle of the palace. It had been difficult to catch the full aerial view of the grand structure from where she had been sitting as they descended, but there would be plenty of other chances to admire the gold, silver, and gem studded scenery later.
“We’re to see His Excellency, so make yourself presentable.” The colonel hadn’t even glanced back at her, but his tone made it clear she expected she was a wind-beaten mess, which she was. “Do what you can with your hair. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to cut it.”
Her hands jumped to her head, and she smoothed the tousled strands the best she could as she hurried to follow him across the large grassy enclosure. He had a way with words, making her go from exhilarated to ashamed in the span of half a second, and now that he had called her attention to her messy appearance, she felt even more out of place than before.
The blue-and-white clad guards posted between the slender white pillars spaced around the area had nothing to say about it, but as she and Colonel Bisset passed between two of them to enter the palace proper, she could feel their stares digging into her back. When she looked over her shoulder, however, she saw only the colonel’s dragon staring after them from the middle of the courtyard. With a rumbling growl-sigh, the enormous creature settled down to rest on the grass, and she quickly faced forward once more, hoping Bisset hadn’t noticed her momentary distraction. She had to be perfect in every way now. The smallest mistake could cost her dearly. She was here in the home of the Emperor. This was her chance, her one opportunity. She had worked so hard, given up so much. She wasn’t even sure if she could dare to hope.
The white stone reliefs carved into the walls and ceiling of the palace interior told the story of the Empire’s history. The beginning wasn’t located here, but this hallway that led in from the courtyard told the story of the Emperor meeting his dragon for the first time, a great golden marvel with wings that spanned such a great breadth that it took up the entire wall from one wingtip to the other. Too bad that she couldn’t linger long enough to see more; the colonel was striding along too quickly for her to examine anything in depth.
“When you enter,” the colonel said, voice echoing between the walls with ominous solemnity, “don’t bore His Excellency with any stories. When he asks you who you are, state your name, and when he asks you to speak about yourself, be brief. He has no need to know about your childhood or other useless things. Explain that you’re a candidate to join the Premier Guard, and that you would be honored, and that will be enough. If His Excellency attempts to draw you into conversation, don’t forget that you are only a soldier. Do not distract him.”
“Yes, sir.” She didn’t turn her head to peek at him, but from the faintly disgruntled edge in his tone, it sounded like he expected the Emperor to be easily distracted anyway. She didn’t know how to feel about that. This was the monarch, the head of the Empire. Did the colonel have any right to criticize him, even indirectly? For the first time ever, she felt a trickle of displeasure and dismay at the man’s behavior. If it were her, she would never suggest any kind of disapproval over the Emperor, especially not to a subordinate.
So even Colonel Bisset had his faults. She pressed her lips together as they continued to head toward the throne room, and she was glad he had nothing else to say. But with every step she took, something nervous and tight coiled in her belly with increasing insistence, and she quietly wished they could stop a moment so she could catch her breath before the emperor granted them an audience. Stop it, she scolded herself. This was no time to be agitated, no matter how lightheaded her anticipation was making her. This was nothing, just a preliminary step. She shouldn’t be so excited when nothing was for certain yet.
Nonetheless, the strangest sensation floated through her. It was the oddest thing, something like - as if she were on the verge of remembering something she had forgotten, or was about to find something she had misplaced. Like the moment a key hovered just before the lock, ready to enter, ready to turn. The inexplicable specificity of it made her uneasy. It was something separate from the excitement, something foreign. What was wrong with her? And why could she feel her knees going weak, her thighs shaking like leaves under her uniform?
“Colonel Alexandre Bisset of the Premier Guard, with Private Anzi from Territory Five. I’m aware he has company, but His Excellency is expecting us.”
The two hulking guards standing by moved to open the massive twin doors before them, and her eyes lingered on their craggy faces. They weren’t all human, she realized. Was this normal? Hybrids and mixed bloods in the palace? She had never been here before, but that couldn’t be right - no. That was wrong. Again, she had to scold herself. Why wouldn’t mixed-bloods qualify to be Imperial guards? She needed to put those thoughts away for good soon before she accidentally said something offensive to the wrong people here. Moreover, with things suggesting that maybe she had some inhuman blood as well, she was in no position to keep giving way to old prejudices. She was being ridiculous.
…Maybe it was this boiling anxiety in her stomach that was making her even more irritable. Why, why was she so restless? She could hardly breathe now; it was ten times worse than when she had been in the hallway. She forced herself to stare straight at Colonel Bisset’s back and nothing else. With a burst of determination, she shoved down the agitation and resumed walking behind the colonel as they entered the grand throne room. Here, the ceiling arched high over her head in a domed shape and gorgeous reliefs adorned the polished white walls all around them, but she could hardly pay attention to them.
Really, why couldn’t she breathe?
“Anzi, to my side. Greet His Excellency, the Emperor Ra-Tet.”
Ra-Tet? That was a desert name. Had she heard correctly? She stepped to the side and bowed low at the waist before the monarch on his golden throne. She only had time for a short glimpse, but even that little was enough to confirm the validity of her confusion. The Emperor was pale-skinned and blond with crystal blue eyes. She supposed it was possible he was of mixed ancestry, but with the desert blood being so diluted in him, why would he be given a native name?
Not that it should matter. She swept away the irrelevant ponderings and focused her attention on the privilege of being in the Emperor’s presence. That should help her ignore the raging sensation in her belly, too, which had now become almost unbearable. Please go away, she thought desperately.
“It is an honor to be here today,” she said. “I live to serve.”
She heard a sound like that of a palm striking metal, and she realized the Emperor had just lightly slapped his armrest. “Up, up, that’s enough.”
His voice was middle-toned, melodic. Graceful. This was the voice of the leader of all men. She took a deep breath and stood back up. But instead of looking upon the majesty of the great Ra-Tet, her eyes immediately gravitated to the white pillar diagonally behind the throne, where another man leaned against it in silence with his arms crossed. Dark hair, black as night, and eyes so piercingly golden they looked as if they were glowing. He was wearing loose white pants in the style of the nomad tribes who wandered the Adaraat, and his deeply tanned torso was bare save the wide, golden collar draped over his shoulders and chest. Various gems studded the article, lapis blue and ruby red and emerald green. And although he was half in the shadows, so it was hard to tell exactly - she could swear those were golden piercings running down the shell of his ear and hanging from the lobe as well.
She almost dropped to the floor. She didn’t know why, but as she stared at him, as he stared back -
“Ah, yes, I forgot,” the Emperor announced with a flourish of his hand. “This is my honored guest, chieftain of the Mahot tribe, Kaizat-Amun.”
She barely heard him. Suddenly, the most important man in all the Empire shrank away to nothing but a speck of dust in her mind’s eye, and Anzi thought she could feel her body splitting into a thousand, thousand shards as the room spun around her. Colonel Bisset melted away from her too, becoming nothing but a muddled smear in her vision as she stared and stared. The feeling inside her that had been screaming, shouting - it reared up and exploded, sending fire into her veins and scalding every inch of her soul. The room expanded, the room shrank. The room did not exist. Just him, that man, even though she had no idea who he was. Just his name, only his name -
Kaizat-Amun pushed himself off the pillar, rounded the throne, and stepped off the dais to walk toward her.
“Anzi, greet the Emperor’s guest.” Colonel Bisset’s voice grated in her ear as if he were speaking right into it, and the gravelly anger buried there managed to bring her out of her stunned reverie. Dark hells, what was she doing? Still disoriented, she nearly presented Kaizat with a military salute, only managing to catch herself in time because she saw Bisset’s twitch out of the corner of her eye. He was a foreign guest, a chieftain, not an officer. With a smooth flourish, she brought her hand down from where it had been raised halfway and stepped back so she could bend at the waist in a respectful bow. There was no doubt that the colonel had spotted her near-mistake. He was going to have something to say about that later. She grimaced before returning her face to a neutral expression and rising again. To her utter distaste, however, Kaizat bowed as well. Not at the waist, thankfully, but with his golden gaze fixed on her, he inclined his head as deeply as it could go without takin
Anzi had never been in the palace before, which meant she had no pass token to flash at whoever might stop and interrogate her. Would the guards at the front gates open them for her so she could leave? They weren’t supposed to, but with an important foreign chieftain at her side, maybe they would make an exception. Exiting the palace unauthorized had to be easier than getting in. But lesson learned: maybe she should have thought about that before rushing out of the throne room. “How long have you been a soldier?” She looked back at the man and resisted the urge to take a sidling step away from him as they walked down the hallway. She had pulled her hand out of his grasp long ago, but he was sticking too close for comfort. Surely he didn’t have to walk so close that their hands threatened to brush against each other with every step, and surely he didn’t have to stare at her that way, either. His unnatural golden gaze felt like it was boring straight through her and melting her down li
Anzi and Kaizat stood patiently by the enormous stone barrier that made up one of the six massive gates leading out the city. Just beyond the barrier would be a bridge made of the same heavy stone as well, solid and true. The gate guards were the same way. No ordinary beasts, these: while Anzi had her doubts about non-humans, control of the impossibly heavy gates had to fall into the capable hands of the enormous stone golems and no one else. Somewhat man-shaped, just vaguely, while bearing the rippling, coarse texture of rocky earth, the hunched-over creatures stood thrice as high as the tallest human and as many times wide. They had no eyes nor mouth nor ears, but they had a sizable, featureless lump where the head might be on a man along with two arms and two legs as wide around as tree trunks. Mottled gray, black, and white, if they stood stationary, someone who knew no better would mistake them for massive statues chiseled out of a mountainside. But of course, everyone in the Imp
She should have known these knuckle-draggers would be here. “Welcome back, Anzi, didn’t expect to see you so soon. Fell off, did you? Passing muster for the Premier Guard harder than you thought?” “If I fell off, then you should be worried about where you’ll end up,” she said flatly, but she didn’t bother putting on a frosty front otherwise. Blunt words were enough to get her point across when it came to this gaggle of malcontent soldiers who thought she was a wise target to heckle. Oscar had never been very smart though, so while his friends would know better than to do much more than sneer in her direction, he was the one who would be raising hell soon enough. Too bad all the other training grounds were already reserved for drills. She had come up the hill to check with the quartermaster before escorting Kaizat over, knowing there would be trouble-making loiterers about. Like Oscar and his friends.
“What do you think you’re doing.” Anzi had no choice but to remain in place since she didn’t dare step in front of the chieftain, but if she could, she would have been in Oscar’s face in an eye blink. Was he crazy or stupid or both? Didn’t he recognize what kind of guest she was escorting by the priceless regalia he wore? Her eyes narrowed to sharp slits as she glared at her fellow soldier, violently willing him to move back. “I’m just welcoming -” “It’s all right, Anzi. I’m sure he means no harm.” She couldn’t bring herself to look over at Kaizat, not even when she felt a soothing hand rest upon the leather guard over her shoulder. This was humiliating. No discipline, she seethed. And what was Oscar’s plan, exactly? What did he think was going to happen? Now that he had issued what was little more than a poorly disguised challenge, the honor of the Empire’s entire military rested on a pair of shoulders more suitable for posing for portraits than fighting. And yet even if he won, th
“So you get sent back here, and the first thing they make you do is give a tour to some barbarian nomad princeling?” Anzi said nothing in response to the haughty sneer that came from her left. She had no idea which one of Oscar’s friends was speaking, but it was all the same to her. He wasn’t worth responding to. “Stop that,” someone else said. A feminine voice this time, softer but no less lofty. “It must have felt awful coming back like this. It’s alright, Anzi…you’re five or ten years too early for the Premier Guard, anyway. It would have been ridiculous if you managed it, don’t you think? Now that you’re back, you can train some more and prepare better. Next time, if you work harder, you’ll definitely make it.” The snide, backhanded pretense at encouragement was even more annoying than the outright taunting. If she were allowed to speak of the Gauntlet or the Running at all, she would have shot back with a cold assurance that she had exceeded all expectations, but Colonel Bisset
“The market is still crowded. It’ll be better if you wait until closer to the evening to explore the wares.” “That’s fine.” It had been quiet between them ever since Anzi led Kaizat away from the training grounds half an hour ago. Since then, they had been walking along the wide, smooth stone path that followed the circular Annat River and bordered the inner edge of the upper districts. Now they approached a divide in the river, as well as in the path. One way would continue leading them around, and the other would take them deeper into the city districts. When they reached the fork, she came to a halt. “What would you like to see in the meantime, sir.” “What would you recommend?” “There are people who enjoy exploring the Quarter Art, but I don’t think you’ll be wanting souvenirs.” “How did you know? Do I not look like the sort to collect them?” She was glad they passed by another soldier just then so that she was obligated to exchange a quick salute. It gave her an excuse to not
Anzi was grateful to finally get away from the chieftain. After spending no more than half a day with him, she was already feeling horribly bereft by his absence, so how much worse would it have been if she had been in his presence any longer? Even now, she could feel the warmth of his fingers trailing along the side of her face, smell the dizzying scent of spice and desert wind rising from his body, hear his voice alternate between smooth syllables and deep, roughened rumbles… Really, she was grateful they were separated now. Truly. They had returned to the palace as the sun set even though her summons had not yet come, and they had made it back into the grounds with little disturbance thanks to the letter that vouched for them. After that, she had made sure to deposit him into the care of a pretty palace maid who eagerly agreed to show Kaizat-Amun to his room. “I said to call me Kai,” he had said again with a smile, and Anzi had hurriedly demurred before excusing herself. She shou