No one stopped him on his stroll to the throne room. No one had the chance. Remy let his awareness extend like a mist over half the palace complex, bringing every flare of consciousness within his fold: a sea of candle flames through which he passed like a shadow. Thoughts would turn his way—a double-take, a moment of confusion, and sometimes shock if they realized what he was—but he would twist his wrist, and the poor souls would fall unconscious. Is that—and it was over.
Power thrummed through Remy’s veins, that bottomless well of unquenchable fire. Anyone who knew what he was capable of knew he flirted with madness every day. All fire priests fought it; and the longer the lifespan, the harder it became to resist.
At least I know the Flamewarden will put me down when it comes to that.
Guards lurked in every corridor of the complex’s central building, far outnumbering the nobility and servants Remy could sense through misty tendrils. Elia had said the emperor was growing paranoid, and not without good reason: any idiot with half a comprehension of history could see it was the beginning of the end for the Empire. Disease was sweeping the West, and though the Conclave in Novis worked hard to bring druid healers to those in need, most of the time, the battle was futile. Druids were concentrated in the East, and their population was perilously low—genocidal past policies had a way of doing that. The Conclave’s plague response had been sluggish, and too sporadic to stop the worst. Nor were the chosen healers of Eineria infallible; new diseases, unresponsive to all the usual treatments, cropped up every few centuries. There was hope that alchemists were growing close to a cure for this one, but for many denizens of the West, it was too late. Survivors were migrating en masse from devastated villages and cities. It was time for a particular kind of emperor, one entirely different from the man born to hold the seat.
Remy reached the throne room’s antechamber and stopped. Rather than flinging the guards outside the gold-plated doors into unceremonious insentience, he decided to have a little fun; hooking into their minds gently, discreetly, he stepped into their line of sight.
“Hold,” one of them called, shifting noisily in his matte-black plate armor. One hand slid to the mace at his hip. “Nobility are confined to their apartments. Don’t come any closer.”
I’m supposed to be here. Remy pushed the lie in their direction. For a lesser sorcerer, it might have glanced off and done nothing—guards were remarkably adroit at keeping their orders straight—but Remy cupped it softly as it landed, as one might cup a beloved trinket, and bound it with threads of the men’s own thinking. In a moment they would be hard-pressed to know where their truth ended and his lie began.
“I—” The first guard touched his helm, confused. The second man was staring at the painted tiles embedded in the marble floor as if they might hold answers to the universe’s great questions.
I’m supposed to be here. Remy pressed a little more, just enough to strengthen the bonds. Let me through, then go to your barracks and fall asleep. You’ve earned a break.
“I am a little tired,” the second man said. His words, lilting with the melodic accent of Iotorath, were slurred with an exhaustion he did not, in reality, feel.
Remy stepped aside, gesturing down the corridor behind him, and the guards lumbered off. Clinking armor died away. Smirking, Remy turned back to the golden doors. He drew in the mists that ensorcelled the court’s minds, snuffing out weak and bright flames alike, shifting his focus to the flares within the emperor’s great hall—that overwrought monstrosity of glossy white marble and pristine golden columns, cradling a tumultuous throne upon which an Almad forever sat, twisted by power. Currently the place was bursting with guards and with fear. A brush of magic coaxed the doors open.
Only the flavor of the twist changes, Remy thought, squeezing his hand into a fist.
On the far end of the room, the high commander of the emperor’s guard shrieked and collapsed, clutching his head. For his part, Emperor Kapil barely flinched. He also had the foresight to lift his hand from the arm of his gilded throne, staying the remainder of his guard from assaulting Remy, who ambled toward him.
Images, emotions, and half-developed thoughts swirled through the emperor’s mind in such a frantic jumble that Remy had only to reach out to catch one out of a thousand to crush him.
No one can stand equal to you, Kapil’s father, Akash, had told him when he was a child. They’ll try to hurt you and threaten you. But you’ll be emperor, and the emperor can crush anyone.
“Enough,” Remy said, silencing the whimpering commander with a flick of his hand. The man slumped to the ground beside the throne, unconscious. “It looks like you’ve been waiting for me, Emperor. How touching.”
Kapil squeezed the arms of his throne until the copper skin of his hands turned white. “I don’t even know what you’re doing here, Mindwalker, unless you’re hiding a new fire priest in the antechamber.”
“Funny thing,” Remy said. “I can’t get anyone to take the post. Something about the picture I give of my own service to the Almad line just doesn’t seem to sit well. You shouldn’t have fired the last one.”
“She wasn’t very … amenable to my orders. She seemed to think they were contingent upon her opinion.” Kapil frowned. “Why are you here, then?”
“Don’t be coy. Queen Elia Kolenikova sent me.” Remy came to a stop at the foot of the steps, where the emperor could stare down at him imperiously, and crossed his arms over the sigil adorning his night-black armor. It was really three sigils interlaid together—a tree, a rune from the mage language, and flames—glowing with fiery orange wards. “You should thank her. She stopped her sons from addressing the slight themselves.”
“Simir and Ciris would never risk war,” Kapil said.
“Why not? Your grip on Ucconia and Aeglivar is tenuous, at best. Draserune is looking for an excuse to break from the Empire, and the Snowlands will go with them. The winds are changing, Almad.”
Kapil bristled at his impertinence, engulfing Remy in a tempest of I’ll kill him and He’s never making it back to Novis, and even an image of his own corpse quartered and flung into unmarked graves dotting the mountain range to the north. Mass graves of Kapil’s own making—not his father’s.
“Careful, or someone will hold you accountable for your crimes,” Remy said.
Kapil’s face reddened, almost to the point it caught up with his nose. “Get out of my head,” he spat.
Remy tsked. “You and I both know I’ve never taken orders from impudent children. Release Princess Emilia.”
The emperor set his jaw and refused to speak.
“I don’t think Simir and Ciris were the ones trying to start a war,” Remy said. “Release her, and I might save you from yourself.”
“She was sent here to marry my son, and she refuses,” Kapil growled.
“She was sent here to evaluate your son,” Remy said. “Her mother was worried what he’d be like, with such a father. Worried about the state of the Empire, and Emilia’s place in it were she to take him. And how right she was to be cautious. You can’t force the match.”
“Who’s going to stop me?” Kapil bit out. “The Conclave is neutral. You have no power here.”
One corner of Remy’s mouth quirked with amusement. It had the intended effect of completely unnerving the emperor.
“Certainly, the Conclave is neutral,” Remy said. “As neutral as power can be, in any case. But I’m just a man. And you’ve imprisoned someone I dearly care about.”
Kapil lurched forward as if to stand, but Remy caught him halfway, throwing him back into his throne with a flick of his hand. Sweat beaded on the emperor’s forehead. He still didn’t order his guards to attack.
“I’m her guardian,” Remy said. “Did you know? Queen Elia and King Syllian thought I was the best candidate for the job, in case she had magic like her brothers. She didn’t, of course, or she already would have slaughtered you.”
“No.” Kapil strained against the force Remy was applying to his chest. “She wouldn’t kill me. No one can kill me.”
“Your father was wrong,” Remy said.
He stabbed deeper into Kapil’s mind with no artful delicacy, and for no reason but pain—just because he could. The emperor screamed, as clear an order as any, and his guards sprang into action. Shaking his head in a wearied way, Remy jerked his hand, like he was shoving something away from his chest; the ensuing shockwave had so much force behind it that every guard in the room was thrown to the ground at once. Armor crunched, soldiers groaned, and the extravagant throne beneath Kapil cracked.
“Do you know how tempting it is to force the hand of fate when you’re immortal?” Remy hissed. “I see a despot like you, and it reminds me of the hundred times I could have cut your predecessors’ throats and put the Empire out of its misery. Even the decent ones your useless line has managed to spit out—they always sired more murderers and warmongers in the end.”
He released the spell holding Kapil to the throne. The emperor slid from the white marble seat and onto his knees, coughing.
“The Conclave is neutral because magic can appear in any bloodline,” Remy said. “Noble or common. East or West. We play all sides, and use benevolence as a shield against hatred. But people like you, who have too much power and too little sense—you confuse neutrality with impotence. You forget what one of us, alone, is capable of.”
Some of the dazed guards were beginning to recover. Remy mounted the steps to the throne, drawing on his unspoken magic, that well of power that would never run dry. He swung his hand in an oval, surrounding himself, the emperor, and his comatose high commander in an impassable ring of dancing black flame. Kapil scrabbled backward until he hit his sundered throne. Remy paused at the top of the steps, a meter from him.
“You won’t get away with this,” Kapil said. “All of us agreed that Novis wouldn’t have a voice in our politics—”
Remy smiled sharply. “I told you, I’m not here for the Conclave. I’m here for the girl I swore to protect when she was still in the womb. I’m here to show you what kind of power one sorcerer has against a feckless moron who antagonizes him.”
Kapil pushed himself back into his throne, his emerald green eyes reflecting the shivering black flames roaring behind him, all around him. He was trapped in a prison of scorching flame, and there was only one logical outcome. To the emperor’s credit, though, the fear and anger that had been swirling uncontrollably in his mind stilled to something like fierce resignation. He was as terrified of death as any fire priest who had passed through the flames to live eternal, but he was also a realist. Remy could respect that.
He closed his fist, and the black flames vanished soundlessly, taking the overwhelming heat with them. None of the tension left Kapil—he searched Remy’s face, glowering and distrustful—but he did, with one trembling hand, gesture for his guards to stand down. The ones no longer languishing on the floor, anyway.
In that hushed, palatial room, atop that broken throne, the emperor looked defeated in his sweat-soiled clothes. Defeated and rumpled … and so young, despite the gray flecking his dark brown hair. Remy caught his own reflection in the wall of windows behind the throne, the façade of his age nearing thirty, his blue eyes ancient and deadened.
How many emperors he had served without dedication. How many emperors he had watched die with satisfaction. Dark years, where time meant nothing and so many pieces of him were lost. It was nice, caring about something again.
“You may have the power to do whatever you want, Almad,” Remy said, slipping his hands into his pockets, “but so do I. I was here when your grandfather was born. I’ll be here when your children die. And I came to remind you: I have no qualms plunging the Empire into chaos. Push me again, and I will.”
Kapil brushed damp hair from his eyes, still scowling. “I’ll release her, all right? You can tell Elia she’s made her point.”
Remy exhaled a laugh. “Mihri. How can you still not see that it was my point?”
In the sparing of his life, Kapil was rapidly regaining the entitlement and arrogance Remy despised him for. The emperor shook his head, as if disappointed.
“You’ve been a fool,” he said. “I could have removed Emilia from the palace at any point while you were running your mouth. Perhaps I did.”
“You overestimate your abilities and your intelligence, as usual,” Remy said, lifting his hand to conjure a portal away from this blasted place—the room, the palace, the city, the realm. “I secured the princess and her retinue over an hour ago.”