"What is that?"
Until now I did not know what would happen if another took the
Crown. It seems that the Blood is strong enough in you to sustain me,
yet not strong enough for me to take control.
"Is that what you did? You took control of your sons, ruled them from within?"
They were never really aware of it, simply shadows of themselves lurking
at the back of my mind. I became them and they were simply put to one side.
Ullsaard dashed across the throne room and picked up the Crown. He pulled it down onto his head, congealed blood spreading, sticking to his forehead.
"Get out!" he snarled. "Go back to your Crown!"
Askhos laughed, touched with bitterness.
You have split me, Ullsaard. Part of me is still in the Crown, which I
suspect is why I have not been able to push you aside. It is not like picking
a tent to sleep in. I am here and in the Crown. This is as much uncharted
territory for me as it is for you. There is only one who can unravel this
tangle for us, but he is far away.
"Perhaps if I destroy the Crown? Then I will be free."
Askhos laughed again.
Destroy it? Melt it in a fire? Please do. And when you have, explain
to the people of Askhor why you have done so. Some will believe you to
be mad and have you slain; others will believe you tell the truth and
will insist that I be allowed to rule. And there is no guarantee that break
ing the Crown will remove me from your head.
Ullsaard groaned and pulled off the Crown, tempted for a moment to toss it out of a window. He stopped himself, knowing the truth of Askhos's words. To admit that something was amiss with the Crown, with himself, would be to invite doubt about his rightful rule.
Your civil war has brought the empire to the brink of ruin, Ullsaard.
With my help, you must rebuild it. Firstly, you must lift your ban on
"Not a chance," said Ullsaard. "The Brotherhood were loyal to Lutaar. They will do everything they can to undermine me and restore Kalmud to the throne. Your oldest surviving heir still lives, and while he does there is the chance that you can trick him out of his body as you did your other sons. Don't take me for a fool."
From the moment Aalun brought you to my attention I never thought
you a fool, Ullsaard. I should have recognised the Blood in you, but I
thought it impossible. For two hundred years the succession, the inter
marriages, the traditions served to keep me in power. All of that undone
because Cosuas fell in love and allowed your mother to bear you. Still, I
do not dwell on the past. The Brotherhood is the core of Greater Askhor.
Without them there is no empire.
"We will do fine…" Ullsaard trailed off as he heard footsteps in the hallway beyond the throne chamber doors. He hurried across to the throne and sat down, holding the Crown in his lap.
The double doors opened a crack and a head poked round, a red crest hanging from the man's helm. Ullsaard recognised him immediately: it was Rondin, First Captain of the Fifth. The legion commander took a tentative step into the throne room, banged a fist to his breastplate and stood to attention.
"You told us to gather here at the start of Duskwatch, general," said Rondin. The other first captains – Donar, Anasind, Jutiil and Luamid – filed in behind him and offered their salutes.
"King," said Ullsaard. "I am not your general anymore, I am your king."
"Of course, king," said Rondin, nodding in apology. "Old habit."
Ullsaard smiled and waved them to approach.
"Time to develop a new habit," he said. He twisted and hung the Crown on the back of the throne, trying to appear dismissive. "At midnight the licence for the Legions to sack the city ends. Have your best companies on the streets to enforce the cessation of looting. We must send a strong signal to Askh and the rest of the empire that the turmoil has finished. From tomorrow, the labour continues under me as it did under Lutaar.
"Jutiil, I need you to search the city for any counsellors, treasurers, nobles and advisors from Lutaar's court. Bring them to the palace. Nicely, if you can; forcefully, if you have to. With the Brotherhood disbanded, we have to set up a new administration."
You cannot replace the Brotherhood.
Ullsaard stopped at the interruption. He caught himself just about to reply and abruptly shut his mouth, earning himself odd looks from his First Captains. He waited for a moment to see if Askhos had anything else to say. The dead king stayed silent.
"The division, the anarchy of the past year is over. I am king and Greater Askhor will continue. Not only continue, it will grow, stronger than ever." He looked at his commanders and smiled. "We have fought hard for this day. We have earned it. Tomorrow will bring the rewards."
Dismissed by a nod from their new king, the First Captains saluted and filed out of the chamber, leaving Ullsaard alone with his thoughts.
Not alone, he remembered. Not alone at all.
The bloodfields, circuit and wrestling circles of Maarmes were filled with people. The babble of thousands died away as Ullsaard ascended the steps to the stage overlooking the crowd. On the stepped rows of benches behind him sat the noble families, the merchants rich enough to bribe their way onto the seats and the leaders of many other civic organisations, including lawyers, academics and master craftsmen.
All watched Ullsaard with wary eyes.
Glancing over the high society of Askh, he caught the eye of Etor Astaan, father to Ullsaard's friend Noran. The king had sought Noran's family that morning, to deliver the news that their son had almost died saving Ullsaard's life and was now in a coma, being tended to by the king's family in Magilnada. Etor had taken the news placidly, and though he did not say as such his few comments implied he thought Noran an idiot for getting involved with Ullsaard's coup. Noran's mother had been equally stoic and displayed greater sorrow at the news of the death of her daughter-in-law and stillborn grandson.
Ullsaard had fled the awkward situation as soon as was polite, and the Astaans had been happy to see him leave. Now they looked at him with apathetic gazes. They were not alone. There were many on the benches of the nobles that had only attended this announcement through subtle and not-so-subtle coercion by Ullsaard's First Captains.
Regardless of how they had been brought here, every family was represented. It was important to conjure this display of support before the masses of Askh. Though they did not yet know it, it would also be important for the nobles; Ullsaard was about to make them all an offer they would find hard to refuse.
Several hundred legionnaires stood as a cordon around the outthrust of the stage. At a shout from their captains, they turned to face the king and lifted their spears in salute. This nicety attended to, they turned back to keep a watch on the restless crowd.
"This last year and more has been a trying time for all people of Greater Askhor," declared Ullsaard. From a life of parade grounds and battle orders he was able to pitch his voice to the furthest members of the crowd without much effort.
Thousands of pairs of eyes, men and women, children and elders, gazed up at him. There were some smiles, but not many. He could feel the fear of some in the crowd, worried what this change in rule meant for them. Most of all he saw anxiety, desperation. The people were eager for stability, for a return to their normal lives.
"I am your king now. Most of you will have heard of me. For those of you who have not, you can see for yourselves the manner of man that now rules this empire. I am of the Blood, a son of King Lutaar. I fought as a legionnaire, commanded a company, led a legion and became the most successful general of this generation. What I set my mind to, I achieve. Standing here before you is testament to that fact."
He approached the front of the stage and stretched out a hand, encompassing the crowd in its sweep.
"None of that matters. Greater Askhor is not the artifice of one man, though it was founded as such. All of us make this empire. You, the proud people of Askh; the noble and wealthy that sit behind me; and me. I have shown that no king rules without the consent of his people. I ask for your loyalty and your service. In return, I will give you safety and prosperity."
Ullsaard paused, allowing this to sink in. He hesitated, knowing the next part of his speech to be a lie. He readied himself for a complaint from Askhos, determined that he would not be distracted.
"The empire has not changed because another now wears the Crown of the Blood. Kings are born and kings die, just like any other men." He waited, expecting some comment from Askhos. The dead king said nothing. "The empire is all of us, and still bigger than all of us. And it is my intent that it will grow larger still."
Pulling out his sword, Ullsaard turned to duskwards and pointed the blade.
"Salphoria. Many of you will know of this place, beyond our borders. It was Askhos's will that the empire stretch from sea to sea. This summer, the legions of Askh will march on a great conquest, and bring the wilderness of Salphoria into civilisation. My soldiers cannot do this alone. They will need the spears forged in your smithies. They will need the kilts tanned in your workshops. They will need the grain grown on your farms.
"And when Salphoria kneels before me, the rewards will be many. Gold and grain, jewels and livestock, bronze and stone, timber and iron. Salphoria is rich in all of these things. Prized farmlands await those with the knowledge to sow and till it properly. Vineyards and quarries, for those that can manage such concerns. These will become Askhan. These will become yours."
Now the moment had arrived. Ullsaard took a breath, full of pride. He turned to face the nobles, sheathing his sword.
"In the first days of the empire, Askhos bid his allies to form armies and conquer the world. He promised the spoils of victory to those that could take them. As your new king, I renew this pledge. The ancient rights of conquest are restored. Let the man with the strength and wealth, the courage and the ferocity, raise up a legion to claim what is rightfully his. Salphoria awaits us, and its many rewards. Stand by me, help me take this land, and it is yours."
He was confronted by a wall of disbelieving faces. The nobles exchanged glances with each other, some of them whispering to their neighbours. It was not the response Ullsaard had hoped for. Perhaps he had not made his offer clear enough?
"I am reinstating the rights of the noble families to raise and lead their own legions again. This summer, any of you can march to Salphoria and take what rightfully belongs to you." He rounded on the crowd. "Whoever here that marches with me will get their fair share as well. As it was in the time of Askhos, so it is again. Too long the power has been hoarded by the Brotherhood and the governors. I am setting free the shackles that have chained the beast that is Greater Askhor. This is a new time of glory. It is yours to seize!"
"These are different times." Ullsaard looked back at the nobles to see who had spoken. Laadir Irrin, head of one of the oldest and most powerful families, stood up. "Our forefathers were warlords and chieftains. What do we know of war?"
Ullsaard smiled, for he had expected this argument and already had a counter for it.
"There are many fine officers in the legions, and many that have retired who would consider again the opportunity to conquer for Askh. If you have not the stomach for the battle yourself, appoint another to lead in your place."
This provoked the reaction that Ullsaard had hoped for. There were shouts of protest and prideful boasts. No matter the pampered existence of many on the noble seats, they nevertheless shared the notion that they were brave and great leaders like their ancestors.
Surprisingly, it was Etor Astaan that stood next.
"I will raise a legion," he declared. "Though it has been generations since the Astaan's led an army in battle, I would not spurn the challenge."
This prompted more conspiratorial whispering. The nobles were finally realising the import of what Ullsaard was doing. If one amongst them raised a legion, not only would that shame the others, it would put them at a distinct commercial disadvantage. Ullsaard was right about the riches of Salphoria, and if he was forcing them to take their own share, they would have to act.
Others stood up and raised their fists, declaring their intent to lead a legion. Even a few of the merchants added their voices, earning themselves scornful laughter from the nobles. Ullsaard strode toward the mass of citizens spread across the field.
"Do not let these noble bastards have all the fun!" he roared. "Who here has the mettle to be a legionnaire? Which of you could be a First Captain?"
Claims and counter-claims were shouted up to Ullsaard. He unsheathed his sword again, rammed it into the planks of the stage and knelt beside it, looking at the crowd with wide eyes.
"Which of you wants a vine terrace in the Altes Hills? Who would like a mill on the Geinan River? How about running one of those salt mines?" He waved away his own suggestions. "Forget that! Who here would like a house in Carantathi? Perhaps you could live in the palaces of Aegenuis himself, with his hundreds of servants to attend you! Or perhaps the hot-blooded amongst you want to find out if those Salphorian girls are as feisty as some claim?"
He stood up and stretched his arms wide, fists clenched.