Sunlight streaming through marble-arched windows illumined the tapestry-hung room. The servants, tongueless so that they could not speak of whom they saw in their master's house, had withdrawn, leaving five people to sip their wine in silence.
Cantaro Albanus, the host, studied his guests, toying idly with the heavy gold chain that hung across his scarlet tunic. The lone woman pretended to study the intricate weaving of the tapestries; the men concentrated on their winecups.
Midmorning, Albanus reflected, was exactly the time for such meetings, though it rubbedraw the nerves of his fellows. Traditionally such were held in the dark of night by desperate men huddled in secret chambers sealed to exclude so much as a moonbeam. Yet who would believe, who could even suspect that a gathering of Nemedia's finest in the bright light of day, in the very heart of the capital, could be intent on treason?
His lean-cheeked face darkened at the thought, and his black eyes became obsidian. With his hawk nose and the slashes of silver at the temples of his dark hair, he looked as if he should have been a general. He had indeed been a soldier, once, for a brief year. When he was but seventeen his father had obtained him a commission in the Golden Leopards, the bodyguard regiment of Nemedian Kings since time beyond memory. At his father's death he had resigned. Not for him working his way up the ladder of rank, no matter how swiftly aided by high birth. Not for one who by blood and temperament should be King. For him nothing could be treason.
"Lord Albanus," Barca Vegentius said suddenly, "we have heard much of the ... special aid you bring to our ... association. We have heard much, but thus far we have seen nothing." Large and square of face and body, the current Commander of the Golden Leopards pronounced his words carefully. He thought to hide his origins by hiding the accents of the slums of Belverus, and was unaware that everyone knew his deception.
"Such careful words to express your doubts, Vegentius," Demetrio Amarianus said. The slender youth touched a perfumed pomander tohis nose, but it could not hide the sneer that twisted his almost womanly mouth. "But then you always use careful words, don't you? We all know you are here only to--"
"Enough!" Albanus snapped.
Both Demetrio and Vegentius, whose face had been growing more purple by the second, subsided like well-trained animals at the crack of the trainer's whip. These squabbles were constant, and he tolerated them no more than he was forced to. Today he would not tolerate them at all.
"All of you," Albanus went on, "want something. You, Vegentius, want the generalship you feel King Garian has denied you. You, Demetrio, want the return of the estates Garian's father took from your grandfather. And you, Sephana. You want revenge against Garian because he told you he liked his women younger."
"As pleasantly stated as is your custom, Albanus," the lone woman said bitterly. Lady Sephana Galerianus' heart-shaped face was set with violet eyes and framed by a raven mane that hung below her shoulders. Her red silk robe was cut to show both the inner and outer slopes of her generous breasts, and slashed to expose her legs to the hip when she walked.
"And what do I want?" the fourth man in the room asked, and everyone started as if they had forgotten he was there.
It was quite easy to forget Constanto Melius, for the middle-aged noble was vagueness personified. Thinning hair and the pouches beneath his constantly blinking eyes were his most prominent features, and his intelligence and abilities matched the rest of him.
"You want your advice listened to," Albanus replied. "And so it shall be, when I am on the throne."
It would be listened to for as long as it took to order the man banished, the hawk-faced lord thought. Garian had made the mistake of rebuffing the fool, then leaving him free in the capital to foment trouble. Albanus would not make the same mistake.
"We seem to have passed by what Vegentius said," Sephana said abruptly, "but I, too, would like to see what help we can count on from you, Albanus. Demetrio and Vegentius provide information. Melius and I provide gold to buy disorders in the street, and to pay brigands to burn good grain. You keep your plans to yourself and tell us about the magicks that will make Garian give the throne to you, if we do these other things as well. I, too, want to see these magicks."
The others seemed somewhat abashed that she had brought the promised sorcery out into the open, but Albanus merely smiled.
Rising, he tugged a brocade bellpull on the wall before moving to a table at the end of the room, a table where a cloth covered certain objects. Cloth and objects alike Albanus had placed there with his own hands.
"Come," he told the others. Suddenly reluctant, they moved to join him slowly.
With a flourish he whisked the cloth aside, enjoying their starts. He knew that the things on that table--a statuette in sapphire, a sword with serpentine blade and quillons of ancient pattern, a few crystals and engraved gems--were, with one exception, practically useless. At least, he had found little use prescribed for them inthe tomes he had so plainfully deciphered. Items of power he kept elsewhere.
Ten years earlier, slaves on one of his estates north of Numalia had dug into a subterranean chamber. Luckily he had been there at the time, been there to recognize it as the storehouse of a sorcerer, been there to see that the luckless slaves were buried in that chamber once he had emptied it.
A year it had taken him just to discover how ancient that cache was, dating back to Acheron, that dark empire ruled by the vilest thaumaturgies and now three millenia and more gone in the dust. For all those years he had studied, eschewing a tutor for fear any sorcerer of ability would seize the hoard for his own. It had been a wise decision, for had he been known to be studying magicks he would surely have been caught up in Garian's purge of sorcerers from the capital. Garian. Thinking dark thoughts, Albanus lifted a small red crystal sphere from the table.
"I mistrust these things," Sephana said, shuddering. "Better we should rely on ways more natural. A subtle poison--"
"Would provoke a civil war for the succession," Albanus cut her off. "I don't want to tell you again that I have no intention of having to wrest the Dragon Throne from a half score of claimants. The throne will be given to me, as I have said."
"That," Vegentius grumbled, "I will believe when I see it."
Albanus motioned the others to silence as a serving girl entered. Blonde and pale of skin, she was no more than sixteen years of age. Hersimple white tunic, embroidered about the hem with Albanus' house-mark, was slashed to show most of her small breasts and long legs. She knelt immediately on the marble floor, head bent.
"Her name is Omphale," the hawk-faced lord said.
The girl shifted at the mention of her name, but knew enough not to lift her head. She was but newly enslaved, sold for the debts of her father's shop, but some lessons were quickly learned.
Albanus held the red crystal at arm's length in his left hand, making an arcane gesture with his right as he intoned, "An-naal naa-thaan Vas-ti no-entei!"
A flickering spike of flame was suddenly suspended above the crystal, as long as a man's forearm and more solid than a flame should be. Within the pulsing red-and-yellow, two dark spots, uncomfortably like eyes, moved as if examining the room and its occupants. All moved back unconsciously except for Omphale, who cowered where she knelt, and Albanus.
"A fire elemental," Albanus said conversationally. Without changing his tone he added, "Kill Omphale!"
The blonde's mouth widened to scream, but before a sound emerged the elemental darted forward, swelling to envelop her. Jerkily she rose to her feet, twitching in the midst of an egg of flame that slowly opaqued to hide her. The fire hissed, and in the depths of the hiss was a thin shriek, as of a woman screaming in the distance. With the pop of a bursting bubble theflame disappeared, leaving behind a faint sickly sweet smell.
"Messy," Albanus mused, scuffing with a slippered foot at an oily black smudge on the marble floor where the girl had been.
The others' stares were stunned, as if he had transformed into the fabled dragon Xutharcan. Surprisingly, it was Melius who first regained his tongue.
"These devices, Albanus. Should we not have some of them as well as you?" His pouchy eyes blinked uncomfortably at the others' failure to speak. "As a token that we are all equals," he finished weakly.
Albanus smiled. Soon enough he would be able to show them how equal they were. "Of course," he said smoothly. "I've thought of that myself." He gestured to the table. "Choose, and I will tell you what powers your choice possesses." He slipped the red crystal into a pouch at his belt as he spoke.
Melius hesitated, reached out, and stopped with his hand just touching the sword. "What ... what powers does this have?"
"It turns whoever wields it into a master swordsman." Having found that such was the extent of the blade's power, Albanus had researched no further. He had no interest in becoming a warrior-hero; he would be King, with such to do his bidding. "Take the blade, Melius. Or if you fear it, perhaps Vegentius ... ." Albanus raised a questioning eyebrow at the square-faced soldier.
"I need no magicks to make me a bladesman," Vegentius sneered. But he made no move tochoose something else, either.
"Demetrio?" Albanus said. "Sephana?"
"I mislike sorcery," the slender young man replied, openly flinching away from the display on the table.
Sephana was made of sterner stuff, but she shook her head just as quickly. "If these sorceries can pull Garian from the Dragon Throne, 'tis well enough for me. And they can not ... ." She met Albanus' gaze for a moment, then turned away.
"I'll take the sword," Melius said suddenly. He hefted the weapon, testing the balance, and laughed. "I have no such scruples as Vegentius about how I become a swordsman."
Albanus smiled blandly, but slowly his face hardened. "Now hear me," he intoned, fixing each of them in turn with an obsidian eye. "I have shown but a small sampling of the powers that will gain me the throne of Nemedia, and grant your own desires. Know that I will brook no deviation, no meddling that might interfere with my designs. Nothing will stand between me and the Dragon Crown. Nothing! Now go!"
They backed from his presence as if he already sat on the Dragon Throne.