“…And it was in this year that the caves which we now know as Avernum were first colonised, when your grandfather, Hawthorne the Mighty, sent down-” With a sound of exasperation, Enla broke off mid-sentence. “My lady, are you listening?”
With a guilty start, Prazac tore her gaze from the window. “Oh! I’m sorry, Enla. I was distracted.”
“That,” Enla retorted, “is obvious.”
Prazac shifted in her chair and tried to look contrite, but it was hard when every word out of Enla’s mouth was spoken in that same acid tone, designed to communicate that she had much better things she could be doing with her time than teaching historical lore to a young girl, even if that young girl was heir to the throne of the Empire. Prazac was a willing pupil for the most part, but she was still the daughter of Hawthorne, and she was still proud, and it was hard to dredge up much enthusiasm for a lesson she knew she was begrudged.
“Perhaps we may continue?” suggested Enla.
“I do have a question,” said Prazac.
Enla raised an eyebrow. “And what would that be, my lady?”
“One thing I have never been sure about: why did it take so long for the caves to be colonised, after they were discovered?”
Enla pressed her lips together. “That is not the subject of this lesson.”
“I know, but it’s something I have never understood. I have heard of the First Expedition, of course, but why was the decision to colonise Avernum not made then?”
“Very little is known about the First Expedition, my lady.” She was as brusque as ever, but Prazac was surprised to see the shade of something very like fear cross her face. “I’m a magical researcher, not an expert in Avernum. Now, do not ask me about it again.”
Her tone was so final that Prazac dared not contradict her, and she passed the rest of the lesson in obedient silence, until a boy in the robes of an apprentice mage appeared, clearing his throat nervously.
“Enla? Garzahd requests your presence in his laboratories.”
Unaccountably, Enla’s mouth went even thinner. “Of course. We must all drop everything when Garzahd calls, mustn’t we? Well, Your Highness, I believe that ends our lesson for today. Good day to you.”
Prazac could hardly get out of the library quick enough. Avernum was one of her least favourite subjects for study, even if it was important, but it was Enla’s attitude that had made the lesson unbearable. Mages. Why were they always so touchy?
She had a few hours free before her afternoon lessons, so she returned to her apartments. She had lunch with Lady Lovisa - officially her Mistress of the Wardrobe, unofficially her mother - but after a whole morning spent with her mind trapped in grim subterranean caverns, she felt stifled and longing for some fresh air and sunshine, so she decided to take a walk in her private garden.
“Private”, of course, was a relative term, for not a day went by that she wasn’t surrounded by people. Servants, guards, courtiers… even the very statues in the halls seemed to make it their business to watch her when she passed by. As the heir to the throne, she was cossetted and spoiled and desired to command every waking moment of her life and, truthfully, it could get rather exhausting. But at least in her garden, she could find a measure of seclusion. It was by far her favourite place to be, shielded from prying eyes by a high wall cloaked in ivy, where graceful statues of wood nymphs - much less temperamental than the real thing - presided over flowerbeds bursting with bright, exotic blooms from Vantanas, and small, exquisite flowers from the hills of southern Valorim. A small oasis of peace, away from the hustle and bustle of the court.
She was not alone even here, of course. A servant girl dozed under the pergola, ready to be dispatched on an errand at a moment’s notice, a couple of gardeners pruned the ornamental bushes, and Prazac’s steps were, as always, shadowed by Baziron, her personal guard. For she went nowhere without a guard. A silly thing, she sometimes thought, for her apartments lay at the very heart of the Royal Spire, the most tightly guarded stronghold in the world, but her father insisted.
Not that she minded Baziron’s company. He did his duty conscientiously, but he didn’t fawn or fuss over her. He was a close, quiet young man, but also one of the few guards close to her in age. Unlike most of the soldiers who made up her bodyguard, Baziron was one of the few whom she tentatively considered a friend.
“Enla was in a very strange mood today,” she remarked.
“A hard morning, then, Your Highness?” said Baziron. He never opened a conversation with her himself, but he would always carry one on if she initiated it.
“You might say that. And this afternoon I am faced with the prospect of admitting to Master Boerheis that I still don’t understand General Krizsan’s Vantanas campaign.”
It was a source of constant frustration to her that although she excelled at most aspects of her training - economics, diplomacy, history, languages, political theory, the list went on and on - military strategy was still something just beyond her comprehension. For the future ruler of an Empire built upon military conquest after military conquest, it seemed a glaring gap. She wished she understood it half so well as she did the circumstances which had caused the seat of the Empire to shift from Aizo to Pralgad, or even the intricacies of the ancient law by which her father had established her as his successor, despite the irregularity of her birth.
“Even the Emperor has generals to command his armies for him, my lady,” said Baziron, who must have heard her complain about this a hundred times.
“I know. But it is frustrating, all the same.”
“If I might offer an opinion?”
“I would say that the key to the whole thing is the second battle. His subordinates wanted to hold the crossroads, but he understood that the ridge offered him greater options for manoeuvring if he should be outflanked. The amazing thing is that he picked out the ground a year before. If there was to be a battle, he said, it would be there…”
He continued to enthuse about General Krizsan’s tactical brilliance as they walked. Prazac listened attentively, though she was lucky if she understood one word out of four. Mostly, she was just amused to see Baziron so animated.
Eventually, realising that he had been speaking at length, he came to an abrupt stop, looking rather embarrassed. “Beg pardon, my lady, I fear I’ve said too much.”
She laughed. “Not at all. It certainly makes a little more sense now. I will say this, however,” she added, “you are wasted in the palace guard, Baziron.”
She said it lightly, but to her surprise he frowned, all traces of enthusiasm now wiped out. Clearly, she had touched a nerve.
He was reluctant to look her in the eye. “You know I consider it an honour to serve you, Princess.”
“But…?” she prompted, sensing the word hovering there. When he made no reply right away, she said, “Baziron, you know you may speak freely with me.”
He gave a single tight nod. “But since you asked, I cannot help but feel that I’m better suited to real soldiering. I’ve always felt that my real duty lies in the field, especially with the news of the recent uprising.”
She considered this gravely. “If that’s how you feel…”
“It is, my lady. I hope you don’t take offence.”
“Of course not,” she replied at once, waving it off. She mulled it over for a minute, then went on, “You know, I could speak to my father on your behalf. I’m to dine with him tomorrow, in fact. I am sure he won’t refuse me if I request you be transferred.”
He bowed. He even smiled a little. “Thank you, my lady.”
“We all have our duty. I will miss you, though, Baziron.” She laid her hand on his arm, then added drily, “I suppose I will just have to resign myself to miserably failing my military history lessons.”
She was glad to help him, for he was a loyal friend and protector, but she couldn’t help but feel a rather selfish pang of regret. She had lost so many people throughout her life, old servants and friends who had been constant companions one day, gone the next. Gone to the gallows, or to the Pit. Sometimes it scared her that she hadn’t once suspected any of them of conspiring against her. What did that say for her future as a ruler, if she could not read the people around her? Other times it seemed impossible there could be so many traitors in the world. The uncertainty had caused her more than one sleepless night.
At least if Baziron must leave her, she could ensure he did so honourably.
They walked in silence for a little way, each wrapped up in their own thoughts. It was a lazy summer afternoon: the scent of pollen hung heavy in the still air, and even the bees sounded drowsy as they ambled from one flower to the next. Maybe that had something to do with their lack of watchfulness, for they were completely unprepared for the ambush when it came.
One moment they were alone on the gravel path; then, suddenly, there was an explosion of greenery as the figure of a man burst from the bushes by the fountain and came right at her. Baziron, sword drawn, moved to come between them, but the intruder was too quick for him, dodged his grasp and flung himself at Prazac. She stumbled back a step, but before she could so much as grasp for the dagger hidden in her sleeve, the man flung himself down at her feet and clutched the hem of her robe.
“Princess!” His voice was a harsh sob. “Have mercy!”
Stunned, it was all she could do to echo, “Mercy?”
But before the man could say anything more, Baziron had him roughly by the shoulder and succeeded in tearing him away from her, the point of his sword against his throat. “Who are you?” he demanded. “What mean you by this affront to Her Highness?”
“Baziron, wait.” Now that the first shock was over, she grasped to recollect her senses. Baziron was breathing hard, his eyes dark with anger, and the man in his grasp cringed away from him, as far as the guard’s iron hold on him would allow, looking about him with wild, staring eyes. Prazac saw now that he was a thin, trembling figure, dishevelled and filthy, his clothes mere grey rags that hug off his skeletal limbs. His face seemed shrunken, sallow skin stretched tight across sharp bones, and there was an air of desolation about him that was worse than any hostility.
“Release him,” she said. Baziron looked doubtful, but acquiesced. At once, the man prostrated himself before her again.
“My lady,” he moaned into the ground, “mercy, mercy!”
“What is your name, my man?” she asked, inwardly marvelling at how calm her voice sounded.
He looked dumbstruck with terror, and his breath came in whining sobs, but through them she heard him gasp out, “Niall… of the Fletcher clan…”
“And why have you come here, Niall?”
How had he come here? That was more to the purpose. How could this poor, desperate creature have eluded the legions of guards and magical wards that protected the Spire? Perhaps he was more dangerous than he appeared, but even as she looked at him, she felt certain that she had nothing to fear from him.
As if in answer to her thoughts, there came distant shouts and clashes of arms from within the palace. She looked about; the gardeners and the servant girl had disappeared. Someone must have raised the alarm. Niall heard the noises, too, and gave a low moan of fear.
“My lady,” said Baziron in a low voice, “there isn’t much time.”
“Niall,” said Prazac, in what she hoped was a conciliatory tone, “you have asked me for mercy. Why? What can I do for you?”
But the sound of the alarm had shaken him to the core, and he merely gibbered.
“Niall,” she said again, more firmly, “I cannot help you unless you tell me why you are here. Speak, I urge you.”
“Mercy!” he cried again.
“Yes,” she replied, gritting her teeth. The sound of the guards’ approach was louder; they were getting closer. If he were found like this, the consequences would be dire for him, and she sensed that he needed help.
She didn’t know what made him speak at last: whether he was encouraged by her tone, or whether the urgency of the moment helped him find his tongue at last, but now it tumbled out of him in a rush:
“My lady - the floods in the vale - my farm - destroyed the harvest, all lost! I went to the mayor, asked for a reprieve, but he wouldn’t listen - the taxes - I can’t pay. If it was only me… but I have three children, Princess, their mother’s dead, and they’re starving, I can’t feed them, I can’t do anything - please, help me!”
At that, words failed him again, and he dissolved into a mixture of sobs and garbled pleas, the only intelligible word being, “mercy!” At the sight of him, Prazac’s heart gave a painful clench. She had seen signs of poverty in the city before, of course, but nothing as abject as this. He had obviously been ill-treated, and was now half out of his mind with desperation. Surely, there must be something she could do…
“Baziron,” she said urgently, “please take Niall away from here, take him somewhere safe, and let it be known that it’s on my authority. I want-”
But before she could finish, a whole company of armoured guards and mages burst in upon them, surrounding them on all sides, hemming them in. At their head was a Dervish in full armour, and when she spotted Niall cowering at Prazac’s feet, her face broke into an ugly snarl.
“Scum!” she spat. “You dare break into the Imperial palace?”
At the sight of the guards, the wretched man made a noise of sheer terror. He scrambled back and, fatally, seized Prazac’s hand. “My lady!”
It was an unthinking, desperate action, but it sealed his doom. Even as Baziron moved quickly to detach Niall’s hands, the Dervish’s eyes gleamed. “Lay hands on Her Highness, would you, you bastard? You’ll be gutted for this!”
“No,” exclaimed Prazac, “this man is under my protection!”
But even the words of Her Highness were nothing in the face of the fanatic outrage of the Emperor’s Guard. They had smelt blood, and were bent on having it. One well-aimed spell was all it took to beat Niall into submission, then they closed in on him in a pack, the sound of blows mingling horribly with his cries of pain. Horrified, Prazac moved to intervene, but Baziron pulled her back.
“You can’t help him,” he muttered in her ear.
At last, when the guards had had their sport, the Dervish called them off. “Take him to the throne room! We’ll see what the Emperor thinks of this.” Bruised and bleeding, Niall was hefted up between two guards and hauled away like a sack of meal. Prazac could hear him even after he was lost to sight, still sobbing, “Princess! Princess! Have mercy!”
For a moment her head was left reeling. It had all happened so quickly, so violently, she could hardly believe it had been real. But it was. And now a man’s life hung in the balance.
“I must go with them. I can’t let him be executed.”
“He broke into the palace,” said Baziron, his face grim. “Your father will never let him live.”
She refused even to entertain that thought. “Then he must be made to see that that man needs help, not judgement. Don’t look at me like that, Baziron. You know as well as I that he meant me no harm. I cannot simply stand by and let him be killed. I am the Princess. My word must count for something.”
Prazac had never seen her father in such a temper before. He was a tall man, but now he seemed to positively tower above Niall, his gaunt face livid with anger, his dark eyes burning. Niall, for his part, was reduced to an absolutely pitiful state. He trembled like a kicked dog at the Emperor’s feet, and seemed to be incapable of speech at all, only emitting low moans through his swollen mouth. It was the most heartbreaking thing she had ever witnessed. Even the members of the royal council sat rooted to the spot.
Garzahd came forward, his staff striking the mosaic tiles just before Niall’s face. “You know the penalty is for assaulting a member of the Emperor’s family.”
“Speak, worm!” Hawthorne’s voice was like the crack of a whip. “Give me one good reason why I should not have you killed on the spot?”
Niall tried, but his fear had scattered his wits entirely now, and all he uttered were sharp, broken sobs. Prazac bit her lip. Now. If she was to save him, she must speak now.
“I will speak for him, Father.”
The council looked taken aback. Limoncelli stopped fidgeting. Howar gaped. Even Garzahd looked surprised. But it was her father’s face she watched. His brows arched in surprise; his expression was one of disbelief. Disbelief, and displeasure.
“You, daughter? You speak for this,” his lip curled, “creature?”
Although she had sat in on the council many times, she had never spoken up before. Her hands were shaking; she balled them into tight fists at her side, raised her chin, and willed her voice into steadiness as she replied, “Yes, my lord. I speak for him. I don’t believe this man had any ill intentions against me. He didn’t attack me. His actions were misguided, perhaps, but please, look at him: he is suffering, and clearly not in his right mind. If he were, I have no doubt he would not have acted as he did. I beg you will show him mercy.”
Hawthorne looked at her intently. She felt abashed at her own audacity, but she met his gaze, though her heart felt as though it were trying to beat its way out of her ribcage. He looked at Garzahd, who shrugged. Then he looked down at Niall, who continued to tremble and sob.
“You are a fortunate man, Niall. The Princess has asked that you be shown mercy. I don’t believe you deserve it, but I am moved to grant her request. Your life will be spared.”
Prazac dared breathe out. But her relief was short-lived as Hawthorne held up one hand.
“You will not be executed. Instead, I sentence you to be cast down into Avernum.”
Blood roared in Prazac’s ears. No. No, this was not what she had meant at all. She felt faint with horror. On the floor, Niall made a high, strangled noise.
“You will be confined to the palace dungeons,” continued Hawthorne, unmoved, “and at dawn tomorrow, you will be taken to the portal and sent to the Pit, there to live out the rest of your life amongst the other enemies of the Empire. Now go, and always remember the Emperor’s mercy.”
Niall started to scream as the guards moved in. He struggled wildly against them, but they held him fast and dragged him from the chamber, shrieking and moaning all the way. Hawthorne watched him go, his eyes cold and pitiless. The council sat like statues. Prazac saw it all, appalled, and started forward.
“Father, please, you cannot do this.”
He turned to her, his face like stone. “The man dared to defy my law,” he said, as if no other explanation were needed. “He must be punished.”
“He came to me for help. Surely there must be something we can do, some reparation for his suffering…”
“Reparation!” He threw the word from him as though it were trash. “Why should we reward him for his foolishness?”
“Just so, my lord,” agreed Limoncelli with a complacent smile, his fleshy fingers drumming a rapid tattoo on the council table. “If we should bail out every wretched peasant farmer, the Empire would be bankrupt overnight.”
“But to send him to Avernum,” Prazac said desperately, “without even a trial… this cannot be just!”
At that, Hawthorne turned on his heel. She barely had time to note the fury in his eyes, before his hand flew out and lashed across her cheek with a crack that echoed in the high chamber. For a long moment, Prazac struggled to believe it had happened. Vaguely, she was aware that one side of her face was throbbing hot and cold, but it was dimmed by a numb cloak of shock. All her life, she had never known her father to raise even his voice to her, let alone his hand. Even the council looked stunned.
“You may be my daughter, Prazac,” said Hawthorne in a devastating voice, “but I am still your sovereign lord, and you will know your place. My word is law, and it will not be challenged, not even by you.”
She barely heard him. The pain was beginning to penetrate the shock, but she resisted the impulse to put her hand to her face.
Garzahd now stepped up, his heavy archmage’s robes rustling, and turned his steady gaze upon her. In a calm, measured voice he said, “Princess Prazac is young, Your Majesty. She has much to learn about what it means to wield the power you do, what it means to maintain order.”
“Order,” murmured Hawthorne, and when he turned to Prazac again, his gaze had lost some of its severity. He reached out and took her lightly by the arms. “You have a kind heart, my daughter, and it does you credit, but it is a disadvantage in a ruler. We cannot afford to be kind, Prazac. We are surrounded on all sides by those who envy us, who would snatch our power from us if we gave them half a chance. They are always there - plotting, scheming - they surround us on every side, and the only way we can keep them in check is by maintaining order. You may have justice, and peace, but first you must have order.”
He began calmly enough, but as he spoke his voice grew more and more urgent, his grasp on her arms tightening until his fingers dug painfully into her skin, as if to better impress the importance of his words into her. She looked into his eyes, and saw in them almost the same wild, desperate expression she had seen in Niall’s. The thought flitted uninvited through her mind: was he mad, too?
“There must be order, my lady,” said Garzahd to her. “The man flouted the Empire’s law, and that cannot go unpunished. If it did, it would only serve to encourage others. They would see that it could be done, and worse might happen. You must see that we cannot allow that.”
She wanted to argue - it was not right, surely it was not right - but all of a sudden she felt confused, very young and stupid. Garzahd’s low voice wove around her, so reasonable and calming she couldn’t even remember what she had wanted to say. In the end, she said nothing.
Hawthorne gave an approving nod. “Yes, Garzahd’s right. Always listen to him, Prazac. He is the wisest man in the Empire.”
Somewhere, she still felt a gnawing sense of wrongness, but now she seemed sapped of the energy to argue. Seeing this, Hawthorne drew away.
“You have had a trying day, daughter. I understand. You, guard, take the Princess back to her chambers.”
“Prazac!” Suddenly, there was her mother, taking her in her arms before looking at her in consternation. “By all the gods, my love, what’s happened to you? Your face!”
“I’m all right,” she said dully. Out the corner of her eye, she saw Lovisa glance at Baziron, but she couldn’t see his expression.
“Come, my love.” Lovisa wrapped a protective arm around Prazac’s shoulders as she guided her, gently but firmly, out of the anxious throng around her. “Is there anything I can get you?”
“No, no.” Then, “Actually, yes. Can you send for Magister Vladimir, please? I wish to speak to him. Privately.”
Vladimir was a minor bureaucrat in the palace’s employ, and had once been detailed to instruct her in matters of official Empire paperwork. He was officious and self-important, but she had known him from her youngest days, since Hawthorne had first recognised her as his heir, and she trusted him. He arrived promptly in her audience chamber, making her a low bow and watching her with guarded concern.
“Your Highness. I… I hope you’re well? I heard what happened today.”
They were in her own chambers, and apart from themselves, the only other ones in the room were Lovisa and Baziron, both of whom she trusted with her life, so Prazac felt she could risk being frank.
“I am well enough, Vladimir, thank you. But I need your help. Can I trust you?”
“Of course, Princess.”
“The Emperor has sentenced a man to Avernum today. I believe the sentence to be unjust.”
“My lady.” A wary, carefully neutral response.
“I wish you to find out this man’s family for me, Vladimir. He claims to have three children, who are now suffering because of his losses. The Emperor will not compensate him, but I believe something must be done. If I cannot save their father, I wish to make some reparation to them, from my own coffers. Will you do this for me?”
He bowed, looking very serious. “I will.”
“Thank you, Vladimir. I won’t forget this.” She rose to her feet, and fixed him with a sharp look. “It goes without saying, of course, that your discretion is vital, for all our sakes.”
“Prazac?” Her mother’s voice sounded softly from the doorway. “Dearest, you should get some sleep.”
Prazac shook her head. “I can’t stop thinking about that poor man.”
Lovisa came over to join her at the window. She reached out and took one of Prazac’s hands in both her own. “There was nothing you could have done, my love. If anything, you saved him. Because of you, his life is spared.”
“Because of me, he will go down to Avernum, and never see the sun again. Is that really mercy?” She gazed out into the night. “All my life, I have been told that it was the enemies of the Empire who were sent to the portal, dangerous people. Now I wonder… is it really just people like Niall? Poor people who could only endure so much until they snapped? Who simply drew attention to their unhappiness?”
“Prazac,” Lovisa’s voice was low with warning, “this is dangerous talk.”
“I know. I did a very dangerous thing today, when I gave Vladimir that task. I acted against my father’s wishes. As far he is concerned, that is an act of rebellion.”
She was silent for a while, looking down at the city, wondering about the lives of all those people down below.
“He didn’t even care. He didn’t care that the man had children to feed. All he cared about was that his precious order had been disturbed.” She looked up at Lovisa. “Why did you never tell me what he really was, Mama?”
Lovisa sighed heavily. Maybe it was just the candlelight, but she looked very tired, in a way that had nothing to do with the hour. “I wanted to, my love. I wanted, so much, to protect you from it all. But from the moment you were born, you were his, to be fashioned into what he wanted you to be. ”
“The Scion of Pralgad,” said Prazac, unable to keep a trace of bitterness from her voice. The title Hawthorne had given her when he acknowledged her. She had been so proud to bear it, so proud to be her father’s daughter. But now, it was as if an unknown veil had been pulled away, and she was seeing him for the first time: the cruelty that lay beneath his strength, the arrogance beneath his brilliance. A tyrant, driven half-mad with suspicion and malice. Was that what power did to a person? Was that what it would do to her? The thought made her shudder and she huddled into her robe, looking down at the city lights again.
“Is it all an illusion?” she wondered aloud. “The greatness of the Empire, all the riches and prosperity we pride ourselves on. Is it really great, or is it all just fear?”
“I don’t think so,” replied Lovisa, smoothing Prazac’s hair and kissing her on the forehead. “Hawthorne is feared, and proud to be so, but you, my darling, you have many people who love you.”
“I doubt Hawthorne would approve of that. He says kindness is a weakness in a ruler. I’m sure he would say love is the same.” She paused. “I never want to be like him.”
One day Hawthorne would die, she thought, no matter how many guards and magical shields he put around himself. When that day came, she would be Empress. She would inherit this Empire that he had created. She would inherit all its greatness, prosperity, and potential. And all its tyranny, fear, and ugliness.
“I won’t be another Hawthorne.”
“I will not learn the lesson he tried to teach me today. I am Hawthorne’s daughter, but I am not him.” She clasped her mother’s hand again. “When I become Empress, I will have the power to change things. I will bear responsibility for his crimes - for that’s what they are - and I will do what I can to make things right. I will do away with fear, and make the Empire truly great. I will accept Hawthorne’s legacy, but one day, I swear, I will forge it into something better.”