Realm of Light Ruby Throne Trilogy Book 3 Deborah Chester ?
Gloom shrouded the cavern beneath the Temple of Gault. Torches flared everywhere, yet theirruddy light revealed little. Hurrying through the shadows in the wake of Sergeant Baiter, theEmpress Elandra felt as though she walked in a dream. Her life had been turned completelyupside down. She was a refugee now, with no home, no guards, no protector, and possibly... nohusband. She had come here for safety, but this was no sanctuary.
Perhaps fifteen guardsmen in armor and crimson cloaks milled about, engaged in various tasks. Acouple of servants, pale-faced with fear, crammed provisions into saddlebags under the gimleteye of a square-faced sergeant. Half the guardsmen were checking saddles and gear. The restwere piling stones from what looked like dismantled benches across a doorway in the distance.The remaining granite benches stood in an eerie semicircle about an altar surrounded by emptycopper cauldrons tipped on their sides. All the men moved with haste, but there was no panic,and relatively little disorder.
The torchlight flickered up the soot-blackened walls, casting shifting, ruddy illumination overthe scene and glinting off the rolling white of the horses’ eyes, the sharp rowels of men’sspurs, and the wire-wrapped hilts of swords as their scabbards were buckled to saddles. The airsmelled of sweat—from horse and man—a pungent, honest odor overlaying a lingering, cloyedfragrance of incense and death.
Glancing again at the abandoned altar, the Empress Elandra shivered and drew her cloak moretightly about her shoulders. This was a forbidden place. Blasphemy seemed to crawl upon thewalls, and no priests were in sight. She stumbled after -the sergeant, consumed withexhaustion, finding herself stupidly near tears.
It was just reaction, she told herself, struggling to maintain her composure. She had spent thenight fleeing for her life from both creatures of the darkness and savage Madrun invaders whowere now looting and burning the palace.
Her home ... ablaze in the night.
She choked again, and the sergeant glanced back at her in swift concern.
“It’s not far, Majesty. Stay close to me.”
She nodded and quickened her step although her legs felt leaden. They were heading to a part ofthe cavern where officers were standing among haphazard stacks of boxes, scroll cases, andmisshapen bundles. No doubt these were the scant items that had been salvaged from the palace.Elandra herself had managed to save nothing. She had only the dirty, torn clothes she waswearing beneath her cloak and the magical topaz jewel that she carried in a small embroideredbag strung around her neck. Even her dagger had been given away to the guardsman Caelan E’non,who had saved her life and brought her safely to this place beneath the temple.
At the thought of Caelan, however, her fear returned. She glanced back over her shoulder, butdid not see him for the confusion around her. A horse, overly excited by the commotion, brokeaway and went shying sideways through the men, kicking and squealing before it was broughtunder control again.
“Majesty!” the sergeant said in alarm, holding her back.
Elandra looked at him, and hastily he released her arm. His square, honest face turned as redas his cloak.
“Forgive me, Majesty,” he said, aghast. “I thought only of your Majesty’s safety.”
Wearily she thought of the imperial protocols. A man like him could have his hand cut off forhaving dared touched her. She was an empress sovereign—by law, equal to the emperor himself.By law, she could appear only in the midst of her ladies in waiting, with chancellors inattendance, her protector at her back, and her own specially picked guardsmen surrounding her.But the Madrun barbarians had ended imperial law tonight. The empire was falling, and she didnot know whether anything would ever follow protocol again.
Impatiently she shook her head. “You are forgiven, Sergeant. Please, escort me to my husbandwithout delay.”
He saluted her. “Yes, Majesty. At once!”
They strode on, Baiter with his chin jutting at the military angle and his hand correctly onhis sword hilt, she with her gown a mess and her hair a tangle down her back. Her eyes wereburning. Fatigue lapped at her, a natural reaction after the stress and exertion she’dundergone, but she wondered if the shadow that had attacked her and rendered her unconsciousfor a time had done her more harm than she suspected. She still felt strangely unwell andshaken from the encounter. If Caelan had not been with her to protect her...
With a fresh shiver of alarm, she drove away thoughts of the Traulander. There was no time tothink of him now, no time to wonder. He was no ordinary man, of that she was certain. Justremembering his confrontation with the evil priest Sien sent chills through her. Lord Sien hadused dark magic. That alone was terrifying. But Caelan had countered with something else,something indescribable. For an instant, he had even vanished before her eyes, as though he wasnever there.
And when he reappeared a moment later, it had been as though he had come back from a far, farplace. Ice crystals had glittered in his hair and eyebrows. His blue eyes had been stony,merciless, implacable. In his eyes, she had looked for the man she knew and had not found him.Until then, she had trusted him completely, believing in his loyalty and devotion withoutquestion. He had risked his own life to save hers. He had brought her here to safety againstall odds. Yet in the blink of an eye, he had unleashed powers of the unknown, becoming astranger who frightened her. The wrath in his face as he turned on Lord Sien had been terribleto see, yet Sien was already defeated, already cowering.
If nothing else this horrible night, she was glad to see Sien the traitor slapped down. Hedeserved far worse, but his punishment would be by Kostimon’s order, no one else’s. When thatorder came, she would rejoice.
Ahead, Kostimon’s voice rose in fierce argument. She looked past the sergeant and could notsee her husband clearly for the officers surrounding him. Kostimon’s voice rose and cracked inanger.
Sergeant Baiter stopped a short distance behind the officers— one wearing gold and onecrimson—and cleared his throat. “Er, Captain—”
“Get the men ready,” the captain said without glancing around.
Baiter cleared his throat again. “Captain, the empress is here.”
The officer whirled around, his mouth dropping open in astonishment.
Elandra recognized Captain Vysal despite the dirty bandage that swathed half his face. Hisbreastplate was splattered with dried blood, and his cloak hung in tatters. A long weal randown his left forearm, and he was covered with dust and grime.
Glad relief filled his face. He saluted her. “Majesty! Thank Gault you are safe.”
At his words, the officer in red and the emperor broke off their shouting match. The officer, ageneral with gold stripes creating a magnificent chevron across the back of his crimson cloak,spun around. Beyond him, Kostimon was sitting on top of a box, wearing armor also splatteredwith dried blood, and a cloak of imperial purple lined with red silk. One side of his face wassmudged with dirt, and his white curls were standing on end as though he’d been jerking hishands through them.
Staring at her, Kostimon rose to his feet. His yellow eyes widened in confusion. “Fauvina,”he whispered hoarsely. “You are safe.”
Elandra’s heart broke at the slip, and she glanced quickly at the officers to see if theyheard it. Of course they had. Their faces were impassive; their eyes held nothing.
Worriedly she walked forward to her husband and took his gnarled, dirty hands in hers.
“Fauvina,” he said, smiling at her in pathetic gratitude, “you have come.”
“I am here,” she said unsteadily. Fear made her cold. If the shock of tonight’s attack hadbroken Kostimon’s mind, what was to become of them? “Come and sit down.”
But Kostimon had his purple boots well planted, and he refused to move. “You have brought thearmy from Gialta?” he asked eagerly. “A counterforce, to smash the enemy?”
With all her heart she wished she had. But she could not bring herself to lie, not even tocomfort him. “No,” she said softly. “I am Elandra, and I come alone.”
His fingers tightened on her wrist, digging in. “Ela,” he said suddenly in a changed tone.“Of course. Ela!”
“Yes,” she said, forcing a smile through tears. “Your Ela.”
The emperor’s yellow eyes narrowed and grew fierce. Pushing her away, he advanced on thegeneral.
“Paz!” he shouted. “You damned lazy incompetent! You told me she was dead, that all thewomen were dead—taken in the first assault. You never checked, did you?”
The general’s mouth opened, but he said nothing. His eyes met Elandra’s shocked ones, only toslide away. “The reports came to me. I had no reason to doubt them—”
“What else have you lied to me about?” Kostimon demanded furiously. “Persuading me to breakoff the defense, to run and hide like a peasant afraid of the dark. Bah! Vysal, tell me thetruth. What is left of our forces?”
“Sir!” Snapping to attention, Vysal said, “They were scattered in the initial assaults, anddeployed in small pockets of resistance.”
“What the hell is this?” Kostimon roared. “I know how the Madrun devils fight. Theysurround, cut off, and massacre. Are you telling me the Guard cooperated like sheep?”
“It was by your order, Majesty,” Vysal said nervously.
Red flared in Kostimon’s face. He raised his fists. “I gave no such order! What is—”
“You have been betrayed on all sides,” Elandra broke in. “Your dispatches were false. Yourmost trusted advisers were either misled or have joined the conspiracy. Many of the Guard havegone over to the enemy rather than be slaughtered.”
Kostimon turned on her, and the anger in his face sagged away. “Would you also lie to me, mydear?” he asked more quietly. “Have you been a part of this?”
She gasped, too outraged at first to deny it. She had come this far, had escaped fire anddemons and the attacks of men. She felt as though she had been running all night, and she wouldnot be insulted now.
“It is true,” General Paz said swiftly. “She has conspired from the first with Prince Tirhinagainst your Majesty. They plan an alliance with—”
“That is not true!” Elandra said. “How dare you accuse me of such wickedness?”
The general met her angry gaze without flinching. A sneer curled his thin lips. “The oldeststory in the world. A son, impatient for his inheritance. A young wife, beautiful and alluring,bound to a husband so much older. Is it not natural they should turn to each other?”
Elandra found herself shaking with fury. The top of her head felt icy cold, while the rest ofher was on fire. That someone could stand before her and utter these bold lies to her face wasunbelievable. And yet the cruelties of her childhood had taught her how to hide hurt, how tokeep her face a mask when she had to, how to stiffen her lips to keep them from trembling, howto fight back tears. She could see Kostimon listening, could see the calculating shift in hisgaze as he began to wonder. She wanted to grip him by the arms and shake him. Was he under somespell that he could swallow such slander? But she must control her emotions if she was tosurvive. She must think, and quickly, in order to find some way to convince him of herinnocence.
“Why have I risked life and limb to come here to you, if what the general says is true?” sheasked.
“No doubt she has led the Madruns directly here to our hiding place,” the general said.
“Then we have even less time to make our escape,” Vysal said.
Tears stung Elandra’s eyes. Was the loyal captain now turning against her too? Was there noone to believe her?
She glanced about for Hovet, knowing she could appeal to the gruff old protector. But for thefirst time, she realized he was missing. Her gaze shot around the cavern, darting from face toface, but his sour, weathered countenance was nowhere to be seen. If he was not here, neitherat the emperor’s heels nor within the emperor’s sight, then he must be dead. Regret passedthrough her. For all his surly manners, he had been a faithful man, true and brave all hislife.
“Ela,” the emperor said harshly, “why do you come to me like this, without your attendants,without your guard? Where is your protector?”
“Where is yours?” she retorted.
Her defiance reddened his face again. “Hovet died in battle, saving my life,” the emperorreplied, his tone a rebuke.
“Rander is also dead,” she told him. “My life I owe to him and to another guardsman who sawme safely across the compound.”
“No one could get across,” General Paz said. “We saw it overrun. And her part of the palacewas on fire. I tell your Majesty that this miraculous arrival of the empress now is part ofsome devious trick. Do not trust her-—”
“Take care, Paz,” Kostimon snapped. “You are accusing your empress of infamy. Without proof,you will see your tongue cut out if you continue.”
Suddenly pale, the general shut his mouth and frowned.
Despite Kostimon’s rebuke, Elandra knew the general would go on dripping poison into theemperor’s ear at every opportunity. He was anxious to conceal his own duplicity andincompetence by accusing her. That he should even be allowed to utter his slander infuriatedher; by now his head should have been struck from his shoulders. But Kostimon remained lenientwith him. That in itself was a warning to her that she must do something to thwart Paz’sdeviltry once and for all.
Lifting her chin, she said, “I will submit to truth-light, if the general will do the same.”
Consternation flashed across all the men’s faces.
“Ela!” the emperor said in exasperation. “Would you act like a peasant on top of all ourproblems? You stand here in rags, your hair looking like—like I know not what—and announceyou will submit to examination? Are you guilty, that you should abase yourself this way?”
“No, I am innocent,” she replied defiantly. “And I am impatient with this hypocrisy. Why notthrow the truth-light over me?
If this coward is allowed to denounce me, why can I not prove my innocence and loyalty?”
“An empress does not need to prove her—”
“Yes, yes, so says the law, but you listen to him, Kostimon!” she said in fresh anger. “Youlisten! Is there humiliation to exceed that? I will endure the examination.” She swung aroundand pointed at the general. “Will he?”
Paz glared at her. “Am I not of high rank?” he retorted. “Why should I submit when—”
“Silence!” the emperor shouted. “Vysal, pass the word for Lord Sien to attend meimmediately.”
Vysal saluted and hurried away.
The general glared at Elandra, then sniffed in disdain. He focused his gaze on the far wall,where ancient gruesome faces were carved in the stone like silent watchers.
She started to say that Lord Sien would not be available, but something in Kostimon’sexpression silenced her.
The emperor turned away from Elandra and began to pace back and forth among the stacks of boxesand bundles. She glimpsed money bags and jewelry cases of exquisite woods. Clothes chests withtravel straps stood nearby. Even though everything had been hastily assembled and was far fromrepresenting Kostimon’s usual amount of baggage when he traveled, there was far too much forsomeone fleeing into exile. She saw no pack animals, no servants. Who was to carry it all?
She counted the milling men and horses and realized there were not even enough mounts foreveryone. Who, then, was to be left behind?
Elandra stood there, tired and dirty, and began to understand that she was now a refugee. Herhome was burning. She had no servants, no clothing save what was on her back, no goods, nomoney or jewels, no property.
All of it suddenly overwhelmed her. She saw again faithful Rander Malk, so anxious to please inhis new post as her protector, dying almost at her feet as the shadow demon strangled him. Shefelt again the heat of the flames and smelled the thick smoke filling her bedchamber. Her earsrang with the war cries of the Madruns as Caelan fought them down the stairs. She rememberedthe hideous touch ofthe shadow’s fingers upon her throat, the metallic taste of blood on hertongue where she bit herself in her struggles.
Her lips trembled, and she pressed her fingers to them, swaying as she fought her own exhaustedemotions.
Sergeant Baiter came running up and saluted the general. “Five minutes until the men areready, sir.”
Paz nodded. “The emperor’s horse?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve attended to it myself. And my own mount will go to the empress.”
Elandra swung around, the tears on her face forgotten in her gratitude. “Sergeant—”
“Nonsense,” Paz snapped as though she had not spoken. “We need all the able-bodied fightingmen possible. Keep the assigned order. Sergeant. Make no changes. And tie on the emperor’ssaddlebags for him.”
“Sir!” Saluting, Baiter cast Elandra a swift, apologetic glance before he strode to theemperor’s side.
Still sunk in thought, Kostimon looked up at the sergeant. “Lord Sien has come?”
“No, sir. Which saddlebags have you selected to take?”
“Am I to run for my life like a pauper?” Kostimon roared loudly enough to make everyone pauseand look. “Great Gault, is it not enough that I was convinced to fall back when I should haveheld? Is it not enough that I was persuaded to save myself when my men have died without me? Isit not enough that I abandoned wife and concubines for expediency? Is it not enough that Icower down here in a hole like a damned mouse while those murdering brutes pillage and sack myown palace? And now, am I to flee without the means of preserving anything I have built allthese centuries? Am I to run like a beetle seeking a new crevice, without my treasures, withoutmy maps, without my literature, without my possessions? Be damned to you! I shall not go!”
“Perhaps, Majesty,” Baiter ventured nervously, “if each man were to strap one item behindhis saddle—”
“No,” Paz said. “Begging your Majesty’s pardon, but fighting men cannot be burdened withnonessentials—”
“Nonessentials!” the emperor shouted. “Murdeth and Fury, man, why don’t you say I am a
nonessential? These foolish objections do nothing but delay us. Where is Sien? Sergeant, seethat he comes at once.”
Saluting, Baiter hurried away as though glad to escape.
Vysal reappeared, hurrying through the cluster of guardsmen. He looked increasingly palebeneath his bandage. Concerned for him and his injury, Elandra wished the others would havemore consideration than to send him running back and forth like an errand boy.
“Majesty,” he said, saluting the emperor and sounding out of breath. “Lord Sien is—is notat leisure to come. And I think the Madruns are in the temple.”
Kostimon received this news with a deepening scowl, but Paz stepped forward.
“I told you she would lead them to us, and she has!” Paz said, glaring at Elandra as hespoke. “There is no time to spare. Captain, mount the troops.”
Vysal swung away and beckoned to Baiter, who came running back. “Mount the troops.”
“Sir!” Saluting, Baiter spun about and bawled orders at the men with such vigor his voiceechoed from the ceiling.
The men scrambled to line up, each one standing at attention with his hand on his mount’sbridle. Fifteen men, not counting the emperor or her or the officers, and only twelve horses.Elandra counted them again to be sure, and with a sinking heart wondered who was to be leftbehind.
Baiter’s experienced eye ran along his meager troops, and he nodded in curt satisfaction, thenwalked over to personally check the emperor’s saddle. He tightened the girths another notch,retied the strings holding the heavy saddlebags, and next turned his attention to thegeneral’s mount.
By the time he’d finished this, the emperor was coming with Paz in tow.
“Mount up!” Baiter shouted, and the men with horses obeyed. The rest stood by, impassive andready for war, their gauntleted hands resting on their sword hilts.
“Here, Majesty,” the sergeant said to Elandra, leading a raw-boned sorrel up to her. Hehanded her the reins. “I’ll shorten the stirrups for you.”
“Thank you,” she said.
But the general pointed his whip at the sergeant. “Stop that!” he commanded. “Captain Vysal,withdraw this man.”
The captain’s face tightened visibly beneath the bandage. It was plain to Elandra how loathehe was to become caught in this conflict. The guardsmen’s eyes were shifting in thetorchlight, watchful. From her father, Elandra knew that such disagreements among thecommanding officers always led to a loss of morale in the fighting men. They could not affordto be seen bickering, yet Kostimon was making no effort to stop it. Did she dare try tointervene?
“Vysal!” the general said sharply. “You heard my order. Obey it.”
Saluting in response to the general’s command, Captain Vysal snapped his fingers at thesergeant, who stepped back.
Paz glared at Elandra first, then at the emperor. “I’ll leave not one able-bodied man behind.I need fighters, not wailing women.”
Astonished, Elandra stared at him and wondered if he had gone mad. “I am your empress,” shesaid in outrage.
“You are a traitor!” he shouted, red-faced. He jerked the reins from her hand, making thesorrel horse shy back nervously. “You could not have crossed the palace compound alone, bynatural means, and arrived here alive. That means you are in league with the enemy. You ledthem here. You have betrayed us!”
Furious, Elandra looked at the emperor, who stood frowning and silent. “Will you not defendme?” she asked.
Kostimon frowned at the general. “Say no more against the empress.”
Elandra waited for more, but Kostimon fell silent again. In astonishment, she realized heintended to say nothing else in her defense. Did he think it enough, this mild rebuke? Assupport of her, it was paltry indeed.
Her face went stiff; her eyes burned. She clenched her fists down at her sides, hiding them inthe folds of her skirts. So she was to be abandoned, like unwanted chattel. The promises, theceremonial words, the crowning itself were all as dead leaves blown away in the wind.
She wanted to rage, to throw things, to weep. But she must not give way to her emotions now.She must act like an empress, not a woman.
“Sergeant Baiter,” she said quietly, her voice so tightly regulated it sounded dead. “Ishall not require your horse.”
Frowning in dismay, Baiter took the reins from the smirking General Paz. The sergeant’s facetold all that lay in his heart. “But, Majesty—”
Elandra’s gaze moved to Kostimon, old and half-confused, his mind alternating between bouts ofimperial temper and indecision. He remained emperor still, but now he ruled a lost empire. Hewas no longer capable of defending himself or her or his domain.
Fresh tears burned her eyes, but she swiftly blinked them back.
“Go quickly, husband,” she said. “Ride to safety while there is still a chance. I bid youwell.”
Looking bewildered, Kostimon snapped his fingers impatiently. “Get on the horse. There is notime for such—”
“You have an empire to defend,” she said, trying to keep her tone steady and noble whilePaz’s smirk widened. “As the general has said, it’s swordsmen you need beside you, not anineffectual woman.”
“Don’t be absurd,” Kostimon said. “Fauvina—I mean, Ela, come here at once.”
But she turned her back on him, not certain she could control her composure much longer. Shewalked away, ignoring his call, her head held high and her back straight.