It was a fate Josan once considered preferable to death. Cast by dark sorcery into the body of Emperor Lucius of Ikaria, the scholar-monk struggled to make peace with a mind that regarded him as a hostile intruder. But now, as simmering rivalries threaten to plunge the kingdom into a bloody civil war, Josan is faced with the most difficult choice of all. For the uneasy truce between him and Lucius is unraveling in a form of madness that is destroying the body they share. There’s only one hope for a cure.
Disguised, stowing away as a common traveler, Josan/Lucius will make the hazardous journey to Xandropol. There in the great library of the Learned Brethren, Josan hopes to find the forbidden magic that will counter the spell that yokes him and Lucius. But an old antagonist is already on their trail: the Lady Ysobel follows them to what she realizes is the scene of her and Josan’s fateful first meeting. But not even she divines the reason for this final pilgrimage: that Josan has returned to sacrifice his life.
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Lady Ysobel slowly waved her fan, but there was no relief from the stifling heat of the crowded theater. Around her the other patrons fluttered their own fans, filling the theater with a low rustling, as if a flock of birds had taken up residence. Certainly they were as colorful as any bird, though birds, at least, did not have to worry about sweating through costly silks.
Ysobel had chosen to wear a split robe of embroidered dark green linen over a high-necked cotton tunic—a fashion popular in her homeland, and far more conservative than the revealing, tightly fitted silks favored by the women of the Ikarian court. Her escort, Captain Burrell, wore his dress uniform—an unsubtle reminder that he was as much bodyguard as companion. The two stood out among the other patrons, as she had intended.
"Proconsul Zuberi's not here," Burrell murmured, gesturing as if to draw her attention to the action on the stage.
She smiled as if he had said something particularly witty. "Unwell? Or secure enough in the emperor's favor that he need not dance attendance upon him?"
"Or perhaps he is the only sensible one among them and has retired to enjoy the cooler breezes of the countryside."
It was possible, but not likely. Not as long as the emperor remained in the capital.
She glanced over at the imperial box, where Emperor Lucius sat in splendid isolation, flanked only by his servants and bodyguards. There had been much gossip in the court over whom Lucius would choose to share his box this evening, but no one had expected him to attend alone.
Then again, the emperor had repeatedly shown himself to be unpredictable. Which made him all the more dangerous.
It was Ysobel's job to understand him. To anticipate his next move and be ready to counter it. The truce she had negotiated with Lucius on behalf of her country was merely that—a temporary cessation of hostilities, while both countries retired to lick their wounds.
But if she could not guess whom Lucius would take to the theater, then how could she predict when he would cast off the chains of peace and once more attack the Seddonian Federation?
Years ago, under the reign of Empress Nerissa, Ysobel had woven a network of spies that spanned the imperial city, from the dockyards to within the very walls of the imperial palace. But most of her contacts had been killed after the aborted rebellion, and those who remained were unwilling to risk their lives—no matter what threats or inducements she offered.
She attended each session of court, and a bevy of social occasions, gathering what gossip she could. But it was not enough.
Lucius was impossible to predict. One day he was a virtuous emperor, listening to endless petitions from his subjects. On another he would hide himself within his chambers, canceling all his official appointments. Sometimes, rumor placed him in the great library at the collegium of the Learned Brethren, while others swore that he traveled incognito to the hippodrome outside the city walls, taking part in mock races observed only by the grooms.
A year ago, he had ascended to the imperial throne under an extraordinary set of circumstances. The first of the old blood to sit on the throne in over one hundred years, many had expected that he would swiftly move to restore his followers to power. But instead he had followed Nerissa's policies as slavishly as if he were her own son.
The worship of the twin gods remained the official religion of the empire, rather than the triune gods favored by his ancestors. Nerissa's former ministers remained in power—all except her advisor, Brother Nikos, who had either left on a scholarly pilgrimage or fled ahead of the imperial guards, depending on whom you believed.
The newcomers retained all of their former power, while the old nobility grumbled—quietly—about Lucius's failure to favor his own people.
The only sign that one of Constantin's line sat on the throne was the lizard crown that he wore on state occasions—and the lizards themselves, which flourished throughout the capital after years of being exterminated.
Ysobel shifted in her seat, envying Burrell's ability to remain motionless. He detested the theater as much as she did, but they were not there for pleasure. The unwritten rules of the Ikarian court demanded that she show an interest in whatever amusements captured the attention of the emperor. Indeed, she'd had to pay hefty bribes to secure a private balcony on the most desirable tier, so that her presence could be duly noted.
She winced as the singers hit a particularly unfortunate high note. Tonight's performance appeared to be about a shepherd courting the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Ysobel had caught only one phrase in ten, but she was certain that before the final act, it would be revealed that the shepherd was actually the son of a nobleman.
The names had changed, as had the setting, but the plot was nearly identical to every other recent offering from this theater. There were frequent interludes where the central characters paused to allow barely clad dancers to take the stage. These interludes had grown longer as it was observed that the dancers were the only parts of a play guaranteed to bring the emperor's full attention to the stage.
As the young swain proclaimed his love, Emperor Lucius turned to survey the crowded theater. He nodded to Ysobel as he caught her gaze—a rare show of respect. She saw several others try to attract his attention, but his gaze swept over them. He gestured sharply at a servant, who fetched him a cup of wine.
The young lady ran from the stage, followed by her suitor. The music rose, loud enough to drown out the rustling fans, as the dancers replaced them.
The emperor turned to face the stage, but Ysobel's attention remained on him as he raised his cup to his lips. It appeared that he was frowning, perhaps displeased by the wine, or perhaps even he had finally had his fill of insipid drama.
Then Lucius twitched, and his wine cup flew out of his hand, hitting one of his servants in the chest.
She blinked. "Did you see that?"
Captain Burrell shook his head.
The servants in the imperial box stood frozen, unwilling to attract the emperor's wrath. Could it be as simple as a fit of temper? Or had the wine been poisoned?
Lucius started to rise, then fell back into his chair. His servants hastened forward, but he waved them away. Grasping the arms of his chair, he pushed himself to his feet.
He was immediately surrounded by his guards, hidden from view. The music slowly halted, the dancers forgotten, as the emperor and his escort swept out of the imperial box.
It had happened so suddenly that it was only as the emperor left his box that the other patrons realized something was wrong. All around the theater, heads turned toward the imperial box, and raised voices drowned out the sounds from the stage.
"Quickly, go after them and discover what you can," Ysobel said.
Burrell hesitated, clearly unwilling to leave her alone. "Go," she urged. "I would do it myself if I could."
Burrell's uniform would make him stand out, but not as much as she would. Ikarian society had very rigid views on the roles of women. If she tried to force her way through the crowd, she would be looked at in suspicion, but Burrell could move freely.
Instead she remained in her seat, watching as the patrons put their heads together, trying to determine what had happened. Was it an assassination attempt? Was the emperor merely indisposed?
She had been looking directly at the emperor, and even she did not know precisely what had happened.
The silk curtains rustled as Panya, the wife of Senator Columba, entered the balcony.
"A shame that the emperor was overcome," Panya said. A plump, matronly woman, she paused to flutter her ivory fan meaningfully before continuing, "I confess that I myself was feeling quite faint from the heat."
Senator Columba had rented a large box on the lower tier—the best he could hope for as the representative of a minor province. He and his wife would not have been able to see what had transpired, and thus Panya was seeking out gossip, while her husband no doubt did the same. Panya must have reasoned that of all those who were privileged to sit on the same tier as the emperor, Lady Ysobel, as a foreigner, would be the most likely to receive her.
"It is quite warm," Ysobel agreed.
"I heard someone say that one of the emperor's guards was covered in blood," Panya said, letting her voice trail off.
"Wine, actually," Ysobel said. "Apparently the vintage was not to his taste."
Panya's eyebrows rose in confusion; then, after a moment, her face cleared, as she reached the obvious conclusion.
"How . . . distressing," Panya said.
Ysobel had chosen her words carefully. If it was an assassination attempt, then Panya would remember that Lady Ysobel had implied as much. But if the spilled wine was merely a fit of pique, well, then in hindsight Ysobel's words would be seen as the simple truth. In either case, she would have enhanced her reputation as someone who knew the intimate workings of Lucius's court.
And the more people thought you knew, the more likely they were to try to impress you by sharing their own secrets in return.
Burrell peered around the curtain, and as he caught her eye, he nodded sharply.
Ysobel rose to her feet, shaking out the folds of her robe. "And if you will forgive me, my escort is here. Kindly convey my respects to your husband."
"Of course," Panya said. And she brushed hastily past Burrell, clearly eager to share what she had learned.
Lucius shook, as if in the grip of a fever, but he kept moving. He could not collapse. Not here, where he would be seen by all. Ahead of him, a functionary rushed to open the door to the private staircase that led from his box directly to the plaza below, where his carriage would be waiting. As he reached the stairs, which would shield him from curious eyes, he gave a sigh of relief.
But it was too soon, for his left leg gave way beneath him. He would have tumbled down the stairs were it not for the guard behind him, who grabbed his arm, wrenching it in his haste.
Then another was on his right side, and between them, they hauled Lucius upright.
Later he would feel the humiliation of this moment, but for now there was only the bitter taste of fear, as he struggled to regain his balance.
"Gently," the functionary known as One admonished. "The emperor is unwell."
Lucius could not feel the left side of his body. His arm hung limp in the guard's grasp, while his leg trembled with spasms that he could not feel.
"I will fetch a litter," One said.
"No," Lucius said. "I will walk."
He looked at the guard who held his left arm, his eyes carefully downcast, as if this somehow made it acceptable to have laid hands upon the emperor.
"I will walk," he repeated. With his right leg, he took a step down. His helpers, after a frantic glance back toward the chief functionary, supported him between them as he continued down the stairs.
It was not walking, precisely. If it were not for the guards bearing most of his weight, Lucius would surely have fallen. But it was less humiliating than being carried, as if he were a fainting woman.
In his mind, he called out to the monk. Wake. I need you.
But there was no response. The monk's consciousness must be slumbering—something had not happened for several months.
Finally, he reached the safety of his carriage and was helped inside.
"I have sent a runner, and the healers will be waiting in your chambers," One said, as he climbed into the carriage and took the seat opposite Lucius.
As the chief functionary, and most trusted of the emperor's personal servants, One held a position of responsibility over all the other servants in the emperor's employ. And, at times, it seemed he would command the emperor himself—for his own good, of course.
"There is no need for a healer," Lucius said.
He could heal others. He had even healed himself, recovering from injuries that would have killed a lesser man. But whatever was happening now, it was no mere illness. Neither Lucius's own powers nor the skills of the imperial healer would be of any aid.
At least the trembling had subsided once he was in the carriage, though he still had no sensation on his left side. He could only hope it returned before he had to be carried through his own palace.
Josan, he called in his mind. There was still no response. He shivered again, struck by a new fear, then turned his head so he would not have to meet One's gaze.
Strange. He had long chafed against the spell that had bound two souls in one body—wishing to be freed from the monk's persistent presence. Yet now that he was alone, he was afraid. What was happening to him? This was not the first time his body had betrayed him, but each attack was more severe than the previous one.
Josan was the only one who understood, the only one with whom he could share his fears. Yet, at the moment Lucius most needed the monk's wisdom, he was gone.
There was nothing a healer could do for him. He could not confess the source of his affliction. No one must know that the emperor was the victim of sorcery—the victim of a spell meant to transform Prince Lucius into a willing puppet under the control of the Learned Brethren.
The spell had both succeeded and failed. The soul of a dying monk had been transplanted into the body of a prince, but the prince's own soul remained. Rather than a willing puppet, Brother Nikos had created an implacable enemy, as the souls of both men found common ground in their hatred of what had been done to them.
And now it seemed the spell had other, unintended consequences, as the gradual failing of their shared body would attest.
Lucius knew the rumors that swirled around the capital. The kindest said that the emperor was fatigued from the events of the past year, when he had simultaneously quelled a rebellion against him and personally led his fleet to victory over the ships of the Federation of Seddon.
Others were less kind, hinting at a fatal illness, or that he had been poisoned.
But more and more he heard the words God-touched, whispered when they thought he could not hear them. His attacks were seen as the consequences of the gods' favor—the price of the magic that he had inherited from his ancestors.
His left arm began to tingle, as if he had lain upon it. Slowly he flexed the fingers of his hand, welcoming the prickling pain.
Lucius, the monk's mind voice called. Prince!