“‘Gather all ye Citizens of the Reach, for I — Rothus ‘ja Darden, Imperial Bard and Grand Historian to His Imperial and August Majesty, the most Almighty Inheritor of the Diamond Scepter, the Ruler of the Distant Reaches and Protector of the Sindar Peaks….’”
Rothus trailed off as he gazed west over Amalcross’s rooftops and towers. In the pre-dawn light, he could just make out the swarm of carts and people trudging on the Great Western Road. For weeks, farmers, merchants, peddlers, and thieves joined the throng, inching ever closer to the capital. The Amalguard would certainly have their hands full once the revelers arrived: The Conclave might be a sacred festival, but it was also every pickpocket’s and cutpurse’s most fruitful harvest.
Rothus paced around his loggia, pulling at his collar despite the cool breeze.
“Yes, right… ‘Call into session the fifty… fifty-seventh Conclave of Bards in this year Eight-Hundred-Eleven of the Amal Era….’”
He reached the eastern balcony and gazed towards the sun’s first rays rising above the sprawl of New Amal. The thinning fog on the Straight intertwined with the bridges and the spiny masts of vessels — pleasure barges and skiffs, Rothus knew — bobbing their way toward the quays at Boernside and Allroads. Soon enough, throngs of revelers would disembark and join the pilgrims from the western Reaches inside the Grand Hall.
“Something about the restoration of the throne?” Rothus, suddenly dyspeptic, mumbled and shook his head. “No, no — stick with the ‘sacred traditions passed down since the era of Cogidubnus and the honor of the Distant Reaches….’”
He practiced his lines again, eyes touching upon landmarks — the Long Bridge, Temple of Skaardruf, the Spice Market — as each sentence flowed into the next.
Just as in times of old, Rothus, alongside the bards of the many and varied lands of the Distant Reaches, would entrance the people of the Amal Empire with tales of love, tragedy, war, victory, heroics, and even glory. Naturally, as master of ceremonies, a certain sheen and status would accrete to him. Indeed, if all went well, Rothus would be in high demand at the parties and weddings of the Hundred Houses.
He smiled at the thought. In every way, his currency would surely rise. Watching the people of the Amal Empire crawling their way into the capital, Rothus imagined the thunderous applause and tears of joy that would greet the Emperor’s grant of a boon unto the Conclave’s winner. Perhaps some princess of one of the greater houses would turn her gaze favorably upon him.
Rothus gripped the granite railing of the balcony and took a deep breath. It would be a long week… hopefully without incident.
The Imperial Bard strode inside and checked himself in the mirror yet again, flattening a subtle crease in his black velvet doublet and polishing away a tiny smudge on the gold-encrusted green and red Salavaster egg hanging about his neck. The Spicers’ delegation would be in attendance for the first day of the Conclave, and the Imperial Emissary said the scaley folk would look favorably upon his display of their gift. Truth be told, Rothus had planned to wear it anyway; the flea-bitten public might be welcome in the Palace today, but it didn’t mean he had to blend in. That was a job for the agents of the Imperial Catechism, gods help them.
He snapped his fingers for his attendants, entered the gilt cage of the elevator, and nodded to the operator. “The Grand Hall.”
The mage touched two of the glyphs tattooed upon his forearm, then the insignia for the Grand Hall etched into the metalwork of the elevator. The lift whooshed into motion, silent but for the rush of wind in the shaft. Rothus watched the mage work and saw a bead of sweat form on the man’s forehead.
When the door opened, the Voice of the Empire marched into the cavernous Grand Hall toward the rostrum. Everything had to be perfect. This Conclave of Bards must be a clear, clean break from the reign of Rorei the Young. By the end of the week, that profane ruler had to be consigned without question to the fetid depths of history.
“Light the globes,” Rothus barked.
Young Emily Wink shoved through the press of outsiders straining toward the Amal and its crowd-choked bridges. She ignored the swears flying her direction as she put her elbows to work. Though she had the bronze complexion of the natives of the Sindar Mountains, she wasn’t a provincial yokel. No, Emily Wink was a Amalcrosser through-and-through, the daughter of a Boern River bargeman and one of the fiercest spice-traders to ever work the bazaar. These grassland farmers could fuck themselves if they thought they’d get a better seat in the Grand Hall than her.
Her mother, bless her soul, was using the crowds as an opportunity to price-gouge. The Winks had secured a shipment of curriup powder from the Salavasters last month. Today, Emily Wink’s mother was slinging packets of the spice for quadruple the typical price, and out-of-towners were handing over stacks of goldmash like it grew from the wet, loamy earth of wherever they were from.
A carriage, no doubt belonging to a wealthy guild merchant, thundered past. Emily Wink leapt upon its rear fender, staying low to avoid the sight of the tattooed Binder who sat steering and shouting at its front. She popped her head up and peeked through the stained glass of the carriage’s rear window. Just as she predicted, a gold- and jewel-drenched merchant lounged amongst pillows between two silk-swaddled, gold-haired young men. She pondered whether they were hired for the day or on payroll. But the cart crashed over a pothole, its bone-rattling jolt dislodging her thoughts and almost shaking her from her perch. Damn if that Binder wasn’t a poor driver! It was showy to forgo the horses, but the merchant’s coin would have been better spent on someone who knew more about roads than enchantments.
Rothus’s finery shimmered delightfully: The Binders had done good work on the lights. He turned about, scrutinizing each of the far corners, upper balconies, and loggias that would soon be filled with Amalcross’s finest. The ground, of course, would swarm with folk from both the outer edges of the empire and the slums of the capital.
He nodded to the Binders who were carefully double-checking the glyphs embroidered on the enormous silk banners before sending them levitating far above. Rothus thought about reminding them to ensure their spells were balanced — an overpowered Course could crumble a keystone and bring the whole structure crashing down around them — but decided to err on the side of trust. The Binders knew their work. He had to attend to his own, and that meant seeing to the Emperor.
Rothus did not typically think himself an obsequious person, but some physical debasement was nevertheless appropriate when approaching the person of the Emperor. Upon entering the royal chamber, Rothus knelt, pressed his forehead to the floor, and silently counted to ten. He then rose and approached with his chin slightly angled downward.
The Body of the Empire was being dressed. His attendants girded him in silks (Mede Sea imports), brought forth the ceremonial armor (embellished by Saffronder artisans), and showered him with perfumes evoking the cedars of the Sindar Mountains.
Rothus cleared his throat. “O Great Inheritor of the Dread Crest and Protector of the —”
“Get on with it,” the Emperor said.
Rothus winced. “Have you determined whom you would like to win this year’s Conclave? For whom the agents of the Catechism ought encourage particularly boisterous applause?”
The Emperor selected a plum from a nearby bowl and bit into it, the juice on his chin belying its perfect ripeness. “I’ll choose a winner when I am ready,” the Emperor said. “The emperors of old paid mind to the will of the people. In the interest of differentiating myself from my predecessor” — he paused as an attendant dabbed his chin with a silk napkin — “I shall do the same.” He waved his hand, and the Imperial Bard turned to flee the chamber. “One more thing.”
Rothus paused and swallowed.
“Remember the Conclave is for the glory of the Empire and my bloodline. Not yours.”
The bridge, long ago strengthened with glyphs by some forgotten Binder, swayed in the wind as Emily Wink skipped along the iron and stone railing. She snatched a swaying peacock feather from cap of a dandy in the street below, then clambered up the wall of the gate house, slithered over the roof, and took a flying leap onto the tented roof of a peddler’s stall. She overestimated the canvas’s strength and crashed down in a heap of whirring clockwork dolls. The peddler grabbed her, but she slipped away laughing.
“Guards, guards! Call the Amalguard!” he shouted as she vanished into the narrow alleys of Pauper’s Notch.
She leaped over a puddle of stagnant sewer water and turned a corner, winding her way through the warren of twisting streets but steering clear of the Ale & Marrow. She didn’t need a brush with death today and knew from the fishwives’ tales to avoid that particular den of villainy. Past a shop selling Rilk’gar hides and parts, she began moving uphill.
Skirting The Orbit, she paused at the shrine to Merve and placed the peacock feather on its mantle. Emily Wink recited a silent prayer to that impish local godling of scamps and orphans. Once finished, she stepped alongside a troupe of travelers from the Booley Swamps. They had a bard amongst them, a young and windswept girl with smiling eyes as blue as a clear sky, and the crowd parted to let the troupe through. Emily Wink tagged along, blending in, until they reached the Palace Gardens. She broke away again as they made for a far portico, above which an enchanted sign blazoned “Bards Only.”
She spent an hour eating sweets and admiring the gardens before following the press of spectators into the passageway toward the Grand Hall. The crowd’s shouts turned to gasps and whispers as the Grand Hall revealed itself.
Emily Wink had been but a toddler the last time the Grand Hall was opened, and the public had not been welcomed then. After Rorei the Young banned the Conclave, he had used the Grand Hall for torture and executions. Then, as his brain decayed inside his still-youthful head, he sealed it up and wandered it in madness — or so the rumors went — until he was deposed. Only the Imperial Bard, the Priest-Binders of Skaadruf, and the new Emperor — accompanied by select and trusted representatives of the Hundred Houses — had been present ten years ago for the first Conclave after the restoration.
The cool, damp breeze of the gardens swirled as it met the wall of warm air, redolent of spilled alcohol and pipe smoke. When she finally stepped out of the tunnel, Emily Wink gawped in awe: It was the biggest room she had ever seen. And it seemed like the whole world was there.
The Salavaster envoy peered down from the porphyry balcony. Guards sporting the arms of House Gravsend jostled away commoners to allow — could it really be her? — Elaria Gravsend an unobstructed view.
And there: The rostrum, a spire of quartz and gold, soared from the marble floor. Behind it stood the rough stone seat of the first Throne of Cogidubnus and the Imperial Suite, draped in silks and glittering with riches and magics. Figures moved about within it. One of them was surely the Emperor. Or the princes. Or the concubines.
Emily Wink crept forward for a better look but was jostled aside by four enormous, fur-clad men. She had no idea where in the Reaches they were from.
The hall went dark. Then, a single light cut through the gloom, alighting on the rostrum. A man, dressed in black velvet finery and wearing a brilliant gem about his neck stood at its top. “Silence and kneel, citizens of Amal!” His voice, no doubt enchanted, boomed and echoed throughout the Grand Hall. The hall rustled as Emily Wink, along with tens of thousands of others, knelt. “I present to you his Imperial Majesty — Inheritor of the Rock of Cogidubnus, Wielder of the Dread Blade, and Surveyor of the Distant Reaches!”
The Sunstruck Emperor appeared among the swirling silks and enchanted flames of the suite. He gestured with the diamond scepter, waving it over the gathered crowd.
“I hereby reinstate the Conclave of Bards in this year Eight-Hundred-Eleven of the Amal Era,” the Emperor said. His voice flowed like molten gold over those gathered. “Let all those Bards and storyweavers of the many lands of Amal come and share their tales for the glory and records of the Imperial Reach. And let the one who speaks most powerfully know that my boon is their prize.”
Then he sat upon the Rock of Cogidubnus, that hard throne about which the Amal Empire had grown for more than eight centuries.
The man on the rostrum’s booming voice filled the hall once more. “I, Rothus ‘ja Darden, Voice of the Empire, call upon you to listen well to these Ballads of the Distant Reaches!”
Applause and cheers rose around Emily Wink. Her eyes gleamed as the wine and ale began to flow freely. She stared, rapt, as the man in the silvery beam of light began to tell the tale of the founding of Old Amal.