As Winter Comes

Flashback - Coaltongue Part 1

November

Desolation. Gray earth trod beneath boots on the march; snapped trees waiting for the flames. And soon, the victorious emperor knew, there would be that fire. There always was. Often enough, he brought it, but even when he didn’t, it arose. After every battle, something burned — as if the universe followed some unwritten protocol that conflagration should be the epilogue to carnage. It was even more reliable than the crows.

Castle Korstull was taken. The mighty emperor figured he’d lost, at worst, one man in twenty. He’d known it would be so. Tonight, he would sleep on the sheets of a fallen prince, and the only cost had been a week’s planning and the blood of men he did not know. If the victory had meant anything to him, he would’ve called it a bargain.

When had conquest lost its luster? Was it just the ease, or was it something else? The glorious emperor stared into the flames of the torch he bore in his left hand, the famed artifact he had christened the Torch of the Burning Sky. Since the day he had acquired this strange token, born a century before in miracle and catastrophe, he had never lost a battle. It was as if he’d forgotten how.

He feared his own restlessness, and was all the more frustrated to realize that it might be the only thing he feared. What would the ache for challenge drive him to? The inscrutable emperor had begun to calculate the betrayal of his oldest ally; whether it was out of strategy, ambition, or boredom, he could not tell.

That ally, of course, planned to turn on him first. There had been no intelligence of such an act, but it went without saying. His ally went by the unlikely name of Shaaladel, and if the invincible emperor had forgotten how to lose, Shaaladel had forgotten how not to betray.

The all-knowing emperor’s foresight fatigued him. He’d spent the final hours of many brave men’s lives hoping for some surprise — a sudden ambush, unexpected reinforcements, even a mere change in tactics — that might lend the least excitement to this clash of nations. But like the planets in their courses, his enemies plodded, unwavering, along the path he had laid out to their defeat.

Fate’s arsenal had been emptied, it seemed, and no ordeals remained to try the blessed emperor. He had conquered Sindaire tonight, a nation that had already been his in all but name, for no better reason than that they had given him an excuse. Soon, he would test him- self against his other neighbors — Ostalin, Dassen — but knew that they would fall just as quickly. He wondered what he’d done to anger the gods before his birth, that they should curse him by giving him only a single world to conquer.

Perhaps, he mused, he should avenge himself on the heavens. He peered up through the gathering cloud-rack and contemplated this, until his view was obscured by a high-vaulted arch passing overhead. He trained his gaze forward now, as the warhorse he sat upon ambled through the yawning entryways of the castle. Built to resemble the maw of some great beast, the front gates of Castle Korstull had impressed the magnificent emperor when he’d first seen them, but he had raised palaces of his own in the decades since. Now they looked to him like nothing more than the hastily assembled sets of some Wayfarers’ comedy. He remembered what Leska had told him before he’d left, that some young bard in Ragos had penned a play about his life, probably in an attempt to earn his patronage. He’d laughed at the folly of that, yet he found himself wondering about it now, about how such a play might begin, about what soliloquies this crowing upstart had written into his mouth.

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