As Winter Comes

Flashback - Colatongue Part 2

November

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.

Would there be a scene of his childhood, a half-orc raised among backwoods highlanders, tribesmen who wandered the mountains of the North, having no land to hold as their own? How many acts would it take him to carve out a nation for his kin, how many trumpets and alarums as he turned it into an empire? Which of his enemies would be judged worthy of their own death scenes, which allies would rhyme couplets after his dramatic exits?

He was certain Shaaladel would be the handsome scene-stealer, declaiming regally on the nature of their fragile peace as they debated the rebellion in Gate Pass, with no hint of the craven schemer beneath the regal façade. And surely Leska would be cheated of her rightful prominence, as misunderstood by a grasping playmaker as she was by all the rest of his subjects. They all looked at her and saw a frightful mask, unaware that the creature behind that grisly visage was far more human — and more terrifying — that they could have imagined. Leska should’ve been the subject of a play, he thought. She had all the makings of a tragedy, while he had none. His play would be boring, the legendary emperor decided. After all, he always won.

As soon as he dismounted his horse, he was frightfully attended. Inquisitor bodyguards in their horrific masks and blood-splattered lieutenants with word from General Magdus fell in step behind him as he walked. Within a few moments, they had ascended to the throne room, where he took his dinner and dispatched orders. The throne room and the royal bedroom adjoining it were appropriately princely, festooned with tapestries, murals, and other palatial regalia. When the castle was built, these rooms had been prayed over by priests for three days. It was said no one could enter these rooms against the will of the one who sat upon the throne. The great emperor was unimpressed. He placed the Torch of the Burning Sky in a ruby- studded sconce, scraped his boot against the corner of the throne to remove a clump of gray mud, then sat down and called for the leaders of the force that had resisted him.

Hoping their deaths would provide some distraction, he ordered their executions on the spot. He watched attentively, eating stew from a brass tureen, as his bodyguards went about their work. Inquisitors all, trained in the art of torture by Leska herself, the men of his personal guard sensed the dread emperor’s apathy, and stretched their imaginations to make each prisoner’s end more entertaining than the previous one. But the spectacle soon descended into farce and common vulgarity; he grew listless again. He called for wine from the castle cellars and sat in silence, drinking 50-year-old vintages straight from their bottles. Before long, he grew lethargic and announced that he would retire.

All but a handful of his guards bowed deeply and left. The remaining three would stand outside his chamber as he slept. The immortal emperor extinguished the torch as he pulled it from its sconce and walked towards the bedroom, yet he stopped before the door, turned to one of his guards, and began to speak. He said, “I am more weary than I ever knew a mortal or immortal man could be. This world of half-men and vain posturing, this age of sheep who masquerade as lords, diminishes in my eyes by the day. I thought the gods would not long tolerate ambitions such as mine, but like a pack of beaten whores, they offer not defense but more accommodation. Everything that I once coveted turns stale. I grasp the fruits of conquest and each morsel tastes of ashes in my mouth. In seven months, my pennants could cast shadows over all the nations of the known lands, and yet this spent and whelping bitch they call the world cannot, for all my ravaging, yet birth a cur whose sharpest fangs don’t break against my skin. When I bid you to kill those men tonight, I found myself searching their eyes for signs that, in their fatal throes, their dying souls might glimpse another realm, a realm that better suited me. But I saw none. Did you see anything at all?”

The Inquisitor, Darius, stared for a long time into those wild eyes, dumbstruck by this strange and sudden candor. In the end, shamed by his lack of a proper answer — or any answer at all — the bodyguard merely shook his head. Somehow disappointed, and knowing himself a fool for it, the doomed emperor walked away without a word and locked his bedroom door behind him. His name was Drakus Coaltongue, and his curse was to be the most powerful man in the world.

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