Swordsmen of the Fallen Empire

A change of pace tonight — the opening scene of a novel I’m working on.

Footsteps echoed from the marble walls as the two men strode along the gallery, their red cloaks billowing behind them. The older man glanced at his companion, at the youth’s eager expression. This was still all new to him, new and exciting.

The younger man noticed the other’s gaze, and broke into a grin.

“Now, now,” the older man said. “Let’s try to maintain decorum, shall we?”

“Yes, sir,” the younger replied, trying to smother his smile.

Then they were at the door they sought, and turned to face it. Both men composed themselves, straightened their cloaks, threw back their shoulders; then the elder rapped sharply on the polished wood, three quick knocks.

“Who is it?” a woman’s voice called from within.

“Guards!” the elder answered.

“You may enter.”

The elder swung the door open, then led the way into the sunny, richly-appointed salon. Three women were clustered in the center of the room, two seated on a small couch and the third standing close by. All were young, beautiful, and dressed in wonderful flowing gowns, but one of the seated pair was clearly in charge, and the other two her attendants. A gentle spring breeze stirred the gauzy draperies that hung in the doorway to the balcony.

“Your highness,” the elder guard said, with a sweeping bow. The younger hastily bowed, as well.

“Ah, Third,” the woman said. “Who is this?”

The elder guard straightened, but did not reply; instead he stared straight ahead, stone-faced. The two attendants looked puzzled by his silence, glancing from him to their mistress.

She cocked her head to one side, so that a torrent of silky black hair spilled across her shoulder, then smiled. “My apologies – I had forgotten the date. Second, is it?”

“Yes, your highness.” The elder guard relaxed and smiled, then turned to his companion. “Allow me to present the Sixth of our order. Sixth, may I present her highness Princess Sharva, the granddaughter of our beloved Emperor.”

“Welcome to our household!” The woman rose to her feet with a single graceful movement, and held out her hand.

The younger guard stepped forward, knelt, and kissed her fingers. He was mildly surprised to see she wore no rings or bracelets, but naturally did not let that surprise show.

“Rise, guardsman!”

The Sixth obeyed, clicking his heels and coming to attention.

“So you’ve only just given up your name, and begun your tuition?” the princess asked.

“Yes, your highness,” he answered.

“You have thirty years of service ahead of you. That must be a daunting prospect.”

“Not at all, your highness. I look forward to every minute of it.”

She smiled, then she turned her attention to the elder guard. “And why have the two of you come to see me today?”

“Primarily to present our new Sixth, your highness,” the Second said, with a wave at his protege. “It will be his duty to guard you in the event of any disturbance. But also, your highness, I came to report that there is a disturbance on the Promenade. As yet we do not believe there is any danger, to you or anyone else, but matters may develop quickly. It’s possible that it may become advisable to leave your apartments on short notice, so we ask that you do not involve yourself in anything that would make a quick departure inconvenient – a bath, for example.”

The two attendants exchanged worried glances, but neither of them spoke. They had not said a word since the guard’s knock.

The princess frowned. “What sort of disturbance?”

“Nothing new, your highness,” the Second replied. “People are concerned about the recent disappearances, and are demanding the government do something – bring back the missing, provide an explanation, something.”

“I don’t blame them,” Sharva said. “I find the disappearances worrisome myself.”

“Then you don’t know what’s causing them?” the Sixth asked.

She shook her head. “No, of course not,” she said.

“If you will forgive me, your highness, none of the rest of your family seems very concerned,” Second said. “I had assumed they knew something the rest of us do not.”

The princess grimaced. “If they do, they have not deigned to inform me of it.” She shook her head. “I agree they do not seem worried, but I don’t know why. Much as I love them, I sometimes find my father’s family hard to understand. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit it, but I think I take more after my mother. Wizards often baffle me as much as they baffle anyone.”

“But…” Sixth began, then stopped, looking confused.

Sharva smiled at him again, and leaned in close. “You know, Sixth, as a member of the Imperial Guards you’ll be expected to keep many secrets.”

“Yes, your highness.”

“Well, here’s one of them – I’m not much of a wizard. Oh, I can do a few spells, but no more than some of the better sorcerers.”

“But… you’re the Emperor’s granddaughter.”

“Yes, I am. And my father is a mighty wizard indeed, as is my uncle, the heir to the throne. But whatever you may have heard to the contrary, my mother is merely human, with no magical ability whatsoever, and as I said a moment ago, I seem to take after her. My brother is more fortunate, and seems to have a gift for magic, but even a simple binding can confound me.”

The Sixth’s mouth opened, then closed, then opened again. “Yes, your highness,” he said.

“Come on, then,” the princess said, turning toward the balcony doors. “Let us take a look at this disturbance.”

“Your highness, I am not sure that is wise,” Second said.

“It probably isn’t,” Sharva replied, without looking back. “I’m going to do it anyway.”

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