The following is an excerpt from my fantasy novel, Wings of the Sathakos.
Antithion Jarvis sat alone in a dark corner of Rhaghal’s palatial library, enjoying the silent company of the multitudes of old books that lined the shelves. He was nearly invisible there, a lithe form in black leather armor. The small round table before him was piled high with thick tomes with gilded edges and seals upon the covers. Beyond the stained glass window beside him, the moon was a brilliant queen overlooking the vastness of the empire. Her light, filtered dimly through the stained glass, gave the room an ethereal feeling.
Jarvis leaned forward with his book open before him, reading by the light of a solitary candle. He had been there for hours already, undisturbed. The palace servants did not know he was there and therefore had not bothered him with unnecessary offers of drinks or a meal. This was no accident. Jarvis’ role was to serve the Empire like a ghost. His skills in secrecy and survival not only aided him in the field; they were constant, a way of life.
The book in his fingers was a collection of fables from the southern regions of Chassa. The veracity of its stories was questionable, but he knew many legends were built upon a foundation of truth. Having just returned from the arboreal city of Valenrud in southern Chassa and likely returning there again within the next few days, Jarvis was seeking out the stories of thieves, forbidden lovers, sieges in times of war, and the like. Anything that might hint at secret parts of the city, accesses long since lost to time or places where he could conceal himself without fear of discovery. Though he might spend hours with his nose in these books and find absolutely nothing to aid him, the opportunity made this a far better pastime than any other he cared to partake in.
He was a creature with a single purpose; to serve the Emperor. He had always served with a devout sense of loyalty and had thus earned his rank, unique to him and held by none other in history. The Raven order, a special branch of the Chassan military, had been designed with Jarvis in mind. Ravens were meant to be the Empire’s most capable soldiers, those that could be trusted with the most challenging of tasks. Throughout his long tenure in the military, Jarvis had proven that nothing could stand in his way when his path was set. His black armor, emblazoned with the Emperor’s seal, and the pair of custom, thin swords resting against his chair were the only symbols of his rank and he kept them with him at all times.
Instinct brought his fierce gaze up to the library’s broad entry. He breathed slowly and reached out with his senses. The closest living thing was a soldier down the hall standing guard at the base of the wide stairs that led up to the throne room and personal bedchambers of the high-born. Beyond that, in the belly of the palace, there were servants and soldiers awake and moving but nothing there caught Jarvis’ attention. The quiet was pervasive, a deep mist that hovered just above the skin, just beyond the light.
Yet something was amiss in the silence. A subtle shift in its nature signified something uncommon. Few others could have sensed it, but to the Raven it was blatantly clear. Jarvis had learned to trust these premonitions over time, as they had warned him of trouble and mortal error on more than one occasion.
He laid his book softly upon the table. Rising, he took up his swords and strapped them on to his back, their handles positioned just above his shoulders. A step into the hall brought a slight change in temperature, a draft of cold air across the backs of his hands and the stubble on his cheeks, but betrayed no secrets. He looked both ways, seeking out the source of the disturbance, and was eventually guided by premonition to the grand entry.
The room was massive, its domed ceiling stories above the floor, with curved golden beams. Wide arched windows, stained glass like those in the library but much larger, admitted long swaths of dim moonlight. The arched main doors were shut and barred, as were all the other doors in the room. The staircase, wide at the bottom and narrowing at the second floor, was guarded by two men at the feet of the golden banisters. Both guards stood like stone gargoyles adorned in heavy iron armor and helmets, hands resting on the hilts of the broadswords at their waists.
Jarvis approached the man closest to him and elicited a jump and gasp when he whispered, “Has the night been quiet?”
The soldier glanced at the Emperor’s sigil on the Raven’s chest and exhaled deeply. “Forgive me, I didn’t hear your approach…”
“But have you heard anything?” Jarvis persisted.
“Not a sound, sir. There was a cat ran through here an hour ago…”
Jarvis was already moving past him, no longer listening. Even before he crossed the width of the bottom stair toward the other guard, he knew the man was dead. The body was leaning back on the banister, head tilted against the shoulder in an unnatural manner that would have been too uncomfortable to accommodate sleep. The Raven moved beside the guard and noted the trickle of scarlet blood running from the man’s lips and down his neck. The body was still warm. Jarvis looked the corpse up and down, noted the broken strap of the chestpiece and the torn mail beneath. The killer had come upon him without his knowledge and driven a long knife between his armor, through the mail, and expertly dodged his ribs to pierce his heart. The victim hadn’t even cried out and the guard a mere twenty steps away hadn’t even been aware of the attack.
This is no mere assassin, Jarvis thought. This is a phantom.
He turned back to the other soldier, who was watching him curiously, still unaware that his partner was dead. The Raven pointed commandingly as he began to ascend the stairs. “There is a killer loose in the palace. Wake the house. Wake everyone!”
The guard’s eyes widened before he scrambled away to do as bidden. Jarvis sped his ascent. The assassin was already ten or fifteen minutes ahead of him. The target was clearly the Emperor. His chambers were at the top of the stairs and down a long hall, guarded by some of the most capable men in the palace, but by the time Jarvis reached the second floor, he had decided to assume the Emperor was dead. If the assassin meant to create chaos in the realm, it would take more than the murder of the Emperor. There was one heir, young Erek Enterok, who would need to be assassinated as well. Such a coordinated pair of kills would end the Enterok bloodline and leave the governance of the Empire in the hands of the nation’s military generals. Often thirstier for blood and hungrier for power than the reserved Emperor, the generals would be ineffective rulers. There was something in that unhappy truth that offered a clue to the identity of the assassin’s employer but Jarvis ignored it in his haste to rescue the Emperor’s son
He moved quickly, with purpose, yet his senses remained alert, penetrating the corners and shadows for what they might conceal. This assassin could be anywhere, he told himself. As adept as he was in avoiding detection, the assassin had accomplished what he could never have.
Jarvis rounded a corner and came within sight of the Emperor’s son’s room. His bodyguards stood at attention on either side of the door; alive. Thankfully, alive. The assassin hadn’t reached him yet.
The closest bodyguard turned to face the Raven as he approached, holding out an arm and opening his mouth to speak. The Raven cut him off, “There is a killer loose in the palace. The Emperor may very well be dead already. We need to get Erek to safety.” As he spoke, the palace’s warning bells finally began to toll, signaling an attack on the palace. The bodyguard hesitated but the tolling of the bells convinced him that Jarvis spoke the truth and he moved to unlock the door.
As soon as the door was open, Jarvis burst into the room. Erek Enterok, a boy of fifteen years with a small frame and a mess of dark hair, was awake and seated at the side of his bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He looked up in confusion at the Raven’s entrance but he was unafraid and did not back away. His had been a life of luxury and complacence. Danger had always been kept far away by the large, broad men that had surrounded him since his days in a crib. He assumed that the black armor-clad man bursting into his room was a servant of his father’s even before he saw his family’s seal upon the man’s chest.
Jarvis hastened to the boy, facing his palms towards him to assure Erek he meant no harm. “We must move you, my Emperor. You’re not safe here.”
The boy scowled at him and turned his face away, cranky from exhaustion. Jarvis knelt and placed his hand on Erek’s shoulder. “Your father …” He stopped. The sounds of brief combat, steel cutting against steel, reached him from the doorway. Forcefully, he lifted Erek to his feet and pushed him against the window by the bed, then turned so his own body was blocking Erek’s. Through the doorway, he could see the lifeless bodies of the guards. They had been some of the Empire’s best men and yet the assassin had dispatched them with ease. Jarvis considered himself more capable in combat than most but the likelihood of failure against this opponent loomed large. He wasn’t afraid to die but knew that if he did, Erek’s life would end shortly thereafter. The assassin was a shadow, still in the hall, when Jarvis made the decision to follow through with the only plan he could come up with, reckless though it was.
Desperately, Jarvis turned, grabbed the front of Erek’s shirt with both hands and, ignoring the boy’s cries, threw him against the window with all his might. The glass shattered against Erek’s back and the boy fell through, screaming as he slid down the steep roof towards the edge. Quick as a blink, he disappeared over it and was gone.
Jarvis didn’t regret his actions. He knew from previous study of the palace grounds that the room was only a couple of stories tall and bushes down below would soften Erek’s fall. The boy was likely to incur some harm but his odds of surviving the fall were greater than his odds of surviving the assassin.
Steeling himself for the coming battle, the Raven drew both swords over his shoulders and turned to face the assassin. She stood just inside the room, the fallen bodies of the guards visible behind her through the doorway. She wore no armor, only wide black leather straps that wrapped around her torso and legs. The pale exposed skin of her shoulders, arms, and stomach was clad in tattoos, black swirls and jagged shapes that he did not recognize. She held two black daggers pointed at the ground, dripping blood on the snow white carpets, and she beheld him with round, lavender eyes beneath a head of short, cropped black hair.
When she spoke, it was with a musical voice, quiet but above the volume of a cautious whisper. “Who are you?” There was no fear in the question, only genuine curiosity laced with hints of both frustration and admiration.
He did not answer immediately. The sight of her had awakened a memory. There was a character in the annals of history, a killer known as Sirilis who had often served as an assassin for hire. The woman before him matched her description. It was impossible, of course, as Sirilis would have been hundreds of years old if she were still alive, but this woman was as remarkable a killer and as markedly tattooed.
He finally replied, “You’ll not take him. I won’t allow it.”
His courage elicited a slight rise in her eyebrows. “You won’t allow it? Do you intend to find somewhere better protected than the Imperial Palace of Rhaghal to guard him, or men better suited to do so than the Emperor’s private guard?” Her tone was playful, mocking. “I have taken the lives of seven men tonight to get here. They paid a heavy price to protect that boy you’ve just thrown away. If they could have, they would have asked you to deliver him to me before such a price was paid. Alas, they were never given the chance.”
“You’ll not have him,” he repeated. “The Emperor is his people. His life is equal to all of theirs combined. Those that die to protect him do so gloriously.”
She raised an eyebrow. “I doubt these men who have fallen tonight would agree with you, but your loyalty to your leader is something they might respect.” She spat. “I do not respect it. A slave that chooses its keeper is a slave nonetheless. You could have your freedom but you prefer the manacles.”
“I care nothing for your opinion.” Gripping his swords, he readied himself. “Now come kill me, if you can.”
She laughed, a sound like frozen chimes. Through the broken window, he heard distant shouting; the boy had been discovered on the ground below. There were calls for a healer. At least they are not calls for a priest to sing the rites of the dead, he thought. The guards would soon be coming to Erek’s room to investigate. The Raven and his allies would outnumber her shortly.
She sensed the coming danger and took a step back into the doorway. Before she disappeared around the corner, she looked at him directly and stated, “Anyone that comes between me and that boy will die.” Then she was gone.
Jarvis exhaled softly. He could have pursued her but his allegiance was to the young new Emperor and he needed to know the boy’s condition. With haste, he made for the grounds. A small crowd of servants had formed beneath the broken window, whispering amongst themselves, draped in shawls and blankets to combat the cold night air. Jarvis pushed through them, the seal on his armor earning him the right, and knelt beside the boy, instinctively avoiding the shards of broken glass littered on the ground. Erek was conscious and writhing in pain though the palace baker, a thick man with rolls of fat bursting from every opening in his nightclothes, was holding him down so a healer could examine him. The healer, a thin and scrawny old man with shrewd blue eyes, looked up when Jarvis arrived but took little notice of him, returning his focus to the boy’s injuries.
“How bad is it?” The Raven asked.
“Eh, about as bad as you might expect for a lad who’s just fallen from a great height and lived.” The healer regretted the disrespect immediately and glanced up at the intimidating man in black apologetically. More directly, he answered, “He’s cut up all over but it looks like he may have been spared any broken bones. You know what happened?”
Erek grabbed the baker’s hand on his shoulder and pointed at Jarvis furiously. “It’s him! He’s the one that did it, the one that threw me!”
A palace guard stepped forward and reached for Jarvis but the Raven commanded the man back with a fierce glance. “My Emperor, you were in grave danger and would have died…”
“I could have died!” The boy shrieked. “You could have killed me! Who are you? Who are you? I’ll see to it my father has you killed…!” He squirmed, every word causing him more and more discomfort and pain. This time, the palace guards were not dissuaded by Jarvis’ harsh looks. They took him by the arms and lifted him to his feet.
“Your father is dead, Erek.” Jarvis declared. The gravity of the crowd’s awed silence weighed upon the boy. After a moment, and no more gently, Jarvis continued, “You would be too if I hadn’t done this. The one who killed him…”
“My father is not dead,” the boy spat defiantly, but with a hint of doubt. Jarvis tried to ignore him and continue but Erek wouldn’t have it. “My father is not dead! You tried to kill me and now you’re lying to me!”
A soldier spoke up from the back of the crowd. “It’s true. I’ve just come from the Emperor’s room.” He paused, uncomfortable with having earned the attention of the entire group, then shrugged. “They killed him,” he mumbled.
Erek stared at Jarvis furiously, burning with anger but beginning to believe. More slowly than before, Jarvis continued, “The one who…did it, she’s after you next. She came for both of you.”
“Bah, malarkey!” The healer scoffed. “One single assassin?”
Jarvis tore himself out of the guards’ grasp and stepped toward the healer threateningly. “It is true, damn it! And the boy’s life is in danger.” He looked around the crowd, his determined gaze moving from face to face. “Erek is your new emperor. It is our duty to protect him and he is not safe here.”
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. One of the guards broke it first. “The assassin, she can’t hurt him now, can she? We should send for the generals.”
Jarvis had already considered that course of action, and rejected it. “She is a gifted killer but what she achieved tonight would be impossible for anyone without aid. The generals themselves are those with the most to gain from the end of the Enterok line. If Erek stays here, he will be in danger, whatever we may try to do to protect him. No, he needs to be taken into hiding until his father’s murder is solved and the culprits brought to justice.” He touched the Emperor’s seal on his chest. “I served Ederis Enterok and his father before him. Trust my words.”
Though his high rank was clear, the guards were visibly uncomfortable with the idea. Jarvis chose to ignore them until they found their voices. Turning to a page in the crowd, he told him, “We’ll need two horses packed with supplies for one week. They’ll need to be fast but with stamina; we can’t expect to be able to change them and we’ll be riding hard for days.” The page nodded and went running away. Jarvis returned his attention to the healer. “Bandage the Emperor’s wounds as well as you can. He and I must leave immediately.”
The healer snorted. “He can’t travel like this, not on horseback. I’ve hardly had a chance to examine him.”
“There is no time. If one of the generals is to blame for this assassination, there will be no saving him once they arrive.” When the healer had no response, Jarvis demanded, “Bandage the wounds.”
Erek was silent and put up no resistance as the healer went grumbling about his work. The boy seemed suddenly disconnected, unaware of his own pain. Jarvis knew the look. Loss was a crippling emotion for some. Stronger men could take loss and forge it into resolve and purpose but that was often a skill learned through experience. Erek had never lost anything dear to him, let alone anyone as close as his own father. This was his first lesson in suffering and it would not be easily learned.
Jarvis caught the attention of the closest soldier. “Gather a group of a dozen men. You’ll pair up and ride in different directions. If the assassin thinks to pursue us, she may follow the wrong set of tracks and provide us with enough time to reach our destination.”
The soldier nodded. “Where will you be headed?”
“It’s better I don’t tell you,” Jarvis admitted and turned away. If the assassin did follow the wrong pair of horses, she would interrogate whomever she found by knifepoint. In fact, he was counting on her to waste time doing exactly that. He felt marginally guilty for putting other sworn men of Chassa in danger of their lives but he had not lied in Erek’s bedroom; the Emperor was more important than all of them.
As he waited for the horses to come and for Erek’s wounds to be bandaged, Jarvis took a moment to consider the assassin. She had gone out of her way to mimic the legendary Sirilis. Though Sirilis had been gone so long that the stories had frayed and decayed, leaving behind only tales told to naughty children of her long knives and taste for human blood, Jarvis was well read and knew better. In the histories, Sirilis was said to be unstoppable and undying, and had even killed a fair share of emperors and kings. The more Jarvis thought about the assassin he had encountered in Erek’s room, the more the resemblance seemed uncanny, but his rational mind couldn’t accept the possibility that the tales of Sirilis’ immortality might be true.
The horses came and Erek was lifted atop the smaller of the two, a black mare. He winced as he was lifted and again when set down. Soldiers stepped forward, offering to travel with them, but Jarvis turned them away. “We must not draw attention. The two of us alone will stand a better chance of avoiding her than a larger group might.” They accepted this because he wore the seal of the Emperor and they were sworn to obey.
Jarvis mounted his own steed, a gray and brown spotted courser, and reined in beside the Emperor. With his eyes and a slight nod, the Raven asked the boy if he was ready to travel. A glum nod was all the response he needed. With a cry, Jarvis urged his steed forward and the Emperor’s mare followed. Together they charged away from the eyes of the onlookers toward the sparse forests of the Imperial Fields.
If you enjoyed that chapter, pick up the book here.