Robert Newcomb: Rise of the Blood Royal

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Robert Newcomb Rise of the Blood Royal
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    Rise of the Blood Royal
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Robert Newcomb

Rise of the Blood Royal


Sometimes the way a man dies is more important than how he lived.


HE WAS BORN INTO A WORLD FILLED WITH TREACHERY, dark magic, and unresolved war.

His coming had been foretold, and his birth was a joyous event among the few mystics considered worthy to witness it. As his mother gave him life, she and her newborn were surrounded by an azure glow. Soon the glow faded to reveal the crying child for whom the hopefulPon Q’tar clerics had waited so long. They named him Vespasian Augustus I, and it was he who was destined to lead his country to final victory over Shashida, the southern nation that had for so long threatened Rustannica’s way of life.

Immediately after the child’s birth, his mother and father were taken away. Five veiled wet nurses would take turns suckling him, ensuring that no singular attachment would form in his heart and perhaps mar his later devotion to the clerics who would shape his life. The child was everything; the woman who birthed him and the man who sired him were little more than living suppliers of unique bloodlines. The boy would be raised alone by the mysterious clerics. One day those same mystics would grant him rule over their nation.

ThePon Q’tar had explained the boy’s sudden appearance and amazing blood quality to the citizens of Rustannica as wondrous gifts of magic that were to be welcomed, rather than omens to be feared. The citizens quickly took Vespasian to their bosom, and as he matured they hungered constantly for news of his upbringing.

He had been born thirty-two Seasons of New Life ago. Today, more of Rustannica’s enemies would die.

Small numbers of captured Shashidan soldiers were usually killed outright on the battlefield by the Rustannican Imperial Order. But if the captives were numerous, they were brought in chains to Ellistium, Rustannica’s capital city. There, most would be forced into slavery; the remainder would be condemned to fight one another to the death in the “games,” a lavish spectacle staged in Ellistium’s great coliseum.

Vespasian raised one hand and held it out to Persephone, his empress. Smiling, she placed her palm atop his, and they strode out into the morning sunshine.

As the couple entered the vast coliseum, they were showered with colorful rose petals gleefully tossed down by Persephone’s many handmaidens seated in the stands above. At the sight of their revered rulers, the crowd rose to their feet and roared.

The great coliseum was the largest structure in Ellistium. Its curved stone walls, four tiers high, were covered with colorful mosaic murals depicting a variety of fearsome beasts. On each tier, ivory statues of previous emperors stood in huge carved niches.

The coliseum could accommodate one hundred thousand spectators. As he surveyed the quickly filling stands, Vespasian knew that no seats would go unsold today. These were the first games in nearly three months, and the populace was eager for blood. The mighty Twenty-third Legion had recently been ordered home after a successful campaign, and many Shashidan soldiers had been taken prisoner-sufficient numbers for a full fifteen days of games.

Open arches built into the four tiers allowed light and air into the passageways by which the eager mob entered. Colorful banners fluttered atop the curving walls. Two great red canopies, unfurled from opposite sidewalls, extended nearly to the center of the arena. Their far sides were attached to towering solid turquoise columns that had been sunk into the arena floor. Each column was topped with a gold statue of Vespasian dressed in full military regalia.

The morning sun glinted off the statues and filtered through the red canopies, giving the sand-covered floor the appearance of having already been bloodied and whetting the crowd’s appetite for the spectacles that would soon unfold.

The emperor looked from one end of the arena to the other. Massive iron gates stood in the walls at each end, their twin doors guarded by stern Imperial Order centurions. Over each portal was inlaid an elaborate inscription in pure silver. Above the northern doors the inscription read: The Gates of Life. The southern one read: The Gates of Death.

The emperor’s private box was a lavish affair of elegant blue marble furnished with two ivory thrones, along with simpler chairs reserved for privileged advisors and guests. In each of the four corners, banners of purple and gold fluttered from onyx columns, and ivy vines graced the walls. A purple silk canopy lay stretched between the four columns over the box, shielding the emperor and his entourage from the hot sun. In one corner stood the nervous Games Master, the man responsible for the smooth management of the upcoming spectacle.

The emperor’s box was flanked by two other elaborate boxes. The one to the left was reserved for the Imperial Order’s eighty legion tribunes, though only those few not afield in the seemingly never-ending war against Shashida would attend the games.

The box to the right was reserved for the Priory of Virtue. All twenty seats were carved from solid ivory and lined with red velvet cushions.

The moment the emperor and empress sat down, Shashidan slaves appeared with a multitude of delicacies: wine, sweetmeats, shellfish, grilled breasts of game birds, and boiled eggs; piles of cakes, pastries, and tarts, all sweetened with honey.

As Persephone settled into her chair, the crowd continued to roar and the last of the rose petals fluttered down. She casually employed the craft, causing a golden wine goblet to rise from a tray and float toward her. As she took it in her hand, she turned to regard the man she loved more than life.

Although her marriage to Vespasian had been arranged by thePon Q’tar, Persephone had been smitten at first sight. To her initial dismay, the same had not been true of her intended; but with time, he had come to return her love. The only shadow over their marriage was her failure to produce an heir. Repeated physical examinations of the empress by thePon Q’tar clerics had produced no answers. Even their cleverly concocted fertility potions and specially designed enchantments had not helped her to conceive.

Persephone knew that she had been chosen only because of the unusually high quality of her blood. ThePon Q’tar had searched long and hard for a young girl of such highly endowed blood. Persephone had been forcibly taken from her parents at the age of three and, like Vespasian, had been raised and trained by thePon Q’tar clerics. Her instruction in the arts of magic, politics, and war had rivaled Vespasian’s in every way-but her specialty was palace intrigue, and some confidants dared to whisper that no one outshone her in that area, not even her husband.

She smiled as she regarded Vespasian beside her. He looked splendid in his dress uniform. Dark blue leather armor adorned with elaborate silver filigree covered a shiny black tunic. He wore dark blue filigreed leather greaves and gauntlets and black sandals. His purple and gold cape was attached to his armor at each shoulder, and a golden dress sword in a filigreed scabbard hung at one hip. In celebration of the games, the traditional crown of laurel leaves fashioned from solid gold sat atop his blond curls.

As she regarded him, Vespasian turned to look at his wife. His dark blue eyes met her light blue ones, and he reached to stroke a strand of her long blond hair. She was wearing a gown of vibrant red silk. Golden snakes wound around her upper arms, and matching earrings hung from her lobes. She looked radiant. Leaning closer, Vespasian gave her a conspiratorial smile.

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