Markov wiped the sweat from his brow before too much made it through his robes.
They’re damp enough from the heat, no need to add to it. Of all the things they had anticipated, all the plans they had made, not one had included the heatwave. How sure was he that Thaylon truly had blessed them?
Calm yourself. A little dampness won’t ruin anything. He just hoped the powder sewn into the sleeves was still dry. If that became as moist as his robes, their task would end with a different type of catastrophe.
They’re going to know, he panicked, and they probably already do! That’s why we’ve all been separated. More beads of sweat replaced the one’s he’d just removed. He cursed his nerves, and took a deep breath.
“Are you sure you’re alright, Ambassador.” The Athalosian steward’s face seemed to scrunch up as he queried Markov. Was that concern, confusion or suspicion?
“Are you sure you don’t want me to take your robes? It is considerably warmer this side of the Lifebloods.”
“No! I mean, no, thank you. These robes are significant, highly ceremonial. I would never forgive myself if anything happened to them.” And they’re hiding enough Chimera’s breath to kill you and all your filth, he added silently. Ambassador. Even the title was an insult. Every other kingdom had some kind of royalty or court. Andov was allowed an Ambassador, nothing more. The steward gave Markov a dubious look, but seemed to accept the story, and invited Markov to the ballroom. He wondered where his entourage was. Had they been found? What of the powder they carried? It wasn’t much, but with the Priest’s instruction in the Erimys Prayers and deal with Theylon, it should be enough. If they weren’t caught. Still, with almost two hundred of the nobility in place to celebrate, the guards had reason to be cautious without suspicion. Maybe they were safe for now.
How does so much arrogance fit in a single room? Not that Markov minded. Opportunities like this were rare, both having so many royalty in the same room, and having so many Andovans allowed out of the Lifebloods. Forty-three in all, each having pockets of the same toxic powder sewn into their own robes, each knowing just enough of the Erimys to bring the Chimera’s Breath to life. Thank the gods for the priest. Without the rudimentary training provided, they wouldn’t have a hope of success. Still might not, if they don’t discover us first. Markov wiped more sweat away.
As he entered the primary ballroom of the palace that had once been a citidel, he was awestruck with the view. He had seen the structure several times from the outside, the shining white wing reaching into the sky gave the palace a unique majesty, but to see the view from the glass window taking up an entire wall the inside was something else. At least a hundred feet wide, and probably sixty feet high, fashioned in a large semi-circle, sitting right on the edge of the Athalosian cliffs, the opaque colours of the murals stained into the wall made for a veritable kaleidoscope throughout the room, while the clear lower tier of glass gave a majestic view of the seas beyond the city. With such a view, it was clear why Athalos had been named capital that hundred years ago. The waters of the grand harbour glistening in the moonlight, leaving Markov breathless for a moment at such a view.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” came a familiar voice.
“Yes, Hecas, it is. Where is everyone else? Are they in place?”
Hecas seemed to ignore him as he stared through the wall. “Do you remember when my Grandfather would tell us of his time here?”
“Your Grandfather? The one who claimed to have grown up here? Can’t honesty say the words of a madman stuck with me that much.”
Hecas twitched a little before responding. Stop it Markov, be nice. After all, you’re both on the same side. Still, he couldn’t help but smirk a little. So many decades of friendship, argument, and planning – he had to have a little fun getting under his friend’s skin.
“He never said he was here. He was reciting the stories his grandfather told, he just seemed to forget the stories were not his own. The cruelest thing Theylon did was bless him with a long life, with a mind like that.”
Waving over a steward, Markov alighted the servant of a couple goblets of wine.
“Best enjoy their hospitality while we can. One way or another, we won’t get the opportunity again.”
Hecas held up a hand as Markov tried to pass him one of the goblets. “How can you drink from the cup that is offered from this stolen place? You mock my grandfather’s stories, but there is little doubt this place was stolen from the us. His grandfather grew up here because ‘here’ is where our people lived, where we belong. And now those that took it from us celebrate think they may ease the pain of such theft with sweetened wine? Thank you, but I’ll not partake.”
“Hecas! You are drawing attention. Besides, you know the histories as well as I do – some say it was ours, some say theirs, some even claim it belonged to someone else before that!”
“That is the point!” Hecas almost seemed to hiss as he lowered his voice. Yet he will never lower his passion. It might have been the cause of many of their arguments, but Markov had to respect the man. He was as passionate about their cause as anyone.
“Look at them, celebrating their empire. Bah! They have no royalty in them. A stolen title, given them in a stolen fortress with a stolen heritage. However, they didn’t anticipate the Andovan resolve. We have returned my brother! And they have the gall to invite us! Never did they even consider that having such important people all in one place, would that present us with an irresistible target. Never did they think we would dare take action against them. Their arrogance offends me, as it should you, my brother. No longer will be live between the Lifebloods, starving while Athalos controls the ports. Never again will be subject to their pathetic rule.”
“Calm yourself,” Markov told him, “you may yet give us away with your . . . enthusiasm”. Markov had heard several different versions of the story; that the Empire had the city, before they became an empire, that Andov built it, and that a third, since extinct, people had made it; the variations were endless. Nevertheless, he let Hecas have his fantasy. They generally disagreed on most things, yet he and Hecas had one thing that consistently unified them; a belief that the Athalos had to be destroyed. They blocked trade routes, they denied vital supplies, and left Andovan farmers to starve on the western side of the great segments of rock separating the two nations, rather than share their ample supplies. All the while, extravagant receptions like this were thrown, and the glistening city of Athalos exemplified their wealth through its beauty every day. He hated them. The only reason his people had survived, as Hecas had said, was the Lifebloods, the small system of rivers running lengthways across Andov, providing just enough water from the Peaks. Without them, his people would have been dead long ago. He held onto that hate, and focussed on their task.
“How many are here?” he asked.
“A full two hundred and four royalty, and our people are scattered to vital points.” Hecas responded. Markov nodded slowly and took a deep breath. More than I thought.
“They’re all dead and they don’t even know it yet,” Hecas grinned. It was a chilling sight to see the small, wiry man’s smile. Markus barely suppressed the shudder.
“Hecas, I think you know me well enough to know I take no pleasure in their deaths,” he chided.
“Not getting cold feet are we,” replied the smaller man, “remember, the priest does not expect to see us return. He has made his deal with Theylon – if we return, he’ll be none too pleased to be shown up before his god.
“We are united in this now, we can finally stand up to Athalos!” Markov smiled and laughed as some of the guests walked by, keeping up the appearance of enjoying himself.
“You forget,” he whispered to Hecas, “our benefactor is from Athalos, a citizen of the Empire. As are we, as have we all been for the past hundred years. Never mind my resolve though, I know what needs to be done. I know this is the only way to make a statement, to make them notice, but if it were possible, I would spare their lives.”
“They’re Athalosian!!” Hecas all but spat.
“He’s not,” replied the ambassador, pointing at one of the guests, “He’s from Marsten. He nearly didn’t come, with his first grandchild due in the coming month.” He pointed at another, “She’s from Su’Anurr, and has long argued for equal distribution among the kingdoms.”
“They’re all the same! They do nothing while Athalos starves us! All part of this pathetic empire!”
“Only because we can’t get through to trade with them or ask for assistance. And besides, See over there?” – Markov pointed to a middle aged couple near the centre of the room – “They’ve advocated for the return of our place in the Court more than any Andovan I know. More than me even..”
“And yet excluded we remain! So you see?! This is why we have to stop them! We shouldn’t need a place in the court! We are our own nation, our own people!” hissed Hecas insistently.
“My friend,” sighed Markov, “they are just people, most of them, with little to no understanding of what the Emperor is doing.” This time it was Hecas’s turn to sigh and shake his head.
“Such the moralist,” he told the ambassador, “I shall miss our little chats, Markov.”
“Well, I guess this is it,” he exhaled. Taking Hecas’s hand he shook it firmly, “It’s been emotional.” With that, he cleared his throat.
“May I have your attention please,” he began in a loud, booming voice, “For those innocents whose death will be unavoidable, I sincerely apologise.” A few glances were thrown his way, but not many. He knew exactly what they were thinking. Another melodramatic Ambassador speech. No-one had ever taken his role seriously, and tonight that would cost them
“For as long as I can remember, my people have struggled to survive in the Wastelands, supported only by the Lifebloods, named as such for if the gods had not provided them we truly would wither and die.” He had the attention of a few now, but hesitated. He had the speech in his head, recalling all the crimes attributed to Athalos.
No, he decided, they don’t get a performance. He directed his speech at a group of Athalosian royalty.
“You have had your chances. You did not listen. The Andovans have spoken, and we will be heard.” Before anyone could react, the ambassador brought his wrists together sharply, muttering the words he had been taught, and making symbols with his hands. A thread was pulled on his robe, releasing a dark powder from the sleeves. Taking a knee, Markov began praying how the Priest had taught them. For a second, nothing happened. He heard the Athalosian began laughing, while several guards made their way towards the him. Slowly.
Your dismissal of us has been your downfall, and continues to be so, Markov thought as the warmth of Theylon’s blessing finally enter his chest, soon moving to his hands and as he opened them in front of him, towards the deadly powder. It worked! He looked up around the room, relieved to see several other Andovans following his lead. Some had been wrestled to the ground. Some had been ignored as fatally as he had, and others managed to find quiet corners where no-one paid attention. Yes, there were enough of them. More than enough to ensure success.
He looked back at the guards, now frozen with jaws opened wide. Markov felt the Blessing strengthen, drawing on his very soul, greedily draining him of his life. He gave gladly, encouraging it to grow. From the moment he noticed his hands starting to thin to finding himself little more than a husk must have been just a few short seconds, and yet it felt a lifetime. As the powder changed to a mist, expanding throughout the palace, Markov began coughing, the taste of blood and poison mixing in his lungs. It didn’t matter. All the guests, all the royalty and oppressors and courts that had benefited from the Empire – they would be dead soon too. A few might make it to the exit, but that was the beauty of their plan. Doors barred by barricades and mercenaries ensured escape was not an option. As Markov lay on the floor, burnt, shriveled and breathing in the poison that was quickly filling the place, he smiled to himself as best he could.
We have spoken, he thought weakly, Theylon take me, we have spoken.