Available August 2007 from Bantam Spectra
"Sit," Proconsul Zuberi said, gesturing at the empty chair at the opposite side of the table. "I won't have you looming over me."
Josan pulled out the chair and took his seat, using the time to study the two men. Zuberi's face was drawn with exhaustion, his lips compressed in anger. By contrast Brother Nikos appeared impassive, but one who knew him well could see the pleasure that he was trying to hide.
Brother Nikos picked up the teapot and poured tea into an empty cup, sliding it across the table to him.
Tea? They were offering him tea? The last time he had seen Zuberi, the proconsul's men had beaten him nearly to death. And now he was expected to drink tea with him?
"What do you want from me, proconsul? Or is it Emperor Zuberi the First by now?"
He was proud of the steadiness of his voice, despite his parched throat and cracked lips. The rising scent of cinnamon tea made his mouth water, but he carefully ignored the cup, assuming that it was either drugged or poisoned.
"Proconsul," Zuberi said.
"Then whom should I congratulate? Count Hector, perhaps?"
With little to occupy his mind besides the pains of his own flesh, Josan had spent many hours carefully tracing the imperial genealogies in his head, wondering who would be named emperor. It had been purely an intellectual exercise, for he knew better than to hope that whomever they chose would pardon him.
"Count Hector will be arrested for treason, once the new emperor takes his crown," Nikos said.
From the glare that Zuberi gave the monk, it was clear that this was a tidbit that Zuberi would have preferred to keep secret.
"Treason?" Josan repeated, too stunned to say anything else.
"For the murders of Empress Nerissa and her sons," Nikos clarified.
It was fortunate that Josan was sitting for his muscles sagged in sudden relief.
During these past weeks he had proclaimed his innocence, even through the taste of his own blood and the agonies of his flesh.
But a small part of him had wondered if he did bear some responsibility for her death. Some of his followers had escaped Nerissa's justice, among them Josan's former friend Myles, who possessed both the skills and fanaticism necessary to carry out the deed.
Instead, if Brother Nikos could be believed, it was Count Hector who had let his ambitions overrule his conscience.
"So why have you brought me here?" Josan asked. He kept his gaze locked on Zuberi's face, knowing where the true power lay.
"I have been persuaded, against my own good judgment, to offer you a chance to stave off your execution," Zuberi said.
"What do you want from me?"
"Count Hector must not be allowed to take the throne. And I can not," Zuberi said.
"So you are offering me the crown. Emperor Lucius," he said.
His words had been meant as a jest, but no one laughed. Zuberi's face tightened, as if he had bitten into a sour grape, while Brother Nikos smiled.
"Yes," Brother Nikos said.
"We want you to take the crown, and ensure that Nerissa's murderer is punished."
This had to be a trick of some sort. A bizarre test, intended to reveal that he had been scheming for the throne all along. But he would not play their games. "Why not you?" he asked Zuberi.
"The proconsuló" Nikos began.
"I have my reasons," Zuberi interrupted, "and this is not a jest. Already Ikaria trembles on the brink of civil war. The ministries and nobles would follow me, but I can not rule. Count Hector has the next strongest claim, which he must have known when he put his foul scheme in action. No other candidate can hope to unite Ikaria, and keep our enemies from taking advantage of our disarray."
"So you want me? As what, a decoy for the next assassin?"
He could not believe what he was hearing. He had been prepared to beg for a merciful death. He was not prepared for this.
"You will be emperor in name only," Zuberi said. "I will name your circle of advisors, and you will heed our advice or meet with a swift death at the hands of your personal guards."
They had thought of everything.
"I know Prince Lucius will be pleased to serve his people, and to do whatever is necessary to protect his empire," Nikos said, taking care to stress Lucius's name.
Josan knew this was intentional, just as he knew the reason for Brother Nikos's barely contained triumph. This was the moment that Brother Nikos had striven for when he had performed the forbidden magics linking the soul of a monk to the body of a prince. Nikos had long dreamed of having the next emperor under his control, and his dream was about to come true.
"You have given me no choice," Josan said. "I will do ask you ask."
In the end it did not matter. Emperor or prisoner, he was still damned.
Copyright 2007 by Patricia Bray. All rights reserved.