Prologue: The Heir

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The night wind enwrapped Maximilian, but its chill did not shake him. He heard the guards shut the gate behind him and marched on through the courtyard of the palace, through veils of dusty lamplight. The tall black doors emerged like an upright abyss; above them, triple arches soared a full storey higher, carved with winding glyphs whose sight stung the eyes like the face of the sun. Maximilian dared to read them when he approached—an Archrunic inscription proclaiming eternal and absolute dominion, as that of a god over his creation.

Maximilian pulled off his hood and untangled his great gray beard from his scarf. When he rapped on the door, the sound thundered back to him from every wall of the courtyard and escaped into the sky like rings of smoke. In reply, the door cracked open to a flood of fiery light and the figure of a fair young maid dressed in black. Her smile seemed unnervingly practiced.

"My name is Maximilian Reedus," said the man boldly. "Your master is expecting me."

The maid did not break her smile. "He is," she affirmed, and drew back the door to allow the visitor through.

Maximilian strode forth into the gleaming hall. From high above, torchlight flashed off silver chandeliers with limbs twisted like dying ivy; the red walls soaked it up and breathed back a throbbing, sanguine glow. In the distance, staircases wound into shadows, but the maid led Maximilian only as far as the gilded double doors ten paces down the corridor. She swept open the way for him, into the drawing room.

Deep within, a giant of a man lounged on a velvet chair by the hearth. His black curls, like vines, hid his face. At Maximilian's approach, he turned and rose with a paper-thin smile. "Maximilian," he greeted. His eyes were balls of blue fire and his gaze was crushing. "I'm glad you could come."

"Lord Hade." Maximilian bowed. "It's my honor."

"Come now—in my home, you will call me Lucifere." The man swept out an arm dripping with embroidered silk. "And you will share in my comforts. Please, sit."

Maximilian descended into the armchair opposite his host, by a low table set with a platter of luscious fruit, two goblets, and a flask of ruby-red wine. He smiled, as if by obligation.

There was an unsettled silence after Lucifere returned to his seat. The hearth crackled nervously. "Speak to me, friend," he invited at last. "How are you?"

"Was it not you who called me here," said Maximilian, "asking to speak to me?"

Lucifere huffed. "Pleasantries are above you, are they?" His hand was steady as he picked up the flask and filled his guest's cup. "I've been thinking about your idea."

Maximilian watched the wine swirl to the lip of the goblet—for a moment, it looked as bottomless as the sea. "I hope so."

"Only, I will ask you again why you would be so keen to see Sennair's downfall." Lucifere filled his own cup. "And I expect a different answer this time."

"A false answer?"

"You come offering assistance to overthrow our king and expect nothing in return? It goes against every doctrine of the Order."

"What could I want?" Maximilian shrugged. "I'm a respected alchemist with more than enough wealth to last the rest of my life. But I won't sit quiet as long as Sennair Drakathel thinks he's become a god and everyone agrees." He picked up his goblet and swished the wine in the firelight. "That's not how the Order is meant to be. If no one challenges the man in control, we end up back when we had Betrania on the throne."

"So you're just a revolutionary." Lucifere folded his arms. "And what am I that makes you think to come to me with your treason?"

"You're an heir," the alchemist said sharply, "and I have never seen a man so hungry for his inheritance."

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