Chapter One

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1998 A.S. (After the Shattering)

A SLEEK MARE cut through the night, racing over slick cobblestones and twisting roads with a fearlessness that her rider did not share. The rider clung to his mount's neck as the northern wind howled its fury against the coastal kingdom of Kambe, penetrating the great bay of Wyrim's Fist to hurl itself at the walls of Whitemount.

A cold, relentless sleet battered the rider, stinging his beardless cheeks and tugging upon his cloak with a grim purpose that threatened to rip him out of the saddle. He closed his eyes, huddled against the sure-footed mare, and offered a silent prayer to the Guardians for protection.

It was the Felling Wind, a storm born and brewed in the frigid mountains of the Fell Wastes. Every man, woman, and child had taken shelter—everyone save the rider. It was certainly not a night to be racing through the decaying dock district in search of a lord who had abandoned his post, but, then again, Edmund Flaetfoot hadn't been given much choice. He cursed his luck, the uneven roads, and the biting wind, but most of all the fiendish force that had started a fire in the Royal Nursery.

Lightning snapped, slicing through the sleet, illuminating a ramshackle pleasure house that rose proudly from the midst of squalor. Edmund pulled sharply on the reins and the mare skidded to a stop in the mud. He placed a steady hand on her neck and once she had settled he tugged his cloak into place, squinting at a sign swaying on its chain.

The faded letters of The Mermaid's Blush were lost to him in the storm, but he knew every twist, turn, lane and alley in Whitemount as surely as he knew his own home, and this run-down structure of red paint and gold-flecked balconies was undoubtedly his destination.

As interested as Edmund was in the opposite sex, he would never set foot in so unsavory a place. So why in the Nine Halls would the Emperor's Wise One?

Bracing against the wind, Edmund dismounted and led his steed to the mouth of an alley that offered a pitiable shelter. It was not his place to question orders, but as he sprinted up the rickety steps of the Mermaid's Blush, he couldn't help but wonder if he would find the Emperor's Wise One here. Worst of all, he wondered what would happen to him if he failed to locate the esteemed healer.

The common room was nearly empty of patrons, save the truly immobile. He picked his way past snoring drunkards and equally soused whores, wrinkling his nose at the gaudy decor. Clearly, some optimistic soul had tried to spruce up the worst of the termite-ridden wood. A layer of gold paint had been slapped on the walls, and then doused with cheap perfume in a futile attempt to mask the underlying stench of sweat, piss, and rotting timber.

Edmund stepped into the light of a spluttering candle. A haggard woman stirred in the corner, studying the young man with small, suspicious eyes. Her gaze shifted to the man's tunic, which boldly displayed the Emperor's crest: a black sword and two blue crowns emblazoned on a field of silver. Displeasure and spite creased her face like old leather.

"Our dues are paid," the woman called across the room.

"Where can I find the Wise One known as Oenghus Saevaldr?"

"Wise One?" the woman snorted. "Don't know about all that. Is the big oaf in trouble again?"

A large, bulky brute with a crooked nose dragged himself out of his chair, planting his feet and crossing his arms to await the hag's orders.

"I bring an urgent message for him—nothing more," Edmund replied quickly. It was common enough for officials to disappear in the dock districts. With no one ever the wiser for it.

"I'll hand it to 'im while you 'ave a drink. Vigum there will take yer coin." The woman jerked her head towards the guard, and stood.

The messenger felt his throat go dry, but he stiffened, remembering his orders and the urgency of his errand. He did not have time for these games.

"In the name of Emperor Soataen Jaal III, take me to the Wise One or this refuse heap will be burnt to the ground!"

The woman regarded him while the guard chuckled. Edmund Flaetfoot resisted the urge to do what he did best: run.

After a few moments of consideration, she spat at his feet, and tottered up the stairwell. The young man sighed with relief, and followed. The planks sagged beneath their feet, groaning in protest as they climbed. On the third floor landing, the woman stopped, waving a lazy hand down a door-lined hallway.

"Oenghus' room is the last door there. Good luck wakin' 'im."

Ignoring the woman's smirk, Edmund hurried down the creaky corridor. The walls were peeling, the chairs were stained, and the artwork looked like a drunken, one-armed sailor had attacked each canvas with a paintbrush. He rapped on the door three times, quick and authoritative, and then waited, shifting from foot to foot. When there was no immediate answer, he pounded again.

"Who in the Nine Halls is that?" a voice bellowed from behind the door.

"I have an urgent message for you, m'lord," Edmund yelled.

A loud grumble answered, followed by sounds of rustling fabric, and approaching footsteps. The door opened a crack, revealing a sleepy-eyed woman with a heart-shaped face.

"Quiet down or you'll wake the whole house," she scolded before ushering him inside.

Flames flickered in a small hearth, illuminating the cluttered room with a soft, inviting glow that failed to soften the chill. This was not the common sort of room reserved for patrons who came and went by the hour.

The woman, who was inadequately dressed, hurried back to a large bed. Edmund watched her hop beneath the covers, thinking the Wise One's tastes weren't that bad after all. A loud snore broke his reverie—the Wise One had fallen back asleep.

Edmund walked over to the bed, eyeing the massive pair of feet protruding over the edge of the mattress. Those feet made him uneasy. He decided to focus on the two attractive women stretched alongside the giant. While this lord would not be the first Edmund had had to drag out of bed, he was certainly the largest.

Edmund cleared his throat, loudly.

The Wise One's snoring ceased, and then he roused himself with a grunt, lowering the covers to study his visitor. "Well?"

"Lord Saevaldr... Wise One, I have urgent news. There's been a fire in the palace."

"Good thing it's raining," the Wise One growled and—much to the bed's creaking protest—shifted his bulk, draping an arm over one of his bedfellows.

"M'lord," Edmund persisted. "Emperor Jaal requests your presence."

"Kiss my arse."

"The fire was in the nursery wing." His words were like a crossbow trigger.

The two women yelped in surprise as the Wise One threw off his blankets, surging out of bed. Before Edmund could run, a crushing hand grabbed him by the collar and yanked him clear off his feet. He stared into the baleful eyes of what could only be a Nuthaanian Berserker—over seven feet of fury, of death and carnage.

"Is Isiilde safe?" Oenghus demanded.

The young man spluttered in fear. Edmund Flaetfoot could not move except to kick his feet uselessly in midair.

"Oen," a second woman interrupted. Her voice was ever so gentle, and she slipped from the bed, wrapping a blanket around her shoulders. She was lush and dark, and at that moment, hovering on the edges of his sight, she seemed a benevolent goddess. "Put him down and let him talk." She placed a hand on the powerful arm—an arm that was larger than her waist.

"O, aye, might be a good idea." Oenghus relaxed his grip, and Edmund fell to the floor, collapsing in a breathless heap. Edmund scuttled away from the looming Nuthaanian until he was stopped short by the closed door.

"Spit it out, lad," Oenghus growled, black beard twitching with threat.

"I don't know the details, m'lord." Edmund's perfectly prepared message had flown right out of his head; instead, words tumbled inelegantly from his lips. "I heard there were injuries... and deaths. I don't know who, but Emperor Jaal, m'lord, he is furious."

Much to Edmund's relief, the Wise One didn't utter a word in reply (or rip off his head). In grim silence, the bull of a man swiftly donned his clothes, and tore from the room with eyes as tempestuous as the storm. And Edmund Flaetfoot was left wondering if a man such as that even took note of the Felling Wind.

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