Chapter 12 A Dream of What May Come

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In the cold stone halls of the Empress's Palace, Libro's footsteps echoed loudly. The click of his heels hurt his ears, made worse by the haunting silence that surrounded him. He didn't remember entering the Palace, nor could he recall what he had been doing moments prior. All he knew was the endless hallway stretching before him and the gnawing chill.

The Palace was always freezing. Libro knew that much at least. In the handful of times he had entered the great stone structure, the chill of the air had left him numb until he'd returned to the outside world. Many speculated as to why, but deep down Libro felt that he knew.

It was the Empress. Her presence sapped the very heat out of the air. She was the opposite of a motherly figure, radiating cold instead of warmth, and yet for Libro she was the only motherly figure he had. The Green Fever had seen to that.

The hallway ended suddenly before a set of double doors. The dark wood, much like everywhere else in Byzantia, was etched with the Empress's visage looking down on him. Her eyes watched unblinking behind the featureless mask she wore behind the veil draped at her sides. Atop her head was the golden crown, taken from the former Emperor, painted in exquisite detail.

Gently, Libro pushed open the double doors and walked inside. The narrow hallway opened up into a large sitting room. Furniture of varying types were strewn about atop a large woven carpet. Tapestries hung against the walls besides banners and trophies. Braziers burned about the room along with a roaring fireplace nearby and yet the chill from outside remained. Farther on, Libro could see a balcony. A familiar figure stood with her back to him.

The Empress, Libro realized in terror.

What felt like a bolt of lightning suddenly shot through him. He felt his legs move of their own volition. Stepping past the furniture, he entered the balcony before stopping beside the Empress. The cold he had felt before was even more bitter in her presence.

"Majesty," Libro quavered. He tried to fall to his knees and bow, but his legs would not do his bidding, as if frozen with fear. All he could do was stand there quivering like a misbehaved child awaiting punishment from his mother.

The Empress said nothing, her attention fixed elsewhere. She held the crook of her elbow in her left hand, the right placed upon her chin in deep contemplation. For all the dark rumors that were said about her, she appeared as serene and majestic as any other noble lady.

The reality was that Libro had never been this close to the Empress in the eight long years he'd served in the Vangen. He'd only caught a few scant appearances of her during parades or when he'd heard her muffled voice behind a closed door in the Palace. Now, standing so close to her, all he could think about was how unnaturally tall she was.

"Quite the view, isn't it?" The Empress spoke without looking down at Libro. Her voice caressed his mind, as clear as crystal and as sharp as a blade. It almost hurt to listen to her.

Libro looked down. The city of Byzantia loomed out before him. Pyres as tall as the Palace pockmarked the streets, burning as bright as hellfire. More of the pyres burned beyond the city walls in the Ashen Plains, billowing black smoke that even from so far away still nipped at Libro's lungs. The stink of char wafted past his nose, along with the unmistakable stench of death.

"Do you hear that?" The Empress asked.

Libro winced and strained his ears to hear. Past the roaring fires and jubilant celebration, he could hear something else. Screaming. Agonized screaming. A cold shiver ran down his spine, colder than the air around him.

"Yes." Libro responded, his voice practically a whisper.

"That is the sound of ten million people celebrating my ascension," The Empress cooed. "And ten thousand dissenters cursing my name."

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