Chapter 26: A Truth and A Lie

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The hallway led Libro to a different place this time. Instead of the Empresses living quarters, he now stood before the entrance to the throne room. Pale sunlight beamed down from crystalline windows, revealing hidden dust motes that fell as soft and slow as snowfall. braziers burned nearby, and yet the air was still impossibly chilly.

Libro's breath billowed out in lazy puffs as he crept deeper in. His eyes were instantly drawn to the intricate stonework. Everything had a handcrafted feel to it. As if every stone had been the life's work of master mason in one lifetime or the next. His gaze traced the pillars skyward and there he saw something even more fascinating.

Banners. Every scrap of wall had a banner hanging from it, each emblazoned with the sigil of those who'd sworn fealty to the Empire. Those closest to him he recognized. To his left was House Hallan, the Forge Lords. To his right was House Kent, the bowmen levies. Farther back though, the sigils became more cryptic. Houses of the past that had come and gone, faded away by time or treason. From the banners Libro could read their histories stitched into the tapestry. House Hallan's stretched near to the floor. House Kent nearly had half the length. The house next to Kent's barely reached three yards.

Libro had to squint at the name just to read the sigil. Calaban. The name vaguely rang a bell. House Calaban had been one of the few houses not born of noble blood. Lord Calaban, as he was known then, had earned the title from the former Emperor before his untimely death. Rumor had it that he was killed by a rival during a family wedding.

Continuing down the long stretch of room, Libro recounted the other histories. His fascination overtook him as he read through the ancient histories from the Houses of old.

House Calamitas. Devoured by a Serpen. House Whovan. Destroyed by Ambition. House Rogalan. Killed by bears. House Lakang. Defied Destiny. All these houses had once served under the might of the Contanis Empire, hundreds of thousands of years ago. Now they were gone, remembered only by a single banner. Time had taken the rest.

Libro was enamored by the history surrounding him. Instinctively his hand crept to the Archive strapped to his belt, fingers tracing the old leather and brass that bound the pages of Vangen history. A pang of sadness shot through him. That history was gone forever now, a treasure bound for the mud of the Bosba. What a fool he was.

A voice called out to him then. A voice that drove a spike of ice down his spine.

"I've been expecting you."

Libro whipped towards the source. The Empress stood before him, towering on the stone dias where the great throne sat. Carved from a single block of black onyx the throne radiated light off it's glossy surface, as deep and nebulous as the night sky. It stood a stark contrast to the Empress's ivory mask, as well as the pale veil that draped over her snow white hair. Nothing had changed about her from the dream before. There she stood, timeless, ageless, and yet still radiating with unspoken malice.

He fell to his knees immediately. A dull ache crept through his head as memories of what she had done to him last time needled their way back in. It took everything not to tremble.

"My Lady." Libro's muffled voice quavered into the lush carpet he prostrated on.

The Empress smiled with her eyes. "My sweet child, it is so good to see you again." She descended the dias, every step slow and methodical. Her veil parted revealing that shapely neck of hers once more. The crown she wore glinted as the sunlight caught off it's jeweled surface, casting rays of crimson and violet alongside pearls that burned as bright as stars.

"Arise." The Empress commanded. Libro did so. He stood back up, ramrod straight, arms locked behind his back as had been taught to him. Only then did he notice the last banner hanging on the wall behind the throne. Imposing over everything else, the four armed cross of the Vangen stood emblazoned over a black and yellow checkered field, illuminated by a pure white corona. The tapestry stretched down, reaching the floor, and continued past the Onyx Throne before finally touching down at the end of the stone dias. Nearly three centuries of history was stitched into the cloth. No other banner came close.

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