Chapter 50: A Farewell to an Old Friend

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"You disobeyed me," The Empress hissed as soon as the doors to the throne room were shut. Dux turned to face her, summoning every ounce of strength he had left to repel the cold needles stabbing at his thoughts. She was sifting through his head again, searching his thoughts and feelings for signs of betrayal as she had done countless times before.

"I have only done as you have asked of me," Dux said, holding his hands out to her.

"You freed Magus from his cell. You let that traitor back into my home even after I told you otherwise." The Empress rose from her throne like an aroused viper, slinking softly down her stone steps. "I could have you killed for that."

Dux swallowed dryly, "You won't though."

The Empress touched a finger to her mask, her amber eyes boring into him. "And why is that?" She asked.

"Because you need me."

The Empress tilted her head. "Oh, you clever man. So clever. You know your worth to me, but how long can you remain worthwhile?"

"I still have to kill Tyrannus."

"And?" The Empress left the bottom step and inched closer.

"And Custodia," Dux said after a pause.

"And?" The Empress was in his face, so close that he could see the dark bags just under her eyes.

"And there will always be more rebellions for the Vangen to quell."

She stepped around him, slinking past with one finger trailing across his back. "The Rebellion will end one day. The Empire will stand reunited once more."

"It hasn't for twenty years," Dux reminded her. "Not since you took the throne."

"It was mine by right," The Empress said.

Dux stifled a chuckle, "As you and every copper crowned king around here has said before."

The Empress was in front of him now. She studied him briefly before raising a hand and slapping him, leaving his cheek burning cold. "You forget yourself, Captain."

Dux took the slap in kind as he had done many times over. "Apologies, your majesty." He rubbed his cheek, letting the pain bring clarity to his aching mind.

Appearing appeased, the Empress returned to the throne, settling down into the cold dark stone. "For all your talk of loyalty you have a funny way of showing it."

"And yet here I stand alone as your last confidant," Dux said. "Even after the Empire's vassals turned against you. And House Hallan. And the gods damned Ministry. I'm the only one you have left."

"No," The Empress said amusingly. "There is another."

Dux felt his blood turn cold. "You leave the boy alone." He said through gritted teeth.

"You dare make demands of me?" The Empress asked.

Dux forced himself to look at the floor. "No, your majesty."

"I thought not," The Empress said triumphantly. She sat back, crossing one leg over the other. "Alas, you do have a point my dear Captain. You and your soldiers are all I have left it seems, but make no mistake. You disobeyed me and your actions will have consequences. No amount of loyalty will protect you when the time comes."

Dux felt his mental facade slowly begin to crack as the Empress invaded his mind once more. No amount of steel he mustered could withstand the force bearing down on him. His legs wobbled, then buckled and he fell to his hands and knees.

And then the pain washed away and he was left gasping and sweating. "Go now," The Empress said. "Get out of my sight. You have a friend to bury, don't you?" The Empress cackled as Dux picked himself up off the ground, limping out of the throne room with what was left of his pride.

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