THE SLEEPING KING Excerpt (Tor, Sep 2015)
“What is it, Oretia?” Ammertus snapped.
Anton’s eyes widened. Oretia? The oracle of the Imperial Court? It was said the powerful Child of Fate had never been wrong in centuries of prophecies. Supposedly, it was she who foretold the death of the first Emperor, she who predicted the mysterious disappearance of the second Maximillian. It was also rumored that she was a key power behind this Maximillian’s throne for the almost thirty-two hundred years of his reign.
Given her age, Anton expected her to look old. He expected wrong. She was born of the extremely long-lived race of janns, her skin swirling with the colors of the elements to which janns aligned themselves. However, if the rumors of her age were accurate, the Emperor himself must have gifted her with exceptional longevity. At a glimpse—and that was all he dared allow himself out of the corner of his eye—she could pass for a woman of middle age, the sort who worked hard at preserving herself. Her bare arms were firm even if the mottled skin covering them looked somewhat leathery. Fine wrinkles crisscrossed what Anton could make out of her face, but as her scowl eased, her skin smoothed into a falsely young mask.
“A prophecy comes,” she announced in a surprisingly lush and throaty voice.
Ammertus retorted, “Write it down and show it to His Majesty later. We are busy now!”
Anton gaped at her scornful gaze, locked in anger with Ammertus’s. She dared defy one of the archdukes, only exceeded in power by the Emperor himself? Did she have a death wish? Belatedly, Anton remembered himself. He hurled his gaze back to Maximillian and missed the rest of the silent battle of wills raging around him. But the air fairly crackled with it, a faint, metallic smell of ozone abruptly permeating the golden room.
Oretia snarled, “Your petty politics can wait. The power building within me is unique. Olde magicks touch me this day!”
The Emperor’s eyebrows twitched into a momentary frown—a mighty loss of control for him. So. Olde magicks worried him, did they? Interesting.
Maximillian leaned back casually on his throne, whereas Ammertus leaned forward aggressively. “Is this prophecy about His Resplendent Majesty?”
“Would I be here if it were not?”
Maximillian ordered in a bored tone, “Tell me, then.”
“It comes an-o-n . . . ,” her voice trailed off, taking on a singsong tone as she drew out the last syllable. “Ahh, the power of it. Perhaps I shall not share this after all. . . .”
Ammertus moved faster than Anton would have believed possible, launching himself off the dais and across the room to the oracle. The archduke embraced her head in his hands, shoving her up against a golden wall, staring into her eyes as if he would suck her brains from her skull. A visible field of energy built around the two of them, pulsing with almost sexual intensity.
“Sing for us, little Oretia,” Ammertus crooned.
Anton shuddered at the depravity and power in that voice. Gads, and to think the Emperor surpassed that power by orders of magnitude.
The oracle moaned, her body arching into a taut, vibrating bow, only her head still, trapped between Ammertus’s clutching hands.
“The end,” she gasped. “I see the end.”
“Of what?” The archduke was breathing heavily, something repulsive throbbing in his thick voice.
She spoke in bursts torn from her throat. “A nameless one . . . wakes in the wilds . . . shackles break–” Her voice broke on a hoarse cry and she sagged in Ammertus’s grip, clawing ineffectually at his hands on either side of her head.
“What?” he shouted, shaking her violently. “Show me.”
The force of that mindquake drove Anton to his knees, buffeting him nearly unconscious. His thoughts scattered, ripped asunder by that awful voice. Struggling to hang on to his fragmenting sanity, Anton stared up at the Emperor sitting at ease on his throne, completely unaffected by the massive mental energy flying through the air. His ageless face was devoid of expression, his eyes reflecting only bland disinterest.
Even Starfire seemed to be experiencing metal distress, and a look of concentration wreathed his features as he shielded himself from his father’s psychic assault. Iolanthe and Korovo did not appear mentally overly distressed by Ammertus’s outburst, but they did look mildly annoyed by it.
Of a sudden Oretia straightened in Ammertus’s grasp and, to Anton’s amazement, tore free entirely. She paced the width of the golden room, sparks flying from her hair as she whirled to stalk back. She paused before the throne, staring at it and the man on it, nodding to herself. The guards on either side of the Emperor tensed as she stalked up the stairs to stand directly in front of Maximillian, who might have been carved from the same obsidian as his throne for all that he reacted.
Her voice, preternaturally deep, resonated off the walls like a terrible storm. “Hear this, for I speak true. A nameless one comes. From the depths of the untamed lands to destroy us all. Olde magicks returned, change born of earth and stars. Greater than thee, Maximillian, Last Emperor of Koth. When Imperial gold is bathed in blood, your fate is written and cannot be undone. The end of Eternal Koth is anon.”