Anzi and Kaizat stood patiently by the enormous stone barrier that made up one of the six massive gates leading out the city. Just beyond the barrier would be a bridge made of the same heavy stone as well, solid and true. The gate guards were the same way. No ordinary beasts, these: while Anzi had her doubts about non-humans, control of the impossibly heavy gates had to fall into the capable hands of the enormous stone golems and no one else. Somewhat man-shaped, just vaguely, while bearing the rippling, coarse texture of rocky earth, the hunched-over creatures stood thrice as high as the tallest human and as many times wide. They had no eyes nor mouth nor ears, but they had a sizable, featureless lump where the head might be on a man along with two arms and two legs as wide around as tree trunks. Mottled gray, black, and white, if they stood stationary, someone who knew no better would mistake them for massive statues chiseled out of a mountainside. But of course, everyone in the Imp
She should have known these knuckle-draggers would be here. “Welcome back, Anzi, didn’t expect to see you so soon. Fell off, did you? Passing muster for the Premier Guard harder than you thought?” “If I fell off, then you should be worried about where you’ll end up,” she said flatly, but she didn’t bother putting on a frosty front otherwise. Blunt words were enough to get her point across when it came to this gaggle of malcontent soldiers who thought she was a wise target to heckle. Oscar had never been very smart though, so while his friends would know better than to do much more than sneer in her direction, he was the one who would be raising hell soon enough. Too bad all the other training grounds were already reserved for drills. She had come up the hill to check with the quartermaster before escorting Kaizat over, knowing there would be trouble-making loiterers about. Like Oscar and his friends.
“What do you think you’re doing.” Anzi had no choice but to remain in place since she didn’t dare step in front of the chieftain, but if she could, she would have been in Oscar’s face in an eye blink. Was he crazy or stupid or both? Didn’t he recognize what kind of guest she was escorting by the priceless regalia he wore? Her eyes narrowed to sharp slits as she glared at her fellow soldier, violently willing him to move back. “I’m just welcoming -” “It’s all right, Anzi. I’m sure he means no harm.” She couldn’t bring herself to look over at Kaizat, not even when she felt a soothing hand rest upon the leather guard over her shoulder. This was humiliating. No discipline, she seethed. And what was Oscar’s plan, exactly? What did he think was going to happen? Now that he had issued what was little more than a poorly disguised challenge, the honor of the Empire’s entire military rested on a pair of shoulders more suitable for posing for portraits than fighting. And yet even if he won, th
“So you get sent back here, and the first thing they make you do is give a tour to some barbarian nomad princeling?” Anzi said nothing in response to the haughty sneer that came from her left. She had no idea which one of Oscar’s friends was speaking, but it was all the same to her. He wasn’t worth responding to. “Stop that,” someone else said. A feminine voice this time, softer but no less lofty. “It must have felt awful coming back like this. It’s alright, Anzi…you’re five or ten years too early for the Premier Guard, anyway. It would have been ridiculous if you managed it, don’t you think? Now that you’re back, you can train some more and prepare better. Next time, if you work harder, you’ll definitely make it.” The snide, backhanded pretense at encouragement was even more annoying than the outright taunting. If she were allowed to speak of the Gauntlet or the Running at all, she would have shot back with a cold assurance that she had exceeded all expectations, but Colonel Bisset
“The market is still crowded. It’ll be better if you wait until closer to the evening to explore the wares.” “That’s fine.” It had been quiet between them ever since Anzi led Kaizat away from the training grounds half an hour ago. Since then, they had been walking along the wide, smooth stone path that followed the circular Annat River and bordered the inner edge of the upper districts. Now they approached a divide in the river, as well as in the path. One way would continue leading them around, and the other would take them deeper into the city districts. When they reached the fork, she came to a halt. “What would you like to see in the meantime, sir.” “What would you recommend?” “There are people who enjoy exploring the Quarter Art, but I don’t think you’ll be wanting souvenirs.” “How did you know? Do I not look like the sort to collect them?” She was glad they passed by another soldier just then so that she was obligated to exchange a quick salute. It gave her an excuse to not
Anzi was grateful to finally get away from the chieftain. After spending no more than half a day with him, she was already feeling horribly bereft by his absence, so how much worse would it have been if she had been in his presence any longer? Even now, she could feel the warmth of his fingers trailing along the side of her face, smell the dizzying scent of spice and desert wind rising from his body, hear his voice alternate between smooth syllables and deep, roughened rumbles… Really, she was grateful they were separated now. Truly. They had returned to the palace as the sun set even though her summons had not yet come, and they had made it back into the grounds with little disturbance thanks to the letter that vouched for them. After that, she had made sure to deposit him into the care of a pretty palace maid who eagerly agreed to show Kaizat-Amun to his room. “I said to call me Kai,” he had said again with a smile, and Anzi had hurriedly demurred before excusing herself. She shou
“Anzi.” She was on her feet in an instant. Night had fallen hours ago, but the flickering light of the standing torches in the courtyard illuminated every harsh line of Colonel Bisset’s face. “Yes, sir.” “You’re needed. See the Emperor first, and you’ll be escorted elsewhere after.” First? Escort her where? It was already late, and while she didn’t dare complain about the hour nor did she have any desire to, the timing was too odd to discount. At the sound of a loud, sudden snuffle, she glanced behind the stone bench she had been sitting on next to the massive snout of the colonel’s dragon. She had awoken finally. All this time she had done little more than sleep. Scaly eyelids twitched, then opened to reveal bright blue eyes that sent a tingle down Anzi’s spine. She turned back to Colonel Bisset. “Will I find His Excellency in the throne room?” “Yes. I won’t
The slanted, gaping hole in the ground utterly dwarfed Anzi. Five meters across at least, perhaps more, and now that her eyes were finally adjusting to the faint light, she saw it was not a hole at all but a long, long tunnel sloping down into some unknown abyss. The angle was such that she could barely see any illumination inside the giant passageway unless she crouched down and peered sideways. But the Emperor had no interest in her misgivings about entering the darkness. When she glanced back at him, there was a surprised gleam in his eyes, and she realized at once her hesitations were tantamount to disobedience. With a sharp, hasty exhale, she pushed herself off her knee and back to a stand. “Yes, Your Excellency,” she said, and while she remembered just in time that the man disliked being saluted, she couldn’t excuse herself from his presence without a bow, at least. “All right, all right, enough, get up. Don’t disappoint me, now.” “Yes, sir.” He turned and left with his long,