*You are the one called Haun, my Grand High Warden,* the Sun King’s voice sounded in his head.
“Yes, your majesty,” Haun said aloud.
*A grandiose title for so small a man.*
Haun started to sweat as the Emperor let the silence stretch out. The room’s heat becoming unbearable. He felt like a fat loaf of dough shoved into a baker’s oven. The Sun King’s presence still weighed in his mind, poised to crush him if he uttered the wrong syllable.
*Nothing to say, little man?* the Sun King prodded. *Perhaps your title should be changed to something more appropriate for your true stature?*
Haun worked his mouth in desperation, trying to form the words in his dry mouth. “Whatever pleases your majesty.”
*No, sadly, it must remain. Titles and position are the only things you mortals have to distinguish yourselves from one another. The Grand High Warden you are, and the Grand High Warden you will remain, for now.*
His life was safe? Praise the Emperor. Haun would gladly double his weekly offering at the Sanctum of Light if he walked out alive.
*Are you a coward, Haun?* the Emperor’s voice lanced through his head.
“No…no, your majesty,” Haun stammered.
*I have acknowledged you. Why do you grovel there, quaking like a sniveling guttersnipe instead of a man? Stand to your feet and look at me.*
Haun took a deep breath, steeling himself to face his king and god. Trembling, he stood up and looked toward the throne, resisting the impulse to throw a hand in front of his eyes because of the dazzling light.
He thought he could make out a cruel smirk playing across the Emperor’s face. Dressed in white gauzy linen, his long blond hair cradled his head like an aura of light. He was the very picture of angel, a pure angel. Haun felt dirty in comparison. His dusky skin and short black hair marked him as an immigrant. If not for his service in the Warden corps, he would be considered less than second class.
*I hear rumors trickling up from my city,* the Emperor’s said. *Rumors of plots against my person. What do you know of this?*
Haun was relieved, this was something he’d prepared for. “I heard these rumors myself just this morning, your majesty. Some say a Great House schemes against you, but I feel certain it is false gossip.”
*You have evidence of this?*
“No, your majesty, but without evidence to the contrary my people feel it’s the most likely scenario. If we find such a conspiracy exists, then of course I’ll order a course of action.”
Haun felt the Emperor’s displeasure pressing against his mind. *I did not build my empire by coddling my subjects with such luxuries as evidence or benefit of the doubt. Which House do these rumors name?*
“Dolan, your majesty.”
The Sun King lifted a finger and a Shadow materialized at his side, startling Haun. His eyes went wide when he saw the color of the sash hanging around the man’s waist.
“Majesty?” the Grand Master bowed low.
*Dispose of House Dolan’s first born,* the Sun King ordered, *then choose one of your best to work with Haun to ferret out the truth of this rumor.*
“Yes, majesty.” The Grand Master threw an uninterested look at Haun and vanished into nothingness.
Haun’s blood ran cold. A Shadow would be following his investigation? He had a feeling his chances of keeping his head had just diminished.
*Do you know why your predecessor no longer holds his office?* the Sun King asked.
“Um, not precisely, your majesty. I was told he was derelict in the performance of his duties. There’s no record of the cause.”
*His failure was in snuffing out a rumor, Haun,* the Emperor said. *There was a simple bit of gossip and he was unable to learn the source and stamp it out. He forced me to expend my own time and energy in carrying out his charge.*
Haun felt a warm trickle start down his leg. “I understand, your majesty.”
*Do you?* the Sun King leaned forward on his throne. The pressure on Haun’s mind increased, driving him back down to his knees. *I’m not certain you do, but I am willing to help you in ways not afforded your predecessor. By loaning you one of my Shadows, I’ve placed a precision tool in your hand, a razor sharp knife you can use to excise our troublemaker if you have a hand deft enough to wield it properly.*
“Thank you, your majesty,” Haun could barely breathe, “I will strive to prove my worth.”
*I hope so, Haun,* the Emperor leaned back on his throne. *I like you, you see. I’ve had my eye on you since the day you took your unfortunate predecessor’s place. You’ve done well, caused no problems, played no favorites, and shown no hint of treachery.
*You’re loyal. A coward, but loyal. I can use a man intelligent enough to fear me, yet sharp enough to think for himself. Accomplish this task and I will elevate you to your own Great House, replacing whoever is behind this latest annoyance. You will never need work again.*
Astonished, Haun could only blather. He attempted to bow while still on his knees. “Thank you, your majesty. Thank you. I don’t deserve your blessing.”
*No, you don’t.*