Grand High Warden Haun hurried through the Sun Palace a fast as his trembling limbs could carry him. He’d wet himself when he received the sealed order to appear in the throne room without delay. A direct summons from the Sun King himself! Praise the Light his best uniform was fresh from the launderer.
The last, and only time he had received a summons from the Sun King was to witness the beheading of his predecessor for dereliction of duty. Haun, installed as the immediate replacement, was admonished by the great Emperor against repeating the headless man’s failures.
If the rumors flying around the city were true, keeping his own head was about to get much harder.
Haun made a nervous adjustment to his jacket collar as he neared the throne room. Custodians lined the wide hallway leading to the massive golden doors. They stared off into the distance, ignoring his anxious behavior.
Flags representing the conquered kingdoms of the Sun King’s empire hung behind the Custodians as they stood in their fine array. Each man or woman was a hostage, a representative of a subjugated people. Heirs to puppet kingdoms, the Sun King held them hostage to ensure their nation’s good behavior. They stood as living reminders of the many kingdoms the Sun King had conquered in his quest to rule the world.
None of the custodians moved to stop Haun. There was an expectation that anyone approaching the throne had permission to do so. No one would be foolish enough to forfeit their lives by appearing uninvited. The Sun King held no public audiences, no private councils. He issued decrees and the people obeyed or died.
A most efficient way to run an empire.
Haun rapped on the golden doors and waited as protocol demanded. The doors swung open smoothly to reveal a short staircase leading up to a low ceiling. Inside stood two of the Emperor’s true guards, members of a brotherhood most citizens would never see.
The brotherhood of assassins had no name, and no one but the Sun King himself knew their number. The Shadows were the fingers of the Emperor. Whenever his will was not properly carried out, Shadows would arrive and rectify the situation, usually by disposing of someone. Faceless servants of the Sun King, they could go anywhere, find anyone, fix anything. If a citizen did chance to see a Shadow, they knew their end had probably come.
The two Shadows guarding the doors to the throne room were Black Sashes, highest of the common ranks. All Shadows dressed the same, a black body suit that revealed only the assassin’s eyes. The garb possessed several sleek pockets for the tools of their trade: knives, throwing stars, garrotes, and all manner of tools for scaling walls and entering buildings. Long, flowing sashes hung from their waists. An intricately tied piece of silk, it showed not only rank, but had its professional uses as well.
As a junior palace Warden, one of Haun’s responsibilities had been overseeing supply for the clandestine group. His job had been to cut through Imperial bureaucracy and ensure the Shadows had everything they needed. Those years allowed him to discreetly learn about the brotherhood’s hierarchy. Initiates wore white sashes, then progressed through the common ranks from yellow and green up to red and black. Rumor had it that a select council of masters wore silver and the Grand Master gold, but no one outside the Sun King’s inner circle had ever seen proof. Shadows never wore their costumes outside the palace unless they were working, and even within the palace they were held themselves apart, unseen.
One of the Shadows tied a piece of black muslin cloth around Haun’s eyes. Tradition said it was to keep commoners from seeing the Sun King’s holy face, but Haun knew its real purpose was to keep them from going blind.
His world fell into darkness and he stood still until a Shadow moved up the stairs and opened a hatch built into the low ceiling. Intense light beamed down, forcing Haun to squint behind the heavy cloth. The Shadows gave him a few moments to adjust before prodded him forward. He climbed the stairs on shaking legs, passing up through the hatch into the crystal dome of the throne room.
A stiff latticework of steel held the hundreds of individual pieces of crystal that formed the massive dome. Each piece was shaped and set in such a way to magnify and focus sunlight onto a gigantic crystal throne in the center of the room. The floor was covered in mirrored tiles, their surfaces canted to reflect light onto the throne—a throne holding the Sun King.
Haun went down on both knees, touching his head to the reflective floor. He trembled as he waited for the Emperor to acknowledge him. His breath grew labored and heavy. Then he felt his sovereign’s oppressive instrusion on his mind.