Empress

“Give me the life I was meant to live.”

Empress

Author Name:

Release Date : March 15, 2016

ISBN Number : 978-1-61138-579-3

$4.99

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Description

A whispered prayer on a holy mountain:
“Give me the life I was meant to live.”

She understood the passions and the cruelty of men; she knew the despair and the strength of women.

She was born in the gutter, raised on the sands of the Hippodrome arena, grew up with the gritty, grim world of chariot racers, and animal keepers, and courtesans. Step by step she clawed her way into the halls of power, and ruled an empire of chaos and triumph and tragedy at the side of the only man who truly appreciated her for what she was.

Empress.

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ONE: The Bear-keeper’s Daughter and the Peasant’s Son

Chapter One

They called it the City of Gold, and under the heavy dark-gold light of a westering sun it was easy to see why. The light gilded the weathered limestone walls of the great Hippodrome into glowing golden ramparts, and played with the colours on the four enormous banners snapping above the track in the brisk breeze blowing into the harbour from the sea.

Beyond, behind high palace walls, a cascade of domed and tiled roofs and open terraces gleamed through the thick foliage of lush gardens and spilled down toward the shore. Smaller palaces clung to the side of the hillside further in along the Narrows that guided ships inwards towards the Great Harbour and the Inner Sea; on the far side of the Narrows, rows upon rows of houses crowded together on steep streets leading down to small wharfs teeming with fishing boats and ferries, and then yet more houses, built out over the water on stilts.

In this light Simonis first saw the place—Visant, the queen city, the jewel of the Empire. She did not recognise the shape of the Sacred Palace. Hippodrome-bred, though, she saw the flags on top of the curved golden wall and, although it was far bigger than she could ever have imagined one could be, knew it for another Hippodrome, the one for which she and her family were bound. But she wasn’t given a lot of time to look—by the time that the small cargo ship on which Simonis and her family had taken passage swept into the Narrows, the shadows were already long, rapidly swallowing the city; the small lamp that had been lit and hung from the curved prow of the ship, where Simonis had taken up her perch when the ship came close to the city, was no match for the encroaching night. Full dark had fallen when the ship finally turned in towards a waiting wharf lit by pitch torches and a few oil-burning lamps. In the red half-light and dancing shadows, men waited on the wharf, ready to help haul the ship in and tie her up.

Behind Simonis, on a ship’s deck piled high with packages and baskets and bales, a commotion of movement and raised voices told of a flurry of activity as the ship sidled in to the side of the quay.

“It’ll be too late to unload her tonight, we’d better look to a guard on the quayside until first light.”

“Hoy! Hoy there! Watch that oar!”

“Throw us the stern rope! Get a move on there!”

And, almost lost in the deeper men’s voices, a woman’s call, her mother’s.

“Simonis? Simonis! Where are you? Come here this instant! Simonis!”

Simonis scrambled down from her perch on the prow, where she had been conveniently out of sight behind several mammoth bales, and came sliding down to a thumping halt at her mother’s feet. She was too heavy, at five, to be quite lifted off her feet by the scruff of her neck like an errant kitten, but it came close enough to that as her mother’s hand closed around the back of Simonis’s shift. And then the hand fell flat on the child’s back, between her shoulder blades, and propelled her forward.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to stray?” said Apphia, Simonis’s mother, sounding tired and exasperated. “I have Danelis to watch, she’s only three, and there’s the baby—but you ought to know better than to get lost like this. Now come on, we don’t have much time. We have to gather up our things, as soon as they’re tied up we have to be off the boat….”

“But they said they would wait until morning,” Simonis said.

“Wait for what?”

“To unload the ship,” Simonis said, trying to get her feet under her as her mother, practically dragged her back to the family’s bivouac on the deck.

“Unload the cargo,” Apphia said, with a trace of impatience. “We aren’t cargo. We’re getting off tonight.”

In a fold of cloth against Apphia’s breast, her month-old infant stirred and whimpered and Apphia instinctively let go of her older daughter to cradle the baby with both hands.

“Now he’s awake. We’ll be lucky if he doesn’t scream all the way to the Hippodrome,” Apphia said, trying to rock the child back into sleep. “Your bag is ready, Simonis, your father has it, go run ahead. Watch out for Danelis, and don’t stray from us when we get off the ship. This isn’t Cyrenais, where everyone knows you. You don’t want to get lost in the city.”

There were only a handful of passengers on the small vessel—there was no room for many people on a ship whose business was ferrying cargo to the ever-hungry wharves of the City of Gold. Aside from Simonis’s family, there were only two more passengers who stepped ashore once the unsteady gangplank was laid across the narrow ribbon of water between the ship and the wharf’s edge. One of them had been silent and taciturn throughout the voyage, and had been on the ship already when the family had joined it in the small town of Cyrenais on Kypra, one of the islands of the Middle Sea; they had never even learned his name, and he slipped off without a word.

The other passenger had been more gregarious, and he lingered with the small family as they hesitated on the wharf, unsure of what to do next.

“There will be someone to inspect your papers,” he told Batzas, Simonis’s father. “They let in those who have family in the city, or some legitimate business to pursue; you have to have a reason to come here. But you’re fine, you have the letters from the City’s White Jewel people…although, really, they ought to have sent someone to meet you. It’s criminal, letting a provincial loose on the city on their own, especially one with small children in tow. No offence.”

“None taken,” Batzas said. “There may be someone beyond the barricade on the city side. I can’t see from here. Thank you, friend. If there is nobody, then I shall make my way to the Hippodrome.…”

“If I were you, I would wait until morning before I’d present myself at the Hippodrome,” said the other man. “The people you need to see do not reside at the Hippodrome itself, and their offices would be closed by now, and you have no idea where to seek them at their lodgings—and even if you were lucky enough to find them there, if indeed they have sent nobody to greet you at the wharf they may be none too pleased to be accosted by you at their home after their working hours. I would find a hostelry somewhere for the night, you and your babies, get yourselves a good night’s rest and then go to the Hippodrome fresh in the morning.”

“Where would I look for a hostelry?” Batzas asked.

“There are signs. You will know. Just avoid the really loud ones with women lingering by the doorways.” An eloquent glance at Apphia more than explained the reasoning behind that piece of advice, and Batzas took its meaning immediately.

“I thank you,” he said politely, and the other man gave him a wide smile.

“Eh, you can pay me back,” he said. “Let me know who I can bet on when the races start again in the spring. It’s always good to have a friend inside the Hippodrome. Good luck to you.”

He shouldered his bag and strode off into the shadows towards the back of the wharf. Batzas, staring after him, could not help a small sigh.

“At least he’s coming home,” Batzas said. “I wish I had his confidence. He’s right, we’d better have the papers ready for inspection.”

He led the way forward, fumbling in his satchel for the letters of appointment he carried from the city’s White Jewel faction, one of the two major players in the Hippodrome games, always bickering for top billing with their sworn rival, the Golden Crown. Both factions had secondary groups, the Scarlet Banner for the Jewel faction and the Obsidian Knife for the Crown—but only the two main groupings maintained their own menageries within the Visant Hippodrome, and could employ keepers and trainers for their animals. It was for this purpose that Batzas had been brought from Cyrenais.

Simonis followed her father, keeping close behind and almost treading on his heels, clutching her own bag with one hand and clinging to three-year-old Danelis’ hand with the other, dragging her forward at a pace that had the younger girl whimpering quietly to herself. Apphia, cradling the baby against her breast with one hand and steadying a large bundle of belongings on her shoulder with the other, brought up the rear, crooning to the infant quietly to keep him quiet.

“Hold. You seek to enter the city?”

“I have a letter of introduction,” Batzas said, thrusting forward the rolled-up scroll which bore his appointment. “I am expected, I am an animal trainer—I have been sent to the city Hippodrome from my own—there, see the seal of the White Jewel.…”

The challenge had been peremptory, brusque; Batzas had come to a sudden halt, with Simonis blundering into him from behind. Now she looked up diffidently, biting her lip, to inspect the man who had halted them. He wore the kilt and sculpted breastplate of a soldier, with a round metal helmet, gleaming in torchlight. His features were angular, and his mouth a thin arrogant line as he pored over the letters. But the soldier finally rolled the scroll back up untidily and handed it back with a small sharp motion.

“New assistant bear keeper, eh,” he said. “Well, welcome to Visant, bear keeper. It’ll be a while before the Hippodrome opens its doors again, though.”

“Gives me a few months…to settle in,” Batzas said carefully, unsure of whether it was better to make small talk or simply to mutter thanks and press on.

“Indeed,” the guard said. He peered down to where the two small girls crowded behind Batzas’s knees, and reached out to tilt up the chin of Simonis, who was closest. She flinched, just a little, but then she lifted her eyes and met his, squarely. He chuckled, letting go of her and straightening up. “Your girl has spirit,” he said, and there was a tinge of approval in his voice. “Pass. All is well.

Chapter One
They called it the City of Gold, and under the heavy dark-gold light of a westering sun it was easy to see why. The light gilded the weathered limestone walls of the great Hippodrome into glowing golden ramparts, and played with the colours on the four enormous banners snapping above the track in the brisk breeze blowing into the harbour from the sea.

Beyond, behind high palace walls, a cascade of domed and tiled roofs and open terraces gleamed through the thick foliage of lush gardens and spilled down toward the shore. Smaller palaces clung to the side of the hillside further in along the Narrows that guided ships inwards towards the Great Harbour and the Inner Sea; on the far side of the Narrows, rows upon rows of houses crowded together on steep streets leading down to small wharfs teeming with fishing boats and ferries, and then yet more houses, built out over the water on stilts.

In this light Simonis first saw the place—Visant, the queen city, the jewel of the Empire. She did not recognise the shape of the Sacred Palace. Hippodrome-bred, though, she saw the flags on top of the curved golden wall and, although it was far bigger than she could ever have imagined one could be, knew it for another Hippodrome, the one for which she and her family were bound. But she wasn’t given a lot of time to look—by the time that the small cargo ship on which Simonis and her family had taken passage swept into the Narrows, the shadows were already long, rapidly swallowing the city; the small lamp that had been lit and hung from the curved prow of the ship, where Simonis had taken up her perch when the ship came close to the city, was no match for the encroaching night. Full dark had fallen when the ship finally turned in towards a waiting wharf lit by pitch torches and a few oil-burning lamps. In the red half-light and dancing shadows, men waited on the wharf, ready to help haul the ship in and tie her up.

Behind Simonis, on a ship’s deck piled high with packages and baskets and bales, a commotion of movement and raised voices told of a flurry of activity as the ship sidled in to the side of the quay.

“It’ll be too late to unload her tonight, we’d better look to a guard on the quayside until first light.”

“Hoy! Hoy there! Watch that oar!”

“Throw us the stern rope! Get a move on there!”

And, almost lost in the deeper men’s voices, a woman’s call, her mother’s.

“Simonis? Simonis! Where are you? Come here this instant! Simonis!”

Simonis scrambled down from her perch on the prow, where she had been conveniently out of sight behind several mammoth bales, and came sliding down to a thumping halt at her mother’s feet. She was too heavy, at five, to be quite lifted off her feet by the scruff of her neck like an errant kitten, but it came close enough to that as her mother’s hand closed around the back of Simonis’s shift. And then the hand fell flat on the child’s back, between her shoulder blades, and propelled her forward.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to stray?” said Apphia, Simonis’s mother, sounding tired and exasperated. “I have Danelis to watch, she’s only three, and there’s the baby—but you ought to know better than to get lost like this. Now come on, we don’t have much time. We have to gather up our things, as soon as they’re tied up we have to be off the boat….”

“But they said they would wait until morning,” Simonis said.

“Wait for what?”

“To unload the ship,” Simonis said, trying to get her feet under her as her mother, practically dragged her back to the family’s bivouac on the deck.

“Unload the cargo,” Apphia said, with a trace of impatience. “We aren’t cargo. We’re getting off tonight.”

In a fold of cloth against Apphia’s breast, her month-old infant stirred and whimpered and Apphia instinctively let go of her older daughter to cradle the baby with both hands.

“Now he’s awake. We’ll be lucky if he doesn’t scream all the way to the Hippodrome,” Apphia said, trying to rock the child back into sleep. “Your bag is ready, Simonis, your father has it, go run ahead. Watch out for Danelis, and don’t stray from us when we get off the ship. This isn’t Cyrenais, where everyone knows you. You don’t want to get lost in the city.”

There were only a handful of passengers on the small vessel—there was no room for many people on a ship whose business was ferrying cargo to the ever-hungry wharves of the City of Gold. Aside from Simonis’s family, there were only two more passengers who stepped ashore once the unsteady gangplank was laid across the narrow ribbon of water between the ship and the wharf’s edge. One of them had been silent and taciturn throughout the voyage, and had been on the ship already when the family had joined it in the small town of Cyrenais on Kypra, one of the islands of the Middle Sea; they had never even learned his name, and he slipped off without a word.

The other passenger had been more gregarious, and he lingered with the small family as they hesitated on the wharf, unsure of what to do next.

“There will be someone to inspect your papers,” he told Batzas, Simonis’s father. “They let in those who have family in the city, or some legitimate business to pursue; you have to have a reason to come here. But you’re fine, you have the letters from the City’s White Jewel people…although, really, they ought to have sent someone to meet you. It’s criminal, letting a provincial loose on the city on their own, especially one with small children in tow. No offence.”

“None taken,” Batzas said. “There may be someone beyond the barricade on the city side. I can’t see from here. Thank you, friend. If there is nobody, then I shall make my way to the Hippodrome.…”

“If I were you, I would wait until morning before I’d present myself at the Hippodrome,” said the other man. “The people you need to see do not reside at the Hippodrome itself, and their offices would be closed by now, and you have no idea where to seek them at their lodgings—and even if you were lucky enough to find them there, if indeed they have sent nobody to greet you at the wharf they may be none too pleased to be accosted by you at their home after their working hours. I would find a hostelry somewhere for the night, you and your babies, get yourselves a good night’s rest and then go to the Hippodrome fresh in the morning.”

“Where would I look for a hostelry?” Batzas asked.

“There are signs. You will know. Just avoid the really loud ones with women lingering by the doorways.” An eloquent glance at Apphia more than explained the reasoning behind that piece of advice, and Batzas took its meaning immediately.

“I thank you,” he said politely, and the other man gave him a wide smile.

“Eh, you can pay me back,” he said. “Let me know who I can bet on when the races start again in the spring. It’s always good to have a friend inside the Hippodrome. Good luck to you.”

He shouldered his bag and strode off into the shadows towards the back of the wharf. Batzas, staring after him, could not help a small sigh.

“At least he’s coming home,” Batzas said. “I wish I had his confidence. He’s right, we’d better have the papers ready for inspection.”

He led the way forward, fumbling in his satchel for the letters of appointment he carried from the city’s White Jewel faction, one of the two major players in the Hippodrome games, always bickering for top billing with their sworn rival, the Golden Crown. Both factions had secondary groups, the Scarlet Banner for the Jewel faction and the Obsidian Knife for the Crown—but only the two main groupings maintained their own menageries within the Visant Hippodrome, and could employ keepers and trainers for their animals. It was for this purpose that Batzas had been brought from Cyrenais.

Simonis followed her father, keeping close behind and almost treading on his heels, clutching her own bag with one hand and clinging to three-year-old Danelis’ hand with the other, dragging her forward at a pace that had the younger girl whimpering quietly to herself. Apphia, cradling the baby against her breast with one hand and steadying a large bundle of belongings on her shoulder with the other, brought up the rear, crooning to the infant quietly to keep him quiet.

“Hold. You seek to enter the city?”

“I have a letter of introduction,” Batzas said, thrusting forward the rolled-up scroll which bore his appointment. “I am expected, I am an animal trainer—I have been sent to the city Hippodrome from my own—there, see the seal of the White Jewel.…”

The challenge had been peremptory, brusque; Batzas had come to a sudden halt, with Simonis blundering into him from behind. Now she looked up diffidently, biting her lip, to inspect the man who had halted them. He wore the kilt and sculpted breastplate of a soldier, with a round metal helmet, gleaming in torchlight. His features were angular, and his mouth a thin arrogant line as he pored over the letters. But the soldier finally rolled the scroll back up untidily and handed it back with a small sharp motion.

“New assistant bear keeper, eh,” he said. “Well, welcome to Visant, bear keeper. It’ll be a while before the Hippodrome opens its doors again, though.”

“Gives me a few months…to settle in,” Batzas said carefully, unsure of whether it was better to make small talk or simply to mutter thanks and press on.

“Indeed,” the guard said. He peered down to where the two small girls crowded behind Batzas’s knees, and reached out to tilt up the chin of Simonis, who was closest. She flinched, just a little, but then she lifted her eyes and met his, squarely. He chuckled, letting go of her and straightening up. “Your girl has spirit,” he said, and there was a tinge of approval in his voice. “Pass. All is well.”

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