"What is that?"
Until now I did not know what would happen if another took the Crown. It seems that the Blood is strong enough in you to sustain me, yet not strong enough for me to take control.
"Is that what you did? You took control of your sons, ruled them from within?"
They were never really aware of it, simply shadows of themselves lurking at the back of my mind. I became them and they were simply put to one side.
Ullsaard dashed across the throne room and picked up the Crown. He pulled it down onto his head, congealed blood spreading, sticking to his forehead.
"Get out!" he snarled. "Go back to your Crown!"
Askhos laughed, touched with bitterness.
You have split me, Ullsaard. Part of me is still in the Crown, which I suspect is why I have not been able to push you aside. It is not like picking a tent to sleep in. I am here and in the Crown. This is as much uncharted territory for me as it is for you. There is only one who can unravel this tangle for us, but he is far away.
"Perhaps if I destroy the Crown? Then I will be free."
Askhos laughed again.
Destroy it? Melt it in a fire? Please do. And when you have, explain to the people of Askhor why you have done so. Some will believe you to be mad and have you slain; others will believe you tell the truth and will insist that I be allowed to rule. And there is no guarantee that break ing the Crown will remove me from your head.
Ullsaard groaned and pulled off the Crown, tempted for a moment to toss it out of a window. He stopped himself, knowing the truth of Askhos's words. To admit that something was amiss with the Crown, with himself, would be to invite doubt about his rightful rule.
Your civil war has brought the empire to the brink of ruin, Ullsaard. With my help, you must rebuild it. Firstly, you must lift your ban on the Brotherhood.
"Not a chance," said Ullsaard. "The Brotherhood were loyal to Lutaar. They will do everything they can to undermine me and restore Kalmud to the throne. Your oldest surviving heir still lives, and while he does there is the chance that you can trick him out of his body as you did your other sons. Don't take me for a fool."
From the moment Aalun brought you to my attention I never thought you a fool, Ullsaard. I should have recognised the Blood in you, but I thought it impossible. For two hundred years the succession, the inter marriages, the traditions served to keep me in power. All of that undone because Cosuas fell in love and allowed your mother to bear you. Still, I do not dwell on the past. The Brotherhood is the core of Greater Askhor. Without them there is no empire.
"We will do fine…" Ullsaard trailed off as he heard footsteps in the hallway beyond the throne chamber doors. He hurried across to the throne and sat down, holding the Crown in his lap.
The double doors opened a crack and a head poked round, a red crest hanging from the man's helm. Ullsaard recognised him immediately: it was Rondin, First Captain of the Fifth. The legion commander took a tentative step into the throne room, banged a fist to his breastplate and stood to attention.
"You told us to gather here at the start of Duskwatch, general," said Rondin. The other first captains — Donar, Anasind, Jutiil and Luamid — filed in behind him and offered their salutes.
"King," said Ullsaard. "I am not your general anymore, I am your king."
"Of course, king," said Rondin, nodding in apology. "Old habit."
Ullsaard smiled and waved them to approach.
"Time to develop a new habit," he said. He twisted and hung the Crown on the back of the throne, trying to appear dismissive. "At midnight the licence for the Legions to sack the city ends. Have your best companies on the streets to enforce the cessation of looting. We must send a strong signal to Askh and the rest of the empire that the turmoil has finished. From tomorrow, the labour continues under me as it did under Lutaar.
"Jutiil, I need you to search the city for any counsellors, treasurers, nobles and advisors from Lutaar's court. Bring them to the palace. Nicely, if you can; forcefully, if you have to. With the Brotherhood disbanded, we have to set up a new administration."
You cannot replace the Brotherhood.
Ullsaard stopped at the interruption. He caught himself just about to reply and abruptly shut his mouth, earning himself odd looks from his First Captains. He waited for a moment to see if Askhos had anything else to say. The dead king stayed silent.
"The division, the anarchy of the past year is over. I am king and Greater Askhor will continue. Not only continue, it will grow, stronger than ever." He looked at his commanders and smiled. "We have fought hard for this day. We have earned it. Tomorrow will bring the rewards."
Dismissed by a nod from their new king, the First Captains saluted and filed out of the chamber, leaving Ullsaard alone with his thoughts.
Not alone, he remembered. Not alone at all.
The bloodfields, circuit and wrestling circles of Maarmes were filled with people. The babble of thousands died away as Ullsaard ascended the steps to the stage overlooking the crowd. On the stepped rows of benches behind him sat the noble families, the merchants rich enough to bribe their way onto the seats and the leaders of many other civic organisations, including lawyers, academics and master craftsmen.
All watched Ullsaard with wary eyes.
Glancing over the high society of Askh, he caught the eye of Etor Astaan, father to Ullsaard's friend Noran. The king had sought Noran's family that morning, to deliver the news that their son had almost died saving Ullsaard's life and was now in a coma, being tended to by the king's family in Magilnada. Etor had taken the news placidly, and though he did not say as such his few comments implied he thought Noran an idiot for getting involved with Ullsaard's coup. Noran's mother had been equally stoic and displayed greater sorrow at the news of the death of her daughter-in-law and stillborn grandson.
Ullsaard had fled the awkward situation as soon as was polite, and the Astaans had been happy to see him leave. Now they looked at him with apathetic gazes. They were not alone. There were many on the benches of the nobles that had only attended this announcement through subtle and not-so-subtle coercion by Ullsaard's First Captains.
Regardless of how they had been brought here, every family was represented. It was important to conjure this display of support before the masses of Askh. Though they did not yet know it, it would also be important for the nobles; Ullsaard was about to make them all an offer they would find hard to refuse.
Several hundred legionnaires stood as a cordon around the outthrust of the stage. At a shout from their captains, they turned to face the king and lifted their spears in salute. This nicety attended to, they turned back to keep a watch on the restless crowd.
"This last year and more has been a trying time for all people of Greater Askhor," declared Ullsaard. From a life of parade grounds and battle orders he was able to pitch his voice to the furthest members of the crowd without much effort.
Thousands of pairs of eyes, men and women, children and elders, gazed up at him. There were some smiles, but not many. He could feel the fear of some in the crowd, worried what this change in rule meant for them. Most of all he saw anxiety, desperation. The people were eager for stability, for a return to their normal lives.
"I am your king now. Most of you will have heard of me. For those of you who have not, you can see for yourselves the manner of man that now rules this empire. I am of the Blood, a son of King Lutaar. I fought as a legionnaire, commanded a company, led a legion and became the most successful general of this generation. What I set my mind to, I achieve. Standing here before you is testament to that fact."