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He approached the front of the stage and stretched out a hand, encompassing the crowd in its sweep.

"None of that matters. Greater Askhor is not the artifice of one man, though it was founded as such. All of us make this empire. You, the proud people of Askh; the noble and wealthy that sit behind me; and me. I have shown that no king rules without the consent of his people. I ask for your loyalty and your service. In return, I will give you safety and prosperity."

Ullsaard paused, allowing this to sink in. He hesitated, knowing the next part of his speech to be a lie. He readied himself for a complaint from Askhos, determined that he would not be distracted.

"The empire has not changed because another now wears the Crown of the Blood. Kings are born and kings die, just like any other men." He waited, expecting some comment from Askhos. The dead king said nothing. "The empire is all of us, and still bigger than all of us. And it is my intent that it will grow larger still."

Pulling out his sword, Ullsaard turned to duskwards and pointed the blade.

"Salphoria. Many of you will know of this place, beyond our borders. It was Askhos's will that the empire stretch from sea to sea. This summer, the legions of Askh will march on a great conquest, and bring the wilderness of Salphoria into civilisation. My soldiers cannot do this alone. They will need the spears forged in your smithies. They will need the kilts tanned in your workshops. They will need the grain grown on your farms.

"And when Salphoria kneels before me, the rewards will be many. Gold and grain, jewels and livestock, bronze and stone, timber and iron. Salphoria is rich in all of these things. Prized farmlands await those with the knowledge to sow and till it properly. Vineyards and quarries, for those that can manage such concerns. These will become Askhan. These will become yours."

Now the moment had arrived. Ullsaard took a breath, full of pride. He turned to face the nobles, sheathing his sword.

"In the first days of the empire, Askhos bid his allies to form armies and conquer the world. He promised the spoils of victory to those that could take them. As your new king, I renew this pledge. The ancient rights of conquest are restored. Let the man with the strength and wealth, the courage and the ferocity, raise up a legion to claim what is rightfully his. Salphoria awaits us, and its many rewards. Stand by me, help me take this land, and it is yours."

He was confronted by a wall of disbelieving faces. The nobles exchanged glances with each other, some of them whispering to their neighbours. It was not the response Ullsaard had hoped for. Perhaps he had not made his offer clear enough?

"I am reinstating the rights of the noble families to raise and lead their own legions again. This summer, any of you can march to Salphoria and take what rightfully belongs to you." He rounded on the crowd. "Whoever here that marches with me will get their fair share as well. As it was in the time of Askhos, so it is again. Too long the power has been hoarded by the Brotherhood and the governors. I am setting free the shackles that have chained the beast that is Greater Askhor. This is a new time of glory. It is yours to seize!"

"These are different times." Ullsaard looked back at the nobles to see who had spoken. Laadir Irrin, head of one of the oldest and most powerful families, stood up. "Our forefathers were warlords and chieftains. What do we know of war?"

Ullsaard smiled, for he had expected this argument and already had a counter for it.

"There are many fine officers in the legions, and many that have retired who would consider again the opportunity to conquer for Askh. If you have not the stomach for the battle yourself, appoint another to lead in your place."

This provoked the reaction that Ullsaard had hoped for. There were shouts of protest and prideful boasts. No matter the pampered existence of many on the noble seats, they nevertheless shared the notion that they were brave and great leaders like their ancestors.

Surprisingly, it was Etor Astaan that stood next.

"I will raise a legion," he declared. "Though it has been generations since the Astaan's led an army in battle, I would not spurn the challenge."

This prompted more conspiratorial whispering. The nobles were finally realising the import of what Ullsaard was doing. If one amongst them raised a legion, not only would that shame the others, it would put them at a distinct commercial disadvantage. Ullsaard was right about the riches of Salphoria, and if he was forcing them to take their own share, they would have to act.

Others stood up and raised their fists, declaring their intent to lead a legion. Even a few of the merchants added their voices, earning themselves scornful laughter from the nobles. Ullsaard strode toward the mass of citizens spread across the field.

"Do not let these noble bastards have all the fun!" he roared. "Who here has the mettle to be a legionnaire? Which of you could be a First Captain?"

Claims and counter-claims were shouted up to Ullsaard. He unsheathed his sword again, rammed it into the planks of the stage and knelt beside it, looking at the crowd with wide eyes.

"Which of you wants a vine terrace in the Altes Hills? Who would like a mill on the Geinan River? How about running one of those salt mines?" He waved away his own suggestions. "Forget that! Who here would like a house in Carantathi? Perhaps you could live in the palaces of Aegenuis himself, with his hundreds of servants to attend you! Or perhaps the hot-blooded amongst you want to find out if those Salphorian girls are as feisty as some claim?"

He stood up and stretched his arms wide, fists clenched.

"It is in our blood to rule! Askhos decreed it, and we shall make it happen. Join me! Fight with me!"

The legionnaires led the cheers, all thought of watching the crowd forgotten. There was no more fear, there was no uncertainty. Every man and woman cheered, imagining the riches and comfort this campaign would bring.

Ullsaard ripped his sword from the stage and held it aloft.

"Askhor!" he bellowed. "Fight for Askhor!"


It was past midnight when Ullsaard finally slouched back to his chambers. He was surprised to find his chief servant waiting for him. With Ariid were two young, shaven-headed Maasrites, who Ullsaard assumed were also part of his household though he did not recall seeing them before.

"I believe all of the servants of the Blood left the palace, master," said Ariid. "If you still wish it, I will continue in your service."

Ullsaard slapped a hand to Ariid's arm.

"Why would I not want you? And who are these pair?"

"These are Keaila and Aminea, master," said Ariid. "The rest of the staff are on their way to Magilnada to attend to your family."

"Yes, of course they are," said Ullsaard, though it was news to him. Domestic arrangements had been the last thing on his mind since coming to Askh four days ago. "I am ready for bed."

"Everything is prepared, master. I was not sure whether you would stay here or in the king's chambers and so have made arrangements in both. Before you retire, there is someone who has been waiting to see you."

"I am too tired, Ariid. Tell him to come back tomorrow."

Ullsaard started towards the door to his bedroom but was stopped by a voice from the archway leading to the feasting rooms.

"That is an uncivil welcome for your son." Ullsaard span around to see his youngest, Ullnaar, leaning against the archway, a halfeaten apple in his hand. "And after I waited up for you…"

The king shook his son's hand, studying him intently. Ullnaar had changed so much since he had last seen him. There were patches of bristle on his chin and cheeks, and his face was harderedged, no sign of the chubbiness that had filled his cheeks. His hair was close-cropped, the same golden blonde as his mother's.

The eyes showed the greatest difference. There were rings of fatigue under them.