"You look like you've had less sleep than me," said Ullsaard.
"When you came through the Wall, Lutaar tried to break the sanctuary of the colleges. I think he intended to take me hostage as last resort. Meemis and the other teachers hid me away until the soldiers had to leave to fight you. I was afraid, I admit. It was not until you came into the city yesterday that I realised I was safe."
"You are safe," said Ullsaard. "And tonight you will sleep here."
Ullnaar nodded and smiled. Beneath the cheery expression, Ullsaard detected the traces of the fear that had haunted his son. He had never thought Lutaar would breach the sanctity of the college grounds; sanctity laid down by Askhos himself.
Knowing what he now did, Ullsaard realised that Lutaar was Askhos, in some confusing fashion, and Askhos would have no qualms breaking his own rules if he needed to. It worried Ullsaard that he had heard nothing from the dead king all day; not a single insult, warning or unwanted piece of advice.
"Is something the matter, father?"
Ullsaard snapped out of his thoughts, realising he had been staring at Ullnaar. He returned his son's smile.
"I'm more tired than a whore after a legion's marched into town. I'm sorry, but we will have to talk properly in the morning. I'm in no fit state at the moment."
Ullnaar nodded and shook his father's hand again.
"Congratulations, King Ullsaard," he said. Ullsaard laughed, hung an arm over Ullnaar's shoulders and pulled him into a tight embrace, much to his son's embarrassment.
"Thank you, Prince Ullnaar."
Ullsaard let go and stepped away. He turned for the bedroom and almost stumbled through the door. He threw off his armour and clothes, while Ariid followed him around the room, picking them up. With a sigh, Ullsaard threw himself onto the bed.
Within moments he was snoring soundly. Almost as quickly, Ullsaard dreamt.
He imagined himself waking up in a cave. As he looked around he realised it was not so much a natural cave; the walls were smooth and hand-worked and a lintel of black granite topped the square door.
It was a mausoleum of some kind. At the far end of the long, low chamber sat a stone casket. A bearded man a little shorter than himself sat on the top of the stone box. He was middleaged, with weatherworn features, dressed in a simple white kilt and a leather breastplate.
He looked very familiar.
"I've seen your face before," said Ullsaard
He approached the man, head stooped beneath a ceiling carved with spirals and shallow runes. He realised the floor and walls were decorated the same. The only light came through the door, a cold twilight that hid more in shadow than it revealed. The man gestured for Ullsaard to sit in front of him. Ullsaard stayed standing. He realised where he had seen the face before: on the golden icons of the legions.
"So this is what you really look like, Askhos? The banners bear a very good likeness."
Askhos smiled, but his eyes showed no mirth.
"They were fashioned from my death mask," said the first king of Askh. "I always thought they made me look fatter than I was."
Ullsaard looked around at the crypt and a thought occurred to him.
"This is where you are buried, isn't it?"
"Yes, this is my tomb," said Askhos.
"Nobody knows where it is."
"I do, and that is what is important."
Ullsaard walked towards to the open entrance, looking over his shoulder at Askhos.
"I can easily find out," he said. "I'm sure it's in Askhor somewhere, and I'll recognise a landmark or something."
"You are welcome to try," said Askhos, waving a hand towards the gleam of cold light.
Through the door, Ullsaard could see nothing but starry sky. Guessing that they were atop a hill, he ducked beneath the lintel stone and stepped out for a better view.
Ullsaard's panicked yelp echoed from the stones and he fell back into the tomb. Askhos's laughter rang around him. Ullsaard twisted to his hands and knees, eyes wide with horror.
"There was nothing," he said quietly, looking at Askhos. "Nothing but dust and the stars."
Askhos's laughter died away and he beckoned Ullsaard to come closer. The first king slapped a hand against the lid of the stone coffin.
"My bones are safer here than anywhere in the world," he said. "You see, I am a careful man and it would not do to let my remains fall into the hands of another."
Ullsaard's first thought was that if he could destroy Askhos's remains, he might rid himself of the dead king. He kept the revelation from his expression.
"I am in your head, Ullsaard. And in your dreams. Do you think you can keep your thoughts from me? Give up this idea. You do not know where this place is, no man does. Even if you were to find out where my body lies, you have not the means to reach it. There is no escape for you in that way."
Ullsaard growled, annoyed with himself, feeling betrayed by his own thoughts.
"So why have you brought me here? Why have you said nothing to me while I was awake?"
Askhos's face was marred by consternation.
"I did not bring you to this place. I have been speaking to you all day, have you not heard me?"
"Not a word, for which I am thankful," said Ullsaard. He walked up to Askhos and bent until his face was level with the first king's. "You don't have any more idea what's happening than I do."
Askhos did not flinch or lean away, but met Ullsaard's stare with his own.
"I do not know exactly what is happening, but I can make a far more informed guess than you. Tell me, back in the world where you sleep, where is the Crown?"
"I locked it in a vault," said Ullsaard. "I have no desire to wear it for the moment, but it needs to be kept safe."
Askhos said nothing, but there was a hint of a nod, as if he had an inkling of what was affecting him. Ullsaard spoke his reasoning aloud.
"You were in the Crown. I put on the Crown. Some of you passed into me, but some of you stayed in the Crown." He smiled triumphantly. "The further I am from the Crown, the weaker that part of you that is in my head."
"Not just your head, Ullsaard. I am in every part of you. I am you as much as you are. When you scratch your arse, I feel it. When you are hungry, I am hungry too. I see what you see, I hear what you hear."
"I am still in the palace. That is not so far away. Let us see what you hear and feel when I am scratching my arse in Salphoria, two thousand miles away."
"No!" Genuine horror clouded Askhos's face. "Do not leave the Crown behind!"
"Afraid of being lonely, old king?"
Askhos opened his mouth to protest, but closed it, utterly helpless. His shoulders sagged and he pinched the bridge of his nose as if he had a headache. When Askhos looked at Ullsaard again there was an imploring look in his eyes.
"Do not destroy the empire, Ullsaard. It is too valuable to risk."
"I have no intention of doing anything but make the empire stronger," Ullsaard replied, stepping back. He crossed his arms, annoyed by the accusation. "It is your plan that we rule all the lands between the seas. I will make that dream a reality."
"But you are going too fast, Ullsaard! It is not yet the time to take on Salphoria. And without the Brotherhood… Without the Brotherhood, you will fail. And when you fail, Greater Askhor will fail with you. You have Magilnada. That is a start. Cosuas has explored the Greenwater. Go hotwards and consolidate what he has taken, and push the Mekhani from their desert. There is no need to start a war with the Salphors yet."
"It is too late," said Ullsaard. "Not that I would change my course on your counsel. Already the nobles are raiding their treasuries to see how many legions they can raise."
"What have you done?" Askhos pushed himself from the casket and stalked towards Ullsaard. "What have you done?"