“Daskellin? You were up toward the front. Who caught up to the thing first?”

Canl Daskellin, Baron of Watermarch, bowed in his saddle and gestured to his left.

“I believe it was Count Ischian, Lord Regent. I was close behind, but he outran me.”

Geder shifted in his saddle. Count Ischian bowed in his saddle. He was an older man, his colors blue and gold, and he was related by blood to half a dozen houses at court. His holdings, however, were in Asterilhold. In the war just past, he had fought on the other side. His loyalty now was unquestionable. He had faced Geder’s private tribunal, and the gift of the goddess had certified his honesty. But giving full honors in the King’s Hunt to someone who’d been an enemy when last year’s hunt had run seemed wrong.

“Even honors to you both, then,” Geder said. “And well done. Now let’s get back to the holding before we all turn into ice sculptures of ourselves.”

Geder had rarely taken part in the hunt before he’d been in the center of it. He had risen from heir to the Viscount of Rivenhalm to Lord Regent of Antea so quickly, there hadn’t been time to accustom himself to the circles of power and influence. Even now, as the most powerful man in the empire, he felt a bit outside of things. Many of the men on the hunt had been riding together since they were children younger than Aster, and while Geder might command their loyalty, he couldn’t insist on their friendship. Add to that the fact that many of the great houses had risen up against Geder only months before and were now gone forever. Sir Alan Klin, Geder’s nemesis, was feeding the worms at the bottom of the Division now. Lord Bannien was rumored to have been richer than the crown itself, and he was imprisoned now, his family broken, his titles stripped from him, and his private treasury funding the reconstruction of Camnipol. Dawson Kalliam, Geder’s patron and father of Geder’s best friend, had been the Lord Marshal of the war against Asterilhold, and then the soul and center of the uprising. Had things gone differently, it would have been Lord Kalliam who rode down the stag in that clearing, and Geder who lay in a traitor’s grave. Jorey Kalliam rode with the hunt, but even after his disavowal he seemed darkened by his father’s crimes. And now, with conquered Asterilhold being joined into a greater empire, there came the awkwardness of befriending those who had recently been enemies.

The death of the king, the naming of Lord Regent, a successful war, and a scarring insurrection. Imperial Antea had suffered a terrible year. And the coming spring might be no easier.

Namen Flor’s lands sat nestled in a valley in the southeast of the empire, not far from the border with Sarakal. The great city of Kavinpol lay to the west with its river docks and warehouses. In summer, the the rich soil of Flor was fed by two rivers, and the grain and fruit that came from that one holding would feed an army for a season. The holding itself rose like a mountain in the plain, granite and basalt hauled overland from the mountains to the south and combined into a building almost as tall as the kingspire in Camnipol. The dragon’s road ran through the heart of the structure, though at the moment ice and snow buried the eternal jade, so that it might have been any road at all until they had passed through the wide gates and under the overhanging shelter.

The cold had set Geder’s nose running, and his earlobes hurt like something bitten. He gave his horse to the groom and hurried to the quarters Sir Flor had set aside for his use. And especially the tub. It was beaten copper half as deep as a man standing, and the water that fed into it from the stone dragon’s mouth steamed and smelled of sandalwood. And best of all, the room that housed it was small. As Lord Regent, custom had it that his personal guard and body servants would be always in attendance. He hated it, and while he’d won the battle against the body servants, he hadn’t quite had it in him yet to keep the guardsmen out when he bathed. After Dawson Kalliam’s attempt on his life, Geder actually found the guards reassuring in a way. But here the private bath could be protected from without, and Geder’s nakedness wouldn’t be on display even to those whose duty it was to defend his life.

While he let the warm water ease the aching muscles in his back and thighs, he watched the lamp flame shift and steady and shift again. He let himself imagine what it would have been like to have a certain part-Cinnae banker woman sitting across from him, her flesh as bare as his own, her pale skin glowing in the light. When his body began to react to the thought, he made himself turn to other matters.

From without, the King’s Hunt had always struck Geder as merely a vehicle for court intrigue. King Simeon would travel the realm, gracing his friends and allies with his presence, killing a few animals, and having a lot of feasts. It had looked like one of the sort of parties Geder was bad at, only stretched out over the course of weeks and punctuated by feats of manly athletics, half-drunken poetry contests, and extemporaneous speeches. Only when he’d become Lord Regent and the empire was his to command did he begin to see how the hunt was also a tool of convenience.

Not all men of court came to Camnipol. Not all facts of a landscape could be captured on a map. The hunt might seem to wander through the lands and holdings of the empire, but the path he followed was as set and certain as the dragon’s roads themselves. It was not chance that had brought him here, but necessity.

He rose from the water, dried himself, and put on his undergarments before signaling to the body servants that they could enter to finish dressing him. He would have been as happy staying the rest of the day in the warmth and solitude, but the feast was coming, and now that he’d spent some time in the forests near Flor, it was time to attend to the matter that had actually brought him there.

He found Basrahip and Aster sitting together in a withdrawing room. The walls were papered in red velvet and the lamps burned with the rich scent of whale oil. The priest’s voice rolled and thundered like thunder from a distant storm. The young prince in his silk and cloth-of-gold sat looking up into the face of the massive brown-clad priest like an allegory of youth at the feet of wisdom. Geder stopped in the doorway to listen.

“Seeing that the world had fallen from his hands, Morade, in his death, was possessed by the sick pride of his kind. He released a terrible weapon. For three years, the world burned. Every forest fell to ash. Every city crumbled. The thirteen races of humanity took refuge where they could, preserving the animals in pens and the fish in clay pots against the day when they might be freed to fill the world again.”

“Three years?” Aster said, awe in his voice.

“Yes, young prince. For three years, all was laid waste. And so the freedom of humanity was born in ashes and in starvation. Only the Timzinae, favored of the dragons, kept the old ways alive, sacrificing children of the other races to the memory of the Dragon Empire. All others remade themselves, replanting the forests and rebuilding the cities. And without the guidance of the goddess, all lost their way, as the goddess had known they would. She kept aside the temple in the mountains in the lands of the Sinir that are holy to her, that we could prepare for the day when a great man would come and we would know it was time to reenter the world.”

“That was Geder, wasn’t it?” Aster said.

“It was,” Basrahip said, with a broad, gentle smile.

“Speaking of which,” Geder said, stepping into the room. Aster turned to him. He looked stronger, healthier since they’d taken to the hunt. Geder would still see moments of sorrow in the boy, but they were growing fewer and fewer. Whenever Geder worried about it, he reminded himself that Aster had lost his father not a full year ago, and that even the most resilient child would mourn a parent for much longer than that.

“Prince Geder,” Basrahip said, levering himself to his feet.

“Lord Regent,” Geder said. “Aster’s a prince. I’m Lord Regent.”

“Of course,” Basrahip said, as he always did. The correction would never take.

“Is everything all right?” Aster said.

“Yes, fine,” Geder said. “But I need to borrow Basrahip for a time. Before the feast starts.”

“Of course, Prince Geder,” Basrahip said with a bow. When Geder rolled his eyes, Aster chuckled.

Geder and Basrahip walked together down the long hallways. Here, in the heart of the holdfast, the ceilings rose up higher than four men one atop the other, and a clever series of holes admitted the falling sunlight without letting the warmth of the braziers escape. The color of the light was enough to tell Geder that the winter night would be on them soon. Servants and guards went before and came behind, creating a mobile privacy for him and Basrahip.

“That can’t be right, can it?” Geder said.

Basrahip raised querying eyebrows.

“The three-year fire,” Geder explained. “A fire that went on that long would have left a layer of ash all over the world. And there are cities that stood where they are now since before the dragons fell.”

“If it must be, it must be,” Basrahip said. “But the fire years are truth.”

“But there are forests in Northcoast that have trees older than that. Not many, maybe, but I read an essay about how you can tell the age of a tree by the number of rings, and it said the largest of the redwoods in Northcoast—”

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