Samhail, the Emperor of Marbhtír, lay on the imperial bed in the innermost chamber of the Palace of the Eastern Capital, attended only by his four most trusted advisors: Asal, his prime minister; Sagart, his chief priest; Laoch, the leader of his armies; and Beanne, his empress.
From far off in the Palace came the sound of wailing, abruptly cut off. The Emperor raised his head from his pillow and lifted an eyebrow to query the source of the sound.
‘The doctors acknowledge their incompetence, Your Majesty,’ said Laoch.
‘Good. They deserved to die. The fools could not cure me. At least their deaths will prevent them from harming others.’ The Emperor’s disease had eaten away at his energies, and he could not speak above a whisper. The other four had to lean in closely to the bed to hear him.
‘There are many who would volunteer to die in Your Majesty’s service, if it would restore Your Majesty to health.’ Asal bowed obsequiously, but he kept his hand on the small dagger he had secreted in his robes. All eighteen of his predecessors as Samhail’s prime minister had died in office, all but one of them at the Emperor’s hand. The Emperor had graciously permitted the lone exception to hang himself. Asal intended to outlive his lord.
‘Are you volunteering to be one of them, Asal? Are you ready to join the thousands whose deaths you have ordered?’ A smile flitted about the Emperor’s lips. The contemplation of others’ death still amused him. ‘You do not answer. Do you fear that I would accept your sacrifice? But perhaps one of the others will offer to kill himself in your stead.’ The Emperor peered in turn at each of the quartet gathered around his bed.
‘What about you, Laoch? You have killed even more than I. Surely one more death, even if it is your own, would not matter to you if it could save me?
‘Or perhaps Sagart, my holy warrior? How many heretics and nonbelievers have you persuaded me to offer up to your gods? Should we sacrifice you? I am sure that your pleas before the Tribunal of Death would carry great weight. Who better to plead the case of the holiest man in Marbhtír than his chief priest?
‘And you, Beanne—are you ready to confront all the rivals for my attentions that you have slain? And what of their sons and daughters? So many of them seemed to die. Ill-health and bad luck have prevailed among all my offspring except for yours. Many in the Court found that curious. I tacitly thanked you for entertaining me. Perhaps, my beloved, the gods would find you equally entertaining and in their joy at having you forget to take me.’
The four courtiers eyed the Emperor uneasily, watching for any signal that might indicate they were to become his latest, and possibly last, victims. All of them bowed and murmured their willingness to die for the Emperor.
‘And what of the Crown Prince? Is he closely guarded? I would not want him to ascend the throne beforetime.’
‘He is locked in his chambers, Your Majesty,’ said Laoch. ‘Several of my most trustworthy lieutenants are watching him. He is safe.’
‘Perhaps we should sacrifice him to the gods. Surely they will delight in having yet another member of my family to feast on. I forget. Beanne, how many of our sons are still alive? Can we spare this one?’
‘There are six princes, but the Crown Prince is your favourite. I beg Your Majesty to spare him.’
‘Well, soon enough there will be only one of them alive. Whichever of them succeeds me will see to that. Did you know that that was Laoch’s first service to me? As your predecessor was anointing me, Sagart, my remaining brothers were led in, all of them bound and chained. The Crown of Marbhtír lay on the altar, and Laoch dragged my brothers forward, one by one, and cut their throats and washed my crown in their blood so that their strength would flow into me. When he had finished, the priest lifted the crown and set it upon my head. The blood flowed down my face and soaked my robes. That was the bargain I made with your gods, Sagart. I swore to feed them rivers of blood, unending rivers of blood. In return, they would spare me. I offered them the deaths of millions in exchange for eternal life for myself. I have not failed to uphold my half of the covenant, Sagart. But your gods have forgotten their pledge. To their dishonour, they seem to want me as well.’
‘Your Majesty, we cannot judge the gods. All we can do is live by the laws they have given us and hope through our offerings and sacrifices to placate them. At this time, it would be better to devote yourself to thoughts of . . .’
‘Enough, priest. I weary of your prattle. I tolerated you only because you have supplied me with so many reasons to sacrifice thousands to the gods. Do you never suspect that your eloquence was wasted on me? Every time some village of ignorant peasants on the marches of the empire began to worship some lump of wood they thought a god and failed to remit its tithes to your coffers, you harangued me for an hour on the need to slaughter them. And you outdid yourself when you wanted me to order the deaths of Carthanacht and his party. I would have ordered their deaths without your eloquence. You had only to ask.’
The Emperor did not notice the priest edging slowly back from the bed. His eyesight was failing. Whatever he looked at was surrounded by a halo of light so bright that it hurt his eyes. ‘Perhaps,’ he said to himself, ‘I should sacrifice all the priests. There are so many of them. Their deaths might buy me another week. Hell will be too busy processing them to take anyone else. If religion and sacrifices to the gods cannot save me, what need have I of priests? What do you say, Asal, should we sacrifice the priests?’
The Prime Minister considered each of his three rivals in turn. The Emperor would soon be dead. He would need allies if he were to survive. Beanne was necessary. The Crown Prince adored his mother. Once on the throne, would the Crown Prince favour the priests or the military? Laoch caught his eye and nodded. It was the slightest of nods, but it was enough.
‘It is a difficult decision, Your Majesty.’ Asal paused to lend his words weight. ‘On one hand, their sanctity would please the gods, Your Majesty. If they were to be your messengers to the Tribunal of Death, they could plead eloquently to the gods to restore Your Majesty’s health. Surely if they were to attest to the gods how bereft we Your subjects, would be without the solace of Your august presence, the gods would have mercy and spare us the terrible affliction that threatens us. On the other hand, there would be unrest among the people. The priests would attempt to preserve their own lives and would stir them up. I fear that many priests would not understand the nature of the honour being offered them. Unlike your soldiers they would not sacrifice themselves willingly. Thank the gods, that we can always count on Your armies and their commander, General Laoch, to carry out your orders.’ Asal began mentally composing the writs of execution to be issued in the Emperor’s name.
‘I protest, Your Majesty, the Prime Minister’s aspersions on the priesthood,’ Sagart broke in. ‘I can assure You that Your priests would to a man willingly forfeit themselves if such an act would restore Your health. There need be no talk of calling on Your armies to enforce their sacrifice. However, I remind Your Majesty that there is another group even larger than the priesthood and even more eloquent. And that is the bureaucracy. Are their proclamations and their reports not filled with earnest declarations of their loyalty to Your Majesty? Would they not be honoured with Your command to sacrifice themselves on Your behalf? We priests labour without pay, motivated only by our concern for the welfare of Your Majesty’s state and Your subjects. The military risk their lives and health to protect Your Majesty. What do the bureaucrats do? They grow rich from the fees they levy on Your subjects. They use the awe of Your Majesty’s power to extort others’ possessions for themselves. It would not be necessary to call out the army to enforce an edict from You that they surrender their lives to appease the gods. The people hate them and would rise up and enforce Your wish.’
‘We are not as hated as the priests, nor as venal.’ Asal interjected. His hand sought the dagger hidden in the fold of his robes.
‘Silence.’ For a moment the Emperor spoke in the voice that had caused thousands to tremble. ‘I understand. Each of you is willing that the other make the sacrifice. And what of you, my love? Who would you sacrifice for me?’
Beanne was skilled in the art of pleasing the Emperor. She stepped forward and lifted his hand in hers. ‘Beloved, I volunteer to die for You. I beg You to allow me to plead Your case before the Tribunal of the Dead. And not only myself. My entire family wishes to repay the great honours You have showered on us. All of us shall die in Your stead. I ask only that You be the one who sacrifices me.’ The empress smiled prettily and then bowed her head in submission to the will of the Emperor, confident that he would never accede to her request.
‘And what of the Crown Prince and his brothers? Are they not part of your family too? Will they be as willing as you to die for me?’
Beanne was quick to answer, too quickly perhaps. ‘They are part of your family, my beloved.’
‘But if I survive, I will not need a successor. Tell me, Laoch—do you think the gods will not look favourably on one who dedicates the blood of all his children to them?’
‘I am sure that they would, Your Majesty.’ Laoch smiled inwardly. The princes and princesses and all the Emperor’s descendants were already dead, as were all the many members of the Empress’s family. The Empress would not survive twenty steps when she left the Emperor’s bedchamber. As for the Head Priest and the Prime Minister, if they supported him, he might let them survive. If not, their bodies and those of their supporters would fuel the Emperor’s funeral pyre. Not that many would follow them if they chose to oppose his ascension to the throne. There were always men ready to lead the priesthood and the bureaucracy. ‘But I will perform one final service for Your Majesty. I have stood by You since the beginning. I have grown old in Your service. I have no wish to serve another emperor.’
Laoch unsheathed his sword and held its blade against his own throat. ‘Eternal life to the Emperor.’ He shouted the phrase that greeted the Emperor whenever he appeared.
The other three reacted automatically, conditioned by many years of attendance at court. Ritual required that everyone present respond by bowing and uttering the dictated response fervently. They bent low as they shouted ‘Forever and forever.’
Laoch plunged the sword into the Emperor’s chest. The doors to the bedchamber were flung open. Laoch’s cry had been the signal. Armed soldiers quickly filled the room. Asal pulled the dagger from his robes to defend himself. Three swords pierced his body before he could raise his hand. In a panic, Sagart tried to escape, only to meet the same fate as Laoch. At a nod from Laoch, two soldiers dragged the Empress away.
Blood pumped from the wound in the Emperor’s chest. With his final breaths, Samhail, the Emperor of Marbhtír, laughed. ‘My legacy is secure,’ he whispered. ‘I shall live forever. My reign will never end. I am Death, and I shall live forever.’