Perched high up on a sixty-step dais, Emperor Constantine sat on the throne of Allgodt. In this large circular space, the emperor looked an isolated and diminutive figure. Stationed around the perimeter of the auditorium stood two hundred Palace Guards. Behind them, the public galleries’empty seats paid silent homage. Absorbed in his thoughts, Constantine was distracted by a movement in the main entrance.
"His Excellency, the High Chancellor, requests an audience, Your Highness," announced the Attending Marschal from the entranceway. Visitors seeking an audience with the emperor could only approach if escorted by the Palace Guard.
"Let him approach; unattended if you will," responded the emperor to invoke a privilege reserved for the emperor’s most trusted advisors and family members.
High Chancellor Salvarre acknowledged the Attending Marschal and began the march to the throne dais. When the marschal responded with a salute, the sound of four hundred heals snapping to attention echoed inside the auditorium. In deference to Allgodt's antiquity, Salvarre took a moment to take in the surroundings.
Acknowledged as one of the Great Works erected by the Giant Builders, Allgodt was built in the First Age of man, a time long since passed and forgotten. Enormous stone pillars framed the cavernous auditorium. Each column portrayed mosaic images of the empire’s six realms. Soaring above the pink and white marble floor was a domed roof opening called the Oculus; the light of which illuminated a circular area of floor directly below known as the Ocularum. When in session, the members of Mu Court stood inside the Ocularum to endure the prevailing elements of sun, rain, hail and moonlight. The Geodeken historians believed the Giant Builders saw great importance in connecting with nature and so the Emperors of Mu saw fit to continue the custom.
Constantine watched the approach of his High Chancellor dressed in the purple robes of office. Salvarre’s full white beard, thinly cropped hair and receding hairline gave away his age. It was, however, his kind and expressive eyes that Constantine considered his best attribute. He’d summoned his closest advisor to address a matter of pressing importance.
Salvarre admired and loved Constantine, and seeing this great man sitting alone in this empty place concerned him. This is not your style, my friend, he privately thought. "What preoccupies you so to seek solace on the Lonely Throne? It makes His Highness appear a trifle dour," Salvarre challenged.
Constantine shrugged his shoulders and chuckled. "I could blame the tides of change that beleaguer us, Salvarre. Then again, perhaps I find comfort in this place where the Oculus keeps the shadows of trouble at bay."
Salvarre knew Constantine well enough to understand this phrasing was deliberate. The particular inference, however, evaded him. "We’ve overcome bigger challenges before, my liege," retorted Salvarre in a show of bravado.
When Salvarre entered the illumination of the Ocularum at the base of the throne dais, he looked up the flight of steps to regard the emperor. Although of similar age, the years were yet to take away Constantine's strength and virility. He still had a full head of blond hair and square shoulders. Embroidered in Constantine’s red and gold-lined robe were the motifs of the six realms.
"Salvarre, come closer, for I would speak softly," the emperor beckoned..
As Salvarre laboured up the large stone steps of the dais, the ringed tribute situated behind the throne loomed into prominent view. This ring of white marble dwarfed the black mahogany throne. Also engraved into the tribute’s facing were the motifs of the six realms. Each morning light, Constantine had the tribute rotated on its bearings, so a different emblem sat ascendant at the apex. This day, the three crescent moons of the majik realm of Ordea were ascendant. Salvarre surmised this had significance.
By the time the High Chancellor reached the top dais step, he was taking in heavy breaths. “Obviously built for larger folk,” he muttered, relieved to have completed the task. “You wanted to test me, didn’t you?”
“Not on this occasion, my friend,” Constantine laughed. “But still, it does you good.”
The emperor reached into his robe and produced a sealed letter. “Whatever happens, see to it this letter is delivered to the island citadel of Vedic Noir. It is to find the High Priestess,” he said upon handing it over.
The Sorceress of The Powers, Salvarre reflected. This development was unexpected, and in his view, not in keeping with current events.
"What is going on, Constantine?" he inquired pointedly.
Do you remember a time in your younger life Salvarre, when you realised the world differed from what you took it for? When you had to accept new realities you were ignorant of?"
"One of the Great Houses changes loyalty?" Salvarre ventured, trying to guess at the inference.
"No, my concerns are further afield and more fundamental."
This statement immediately alerted Salvarre. So unlike Constantine to talk in riddles, he thought.
"This Palace is no different to Mu Town Square,” Constantine complained. “It is filled with prying eyes and ears that makes no secret safe anymore. A man must keep his counsel Salvarre, less he gives the game away."
"You query my service?" asked the confused High Chancellor.
"Good lord, no!" Constantine vented. He then checked himself for speaking too loudly.
This behaviour set Salvarre's mentat mind whirring. He couldn’t recall a time when Constantine refrained from speaking openly; especially since becoming emperor. This isn't the fearless man I know. What’s going on? He wondered.
"You are my trusted advisor and closest friend, Salvarre. You understand what I fear most is losing what we’ve built together." The emperor took a deep breath as if preparing himself. "I’ve discovered an evil in Mu. Something that has been with us for a long time. I dare not speak of it, for to do so, risks the lives of those closest; including you, my friend,” he added with a solemn look.
Salvarre made to speak, but the Emperor raised a hand to bid his silence.
"I've been through testing times and learned a good many things. To protect us all, I have put plans in place. So, to answer your earlier question Salvarre, I’ve taken a liking to open spaces away from eavesdroppers. This place is safe enough, but not without risk."
"You suspect spies or assassins?" An incredulous Salvarre asked.
"No. I refer to the loss of innocence that follows when what you once took for granted becomes a lie. I’m talking of a discovery that changes everything."
Constantine saw his friend struggling to follow him. "Sometime early in this Third Age, a hidden nemesis stole our destiny. One so cunning and powerful it does so without us knowing. That is what we’re up against."
"You must tell me. Who or what is this foe?" Salvarre demanded.
"Perhaps, I tell you too much already."
Salvarre’s eyes widened in surprise. "You fear for your life?" he whispered. He then realised that he too was behaving like the emperor. Who is more powerful than the Emperor of Mu? He wondered.
Constantine gave the High Chancellor a hard stare. "As experienced recently, I've seen that power can take many guises," he thoughtfully answered. "Intervention deployed under the cloak of secrecy is an insidious thing. It gives one power over others and enables the agenda to be manipulated from behind the scenes."
Salvarre was speechless. He couldn't comprehend such a foe.
"Tell no-one," Constantine insisted. "This enemy I speak of values secrecy above all else. If they discovered what I share now, they’d act without hesitation. I tell you this because your mentat skills give you the discipline to keep this secret hidden.”
"I don't like it. What if something happened to you, the gods forbid?" said Salvarre becoming horrified by the prospect. "This nemesis you speak of would be free to do as before with no one the wiser."
"Believe me when I say the walls of Mu Palace have eyes and ears, Salvarre. If you keep this counsel to yourself, I trust no harm will come to you. This is how this game must be played, at least for the time being. Perhaps now, you see why this letter to Vedic Noir is so important.”
He plans to fight fire with fire, Salvarre considered.
Constantine released a sigh of despair. "It is difficult not to confide in others, especially those you love most. Such is the awful dilemma I live with."
Seeing Constantine harbour this burden was too much for Salvarre. "I’m here to serve, my liege, as I’ve always done,” he pleaded. “Tell me more. Tell me, so we can hunt down this tyranny together and expose them for what they are. I’ll serve with my life, if necessary."
Constantine frowned. "You serve best by continuing to do what you do so well, Salvarre," the emperor instructed. "Trust me in this; with so much at stake, I see no other way."
"No one else knows?"
"I take steps to protect myself and those closest, including you."
Salvarre’s eyes lowered. "You mean by not telling me the all of it," the crestfallen High Chancellor responded.
"Yes, my dear Salvarre,” replied Constantine in a warm voice. “As the smarter and more self-disciplined one of us, I know you can carry this burden; at least until the High Priestess arrives with the Orders. In the meantime, we play for time and tell no one." Noticing Prince Justan’s approach, Constantine added, "This is where the Guild fits in."
The pair stopped talking to watch the Captain of the Palace Guards ascend the dais steps in long confident strides. The emperor felt a sense of pride and smiled as he locked eyes with his son.
Justan bounded up the sixty steps with barely a puff, and upon arrival declared, "My guards informed me I’d find you both here."
Salvarre observed Justan’s youthful athleticism with envy.
Justan immediately noticed the two serious faces. Surveying the empty auditorium, he added, "A good place to have a private conversation. Anything I should know about?"
"An astute observation, Justan," Constantine said with a father's proud grin. "All in good time, son. Have our guests arrived?”
"Yes, Father. Our guests, as you kindly describe them, are like caged animals. They appear none happier to be at the Palace than we are to receive them."
"I see. Did you follow my instructions?"
"My men combed them thoroughly before escorting them to the Bell Tower, where we have them secured. And yes, sir, as per your instructions, we allowed them to keep their faces concealed," Justan confirmed.
"Very good. Best we are off then. Destiny awaits," he said with a wink to Salvarre, rising from his throne.