The Richman and the Alchemist's Niece (Part One)
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    All night long, the winds howled and beat upon the white walls of the Imperial Palace. The coals in the grate glowed in down-draughts of air and a lamp guttered on a small table. The gold lettering on the spines of the books on either side of the fireplace glinted while strange shapes stalked the wall tapestries.

    Between the door and the window stood a four-poster bed. With each blast of wind, the sleeper stirred. The flickering light carved deep furrows in his face. It was a face stamped with intelligence and ambition, with arrogance and cruelty.

    The night wore on, and the winds began to subside. As a cold dawn spread across the eastern sky, his eyes flickered open. He rose to a sitting position and turned his feet off the bed. Head bowed, he sat there motionless. The dreams were worse than ever. He was getting old. He could feel it in his bones.

    Emperor Sigismund the Grim cast his mind far back to his youth. He remembered bivouacking under the stars; scattered lights across the camp. He heard the champing of horses and the rough voices of soldiers. He saw his breath clouding in the still air on bright mornings.

    There was a light knock. The door opened, and a wizened man entered. He bowed as low as his stiff joints would allow and went over to the lamp. Light flooded the room. Then he left and returned with a bowl of water and a towel hung over his right arm.

    The Emperor rose and splashed the water over his face.

    "Tell me, Thorfinn, how long have you served me now?"

    "Many years, sire. More than I care to remember, but you have weathered them better than I."

    The Emperor dried his face.

    "Do you remember the march on Pyr Miltith?" he asked.

    "One hundred and twenty miles in three hard days."

    "And the battle for the city?"

    "Aye," the old man nodded. "Many a good man fell there."

    Thorfinn took the towel and bowed, then picked up the bowl and left. When he returned, he went over to the windows and pulled back the curtains. Through the falling snow, he could see lights burning in the windows of the houses below. Beyond them, stood the high outer wall.

    His duties as a retainer were over for the day. He brought in the bowl of water each morning in memory of times long ago. But now he wore the regalia of the Imperial Chancellor, and in his left hand, he carried a sheaf of documents.

Next: The Richman and the Alchemist's Niece (Part Two)

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