by Sarah Prineas
, all of the bells of the city began to chime at the same moment.
the first strike, the air shivered; on the fifth the night cracked and shattered
like broken glass; on the tenth the streets rolled, their cobblestones jumping
about like fleas. After the twelfth
strike, a thunderous wave that shook the city from the top of the Great Leader's
city waited, expectantly, for the result of this portent.
But nothing happened. Stillness
again ruled the night, and after some exclamations, some frantic rushing about
to no effect, the people went back murmuring to their beds and slept until
for me. I was a very old man, and as
everyone knows very old men need very little sleep.
So I was awake when Winged Victory came tapping at my window.
one end of
I lay in my bed, as full of wonder about the bells as anyone else in the city,
when Winged Victory tapped on the window: tap, tap, tap.
I pushed back the blankets, crossed to the tall window, and opened it.
She climbed in, bringing with her the chill of the winter night.
her great weight, her feet hardly made a noise as she stepped onto the floor.
She moved smoothly, but with the faintest of grinding noises, the sound
of one oiled stone moving over another. As
she stood, her stone wingtips brushed the ceiling.
She nodded a greeting, then sat on the bed and crossed one leg over the
other, smoothing the stone folds of her drapery over her massive thighs.
occurred to me that if she could come alive, then the statue of the Great Leader
might come alive as well, and climb down from his pedestal.
Then there would be two of me! Though
one would be of stone, of course.
spoke. "The bells woke
me." Her voice was surprisingly
light, like a flute. The first time
I'd met her, I had expected something more...gravelly.
nodded, awaiting her pronouncement, for she always had a reason to visit me.
is a spy in your household," she said.
laughed. Of course there were spies!
I'd had my spymaster, Vostare, put spies everywhere--how else would I
keep track of what was going on?
shook her head ponderously. "I
must clarify. There is an unknown
spy in your household. He or she is
reporting to your enemies and wishes to overthrow you."
you tell me more, Lady?" I asked. "Who
is the spy?"
shook her head, her broad face as expressionless as always.
The bed groaned as she shifted her weight.
"It is someone you love and trust."
I laughed. I was the ruler of a
mighty empire. I didn't love or
Victory stood. "Beware,"
she repeated. She strode to the
window and flung it wide. Gracefully,
she climbed onto the low sill, leaned out, and launched herself into the night
air with a sweep of her great wings. Back
she would go to settle upon the steel rods atop the Great Leader's column in
coming had brought the chill of old stone into the room.
I shivered, closed the window, and climbed back under my blankets.
the morning, Dove, my valet, whom I called Valet, drew back the curtains from
the bed, turned up the gaslights, and placed a steaming cup of black coffee on
the bedside table.
morning, Great Leader," he obsequied, as usual.
ignored him, which was also as usual. Dove
was almost as old as I, and was with me at the Siege of Verlannes.
suppose you heard the clocks last night," he said.
merely looked at him and drank my coffee.
will be talking about it today," he went on.
"The servants' hall was abuzz for hours.
Most agree that it was a portent, but I think an amazing coincidence is
more likely." He shook out the
extra blankets from the bed and folded them neatly.
It was typical of prosaic Dove to dismiss the obviously supernatural as a
stood before me, awaiting my orders.
brown robe today, Valet."
cocked his head and squinted at me. "That
one makes you look like a monk, my Lord. I
recommend the red velvet."
growled. "The brown."
He shook his head disapprovingly and fetched the robe from the clothes
press in the next room. With deft
fingers, he helped me dress, hanging the golden chain of the Great Leader over
my shoulders. It was heavy.
I took a deep breath.
the secretary, what's-his-name," I ordered.
"I'll be in my office." Dove
bowed and scurried from the room.
left the bedroom, my bodyguards falling into place two steps behind me.
I called them Guard One and Guard Two, and even though they had trailed
me through these corridors for more than fifteen years, neither one had summoned
up the courage to ask the Great Leader to call him by his proper name.
Silently, we walked through the stone hallways of the palace.
The whole, massive, deadweight building was of stone and as cold as a
tomb in winter despite the braziers in every corner and the heavy tapestries on
I arrived at my own office, I shed the guards at the door and went in.
I was surprised to see my secretary.
The city's clocks had not yet struck six; the winter sky outside was
still dark. Yet there he sat, bent
over his desk in the corner, elbow deep in papers, his dark head resting on one
hand as he wrote with the other. He
looked up as I came in and stood, bowing.
morning, Great Leader," he said, predictably.
ignored him, took off the Great Leader's golden chain, and dumped it on the
Great Leader's office was a big, high-ceilinged room, ornately decorated.
The only ungilded thing in the place was my broadsword, the notorious
Dragonfang, which hung over a massive carved stone fireplace.
Actually, the sword was only a copy.
The real blade snapped off at the hilt and was lost during the last
battle at Rocky Ford, during the Vekoi Wars.
secretary's name was Arlen Chase. I
called him Sprat. He was the merest
egg, a bland, boring boy, scrawny and bespectacled.
He had been married to my great-niece, Jeri, who died last year in
childbirth. The babe died with her;
I had them buried under a heavy marble slab in St. Ethelreda's.
waved him back to his seat and sat down behind my desk.
"Take a letter, Sprat.”
sighed, pulled out a fresh sheet of paper, and dipped his pen into the inkwell.
the Archbishopess," I began.
"Don't forget to add all of her titles."
I continued to dictate and noticed, after a few minutes, that his
scratchings were not keeping pace with my words.
I glanced over at his desk to find him gazing at me.
A pearl of ink formed at the end of his pen and dropped--splat!--onto
you get that last bit, Sprat?" I asked, knowing he hadn't.
was surprised to see any expression at all cross his face, for usually he was as
blank as a sheet of paper.
he began, and rubbed an ink-stained hand through his untidy dark hair.
"I've been working for you for seven years, since I was
twenty-three. I'm thirty years old.
I'm not a Sprat anymore."
a surprise! The Egg talked back!
Perhaps this was the great event the
bells had foretold. I laughed.
flushed and picked up his pen. "I
missed most of it, Great Leader," he said dully, looking down at his
papers. "My apologies.
Would you mind repeating it from the salutation?"
did so, and he kept up with me. By
the time we'd finished, the outer offices were beginning to stir as
undersecretaries and assistants and file clerks and various sycophants necessary
to the running of an empire began their day's work.
Even from my inner sanctum, I could hear a difference in their comings
and goings and hushed chatterings. Dove
had been right: they were all talking about the
glanced at Chase, who was preparing the day's orders and announcements for me to
sign, and the words of Winged Victory swirled around in my head and printed
themselves out on the pages before me: Someone
you trust will betray you.
Who held more of my trust than Chase?
Blank as he was, I found it difficult to gauge what he was thinking when
he looked at me. Might he hate me
enough to plot treason? Might his
somber face be a mask hiding terrible ambition?
looked up, caught me staring. "Yes,
my Lord?" he asked politely.
the bells wake you last night, Chase?"
set down his pen. "No,
raised my eyebrows, disbelieving. No
one could have slept through that racket.
mean, sir, that I wasn't asleep when they rang."
You were working." I said.
looked at him closely, realizing that lately he'd been looking more weary than
usual. No doubt he'd been spending
many nights among my papers.
picked up his pen, thinking I was finished with him.
do you think it meant, Chase?" I asked.
looked surprised. I seldom solicited
his opinion on anything, not even the weather.
"The bells?" he stalled.
growled. "Of course the bells,
flushed. "I don't know."
even you have an opinion."
then," I prompted.
got up from his desk and moved to the hearth, where he stood looking at the
sword hanging above the mantel.
on," I prompted again.
gnawed his lip. "I think it was
a portent, sir."
course it was a portent! What else
would it be?"
glanced nervously at me. "Sorry,
realized suddenly that his reticence was due to the fact that he did, indeed,
have an opinion on the phenomenon and didn't want to share it for fear I
wouldn't like it. "Go on, out
with it, lad," I encouraged. "If
I don't like it, I'll just have you executed."
he smiled; I was surprised his face didn't crack.
I suppose he realized how few death warrants I'd signed in the last seven
years. "All right."
The smile faded from his face, leaving him even more sober-looking than
usual. "Sir, I think--no, I
fear--that the portent is a warning of--" he paused, then continued in a
rush, "--of your death, my Lord."
sat back in surprise, staring at Chase, but he refused to meet my gaze.
growled. "My death, boy?
I may be old, but I'm healthier than you might expect."
sir," he agreed. "Sorry,
hell with the 'sorry sir,' and tell me what you mean!"
I leaned across the desk; in a moment I'd be up throttling him for his
strange is going on," he said, finally meeting my eyes.
"I can't put my finger on it, sir, but something is not right.
Papers go missing and turn up again where they shouldn't.
I've heard rumors I know are not true. The
bells have only made it worse." He
removed his spectacles and rubbed his eyes.
went to the window and drew aside the heavy curtain.
The office looked out over Military Square; I could see clearly the statue of the Great Leader, Winged Victory poised
above his head. My secretary's words
echoed hers: another plot was afoot to be rid of me.
I wondered, though, if Arlen Chase were telling me all he knew.
were interrupted by an undersecretary who knocked on the door to announce that
my great-nephew, Lord Cherl, wished to see me.
I put on the Great Leader's golden chain and sat down behind my desk.
he entered the room, Lord Cherl bowed deeply, then straightened the lace that
foamed at his neck. "May all
the blessings of the day be yours, Uncle," he said, bowing again.
Lord Cherl took after his mother, who had been a remarkably short and
stout woman with curly hair the color of spun gold.
In his brocade suit and lace, he looked like a plump footstool.
He'd grown up with a streak of weakness, a penchant for whores and card
games and fine brandy from overseas. Lately,
though, he'd been very quiet. Rumor
said that Lord Cherl had taken up more serious pursuits.
to you, Nephew," I responded. "Did
you come just to wish me a good morning?"
looked discomfited, as he often did in my presence.
"Not quite, Uncle," he admitted.
He twisted a ring on his finger, nervous.
I knew what he wanted, but he'd have to ask for it.
"As it happens, my Lord Uncle," he said at last, "I find
myself a little short this quarter."
forbore from making the obvious comment. In
his corner, Chase grinned. Twice in
one day, a record! I caught his eye,
and he quickly looked back down at his work.
much do you need?" I asked.
smiled nervously. "Three
hundred would do me."
write my great-nephew a draft on the treasury for four hundred Imperials."
my secretary wrote out the order, Lord Cherl rose from his seat and went to
stand beside the fireplace. Winged Victory's words echoed in my ears, but I
dismissed them: my great-nephew would inherit after my death and didn't need to
hasten that event because I kept him well supplied with everything he needed.
I got rid of him as soon as I could and went back to work.
stayed in the office until very late. After
hearing the midnight
bells ring--properly this time--I prepared to leave.
am going to bed," I said, setting aside the tax roll from the Chermin
stood and bowed politely. "Good
night, Great Leader."
you going to stay here all night?" I asked.
shook his head. "I just need to
look through a few more files, sir."
to track down the missing reports and false rumors?"
to me if you find anything."
looked surprised. "Of course,
picked up my bodyguards at the door and went off to bed.
next morning, another portent struck. At
the stroke of nine, all of the birds in the city fell dead.
They dropped from the sky, from their perches on the ledges of buildings.
Dead swans and ducks bobbed in the river like fluffy boats.
Thousands of dead sparrows dotted the lawns in the public parks.
The statue of the Great Leader in
I entered the bureaucratic wing of the Great Leader's palace, the air was thick
with speculation and wonder. I
ignored the questions and frightened looks and went straight into my office.
Arlen Chase was there, looking weary and rumpled.
"Anything?" I asked. He
shook his head.
I could continue, we were interrupted by my spymaster, Vostare, who swept into
the room like a chill wind. As
always, she was elegantly dressed, wearing a sleek, silvery gown that made her
look even more like a shark than usual.
bowed gracefully and waited until I had sat down behind my desk before seating
herself. "I presume you have
heard about the second portent, Great Leader," she began.
nodded. "Are we keeping count
smiled, her teeth as white as bones. "We
are, my Lord." She folded
long-fingered hands in her lap. "I'll
give my report now, my Lord."
narrowed my eyes; something was up. Usually,
she handed in written reports like everyone else.
"Go on," I ordered.
gestured sharply toward the desk in the corner.
"The secretary must leave."
Chase's head jerked up in surprise. "Do
you wish to have no record of this meeting, Lady Vostare?"
didn't look at him, but at me, her eyes cold.
"I don't want you at this meeting, Chase," she answered.
looked at me for guidance. I nodded
toward the door; he bowed and left without another word.
Vostare pronounced as the door closed behind him.
had better be," I growled. "What's
going on, Spymaster."
she left, I called Arlen Chase back into the room.
He seemed nervous, as well he should, I thought.
down," I ordered, pointing to the chair before my desk.
His face blank, he obeyed. He
looked innocuous enough, I thought. His
face did not proclaim him a villain.
sat quietly, knowing well my trick of prolonging a silence in order to make a
last, I said, "The spymaster agrees with you that another conspiracy is
nodded, and waited for the rest.
believes that you are the plotter."
shot to his feet. Then he sat down
again, collapsing into his chair like a pile of sticks.
"Oh," was all he said.
spymaster is very good at her job."
sir." He rubbed his knees with
says there is a rumor about that you are using your position as my secretary to
consolidate power. That you wish to
use your ties to me to make a bid to take the throne when I am dead."
ties to you, sir?" he asked, his voice low.
marriage to my great-niece."
I saw a flash of what might have been grief pass across his thin face.
It had been only a year; I still grieved for her, too.
have you to say for yourself, boy?"
looked up at me. Light from the
chandelier over our heads reflected from his spectacles, making his eyes hard to
read. "I deny it, sir."
course." I sat back in my
chair. Winged Victory whispered in
my ear, and I could not ignore the memory of her voice.
If Arlen Chase were the traitor, I would be wise to keep him under my
eye. "All right, get back to
work," I said at last.
sir." Mechanically, he stood
and went back to his desk in the corner, sat down, and began to write.
fountain stands in Military Square, halfway between the clock tower and the Great Leader's column, a three-tiered
stone affair with jets of water shooting out in all directions and a broad pool
below that children play in during the summer months.
It runs through the winter, thanks to heated pipes and, encrusted with
ice, shines like shattered glass in the sunlight.
next day, as the bells of the city were striking the
hour, the water in this fountain turned to blood.
I saw it happen myself, as I was standing at the window in my office,
looking out over
here," I ordered.
the urgency in my voice, he scrambled from behind his desk and over to the
window. We watched together as the
fountain, like a decapitated torso, spurted gouts of blood toward the sky.
Within moments, the pool below turned scarlet, and then darker, as the
liquid congealed. The pipes became
blocked, and the blood overflowed, slopping onto the cobblestones of the square.
our vantage point, we watched as a crowd gathered to stare in fearful awe at the
fountain. At last, a maintenance
crew from the palace came hurrying out, pried up a block of stone next to the
pool, and switched it off. The flow
of blood oozed to a stop.
me, Arlen Chase's face was paper-white.
think it's time to get to the bottom of this conspiracy, don't you agree,
lad?" I said, half joking.
turned a stricken gaze upon me. "Please
be careful, sir."
frowned. How sincere was that worry?
It seemed sincere to me, but I hardly trusted myself.
a brief supper of bread and cheese, which we took at our desks, we continued to
work. I was reading a tedious census
report from one of the outlying provinces when I noticed Chase had gone very
quiet. Glancing over at his desk, I
saw that he'd put his head down on his arms.
Quietly, I stood and moved to see him better.
He was deeply asleep, his spectacles askew, his pale face lined with
weariness and worry.
sighed, suddenly weary myself. Fifty
years ago, my Empire had been a fractured and feuding group of city-states.
I had used blood and bravery, sword and gunpowder to break them all down
and then cement them together into a solid whole.
But Great Leaders like me had become redundant.
These days, the Empire needed to be ruled by an efficient administrator,
a committee-maker. Someone honest,
intelligent, and hardworking.
placed my hand gently on his shoulder. He
fell asleep." He blinked and
straightened his spectacles. "Sorry,
all right," I said. "It's
time to stop work. You'd best go
looked down distractedly at the papers strewn across his desk.
"I should finish this up first, sir."
always had one more thing to do, things that kept him away from his empty house.
"Finish up, then. I'll
see you in the morning."
was very late; my bodyguards should have been waiting outside for me.
But when I opened the door, they were not there.
The outer office loomed dark and abandoned before me; the bureaucratic
wing of the palace was deserted but for Chase and myself.
that moment, the outer door swung open and Vostare swept in, followed by Lord
Cherl and two burly men I didn't know--spies in her employ, I guessed.
Without speaking, they advanced upon me; I was pushed back into the
office. I sat down behind my desk.
Chase left his corner to stand beside me.
Leader," my spymaster began, "I bring with me papers that prove that
your secretary is the traitor we seek."
my side, Arlen gasped. "My
Lord--" he began.
quiet," I ordered, and he was silent. Slowly,
I extended my hand. "Show me
the proof, Spymaster."
leaned across the desk and gave me a sheaf of papers.
Each one was written in what looked like Chase's neat script, and each
one condemned him: letters soliciting money from enemies both abroad and within
the Empire, letters promising favors after he'd been crowned emperor.
I read through them all, thinking furiously.
The evidence seemed clear.
looked up and met Vostare's eyes, and in their keenness I read the truth.
I dropped the bundle of papers onto my desk.
watched me, a sharklike grin upon her face; her two men had moved to flank the
fireplace; Lord Cherl stood near the door, fidgeting.
Chase remained standing beside me, face ashen.
He was not a soldier or a strategist; he was only just beginning to
realize what was happening. I had to
get him out before they moved against me.
a letter," I ordered, knowing he would obey.
shot me a desperate look, but then went to his desk, seated himself, and picked
up his pen. I noticed Vostare's men exchange a subtle signal.
The spymaster held up a hand, and they stilled. "Are
you ready, boy?" I asked.
secretary nodded. Even from my desk,
I could see his hands shaking; the letter would be illegible unless he pulled
is an order of execution." Chase's
head jerked up and his eyes sought mine. I
held his gaze; he read my purpose there and nodded.
He took a deep breath and with a steadier hand began to write.
name, my Lord?" he asked.
know very well who it is."
face unreadable, Chase added a few words to the document.
enjoy the irony, Spymaster," I asked, still playing along with her charade,
"of having the traitor write out his own death warrant?"
enjoy irony more than you know, Great Leader."
She glanced at the men by the fireplace, at the sword hanging over their
knew I did not have long. "Bring
me the order of execution," I said.
stood up from his desk and crossed the room to hand me the paper.
I looked it over and nodded; he had understood my intentions.
"Give me a pen." He
gave me his own, and our hands touched for a moment.
I wrote a few words, signed the paper, folded it, and gave it to him. Good
lad, I thought, now don't do anything
foolish; just take the paper and get out of here.
He returned to his desk, head bowed.
had done what I could for Arlen Chase; I prayed it would be enough to save him.
me, it was already too late.
was very entertaining," Vostare said, still smiling her death's head smile.
"But it only delays the inevitable.
And now, let's get on with it."
She turned to my great-nephew. "Listen,
Lord Cherl. Suspecting treachery, I
brought two men to the Great Leader's office to arrest Arlen Chase.
I brought you, Lord Cherl, as a witness.
But we arrived too late, for the secretary had already assassinated the
Great Leader. Do you
understand?" Marty nodded.
Vostare gestured to her two spies. "Take
two men reached up and pulled down my sword from over the fireplace.
One of them held the blade out to Vostare, the other one circled the
desk, reaching out to grab me.
evaded him, moving farther away from Chase's corner.
Lord Cherl, watching the scene avidly, stepped away from the door.
much effort, Vostare's men caught me, their big hands hard and rough.
One took each arm, and they dragged me from behind the desk.
Vostare advanced upon me, my own sword in her hand.
she offered the blade to my great-nephew. "Would
you like to perform the act that will make you Emperor, Lord Cherl?" she
great-nephew twitched with surprise. "No,
no thank you, Lady Vostare," he mumbled, pushing the sword away with pudgy
hands. "Just get it over
spymaster returned to her purpose. I
looked past her to where my secretary, forgotten for the moment, was edging
toward the door.
go now!" I shouted.
the same moment, Vostare thrust with the sword.
The blade entered my chest.
shouted from the doorway and darted toward me.
A heartbeat later I felt crashing pain and the warmth of blood spilling
from the wound.
I fell, gentle hands caught me, easing me down to the carpet.
The same hands pressed something against the wound in my chest.
last thought, as my body died, was irritation:
Don't touch me, Arlen, I thought, or you'll get my blood on your hands.
heart beat once more, then shuddered to a stop.
awoke facing the clock tower in
am the Great Leader, forever striding forward into the future, youthful, strong,
my arm outstretched, my sword pointing the way.
From where I stand, I see the slate roofs of the city, and I hear the
chiming of the bells as they ring in the hours.
And over my head, as slow as the shifting of continents or the fall of an
empire, beat the great stone wings of Victory.
"Winged Victory" copyright © Sarah Prineas 2005
About the Author:
Prineas lives in
Lone Star Stories * Speculative Fiction and Poetry * Copyright © 2003-2005