died this morning!’
Ordek XIV had not been an old man. He should have ruled for many more years. Ashurek, confused and anguished, could get no straight answers from any of his family. Orkesh could do nothing but weep, and their mother, dry-eyed but in obvious shock, insisted she wished to be left alone. Only Meshurek would look him in the eye and say, ‘He had a terrible fever. The physicians did all they could for him, but to no avail. We have suffered an appalling loss.’
Ashurek quizzed the royal physicians, who all confirmed that Ordek had contracted a lung infection that would not respond to their skills.
The palace without the Emperor’s fiery presence seemed an empty, superficial place, as if only his fierce brilliance had breathed life into it. Ashurek could hardly believe he had grown up here; the familiar rooms and halls seemed totally alien, every corner filled with dark mourning.
And Meshurek was now Emperor.
The funeral came and was over, while Ashurek felt so distant from the remaining members of his family that the lowest slave in Gorethria might have felt closer to them. He seemed to have lost all power to comfort his sister and mother or even to communicate with them, and he continually felt that Meshurek was watching him and smiling, although he knew that this was not actually so. Tortured and enraged, with no one to turn to for help, he retreated to his own rooms and paced about in the darkness, struggling with his thoughts.
Father! I should have warned you about Meshurek. Perhaps you did know a way to deal with the demon, and you would have been saved. Yes, it is my fault. I alone knew what Meshurek had done, and I ran away and hid the knowledge. And now you are dead. Is there anything I can do now to salvage what is left?
As he cursed himself in his anguish, the door opened and his mother and sister glided into the room, dressed in mourning grey like distant stone figures in an unreal landscape.
‘What do you want?’ he exclaimed, sounding angrier than he intended.
‘I know you are distraught, as we all are,’ his mother said in a low voice. ‘Orkesh and I have decided that we cannot remain silent. We three must stay together and help each other, now that Ordek is gone.’
‘Father should have ruled for another twenty years, at least,’ Orkesh broke in, ‘but twenty years was too long for Meshurek!’
‘Meshurek murdered your father,’ Melkish concluded drily.
Ashurek, suddenly having his fears confirmed, felt emotion running through him like fire. He felt like screaming, I know! I am the one who left you in this terrible danger, and now you ask me for help, unaware of how I’ve betrayed you?
But he said nothing.
‘Meshurek is insane,’ Melkish went on, her voice trembling. ‘It is unbearable to me to suggest this but – he must be killed, or at least removed – imprisoned at Terthria, perhaps. He cannot rule. You must take the throne.’
‘No, mother.’ Ashurek spat the words. ‘Don’t you understand? That is exactly what he has always feared. That is why he is insane. That is why he murdered Father.’
‘What?’ Melkish cried. ‘But he deserves it! Curse the day I gave birth to him! You can’t be suggesting that if we do not remove him, he will become sane and wise and that Ordek will return to life? Ashurek – don’t make me think you are both fools!’
‘Nevertheless,’ he said heavily, ‘if we try to kill or imprison him, we will all die. He has supernatural help. You must know that, or you would’ve been happy to believe that father died of a lung infection.’
‘We know there is something,’ Orkesh whispered, her eyes bright with tears. ‘Didn’t I tell you? There’s something wrong with him. He frightens people.’
‘I know. Meshurek has called to his aid a demon, a lustful, evil being of vast power. It has him totally under its control. It can do anything it likes. Our only hope is to lie low and pretend we are ignorant of it, and try to