A World Without Heroes(2)

“The heir to Trensicourt speaks?” Maldor exclaimed. “You inhaled a caustic substance. I had begun to suspect you had lost the ability to vocalize. Truly you possess a will of steel. Had I known you merely required my presence, I might have visited you earlier.”

If he was an impersonator, he was a very good one.

“What brings you down to the dungeon?”

The emperor paused. “I am here to celebrate the end of my worries.”

“You have many kingdoms yet to conquer,” the prince protested. “I am one man.”

“And a keystone is a single block,” the emperor murmured, “yet when it is removed, the structure collapses.”

“Others remain,” the prince insisted. “Others will rise.”

“You speak as though you are already gone,” Maldor chuckled. “My friend, I have never meant to kill you. I only needed to prove that you cannot stand against me. The way to confirm this reality was to defeat you. It pains me to see you like this. I would prefer to clothe you in finery and bind up your wounds. You may recall, I have extended my friendship in the past. Not only did you deny me, but you have fought against me, and urged others to do likewise.”

“You will never have my loyalty,” the prince pledged.

“I wish you would be reasonable,” the emperor lamented. “I am fully aware that none of my servants are your equal. You could be my chief lieutenant. I would make you Lord of Trensicourt, and more besides, free to govern as a king in all but name. I could restore your sight, extend your lifespan. You could accomplish much good.”

“And all of Lyrian would fall under your dominion,” the prince replied. “How do I know this is really you? My eyes are gone.”

“Surely you know my voice,” the emperor said, amused.

“Years ago you spoke to me in the parlor at Trensicourt. I showed you a toy.”

“Has this become a game of riddles?”

“Do you remember the toy?”

“A windup carousel with removable horses. You removed an enameled horse—mostly blue, I believe—and asked me to join you.”

The prince nodded in silence. Only the emperor would know that detail. It was too obscure. With hardly a pause he spoke the Word that he had kept secret since his capture. He could taste its power as it escaped his lips, a true Edomic key word.

The prince waited in darkness.

“What a peculiar exclamation,” the emperor remarked.

Dismay and confusion left the prince off balance. That word should have been the emperor’s undoing! Frantically the prince struggled to recall the Word, but uttering it out loud just once had abolished it from memory.

“You look troubled,” Maldor commented knowingly.

“That word should have destroyed you,” the prince whispered, the last of his resolve withering, his inner world dimming into a cold place where only the ashes of hope remained.

The emperor laughed. “Come now, my stalwart prince, surely you did not imagine me ignorant of your quest! We are conversing, in truth, but not in person. I am using an intermediary. After all, being a wizard should include a few advantages! My emissary can speak with my inflections, and we can readily communicate from afar. But since he is not me, that perilous word can have no effect on either of us. Now that you are divested of your final weapon, why not reconsider my offer?”

“Never,” the prince whispered. All he had left was the fact that he had never let the emperor entice him to switch sides. The prince owed that, at least, to all who had believed in him.

“I am very impressed that you learned the Word,” the emperor went on. “You are the first. I have long promised myself that he who learned the Word would be invited to join my inner circle. You have no more options. Do not perish without reason. Further resistance will bring no reward. Work with me, and you can still accomplish much good. Respond with care this time, for you will not receive another opportunity. After all, you just tried to kill me. This introduction to the hospitality of my dungeon has been gentle compared to the horrors that await.”

Head bowed, the prince remained silent for a moment. After all the planning, the maneuvering, the bold alliances, the narrow escapes, he had failed! He had said the Word to a decoy! He had even anticipated the possibility, but in the end Maldor had fooled him, had ruined him, as happened inevitably to all of his foes. The prince searched inside for hope or faith and found nothing. Perhaps he should accept the inevitable. He was unsure how much longer he could retain his sanity in this unspeakable place.

The prince raised his head. “I will never serve you. You have defeated me, but you will never own me.” He owed these words to those who had died for him. He owed the words to himself. To be destroyed was one thing. At least he had not surrendered.

“Very well. You were my finest adversary, this I acknowledge. But you will break here. You know this. You have my admiration, but not my pity.” Footsteps retreated, and a door clanged shut with the finality of a tomb.