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Unfortunately, there is just too much evidence, gathered from too many independent sources. It was a loyalty that was seriously shaken by the recently discovered documents, and now the two seemed to have reached another odd understanding in their mutual sense of betrayal.

The Dynast has been… Tainted. His decree allowing unlimited worship within our borders. He had already lost two sons and a daughter in various battles and skirmishes, and had no mercy. Would the Throne even accept an Unhuman bastard? I sent some very discreet inquiries back to her homeland, but it seems the Elves are… reluctant to discuss her.

This suggests—" "It suggests they have something to hide! I would suggest that we confront His Majesty and request an explanation. Privately at first, but if he refuses to answer we must bring public pressure to bear. Either tomorrow evening or the next, I would suggest. Most ran through the night. The wealthier businesses could afford permanent thaum-lights, but even the poorest spent what they could on lanterns, torches, and even candles.

Because of this constant riot of light and colour, few noticed the new flashes that lit up the sky over the city. All of a sudden, though, a rumbling boom echoed through the streets, and almost as one person, the inhabitants looked up. For perhaps the first time in its history, Tyrassus fell silent. Another flash streaked across the heavens, and all eyes traced it back to its source: the towering, Power-spun spire above the Imperial Palace.

A true masterwork of both Power-weaving and more mundane engineering, the spire reached nearly a quarter-span into the sky, outstripping everything in the city. A few citizens occasionally speculated that its builder, Jarlan the Second, Third Dynast of the Var Imperium, had been compensating for some shortcoming in his intimate life. Never in the hearing of any of the Imperial Sentinels, of course.

The spire was regularly lit in Power-created lightshows on holy days and celebrations, but never with this much ferocity. Multi-coloured light shot from its windows, along with gouts of flame, and other, less recognisable emissions. As the enraptured citizenry watched, a bolt of lightning crackled down from the cloudless sky and grounded itself on the gold-covered roof.

It was followed several heartbeats later by another rolling rumble of thunder. A few of the more astute inhabitants of the city began to realise that there was no guarantee that whatever was happening in the spire would stay confined to the structure, and started pulling goods back into their shops, slamming shutters closed, or making a general almost surreptitious retreat towards the nearest of the city walls.

The rest were too fascinated by the lightshow to move. That unmoving state lasted only until, with a blast that threatened to deafen everyone within a hand of spans, a part of the roof and wall of the spire exploded upwards and outward in an explosion of black flame, arching up and over the city in a long, lazy arc. The quasi-stillness shattered, and as one body the watching crowds turned and stampeded away from the carnage. There were so many people, however, that the panicking, screaming mob could hardly move, and hundreds were crushed to death in the stampede.

More died as pieces of the spire crashed to the ground, destroying houses and people, and starting arcane fires that spread unpredictably. More destruction followed as massive blasts of Power spilled from the spire, no longer fully contained by its walls.

Bolts of lightning, fire, and pure light escaped to gouge holes in sections of the city in a display of Power greater than anyone had seen in centuries. It was over. Around him soldiers from the Imperial Sentinels rushed back and forth, along with work crews, Healers, and lesser Thaumaturges.

Deep inside he felt a thrill of exhilaration bubble its way up through his stunned apathy. Part of him had never truly believed that the plan could succeed, but the Palatine had played matters with epic skill. Identifying those in the Imperium powerful enough to consider taking on Dynast Rachek—The late Dynast Rachek, he corrected—had been simple.

Discovering just the right stimulus that would goad them into action had been slightly harder, but still no real task for anyone who had spent two decades honing his ability to read the inner motivations of everyone at court. War Marshal Berak had been blinded by his hatred for the Orcs, Goblins, and other uncivilised Unhuman races, and the thought that the Dynast would consider parleying with the beasts was anathema to him.

The decree allowing all forms of worship free rein in the Imperium had also been real, as had the inevitable increase in Demonic cults, but most of those "faiths" were pitiful things at best, and would be hard-pressed to conjure up an original thought, let alone a Demon Archlord. Imperial Magus Terati had not seen that ineffectualness, seeing only a weakening of vigilance against Demonic corruption and Power. It had been difficult to arrange for one of her Acolytes to overhear the "Dynast" discussing with the Sumani Ambassador the gifts a Demon Lord might bestow on its followers, but not impossible.

Pontifex Noven had been less committal to the idea, but the thought of Demonism infiltrating the True Temples was manifestly abhorrent to her. Duke Arlen had been more cautious, but the weight of the evidence, so logically presented, had convinced him in the end. It had certainly helped that Captain was an unbelievably paranoid man, in addition to being unshakeably loyal, something that had actually served him well over his many years of service.

Then the Dynast himself had entered the fray, and that had ultimately been a surprise to everyone. It was probably going to require a reading of her residual aura to positively identify her body. It had been well-known that the Dynast was a powerful Magus in his own right, and he had naturally had access to the best teachers in the Imperium, not to mention an arsenal of Artefacts second to none, but it was clear that nobody had suspected just how potent he had become.

Marrin thought wryly. It would explain a few things. That was unlikely, however. The Dynast and the entire court were scanned regularly for signs of Demonic possession and mental tampering. What had concerned the conspirators had been the possibility that the Dynast might be working for a Demon willingly, of his own volition.

The Palatine shook his head, wincing as an ache reminded him of the large bruise purpling his forehead. No, more likely that Elven wench of his taught him a few new tricks. The Palatine made sure none of his thoughts were showing on his face, and instead plastered on a vaguely sympathetic expression. Still, he had grimly put his own grief on hold during the crisis. My apologies. Berak sighed. My generals have been ordered to enforce a state of emergency in their jurisdictions if they deem it necessary.

Town Patrols have been doubled to discourage rioters and looters. All border fortresses have been ordered to go to full war readiness. No matter what their personal feelings, he knew that the War Marshal was a highly efficient and dedicated individual, and that was the kind of person who was useful.

Curfews have been announced across the Imperium. Barely twenty summers old, Farran had grown up surrounded by the trapping of nobility. He was not stupid by any means, but he was intellectually lazy, at least when it came to responsibility.

Put him in front of a gaming board or card table, or even engage him in a conversation on philosophy or mathematics, and the boy actually gave the appearance of competence. He was affable, charismatic, and completely ineffectual at making real decisions. Dynast Farran on the throne would leave Marrin as the actual ruler of the Imperium. The Crystal Throne certainly lived up to first part of its title, but barely qualified for the second. A huge block of apparently seamless crystal, it could blind a man if placed in full sunlight.

Its interior seemed to shift from time to time, parts changing from cloudy to intensely clear, and some had sworn that they had caught glimpses of Human figures, Pretenders from ages past, trapped within the stone. For that reason, it was usually hidden away in an obscure hall, covered in a majestic cloth—it was a part of Imperial culture, after all—until it was dragged out for the purpose for which it had been created.

All that was known for sure was that Regald the First, First Dynast of the Var, had ordered its creation by his chief Magus—although some speculated that the thing had actually been found intact in some ruin somewhere—and had decreed that it would thereafter infallibly confirm that a new potential Dynast was, in fact, the closest blood relative of the previous one.

And it had worked. Nobody quite knew how, but somehow the Crystal Throne could unmistakably determine that an Heir was the next in the Line of Succession. There had been Pretenders, of course, those who thought that they could fool the Throne in some way and claim the Crown. They had sat on the cold crystal and promptly never been seen again.

There had also been accidental Pretenders. The Throne apparently did not consider legitimate birth to be a criterion for selection, as had been proven when Armiger Thalassas, son of Dynast Dannon, had taken what everyone thought was his rightful seat and vanished.

A frantic search had followed, and finally a young seamstress had been found, the first actual offspring of Dannon by a serving girl. She had become Dynast Ly-Hala the First, to the consternation of everyone in the court, and had reigned for over eighty summers. A result of this unexpected side effect was that many Dynasts no longer bothered with official marriage, and were much more careful about the offspring they created in their dalliances.

If the Throne was quite obviously crystal, it took some small amount of imagination to see it as a chair. There was a tall, sharp-edged "back," but the "seat" was a mere roughly horizontal ledge, on which a grown man or woman could sit with a little caution. Altogether, the Artefact looked vaguely organic, as though it had grown in place in some bizarre cavern, and been mined, rather than created.

The recently deceased Dynast had died a fairly young man, without children—legitimate or otherwise—which meant that his closest living relative was his cousin, Armiger Farran, who would soon become Dynast Farran the Sixth. Which was what had brought the festivity that ran throughout Tyrassus and the Imperium on this day.

The death of the previous Dynast had been a blow to the morale of the citizens, but the coronation of a new Dynast was cause to cast aside old sorrows and embrace the potential of the future. Nowhere was this more prevalent that the Great Hall of the Imperial Palace, which was bedecked by flowers, garlands, and finery.

Illusions had been cast for the occasion, making the room even more grand, and magically-restrained birds fluttered among the columns far overhead.

A long, deep purple carpet ran the length of the hall from the massive gilded doors to where the Crystal Throne hulked, an odd combination of glitter and shadow. That dichotomy could also describe the mood of those fortunate to be present for the coronation itself.

When so many important and powerful men and women from throughout the Imperium, and beyond, were crammed into a single room a certain amount of tension was inevitable as strong personalities consciously and unconsciously battled for status.

However, the undercurrent of tension this day was even stronger than it would normally be. No matter how careful the Linemasters were, there was always the unconscious acknowledgement that they could be wrong, which meant there was always a tiny but constant concern that the coronation could turn with shocking suddenness into an execution. And nobody would know for sure until the Heir seated himself upon the roughly chair-shaped naked stone.

It had been over three Eyes since the death of the previous Dynast, and finally all his years of preparation and planning would pay off. He had just come from speaking with Farran, who was earnestly praying to the Gods that he be found worthy of the Crown, as was expected of an Heir.


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The long slippery slope



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