The Red Winter – Chapter One

As a special thank you for all your patience, here is a special sneak peek at the first full chapter of THE RED WINTER. I hope you enjoy it. -HHN

Ch. 1 A Crownless King

Some demons were older than Prusias, and some were wiser, but none could match his appreciation for the absurd. His robes were of Tyrian silk, his golden throne was studded with gems and the bones of conquered foes. His Majesty should have been regal as a god! And yet, here he sat, slumped and bored while his dressings were changed. The malakhim hovered like fussy mothers, peeling old bandages away, dabbing ointment on the wounds, and applying fresh linen with a surgeon’s skill and nurse’s care.

Shooing the fiends away, Prusias leaned forward to gaze at a nearby mirror. With a considering frown, the demon studied his face, turning this way and that, like an actor at curtain call. The bandages were unfortunate, but his hair was black, his lips were red, his teeth were as white as snow. He winked at the reflection.

Still a handsome fellow.

From below there was a mild cough. Prusias flicked his attention to his imp. The creature stood on the dais’s topmost step, an inquisitive expression on his little red face.

“Eh? What’s the problem?”

“Nothing milord,” said the imp. “It’s just…well, our visitors have hardly begun the May report and there are several matters that will require the King of Blys’s input.”

“Kings don’t give input, Mr. Bonn. They give orders.”

“My apologies, milord. I spoke poorly.”

Silence was a vastly underutilized tool, reflected Prusias. He studied its effect as his blue, feline eyes drifted past his chamberlain to the Workshop delegation: eight humans with drab gray uniforms and a tendency to drone. Babbling how the watch is made when I just want to know the time.

The demon’s gaze settled on an engineer with a long, aristocratic face. The man’s fear poured forth in intoxicating waves. “I’ve met you before,” said Prusias, his voice a gruff, drowsy baritone. “Your specialty is genetics, is it not, Dr. Wyle?” The poor fool nearly curtsied. “And why has the Workshop sent me a geneticist?” Prusias wondered. “I need weapons of war, not perfect babies.”

“Of course, your Grace. But many of the weapons and machines have biological components and—”

Dr. Wyle fell silent as the king’s expression darkened. Rising from his throne, Prusias leaned upon a golden cane and bulled down the dais steps.

Even in this crippled human form, the demon was an imposing figure, towering and broad with a plaited beard and twisting thickets of coarse black hair. As he loomed above the scientists, Blys’s Grand Inquisitor turned from her work and set down her instruments.

“The dreadnoughts had biological components,” Prusias growled. “They had flesh and eyes and tiny imp brains tangled up in all that machinery. And do you know what Rowan did with my beautiful dreadnoughts?”

The man cleared his throat. “They turned them against you, your majesty.”

“Correct, Dr. Wyle. Just when I was poised to conquer Rowan, your dreadnoughts trampled my army and forced me to make a humiliating retreat. ‘Biological components’ led to quite a reversal of fortune, Dr. Wyle — a reversal so dramatic that some of my braymas saw fit to rebel.”

Taking the man by the shoulders, the King of Blys turned him about so he could get an unobstructed of the far alcove. When the scientist glimpsed the Grand Inquisitor and the figures splayed behind her, he nearly fainted. Prusias steadied him as though they were bosom friends at the end of a carouse.

“One table’s still empty,” the demon whispered. “Look hard at that table and explain why the Workshop’s still putting ‘biological components’ in my toys.”

Gasping, the man struggled to find his voice. “W-with infinite respect, your Majesty, Rowan did not exploit a biological weakness, but a spiritual one. Our analysts believe Rowan’s sorcerer was able to possess the dreadnought imps because their spirits had been severed to enable the summoning capabilities. When these halves were reunited, the souls they formed were imperfect and vulnerable to a sorcerer of David Menlo’s abilities.”

“And why didn’t you anticipate this?”

“Forgive me, but this is hardly our area of expertise. The Workshop merely engineered the weapon’s mechanical and biological components. Your magicians were responsible for the imps. The mechanical and biological components performed perfectly. If your Majesty wishes, I would be happy to explain their basic functions.”

The demon glanced sharply at him. Was this insect making game of him? No…his fear was too ripe, too present. Still, Prusias drummed his fingers lightly on Dr. Wyle’s shoulder. “It isn’t wise to patronize me.” The scientist began to hyperventilate. With a roll of his eyes, Prusias gestured for his chamberlain. “Mr. Bonn, have chairs and refreshments brought for our guests. They look tired and I fear I’ve been too hard on our poor geneticist. I should like to hear more from Dr. Wyle.”

The malakhim brought all that was required, silent and anonymous in their black robes and obsidian masks. While the engineers briefed him on various projects, Prusias enjoyed Bordeaux from a cup that had once belonged to Napoleon’s. Glancing at its seal, the demon reminisced on the emperor and how he’d begged for aid at Austerlitz. What would that crafty little Corsican make of my situation? But alas, Prusias had him poisoned centuries ago. The man should have honored his debts.

Wiping his beard, the King of Blys took up an orthographic drawing and studied it by candlelight. “What the bloody hell is this supposed to be?”

“Your navy, your Majesty,” answered the recovering Dr. Wyle.

“I already have a navy.”

“Of course,” said the engineer delicately. “But your fleets were somewhat depleted with the attack on Rowan and you’ve — I mean we’ve — lost more ships recently off the Isle of Man.”

“Don’t speak of that. More are building.”

“But that will take months,” said Dr. Wyle. “Meanwhile Rowan’s forces are about to sail for these shores. Over three hundred ships and a sizable army.”

“A ‘sizable army’,” chuckled the king. “Let them come! I can spare ten soldiers for every one of theirs. No, they’ve had their stroke of luck. My own braymas pose a greater threat than little Rowan.”

“Unfortunately, Rowan is actively building a coalition,” said Dr. Hayden, the Workshop’s Intelligence liaison. “Their operatives are making inroads with braymas of dubious loyalty. While Rowan’s strength is not limited to its armada, its fortunes depend upon it. If this fleet were destroyed or significantly weakened, no one will entertain Rowan’s overtures. They would have to abandon this war while your enemies would remain isolated and scattered.”

Prusias glanced again at the drawing, studying the ungainly shapes and contours. “And how is this going to destroy Rowan’s fleet? It looks puny.”

“It’s not,” said Dr. Wyle. “This model is based on a modified Humboldt strain whose elements we used to great effect in the dreadnought. And, of course, other species are present.”

Prusias squinted. “In some ways it resembles your gargoyles.”

Dr. Wyle nodded. “It’s the eyes. They’re unmistakable.”

Prusias tossed the drawing with the rest. “Rot its eyes. I’m concerned about its brain. What’s controlling it? And don’t tell me it’s a bloody imp!”

“Never again, your Majesty,” Dr. Wyle assured him. “These utilize an artificial intelligence similar to the one we employ in the pinlegs and the gargoyles. Rowan cannot possess them because there is nothing to possess. But perhaps the king would like to see a demonstration.”

Taking the small filmscreen, Prusias watched a clip of the creature overtaking and devouring a whale. He gave an approving grunt. “How many do you have?”

“Three prototypes at present,” replied the geneticist. “However, should his majesty provide the necessary resources, we can initiate mass production. Even accounting for cannibalism, the accelerant tanks can produce dozens before Rowan reaches the Strait.”

Prusias chuckled. “What do you think, Mr. Bonn? Shall we loose these horrors upon Rowan’s little fleet?”

The imp cleared his throat. “A second navy sounds most appealing, your Majesty. It also sounds expensive. My king is already heavily committed. This evening’s festivities alone shall cost—”

Prusias cut him short. “Why on earth did I ask you?” he grumbled. “Of course you’d fret over pennies. You never think big, Mr. Bonn —that’s why you’re still an imp.”

Mr. Bonn weathered the jibe with a bow, as he always did. Prusias wondered why he bothered with him. Mr. Bonn was a peculiar imp, hated bloodshed and the arena games. Would rather read a book than attend his lord’s parties. For god’s sake – he couldn’t even take another shape! There were no spiders or bats, mice or moths in Mr. Bonn’s bag of tricks. The imp was rather pathetic, and yet, whenever the king was tempted to devour him or release him from service, he found that he could not. You’re too sentimental, Prusias. It will be your undoing.

Still, it could not be denied that Workshop’s accelerant tanks were horrifically expensive. Nature could be bent and bullied, but not cheated. Accelerating the dreadnoughts’ growth had required vast quantities of food and rare minerals, enough to make a sizable dent in the kingdom’s stores and coffers. Blys would feel this new investment; she would feel it deep down in her gut. Many slaves would starve, but Prusias consoled himself that new wars brought new slaves.

Snatching up the authorization papers, he affixed his seal in plum-colored wax. “Make my monsters, Dr. Wyle. I expect great things. What else do you have?”

The Workshop had a great deal. Reams of figures and charts and gobbledygook that left the king eyeing the clock like an impatient schoolboy. An hour remained until his next meeting — the meeting that really mattered. Growing restless, he seized a round of sample ammunition and turned it over in his hands.

The twit blathering about frictionless masonry ceased his droning. “Did you have a question, your Grace?”

“This casing,” Prusias observed. “It reminds me of my Hotchkiss gun at San Juan Hill.”

The man blinked. “I didn’t realize you’d fought in the Spanish-American war.”

Prusias grinned. These days, few humans remembered anything before Astaroth acquired the Book of Thoth. Those that did always seemed stunned — even chagrined — by the fact that other beings had experienced much more of ‘their’ history than they had. Prusias found these little epiphanies charming. Humans were like infants in a nursery: they thought world began when they opened their eyes and ceased to be when they closed them.

He chuckled complacently. “Oh, I’ve fought in almost all the wars, Dr. Carlisle. Humans have always called upon me for help with their little squabbles. I’ve pillaged with Cossacks, marched with Crusaders, and fanned the very flames of Dresden. Fought in more wars than I can recall, but I’ve fond memories of the Hotchkiss. Always liked its kick.”

He rolled the casing across to table to Dr. Carlisle and pushed up from his chair. The engineers stood. “You’ve done well,” said Prusias, finishing the wine. “Tonight you’ll be my special guests at the party this evening. I daresay you’ll find it interesting. Mr. Bonn will see to your accommodations. My tailors will see that you have something to wear. Lord knows we can’t have you showing up in that.” The demon gestured at their bland gray suits with a disbelieving sigh.

Once the technologists had departed, Mr. Bonn saw that his lord intended to do the same and cleared his throat in his habitual “Surely-your-Majesty-is-forgetting…” manner that Prusias found so tiresome.

“My king, braymas from the eastern duchies are begging an audience to discuss Yuga. She is moving once again and devouring their lands and subjects.”

“I know what Yuga is doing Mr. Bonn,” replied Prusias. What else would Yuga be doing? All she did was drift and feed. By now the demoness was the size of a moderate kingdom, a gargantuan black storm whose tendrils probed for prey like blind, hungry leeches.

“But my lord, she is—”

“Guarding my flank, Mr. Bonn. What enemy would dare approach from the north or east when she is near?”

“But your Majesty, if we do nothing, she could drift over the mountains. She could even threaten—”

“Let me worry about Yuga,” snapped Prusias, ending the matter. “Look after our Workshop friends and make my apologies to the braymas. They’re all invited to the party. They can pester me then. For now, I have another appointment.”

The imp anxiously consulted his scroll. “There’s nothing on my schedule.”

The king quickly checked his bandages. “I’m well aware of that, Mr. Bonn. Not all of my doings are on your accursed schedule. I’ll see you in my chambers at eight. Lay out something modern.”

“Surely, his Majesty isn’t going alone,” said the imp anxiously. “We do not yet know the full extent of the conspiracy.” He glanced at the alcove where the Grand Inquisitor was reviving her subjects for their next round of questioning.

Prusias’s laugh boomed in the vast hall. “I’m sure assassins would flee before you! But don’t worry. I care not if my enemies come by land, sea, or shadow. There’s nothing finer than a fight before a party, Mr. Bonn. It’s a conversation starter.”

Leaning on his cane, Prusias chuckled and made for the exit nearest the alcove. Nodding to the Grand Inquisitor, he paused to glance at Lord Razael, who seemed to be coming to. The earl’s garments had been cut away and he blinked in hazy confusion at his exposed midsection. When the traitor’s eyes finally fell upon his captors, they shot wide with awareness. Straining frantically, the oni fought and flailed against his magicked bindings. When this proved futile, he tried to speak but only strained the stitches of his Glasgow smile.

“Shhh,” said Prusias, patting his arm. “Save your strength, Razael. I’m not hearing confessions today. If you’re lucky, you can announce your guilt tomorrow. Or next week. There’s really no hurry, so lie back and relax, old friend. I’ll have a dessert sent from the feast.”

As he departed, Prusias glanced back at the Grand Inquisitor, poised and trembling, her arms bent at peculiar angles like some gargantuan praying mantis. She was one of his prized assets — a faceless nightmare bred to terrify those who were not easily frightened. Whenever Prusias wanted Razael to talk, he would talk. Andras, Yva, Kazhyk, Grazznu…they would all talk, beg forgiveness, and pray for a quiet end to their existence.

It was a shame about Razael. Prusias had known him for many centuries and he was always good company, if a tad fawning. His greatest gift had not been his wealth or even his talents at verse; it had been knowing his limitations. Razael never objected when other, more powerful demons thrust him aside or fed at his trough. It was how he’d persevered for so long, trailing the lions like a hyena hoping for scraps. You should have stayed patient, Razael. Injured lions can still bite. So can a Great Red Dragon.

Razael and the others were not alone in thinking him finished. Sprinkled among the many rumors were some unpleasant facts: Prusias’s invasion had been repelled and a child had shattered his crowns and him fleeing across the sea. Some naturally took these incidents as a sign of the king’s weakness. Others concluded that the girl — and therefore Rowan — was invincible. But they were mistaken. Prusias was not weak and Rowan, much less the child, was far from invincible.

As he descended a series of dim stairwells, Prusias recalled when the girl appeared and the instant he’d recognized what she might be. The revelation had shocked him into vulnerability, but it would not occur again. In any case, Prusias was confident that she would not be joining the assault on his kingdom.

She would remain behind — a defender, a protector of those who had not marched off to war. That was her way. That had always been the way of her kind. Yes, the girl was strong, but not invincible. Nothing was invincible. Prusias had abandoned such notions when Astaroth was humbled on Walpurgisnacht.

Prusias had not have believed such a thing was possible. He’d always respected strength, and Astaroth had been strong. It was Astaroth who toppled mankind’s governments, claimed the Book of Thoth, and refashioned the world. And as Astaroth rose to preeminence, Prusias had served him and took pride in his master’s might and wisdom. The “Great God” Astaroth had called himself and Prusias had believed — believed with a fervor that now shamed him.

Since Walpurgisnacht, Astaroth had retreated into disgraced obscurity. But Prusias would not slink off; he would not fade away into irrelevance. He would regroup. He would win. And he would remember Astaroth’s invaluable lesson: everything had its weakness — even the “Great God”. Demigods, too!

The room Prusias had chosen for the meeting was small and out of the way, an afterthought in such an immense palace. Servants rarely visited this hallway and they never entered the last room on the left. Curiosity could be fatal in Blys and its servants knew better than to wonder why a particular door would not open.

Prusias did not enter from the hallway, but from a secret passage that ran deep beneath the packed and raucous Arena. Slipping inside, he shut the door and settled into an armchair. The windowless, lead-lined room was as quiet as a tomb. But it was not inhospitable; it boasted a small library and a marble fireplace with a Caravaggio glistening above it. The painting was not one of the artist’s better-known works — too scandalous — but Prusias had always enjoyed it. It had been commissioned by a prominent Medici and cherished at his private retreat. Prusias could not recall why the man had summoned him, only that he’d wept when parted from his painting.

A knock interrupted Prusias from these thoughts. Glancing at the door, he gave a lazy wave with his cane and the heavy bolt slid aside. Three hooded figures stood in the hallway. Prusias glowered at the smaller one in the center. “I wasn’t expecting you.”

The handler gave a deep bow before peering cautiously within. “And I wasn’t expecting a king, much less a king alone. I’d expected one of your lackeys.”

“You are one of my lackeys. Get in and shut the door.”

As they entered, the king studied the handler. This one was always changing; he was hardly recognizable from the last time Prusias had seen him. His skin was almost indigo and covered with runes from recent skinscrolling. The eyes had an impish glow and cast nervously about, never settling for long. Even his aura was inconstant, its contours wavering and uncertain. Poor fool doesn’t know what he is or isn’t.

“I asked to see them,” said Prusias. “Why are you here?”

The handler shrugged. “The Atropos understood you wished to negotiate a contract. These two don’t enter names into the Grey Book. That is my privilege.”

“At my command,” Prusias growled.

“At the command of any with the means to hire us, your Majesty. Wise Prusias may have revived our order, but the Fates play no favorites. To invoke their wrath, one must follow the protocols and make proper tribute. Does his Majesty have proper tribute?”

“I have something far more interesting.”

“We’re intrigued,” said the handler. He sat cross-legged upon the rug, upright and attentive. The assassins remained where they stood, staring impassively at the king. Their expressions were not inquisitive or hostile — not even blank like those in the king’s opium dens. They were absent and present, careless and calculating. Unlike the handler, the assassins had no auras. They might have been two black holes hovering before his Caravaggio. That they were unarmed seemed of little comfort; their combined presence triggered profound unease. Prusias had never been so close to both at once. He resolved never to do so again.

“I want them to murder someone,” he stated simply.

“Naturally,” replied the handler. “But they already have a target. The Fates require his death first.”

“That job will soon be finished.” A fiendish light flickered in those pale yellow eyes.

“This is news to me, your Majesty.” The handler turned to his companions. “Have you failed to report something?”

Glancing down, the handsome one shook his head. The assassin’s contempt was so palpable Prusias wondered how the handler dared to turn his back. He clearly enjoyed some sort of hold or protection, but Prusias would not have trusted such measures. There was a dangerous unpredictability to these two; one could never quite guess the full extent of their capabilities. It came with their lineage. If you cage a tiger, best know how high he leaps.

Prusias reached for a crystal decanter. “Max McDaniels should already be dead,” he rumbled. “These two caught him near Bholevna and that Agent did the same at Rowan. Even when we cut his throat, he escapes to fight another day.”

“It is a difficult task,” the handler conceded.

Prusias nosed his whiskey. “Without proper tools, it’s an impossible task. I see that now. I’ve witnessed it on the battlefield. It’s why Astaroth always held an interest in the lad.”

“He is a formidable, but he’s still just a boy.”

“He is a god,” snapped Prusias, his anger flaring. “His line is older than Bram’s, his blood purer than Menlo’s. His sire conquered the damn Fomorians! When he was younger perhaps our attempts would have succeeded, but not anymore. The Hound has come into his heritage. No mortal weapon will slay him.”

The handler’s smirk evaporated. “What does the king suggest?”

Easing back, Prusias took a slow sip of his whiskey. “The cleanest solution would be to trick him into violating his geis. Should the Hound break it, he’d be mortal as a mayfly.”

The handler sighed. “The Atropos have searched and scried, but the Hound’s geis are as secret as his truename. We don’t believe he even knows what they are.”

Prusias had expected this. “Then the job requires better tools. It requires a weapon capable of slaying immortals.”

The handler raised an eyebrow. “I know of only one, your Majesty. And our target carries it.”

The king grimaced. “Not that wretched thing.”

Prusias had evaded the gae bolga’s true bite, but he had certainly felt its sting. In the heat of battle, he’d thought the blows trifling — mere scratches compared to others he’d suffered throughout the ages. But the wounds were accursed. Two years later, they still festered and seeped through dressings that were perpetually renewed. Prusias hated the blade as much as he hated the Hound.

“There are other options,” he said. “Precious few, but they do exist. And my servants have acquired one….”

The smaller assassin cocked his head. It was the first flicker of interest he’d shown in the meeting. You’d never suspect they were twins, thought Prusias. This one doesn’t even look human. Indeed, those dark eyes had a chillingly feral quality. They might have belonged to an animal, one of man’s gaunt and starving forebears.

The handler glanced eagerly about the room. “Is the weapon here?”

“Of course not. I won’t permit it near my person. But when we’ve finished, a carriage will take you to a temple beyond the city walls. It awaits you there….”

His audience listened closely as Prusias explained the relic’s uses and limitations. It was an ancient object, chipped and brittle from eons spent in Nile mud. A hard blow might shatter it; sunlight would unravel its unholy essence. But if kept in the dark, if used as intended…. The assassins understood. Whether the handler did was not important, but at least he had the decency to bow.

“Once a name has been entered into the Grey Book, that life is immediately forfeit,” he intoned. “The Hound’s existence is an affront to the Fates themselves. Atropos thanks you for your gift.”

“It’s not a gift,” Prusias growled. “I have another job for these two.”

“Who else has affronted the Fates?”

“She has,” Prusias snarled. “Rowan’s new Ascendant.”

“The Grey Book requires a name, your Majesty.”

“Mina. Although I can think of others less pretty.”

“Mina will do,” said the handler. “Of course, a new contract will require new payment.”

“The weapon is your payment.”

The handler pursed his lips. “Forgive me, your Majesty, but as you said yourself the weapon is just a tool. It cannot hire ships, bribe informants, or make tribute to the Fates. Powerful enemies are an expensive luxury. If the king doesn’t wish to pay our order’s fees, there are many others he can consult.”

“I already have,” Prusias grumbled. With a discontented grunt, he removed a heavy ring and tossed it to the handler. “A down payment. I still have a war to fight.”

Hefting the ring, the handler appraised its magnificent stone. The ruby was wider than his thumbnail. “This will suffice. For now.”

Prusias rose. “Then our business is concluded. Your carriage will be waiting.” “At the front door, your Majesty?”

“Servant’s entrance.”

It was nearly eight o’clock when Prusias arrived at his private chambers, a suite of room whose opulence trumped Versailles. Mr. Bonn was already present, standing dutifully by an array of outfits he’d laid out upon the massive bed.

“Good evening, your Majesty. I trust one of these will serve? Personally, I think your guests will find the turquoise dashing.” The imp gestured to a bright blue jacket embroidered with gold lace.

Prusias frowned. “They’d think I was a waiter.” Setting down his cane, he stood and considered the alternatives. His frown deepened. “Really, Mr. Bonn, this will not do. I said modern. What’s modern about all these waistcoats and buckles? Silk breeches? I’m surprised there isn’t a powdered wig.”

The imp nudged a round box beneath the bed.

Checking his temper, Prusias spoke in a profoundly measured voice. “Tonight’s party is important, Mr. Bonn. It is the first official function since my recent setbacks. I cannot — I will not — make my entrance looking like someone’s great-aunt. Do you understand me?”

“I believe so, your Majesty.” Snatching up the offending garments, the imp hurried out, returning minutes later with a suit whose midnight hues seemed to shift and deepen as it caught the lamplight. Slipping on the jacket, Prusias looked in the mirror to admire its cut. “Who made this?” he asked.


“Double his pay.”

“I can’t. Your Majesty had him executed.”

“Pity,” Prusias muttered, turning to assess the drape. “He had talent. But at least he was good enough to give us this before he died. This is just what I had in mind, Mr. Bonn. It seems you’re not entirely incompetent.”

“I’m relieved to hear it.”

Prusias glanced down at his miniscule servant. “Is something troubling you?” he inquired, half-amused.

“Of course not,” sniffed Mr. Bonn. “Why would I be troubled that I don’t enjoy my lord’s trust or confidence? That would be a sizable problem and I’m incapable of big thoughts. Apparently that’s why I’m still an imp.”

Prusias sighed and sorted through a mound of cufflinks. “Am I to endure a snit every time I make a joke or exclude you from a meeting?”

“You never used to exclude me.”

“I wasn’t always a king,” retorted Prusias, selecting some diamond studs. “Kings have grave responsibilities, particularly in wartime. To win an empire, one must do great and terrible things. If I exclude you from certain meetings, it’s to spare you from matters I know you’d find upsetting. Don’t be too insulted, eh? We’re moving up in the world.”

“You’re moving up in the world,” observed Mr. Bonn stiffly. “I remain an imp.”

Prusias chuckled. “Is that what this is really about? Achieving koukerros? Why, Mr. Sikes is still an imp and he’s served Astaroth far longer than you’ve served me.”

“With respect, Mr. Sikes is neither here nor there. My master has made promises.”

The king’s smile faded. He turned back to the mirror. “You should be grateful I haven’t granted you koukerros,” he muttered. “You’re too tenderhearted to become a daemon true. By remaining my imp, you remain under my protection. Don’t undervalue that, Mr. Bonn.”

“You may be right,” conceded the imp. “But I should like to have the choice.”

“And you shall, my fine fellow, you shall. But I won’t weaken myself by granting koukerros during a war. It demands too much energy and I must harbor all I have.”

Mr. Bonn nodded. “When the war is finished then. I have your word.”

“Once the war is finished,” Prusias assured him. “Now, if you’re done pestering me, perhaps I can get ready.”

When he had smoothed the final bandage, Prusias walked out on his balcony to gaze upon his capital. He had never seen it look more beautiful, nestled in its ring of mountains, every district alive with lights and music. Midsummer was a festive occasion for all within Blys; one didn’t need a royal invitation to celebrate. Smoke from thousands of fires was curling lazily into the night and its aroma was mingling with the jasmine and lilies of his gardens.

Not all the fires were decorative or celebratory, however. The weavers’ district was ablaze, thousands of residents rioting for better wages or food or whatever. Look at those beautiful colors, he thought, as incandescent flames swallowed a warehouse. Prusias inhaled, the burning scents whetting his appetite as his gaze traveled to the city’s towers and battlements. Here and there, Workshop gargoyles interrupted their gleaming white perfection. As he watched, one of the creatures suddenly scuttled in a crablike motion to new perch where it settled and recalibrated its weapons. Its guns would soon be trained on the city slums, or its gates, or even the bridges that spanned the ancient Tiber far below.

Many carriages were on those bridges. From these heights, Prusias could only make out their lanterns — hundreds of tiny lights creeping along in single file as they entered or left his splendid capital. The possibilities they represented held the demon spellbound. Some carried friends, some harbored foes, and one contained two fearsome assassins. Prusias wondered which of the carriages was theirs, or if they had already crossed the river and acquired that grisly artifact. The demon grinned.

Prepare yourself, Hound. They are coming for you.