--Liviu Suciul, former co-editor of Fantasy Book Critic, 2019
“Are you all right, Lord Raymond?” The young man stared at the gray-haired lord minister until he looked up, blinking. “You look pale, sir. Perhaps you’re not well enough to travel?”
“I’m fine, Gerold. Besides, no one else can broker the peace.”
Gerold shook his head. “If only the Almerians would be more flexible in their demands. They’ve held territory in Pemonia for far too long.”
“Many wars have failed to dislodge them,” Lord Raymond answered. “But we have a chance to keep the Empire Alliance alive to stave off another war. If the king is still prepared to follow through, that is.”
“He is, my lord, I assure you. King Erech doesn’t want to see the Empire Alliance fall. Now that you have his letter in hand, you can travel back to Eglamour confident that he will support your plan to—”
“Surely you don’t mean for me to travel back at this moment?” Raymond squinted at him.
Gerold knew the old man thought him too inexperienced to be a royal courier. “Yes, lord minister,” he said. “If we leave tonight we’ll be in Eglamour in two days. The Almerian ambassador is already th—”
“You brought no guards, Gerold!”
“My lord, I have two soldiers, and the armored carriage is—”
“Do you realize how many crowned heads would like to see my effort fail, Gerold? To say nothing of the surge in banditry. Yet you presume to take me at night without a guard force?”
“Silence! If the king didn’t bother to send a proper escort to bring me to the capital then his heart is not in this. Just like all his other ill-conceived policies. Summons or no summons, I’ll not expose myself on the road. I’ll not risk my life to save an alliance no one wants.”
“Many want it, my lord,” Gerold said, his words straining for truth. “I’ve stood in King Erech’s court and heard many nobles voice support for the Empire Alliance.”
“That’s not what I’ve heard…”
“If only you’d come, lord minister. Then you’d see.”
“I had little faith left in this king, Gerold. And the last of it was just washed away by his light regard for my safety. He’s the weakest king to sit on the throne of Donovan since Armagnon the Pocked. You are dismissed.”
“You may tell the king that, like the other lord ministers, I will fall in line behind whatever policy he chooses regarding the alliance. If he wants a war, so be it. But I’ll not be killed for…”
Gerold noticed Raymond glance toward the door. As Gerold turned to look himself, he heard a faint swish. The candle between the two men flickered, and a shadow moved across the doorway.
Gerold was startled by what he heard next. Raymond was gurgling as blood surged out of his mouth. The lord minister clutched his neck, dark red oozing around his fingers. Gerold tumbled off his chair and drew his sword, but there was no one else in the room. For a moment he caught an indistinct movement of something coming toward Raymond, like an insect or blown leaf.
Gerold turned back to Raymond, whose face was now veiled by black mist. The courier smelled soot and putridity. He stepped toward Raymond as the lord minister fell from his chair, his body limp.
The courier swiped wildly at the shadows in the room, deafened by the throb in his ears. He ran for the door and felt a soft touch on the back of his head. He caught another whiff of the rancid soot but kept moving. He vomited when he turned into the hallway, grasping for the walls as he staggered toward the exit.
But no guards or servants came. Gerold felt another touch at the base of his head, this time a little sting that blacked out his left eye. He glanced behind him, but the hallway was dark and empty. He struggled for the door, then pushed out into the courtyard.
“Help me!” he shouted toward his waiting carriage.
The two guards came down from the driver’s bench. One fell into the dirt, unmoving, as if struck by an invisible hand. The other cried out and bent to cradle his leg. Gerold found himself on the ground, too, his right eye suddenly blind as well.
“Who…Who are you?” he demanded as the remaining guard screamed.
“You have a message to deliver,” a calm, muffled voice said.
Gerold heard a short whipping sound, like a crossbow, and the screaming guard was silenced. He tried to control his shaking. “Y-yes…What m-message?”
“Tell them what happened,” said the muffled voice. “Your horses will lead you back.”
“You are a Donovard…
“I am an ancient flaming stone. Now go.”
Read more about the Earthpillar world, which has flavors of epic fantasy, historical fiction, and steampunk, at the website. Check out how all the books fit together in this Story Atlas: