Iron-shod boots struck sparks on the polished stone floor. Curtains were torn aside, serving girls fled, scattering wine goblets and brass platters heaped with sweetmeats in their panic. The armoured Ogre at the front cut a brisk pace. Here and there, Orc soldiers of the palace guard made half-hearted attempts to form ranks, unsure whether they should hail or detain the delegation, but the Ogre´s purposeful stride, the smoldering rage on his face and the bronze lion´s head on his chest – badge of his rank as an Imperial envoy – gave them pause for a heartbeat too long. They were brushed aside, and the assault warriors and Ogre guards continued past them without a second glance.
Two Ogres double-paced forward and threw open the great bronze doors to the throne room. There was a resounding clash as they hit the wall-rests. The surprised guardsmen inside the door tried to bar the way. Golgan Khan stepped through the archway, grabbed a soldier´s spear and carelessly yanked it aside. The Orc was sent flying and sprawled on the richly carpeted floor. His comrades backed away as more and more of Golgan´s retinue filed in. The Ogres grinned menacingly, hands on the hilts of their falchions.
On the richly carved gold-and-ivory seat, Khadin Rikash, lord of the city of Udayra, shrank back from the approaching Ogre. The Orc serving-girls who had caressed him fled like a covey of partridges, dropping their fans and veils. The goblet fell from the Khadin´s hand, shatttering on the throne´s armrest and soiling his embroidered silk robes with amber wine.
Growling, the Khadin´s two Troll bodyguards stepped forward, and Golgan grinned in anticipation, but Rikash had the good sense to hold them back with a gesture of his hand. He was recovering quickly. Briefly, very briefly, he considered violence. The eager glint in the Ogre guards´ eyes dared him to. He licked his lips. Came to a decision. And rose slightly in a courtly bow: „Greetings, honoured visitors. How may this humble city serve its Emperor?“
Golgan ignored him. His gaze swept the Orc and Goblin sycophants, who hugged the walls uneasily. And it was met evenly by a man in simple checkered robes. The Firstborn had stood his ground when all the other courtiers had shrunk back, standing out amongst the gaily coloured and bejeweled crowd like a steel rod in a golden hoard. This, then, was his enemy. He had broad shoulders, for a Firstborn, and a soldierly bearing. Golgan´s eyes took in the close-cropped iron-gray hair, the ostentatious simplicity of his dress, the blue-gray irises of his cat´s eyes – all Firstborn had eyes like that, unreadable and cold. They did not change their expression as the man bowed slightly to the Imperial ambassador. A low growl started deep in Golgan Khan´s chest.
He still did not so much as glance at the Ogre on the throne, who remained frozen in mid-bow, „This is how deep your treason runs, Rikash“, he said pensively. His voice was deep, melodious and soft, not at all congruent with the rage still burning in his red eyes. „You keep the counsel of a Firstborn, conspire with the slaves, if it serves your own designs. Bold secession from the Empire, that would be a plot that the Emperor – may he live a thousand years – could understand, maybe even admire.“ Rikash tried to speak, but Golgan continued indifferently: „But cowardly secession at the sufferance of the slaves? This is pathetic.“ His gaze was still locked with the Firstborn´s, who stared up at him calmly and unafraid, despite the huge Ogre´s armoured bulk towering over him.
„Ambassador Jorgen, you will leave our presence. At once!“, the Khadin shouted, but Golgan Khan held out an arm.
„I do not think so.“ The Firstborn had not moved anyway. „The One King´s lapdogs, abroad in the Empire of Nizar Bloodbound – may he live long. Turning Orc on Orc, Ogre on Ogre, brother against brother. By the black blood in my veins, it wounds me deeply that one of my race could stoop so low. What did you promise this maggot, Firstborn? The aid of an army? Thirty pieces of silver?“
Jorgen´s voice was dry and strong. „Maybe we did not need to offer anything at all. Khadin Rikash´s position on the Empire´s border is weak enough as it is. He sits on Udayra´s throne at the One King´s mercy, who may deign to send an army and raze this city to the ground at any time He pleases. It is in the Khadin´s own interest to keep a neighbourly neutrality.“ The man made a gesture, and hands on both sides flew to the hilts of falchions.
„Keep your hands where they are, Firstborn. You are courting death here“, the leader of the Ogre guard spat. Golgan snarled at him, a sudden vicious sound, and the Ogre flinched and bowed low.
„Do you know who I am, slave?“ Golgan asked softly. The Firstborn nodded.
„You are Golgan Khan, the Emperor´s hound.“
„Sniffing out treachery against the Blood Throne. I remove threats to Nizar Bloodbound´s reign. The Emperor honours me with His confidence in this regard. You are a threat, slave, and I will remove you.“
„I am here under flag of truce and claim the right of hospitality. If my presence here is distasteful to you, I will leave at once for Firstborn lands. To harm me is to incur the wrath of the One King – and retaliation by his army.“
There was a collective growl from the Blackbloods – both the Khadin´s men and Golgan´s – at the slave-man´s insolence. Rikash rose from his throne. With a florid gesture, he began, „Begone, then, and you shall be granted safe passage to the gates, in accord with –„
Without turning, Golgan Khan backhanded the Khadin´s face so hard that teeth broke under his knuckles. The Trolls leaped forward but checked, snarling, when an Ogre guard put his boot on Rikash´s neck and drew his falchion meaningfully.
None of the Khadin´s other soldiers had moved; an uneasy silence had fallen. Without glancing at them, Golgan knew their divided loyalty, felt their resolve waver. Behind every brow, thoughts raced. The Firstborn were a hated and despised enemy; the thought of one of their own conspiring with them filled every Blackblood with revulsion. He knew he had them where he wanted them. Deposing a lord was ever a dangerous game. Power flowed to those who took the initiative; and Golgan Khan felt the thrill of it in his veins. He could tell he was winning, had been ever since he first set foot in the palace. He just had to keep up the pressure and deliver the coup de grace.
„There will be no right of truce for you, slave. You will die on my falchion, and your head will grace a banner pole at the gates of this city. And as for the One King´s anger, I could not care less, and neither does my Emperor.“ There were nods from both sides at this display of Blackblood pride. The Firstborn did not show surprise or fear. He reached behind his back and drew from the folds of his cloak a long sword with a crenellated edge. The courtiers shrank back even farther as he swung it easily, once, twice, testing its bite against the stale air of the throne room. Confidently, he stepped forward.
Golgan Khan nodded. He slowly unbuckled his breastplate, and threw it carelessly across the room. He flexed the huge muscles in his bared torso menacingly, then spat on the floor – narrowly missing the sprawling Khadin – and drew his falchion. The weapon, unlike his rich state envoy´s finery, was plain and unadorned, the carved ivory hilt worn smooth with use, a killing tool. Everyone, palace guards, courtiers, Ogre soldiers, even the Trolls, leaned forward to watch the duel unfold. Blackbloods thrived on violence, and for a moment, the thrill of the impending fight had all hearts in the room beating as one. The world had turned very simple. Golgan had become the champion of Blackblood honour, Jorgen the embodiment of the hated conniving enemy. They circled with their blade tips touching.
„Do you hear them breathing?“ Golgan said harshly. „They all want to see your blood. Look at them, Firstborn. You delivered them into my hands. Your puppet is cast down, and no one will raise a finger to defend him. I thank you, sincerely, for that service.“ The pale face opposite him was creased with concentration, the lips moved silently. Golgan was not sure if the man had even registered the words.
The Firstborn lunged once, twice, narrowly missing the Ogre as the Khan took a step back. Then the sweep of the falchion forced the man to back up, and a second blow caught his sword and nearly ripped it from his hands. The Firstborn´s breath was getting uneven, and his recovery was far from graceful. Golgan Khan pressed home his advantage of strength and reach, slashing his broad blade savagely through the air in great figure eights. Then he inadvertently stepped on Rikash´s body, evoking an un-Ogreish squeal from the prostrate Khadin, and, feigning to stumble, threw up his falchion into a clumsy high guard position. The Firstborn was taken in. He put all his strength into a desperate lunge that pierced Golgan´s right flank with three feet of steel.
Before the ambassador could draw back the blade, Golgan grabbed his wrist. He grinned widely and pulled the slave-man closer. Black blood poured over his hand and his enemy´s, reminding every Orc, Goblin, Ogre and Troll in the room of their common trait. For a second, their eyes locked, and there was a strange detached expression on the Firstborn´s face that Golgan could not read at all. Then, all the soldiers cheering and pounding their shields as one, his falchion came flashing down at Jorgen´s neck in a whistling arc –
– Golgan´s gaze swept the Orc and Goblin sycophants, who hugged the walls uneasily. There was a rustle of silken robes, and he thought he heard a door slam. He tugged pensively at the ends of the coal-black moustache that hung down to his ornate breastplate, tickling the snarling bronze lion, and turned back to the Khadin.
„I am told, Rikash, that you keep an advisor from foreign lands“, this nicety was delivered with a sneer. „Let him show his face. Where do you keep him? In your bedchambers?“ There was chuckling from Golgan´s retinue, which he stifled with a stern glance.
„If you refer to Ambassador Jorgen, whom I deny asking for any counsel –„, the Khadin had recovered from his shock and started regaining his composure, „– he excused himself and left only a few heartbeats ago, Your Grace. He is of no consequence, anyway, just a trade representative –“
Golgan Khan shook his head to clear his thoughts, barely listening as the Ogre Khadin obsequiously prattled on. He had hazy memories of black blood, of serrated steel piercing brown skin (his own?), of feeling rage and triumph, but none of it had happened. His breastplate chafed and seemed inexplicably wrong, there was a fierce itch in his right side, and he felt vaguely cheated. He would have liked to confront the Firstborn worm directly, to smash him down and stain the city´s throne room with his thin red blood; and the traitorous Khadin´s as well, for good measure. Somehow, he felt he had lost the initiative, and that was something Golgan Khan was not used to.
He straightened his back, driving away those idle musings, and concentrated on the task at hand. There was work to do. He cut Rikash´s babble short with a gesture of his hand and nodded at his Ogre guard, who grimly nodded back and started advancing towards the terrified Khadin. The Troll bodyguards took a few steps forward and bellowed defiance, as the Ogres confidently drew their falchions. Every soldier in the room followed suit as the pent-up tension exploded into violence.
Outside the palace, swift hooves struck the soft turf as they carried the Firstborn ambassador and his retinue though the sultry summer night, far away from the city of Udayra. Chronomancer Jorgen did not look back. By this time in three days, the One King would know of Khadin Rikash´s fate, and change His plans accordingly.