Darkness in Tiber (Ebook)
Darkness in Tiber (Ebook)
Book 2 of The Soul Bound Saga
The emperor is dying.
Joran Den Cade and The Iron Princess, Alexandra Tiberius race to the capital before it’s too late.
But little do they realize just how big a threat is waiting. The cult of The One True God is lurking in every shadow and they only want one thing, the destruction of the Tiberian Empire.
Can Joran, his soulmate Mia, and the indomitable Iron Princess defeat this newest threat or will the empire fall to the Darkness in Tiber?
Joran Den Cade sat beside Mia on the passenger couch on the bridge of an imperial dragon ship. The massive flying ship hung beneath an even bigger balloon filled with a lighter-than-air alchemical gas. A bridge crew of four oversaw the ship’s operation. The captain and another fellow he’d come to think of as the assistant captain shouted orders to the rest of the crew via speaking tubes that jutted up through the floor. A stern woman that served as the ship’s navigator sat at a bolted-down desk covered with maps and other cartography supplies. And finally a spotter stood looking down through an ultra-hard glass viewport that pointed straight down.
Today the crew all looked especially nervous. The cause of their nervousness being the pacing figure of the Iron Princess, Alexandra Tiberius. Her sandals slapped against the hull as she made her next pass, a deep frown creasing her lovely features. Though only a few years older than Joran, Alexandra commanded the entire imperial army. No one would have guessed the mind of a tactical genius resided in such a beautiful woman. That was just one of her many advantages.
Only Joran and his soulmate, Mia, knew the reason for her agitation. After finally bringing peace to the restive province of Stello, a messenger had arrived from the capital to tell her that her father, the emperor, lay dying. This seemed impossible to Joran as the emperor had access to the finest healers and alchemists in the empire. Nothing save old age or sudden violence should have ended his rule and at barely over fifty, Marcus Tiberius still had many years left.
It was a mystery, one of many the Iron Princess, and by extension her personal advisor, Joran, had to solve.
“Tiber City is in sight,” the assistant captain said.
Joran blew out a breath. Home at last. He’d worried that Alexandra’s endless pacing would wear a hole in the deck. At least the ship hadn’t exploded partway back, unlike her trip out from the capital.
“I’ve never seen her this anxious,” Mia whispered in his ear.
Joran reached over and squeezed Mia’s hand. Warmth and trust flowed through the soul bond that connected them. They shared a soul and no more powerful bond existed. Joran would do anything for Mia and she would do anything for him.
Though not classically beautiful like the princess, his soulmate had the lean, strong figure of a warrior along with the dark hair and bronze skin of an imperial. She’d also believed for a time that she loved Alexandra. And though she’d had that fantasy shattered, Joran knew Mia still lusted after the princess. No doubt along with many others that wanted either her power or body or, most likely, both. For his part, Joran wanted only a return to his peaceful life of research.
Not that he saw any path for that wish coming true. And even if he did, given the current state of the empire, he had an obligation as an imperial nobleman to do everything possible to help set things right.
Alexandra stalked up to the viewing window. “Finally! I thought we’d never get here.”
Joran considered trying to reassure her, but doubted anything he might say would help. When your father lay dying, even well-intentioned words sounded trite. Still, if she wished, he would do his best as a master healer to try and help the emperor. Though what he could do that the palace healers couldn’t, Joran had no clue.
Soon enough the sprawling city of Tiber filled the viewing window to such an extent that Joran saw it even from his position. The walled city consisted of three concentric circles. The outermost and largest housed the bulk of the city’s population as well as the many markets and businesses. Craftsmen, modestly successful merchants, and lesser nobles lived in the second circle. And in the final circle sat the imperial palace along with the homes of the richest and most powerful families as well as the imperial college and the First Church of The One God.
Joran’s home, Den Cade Manor, took up an above-average chunk of that neighborhood. Had he wished it, Joran likely could have seen it from the ship. He did not at all wish to see it. He preferred to pretend they weren’t several thousand feet in the air.
The dragon ship began to descend and Alexandra stalked toward the rear of the bridge where the exit waited. Joran and Mia fell in behind her followed by her personal protectors, the Iron Guard.
“After I speak to my brother, you will check on Father,” Alexandra said in a tone that brooked no argument.
“As you wish, Majesty,” Joran said. “I won’t be stepping on any toes, will I?”
“I don’t care if you break every foot in the palace. I trust no one else to tell me what’s really going on with my father. After everything that’s happened, you’re the only one I have complete faith in.”
Joran kept his expression carefully neutral. He had great confidence in his abilities, but Joran was still only twenty-two. Many alchemists with vastly greater experience would no doubt consider his elevation to Alexandra’s personal advisor ill-considered at best and absolute stupidity at worst. He knew plenty of the people that would voice those opinions. They were the same people that said he didn’t deserve to be made a grandmaster despite fulfilling all the requirements.
He’d just have to show them all how wrong they were.
They reached the lowest level of the dragon ship and a moment later a slight lurch indicated that they’d landed. As the boarding ramp lowered, the messenger that brought the news about the emperor’s condition came rushing to join them. To his visible annoyance, Alexandra led the way down.
Joran took a deep breath and smiled. No exotic perfume filled the air and the blistering heat had vanished. Summer would soon be gone and real autumn would arrive. Even under the circumstances, his pleasure at being home nearly overwhelmed him.
“This is the happiest you’ve been since we met,” Mia said.
“It’s as much relief as happiness, but yes, I’m glad to be home.”
Having grown up basically in the shadow of the palace, the sight of it didn’t overawe him the way it might some. The airfield covered a large section of the eastern quarter of the palace grounds. In addition to their dragon ship, two more floated a little ways away. One had the imperial eagle painted on the side of the balloon. It looked nearly as big as the serpent he’d helped kill.
The palace itself loomed in the distance. It sprawled over a hundred acres with wings, gardens, connecting walkways, and everything else imaginable. He’d never actually visited the place, but Mother said she did once years ago. She considered it a highlight of her life.
Alexandra had no interest in any of the sights. She made straight for the waiting carriage, a crimson and gold monstrosity pulled by four white horses. A footman in matching livery hastened to open the door for her.
“Where’s my brother?” Alexandra asked.
“His Imperial Highness is with your father. Word has already been sent to the palace. I’m sure you’ll wish to clean up and change.”
Alexandra looked like she’d enjoy little more than strangling the snooty little man, but she only nodded and climbed aboard. Joran and Mia joined her, drawing disapproving looks from the footman.
When they’d settled in a whip cracked and the carriage lurched into motion.
“He seemed a bit full of himself for a servant,” Joran said.
“Oh, they’re all like that,” Alexandra said. “The palace runs on a mix of arrogance and formality. The One God forbid a member of the family doesn’t wear the right outfit or say the right thing. That’s why I prefer being in the field with the army. Marcus seems to thrive on it, bless him.”
“Where does that leave us, Majesty?” Mia asked.
“As my advisor, Joran will stay in my suite and go where I go. As his bodyguard, you will stay with him. You’ll need new robes and I assume you have your amulet.”
Joran pulled the platinum amulet out of his tunic and let it rest on his chest.
“Good. Mia, you can wear your uniform. As a commoner, no one expects you to dress like a noble.” Alexandra didn’t say it like an insult, but Joran felt Mia’s internal wince all the same.
He glanced out the window at the groundskeepers fussing with flower beds and topiary. They might have been slaves or servants. Joran couldn’t tell for sure at this distance.
At last they stopped in front of the palace. Not at the main entrance as he expected, but in front of one of the smaller doors. The snooty footman opened the carriage door for them again and Alexandra crunched her way across the white gravel to the door. She raised an eyebrow at the footman, who hastened to open that one as well. He remained outside, closing the door behind Mia.
A short, whitewashed hall led to a sitting room bigger than the entire suite they’d used in Cularo. Five beautiful female servants in white tunics that left their legs bare from midthigh down stood silently along the wall. They might have been related to the Cularo servants with their dark hair and bronze skin.
When Alexandra entered the room, they hurried forward and bowed. “Welcome home, Majesty,” they said in unison.
“I have a meeting with my brother soon. Prepare a bath.” Alexandra pointed at Joran and Mia. “This is my personal advisor, Joran Den Cade. He and his soulmate will be staying in the guest quarters. Consider an order from him, an order from me. Joran, do whatever you need to before the examination. You’ll begin as soon as Marcus and I finish talking.”
Joran bowed. “As you command, Majesty.”
Alexandra strode off with four of the servants fluttering along behind her. The fifth led Joran to a suite of rooms big enough to comfortably house a family of six. He eyed the big feather bed but didn’t dare get too comfortable. He contented himself with setting his kit beside one of the overstuffed leather chairs and sitting.
“Would you care for refreshment, my lord?” the servant asked.
“I could eat. Mia?”
“Me too.” She dropped into a second chair across a coffee table from him.
“Whatever you have handy would be wonderful, along with wine,” Joran said.
The servant bobbed a curtsy and hurried out.
“You feel tense,” Mia said. “What happened to relief at being home?”
“Oh, I’m still relieved. It’s just that soon the next battle begins and this is one I’m not sure you can fight for me.”
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