Chapter One: The Anti-Hesper Alliance - Escape from the Capital
Kyron of Thronion, Minister of Interstate Infrastructure, was a man of many expressions. He would plainly show his discontent, when he felt wronged, and he would wear a genuine smile when he praised someone. People who liked him thought him an honest person who seemingly had nothing to hide. Those who disliked him for the very same reasons would badmouth him as a simpleton, while the more suspicious would call him a cunning fox who was acting the fool with great skill. Since his position was of fairly low importance and little reform was necessary in the empire’s infrastructure sector, his voice would rarely be heard outside of the protocol greetings and dismissal phrases during the morning assembly before the Emperor. This meant that nobody deemed him important enough to consider him an enemy.
None really touched upon the full truth behind Minister Kyron, however. He was an immensely ambitious person who had the most elaborate facade among the court officials, and those who thought they had seen through him had barely touched the tip of the iceberg that was his character. His father, Count Aniketos of Thronion, was of humble birth, who had worked hard to finally become a court official at the age of forty-two. Through exemplary performance, the now deceased Emperor Photion Ohm Zenter had granted him the fiefdom of Thronion six years after, when the line of the previous governors had died out. Kyron had taken the state exams to become a court official at roughly the same time when his father received the promotion, and had passed with flying colors. Thus, at the young age of twenty-three, he was given his father’s previous position, much to the resentment of older court officials who were still toiling away below his rank.
When Emperor Photion died and his second son, Eugeios Ohm Zenter came into power, Kyron kept a low profile and hid the fact that he opposed the extermination of the non-human races of Yggdra; rather than out of humanitarian reasons, he thought it was a waste of state resources and would hurt trade in materials humans were relying on other races to obtain. His presence in court grew so thin that he was practically forgotten for the entire reign of the Mad Emperor. When the young emperor Loukas Ohm Zenter ascended the throne, he was so far on the sidelines that even if he had plainly shown his thoughts on his face, nobody would have paid attention to it. At that time, he was rejoicing inside, as he saw an opportunity to rise in the ranks at court.
However, when the rebellion of Marquis Galeno of Rhamnus drew closer to the imperial capital, the court panicked. Following the lead of Arsenios of Helorus, Treasurer of the Empire, and Diokles of Lepreum, Minister of Defense, many court officials pleaded to Emperor Loukas to decree help from Duke Hesper of Naxos. Kyron had made a mistake when he had cloaked himself in obscurity, because he was strongly opposed to this agenda. Since he was by now a person of insignificant influence, any resistance he offered would instead turn around to become a danger for his future, when the Duke learned of it later on. Thus, he remained silent and in the background once again.
Kyron was among the first and foremost who welcomed Duke Hesper’s arrival, imprinting his amicable mannerism in the would-be regent’s memory. As planned, he soon considered the low-ranking minister a friend and would invite him to his mansion for dinner parties. There, Kyron met the rumored Baltsar of Naxos, adoptive son of the duke. He understood the difference in their makeup on the first look; Baltsar was an individual exuding might. He was neither very tall nor featured an especially muscular build, but despite his youth, his presence seemed to belong to that of a martial arts master fifty years of age. He was said to have mastered all weapons, commanded the horse he rode like an extension of his own body, and could shoot through the eye of an eagle flying overhead with the bow and arrow. As much as Kyron admired Baltsar’s abilities, he disdained him for his apparent simple-mindedness. Youthful hubris was written in his face and overconfidence in his own skills would one day surely lead to his downfall.
At the same time as he curried favor with Duke Hesper, Kyron secretly went along with those who had an anti-Hesper sentiment. Vasilis of Histria, the Minister of Education, had been the most vocal in opposing calling the duke to the capital, but had been keeping a low profile after his arrival. When the rebellion was suppressed and Hesper replaced Emperor Loukas with his younger brother Zacheus, to use him as his puppet, loyalist sentiment boiled over. On the day the decision was officially announced, the Minister of the Imperial Palace, Hyginos of Massalia, drew a dagger he had smuggled into court and rushed up the steps towards the throne to stab the duke, who stood halfway between the emperor and the court officials. Not only did the assassination attempt fail on the hard plate armor Hesper always wore under his robes, but the perpetrator was immediately cut in half by Baltsar, who had paid more attention to a female servant than to his adoptive father for a moment.
Before a terrified child emperor and cowering court, Duke Hesper, covered in Hyginos’ blood, with the image of a war god standing beside him, embodied by Baltsar, announced his decision and his self-promotion to Chancellor of the State. Everybody present understood that this was an undisguised coup, but not a single person dared to protest. None wanted to share Hyginos’ fate. Kyron cursed his misfortune in not having the same resources as the duke, else he would have been the one standing next to the practically depowered emperor.
Between the newly made chancellor and Kyron, nothing changed, and their relationship remained in good standing. The minister continued to openly show his support for every decision Chancellor Hesper made, well aware of the fact that resentment against him grew in court; they could not be hostile to the chancellor, but a lowly Minister of Interstate Infrastructure was a different matter. Kyron had calculated the risks against the rewards and knew that the one powerful ally he had could offset the entire court that had become his enemy.
Yet, Kyron was no fool, and he was aware that neither the Chancellor nor certain individuals within the court could be considered fools either. Operating on the belief that he could be seen through at any moment, the minister forged many plans to fall back on if the situation should turn unfavorable for him. One such plan involved the Minister Vasilis, who had been keeping his head down and played the part Kyron had during Emperor Eugeios’ reign. Meeting with Vasilis secretly one evening, Kyron ensured his support in an assassination attempt on the chancellor.
The next day, after the morning assembly, he was surprised to be invited to the chancellor’s private residence, his heart filled with anxiety and suspicion. Following a lavish lunch in the extensive gardens of the mansion normally reserved only for distant relatives of the reigning emperor, Kyron was confronted by Hesper. He had been seen going into Vasilis of Histria’s residence, a known opponent to the chancellor being called to the capital. Since he had not done anything since Hesper’s arrival, there were no grounds to punish him on. However, associating with a person like that in secret put pressure on Kyron - something he did not want at this time.
Thus, he discarded Vasilis to save his image, telling Hesper about the plot to assassinate him, into which the old minister tried to recruit him. Furious, the chancellor called Baltsar, who had been promoted to Great General of the Northern Forces a short while ago, and ordered him to take his troops and arrest the traitor.
But Kyron had not calculated that Chancellor Hesper was a fickle man, who would listen to the counsel of people that did not know better, and that Minister Vasilis was cunning and quick-witted. When Baltsar broke down the front gate of his mansion to apprehend him, the general came upon the minister’s adoptive daughter, Calantha. It was love at first sight, and it was noticed by Vasilis, before he was captured. She led Baltsar in the wrong direction within the extensive manor, then received orders from the old minister to give false testimony to the general. Vasilis knew that none other than Kyron could be behind this, and he cursed himself for thinking for one moment that the sly fox could be trusted.
Vasilis was apprehended and brought before the court of justice, headed by a man Hesper had brought from his fiefdom of Naxos, Methodios of Mylasa. Convicted of treason and conspiracy, the old minister was locked up until further notice, although the fate of execution was almost certain. It was during that time that Baltsar talked to his adoptive father about the witness who had seen the plotting. With this new evidence, just hours later, Kyron found himself before the same Methodios as Vasilis had earlier. He was immediately convicted and thrown into the cell right next to the old minister, earning a snide remark about irony from the latter.
Sitting in his cell, Kyron calmed himself and faced the gravity of his situation; knowing Hesper, there was no chance for him to talk his way out, now that he had gotten into it so deeply. He requested paper and a piece of coal to write with, and began to write a will, filled with indignation at the chancellor’s misdeeds, evidence about how the dethroned Loukas had been assassinated, and lamenting the state the empire had fallen into. Then he began to recite it loudly, for the entire cell block to hear, as if he had gone mad. He was publicly denouncing the very man that held his life in his hands, causing Vasilis to laugh loudly in the cell next door. To him, Kyron was a phony and he would never trust him again.
However, there was one person who believed him. It was none other than Methodios of Mylasa, the judge that had proclaimed his sentence. Thus, he ordered Kyron into solitary confinement, where he could talk to him in private, away from prying ears. Unbeknownst to either of them, this was a fateful encounter that would dictate the flow of many events to come.
“Minister Kyron, you realize the position you are in?” Methodios asked, locked inside the small ten by ten measures space with the man he addressed. “Why are you adding oil onto the fire?”
“And I ask you, Judge Methodios, can this fire still be put out?” Kyron reversed the question with a smile. “We both know that I am a dead man come tomorrow, so let me speak my mind to my heart’s content until then.”
“If the chancellor hears of this, you will be tortured before execution!” The judge said, concerned at the calm attitude Kyron was displaying. “And he will execute your entire family along with you.”
“That may be so, but I still cannot remain silent before this injustice.”
“It is you who was plotting to assassinate the chancellor. How can you speak of injustice?”
“It lies in the fact that a pig like Hesper has free reign in the capital and has proclaimed himself Chancellor of the State, killing the rightful young emperor and using the even younger child he placed on the throne as a puppet. Do you not think this situation unjust?” Kyron argued, looking Methodios deep in the eyes. He had seen indignation in the judge’s demeanor during the trial and had noticed that he clearly disdained the farce he had to enact to quickly pass the sentence.
“Are you implying that I harbor treacherous feelings?” Methodios asked with a dangerous undertone in his voice.
“No, I am implying that you are a man of morals and justice. If you had the power to oppose Hesper, you would do so without hesitation.”
“Do not speak of me as if I am an ingrateful dog who would bite the hand of its master! Chancellor Hesper has always been good to me!” The judge exclaimed in outrage.
“As he has been, to me. You see, he was convinced of my treachery by believing the very traitor I had presented to him as a show of my goodwill. Just this morning, he believed me when I reported Minister Vasilis to him. Only an hour later, he believed Vasilis and now I am behind bars, facing execution as soon as the next morning, even before the old minister himself.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“That you are relying on the goodwill of a fickle man. What do you think would happen, if somebody who disliked you reported you as a traitor to Hesper? Somebody he, in that moment, trusts more than you?” Kyron whispered, sowing the seed of doubt in Methodios’ mind. For a moment, the judge remained silent, but then he suddenly burst out laughing from the bottom of his heart. Taken aback, the minister looked at him dumbfounded.
“Minister Kyron, you are a truly cunning man. If it were anyone but me, you would be executed within the hour,” Methodios finally said, his laughter disappearing behind a serious expression. “You are truly fortunate that I was your judge, and that you were placed in my jail. You may yet get to live.”
“That a fact? What are you planning on doing?”
“Why, I will get you out of the capital.”
“Do you realize that this puts you in danger as well? I would not want to bring harm to you for my sake, dear judge,” Kyron pleaded, maintaining a facade of concern. In his heart, he was rejoicing and could barely hold himself back from embracing the offer as quickly as possible. “Even if you escape, that villain Hesper will harm your family.”
“My family is in Naxos, and I can send them a letter that will reach them before Hesper can. And they have already resolved themselves, when I was brought along to the capital, that I might one day fall out of this man’s favor,” Methodios responded with clear determination.
“You have made up your mind then.”
“Yes. Let us go.”
Knocking on the heavy steel door to get the guard’s attention, Methodios ordered him to open it. The dimness of the solitary confinement cell was illuminated by the only slightly brighter outside corridor. Passing by the armed guard, who stood by without a word, the two men walked out and began to head for the jail’s exit. It was not a guard’s duty to question their superior’s decisions, and they were never held accountable for following orders from someone they had been taught to obey.
However, at the gate leading to freedom a lone soldier stood, his halberd held at the ready for battle. He was an imposing figure, taller than Baltsar, and had a build like a bear, sporting a magnificent beard and the piercing round eyes of an eagle glaring at its prey. Even though he wore a helmet, one could see that he was bald underneath it, giving him an even more ferocious presence.
“Judge Methodios, what is the meaning of this?” The man boomed, his voice seemingly shaking the entire corridor. “Are you aiding in the escape of a convicted criminal?” Immediately, Kyron was taken by this man’s presence, and he forgot his situation.
“My dear friend, who is this guard?” He whispered to the judge besides him.
“He is Androkles, a man who will do the right thing even if it may cost him his life. He has been promoted and demoted many times because he would speak candidly before superior officers,” Methodios responded, wearing a difficult expression on his face.
“Then he is a man of justice, too! Let me speak to him,” Kyron stated and walked towards the bear-like man. “Androkles, you are aware that you are not obliged to stop us? Think, if the judge were to have a good reason to be taking me outside, would you not be punished for obstructing him in his duties?”
“I am following my own duties as a jailer, and that is to keep criminals from leaving these grounds until the appointed time. I know who you are, and that you are scheduled to be executed tomorrow,” Androkles responded resolutely.
“Then are you aware that Judge Methodios let me out for a very good reason? Chancellor Hesper’s ways are unjust, and to punish it, the judge and I are escaping to fight another day.”
“You are saying the chancellor is unjust?”
“I am sure you have witnessed it yourself. You should know that the chancellor has removed the rightful emperor from the throne and replaced him with a puppet under his control. He is a tyrant not deserving of your loyalty!” Kyron announced with conviction. “I can see that you are a man of honor. Serving a dishonorable man like Hesper is a waste of your talents. You should come with us.”
Androkles of Orestias seemed to look like a simple man of brute strength, who wore his heart on his sleeve and could not hide his feelings. But in reality, he had a complex personality, and had resolved himself to live an upstanding life devoid of falsehood. He stayed true to his ways throughout all the troubled times in the military, when his skills in combat against the Formido of the North saw him promoted to major, and his unabashed criticism of foolish battle plans drawn up by inexperienced nobles resulted in his demotion again and again. Ultimately, he was delegated to jail work, where his military career was practically at a dead end, an exile from which he was meant to never emerge again, far from the eyes and ears of those who found him unpleasant.
He had long understood that Duke Hesper, now Chancellor of the State, was not a righteous man. The only reason he remained was because he admired Methodios’ character, who seemed to be very similar to his own, if not quite so outspoken. When he saw this very man standing before him, committing treason to help someone escape from jail, he felt confusion. At the same time, he was also interested in Minister Kyron, the reason for Methodios’ sudden betrayal.
Thus, when Androkles heard this man speaking, he immediately understood that he was worth following. Kyron was a man deserving of his loyalty, and if Methodios was leaving, there was nothing binding him to Chancellor Hesper’s service anymore.
“I understand your reasons and I feel the same. It would be an honor to aid you in your endeavor, Minister Kyron,” The guard finally responded to the offer and lowered his weapon. Methodios breathed a sigh of relief, but looked up to Kyron to see that the man seemed to have anticipated this turn of events. Smiling to himself, the judge only thought that he had made the right choice to free the minister and follow him; he was meant for great things in the future.
With the help of Androkles and Methodios, Kyron was able to successfully escape the capital. Since nobody outside the palace had been informed about his treachery yet, the soldiers guarding the city gates let him pass, wishing him a great journey. Methodios was startled when Kyron answered the guard with a wide smile, saying that he certainly would. Not only was the minister a cunning man, but he was also a mischievous daredevil.
It was only hours later, when Baltsar had convinced Chancellor Hesper to meet Minister Vasilis and give him a chance to redeem himself, that Kyron’s escape was discovered. If Baltsar had not been so taken with the minister’s adoptive daughter, Calantha, and spoken to Hesper about wishing to marry her and hoping for her father’s blessings, the flight of the three traitors may have only been reported the next day, shortly before the planned execution.
By the time the enraged chancellor sent Baltsar to personally pursue Kyron, his trail had grown cold and he could have vanished in any direction. Of course, Hesper thought of the possibility that the escapee would most likely return home to Thronion, governed by his father. But when news of another rebellion arising reached the capital, it took everybody’s minds off the situation surrounding the former Minister of Interstate Infrastructure.