Servant of the Empire

Chapter 1
The breeze died.

Dust swirled in little eddies, settling grit over the palisade that surrounded the slave market. Despite the wayward currents, the air was hot and thick, reeking of confined and ullwashed humanity mingled with the smell of river sewage and rotting garbage from the dump behind the market.

Sheltered behind the curtains of her brightly lacquered litter, Lady Mara wafted air across her face with a scented fan. If the stench troubled her, she showed no sign. The Ruling Lady of the Acoma motioned for her escort to stop.

Soldiers in green enamelled armour came to a halt, and the sweating bearers set the litter down.

An officer in a Strike Leader's plumed helm gave his hand to Mara and she emerged from her litter. The colour in her cheeks was high; Lujan could not tell if she was flushed from the heat or still angered from the argument prior to leaving her estate. Jican, the estate hadonra, had spent most of the morning vigorously objecting to her plan to purchase what he insisted would be worthless slaves. The debate had ended only when she ordered him to silence.

Mara addressed her First Strike Leader. 'Lujan, attend me, and have the others wait here.' Her acerbity caused lujan to forgo the banter that, on occasion, strained the limits of acceptable protocol; besides, his first task was to protect her - and the slave markets were far too public for his liking - so his attention turned quickly from wit to security. As he watched for any sign of trouble, he reasoned that when Mara busied herself in her newest plan she would forget Jican's dissension. Until then she would not appreciate hearing objections she had already dismissed in her own mind.

Lujan understood that everything his mistress undertook was to further her position in the Game of the Council, the political striving that was the heart of Tsurani politics. Her invariable goal was the survival and strengthening of House Acoma. Rivals and friends alike had learned that a once untried young girl had matured into a gifted player of the deadly game. Mara had eluded the trap set by her father's old enemy, Jingu of the Minwanabi, and had succeeded with her own plot - forcing Jingu to take his own life in disgrace.

Yet if Mara's triumphs were the current topic of discussion among the Empire's many nobles, she herself had barely paused to enjoy the satisfaction of her ascendancy.

Her father's and brother's deaths had taken her family to the brink of extinction. Mara concentrated on anticipating future trouble as she manoeuvred to ensure her survival.

What was done was behind, and to dwell on it was to risk being taken unawares.

While the man who had ordered the death of her father and brother was finally himself dead, her attention remained focused on the blood feud between House Acoma and House Minwanabi. Mara remembered the unvarnished look of hatred on the face of Desio of the Minwanabi as she and the other guests passed his father's death ceremony.

While not as clever as his sire, Desio would be no less a danger; grief and hatred now turned his motives personal: Mara had destroyed his father at the height of his power, while he hosted the Warlord's birthday celebration, in his own home. Then she had savoured that victory in the presence of the most influential and powerful nobles in the Empire as she hosted the Warlord's relocated celebration upon her own estates.

No sooner had the Warlord and his guests departed Acoma lands than Mara had embarked on a new plan