CHAPTER 1 The Korsch Games He stood in mist. Pungent, gold and silver - a vapour that encompassed him. Within it, his own world, just he and the dying man and the bed he lay on. "Come..." the voice rattled like sand in a coffin. "...away... Desert Sun." "It is nothing." Wizened fingers reached for the Czar. They were pale as the mist. With wet eyes the old man took another wheezing breath. "I am... the one... dying...today..." A smile curled the lips of Czar Lukesh. He stepped beyond the shafts of sunlight, into shadows at the bedside. Promptly his Nocturne flesh stopped burning and the mist abated through open windows. It was carried off into the streets to mix with spice blends and morning waste. The yowl of alley cats and pickpocket children were distant music to the scene. The two men linked hands, one strong and freezing, the other weak and growing just as cold. General Korsch looked up from the mess of fevered bedsheets. "I can serve you... no longer... Desert Sun. I return... to the Water Beneath." He worked something in his right hand, over and over through his fingers. It was a single wooden piece, the smallest piece from a set of nesting dolls. It was his Aux. Lukesh leant in and gripped tighter. "Own this death, Korsch. Return its stare. A Kaustiran does not wince, does not falter." The general chuckled, with breath a belch of necrotic tissue and tumorous decay. The Ipari Blight had taken him. The veteran had too much ash in his lungs, had dwelt too long by the toxic fires that scoured Kaustir. It was a fate that came to many. This was a killing land. And it had killed him. "Promise me something... Desert Sun..." Korsch's fingers squeezed the Czar's. "Perhaps." That wetness again, that glisten in the old man's eyes that bore such sadness. He had never shown this, in all his years of service to the Czar. Yet now... now he let emotion flood with the beat of dying whispers. "We have done... such terrible things... the people of Sunne. We have... made such mistakes. Do not blame them, Lukesh... do not... let hatred rule you... nor punish them... for their frailty..." It was gravest insult, to speak his name without his title. Silence held Lukesh as he listened to the rattling, stalling breaths of his First General. His face was sandstone, yielding nothing. "I will give them all what they deserve." The old man nodded, perhaps in vain. Whatever the Czar meant by that promise, the dying Korsch chose to take the best of it. Perhaps it was all he could do. The only light left to him, the only hope to cling to as his heart gave out. Breaths came short and sharp now as his body failed. He gripped harder. His head sunk in the pillows. He gasped. And as tears ran down his wrinkled cheeks he gave one last smile. "You..." He beheld the Czar's face. "You haven't aged a day... since we met..." His Aux slipped from his fingers, spreading motes of golden light to replace the mist. * * * * * * "It was the Galgesh Campaign, of course - that's where he caught the blight. We all told him it would come to this. Four weeks riding against the Scarab Tribes - what did he expect? Still, I would we all could reach his age. Stubborn old bastard." The chancellor slumped at a table, skin pale, his squirrel Aux staggering drunkenly around his legs. One hand held a silk handkerchief to his neck, where spots of blood were soaking. Across the hallway, Lukesh was by the opposite window, licking clean his lips. As his Nocturne flesh healed over it traced the contours of a face sharp and sleek, cutting features like the desert air. Lounging in the shadows at his feet, Aukhmos held the chancellor in his feline stare. Neither Crux nor Aux turned when the servants shuffled behind them into the general's bedchamber. The old man's body would be wrapped now and carried to the courtyard, there to be borne on a camel to his desert burial. It was the general's wish, to be folded in the sand, and left to sink into the Great Below... to the Ocean Underneath. One ritual Lukesh could tolerate. He was not without gratitude. "A new general will be chosen." The Chancellor struggled to get up, then flushed and thought better of it, before slumping again. "Of course, Emperor. Colonel Verian is the obvious choice. And I hear good things about Lut Sar..." "No." Lukesh drummed slender fingers on the window pane. He stared into the streets of Avarath, beyond the compound where his servants waited. He had lost his right hand, his finest general, on the eve of war, at the turning point in history when all that Kaustir stood for would be tested. In those streets a symbol would be needed, a banner would be raised. Korsch had not just believed in an Ocean Underneath - he had believed in the Red Nation. And Lukesh was not without his gratitude. "The general will be chosen from the common people." There was a clunk behind him as the chancellor tried once more to rise, and once more failed. "My Lord, is that wise? I..." "Question it further and I will bury you with Korsch." The threat was throw-away, delivered without thought. The Czar raised a burned and healing hand to scratch his chin. "A common man or woman will lead my First Army, and show that we are one." "How will you choose, Desert Sun?" Lukesh's skin began to smoke again, dwelling too long in the window light. He turned and pulled his silk robe tighter. The old smile was back; that smile of agony and delight. His Aux growled. "Games. Tell the nobles to fill my city with games."