The Last Emperor Excerpt

Prologue

After a gentle nudge from Averlee, Nika blinked awake to the steady plink plink plink of rain pelting the window next to his pallet. “Into your traveling clothes. Quickly,” she said, already turning to attend to Nika’s brothers and sisters in the attic set aside as the nursery when they’d arrived at Barton House three moons ago. “The rebels are evacuating us.”

Again?

Muzzy-headed and yawning, Nika pushed down his blanket and scrabbled into the linen shirt, blue velvet breeches, military-style vest, and overcoat designated as his traveling costume when the rebels had overrun the palace what felt like several lifetimes ago. He didn’t think about the richly appointed rooms he’d enjoyed as a son of the emperor anymore, nor remember the plentiful and succulent meats upon which he’d feasted, or recall the warmth he’d taken for granted as a child of royalty.

No guards stood at the door to watch them dress and hurry them along, but he nevertheless schooled his features to give no indication of the jewels hidden in the lining of this particular set of clothes. His sisters Lyssandra and Catterin carried most of their secret wealth, rows of diamonds hugging the stays of their corsets thanks to Averlee’s clever stitches, but their parents had distributed the treasure saved from the revolution among each of their nine children in case the rebels separated the imperial family, either to ransom hostages or for their “protection.” Nika had watched Averlee sew a necklace dripping emeralds into the seam of his vest as rebel forces had approached the palace. The weight of his father’s imperial signet ring had been disguised behind decorative buttons on Nika’s coat.

Once he’d laced his boots, he helped Averlee with his youngest sister Elba who, at only two winters, still cried a lot. Nika wiped her tears and urged her with furtive whispers, “Listen. Do you hear the booms? That isn’t thunder from the storm. Be brave, El. The White Army is near.”

Soldiers flung open the attic door, and with bayonets glinting in the dim light, screamed demands for haste, which only intensified Elba’s cries to hysterical sobbing. They grabbed Catterin by the biceps and shoved her down the stairs. Their time to dress for the evacuation at an end, Nika snatched Elba’s shoes from the floor. He followed Averlee’s swooshing skirts to the exit. More rebels guided them to the lower floors of Barton House, forbidden to the emperor’s children the past two moons.

“The stone walls of the kitchen will provide some shelter from artillery,” one of the soldiers said, “until the transport truck arrives.”

“Toly is ill. May we have a chair for him?” The empress nodded to Nika’s eldest brother and heir to the empire despite the leg deformity that made running impossible and walking difficult under the best of circumstances. Although their healer had remained with the imperial family through the revolution and captivity, Toly had been deprived of medicines and proper exercise, so Healer Kott carried him.

The soldier sneered. “I’ll fetch a throne worthy of the crown prince.”

The floor under Nika’s boots vibrated with the shelling from the White Army, which must be close. The barrage blending with cracks of thunder resonated in his sensitive ears, but the humming engine of an approaching truck did not. Nika crouched and slipped Elba’s stockingless feet into her shoes while the nanny held her. His task finished, he stood and started at a heavy hand settling on his shoulder. “Thank you, Nika. You’re so good with your sister.” His father smiled at him, then met the gaze of Averlee struggling to retain her hold on Elba who squirmed. “Give the baby to him. She won’t be easy until she’s under Nika’s care, and you’ll be free to tend the other children.”

Fortunately, Elba was by all standards a runt. Nika grunted when he accepted her weight from their nanny, but with his sister’s thin arms snaking around his neck and her legs encircling his hips despite her voluminous skirts, Nika managed with only a momentary stumble. Still, Nika wouldn’t be able to carry Elba long. She’d grown that much during the war. Nika closed his eyes, concentrating on Elba’s sweet baby smell as her tears wet his neck. He prayed the fighting would end soon, that his smallest sister would learn life outside imprisonment. At eight summers, Nika had acquired a wealth of memories to rely on and carry him through the horror of this war, but Elba had still been nursing from their mother’s breasts when rebels had stormed the Winter Palace to seize them.

The soldier returned with a cushioned chair for Toly. “A throne to die in.” He waved at it with an exaggerated flourish.

His family had acclimated to such petty cruelties, however, and could not be provoked by rebel contempt. Father thanked the soldier while Nika’s mother settled Toly more comfortably.

“Shh, it’s all right,” Nika murmured into the pink shell of Elba’s ear when her arms tightened around him. “The truck is coming. We’ll leave soon.”

To where, Nika didn’t know or especially care. He doubted his parents did either, but one prison was the same as the next in Nika’s experience. He was just grateful winter storms had ended and torrential rain rather than pelting snow washed against the kitchen windows. Keeping Elba warm during the harsh cold season hadn’t been easy.

“You. Stand next to the chair,” the rebel said to Nika’s father. He pointed at Mother. “And you beside him. No one need linger in the rainy wet before climbing into the transport truck if you’ve formed an orderly line.”

Soldiers directed Healer Kott to stand behind the chair, in position so he and Father could carry Toly in it.  Rebels shoved Nika’s older sisters and another brother to one side of the chair. Averlee was remanded to the opposite side to help the youngest children, including Nika and Elba.

Once they were arranged to the rebels’ satisfaction, the soldiers withdrew to the arched doorway of the massive kitchen.

Even then, alarm didn’t bloom in Nika’s chest.

The truck would pull into the yard and to the kitchen door, out of view of curious peasants on the street. Rebels would lead them out one by one. Once his family had scrambled into the truck bed, soldiers would drive through the night until they reached the next house selected as their gaol. Nika knew the routine, having endured evacuation from approaching battle twice already.

Fear didn’t explode inside Nika until one of the soldiers stepped forward and said, “Eton Marisek, because of your crimes against the tribes and because your supporters continue to wage war against the people, you have been sentenced to death.”

Stunned terror froze Nika in place.

His father’s spine shot straight as he whipped around to face his accuser. He gasped. “What?”

“You are to be executed immediately.” The soldier barked at the others, “Ready!”

Each lifted a gun from the folds of their military coats and aimed at Nika’s parents, at his brothers and sisters. At him. Staring at the rebel pointing a revolver at he and Elba, Nika gulped. Fright flooded him, supplanting his shock.

They weren’t supposed to die. Father had sworn they were valuable pawns to the rebels, bargaining chips in negotiations with the White Army and its order of nobles. Mother’s family—salted among the monarchies of neighboring lands—would also pay a considerable sum for her safe return and for ransoming her children. A new government would emerge from the revolution, yes, one composed of both the aristocracy and rebels if war propaganda was to be believed. The revolution called for a representative council to lead the tribes rather than an emperor. Nika’s father would never rule again. His family wouldn’t. Until now, only rabble in the capitol had wanted the imperial family dead, though.

Nika was seventh in line to the throne—he didn’t understand politics and had never been taught such matters. He’d known he would one day marry to strengthen alliances for the empire, but with an excess of older brothers and sisters to govern territories under the leadership of the crown, his parents had deemed training Nika unnecessary. When he reached adulthood, they expected him to marry and vanish into the countryside of his husband’s tribe afterwards. Mostly, his family had been preparing him for his future by tutoring him in the arts.

Except Nika would not survive to adulthood. No political marriage awaited him. No more piano lessons, painting with the masters, or analyzing poetry. He’d die with his family in this kitchen.

He angled his body to shield Elba’s with his own.

The soldiers cocked their weapons.

His mother screamed.

“Fire!”

* ~  * ~ *

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