Crown of the Sundered Empire
by JC Kang
Series: Heirs to the Sundered Empire (#1)
Published: October 9, 2019
Genre: Epic Fantasy, Military Fantasy
CW: Graphic Violence
POSSIBLE ULTIMATE TOUR EXPERIENCE TICKETS: Represent, Elves and Dwarves and Orcs, Oh My!, It’s All About the Journey, Snark It Up, The More the Merrier
Only the demon in Tomas’ glass eye can save his village.
It might cost him his soul.
In a broken land where conquerors dream of empires, Tomas dreams of a day when the townsfolk won’t taunt him. After all, he’s the fishing village kid with a misshapen face.
Only the Rune vendor’s daughter treats him well. To win her heart, he relies on a quick wit and local superstitions to convince her he has Diviner’s Sight.
But if he did, he would’ve foreseen magic-fearing invaders plucking out his mismatched eye.
Or the demon trapped in the glass replacement. It reveals a world beyond human vision, while whispering temptations in his mind.
Now, with his village caught between the advancing armies of the Sun God’s mortal descendants and His Chosen People, Tomas must use a combination of calculation, cunning, and demonic insight to maneuver the forces of his world against each other—prince against prince, princess against princess, army against army—or see his home crushed forever beneath the wheels of war.
But to do so carries a dire risk.
Because using a demon could condemn your soul.
Chapter 1: Inauspicious Start to the Day
Despite his mismatched eyes, sixteen-year-old Tomas Larelli had never seen the future. That didn’t keep everyone from assuming he could, nor did his scruples prevent him from denying it. After all, with a face that only a monkey could love, he had to find ways to get people to like him.
“Oi, Tomas.” Old Gian waved from a neighboring boat. “Thanks again for teaching me that knot you invented. It’s helped secure my nets. How did you ever figure it out?”
Tomas raised his oars and tapped under his green eye. “Diviner’s Sight!”
Or, a little bit of imagination. His mind had painted the image of the rope, weaving its way through its own loops. The result was the dozens of fish flopping at his feet. With a nod, he resumed his rowing.
His boat glided through the Inland Sea’s placid blue waters, passing between his island village on the right, and the Barrows on the mainland to the left. He shuddered and formed a ring with his thumb and finger to ward off evil. Tortured spirits of humans, sacrificed to the orc gods a thousand years ago, still haunted the towering mounds.
On the other side of the Barrows, the wooden pyramid of Solaris came into view; and then beyond it, the red-tiled rooves in the town of Lorium. His stomach fluttered. Soon…
“Oi, Tomas,” a croaking voice called from the docks.
Tomas squinted as he rowed closer. A sablewood bireme flying a crimson flag with a nine-pointed silver sun loomed large over the far wharf. Its black hull made it difficult to pick out the figure waving from the closest dock. Probably Mauritizio, since he was always the first out to buy the best catches. The fine linen shirt and trousers he wore didn’t match his sun-roughened skin.
Mauritzio craned his neck. “Another bumper catch, I see.”
Grinning, Tomas tapped beneath his eye yet again. “Diviner Sight can’t go wrong.” Nor could studying the currents and tides, the way they swept lines through the Inland Sea. Nobody else had to know his secret, though. He gestured to his boat’s bottom, where the fish continued their desperate thrashing.
Mauritzio took hold of a pylon and leaned over. “Whitefins. Very nice. I’m feeling generous today. I’ll give you a copper draka for two.” He tossed a rope.
Catching it, Tomas moored his boat to the pylon. He looked up and grinned. The foreign bireme in town would drive up the price of fish. “Two copper drakas for three is generous. What you offer is banditry.”
Mauritizio looked over his shoulder to where the other fishmongers were now approaching like sharks to blood. He turned back. “Deal.”
It was a fair exchange, and though he could’ve waited for the other fishmongers to come and haggle for more, Mauritizio had always been kind.
Not to mention, there was somewhere Tomas had to be. His hand strayed to the vial in his pocket. “You’ll find thirty-three fish in there.”
Making a show of counting with his finger, Mauritizio nodded. “Then two silver and one copper draka for you.”
“Two coppers.” Tomas chuckled.
Mauritizio threw his hands up. “Ah, can’t get anything past your nets. Darn Diviner’s Sight!”
Or math. Coppers grouped in tens in his mind’s eye.
Imitating the Diviners of old, Tomas looked past the setting Blue and White Moons, to the Iridescent Moon. It waxed toward its third crescent.
The market would open soon.
“Good for both of us,” he said. “I know where the fish will be, and you get to sell them for profit. My Diviner’s Sight says you’ll make at least four silvers from them today.”
Mauritizio bowed. “You’re never wrong, of course.”
If only because Tomas paid attention to market prices. He held out his hand with an arch of his eyebrow.
Mauritizio opened his purse, pulled out two silver and two copper coins, and pressed them into Tomas palm. “Nice doing business with you.”
Tucking his slingshot into the back of his pants, Tomas climbed onto the dock. He hurried along the main road deeper into town, trusting Mauritizio to collect the fish. Again, he looked up at the Iridescent Moon, never moving from its reliable spot in the sky, always cycling through its twenty-four phases in a single day. There wasn’t much time left. His heart pattered.
The creaks, thumps, and fish reek of the docks gave way to the rich textures of the marketplace. The earthy smell of spring vegetables from several stalls. The hammering of the blacksmith on the east. The bright colors of cloth in the shops to the south.
Burly men, whose crimson tunics marked them as rowers from the Serikothi ship, mingled among the townsfolk and catcalled the women. Ethnically Arkothi, like the locals, these foreigners had olive complexions.
It stood in contrast to their officers in high-collared jackets, who had lithe builds, brown hair, and bronze complexions. These smaller, shorter men belonged to the Eldaeri, a long-lived race which proclaimed to be the sun god’s Chosen People. In his limited experiences, Tomas had found them to be as arrogant as their claim.
“Tomas!” cried a farmer from a vegetable stall as he entered the marketplace. “Can you tell me when the next rain will be?”
“Two days,” Tomas said. At least, that’s what the earthworm activity suggested. He locked his eyes on a kiosk at the far end.
A shock of golden hair flashed among the trays of magic light baubles and lamps.
A smile tugged at his lips. Patting the vial in his pocket, he quickened his pace.
“When will a Runemaster Imperator return with the Crown of Arkos?”
After three hundred years since the sundering of the Arkothi Empire, probably never. Tomas laughed. Let them believe in long lost emperors and their equally missing crowns. “I can’t have you betting against me in the gambling dens.”
“Tomas,” yelled out the baker from across the way. “Are we safe from the Teleri?”
“I’ll be back with your answer, and I expect a fresh loaf of your best bread in return.” Tomas flashed a smile. It would give him time to ask around and find out more about the aggressive empire’s latest positions.
In this, Constable Antonius would know more. The mayor’s son, and indeed, the town’s favorite son, was striding from the other end of the market. The shiny buttons on his crisp blue uniform glinted in the morning light, and a sword dangled from his hip. Their eyes met, and the constable’s smirk punctuated his strong jaw, heavy brows, and high nose. Then, his gaze shifted toward their mutual destination, just ten paces away.
Tomas had to get there first.
At the kiosk, stocky Julius spread out rune-inscribed antiques and modern light bauble lamps. He stepped to the side, revealing his daughter.
Time seemed to slow as Sofia tossed her hair over a shoulder. Sunlight caught silver highlights in the sea of gold. Unlike everyone else’s sun-darkened olive skin, hers was as fair as the sandy beaches back home. It made her bright blue eyes stand out. The neckline of her green velvet dress plunged low enough to hint at her budding curves. She was like the Goddess Ayara arriving on earth for the first time. Temple bells chimed in Tomas imagination.
You brighten my day more than the sun. Tomas rehearsed the greeting in his mind, gulping hard in hopes he’d actually be able to articulate it. You brighten my day more than the sun. He covered the last ten paces in just eight strides. You brighten my day more than the sun. Math, logic, market trends, and tides were easy compared to talking to a woman. “You… sun. Brighten… Good morning, Sofia.”
She flashed him a radiant smile, that indeed brightened the day more than the sun. “Good morning, Tomas. How are things on Twins Island?”
Tomas’ gut twisted. While everyone else asked him about their future, the town beauty was the only one who ever inquired about his well-being. “Fine… uh, just wonderful.”
“You said you’d have a surprise for me today?” She batted her eyelashes.
Tomas’ face flushed as hot as sand in afternoon sun. He reached for the vial in his pocket. “I brought—”
“Ah, Monkey Face Tomas, ever the rube.” A deep laugh boomed behind him. A huge hand clapped him on the back.
It just about knocked his heart out of his chest. Tomas gritted his teeth. Every instinct screamed to lay a fake curse on Antonius, but it would only make Tomas look petty. He relaxed his jaw. “Good morning, Antonius.”
Sofia’s father, Julius, paused from polishing a rune-infused fire starter and turned around. His wide shoulders bulged from his blue vest. With his thinning black hair, crag nose, and small eyes, it was hard to believe he’d sired such a beauty. A friendly smile formed on his lips. “Good morning, Antonius. Sofia, give Antonius a trinket, will you?”
Tomas stifled a growl. Of course, Antonius was the most desired man in town, son of the mayor, who was mayor only because he’d married some lord’s cousin’s nephew’s sister-in-law. With Antonius’ good looks and status, he already had enough girls to fill the long-departed Runemaster Imperator’s harem.
Meanwhile, Tomas was just an ugly fisherman from a provincial island. He forced a friendly smile. “So, Antonius, what’s the latest news of the Teleri advance?”
Antonius smirked. “Trying to squeeze out every last fish sale before they come and you flee back to Twins Island?”
“Of course not,” Tomas said. “I just wanted to know. Last I heard, they’d encircled Mykos.”
“Encircled? It’s called a siege.” Antonius puffed out his chest, his eyes flitted sidelong toward Sofia.
Sofia just blinked her long lashes at him.
Tomas’ gut knotted even more. “Right, a siege. It’s just two days’ march from here.”
Antonius snorted. “Stick to Divining, and leave soldiering to soldiers. They have to capture Mykos first, or leave their supply lines exposed. Mykos can hold out indefinitely, because the Teleri’s dumb Bovyan brutes lack the siege engines to breach the city walls. On top of that, they have no means to deny Mykos access to the Inland Sea and trade with the Serikothi.” He lifted his chin to one of the crimson-uniformed rowers at the tanner’s.
Tomas cocked his head. It didn’t make sense, because… “Couldn’t the Teleri leave soldiers back to protect their supply lines? Or send cavalry ahead?”
Gasping, Sofia covered her mouth. “Is that what Diviner’s Sight is telling you?”
Antonius’ bellowing laugh just about shook the stall over. “If it is, I’d tell him to get a new eye. Teleri Bovyans might be able to overwhelm anyone in the open field, but there’s no way they’d risk sending troops here without first securing—”
Shouts and screams erupted from the west end of town and grew louder. Here in the marketplace, the merchants all pointed and chattered among themselves.
“What’s going on?” Sofia came out from behind her stall and peered toward the commotion.
Hand on his sword hilt, Antonius straightened. “I’ll go see. I think—”
A tide of townspeople rushed into the square, first from the main road, then from the four side streets. Some tried to leave toward the docks, only to turn back.
The press of humanity surged like a wave, taking Sophia with them. Tomas snatched her hand, only to be pulled along. Antonius waded through to reach her, until another surge of people crashed in from the other side.
“Sofia!” her father yelled, hand outstretched from the stall several paces away.
Above the stutter of desperate feet came clopping hooves. Tomas looked to Sofia, to make sure she was alright, then to Antonius. “Horses!”
“Where? Oh!” Antonius gawked.
Behind the flood of people from the main street trotted a column of enormous horses, ridden by enormous men. Chainmail jingling, they carried spears with black banners emblazoned with a nine-pointed gold sun.
“Bovyans…” Antonius gasped.
Bovyans! Tomas could only shrink back. Descended from the mortal son of the Sun God, Solaris, they’d once been noble protectors of a land torn apart by the Hellstorm. Originally a source of hope and order to replace the Runemaster Imperator who’d abandoned his sundered empire, they’d since transformed into the barbaric rulers of the Teleri Empire. Until now, he’d never seen one.
Let alone dozens.
Most had dark hair, though there were a handful of blonds. With their fair to olive skin tones, the majority could be mistaken for any of the three indigineous ethnicities of the North. A handful had darker complexions, ranging form bronze to light brown. Their main difference from other humans was sheer size. Ranks of Bovyans now blocked the six entrances into the marketplace, preventing anyone from leaving.
Tomas’ forehead scrunched up. Something didn’t make sense. Bovyans were nothing if efficient. If Antonius was right, that they wouldn’t risk attacking Lorium without first taking Mykos, why were they here now?
“Eldaeri from Serikoth.” A Bovyan pointed at a small, crimson-uniformed officer not ten feet from Tomas. He lowered his spear and dug his heels into the horse’s flanks.
Townsfolk jostled and made way as the Serikothi drew his naval sword. It looked flimsy compared to the Bovyans’ arming swords. Indeed, the officer looked flimsy compared to the behemoth bearing down on him.
Hooves thundered across the ground. People screamed and pushed. Shielding Sofia with outstretched arms, Tomas found himself on the edge of the panicked circle, so close that the rush of air and smell of horse battered him as it charged by.
The Serikothi officer stood frozen in place, his eyes rounded. The spear punched through his chest with a sickening thud, and he let out a straggled cry. His broken body crumpled to the ground as the horse slowed and wheeled. A pool of blood spread under him.
Bile rising, Tomas shielded Sofia’s eyes with one hand, and covered his mouth with the other. She pushed his hand aside, and gasped.
“Serikothi!” a voice boomed across the square.
Why were the Bovayns targeting the Serikothi? Tomas craned to get a better view.
Horse hooves thundered. Swords rasped from scabbards. Bovyans rode among the running and screaming people, cutting down unseen victims.
“I surrender,” a voice pleaded somewhere nearby.
“A galley!” yelled another Bovyan. “Secure the docks!”
The docks. Tomas’ heart joined the bile in his throat. If the Bovyans swarmed the docks, there’d be no escape. He had to get there first. Because rumor had it that horrible things happened to the women in the Teleri Empire. He took Sofia’s trembling hand. “We need to escape the town.”
Face sickly pale, she gave a tentative nod.
Tomas closed his eyes and envisioned Lorium’s layout as if he were a bird flying above. With the Bovyans attacking the Serikothi galley on the west end of the docks, they might be able to sneak to his boat on the east. He pulled her along, working through the terrified throng. More people emptied into the square from the six entrances. Several Bovayns circled the area, but none patrolled the space between him and the small alley between two shops on the east side.
“Sofia! Tomas!” Antonius’ voice carried over the people. “Come back!”
Tomas hazarded a glance back. In the arc of his vision, at least three Bovyans met his gaze. He froze. From their positions, their plan was clear: the invaders were herding people into the square. Now, the sobbing townsfolk had mostly stilled.
With just a handful of constables armed with rapiers, and only a few knives among the locals, there was no resisting. Not after the Teleri shocktroopers had made short work of the Serikothi officers.
Tomas tucked his slingshot deeper into the back of his pants. His village was famous for its sharpshooters, but he wasn’t one of them, and a couple of rocks would do nothing against so many armored men.
A hush fell over the townspeople as one of the Bovyans rode forward. He was a head taller than the others, the squared shoulders of his black tabard giving him the look of a demigod. When he spoke, his voice boomed. His accent sounded so… official, as was to be expected from a people originating in the Sundered Empire’s heartland. “Captain, bring the Serikothi forward.”
Bovyans pushed through, prodding a dozen of the crimson-clad rowers and two of the shorter Eldaeri officers into the space before the leader, and pushing them to their knees.
“I am Governor Keris.” He loomed over them like a storm cloud over a tiny boat. “I will soon be in possession of your galley, and I need a crew. You will be paid a gold draka per month with bonuses for good work. If you agree, rise.”
Tomas exchanged glances with Sophia. The Serikothi didn’t even pay that much to ship crews. Their Eldaeri rulers were also famous for their harsh treatment of their Arkothi subjects.
All but one of the rowers and one officer stood, heads bowed.
Keris pointed to the kneeling rower. “You do not wish to join?”
The man raised his head. “Begging your pardon, Governor, but I have a family in Serikoth. If word got back that I served the Teleri… well…” his meaningful glance fell on the officer at his side.
“I understand. Surrender your weapons, swear on Solaris you will never take up arms against the Teleri Empire, and you may return home.”
What? So easy? Tomas scanned the townsfolk’s faces.
The rower’s eyes widened, and a murmur went through their ranks. The crowd, too, chattered at this development. Two of his compatriots returned to their knees.
Keris motioned to one of his underlings. “Take these recruits and record them into your register.”
The henchman thumped his chest with a fist, and gestured for the rowers to rise and follow him.
“Not you.” Keris set his spear in the path of the Serikothi officer. “The Eldaeri race has falsely claimed to be the Chosen People of my ancestor’s divine father. This is an insult to the gods. Captain, execute him, and the other.”
A collective gasp just about sucked the air out of the square. Eyes panicked, the Eldaeri turned and started to run, only to meet the thrust of a Bovyan sword. The other officer scrambled to his feet, but two Bovayns dispatched him with brutal efficiency. Blood pooled where their bodies fell.
The people cried out again. A sour taste rose in Tomas throat. Before today, he’d never seen someone brutally murdered; now, he’d witnessed three. And, there were other slain Eldaeri Serikothi elsewhere in the marketplace. The Bovyans were ruthless.
Governor Keris pounded his fist to his chest. “Now that we’ve gotten that ugly business out of the way… People of Lorium. You are now under the protection of the Teleri Empire.”
Protection? Occupation was more like it. Tomas had to sneak to his boat with Sofia, and row back to his village. It might be within sight of Lorium, but the Teleri would have to find someone who could get them past the Jaws first.
If these invaders could reach the island, though, the governor looked like he could conquer it all by himself. His gaze raked over the locals. “Our protection comes with a price, but it is a fair one. We shall buy your surplus grain and fish directly from the farmers and fishermen at market prices, and we will never take more than the town can spare.”
A handful of groans broke out from the middlemen like Mauritzio, and the tax collectors from Mykos, the seat of government.
Keris scowled, quieting the throng. He pointed north across the water to the Lyara’s Golden Bowl, gleaming atop the mountain that overlooked Tomas’ village. “I also need someone who can take us to Twins Island.”
A pit sank in Tomas’ stomach.
His home. The Bovyans wanted his home.
JC Kang’s unhealthy obsession with Fantasy and Sci-Fi began at an early age when his brother introduced him to The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Trek, and Star Wars. As an adult, he combines his geek roots with his professional experiences as a Chinese Medicine doctor, martial arts instructor, and technical writer to pen epic fantasy stories.