Stars exploded amidst a chorus of pealing bells. His vision spun, distorting time itself. A massive hand extended towards him as he lay suspended between consciousness and oblivion. Ryden squinted past the blinding sunlight and tried to clear the hollow ringing in his ears, only half aware that he was no longer standing. He had felt the initial impact of the sword crashing into his helmet, but he hadn't felt his body hit the ground. The world slowly returned; the odor of sweat and grass, the cool breeze, the soreness of his muscles, the sound of his ragged breathing. He shook the dizziness away and took the offered hand.

As the young warrior was pulled to his feet, he lowered his eyes. His wool shirt clung to his sweat-soaked body beneath the light leather armor he wore for sparring. Even in the mild spring air, the garments felt stifling, but he knew the true cause of his discomfort. He kept his gaze down, counting blades of grass.

“Good try, Ryden.” The other man, thickly bearded and with a shock of golden hair pulled up in a high ponytail, grinned and handed him back his training blade. Ryden hadn’t realized he had dropped it. His expression soured further as he recalled his father’s words.

Your life is tied to your weapon in more ways than one. Your sword is how you create yourself. The things you do with it will show the world who you are. It isn’t just a part of you, it is you. And if you lose it, your life will likely follow. Ryden could feel his father’s eyes upon him now, analyzing his every move, arms folded across his chest with a scowl.

“Not good enough...” Ryden peeled off his freshly dented helmet as he fought to catch his breath. His black hair was plastered to a landscape of bruises, the bloated tissue framing one of his large, dark eyes. His father’s eyes, everyone told him. It was true; he was his father’s son. That reputation, that pressure, was exactly the problem. How could he ever live up to all of the expectations thrown at him? “Did you have to hit me so hard?” he asked.

“Aye, if ye hadn' lost yer temper and tried to take me head off, I wouldn’ve had to. Ye swing that recklessly at a skilled opponent, and ye’ll have more’n a pretty bruise. Perhaps that’ll help ye remember.”

Ryden felt a heavy hand on his shoulder and tried not to flinch away from the man who was the cause, both directly and indirectly, of all those expectations: the mighty Rylar Greyhart. Though his stature was ordinary— in fact, Ryden was already taller than his father— the shadow he cast was immense, dwarfing Ryden in a sea of yet unfulfilled possibilities. “You did well, son.” His father squeezed his shoulder with vicelike strength born from decades of warfare.

“So what did I do wrong?”

“Several things. Crossing your feet was your fatal error— I haven't seen you do that since you were twelve.” His father’s chuckle only heightened his embarrassment. “But Dakstaan is Training Master for a reason. He forces your mistakes so you correct them before they become bad habits that can get you killed. Remember, every error makes you better.”

“It doesn't feel like it,” Ryden said, his frustrations from the past several weeks boiling over. His father had always been overbearing, but ever since the Flowering, the festival that signified the advent of spring, he had seemingly undertaken a personal challenge to badger Ryden at every opportunity.

“You're fifteen, nobody expects you to be able to defeat a fighter as skilled as him.”

“Yer makin’ me blush over here,” Dakstaan said, but Ryden’s father ignored his old friend for the moment.

“Apparently you were quite the fighter when you were my age.”

“You aren't me.”

“I'm well aware!” Ryden stormed off.

“Don't you dare turn your back on me! Get back here, soldier!”

Ryden stopped in his tracks, jaw slack in disbelief, and faced his father again. “Soldier? Is that what I am now?”

Rylar put his stern features uncomfortably close to Ryden’s face, and he couldn’t help but shrink back. “If you won't respect me as your father, perhaps you'll obey me as your High Commander. If you're going to be insubordinate, make yourself useful and return your helmet for repairs first. I will not allow you to dishonor the Greyhart name with your tantrums. I've been working to make it something to be respected since before I was your sister’s age.”

Ryden glared at his father with a mixture of contempt and resignation. “Yes, High Commander.” He scooped up the helmet and made for the armorer, forcing down the lump in his throat, teeth clenched as he fled from his shame.

You aren't me. Of course, he wasn't his father. How could he be?

* * *

“Fuck.” Rylar ran a hand over the closely-shaved perimeter of his head. Higher up, his tar-black hair lengthened, coming to rest above his eyebrows in a sharp peak. “What went wrong there?”

“Several things.” Dakstaan imitated Rylar’s quiet laugh. “Crossin’ the line between father and High Commander was yer fatal error.”

Rylar dismissed his insightful friend’s wordplay. “He's too hot tempered for his own good.”

“Aye, I don’ know anyone else who was like that at his age.” Dakstaan pulled off his sweaty glove and caught Rylar on the jaw with a lazy throw.

“Seeking another duel?”

“Sure, I could hit ye hard enough to make ye forget yer troubles. I'll give ye a pretty bruise to match yer boy’s.”

“You're beginning to irritate me,” Rylar said.

“Only beginnin’? I must be losin’ me touch.”

Rylar’s face, narrow and sharp-featured, cracked into a fleeting smile; one corner of his mouth pulled up at the ragged scar that ran from his upper lip down the side of his thickly stubbled chin. It vanished instantly, back into the stoic intensity that typified Rylar’s demeanor. “What do I do with him?”

“He's just a kid—”

“He's an adult.”

“He's younger’n the hair on me arse!”

“And older than Laryl the Lion when he rallied all the lords of Corbryn to victory.”

“He acted ‘cause his pa fell in battle. I got a sword ye can fall on if yer plannin’ on givin’ yer boy the same reason. Ryden’s barely more’n a child. I've trained thousands o’ them, and more. I think I know a thing’r two ‘bout how they think,” Dakstaan said.

“You've trained thousands, but you've raised none. Somehow,” Rylar added. Dakstaan had bedded half the women in Castle Elhan, a distasteful habit in civilized Corbrynian society. Then again, Dakstaan had never claimed to be civilized, nor was he Corbrynian.

“It can’t be easy growin’ up havin’ to follow yer footsteps, me friend. Ye may well be a legend in Corbryn, but yer son still wants to become his own man. He can’t do that with ye breathin’ down his neck every time he’s swingin’ a sword.”

Rylar nodded, unable to bring himself to a verbal agreement.

Dakstaan changed the subject. “Council weighin’ on ye?”

“He's going to reduce the land to ashes, from Westwood to Elhan, the fucking imbecile,” Rylar gritted.

“The people voted fer’im,” Dakstaan said.

“They have no idea what they did. He's going to undo and piss on everything Elias has accomplished.”

“Tiberius can’t change the laws without the support of the Regional Lords.”

“He only needs three,” said Rylar. “It’s easier than most would believe. It’s how Elias was able to help the refugees so much, among other things.”

“Ye really think he’ll burn the bridges and everythin’ else? The Vaelenites would be up in arms over it.”

“I don't want to find out,” Rylar said.

“Yer goin’ to, soon enough. Go on to yer important meetin,’ I’ve got some things that need doin’.” Dakstaan thumped Rylar on the back and sauntered off to another pair of trainees dueling some ways away. Rylar watched him go and pondered his words.

Aside from his wife, he was the only person Rylar could fully trust. Dakstaan had joined Corbryn’s army, known as The Vanguard, after a fateful trip from his homeland of Rastaad. His father, an honest merchant, had been unable to survive the machinations of a corrupt lord, and Dakstaan, then a young boy, had been left stranded in a foreign land. Orphans were not so uncommon in Corbryn, and The Vanguard always needed stable boys and servants. There, he and Rylar had bonded through years of shared strife and triumph, clawing their way from the ranks of the servant boys to esteemed warriors and beyond.

In his younger days, there had been others Rylar could depend on, but they were gone now. Leading The Vanguard was a double-edged sword. He was respected, admired, or feared by most everyone. But they only knew Rylar as the warrior, the High Commander. Dakstaan knew Rylar the man, and before that, Rylar the boy. Everyone else saw Rylar as a symbol. Dakstaan only saw a person trying to do what he thought was right. Whether he knew it or not, he’d forever have Rylar’s gratitude and loyalty. The High Commander turned towards the Lord’s Keep and walked off. His issues with Ryden could wait.

* * *

After leaving his helmet to be fixed, Ryden stomped across the grounds of Castle Elhan until he came to a sparring dummy in a secluded orchard behind the Lord’s Keep, used to train young nobles. He slashed at it with his sword, haphazardly at first, then quicker and quicker. Before he was conscious of it, he was beating on the dummy furiously, landing blow after blow that would have split a skull. He didn’t think; he just hacked away at his insecurities. He imagined his father’s face on the dummy and let loose a primal growl of frustration as he cocked his arm back. Horrified, he stopped mid-swing and dropped his sword. The exhaustion hit him, and he fell to his knees. He could almost sense the High Father’s disapproval from the cerulean sky above. “What’s wrong with me?” he wondered aloud as he pulled himself to his feet and took a steadying breath.

“Yer too tough on yerself,” Dakstaan said.

Ryden whipped around, flushing red as he realized Dakstaan had probably been standing behind him for longer than he would have preferred. “You can thank my father for that.” He avoided eye contact with the towering Rastaadian.

“He doesn’ mean to be so hard on ye.” The Training Master lowered himself down onto a tree stump with the grace of a hunting cat.

“Did he send you to apologize for him?”

“‘Course not. I don’ think he’s got anythin’ to apologize fer, in the first place. Yer pa’s a great man. Maybe the best man I know. Wouldn’t kill ye to listen to’im once in a while.”

“Why do you care?” Ryden ignored the projectile.

“‘I can’t have ye two at each others’ throats every time we’re trainin’, it looks bad. I told’im to give ye some space. Now go on home and clear yer head. I’ll see ye fer yer lesson tomorrow. And no more tantrums. I’m here to train ye, not to babysit.”

“I didn’t ask for you to come talk to me, did I?”

“Ye didn’ have to! I held ye when ye were born, Ryden— I care ‘bout ye like ye were me own son! I hate seein’ ye make yerself miserable, and don’ ye dare blame it all on yer pa! Piss off and go home, now.”

Ryden’s simmering anger melted in the face of Dakstaan’s brutal honesty. “Sorry. See you tomorrow.” He trudged off with Dakstaan’s words ringing in his ears.

He glanced back at the Lord’s Keep— the towering walls, the narrow windows, the suffocating square utility of it all. Ryden saw no beauty in it, just a giant heap of stones that housed all the men and women who kept Corbryn’s government intact, and all who served them. His father was somewhere in there, doing whatever he did besides make Ryden miserable. He had no idea; his father barely talked to him unless it was about soldiery. He snorted in disgust and turned away from the massive structure, his heart screaming against the future he knew he would spend there. For all of its practical worth, for all the power it represented, it didn’t matter to the young Greyhart.

Ryden turned his gaze northwards, towards the Celestial Cathedral, the first religious structure to The High Father erected on the entire continent. It was said to be the grandest cathedral in the east, rivaled only by Skyreach, a place of worship in Eldin. Skyreach was hundreds of miles to the northwest, nestled into the Titan’s Teeth Mountains that separated Corbryn from its northern neighbor, Rastaad.

He hoped to travel there one day, for if Skyreach could diminish the beauty of the Celestial Cathedral’s swooping arches, intricately carved columns and sky-piercing towers, then he would love to see it. As it was, the majesty of the Celestial Cathedral filled his heart with a quiet happiness every time he saw it. He only hoped he could learn to sketch something half as stirring as the scenes depicted in the stained-glass windows that spanned entire walls. When the sun reflected off the sandstone, the images flared to life beneath a fiery, golden veil.

Ryden paced back across the sprawling grounds where he spent much of his time, past the blacksmiths and armorers, the builders and masons, the glass makers and artists, and the dozens of other masters of their trade located further to the south along Merchant’s Row. The smell of smoke and leather, the din of rapid conversations punctuated by the ring of hammer on metal, and the captivating colors used by those whose toil brought beauty to this otherwise bleak world of steel, sweat, and blood; they engulfed his senses as he traversed the domain of the skilled laborers.

Ryden looked east, towards the barracks where the entirety of Corbryn’s standing army was quartered. One of them would soon be his future home, he realized with a sinking feeling. If he wasn’t his father’s son, he could live peacefully, creating something for a living, compelled only to wield arms if his local lord were to marshal an army.

After skirting the bustling marketplace, Ryden arrived at the stables nestled against the forty-foot granite walls that imprisoned him. He rode westward through the clusters of villages towards his family’s estate, away from Castle Elhan and his father.  

* * *

Rylar climbed the stairs to High Lord Elias’s council chamber and rehearsed his plan. Despite feeling unprepared, he stepped onto the landing before a warped wooden door guarded by Ulric Dainsroy, captain of the High Lord’s personal guard. Rylar had never seen him in action, but if the rumors of his prowess were accurate, he was formidable indeed. Under his watch, nobody had dared an attempt on Elias or his family. Rylar found that he liked him; he was dutiful and respectful. A good soldier.

“High Commander.” Dainsroy bowed his helmed head, peering upwards through bushy brows with dark eyes.

“Dainsroy.” Rylar nodded curtly. “Aren’t you due for a day off?”

“The next one,” said Ulric with a chuckle. “And yourself?”

“The one after.”

It was a recurring joke; Rylar figured between the two of them, they could count their days of leisure on one hand and still have fingers to spare. Ulric bowed again and opened the door, which squeaked in protest.

Rylar entered the small room where the council convened. It was a nondescript chamber with bare stone walls, designed for the purpose of important, covert meetings, rather than receiving guests and conveying the majesty of the building, as did the High Hall. Torches bathed the chamber in a dancing glow that did nothing to dispel the pervasive chill of the castle. High Lord Elias was already there with two of his other advisors, Zane and Marlow, who were the realm’s treasurer and general advisor, respectively.

“Good morning, Rylar,” High Lord Elias said.

“My Lord.” Rylar straightened from his bow to regard his beloved leader.

Although Elias was nearly twenty years older, he always treated Rylar as an equal. The High Lord sat in a nondescript chair at the head of the table, stroking his salt and pepper goatee with a spider-like hand. The years in this position had taken their toll; his face was weathered like tarnished bronze. Out of that tired visage, though, shone piercing eyes the color of autumn leaves, almost amber.

As Rylar crossed the room and sat, Elias moved his fidgeting hand from his beard to a special pin worn only by Corbryn’s High Lord. Laryl’s Pin, named for the creator of their current government, was a crimson shield bearing the image of two hands, one black, one gold, reaching skywards towards a sun and a moon on opposite corners of the shield; the symbol of Corbryn and their faith. Elias thumbed the sigil absently, awaiting the final member of the council.

Zane broke the silence. “Where is he?”  He nervously fiddled with his facial hair; a razor-thin mustache above perpetually pursed lips.

“Are you in some sort of rush?” Marlow taunted through a yawn. He languished back in his chair and placed his hands on his ample belly.

“I don’t like sitting here idly,” Zane said. His leaf-green eyes darted to and fro, as if scanning for either the nearest exit or some unseen assailant.

Coward’s eyes, Rylar thought.

After a long silence, the door creaked open and the last member shuffled through. If the High Priest, most exalted among all the clergy, was the Celestial Church’s right hand, High Empath Olren was the left. Whereas the clergy were mere men and women, the empaths were something more.

As a seasoned veteran of many battles, Rylar was no stranger to gruesome sights, but Olren’s hideousness always unnerved him. His complexion was a lifeless gray, as if no blood ran through his veins. Maybe it didn’t, Rylar often wondered. Olren’s face had not a single hair anywhere, not even eyebrows. He fixed Zane with a stare from sunken eyes that were also gray, but burned with a fearsome vigor that contradicted everything about his shriveled, feeble appearance. Olren was so bent with age, he could hardly walk to his chair without the support of a walking stick as gnarled as the emaciated talons that were his hands. Every inch of his corpse-like skin, stretched tightly over brittle bones, was marred with discolored spots and veins like blue worms. Rylar walked around the table and guided Olren into his seat. He had to remind himself not to flinch from the glacier-cold skin. Olren’s robes, also a dirty gray, held the musk of something sick, nearly dead.

“Let’s discuss the matter at hand,” Elias said. “Tiberius Khan will become High Lord when he arrives in Elhan. I expect he’ll leave his home in the next few days. Which of you will volunteer to serve him when he takes over?”

“I will,” Zane said.

“Afraid to give up your cozy seat here?” Marlow brushed his curly brown hair away from his face. It would have looked cherubic, were it not for the scraggly patches of beard that dotted his pockmarked cheeks.

“I suppose you’ll be taking your leave, then,” Zane said.

“Of course. You’d be wise to do the same.”

“I didn’t earn my station just to give it up because some people hate our new High Lord.”

“Half of Corbryn, by my count.”

“Not quite half. The vote went his way,” said Zane.

“The votes could have been tampered with.”

Olren shook his head. “We do not meddle to our own ends. We serve—”

“The church,” Marlow spat.

“You may be able to interrupt a spineless worm like Zane, but I’ll not suffer it. We serve the people through the church, as we always have.” Olren’s voice was surprisingly deep, devoid of all tone and emotion, each syllable a barb between lingering dead space.

Marlow rolled his eyes. “So you say.”

“So I say… You have a way with words, Marlow. Tread carefully with your next, and hear mine. You know how the votes are counted. We couldn’t do what you’re suggesting even if we wanted to.”

“So, by your reasoning, the most powerful group of people in the known world can’t influence the lords, who are supposed to vote in accordance with the wishes of the peasants they rule, but have no real incentive to do so?” Marlow waved his hands with every word, his contempt plain to see.

“That’s not how our powers work, fool.”

“That’s the problem— nobody besides the empaths knows exactly how your powers work. You expect us to take you at your word?”

Olren lost his patience and stood. Despite his diminutive stature, everyone shrank in their seats. The High Empath looked around the table before fixing Marlow with his burning gaze. “Yes.” He let the word hang in the air for a tense moment. “I grow weary of this nonsense. The priests of our faith are not blessed by The High Father, nonetheless, they are loved by the people. We empaths bear the Touch of Nassero, yet are distrusted without reason. Despite the burden that small-minded dolts cast upon our shoulders, we serve our lords. We serve the people. We relay the vote counts as they stand. It’d be in your best interest to understand that.”

“Getting a bit defensive, are you?”

“How intuitive of you— maybe you’re becoming an empath. At least then, you’d understand the ground you tread. Your ire is misplaced— perhaps fatally so. I will not continue to forgive your impertinence regarding me or the Celestial Church.” An uncomfortable silence crept into the chamber, suffocating the occupants. Olren didn’t blink.

“Please sit, High Empath Olren,” Elias said. “So you will stay, Zane?”

“Yes, My Lord.”

“And you, Marlow?” Elias asked.

“No, My Lord. I will not sit here and bear witness to the destruction of our realm. I won’t associate myself with Tiberius’s madness under any circumstance.”

“What makes you think he’s going to be so horrible?” Zane asked.

Marlow scoffed. “High Empath Olren, can you recite the end of his victory speech?”

Olren closed his eyes and reiterated, verbatim, part of the speech Tiberius Khan had made when he was elected to be the new High Lord of Corbryn. “The bleeding of our great nation stops now. No more will the people of Corbryn be divided; the rich and the poor, the east and west. Our real enemy is to the far west! Too long have the Vaelenites stolen farmland while our own people starve! They flood the trades and disrupt Corbrynian labor! They work the mines unchecked by their greedy masters, taking us all closer to the Rhul Iveri!”

Rylar snorted aloud at the superstitious mention. Rhul Iveri was an Old Corbrynian term that referred to a mysterious evil hidden deep underground. Many in the west, including Lord Khan, believed that to mine too deeply would invite disaster upon the realm. Tiberius himself owned several such mines, and strictly regulated the depths to which his workers were allowed to dig.

Olren continued. “It stops now! The safety of Corbryn matters above all else! I will remove them all from this land and send them back where they belong! The One True God demands it! He rains His Tears over the west as a sign that we must take back what is ours! And they dare pour over our borders as if our land belongs to them? The bleeding of our great nation stops now! I swear before Nassero, I will tear down the bridges and build a great wall full of towers to stop them from ever making their way into our home again! I will give Corbryn back to you. Together, we will continue to drive civilization forward! We are the beacon! We are the light! We cannot allow others to hold us back! You have called upon me to deliver this blessing unto you, and I swear to you, I will see it through. You have my word. The bleeding of our great nation stops. Now.”

“Charming words from your dear Tiberius,” Marlow said.

“I didn’t vote for him,” Zane said. “You call me a coward, but at least I’m willing to serve a man I despise in hopes that I might do some good.”

“You think your ledgers and sums will stop him from antagonizing Vaelen, Rastaad, Kur’Sahn, or any of the other kingdoms? Seven years is a long time to clasp our hands and pray he doesn’t turn the whole world against us.” Marlow’s disgust was palpable. “I owe no allegiance to a population foolish enough to elect him. They’ve brought this plague upon themselves. Now they can pay the consequences for it. I’m washing my hands of this.”

“I understand,” Elias said. “And you, Rylar? You’ve not said a word.” He turned his golden gaze upon the High Commander.

Rylar tensed up, hardly able to believe the words he was about to say. Before he could back out and pretend he never had the idea, he locked eyes with Elias and spoke. “What if you refuse to concede power?”

Zane gasped, Marlow laughed, and Olren remained silent. Elias merely cocked an eyebrow and uttered a single word. “What?”

“You took an oath to serve the people of Corbryn. Most of us in this room believe Tiberius will bring about the ruin of our realm. If refusing to concede power results in the greater good, then why not?”

“That’s treason,” Zane said.

Elias nodded. “He’s right.”

“Is it treason if you’re preventing harm? Marlow is right, Tiberius isn’t bluffing,” Rylar said. “When he served under me, he was impulsive and arrogant, but ruthlessly effective. Difficult to predict and control. It’d be a mistake to take him lightly.”

“All the more reason not to cross him,” Zane said.

“I can’t believe I’m agreeing with Zane, but he’s right,” Marlow said. “Only fools make enemies of the rich, and only the reckless antagonize the wrathful. Lord Khan is both. Do you want a third civil war?”

Rylar ignored his opposition. “You took an oath to protect the people, My Lord.”

“And another part of that oath is to respect and defend the sacred code by which we live. I cannot ignore our laws for the sake of my own pride,” Elias said.

“Don’t do it for pride. Do it to protect your people from themselves.”

“I cannot start a war.”

“Even if it comes to that, it would still be better than the alternative.”

“War is a certainty,” Marlow said. “Do you think he’ll just sit back as you spurn his ancient family name and seize power that is, unfortunately, rightfully his? He and his supporters would be in open revolt.”

Rylar shook his head. “If we contact the Regional Lords one at a time, starting with those most likely to be loyal, we can garner support. Your brother would support us, My Lord, and so would your sister’s husband. Those who initially might be hesitant to aid us would be pressured to join us in the face of our alliance. If we do this correctly, we can win the war before it starts. Tiberius is powerful, but he can’t lead a rebellion with only the Rocklands to support him.”

“And what’s to stop the ones who pledge loyalty to us from defecting once Tiberius, being as reckless as he is, rebels anyway?” Marlow asked. “Or what if you overestimate a single lord’s loyalty, and he tips off Tiberius before we’ve solidified our alliance? This can only end in war.”

“It’s a terrible thing to plunge your own populace into warfare because you are afraid of what unknowns the future may bring,” Elias added.

“Do not mistake the suddenness of my proposal as being cavalier about the whole affair,” Rylar said. “I’ve thought long and hard about this. I have prayed. I know what I’m asking. I’ve fought in more battles than everyone here combined, and I know the face of war more intimately than I know my own wife. I’ve seen friends hacked apart, and drenched myself in blood more times than I can count. I’ve heard the screams of the innocent dying, and seen entire villages reduced to a scorch mark on the earth. And having seen all that, I still know, in my heart of hearts, this is the right course of action. Whatever hardships arise would be temporary, and ultimately lead to a better world. Corbryn would remain intact, as it has through our past conflicts. The other path leads to our downfall.”

Zane and Marlow voiced their opposition again, talking over each other alternately and half-finishing each other’s sentences. This was not going the way Rylar had anticipated— he had hoped Marlow would agree with him, since he loathed Tiberius and all he stood for. Rylar was about to holler a reply when Olren interrupted the cacophony.

“Enough. The three of you have made your positions clear.”

Rylar prepared himself for a debate with Olren, a prospect he wasn’t fond of.

“As your empath, My Lord, I can only say this. The prevention of widespread death and hardship is at the epicenter of the covenant we make with the High Father. Every decision I make is weighed on that scale. With that as my guide... Rylar is correct. Tiberius is a destructive force who cannot rule responsibly, and he will cause endless harm beyond his seven years as High Lord. If we betray Vaelen again, they’ll become an eternal enemy. Your duty is to serve your people above all else. So serve them. Deliver them from this tyrant.” Rylar’s shock abated, and he sent Olren a look of profound gratitude.

“And what if I become the Tyrant?”

“History is full of great men who are demonized for doing things their subjects don’t understand. It is unjust that you’re called upon to make this sacrifice, but sacrifice in service to your fellow man is one of the core tenets of our faith. Were you a lesser man, I wouldn’t trust you in this, no matter how bleak the realm’s future under Tiberius. I advise this because I know you,” Olren said. “I know you will lead Corbryn out of this pit it has cast itself into.”

“Rylar, forgive me for asking, but is this suggestion motivated by anything else?” Elias asked. “Your past with Tiberius? Or perhaps—”

“No,” Olren said. “I sense nothing that would lead me to conclude Rylar is acting in self-interest.”

“You know I don’t like being read,” said Rylar.

“As if that mattered. Tongues lie. Emotions are honest. The High Commander believes this to be in the best long-term interest of Corbryn. And so do I.”

Elias sat in a long silence, chin in his palm, as his eyes settled on each councilor. He cleared his throat. “I must pray and think on this matter. Not a word of this is to be breathed by any of you. We will meet again at this time tomorrow with my decision.”