1/19/1272 09:00 Queen’s Convent, Arghentia
Princess Tania Alejandra Tsiarkeh feeds papers and cipher books into a roaring fireplace blaze that is smoking up her otherwise empty sixty-fourth-floor penthouse apartment. The teenage Princess’ majordomo, Squire Emilio Costa, peers over the balcony’s railing to the crowded street below.
“They’re here, Your Highness,” he grimly reports.
“How many?” Tania asks as she shovels another mass of papers into the blaze.
“A hundred, easily,” Emilio says. He steps back into the room.
Blocking all east-west access to Bay Street, one hundred trained soldiers of Prince Talon Tsiarkeh, Duke of Bedalm, are donning flak vests and helmets. They’re checking the magazines on their bolt-action rifles. The captain of the group holds up a piece of paper with Tania’s image. “You heard the Duke, gentleman, ladies. We’re to take her alive unless she resists. She is unarmed and extremely dangerous. If her hands move, open fire. Understood?”
“Sir, yes sir!” the soldiers shout in unison. The shout starts a flood of evacuees from the site. They tangle with the riot troops, breaking their formation and swallowing their commanders.
In the penthouse, Tania finishes feeding the last of the papers into the fire. She turns to her majordomo, her eyes puffy and red. Is it the smoke or the dashed dreams burning in her fireplace that has clouded the eyes of the Princess? Emilio can’t tell, even though he’s known the Princess since she was in diapers.
“You got word to my people?” she asks, her voice ragged.
“Your ladies-in-waiting said something about hijacking one ferry and scuttling the rest,” he winces. “I confess they left in such a hurry that I have no idea how many of your people will make the rendezvous point.”
“And the plot?” Tania asks.
“I dispatched assassins to slay the assassins,” Emilio says, “but I put a slow poison in their tea. They won’t last two days.”
“Any word from the Arghentian Steam Ship Libertine?”
“It departed on time last month, your belongings and a majority of your liquid assets on board,” he says. “I entrusted your ladies with your traveling funds. Your royal stipend diverts into shadow accounts, which pass the funds along to secondary shadow accounts. It won’t take the Regent long to figure out the chain. Stay out of the Pan-Imperial branch offices. If they trace the accounts, they’ll wait for someone to draw on them, and derive your location from that information.”
“Did you inform our agents in Moriyume and Amburos to muddy the waters?” Tania asks.
“No time,” Emilio says, bowing his head. “Although Your Highness has a formidable faction among the commoners, our intelligence operations have been completely compromised. Her Highness should not contact known operatives and should respond with lethal force if they approach her.”
Downstairs, past the crowd of evacuees, the first soldiers find the lifts, powered by light levitation magic. Today, the platforms lie at the bottom of the elevator shafts, drained of magic. The soldiers curse and grumble as they report the unit’s coming sixty-four story climb.
Tania’s voice catches. It’s not the smoke of the already-dying fire.
“I didn’t want the agent here to be you, Emilio,” she sobs. “I need my ‘domo, now more than ever.”
“I’m an old man, Your Highness,” the white-haired sixty-year-old says to the white-haired albino beauty before him whose sunset-hued eyes glitter with tears. “Someone has to keep that company of soldiers from foiling your escape. I know too much to be allowed to live.”
She gasps, sobs, steps forward, and stoops to give her lifelong companion a final kiss on each cheek.
“Your wife, your children, and your grandchildren will be taken care of,” Tania says. “You got them to Madrath?” she finishes with a squeak and then collapses, bawling into the arms of her majordomo.
Emilio embraces Tania, patting her slim, bony back through her flimsy silken cloak. “Yes, Your Highness, I sent them away when you revealed your plan to me. If they don’t hear from me by the end of the day, they’re to start shopping for estates.”
The sweating, cursing soldiers battle up the stairs, flight after flight, squeezing past the slow-moving evacuees who clog both the north and south stairwells. Burdened by their armor and their heavy weapons, the troopers abandon all pretense of stealth.
“Your prep school classmate Dame Giulia Russo managed to miniaturize your entire remaining wardrobe from your townhouse in Eoisle,” Emilio says, trying to lighten the somber mood. “When you touch the first tiny item in the suitcase, the dweomer will explosively fail, she said. You’ll need to purchase several dozen more suitcases.”
“Bless her!” Tania sobs. She steps back, her hand on her forehead. “Will I even be able to pick it up?”
“It’s light as a feather,” he says. “After all, I carried up 64 flights of stairs.”
Tania shakes her head, trying to laugh but merely manages a sobbing mockery of mirth. “What will I do without you, Old Man?” she says.
Emilio goes to a knee, takes the Princess’ gloved right hand, and kisses it. “It was an honor to serve, Your Highness. Allow this proud old man one last honor.” He pauses. “I wish it had turned out differently.”
Tania gasps, her breathing deep and her eyes narrowing as she tries to regain her composure. “So do I,” she ruefully replies.
“Off with you then,” he says. He picks up a black steel handgrip. On top of the handgrip is a red button. Leading from the bottom of the handgrip is a long wire wrapped in braided cloth insulation.
Tania reaches into her purse and pulls out a travel rune. She begins chanting and tracing the rune with her thumb. Amid the dispersing smoke, the smell of ozone begins to rise. She closes her eyes, but the light from behind them shines through her magenta irises, painting pink spots on her pale eyelids. She walks over near the door and picks up the suitcase with her spare hand. The power of the chant builds. She walks towards the breeze, admitted by the open bay window. She looks out over the city of Queen’s Convent one last time.
Just as the first golden motes appear in the air around the Princess, the sound of a splintering door and shuffling boots shatter the silence. Another tear escapes Tania’s eye. A soldier turns the corner, sees her, and takes a wild, aimless shot. The Princess disappears in a puff of green smoke disturbed only by the passing bullet, and the teardrop that hits the floor just Emilio presses the red button.
Tania’s rapid magical transit to the top of the extinct volcanic cone in the middle of Queen’s Convent Bay, a distance of some two miles, lurches to a nauseating halt just three feet in front of an open doorway that leads to the only fold point in Arghentia.
Sixty-four separate charges trigger in the apartment building she just vacated. The high-rise instantly begins to pancake. One hundred soldiers, a captain, two lieutenants, and Princess Tania’s right-hand man die before the collapsing building disappears in the clouds of billowing gray pulverized concrete.
Tania sees the jaws of the two armed guards at the door drop at the disaster before them. Four guards behind the cannons pointed at the door turn their attention away from the freshly-arrived noble.
Without a moment’s hesitation, just as she’s planned and rehearsed for weeks, she drops her suitcase and falls to her back while twisting a ring on her gloved right hand. Exploding from the ring, a disk of magical force forty feet across but only a micron high cleaves all six of the guards in half. Blood and bile spill out onto the walkway around the building. Tania rises quickly, her soft-bottomed shoes and the bottom of her floor-length gown soaking in the fold point guards’ spilled gore. She looks down the stairs and sees her people. She looks back over to the harbor and sees the city-side ferry boats explode, buying Tania precious minutes. Her loss is too bitter to allow her to smile.
“Move!” she shouts to the twenty-five dames and knights and the two-hundred and fifty family members, servants, and serfs who scramble up the stairs to the top of the volcano. The servants strain under the burden of the luggage. Seconds seem to slow to hours. Tania cringes at every glint of metal or a hint of movement on the city’s rooftops.
The first person to the top of the stairs is Dame Carmella Sanguinetti, the first among Tania’s ladies-in-waiting. They briefly embrace Carmella’s colorful gown, jet black hair, and olive tone skin, a stark contrast with the Princess’ white hair, pale skin, and black and silver ensemble.
“Emilio?” Carmella pants, her eyes radiating her inner panic.
Tania shakes her head to the negative and pats the young dame’s shoulder. “Go! Scathsgire. Wait there.”
Carmella gasps but runs into the building.
By the time last of the two-hundred and fifty has received the word of the destination, Tania’s sun-strained eyes can already see the troopers loading into rowboats as the harbor traffic bustles past. She hesitates, staring at the city that has been her home almost since her birth. She bites her lower lip, turns, and runs into the darkness of the building.
Before her, the fold point pulses with a sickening indigo light. The last relics of a lost civilization before humanity, the fold points allow instantaneous travel to any other fold point on the planet. Scholars have long tried to understand the lost technology that created this efficient worldwide network. Those scholars worked for her. Topped by a fourteen-ton lintel stone, the cold gray standing stones obscure what might be on the other side. Tania can hear boots on the stairs. She steps in, and whispers “Scathsgire.”
Another soul-jarring lurch. Tania stumbles out of the matching fold point four-thousand miles away on another continent. In another culture. One of her knights catches her fall. She quickly reaches into her purse and pulls out a metal sphere pulsing with blinking yellow lights. She twists the top half, which causes the small orb to chime. Tania rolls the ball into the fold point, then shouts, “Fire in the hole!” She turns away, covering her ears.
A massive, subsonic pulse simultaneously sounds at every fold point on the planet. The indigo blue light flashes out. The fold point network fails.