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Mal hurried to his room in the Palace guards’ barracks. As captain of the guard he could now have his own private room inside the Palace, but he chose to keep the one he had. It has served him well over the years and he didn’t see any reason to change it, as small and bare as it was. However, he did make one concession to his promotion as captain – a desk on which to do his paperwork.
When he had reached his room, he shut the door and placed the message on the desk. He stared at it as he tried to think of any reason why the emperor would summon him. For that is all it could be – a summons.
Finally, he picked it up and broke the seal. He read the message and confirmed what he already knew. He was to appear before the emperor at the hour after the evening meal. There was something strange about it, though. The wording made it seem more of an invitation rather than a command. Glancing out the window, Mal saw that he had plenty of time. Placing the message in a lockbox made especially for him by Folmar, he grabbed what he needed and left for the bathhouse.
Mal arrived at the appointed time wearing his captain’s uniform and smelling quite clean. He gave his name to the Serat at the door of the emperor’s private receiving hall, and examined the fine artwork on the doors as he waited. After some time, the doors opened, revealing a brightly lit hall. The emperor himself was waiting at the foot of the dais.
Mal walked into the hall, his military instincts taking over. His eyes took in everything, from the simple art friezes to the rich carpet beneath his boots. The empress was also present, sitting in one of the three chairs that were placed in a semi-circle pattern. She was not young, but neither was she old. Her once glorious golden hair had dulled with age, but it was beautiful as it hung nearly to the floor. Her eyes were bright emeralds with a touch of humor in them. Her lips were full under her nose, which had a slight bump on the bridge of it, and there were laugh lines on the corners of her mouth. When she stood to welcome Mal, he could see that her figure was slender and she kept her back straight. She smiled, and he saw that her teeth were white and almost nearly all were straight except for on canine tooth that was set above the others. Rather than detract, it added to the charm of her smile.
The emperor was the male equivalent of his wife. His youthful body belied the silver of his hair. He stood tall with the stature of a confidant man. Like the empress, his eyes resembled precious stones – brilliant sapphires rather than emeralds. His nose and chin were strong, indicating his strength of character. A smile played about his lips, though it was serious when it needed to be. He stood beside his wife with his hand on her shoulder. They were both dressed simply, as if making an effort not to appear intimidating. It almost seemed to Mal that they were imploring him before they had even spoken.
“Ah, Maluk! You did come!” exclaimed the emperor, Aldashan. His voice was strong and true.
Mal was amazed. The rulers were acting as if the message had been an invitation. Why would they invite when they could summon? And if it was merely an invitation, how could you say “no” to the emperor?
“It is an honor to be here, aharon, aharona.” Mal replied, a bit stiffly. He wasn’t too sure how to act.
“Come, Maluk, sit with us.” Aldashan smiled. “There is no need for your military discipline here! What we have to discuss is of a far greater matter than protocol. Please, Maluk – sit.”
Mal relaxed and took a seat.
Earth, 3 years ago
Stan stared into his wine glass. He couldn’t remember the last time he had drunk such an intoxicating
beverage. Perhaps it was the company, instead. He and his wife of 18 years were out on the town, combining two celebrations into one. Not only was tonight their anniversary, but he received the news today that his newest book had made it to the top ten bestseller’s list. The plan was to eat at the finest restaurant in town and then spend the night in a hotel. At the moment, he was waiting for Annie to return from the powder room so they could leave the restaurant.
He glanced up just in time to see Annie walking to their table. Walking? No, Annie never walked, she glided. Stan stood and watched the reaction in the room. He chuckled quietly to himself as every man and not a few women gazed at her, or glared at her in one woman’s case. He was used to other people’s reactions, but even after all these years he was still struck with her beauty.
At 38 years old, Annie had kept her slender figure, even after bearing two children. Her brown hair reached her shoulders in soft curls that bounced as she moved. Her limpid brown eyes always made Stan’s knees weak, and every smile was just for him it seemed. She was smiling now as she came closer to the table, completely oblivious to the attention she was getting. She lived for Stan, and he was the only man whose attention she wanted.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
“Yes, I am,” replied Stan, and he helped her with her coat. “Why don’t you wait here in the foyer while I bring the car ‘round?”
Annie nodded her assent, and Stan gave her a grin as he stepped out the door. She sighed as she watched her husband through the door window. His smile was devastating when matched with the strong nose and chin, not to mention his gorgeous green eyes and thick blond hair. There wasn’t a gray hair on his head, and he was pushing 40. She chuckled as she remembered counting her gray hairs just a few minutes ago in the ladies’ room. There weren’t many, but Stan seemed to defy aging somehow. She would love to know his secret. He was still athletically fit, too. He and their two daughters were always doing one thing or another on the weekends.
Stan pulled up, and raced around to the other side of the car to open the door for Annie as she stepped outside.
“Brrrr!” Annie said. She giggled like a girl at the puffs of warm air coming from her mouth into the cold air. “I do believe it’s much colder now than it was when we went inside.”
Stan laughed with her and nodded. He rubbed his hands to warm them as he went back around to the driver’s side. When he had started the car, he turned on the heater. After the initial cold blast, warm air filled the space and Annie breathed a sigh of relief. She had never done well in the cold.
“Stan, I was thinking,” Annie said as they pulled out of the parking lot. “Why don’t we go back home instead of to the hotel? We’ll save the money and we can watch a movie with the girls or something. I just feel like we should be home tonight.”
“Sure.” Stan agreed. “I was actually thinking the same thing. It feels like snow tonight and I don’t want to be away from them if it does. Your dad is there, but with his health I’d feel better if we were there with him.”
“Yes. I’m glad he came to live with us.” Annie said.
Stan headed out of town towards their home. They lived on a mid-sized farm about 10 miles from the nearest town. Stan worked the farm mostly by himself, but he did hire out for the busy seasons. In his spare time, he wrote fantasy books. He currently had 7 books on the market, and the last one was turning out to be his best one so far. Annie stayed home and home schooled the girls. She felt that the public schools were just incapable of teaching her daughters the way they needed to be. Besides that, they were just too smart. They each had hobbies that the average public school student had no understanding of.
About 5 miles from town, they turned onto a county road heading towards their house. It had started snowing a bit when they were on the highway, but it grew steadily worse. Stan wasn’t too worried at this point, but he drove carefully nonetheless. He smiled at Annie as he took her hand.
“Stan, what is that?” Annie asked.
“What is what, hon?”
“Oh. Well, it seems to be gone now.” she replied. “I just thought I saw something – there! Did you see it?”
Stan peered into the semi-darkness. “I’m not sure I see anything, Annie.”
“I could have sworn I saw something.”
“Well, it probably wasn’t anything to worry about.” Stan smiled again. Nevertheless, he slowed down.
Five minutes later, Stan slammed on the brakes. Standing in the middle of the road was a hooded figure. The car started to skid as Stan worked the brakes and steering wheel. It was no use. Because of the slickness of the road, the car skidded out of control until it went headfirst into an oak tree. Annie was thrown from the car, but Stan was pinned by the steering wheel. He looked groggily up as the hooded figure descended on him. He thought only one word before darkness overtook him - Annie.
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