"Abramm Kalladorne will fall, Vesprit." The rhu'eman warhast Hazmul did not speak the thought aloud, but the breath of his host body fogged the window glass before him anyway, blurring his view of the snow-dusted Grand Fountain courtyard below. In the gray light of the foggy early-spring morning, a lengthening line of gleaming carriages queued up at Whitehill's front entrance to his left, preparing for the coronation procession. "If all goes as planned, that fall will begin today." He sipped from his porcelain teacup, then added, "All is going as planned, I trust?"
Though his rhu'eman underling, Vesprit, stood behind him, Hazmul didn't need to see him to sense the pleased confidence rippling through the underwarhast's essence. "It is, sir," Vesprit replied.
"You've cracked the stone and awakened the miniol?"
"A couple of hours ago now."
Servants' voices drifted from the sitting room of Hazmul's apartments. He ignored them. Human ears could not discern his conversation with Vesprit any more than human eyes could discern their bodies. The servants would see only the fleshly host in which Hazmul dwelt, standing at the window of his sumptuous east-wing bedchamber sipping morning tea. Underwarhast Vesprit would be a faint amber glow, unnoticed in the lamplight.
As the underwarhast began a recitation of all that had been attended to in preparation for this momentous day, Hazmul continued to sip his tea and watch the coaches gather, the end of their line soon disappearing into the fog. Down in the valley, the University clock tolled the half hour in a single deep tone. Hardly had it struck when the palace doors flew open and a party of nobles cloaked in furs and dark woolens emerged. They glided down the snow-dusted steps to the first carriage, head of the procession that would soon wind down to the Hall of Kings at Avramm's Mount. As its doors slammed shut and the vehicle sped away, the next one rolled immediately into its place.
A momentous day this was indeed, the culmination of weeks of preparation among friends and foes alike. Today Abramm Kalladorne, whom some called king of Light and others deemed servant of Shadow, would be officially and ceremonially crowned the thirty-sixth king of Kiriath. Today he would move among his people as he had not in all the six months since he had slain the morwhol, would stand before them arrayed in the full splendor of the royal regalia and receive the crown in all the solemn ritual and majesty Kiriathan tradition could muster. And in so doing, would either convince the masses he was indeed Eidon's choice or bitterly disappoint them with the proof that he was not.
It was Hazmul's intent that bitter disappointment soundly edge out any thrills or encouragement—a goal he had worked toward for six months now. With four thousand years of experience, he was well versed in the ways of destroying a man and took particular pride in his ability to neutralize those servants of the Enemy who crossed into the battlefield of their so-called destiny.
It was a great and intricate dance, an effort that took time, patience, cunning, ruthlessness ... and the ability to exploit a man's weaknesses, day by day grinding away at his confidence. As king, Abramm had provided him many areas to exploit, but the richest had been the damage wrought by the morwhol. The day after its claws ripped through Abramm's face and arm, Hazmul had teased to life the latent spore it had left behind. Before long, Abramm's nearly-closed wounds had suppurated viciously, his natural spore-intolerance erupting into a raging defense that left him fevered and bedridden for almost a week. When it was over, his left arm was twisted with red, ropy scars, and the marks on his face were far from being the thin white lines his physician had predicted.
Now, after six months of living in denial, Abramm would face the reality of what he had become. Last night Hazmul had ignited his growing frustration with his arm into a confrontation with the one man able to really hurt him: his longtime friend and ally, Trap Meridon. Asked outright, Meridon had admitted he believed Abramm's arm to be irredeemably crippled, an assessment Abramm had not received with good grace.
Today he would see the rest of what had been done to him—the facial scarring he pretended was inconsequential. Already struggling to escape the mental morass of bitterness and self-pity into which Meridon's revelation had plunged him, Abramm's shock at seeing his new face should push him in so deep he would be helpless against the attack Hazmul had planned for the final act of today's little drama.
"His aura this morning has been consistently blue-black and murky," Vesprit reported now, "and the frequency of coruscation has fallen off dramatically. I don't see him recovering before the ceremony."
Hazmul turned his attention briefly to the tendril he'd had on the king since early last evening, confirming Vesprit's report. Abramm was still being dressed in the royal bedchamber. And while Hazmul could not read his thoughts at this distance—not an easy task even in the same room—Abramm's emotional state came through clearly in the low, throbbing tones of despair.
"Probably not," he agreed, "but I don't want to take any chances. He's surprised us too many times before." Below him the noblemen and their ladies flowed from the palace in an almost continuous stream to board their carriages and wheel away. "What of Madeleine? Were you able to plant the images I suggested?"
"Her guardian put up a strong fight, but we prevailed." The frequency of Vesprit's essence intensified with admiration and approval. "You called it perfectly, sir. We tapped something so strong it shocked her right out of the dream." A trill of amusement whirled through Vesprit's vibrations as he added, "Her aura was blue-white when she awakened, then immediately turned to scarlet."
"Did she tell anyone what she'd dreamt?"
"Not a word. But she sat there in the bed for at least twenty minutes, her face in her hands, before the color returned to normal."
"Weeping?" Hazmul sipped again from his cup.
"No. She was more horrified and confused. And still aroused, despite it all.... She seemed unable to settle that part down." Vesprit paused. "How did you guess her feelings for him were so strong, sir? We've all noted their attraction to one another but ... we had no idea hers was that powerful. She had to have been hiding it even from herself."
Hazmul allowed himself a small smile. "I've had a lot of experience with these creatures." He checked the tendril on Abramm again: still no change. "You're sure she'll have no contact with the king this morning?"
"She may not even attend the ceremony, sir. When I left, she was still in bed, her maid worried she'd taken ill."
"Good. Even a chance meeting in the hall could be disastrous. Her influence on him is too great."
"Don't worry, sir. We've got the double rank of guards on her as ordered, and her brother, that idiot Leyton, is on his way to her chambers as we speak. Though, truly, sir, I doubt she'll be able to look Abramm in the eye for days—let alone speak to him. She is as rattled as I've ever seen her. It was a masterful blow."
Again Hazmul nodded. "Sounds like she'll be no help to him during the ceremony, either, which is what I'd hoped.... What about the miniol? Has anyone noticed it yet?"
"No, sir. But even if they sensed something, it would never occur to them to inspect the stone."
Captured by Alaric the Bold six hundred years ago, the border stone had been set beneath the coronation chair to symbolize Kiriathan authority over the borderlands. A benign participant in countless Kiriathan coronations, no one had any reason to suspect it harbored an ancient evil that might one day rise to take its revenge....
Hazmul asked a few more questions, gave Vesprit his final instructions, then dismissed him. Below, the carriages continued to emerge from the fog to his right as others rolled away from the palace stairs to his left. About now they should be hitching up the king's vehicle, unaware that an illicit nighttime jaunt across the Royal Preserve in the hands of two witless stable boys had cracked its front axle—a crack that would be made manifest to all in about an hour or so.
Hazmul smiled at the moving carriages. It never hurt to put redundancies into one's plans.
He touched the tendril again and went alert with the change he sensed in it: sharp fear alternating with self-condemnation. The question of uncovering the bedchamber mirror had finally been asked. Excellent. Are you going to look at them, Abramm? he thought wryly. Or are you too much of a coward?
He waited, but nothing happened.
"Sir?" The human voice, startlingly loud, intruded upon his mental surveillance. He turned to find his manservant standing in the bedchamber doorway holding a heavy overcloak. "It's time," the man said.
With a sigh, Hazmul set his teacup on an end table and strode toward the servant. Well, you rarely get everything to go as you wish, no matter how brilliant and well executed the plan.
But just as the servant placed the cloak upon his master's shoulders, a shock of dismay and anguish leaped through Hazmul's connection with Abramm, the emotions so strong they made the rhu'ema's borrowed body shudder in sympathetic vibration. And brought a smile to his lips. Then again, sometimes you do.
Excerpted from SHADOW OVER KIRIATH © Copyright 2011 by Karen Hancock. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House. All rights reserved.