The city was grey. The roads were an unpaved trail of dirt through low buildings full of old and ugly people and it stank for lack of a canalization. Risge was one of the oldest cities in the known world. How could it survive to be this pitiful? Her proud white mare trotted stoically forward. The beast was made for green, not for grey.
Through her golden Mask muffled sounds reached her ears. Between the steps of the guard accompanying her, another horse was closing in. “No resistance.” a hollow voice told her. Veria looked to her left to see the silver mask of her brother. “I don’t like it,” he added.
“Me neither.” she answered “It’s dirty and old. It doesn’t feel worth the effort.” But she knew better. Everything was at stake and somehow it didn’t work out the way they wanted. Why were they so calm? Through a window, Veria caught the eyes of a little girl. Not exactly ugly but with unkempt hair and an indifferent stare. She held eye contact. That girl wasn’t afraid or even nervous. She didn’t care.
“That’s not what I mean.” Claudius protested in his fifteen-year-old voice. So young, but always the tactician. “I don’t trust the quiet.” He shook his head theatricality. She felt the same. The battle had been a joke. Only a handful of soldiers had defended the city. The city didn’t look like it could feed more though. Maybe they had relied so much on the curse that they thought more soldiers weren’t necessary.
The street before them wasn’t even straight. Here and there one of the blocky building just reached into it. Looking down the street felt like looking into rusty a clockwork, the teeth of the cogwheels grinding on each other. They were headed for the castle. It was a huge grey tower without windows to which generations had added crooked alcoves and side chambers. No balconies. The curse of the land wouldn’t have allowed it.
Veria watched the jagged top of the tower reaching into the drab sky. “Get the guard inside the castle and the army into the towers and barracks near the walls.” she ordered. Her brother grunted as the captains of the guard followed her every word in an instant. “Don’t be a child.” she added softly “You did great on the field. But now, that the city is taken, the army is mine to command.”
From directly below the castle was even more intimidating. Older than any other building in the known world, taller even then the highest towers of her fathers’ castle and ugly beyond belief. The huge weathered copper gates were open, the entrance pitch black. Only the torches of the black hooded guard spent some flickering light. She fought the urge to hesitate and stepped in.
The air was stale and didn’t move. Her eyes did take a moment to adjust. Veria had expected some wide open space, but instead, the entrance led directly to a number of smaller corridors stacked and connected by stairs. “This way Regent.” a guard said and moved into the rightmost corridor. They walked silently for a long time through the tight space that wound itself through the building. It never branched off but was full of doors randomly appearing on the left and the right.
This building was not made for humans. The thought made her skin crawl. The guard seemed unaffected though, marching stoically. “How long has it taken you to find the throne?” she asked. The guard didn’t turn. “Couple of hours Regent.” he answered, no other remarks, but Veria could hear his urge to tell more. “Report.” she said flatly. The guard gave a shrug. “Regent, we don’t understand this place. All ways lead to the throne room. No way has an incline as far as we can tell and still, there is no chance all these corridors would fit into the lower floor.”
“You assessment?” she asked absentmindedly. When her hand touched the smooth grey stone of the corridor she could feel a deep vibration. Unsettling. What had the power to shake a building like this? “Two options.” The Guard said. He turned around and for the first time, Veria recognized the wrinkled face. Dranus, one of her fathers own. The oldest of the guards. “Either this is a very clever hidden decline. Intervening the corridors next to each other so that we don’t feel going down. In this case, we are underground now. Or…” he shrugged.
“Or a sigil distorting the space.” she said “But we were so sure there was only one Sigil here.” She followed the guars when he started moving again. They walked at least ten more minutes before they entered a huge hall with corridors going in all directions on several floors. In its middle was the throne and on the throne the King od Risge.
The king was a bald old man, a little overweight with a greenish grey skin. His head lay in his hand as if he was in deep unpleasant thought, but between his fingers a yellow eye watched them. “So you found your way back, imperial.” he said without moving. A voice like metal rubbing on stone. He didn’t put any effort into it, but his words still carried through the hall.
“Seems like it.” The guard answered. Veria smiled behind her mask. Everything worked out fine after all. With audible steps, she went through the hall directly to the king. “I am the appointed imperial Regent. The town, all its inhabitants and all its defenses are under my control from now on.” her voice was as deep as possible and the echo made it even more impressive. “Clear the throne at once and you and your family are spared.”
“Not all defenses girl.” the king answered tiredly “If you had conquered all defenses the emperor would be here to claim them.” He lifted his head and put his hands together casually looking at her expectantly with sunken eyes. “You can have this chair girl. Being the king of the cursed Kingdom of Risge is no honor, its a sentence. You can’t take it from me and you know it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here calling yourself ‘Regent’.” he gave some sounds that could have been a cough or a laugh.
“Tell me where your sigil is!” Veria demanded “I will spare your people and integrate the Kingdom of Risge into the empire for their own good. They will know mercy and maybe finally a hint of prosperity.”
The king laughed. Louder and louder. He held his belly, tears forming at the edges of his eyes. “So this is it?” he asked gasping for breath “You want the sigil? You are here to claim the curse?” He stopped abruptly and grunted “You will have it sooner than you want, princess.” He said. Then he stood up and walked around her to the guard. “The cells are this way.” The king pointed with his head. “Bring me there and do what you must.”
Veria stood dumbfounded. Did he know?