The Captain-General of the Nightstalkers and I walked side by side, striding quickly to escape the sweltering heat of the crowded amphitheater.

Once free of the oppressive crush of bodies, I was finally able to take in a deep breath of air untainted by the smell sweat, body odors, and other scents I was determined not to decipher.

“Thank the gods you came when you did, Phoris. That spectacle sickens me, and I hate to sit there for even a moment longer than I must. Any longer, and I don’t know what I would have done. I hate to think of what horrifyingly bloody event will take place next.”

He grunted noncommittally. Was he even listening?

“You seem troubled, Phoris. Is all well?”

“Troubling news from home, Deucalion. My mother is unwell, and my sister is worried that she will soon go to join my father.”

I had met his family on a number of occasions when I was younger, but my duties in the capital had prevented me from making the journey to Ducasia for nearly a decade.

“That is troubling indeed. Perhaps you should take a few weeks to visit them. I know Angrion is more than capable of handling your duties here in the city, and I have been promising you leave for months now.”

“Thank you, Deucalion, but I believe it will not be necessary quite yet. I still have a few tasks that need my personal attention, but I will hold you to that promise when the time comes.”

“Don’t put off the visit too long, my friend. You will want to see your mother before she passes from this realm.”

“Aye, I know. It’s just…”

He was obviously struggling to get out the words. I let him think as I handed a few khadi to a nearby beggar child.

It was hard not to notice the poverty that had crept into the capital city. Men, women, and children dressed in ragged clothing hawked their wares, and beggars crowded the stream of patrons leaving the stadium.

Phoris’ words took my mind off the world around me.

“It’s hard to go back home and see the state to which Ducasia has been reduced. Carnalia is an ever-increasing threat to the north, and the Mexica to the south are becoming more daring with their incursions. What used to be prosperous, fertile land has now become arid desert, and my family is falling on hard times.”

The worry on his face had me concerned.

“It is hard for me to fulfill my obligations to my people when my presence is needed here, but the Empress’ safety is my first concern.”

“Which is why I am telling you to take some time off to visit Ducasia. A visit to your old stomping grounds will do you good.”

“Aye, you have the right of it, Deucalion. Very well, after tomorrow night’s ceremony is complete, I will take a few weeks’ leave to visit my family. Thank you for being a friend.”

“Of course. After all, it is the very least I could do after you rescued me from that horrible stadium.”

My small mansion was just around the corner.

“You can be about your business, Phoris. I’ll be safe in the short walk to my house. No doubt Derchon is still standing guard, with Traga slinking around nearby?”

“Of course, Lord Chancellor.” He rarely passed up an opportunity to poke fun at me.

“Oh, off with you. Will you be in attendance tonight?”

“If I can attend to the last few…complications…preventing my leave, I believe I will see you there.”

We embraced briefly, and he disappeared into the crowd in moments.

The stroll to my mansion was peaceful, the street empty. I saw no sign of Traga, but Derchon greeted me at the front entrance.

“Quiet day at the Imperial Games, Lord Deucalion?”

“It’s only Lord Deucalion in public, Derchon. Yes, everything was fine. Though the games were particularly unappealing this year.”

“That seems to be the way of things, sir.”

“At ease, Derchon. I’ll be going out much later tonight, but for the rest of the afternoon, I want to remain undisturbed. Is that clear?”

“Very good, sir.”

His face showed how difficult he was finding it to keep a smile hidden.

I discarded my robes of office, opting for a comfortable tunic instead. The scent of something pleasant and familiar wafted from the open door of my bedroom, bringing a smile to my face.

“My lord has returned?”

The delicious voice of Acacia accompanied the enticing scent.

“Yes, my dear, your lord has returned. I have a bit of time until I have to prepare for tonight’s ceremony.”

“Wonderful. I can think of a few ways to pass the time.”

The doors to my room swung open as I strode through, revealing the scantily clad form of a beautiful woman lying in my bed. Within seconds, the form of the beautiful woman was not clad at all—my robes soon joining hers on the floor.

Dressing for tonight’s ceremony would have to wait.