The Blood Empress

By Ken McConnell

Sci-Fi

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937
11 mins

Chapter 1

The trail of blood began with the death of his predecessor and continued onward through time and over great distances. Young and old, poor and wealthy all fell to her red blade as her power grew like a mythical creature. She was indeed the Kamsa-riecht, and her influence would be felt for all of eternity if nothing was done to stop her.
The Kwizarra Lonn never had visions this clear or this horrifying before. Nor were they so vividly colored by blood and pain. The pain of an Empire being rendered extinct by its troubled leader. He could not let this vision come to pass. He had to change the future for the sake of the Empire and his own neck. She had killed the previous leader of the Soothsayers and drank his still warm blood. The blood had changed her.
She was a mere child at the time, now she was a young woman on the verge of becoming an adult, her power consolidated like no previous Emperor. She ruled absolutely from her oversized throne on the home world. It would not be a simple task to defeat her.
But she had to be stopped, and there had to be an heir to her throne or a bloody civil war would tear the Empire apart yet again. A plan began to form in the old man's mind even before the vision was complete. He would find her a consort and she would produce a child and then he would see to her death. He would use subterfuge and deception to bring her to her own downfall.
His wrinkled old black lips pursed into a smile at the thought of seeing her dead. He would cut off her pretty head himself and post it on the throne so all could see who really controlled the Empire. Not this spawn of the ruling classes but the masters of the underworld, the Soothsayers. He raised his long gray arms to the flames of the offering and laughed into the earthen tunnels under the Imperial castle.
***
Three Votainion warships floated facing each other in the dark depths of the void. They were light years from any known star system and trade route. Still very much in Votainion controlled space, but far enough from any civilized world to not be noticed.
The Kotre was new, she had only just completed her space trials. Her paint was still fresh, a mixture of burnt red and gray gleaming by the light of the closest star, a flagship for her class of heavy destroyer and for the Chief Strategist of the Empire - Lord Kasaga. The Savon and Vertake were battle worn and pock-marked with cosmic collisions. Both had come directly from the front lines of the war with the Alliance. Their captains annoyed with having to leave, their crews thankful for a rest from the constant terror and death of combat.
Kasaga stood facing the other captains in his ready room aboard the Kotre. He wore his red and black dress uniform, the others wore combat gray uniforms. Blue faces and hands starkly contrasting with their uniforms. Kasaga cast his dark, impenetrable eyes upon Captain Kree first. Kree waited patiently for his lordship to speak, not intimidated by any man's stare.
"Captain Kree, you're the best tactician in the Armada. You should have been selected for my position. Should have, but for the whimsy of our child Empress," Kasaga said.
He shifted his eyes to Captain Entor next. Entor kept his own eyes on Kree, who seemed pleased that Kasaga agreed he was the best tactician.
"Captain Entor, you're the best logician in the Armada. Without your brilliant insight, I could not have restructured this Armada in such short order."
Kasaga flexed his blue fingers upon the hilt of his falchion and the black leather belt. He was uncomfortable wearing it. Most of his career was spent behind the lines, buried in conference rooms and secret areas where he compiled statistics from the war like his fellow analysts. He never imagined that someday he would command all the Empire's military forces.
"I've summoned you both here to inform you of my next move. The Empress's attentions are not on the war. She will soon be preoccupied with Kon-kar. Suitors from all nine Kastra will attempt to win her favor. She has instructed me to delay my invasion until such time as she can give it her full attention."
Kree huffed. "My Lord, that's insane. We can't put a war on hold for her."
Captain Entor nodded his agreement. Kasaga agreed with them both. "No, we cannot. But we must."
Kree shook his head in disgust. "My men grow weary of our attrition. They know the Empire is capable of sending millions of troops into the war but somehow reinforcements only trickle in from the home worlds. We fight this child's game of hide and seek with the enemy, trying to lure them into our traps. If the Alliance wanted, they could surely flood the front with ships and men. But somehow they never manage to commit to the fight either. Rumor has it that they are retooling their industry for war and that when they are ready they will attack us with a vengeance."
Kasaga turned away and walked to the nearest porthole, where he looked out over the Vertake. The rust colored, manta shaped warship looked primed and Empre
Kree swore under his breath. "Give me the ships and his supply lines and I can bring this war to an end in no time. Just don't make me watch my valiant warriors die for no reason."
Entor looked at Kasaga. "Are we talking years My Lord, or months until we can launch your offensive?"
"Years, my friend. Years."
***
Empress Nykostra shifted herself on the pillow that she had placed on her throne. She had used it since she was nine and first assumed her place as the figurehead of the Votainion Empire. Her serene, pale blue face framed by straight cut black hair, betrayed the deeper thoughts that ran through her head. She was the Child Empress, forced to take her father's place when he was killed in a bloody takeover attempt by the Vicar Kastra.
In the years since that traumatic day, she had come a long way in securing her place as Empress of the greatest empire in the galaxy. Now entering her formative years and facing the uncertainty and angst of puberty she became increasingly restless. The war with the Alliance had been locked in a perpetual stalemate for several years. Her newly appointed Chief Architect had been building up his Armada and forming relationships with the other Kastras. All of the resources of the empire were slowly being funneled into the war effort. The time was nearing for a massive assault that would end the war and nearly double the size of the empire.
But the war was becoming increasingly hard for her to focus on. Her body was changing and she found herself attracted to certain members of her staff. She could have had anyone in the empire and yet no man was good enough for her, according to the Soothsayers. She was trapped again in her divine leader role and all the while her inner child was dying to the woman she was becoming.
The Soothsayers knew she was weakening. They had expected it and they were slowly becoming more and more involved in her daily life. Never insisting she do anything but always offering her possible solutions. She could read the minds of the weaker ones but they were as empty as space. Only the Kwizarra Lonn and his inner circle could block her mind probes. They were well practiced at the black art of mind control. Her distrust and hatred of them grew in her like a cancer.
She needed to exercise her powers again to solidify her position. She needed to kill someone. Anyone really. Just to make an example of her strength. Votainions respected power and strength above all else. She was not like the men she commanded. Votainion women rarely fought. They were subservient to the males and they arranged themselves into a hierarchy of intelligence and temperament. The smartest and angriest women always prevailed over the weak of mind and spirit.
Nykostra was exceptionally bright for her age but she knew that there were many older and stronger females who would rather kill her and take her crown than serve her loyally. She didn't trust any of them. Her court consisted mostly of weak minded, meek women who's minds she could penetrate to determine their innocence.
"My Empress, the Kwizarra Lonn seeks an audience with you," the sweet young attendant said. Her voice an octave above even the Empress.
"Send him away. I don't have time for his kind."
The attendant bowed and backed away, but she did not leave. The Empress peered into her mind and saw that she was under the control of the master Soothsayer himself – the Kwizarra Lonn. She was a mindless automaton at the mercy of the gray beast.
"I said send him away!" Her voice was deeper and echoed off the stone walls. The attendant backed away but kept her terrified head down.
Nykostra rose out of her seat and pulled her falchion from its sheath. The attendant lifted her sky blue face up just in time to see the blade coming at her in a silver blur. Her head rolled across the throne room and her body fell to the stone floor where it lay in a growing pool of blood.
Nykostra returned to her throne and sat down. Her royal gown was splotched with red and her blade still dripped at her feet. She straightened herself on her pillow and began to lower the blinds in her mind to shut out the Soothsayer's suggestions. By the time the black robed Kwizarra Lonn entered the chamber her face was sullen and her eyes distant.
"My Empress, are you okay?"
Nykostra focused on the colorful crest of a shield at the far end of the chamber. She never looked into the Soothsayer's red eyes. But she did notice that he appeared more pained than usual. She had clearly hurt his psychic link when she severed his connection to the attendant.
"What is it?" she said, her voice flat and disinterested.
The Kwizarra Lonn stepped around the body of the attendant.
"What happened to this poor girl?" he asked.
"She disobeyed me. What do you want?"
The Kwizarra Lonn glanced briefly at the vacant eyes of the head that laid on the stone floor.
"The enemy has suffered a great loss. Their President has been killed."
Nykostra lost her focus. She had not expected news of the front from her Soothsayer. She looked down at him briefly before regaining her composure.
"Was she assassinated?"
"Unknown. But her passing has preoccupied their leaders, both civilian and military. We have taken this to be a good omen. The sudden death of one's enemy's leader is always good fortune. We should proceed with your invasion plans immediately."
His wicked voice became stronger as he tried once again to persuade her with his tone, but she was ready for it. She rose to her feet quickly and grasped the hilt of her falchion. The Kwizarra Lonn took a step backwards without thinking.
"I haven't given the Chief Strategist my blessing for an attack. Our forces are not strong enough to ensure victory."
The Kwizarra Lonn bowed his hooded head. "Sometimes the element of surprise can trump the size of one's forces, my Empress."
Nykostra shouted into the chamber her high pitched voice echoing off the stone walls.
"Don't you tell me how to run my war!"
She pulled her sword out and up pointing it to the door. To his credit, the Kwizarra Lonn was not fazed by the immature weapon brandishing. He backed away slowly and waited for his Empress to calm down.
Nykostra fell back upon her thrown and rested the heavy falchion in her lap. The chamber was quiet again. She bumped her knee up and down and watched the bloody blade rise and fall. The sudden burst of anger had agitated her.
"My Empress, forgive me for upsetting you."
Nykostra shrugged indifferently.
"May I suggest a change of topic?"
She looked down at the gray skinned face watching her from under his hood. His voice had changed again and she sensed it. There were few tricks the smarmy Soothsayer could successfully work against her. Especially the ones aimed at her mind.
"You may."
The Soothsayer began to slowly creep towards her again keeping his red eyes lowered. "My Empress you have reached the age of consent. The Kastras will soon be sending their finest young men to call on you."
She turned away indifferent to the thought. He pressed on.
"Might I suggest that you establish a sporting contest to narrow the field a bit?"
Nykostra looked back at the Soothsayer, her interest piqued.
"What kind of sport?"
"One of skill, intelligence and strength. One that will be sure to weed out the weaker individuals and champion the most fit warrior to take his place at your side."
The idea intrigued her. It was customary for a sitting Empress to select her own betrothed from one of the nine Kastra. But the rules for how this was to be done were obscure. There hadn't been a young Empress such as herself in hundreds if not thousands of years.
Boys were the furthest thing from her mind of late. Being a secluded monarch didn't afford her many opportunities to socialize with youth her own age. She found little of interest in the obedient servants with whom she ordered around every day.
"There are no official rules for selecting someone. I'm free to conduct my search however I see fit."
The Soothsayer nodded, his gray hands clasped together under the long sleeves of his cloak.
"But I don't want to be bothered with it right now. I'm too young. I don't even like boys."
The Soothsayer's head rose up to look at his Empress.
"It is only a matter of time, my Empress. Only a matter of time."
She stood up, wiped the blood from the blade on her gown and slid the falchion back into its sheath. "It would appear that I have plenty of time now, wouldn't it?" She stepped off the throne and started to pace around the room.
"I want you to select the sport. Make sure it involves fighting and riddle solving." She stopped and turned back to face the Soothsayer who had been watching her from a distance.
"Don't make the riddle too complicated. I want him to be smart but not smarter than me."
The Soothsayer nodded and lowered his head.
***
Even an Empress has a bedtime. When the hour approached, she was undressed by her handmaidens and her bed turned down and heated for her. Her bedroom was huge by Votainion standards. High ceilings and stone walls made for a cold and lonely room when the lights were dimmed. The handmaidens all left and the room fell silent.
She pulled the covers to her nose and watched the reflections on the wall from the rain on the thick, stained glass windows. Nights were terribly lonely for her. She had no parents to tuck her in and talk to her about her day, no siblings to argue with. Just the darkness, the sound of the rain outside and the ever-present sentries posted outside her door.
She reached into a slot beneath her pillows, where the mattress met with the ancient wooden headboard. Inside was a slim tablet that she kept hidden from her caretakers. She slid it out and activated it. Its glowing screen lit her sky blue face in the darkness.
She used the device to communicate with people she did not know. It masked her identity and let her chat with other kids her age across Voton and even as far as the closest worlds of the Empire. The device contained encryption software that hid her communications from Imperial eyes. She may have been only sixteen, but the Empress was not stupid. She knew the Soothsayers and the Engineers would disapprove of her behavior and she took elaborate measures to obfuscate her nocturnal activities.
Her dark eyes looked around the room as she sat up and waited for the communicator to connect to her secret friend. A boy, somewhere in the Empire, whom she had taken to meeting at this same time every night.
She didn't know where he lived or what Kastra he belonged to. He knew even less about her. But the two of them talked for hours some evenings over the same communications systems that the adults used.
"Kaleen, are you there?" the voice called out from tiny speakers. They only used first names to preserve the secrecy of their talks.
"Yes. I have to keep the lights low tonight," she whispered. Her voice was different than the one she used with her staff, weaker and higher pitched. Girlish. His voice had only just turned and yet was nearly indistinguishable from hers over the tiny speakers.
"I can't talk long tonight. I'm going on a hunt in the morning. I must rise early to make ready my weapons," said Ketar.
Kaleen leaned in to study her screen closer. It made her own face larger on Ketar's screen.
"You look different. Have you been somewhere exciting today?"
She shook her head and sighed. "No. Same old boring school and dealing with my nagging mother."
He looked disappointed. She tried to make her life seem boring and average while he seemed to have exciting adventures that she loved to hear about.
"Where is the hunt this time? The dark forest or in the high country?"
He smirked. "Neither. We're heading off world. Somewhere in the system, I think. We're going to need environ-suits and radiation shielding. I'm guessing one of the inner planets."
"Sounds dangerous."
He smirked again and acted as if it were naught. "Nothing to worry about. I'll be off line for a few days though. Think you can live without me?"
She smiled broadly, her smooth face creased by the lines. "I'll manage."
Ketar looked away and she could overhear a male voice talking curtly. He returned his eyes to his screen and said, "I have go, talk to you soon."
"Goodbye," she said as the connection closed.
She switched off her tablet and returned it to the hiding spot at the head of the expansive bed. She had wanted to tell him to be careful, among other things. He lived such an adventurous life compared to her. He wasn't restricted to one planet or to the duties of the Imperial court. Despite being the Empress of the greatest stellar empire in the universe there were many limits to her freedoms.
***
The Kwizarra Lonn stood over the fire pit that burned the sacred bush. Vocra was indigenous to the high desert plateaus of the planet's northern hemisphere. Very early on it was discovered that inhaling the smoke of the burning Vocra produced hallucinogenic waking dreams. When certain individuals smoked the dried leaves they had visions of the future. Those who were able to harness the mind altering visions moved into advisory roles in the primitive tribes. Before long they began to move underground, where isolation and silence let them focus their visions. Thus were born the Soothsayer Dens.
The den of the Soothsayers was buried deep beneath the Imperial castle on Voton. It was understood that the Soothsayers manipulated the ruling Kastra as puppet masters, hidden beneath a stage. It didn't matter which Kastra ruled the Empire, they were in turn manipulated by the clairvoyant powers of the Soothsayers.
They were an incestuous coven of gray skinned, red eyed people who never ventured into the light of day except for the few individuals granted permission to be consultants to the ruling Kastra.
There were Soothsayer dens on each of the nine core worlds of the Empire. But all Soothsayers are born and raised on Voton and then shipped to whichever world needs them. There are no Soothsayer families on the core worlds, only on Voton.
They were not recognized as their own Kastra, but they were taken in by others and used as medicine men and clairvoyants. Kastra leaders depended on their visions to guide them. The Soothsayers slowly became invaluable to the Kastras and when they were united by force and the Empire's capital city was first constructed, the Soothsayers carved their home under the castle and have remained there, for several thousand years.
Another robed Soothsayer entered the quiet chamber and stood beside the Kwizarra Lonn.
"I have been instructed by the Empress to create a sporting event in which the winner will take his place beside the Empress and sire the heir to the Empire."
The second man nodded under his heavy gray cloak. His name was N'arvon and he was the trusted right hand of the Kwizarra Lonn.
"This contest will be one of physical strength, combat, skill and intelligence. You will organize the event with the Nine Kastra."
"As you wish Kasim," N'arvon whispered. Kasim was a term of honor used when talking to a higher ranking Soothsayer. It was part of the old language and unknown to the Votainions above them.
"I have finished my mind probes of the likely candidates. We shall do everything in our powers to ensure that Ku'nar of the Surg Kastra wins the contest. I have foreseen his ascendancy to the throne and he is well under our control."
"Yes Kasim."
N'arvon started to leave when he was pulled back to the fire by the left hand of his master.
"The mysterious signal from the Empress's bed chamber has finally been traced. A youthful soldier from the Vicar Kastra, named Ketar. The Empress has taken an interest in this young man. He will be selected to participate in the contest. We must ensure that he makes it to the finals where Ku'nar will defeat him."
There was a long silence as both men studied the flames below them.
"The Empress will be crushed, Kasim. It will turn her against us even more than she already is."
The Kwizarra Lonn turned his head to his second and by the flickering firelight revealed his soft, red eyes. N'arvon was captured like a moth to the flame by the glow.
"All according to my plan. All according to my plan."
"Your word is great, Kasim."


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