Of all the cities of Pandemia, only Hub had no legend or history of its founding. Hub was a legend in its own right, and history was its creation.
Hub had always been. It was the capital of the Impire, the mother of superlatives, the City of the Gods. It sprawled along the shores of Cenmere like a marble cancer.
Alone among all the dwelling places of mankind, only Hub had never known sack or rape or the ravages of war. Forever it had lurked in peace behind the swords of its legions and the sorcery of the Four. Hub was graced by the spoils of a thousand campaigns and nourished on taxes extracted from half the world. Slaves in forgotten millions had died to build it, priceless artworks had crumbled and weathered away in its halls and gardens to make space for more.
It was the best and worst parts of a hundred cities, melted into one. Its finest avenues were wide enough to march a century abreast; its darkest alleys were slits where half a legion could have vanished without trace.
Hub was grandeur. Hub was squalor. Hub gathered all the beauty of the world and offered every vice. Its wealth and population were uncountable. Year in and year out, by ship and wagon, food poured into Hub to feed its teeming mouths, yet the humble starved. Hub exported war and laws and little else but bodies -- especially those in summer, when the fevers raged. The rich imported their wine from distant lands, but their servants drank from the same wells as the poor, and they infected their masters.
All roads led to Hub, the imps boasted, and in Hub the greatest ways led to the center, the five hills, the five palaces. The abodes of the wardens, the Red, the White, the Gold, the Blue -- beautiful but sinister, these were secret places, masked and buttressed by sorcery, and few went willingly to those. In their midst, highest and greatest, shone the Opal Palace of the imperor, seat of government and all mundane power.
To the Opal Palace came glory and tribute and petitions and ambassadors.
And to the Opal Palace came also, each in its own time, all the problems of the world.
At the center of Pandemia, Shandie thought, is the Impire. At the center of the Impire is Hub. At the center of Hub is the Opal Palace -- although that isn't quite true, because it's too near the lake to be really in the center -- and at the center of the Opal Palace is Emine's Rotunda, and at the center of the rotunda is me.
Am I, he amended hastily.
And that wasn't quite true, either, because the exact center of the great round hall was the throne, and he was standing one step down from the throne, on Grandfather's right.
He must not move. Not a finger. Not a toe. This was a very formal occasion.
And Moms had warned him: Ythbane was running out of patience with Shandie's continual fidgeting at state functions. Princes must know how to behave with dignity, Ythbane said, not twitch and shuffle and pick their noses on the steps of the throne. If he couldn't learn how to stand for a couple of hours, at least he would be stopped from sitting down for the rest of the day. Not that Shandie had ever picked his nose on the steps of the throne. He didn't think he really fidgeted enough that any of the audience could see. He didn't think he'd earned his last few beatings, but Ythbane had thought so, and Moms always agreed with anything the consul said. And Grandfather didn't even know who Shandie was now.
Grandfather was on his throne, so he was the center of the rotunda, and the palace, and the city, and the Impire, and the world. From the sound of his breathing, he was asleep again. Moms was on his far side, also on the first step; but she had a chair to sit on.
Dad had stood here once, he remembered. Where he was. Moms didn't talk about Dad now, not ever.
Keeping perfectly still would be much easier if you could sit down to do it. Shandie's knees were shaking. His left arm was a torment of fire ants from staying bent, holding up his toga. If his arm fell off, would that be counted as moving?
Ythbane would probably beat him anyway.
He was still sore from last time.
Grandfather snorted and snuffled in his sleep. Lucky Grandfather!
One day I will sit on that throne, and be Imperor Emshandar V.
Then I will kill Ythbane.
That was a wonderful thought.
What else should an imperor do? First, have Ythbane's backside beaten -- right there, on the floor of the rotunda, where the fat delegate was still kneeling, reciting his nonsense. In front of the court and the senators. Shandie caught himself about to smile, and didn't.
Then be merciful and cut off his head.
Second, abolish these stupid, stupid togas!
Why should formal occasions require formal court dress, togas and sandals? No one wore them any other time. What was wrong with hose and doublet and shoes? Or even tights, which were the latest craze. Ordinary people never had to wear these ridiculous, scratchy, uncomfortable bed sheets. Sane, ordinary people hadn't worn things like these for thousands of years. Oh, my poor arm!