Each step in the throne room of the Great Palace of the Amontides was incalculably valuable, a work of art made of the most precious materials, honed by the most skilled craftsmen over years. Each step had on it a scene carved from one of the lands ruled by the Amontides, from the lowest step, worked in fine ebony, which showed the Goblins of the Shadow Woods paying homage to an Amontides, emerging like some strange sort of beast from the forest to offer their goods, to the topmost step, worked in beaten gold, which showed the nobles of the South, clad in their finery and mounted on horseback likewise paying homage to an Amontides, though instead of goods, they offered their daughters. And resting on that top step was the Glorious Throne, with its jewels and its precious metals, in such profusion, and worked with such skill, that one might think that the value of this throne alone outweighed the value of anything else in the lands ruled over by its owner.
But that, thought Serapis Anhurtides, Prince of the Marches, would be wrong. As would the thought that this so-embellished chair and the steps leading up to it had seen many kings, for they had not. Only one king had walked up the Seven Steps to sit upon the Glorious Throne, the one who sat upon it even now, though he done so for quite some time. The line of the Amontides had always been blessed with long life and long rule, but King Sutekh, the twelfth of that great lineage, had outstripped them all by a wide margin--for two hundred years now, he had been King of Kings and Lord of the South, an extraordinary stretch of years even for an Amontides. People had taken to calling him ‘The Undying One’, and King Sutekh had done nothing to discourage them from saying this.
Looking upon him, handsome, strong, and almost eternally youthful, clad in jewels and fine raiment, it was hard to imagine one so splendid could perish. Some said that Sutekh had the special love of the Darksome Lady, and was thus kept from death.
Others said less pleasant things lay behind it. But they only did so in hushed whispers, and even then some said it once, and then never said anything again. Serapis shuddered to himself slightly. Whenever he arrived for a royal audience, his thoughts tended to go in unpleasant directions, no matter how he tried to keep them from them. I will give my report, and then I will go back to the Marches, to spend my time counting my cattle, and watching my daughters grow up. Serapis took a deep breath and nodded to himself. Surely the King of Kings was finished with him now…
On the floor before him, Bes Sekhmetides was finishing his petition. “…Gotten quite bad, oh Eternal and Unequaled Splendor,” the aging nobleman noted, his expression quite pained. “This is the third harvest to fail in as many years. The aqueducts and canals are… drying up, and the countryside…” He bit his lip. “Oh Astonishing Lord of All, the peasants flee, and the wild Ghouls are moving in from the Wastes, to take their place…” To Serapis’ surprise, a tear was appearing in Bes’ face. “If things continue in this fashion, the South shall be a blasted ruin within our lifetimes!”
King Sutekh gave a loud yawn. A nervous uncomfortable silence filled the room, one that increased as the King fixed Bes with a rather unpleasant gaze. “We do not appreciate this… shrill tone,” stated Sutekh at last.
Bes Sekhmetides gulped nervously and fell to his knees. “I… my apologies, Eternal and Unequaled Splendor. It… the sheer horror of what is happening in the South has unnerved me. The lives of thousands…”
“…Are immaterial to our immaculate presence,” replied Sutekh levelly. He gave a laugh. “Really what do you tell us? That the crops have failed, as they have done on many occasions in the past. That there has been something of a drought, as has also happened often in the past. And that the wretched Ghouls move from the Wastes into our lands, like vultures towards carrion, as they have ever done when the opportunity presents itself. What is to be done, you ask? We shall tell you.”
The King rose from the Glorious Throne, and stepped down to the Second Step. “A good harvest will come.” His foot found the Third Step. “The rains will return.” Now, he trod on the Fourth Step. “And the Ghouls shall have their heads placed on spikes when they find themselves facing actual armies, instead of angry farmers trying to hold them off with pitchforks.” The Fifth Step. “And for these trifles, you disturb our councils, to bleat like a sheep.” The Sixth Step. “Well, have you anything to say to us?”
“Apologies, oh Dark Lord,” said Bes Sekhmetides, raising his hands to plead. “Your humble and pathetic servant realizes his error, and begs your forgiveness!”
“And it is granted,” said Sutekh, with a smile, “provided you hie from our sight and we do not see you again in this place unless we call for you.”
Bes gave a nod and began to back away quickly, then paused to give a deep bow. “I praise your wisdom and mercy, Eternal and Unequaled Splendor, to the pathetic and unworthy servant who stands…”
“Get you hence,” snapped Sutekh. Bes gulped, nodded, and then fled from the hall. Sutekh glanced over the remaining crowd. “Where is the Prince of the Marches? We have heard he has news for us…”
Serapis stepped forward. “I am here, Astounding Lord of All..”
“Very good, Prince Anhurtides.” The King beckoned him to come closer. “Leave the floor, and ascend to the Seventh Step.”
A gasp came from the assembled courtiers. Serapis ignored it, and walked calmly to the step. “I thank you for this signal honor, Dark Lord.”
Sutekh smiled at the Prince. “Rumors of your deeds against the treacherous Northerners have reached us, Prince Anhurtides. Tell us, are they true?”
“If you heard that the armies of the Northern League were routed, and that eight of its eighteen members have left to swear loyalty to the Glorious Throne, then they are,” said Serapis.
King Sutekh laughed and laid a hand on the Prince’s shoulder. “Excellent. This pleases us!” The King pulled his hand back and gave a clap. A slave girl stepped forward from the crowd, holding a pillow, a single perfect pearl on it. “Take this jewel, Prince Anhurtides, and know that its value is but a pitiful fraction of the esteem in which I hold you.”
Serapis took the pearl, and bowed. “I… thank you, Dark Lord. As always, you honor me far beyond my deserts. In truth, oh King of Kings, and Lord of All, the only reward I truly desire is to be allowed to rest in my own humble demesne, until I am needed by you again.”
“And you shall have it,” said Sutekh. “And more! Tonight, a feast in your honor!”
“Thank you, Dark Lord,” said Serapis, quietly swearing inside.