8/9: “Guardian of a dead empire.”
He’d known the day would come. He’d have been an imbecile not to sense it. The civil unrest, the stirrings of mutiny—the ground beneath Samuel’s feet had become friable indeed. But he, like any other man in his position, had stood his ground as best as he could. He knew no other way.
Some may have called it blind loyalty—and he knew for a fact that some had, in fact, named it thus. He did not believe it, but he supposed he maintained something of a bias in that regard. Unavoidable, really, when one turned the lens upon oneself.
Shuffling the papers on his desk, Samuel awaited the inevitable. He knew what must happen. He knew it with a dead certainty in the middle of his chest, not in his heart but in his sternum, where it sat leaden and uncomfortable. It felt a little like grief, but not quite. Something like rage, but not quite. A sort of dull, dead sorrow that felt in the same moment invigorating. He couldn’t explain it. Didn’t want to. Didn’t have to. Didn’t have the time.
He paused, his brow drawing tight, and he signed his name at the bottom of a page he supposed he’d forgotten. A sudden rush of voices from outside the door and Samuel straightened, slapping the papers down against his desk with such intensity that the candle’s flame swayed erratically. The shadows of the room spun. Samuel drew in a steadying breath and felt the leaden weight in his sternum ache to manifest as fire.
Not yet, he could almost hear Craiton whisper in his ear. The unheard voice sent a shiver down his spine. Not yet. He had to wait. Samuel, the last guardian of an empire already dead and cold, had to wait. Because the longer he waited, the longer Craiton and his core advisors had to leave the palace. The longer he waited to die, the longer Craiton would live.
The voices outside the door increased in volume and fervor and then the door buckled beneath an enormous force from without. Samuel sat down, steadying his breathing. He breathed in and became the man he’d trained for years to become—calm, imperturbable. A bulwark. His lined face settled into a stern frown, and he ran a hand through his receding grey hair before folding his hands atop the desk.
When they burst in, Samuel looked as though he’d summoned them there to deliver some rebuke. And then he rose in a fluid motion and slapped a palm outward toward them, and flame consumed him and them. It raced up his chest and around his shoulder and down his arm. It blasted outward from his hand.
Salamander, they’d always called him, because of his affinity for lighting himself on fire as well as his enemies. Samuel smiled and it became a grimace of pain, and then in his last moments he screamed, a long, tortured sound that came from the empty place behind his sternum. Years of loving a sociopath who’d ultimately set him to this final watch, unleashed. Years of serving dutifully beneath the command of someone every fiber of his logical mind had insisted he doubt and mistrust. But he’d loved Craiton.
And so he died. The fire leapt and slithered down his body and caught the stack of papers alight. The desk roared and went up, and then the walls of the room. The mutineers screamed with Samuel, but even as they died, Samuel knew there would only be more of them. This had been the first wave that he’d held off.
Craiton had insisted he die. There’d not been any other way. Because Craiton got to start anew.
Samuel, the guardian of a dead empire, only got to die.