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Love Consumes All Things

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Ozorne has only ever had one great love in his life. It is the reason he has never married, despite the oh-so-subtle nudgings of his advisors.

He has devoted himself, completely and whole-heartedly, to Carthak, and he has no time for wives.

Besides, he has a sister who is very much in love, and if there is one thing aside from Carthak that Ozorne wishes to see happy, it is his sister.

There is an old, old Carthaki tradition, from way back before the empire, when Carthak proper was just a little river-straddling nation squeezed between mercantile Siraj and militaristic Zallara. Then, a man's heir was not the son of his body, but the eldest son of his eldest sister.

If there is one thing Ozorne quite likes, it's tradition.

***

Ozorne has a powerful Gift, but he is not stupid. He knows there are plenty of people out there with magic as powerful - if not moreso - than his, and he knows that he will never be a black robe.

He doesn't need to be. He is destined to be emperor, and that is power that the Gift can't match.

But Ozorne is not stupid, and Ozorne has eyes. He sees the poverty in the streets even of his own splendid capital, and he knows things are much worse elsewhere; Carthak the city straddles the fertile floodplains of the great Zekoi, and bright fields of wheat are plentiful here. It is not so even a few miles away.

He watches young Arram practice turning stones into bread, and sand into water, and he cannot help the upwelling of helpless bitterness.

The day after Arram is granted the black robe, Ozorne buys a bright little parrot finch from a man in the market. At least he can keep this little thing alive.

***

Arram can be such a gods-cursed fool sometimes.

Ozorne always looks at people and, first and foremost, evaluates their usefulness to the empire. It is not a warm thing to do, nor a human thing, but it is a necessary thing. It makes Ozorne few friends, but Ozorne is not looking for friends.

If he has to sacrifice his humanity on the altar that is Carthak, it is well worth it.

Arram, however, is kind of generally oblivious, and so he never really notices the steel-bright edge to Ozorne's mind, and becomes a friend.

But Ozorne is oblivious in his own way, and he pushes and pushes until Arram breaks and flees.

No. Ozorne was never oblivious. He has always known how much he demands from others, how he milks them until they have nothing left to give, pressures them until they shatter like spun glass. Carthak is a demanding place, and it is the job of the emperor to meet those demands.

It is not in rage, but in bright shining ruthlessness that he orders his young friend imprisoned. If Arram will not work for Carthak, Arram will work for no one.

Ozorne thinks of bread from stones, and shuts his mind to the loss.

***

Tortall is a rich plum, ripe for the taking.

It is separated from Carthak - empire and city - by only the thinnest band of sea. It is nearly one-third desert, but Ozorne has stood at the fringes of the demon-haunted deserts of Anket; Tortall's desert is a fertile field by comparison.

Besides, the rest of Tortall is grassland and mountain forest. Fertile land, land the great Carthaki Empire doesn't have enough of, and Ozorne knows that even conquering Tortall won't sate Carthak's need, but it will be something, and it will be a gateway into the even more fertile lands of the Drell and Maren.

Tortall also keeps harassing his ships and overfishing his waters, and Carthak has precious little coastline for its bulk. It needs those waters, and Tortall refuses to share.

What does Tortall need all this for, anyway? Ozorne thinks bitterly. It is a land of plenty, flowing with milk and honey. It does not need his fish. It can leave him his waters, at least.

Ozorne is not about to risk Carthaki lives in a march across Tortall; even a tiny desert is hard to snake supply lines across. But his mages have found him some interesting spells, and he can bring Tortall to its knees without ever declaring open war.

***

Arram is working for the king of Tortall.

It is Ozorne's worst nightmare come true: one of his black robes - one of his confidants, at that - has gone over to the enemy.

He had never quite thought it would be Arram who turned traitor, even after everything.

The rage that Ozorne never felt the first time settles over him now, cold as the northern wind. He is not a man who leaves loose ends hanging, and he has just seen what a moment of mercy (a moment of humanity, of mortality, of weakness) can bring.

Ozorne does not make the same mistakes twice.

***

Ozorne's birds are sick, and he is ridiculously perturbed by this.

True, they are his pride and joy, but they are birds, merely animals, and he would hand-feed them to the crocodiles of the Zekoi if doing so would break the famine.

But they are his birds, and they are sick, and if he cannot take care of even these, how can he hope to take care of his people?

The Tortallan delegation brings along an animal healer, who leaves his birds healthy and strong, and tells him that he had been poisoning them the whole time.

It was a simple mistake, an accident, something entirely unintentional, but young Veralidaine's words ring in his ears with the force of an accusation.

In that moment, Ozorne hates Veralidaine deeply.

***

Ozorne knows precisely what he is doing when he plunges the steel feather into his chest.

He will not be emperor anymore. He knows this. It pains him; he is Carthak and Carthak is him, but that means he must survive so Carthak can, too. Kaddar, anyway, is a capable enough administrator.

If his nephew has been any disappointment to Ozorne, it is in this: Kaddar is no warrior. He is capable enough, but he is not a hard boy, he has no bloodthirstiness, and empires feed on blood.

Ozorne would prefer to remain emperor, he has been the living embodiment of Carthak for his whole life, but the damned Tortallan jackals have backed him into a corner, and he is left with a choice: transform or die.

Ozorne will not let Carthak die.

So he will instead become a scavenger, tearing at the flesh of rotten Tortall. He will rain ruin on the Eastern Lands and break them to Carthak's yoke.

He is still emperor, in all but name. The emperor is eternal.

No sacrifice is too great for his empire.

Ozorne flies away toward the glittering north, his wings as sharp as his bright, cold mind.

Emperors are never human, anyway.