Chapter 7

Caiatl sat on a high-backed throne embellished with ornate carvings and rare metals. It had been salvaged by dutiful courtiers in the last hours of her homeworld . The empress thought it looked preposterous on the bridge of her warship.

She would have jettisoned the gaudy antique out an airlock if not for Taurun. Her prudent counselor advised that the throne not only conferred authority, but was also now a relic of an endangered species. Any memento of their culture, no matter how trivial, was invaluable.

Having lost the Red Legion, their dominus , and their homeworld, Caiatl's people needed tradition to galvanize them. They needed the touchstones of their past to carry them into the terrifying future. They needed to feel like they were still Cabal.

Caiatl considered the throne in context of the decision before her. The leader of the Vanguard had offered to settle their dispute with a Rite of Proving . It would preempt an exhausting war of attrition with a single, decisive engagement. An exceedingly clever tactic she had not considered.

The Rite of Proving was once a simple trial-by-combat, used to settle disputes between neighbors. However, like the throne, it had been embellished beyond utility. By the end of Calus's reign, the Rite had been corrupted to allowed advocates, bureaucrats, and politicians to sway its outcome.

Despite Caiatl's contempt for the bygone relics of the failed Cabal Empire, Taurun had prevailed upon the empress to honor them. Not for her own sake, the counselor reasoned, but for the sake of the survivors.

"Taurun. I've made my decision. We'll put forth Ignovun as our champion… inside the Halphas Electus . We'll see how much Light the smallmen have left once they fight their way inside."

"Yes, My Empress." Though the wily counselor's face remained implacable, she continued. "It's my duty to mention that this decision will not be universally welcomed."

"I would have thought you in favor of honoring tradition." Caiatl flicked her tusk-ring in annoyance. "It's a decision the majority will embrace."

"This is true, My Empress." Taurun paused, choosing her next words carefully. "However, some commanders, like Ixel, the Far-Reaching , believe that victory is close at hand. Leaving the outcome to a Rite of Proving will endanger their glory."

Caiatl snorted derisively. "They would sacrifice us all for a moment of vanity. You know as well as I that we can ill-afford this campaign. We must regroup for an even stronger foe."

Taurun hazarded the slightest of raised eyebrows. "With respect, it seems as though you value conclusion over victory."

Caiatl raised her tusks and lowered her brow. Taurun took a nervous step backward.

"There's something more important than victory at stake here." The empress ran her hands over the ridiculous throne. "We will honor tradition. We will accept the Rite of Proving. And we will win or lose it as Cabal."