An enforcer wanted dead for crimes she didn't commit.
An assassin wanted dead for crimes he did commit.
Normally, they would be enemies, but they both seek the same thing: exoneration.
Unfortunately, a nefarious underground organization is attempting to kill the one man who could grant it to them, the emperor. If they want to win their freedom, they'll have to battle powerful wizards, out-scheme master schemers, and defeat bloodthirsty monsters, all while dodging friendly fire and evading the law. Exoneration isn't easy.
This boxed set includes the first three novels in this high fantasy adventure series:
The Emperor's Edge
You get not just one, but three, volumes here of Buroker's funny, fast-paced Emperor's Edge series. Amaranthe Lokdon and her unlikely gang of miscreants work in the shadows for the benefit of the Empire. The secondary world fantasy series includes one of those long, strung out over time, romances that is highly satisfying when it finally is resolved. – Cat Rambo
"I cannot say enough about this trilogy. The characters are stunning and complex, the dialogue is witty and at times -laugh out loud funny. The plot is exciting and adventurous. Absolutely a thrill to read!"– Amazon Review
"The main character Amaranthe is so fantastic I wish I'd invented her myself."– Amazon Review
"I stumbled upon this title in a stroke of good fortune, while trolling through 'Best Free Kindle Books' over in Listopia. I started reading The Emperor's Edge about three minutes later, and three days later, I finished the entire series. It was one of the most satisfying reading binges I've ever had, and I've re-read the series about five times over since then."– Ellen from Quest Reviews
"I love how Buroker has undercurrents of romance woven throughout the story, but that it is not, in fact, a romance novel. It is so, so much more than that. It is a story of growth, friendship, excitement, and courage."– L. M. Sherwin on Dark Currents
By the time Amaranthe reached Enforcer Headquarters that evening, she had mentally organized a neat list of reasons she ought to be placed on the investigation. With chin lifted, she thrust open the front door and almost crashed into Chief Gunarth, who was pacing in the hallway.
"What did you do, Corporal?" he demanded before she could mention the arson or her list.
"Commander of the Armies Hollowcrest wants to see you," the chief said.
The list evaporated from her mind, and she put her hand on the hallway's cool limestone wall for support. Commander of the Armies Hollowcrest was the highest ranking military officer in the empire. Each of the eight satrapies' Commander Lords General answered to him personally. He had also been the closest advisor of Emperor Raumesys for forty years and Sespian's regent for three. Due to Sespian's youth, many still considered him the ultimate authority in the empire.
"He wants to see me?" Amaranthe cleared her throat to hide the squeak underlying her last word.
"You," Chief Gunarth said. "Requested by name. You are to go to the Imperial Barracks immediately. Actually the messenger came two hours ago, but you weren't on your assigned route." He gave her a cool look.
That was hardly fair. "Sir, Wholt and I were responding to the fire on—"
"Give me your report later. It's already dark. You better get your arse up to the Barracks before you inconvenience Hollowcrest by delaying his dinner."
Crisp twilight air swirled about her cheeks as Amaranthe caught a trolley uptown. She shivered and moved closer to the hissing boiler and the heat radiating through its walls.
Poised at the crown of Arakan Hill, the Imperial Barracks overlooked the city, the frozen lake, and dwarfed even the largest homes on the Ridge. The emperor's ancestors had rejected the idea of a "palace" and chosen the ancient fortress atop the hill for the imperial seat.
There was no trolley stop near the gate—apparently casual visits to gawk were not encouraged—so Amaranthe jumped off as it rumbled by the outer walls. She had performed similar moves dozens of times before, but the combination of slick pavement and watching sentries probably made the slip inevitable. Her feet skidded on ice and she flailed before recovering her balance, if not her dignity.
Snickers came from above. Atop the high stone walls, two musketeers lounged against a cannon, their silhouettes black against the starry sky. Amaranthe limited herself to a brief upward glower as she walked toward the entrance.
In a formidable display of redundancy, two towering soldiers blocked the barred gate. Amaranthe could not help but feel that as an enforcer she only played at being a warrior. Imperial soldiers were intimidating enough; the elite men privileged to protect the emperor's home represented the best.
"Uhm, hello," she said, then cursed herself for sounding like a scared child. "I'm Corporal Amaranthe Lokdon. Commander of the Armies Hollowcrest requested to see me."
"It's late," one of the guards said in a voice reminiscent of boots grinding into gravel.
"I realize that. Could you check to see if I'm on the list?" She had no idea if there was a list, but it seemed like the right thing to say.
Both guards offered flat unfriendly stares. Their humorless expressions were so similar Amaranthe wondered if it was part of the training. Disapproving Stares, the Advanced Course. Finally, one reached his arm through the bars and withdrew a clipboard from some inner hook. He stepped beneath one of the two gas lamps spreading wan globes of light on either side of the gate.
Amaranthe fidgeted while he read. Anticipation wrestled with unease in her gut. What was this meeting about? Would it bode well for her, or ill? Either way, why would someone as important as the Commander of the Armies bother with her? The emperor must have said something after seeing her that afternoon. Did he have some reward in mind? It seemed unlikely—she had done nothing beyond what the job called for. Still, the fledgling hope thrived, and she thought of Wholt's words. Maybe she should ask Hollowcrest for a promotion. No, she decided. The possibility of a reward thrilled her, but she would not ask for a favor.
"Huh," the guard said. "You're listed."
The other one said, "Looks like the old man wants someone to keep his toes warm tonight."
Amaranthe fluctuated between anger at their assumption and anxiety at the insinuation. She settled for a curt, "Can I go in, now?"
One of the soldiers shouted to someone in the courtyard. Another man appeared and assumed his post, and the first relieved Amaranthe of her weapons and led her through the gate.
Walkways lined with lampposts sliced through snow-blanketed lawns. Numerous outbuildings adorned the installation, but the guard led her to the main structure. When they reached the polished marble stairs, she had to take exaggerated steps to climb them. On either side of the landing, gold-laced statues of bare-chested men grappled with each other.
"Pretentious architect," Amaranthe muttered.
"What did you say?" the guard asked.
"Such beautiful artwork."
The guard grunted dubiously.
The gold-gilded double doors groaned open of their own accord, powered by some hidden machinery. A single hallway stretched away to a distant exit point with dozens of doors lining either side. The decorating style continued on the inside—gaudy but consistent in its reverence toward the warrior. Periodic alcoves featured more statues of ancient heroes, some naked and locked in wrestling matches, others wearing the weapons and armor of their times. They all had clunky, unrealistic features. Her people might be peerless engineers, but great artists they were not.
Weapons from different epochs perched between gas lamps on the walls. Amaranthe's fingers twitched toward her handkerchief when she noticed one still exhibiting bloodstains. Yes, let's erase eight hundred years of history with a swipe of a rag. She stuffed her hands into her pockets and resolutely stared straight ahead as she walked.
Her escort led her a long way before stairs branched off, one set leading up, another down. They climbed to the third floor and stopped before a guarded door. Amaranthe's guide left her to deal with the soldier alone. Fortunately, he must have had orders to admit her, for he pushed the door open wordlessly and gestured for her to enter.
"Thank you," Amaranthe murmured, though she hesitated before going in. A bead of sweat snaked down her ribcage.
Show some fortitude, girl.
Shoulders back, she strode into the office. Her boots thudded on a cold hardwood floor. The room's utilitarian furniture was neatly arranged, but the crooked and curling maps papering the walls made Amaranthe want to start rearranging tacks. A coal-burning stove glowed cherry in one corner. It was the only warm thing in the room.
The white-haired man behind the desk had easily seen seventy years, but he still possessed the fit frame of a soldier. His sharp features were humorless. His black eyes glittered behind glasses that did nothing to distort their iciness.
So, this is the one who teaches the Disapproving Stare class. Amaranthe dropped her gaze to the folders and papers stacked haphazardly on his desk. She clasped her hands behind her back to keep from tidying the clutter. He probably did not approve of people touching his belongings. He probably doesn't approve of people breathing. No wonder such gloom had draped the emperor; with this man as an adviser, there were probably not many laughs at meetings.
"Corporal Lokdon," Commander of the Armies Hollowcrest said.
"Good of you to come so promptly." Spoken by another, the words might have sounded friendly, but the man's sarcastic edge dulled the effect.
Amaranthe shifted her weight. A floorboard creaked.
"You're wondering why I called you here," Hollowcrest said.
He shuffled papers, then opened a folder. "I've been looking over your records. You have a halfway decent education, though you didn't finish the last term at the Mildawn Business School for Women." He pushed the top page over to look at another. "That's the year your coal miner father died of Black Lung Disease. All that money he must have scrimped to send you to that school, and you didn't finish. Instead you lied about your age, took the enforcer entrance exam, and signed up for the academy. Have I got it right, so far?"
"I couldn't afford to finish school, sir," Amaranthe said stiffly. "My father was sick for months before he died, and he didn't get any pay during that time. I worked, and took care of him, and went to school until he passed away, but I couldn't afford to pay the tuition and rent on a flat after that."
Amaranthe felt as if she were balancing on the frozen lake. Might a hole open up beneath her and suck her in? It wasn't surprising that Hollowcrest had access to all her background information, but it alarmed her that he had bothered to look into it. What had she done to warrant such scrutiny? Surely she was not here because she had lied about her age seven years ago.
"You chose a hard road," Hollowcrest said. "A female enforcer is rare, even if it's allowed now. Why not work for someone in business or start your own? It seems to be the trend for educated women these days." His last sentence came with a faint sneer.
She supposed a man of Hollowcrest's age remembered the time when women had been free of ambition beyond birthing future soldiers. She knew their growing financial clout alarmed the conservatives, but her ambitions were not business-related. Why would he bring it up now?
"I went to that school because it was what my father wanted," she said. "I never cared much for business."
"No? Your marks suggest otherwise."
"I didn't mind the lessons. Just the ultimate goal seemed...shallow. I want to serve the throne, not my own pockets. I want to be the first female enforcer chief in the empire, sir, to be somebody that history remembers."
Hollowcrest frowned. Wrong answer, but why? Amaranthe shifted her weight again, still struggling to gain her balance in this conversation.
The old man flipped a few more pages on his desk, tendons jumping on the backs of his creased bronze hands. Coals shifted in the stove. Surreptitiously, Amaranthe wiped moist hands on the sides of her trousers.
"Would you be interested in an independent assignment?" Hollowcrest finally asked. "Something that would challenge you?"
The breath caught in Amaranthe's throat. Had all these questions been not an interrogation but an interview? She found herself balancing on her toes. "Sir?"
Hollowcrest leaned back in his chair. "Have you ever heard of an outlaw named Sicarius?"
"Yes, sir. He's an assassin, wanted for crimes against the empire."
"An understatement. In the last five years, he's been responsible for the deaths of some three hundred imperial soldiers, two hundred enforcers from various cities around the empire, half a dozen patriarchs from the warrior caste, thirteen city officials..."
As the list continued, Amaranthe's jaw went slack. Neither the number nor depth of these crimes were listed on the wanted bulletin. Likely it was in his enforcer record, but assassins weren't something a patroller dealt with, and she had never been asked to look him up.
"He's suspected of collusion with both the Kendorians and the Nurians," Hollowcrest said. "And just two months ago, he assassinated Satrap Governor Lumous."
"I'd heard about that death, sir. The papers said it was an accident."
"Yes, Lumous accidentally earned someone's wrath and had a dagger stuck in his back," Hollowcrest said. "Our enemies read our papers. Naturally we don't confess details that could make the Turgonian Empire appear weak."
"Naturally, sir," Amaranthe said, trying not to look too appalled. "What was he doing before?"
"What?" Hollowcrest asked.
"You said Sicarius had done all this in the last five years. What was he doing before then? All those nefarious accomplishments don't sound like the work of someone young and up-and-coming."
For a moment, Hollowcrest considered her through half-lidded eyes. Perhaps deciding if she were worthy of some secret he might have to divulge? But all he said was, "I believe he's in his mid-thirties. His origins are unknown."
Amaranthe opened her mouth to ask another question, but Hollowcrest cut her off.
"You may have heard he's recently arrived in the city," he said. "He's known to be hirable for assassinations, so his presence here is disturbing. Sespian's nineteenth birthday celebration is coming up in a few weeks, a massive event with guests and diplomats from all over the world. I fear it might also provide a venue for a showy assassination."
Amaranthe grimaced. The young man she had met in that shop had been so gentle and inoffensive, especially given the number of tyrannical warlords who had preceded him. He had not even had a chance to come into his own authority yet.
"Sespian set a prodigious bounty on Sicarius's head," Hollowcrest said, "but the more soldiers we send after him, the more he kills."
"And enforcers. I know, sir." What Amaranthe did not know was how this related to her. What could she do?
"Clearly, we need to pursue a new tact," Hollowcrest continued. "You are an attractive woman, and according to your record, quite capable. All you have to do is locate Sicarius, seduce him, and lead him to some dark room. Once there a feminine smile will allow you to slip in close, draw your dagger, and accomplish what platoons of soldiers have not been able to do over the last few years."
Amaranthe took a step back before she could catch herself. All she would have to do was seduce someone? She was an enforcer, not a prostitute. Besides, she had spent her entire adult life trying to act as tough, strong, and confident as her male counterparts. What did she know about seduction? And assassination? She captured criminals and took them to the magistrate for justice. She didn't kill them. To deliberately seek someone out for that purpose... That was despicable.
"Sir, I'm not—" Amaranthe started.
"Such an accomplishment," Hollowcrest interrupted, "would gain you great recognition...a promotion."
She sucked in a breath.
"In fact," Hollowcrest went on, "Someone who could handle Sicarius would doubtlessly be officer material."
He was offering her a chance to jump straight to lieutenant? Emperor's ancestors almighty.
Hollowcrest watched her intently. He was manipulating her, luring her into doing something she found distasteful. Any fool could see that, but what he offered was everything she wanted.
Surely she could eliminate somebody who was a proven criminal. True, assassinations circumvented justice, which made them undeniably wrong, but if this Sicarius was brought in, the magistrate would assign him the death penalty anyway. By killing him in the field, she would save the department time and manpower. It would be for the good of the empire.
Amaranthe rubbed her face. The need to justify her decision was trampling all over her thinking. Still, was this really that bad? Would it truly be a blemish on her integrity? Even if it was, every day people sacrificed a lot more than integrity to get what they wanted. Besides, this was the Commander of the Armies, not a man it would be smart to refuse. She didn't even know if refusal was permitted.
"I'll do it, sir," Amaranthe said.
"Excellent," he said simply, though she caught a predatory gleam of satisfaction in those dark eyes.
Hollowcrest slid a folder out of a drawer and withdrew a single paper. "A sketch of Sicarius. It's fairly accurate, at least as of five years ago."
Amaranthe accepted the sketch and studied it. She admired the precision of the crisp portrait. The artist was surely not related to the unsubtle sculptors responsible for the statues on the first floor. In the black ink drawing, the criminal's features appeared cruel and menacing. Military-style short hair topped an angular face above a lean, muscular torso.
"It's blond," Hollowcrest said, startling her.
"His hair. It's hard to tell in the drawing."
"Oh," she said. Blond hair was rare in the empire, a nation of people whose blood had been mixed and mixed again via generations of conquering and expansion; most citizens shared Amaranthe's bronze skin and dark locks.
"Where should I look for him, sir?" She thought of Wholt's suggestion that Sicarius might be behind the pottery shop arson, but that had been groundless speculation. The man could be anywhere in the city.
"I'll leave that to your ingenuity," Hollowcrest said. "Finding him is a feasible task. Sicarius doesn't travel in disguise and, though discreet, he goes where he pleases. He does have a knack for knowing when our soldiers or enforcers are trying to spring a trap on him though. Then he disappears." Hollowcrest grimaced. "Or doesn't. The results are less devastating when he does."
"I understand, sir. When should I start?"
"Immediately. Speak to no one about this mission. It's imperative the criminal not find out we're aware of, and angling for, him."
"What about my regular duties, sir? I'll need to report to my superior."
"I'll see to it that your district chief is informed. You don't even need to go home; I have a soldier waiting with money for you. If you decide to buy new clothes—" A crinkle of his nose at her soot-stained uniform implied this was more than a suggestion, "—don't attend shops you usually visit."
Not a problem. The shops she visited leaned more toward uniforms and utilitarian clothing rather than whatever it was women wore to seduce men. Not much, she guessed.
"Avoid all your typical haunts until the mission is complete," Hollowcrest finished. "Likewise, don't return home until you've reported back to me."
Amaranthe wondered why was it so imperative she not interact with anyone she knew. Corporal Wholt certainly was not going to find Sicarius and inform him of her intentions if she told him.
"You may go now," Hollowcrest said. "The soldier outside my door will escort you."
Amaranthe longed to question the man further. But Hollowcrest had already turned to the papers on his desk. She stared at him for a moment, then turned on her heel and strode out the door. She was not an imbecile; she could find the answers to her own questions.
As promised, a soldier waited in the hallway, an envelope filled with bills in his hand. She followed him through the corridor, toward the stairs that would lead her back to the first floor.
"Corporal Lokdon," a voice called before they entered the stairwell.
The young emperor jogged down the hallway in his socks. He carried a pad of paper clutched under one arm. His guards, fully armed and armored despite the hour, trailed dutifully behind.
"Hello," the emperor said brightly. "What are you doing here?" Before Amaranthe could answer, he burbled on. "Are you on duty? Will you be working at the Barracks?"
"I've just received a mission, Sire."
"Really? That sounds exciting." He smiled hopefully, eyes eager for details.
"It's going to be...challenging." Amaranthe found herself reluctant to provide more information. She had the feeling he might be the type to put a person's safety above the possibility of achievement, and cancel her mission. If anyone could countermand Hollowcrest, it would be the emperor. A minute ago, you were dreading the idea of an assassination, and now you don't want to give up the chance of this assignment?
Amaranthe was saved from further accusing statements from the back of her mind, when the emperor dug something out of his pocket and extended it to her. She accepted it curiously. It was one of the chain bracelets soldiers wore into battle. A flattened side left room for inscribing one's name in case the body was unrecognizable when it was recovered. This particular bracelet was far more ornate—and valuable—than any Amaranthe had seen. The golden chain was woven in a complex pattern one might expect in thread but not metal.
"Take it for luck," the emperor said, smiling.
She blinked. "Sire, I can't—"
"Would you like to see what I'm working on?" He thrust his pad of paper toward her. "It's the design for an art wing at the University."
Though she knew little about architecture, the detailed blueprint impressed Amaranthe.
"Until now," he continued, "there has been no place for students to gather and study sculpture, writing, and painting." His mouth twisted wryly. "Four military academies in each satrapy though. I'm planning a new science wing too."
Though his passion spilled out like a refreshing fountain, the differences in their stations left Amaranthe staring awkwardly. What was she allowed to say to him?
The emperor shook his head. "I'm sorry, I'm babbling. What sort of mission are you going on? Who assigned it? Why are you starting here? Not that I mind. It's nice seeing a new face. These halls are so drab, like a prison." The wry smile returned. "Babbling again, aren't I?"
"I...think it's allowed, Sire," Amaranthe said. "I just had an appointment with—"
Commander of the Armies Hollowcrest appeared, moving with surprising alacrity for an older man. He draped an arm across the emperor's shoulders. "Ah, Sire. There you are. Would you mind coming into my office for a few moments? I have some documents I'd like to discuss with you."
The emperor removed Hollowcrest's arm and stepped away. He tucked his pad under his arm and turned a frank stare onto the older man. "Documents to discuss this late at night? More dedicated to your work than usual, aren't you, Hollow?"
If the emperor had seemed a tad simple while speaking to Amaranthe, she realized it probably had more to do with her belonging to the opposite sex than any dullness on his part.
"It's important, Sire," Hollowcrest said with a smile that did not reach his eyes. "It'll only take a few moments."
The emperor lifted his gaze toward the ceiling, bade Amaranthe goodnight, then trundled back down the hallway in the opposite direction. She frowned at her hand, realizing she still held his bracelet.
"Artonis," Hollowcrest said.
One of the last of the emperor's guards dropped out of line and stepped into place before Hollowcrest.
"See that the emperor has his tea. He seems too...perky tonight."
"Yes, sir." The guard trotted after the others, mail jangling.
Amaranthe frowned after him. Tea?
Hollowcrest noticed she was still there and waved her toward the door. "I believe you have someone to hunt."
"Yes, sir," Amaranthe said.
She allowed her guide to usher her out of the building. This time, with thoughts spinning in her head, she didn't notice the scenery. That meeting had left her doubting Hollowcrest's veracity, though it hadn't been surprising. She had no reason to believe the Commander of the Armies would tell a common enforcer everything. But if he was keeping secrets from the emperor.... It sounded like the old relic was sedating Sespian. Maybe more. How could she accept a mission from someone who might be betraying the empire?
Yet what could she do? If she made a fuss or disobeyed Hollowcrest, he could destroy her career. Or worse.
If, on the other hand, she cooperated, assassinated Sicarius, and earned her promotion... Well, she could investigate her concerns later, when Hollowcrest didn't have his eye on her. Yes, that's how it had to be. First, she had to complete the mission.
She paused beneath a lamp in the courtyard and eyed the outlaw's picture again. The cold face made her uneasy, and the idea of seduction seemed ludicrous, possibly suicidal. If she was going to take an experienced assassin down, she'd have to do something he wouldn't expect.