Dans cet ultime ouvrage de la série, le lecteur assiste au rétablissement final de l’Empire. Zerika, l’Impératrice, consolide son trône avec l’aide des «mousquetaires», et bat définitivement l’usurpateur Kâna. Batailles en tous genres, à coups d’épées ou de sortilèges, se succèdent, pour culminer avec le siège d’Adrilankha, la ville où Zerika a installé sa capitale.
Comme dans les volumes précédents, le récit est très éloigné de celui de Dumas, mais les clins d’œil abondent. Khaavren (d’Artagnan) est toujours aussi présent. Momentanément brouillé avec l’Impératrice, il se réconcilie avec elle et assume pleinement ses fonctions de capitaine des gardes. Pel (Aramis) est plus ambitieux que jamais: la fin du livre voit le couronnement de sa carrière, avec sa nomination au poste de tout puissant Premier ministre de l’Empire.
Une très belle scène dans l’esprit dumasien voit Khaavren intervenir fermement auprès de l’Impératrice en faveur de Pel, après que celle-ci ait renvoyé ce dernier en l’accusant à tort d’avoir trahi sa confiance (voir extrait ci-dessous).
Et si Tazendra (Porthos) est moins présente que précédemment, sa mort dans une caverne pendant qu’elle essaye de sauver ses amis n’est pas sans rappeler celle de Porthos à Belle-Ile…
A l’inverse, Piro, le vicomte d’Adrilankha, ressemble peu à Bragelonne. Brouillé avec son père, qui n’accepte pas son amour pour une femme d’une autre caste que la sienne, il se fait bandit de grand chemin (avant de se réconcilier).
Fort complexe par ailleurs, avec ses nombreux personnages aux pouvoirs magiques variés, le livre se lit agréablement. Il conclut très honorablement un ensemble exceptionnel dont le premier volume surtout, The Phoenix Guards, constitue un fascinant hommage à Dumas.
"How long have you been back in my service, Captain? An hour? Two? And now, it seems, you wish to be dismissed again?"
"That is as Your Majesty wishes; for myself, I care very little about it."
"This is insupportable."
"Not in the least."
"I believe you are doing yourself the honor of disputing with me, Captain."
"Your Majesty has accused my friend of an action that is manifestly impossible for him to have committed, and, moreover, have expelled him from beneath my roof. Does Your Majesty truly believe that a gentleman can be expected to countenance such behavior? If so, I fear for the Empire under Your Majesty's hand, because it will be a poor sort of court and a poor sort of Empire that it governs."
In an instant, the Empress was on her feet. "Captain! How dare you!"
Khaavren bowed but said nothing.
"And did Galstan, then, give you all of the details of his crime?"
"He told me nothing except that he was leaving. When I questioned him, he explained that he had been dismissed from your service for having revealed a communication which Your Majesty did him the honor to confide in him as part of his office."
"Well, and so he did."
"Now you give me the lie?" cried Zerika, quite nearly hysterical.
"Not in the least; Your Majesty is mistaken, that is all."
Zerika took two deep breaths in a failed effort to overcome her wrath, and said, "Tell me, Sir Khaavren; did you speak to your last master in this fashion?"
"His Majesty Tortaalik? No, Your Majesty. Never."
"And why do I receive such treatment when he did not?"
"Because he was weak, and small, and mean. I do him honor for having done his best, but he could never become more than he was, so it was useless to treat him with respect."
"You call this treating me with respect?"
"I do, in the only way a plain soldier is capable of."
Zerika stared at him. "Let me understand you, Captain. You do yourself the honor to scold - to scold - your Empress, and you call this respect?"
Khaavren bowed his assent.
"And to my predecessor you were the soul of courtesy, because he was weak, and small, and mean?"
Khaavren bowed once more.
"Cracks and shards! If I were my illustrious ancestor, Zerika the First, who founded the Empire, why, what would you do then? Pull your ear at me?"
"I should have treated her with the same respect I show Your Majesty, and for the same reason."
"What reason is that?"
"Because Your Majesty has the potential for greatness—for real greatness. I have seen it in your managing of diplomacies, and in your conversations with subordinates, and, even now, when Your Majesty feels she has been treated in a way no person, much less an Empress, ought to be treated, Your Majesty attempts to control her temper and be just and fair, looking past the extraordinary provocation.
"Your Majesty," he continued, "why could not you have done as much with my friend Pel? I have known him for more nearly nine hundreds of years. It is impossible for him to have committed the crime with which he is accused."
"You think so."
"I insist upon it."
"You dispute with me to my face and call it respect?"
"If you respect me so much, why did you leave my service before, Captain? "
"Because I was in too much pain over a personal matter to see things as clearly as I do now, Majesty. But now that I see it, I know that I was wrong; I was wrong for failing to give Your Majesty the opportunity to act as an Empress."
"Do you presume now to instruct me, Captain?"
"Not in the least, Your Majesty."
Khaavren, in one of those unfeigned outbursts that is irresistible to anyone of heart, walked around the table so that he was very nearly touching Her Majesty's garments, removed his hat, and knelt, looking up her. "Your Majesty, I am a soldier who failed, or Tortaalik would not be dead. And I am also a father who failed, or my son would be under this roof. But let no one question my loyalty to either my Empress or to my friends - that loyalty, along with the love of my wife, is all I have left.
"I do not presume to teach my Empress how to behave. But I have been around the court, and on the field of battle, and in the dueling circle, often enough to recognize a great heart; and a great heart cannot be lied to. Your Majesty, my only wish is to serve you - to somehow do some small thing to in part atone for my failures. How could I, then, live with myself if I permitted my friend to be dishonored, and, in so doing, permitted my Empress to dishonor herself, when I might prevent it? Or, for that matter, even if I could not, when I could see the way clear to try? That a task is impossible is no excuse for not attempting it, not when my heart tells me it must be done."
Khaavren fell silent and bowed his head after this remarkable speech. Her Majesty, after a moment's thought, sat down once more and put her head into her hands for some few minutes. At length she said, "Do you truly believe, Captain, that it was impossible for your friend to have betrayed a confidence?"
"It is more likely, Majesty, for the Orb to betray a confidence than for Pel to do so."
"But then, how could it have happened?"
"Your Majesty, I do not know what confidence was betrayed, or how it could have happened; I only know that Pel cannot have been responsible, any more than the point of my sword could pierce the hand that holds it, and for the same reason: It cannot bend that far without breaking."
For some time Her Majesty made no sound - it seemed to Khaavren as if the Manor itself was holding its breath; he did not dare to raise his eyes to see what color the Orb held, but merely waited.
At length, Her Majesty spoke. "And yet," she said in a quiet voice, as if speaking to herself, "it is hard to admit to a mistake when one has been so angry, and so . . ."
A pale smile crossed Her Majesty's countenance. "Exactly."
"Oh, Your Majesty! It is yet another mark of greatness to be able to do so. I know, because of how far beyond my powers it is."
"How, you? I cannot imagine you being sanctimonious, Captain."
"You did not hear how I spoke to my son, Majesty."
The Empress nodded. "Then it would appear that, as your Empress, I must provide a good example. Rise, Captain. Go and send your friend to me; I wish to speak to him."
"Your Majesty, before I go, dare I make one last impertinent request?"
"What is it, Captain?"
"May I kiss Your Majesty's hand?"