Mendaran balanced on a narrow ledge, waiting for his opponent to strike. A lava lake bubbled twenty feet below him, bathing the fire-blackened crags in a ruddy glow. Mendaran grinned. He could have fought this battle in the dueling-pits of the Royal Citadel, but he enjoyed being out in the wasteland.
Mendaran’s step-mother Carashanza regarded him coolly, holding her sword before her. She was one of the immortal Ankaykari, and although she looked like a slender human woman, she was far stronger than him. Carashanza’s skin was ebony-black and her eyes burned like embers. She could have melted into the air, shattered Mendaran’s blade or struck him to the ground. Instead she fought without magic, even though his sword-fighting skills now surpassed hers.
Mendaran felt the ledge crumble slightly. He adjusted his balance.
Carashanza sprang forward in a swirl of heavy robes. The Ankaykari liked to swathe themselves in ridiculously elaborate, long-sleeved garments that should have encumbered them but somehow never did. Mendaran raised his sword to block hers. Its name was Greythorn; Carashanza had forged it for him on his sixteenth birthday.
Their two blades screeched above the howling wind. Mendaran parried Carashanza’s attack with ease, then laughed, driving his step-mother back with a series of blows.
He had spent the last three years in the human world, learning about military history at the University of Sarekordia and studying under the great sword-masters of the Gabakaruan imperial court. Now he was back among his father’s people. The humans had taught him much, but they could never match his strength, agility and endurance – or his magical power.
Mendaran was a Kaniyari, the son of a mortal woman and an Ankaykari lord. In the mundane world of Udaris, there were none who could challenge him. Only in the magical realm of Askamar could he find worthy opponents.
“You win,” said Carashanza at last.
“You give up too easily,” Mendaran replied. Sword-fighting was the one of the few things in which he could equal the Ankaykari – even if they saw it as just an idle pastime.
Mendaran’s other step-mother, Quenezarea, appeared beside them in a swirl of mist. “Why must you choose such dangerous places for your duels?” she asked, gazing at the lake. Its fires glowed over her ivory-white features. “If you fell into the lava, it would be the end of you.”
“Don’t worry,” said Mendaran. “I haven’t forgotten that I’m mortal.”
“Sometimes it seems that you have.”
Mendaran’s expression hardened. “I never forget.”
Any mortal who saw him would probably have mistaken him for a human. He had never met his mother’s people, the Kayagas, but he had been told that he took after them – he had their dark eyes, raven hair and light coppery-brown skin. He might have tried to make himself look more like an Ankaykari lord by growing his hair long and wearing robes, but it seemed stupid to pretend to be something he was not.
Carashanza regarded Quenezarea with wry amusement. “You worry too much! I’m not an idiot, and neither is Mendaran. If he lost his footing, he could easily catch himself with a levitation spell. There’s not much that can kill a Kaniyari.”
“But it seems a needless risk.”
“I supposed you’d rather he didn’t go to war, either?”
Quenezarea lowered her eyes. “Lord Takanepi sorely wishes that Mendaran did not have to fight the rebels in Tuyaz-Oa, but the Sovereign has commanded it, and we have no choice.”
Mendaran stared across the harsh landscape, trying to mask his aggravation. When the Ankaykari Sovereign had summoned him back to Askamar and told him that she wanted him to crush a revolt for her, he had felt so proud. He expected his father to be proud, too, but instead Lord Takanepi seemed dismayed. For some reason, he did not want his son to go to war.
“If I had a choice, I’d still go,” Mendaran said. “It’s an honor to serve our Sovereign.”
He leaped from the ledge and levitated himself to the lake shore, ash swirling beneath him as he landed. The bank was crusted with dried lava. Wind moaned through spars of rock, lifting sparks from the molten lake. Mendaran felt waves of heat roil over him.
He strode along the gravel shore, bitterness boiling in his heart. He tried hard to be a worthy son, yet he sensed that his father was disappointed in him, and he did not even know why.
At least the Sovereign appreciated him.
Mendaran’s mood lifted as he recalled his last meeting with her. Ruzenathra had spoken to him of duty and honor. She showed him a map of the human world and explained how she intended to bring it all under the wise rule of the immortals, once he had conquered it for her.
While Kaniyari were less powerful than Ankaykari, they had one great advantage – they could remain in the mundane world without suffocating from its lack of magic. Ankaykari had to carefully bind up their energies when they visited the human kingdoms, but Kaniyari could wield their full power. Right now, Mendaran was the only one of his kind. That made him valuable.
First he would put down the revolt in Tuyaz-Oa. Then he would reclaim the Vanotaquan empire, which his father had lost twenty years ago. Over the years he would forge onward, subduing more lands for the Ankaykari, until all the peoples of the mundane world paid homage to them.
Mendaran halted as mist swirled up before him, resolving into the figure of Zotharan, the Sovereign’s highest-ranking Nayusuru servant. Zotharan’s skin was black, his eyes were crimson, and his ankle-length hair flowed like smoke in the wind.
“Nayusuru lord,” said Mendaran, bowing his head.
“Mendaran.” Zotharan inclined his head in return. “The Sovereign has summoned you.”
Mendaran’s heart leaped. He did not know whether he felt thrilled or anxious at the thought of meeting Ruzenathra again. He was just so desperate to prove himself to her.
They travelled by portal to the Royal Citadel of Karazran, where the Sovereign awaited Mendaran in her Council Chamber. The room’s vaulted ceiling glinted with gilt carvings, while the wall panels were painted with scenes of an idealized world in which mortals paid homage to the Ankaykari. Magnificent chairs lined the table where the Sovereign’s vassals sat to advise her, but now the chamber was empty aside from themselves.
The Sovereign of Shekruvaris sat upon a throne, her gaze resting on a globe of the human world. Gold-embroidered robes of purple, maroon and deep brown flowed around her. Mendaran had glanced at the clock-tower as he followed Zotharan through the Courtyard of Lions, and guessed that she had just concluded a meeting with her Esu councilors. He bowed low, the straightened, waiting for her to address him.
“Mendaran,” said the Sovereign at last. “Are you ready to destroy the traitors?”
Mendaran looked up eagerly. “I am, Your Majesty.”
Ruzenathra seemed endeared by his enthusiasm. “Daskesurul’s warships have just departed for Ekakras – the northernmost port of our Gabakaruan empire – which is where you will join them. From there, you will sail to Tuyaz-Oa and face this so-called Emperor Eraquan.”
“The one who is urging mortal-kind to rise up against the Ankaykari.”
“I shall be glad to crush this wretched man and his revolt, Your Majesty.”
Ruzenathra tilted her head. “Have you killed anyone before?”
Mendaran felt taken aback by the question. He had been told that he was remarkably powerful, even for a Kaniyari, and his combat-skills were well-honed. Killing Eraquan’s followers should hardly pose a challenge to him. “No, Your Majesty. So far, I’ve had no reason to. The only mortals I’ve ever met have been your loyal subjects.”
“But now you must face our enemies. This will be the first time you stand before a mortal and end his life.” Ruzenathra stared at Mendaran, the brazier-light glinting in her pitiless eyes. “We expect you to take many lives. We expect you to slaughter our foes by the thousands.”
Mendaran felt sobered. “I’ve heard that humans die very easily.”
“They do… but they say that it is hard, the first time a man kills another.” Ruzenathra stood before the globe, laying her hand over the continent where Tuyaz-Oa lay. “We want to be sure that you’ll feel no sympathy for the traitors.”
Mendaran felt a stab of anger.
He strode to Ruzenathra’s side, his gaze travelling across the lands she hoped he would conquer for her. “I’ve heard about the kingdoms that lie beyond our power,” he said. “Lands of poverty, ignorance and corruption. I’ve heard how human kings rule their people. I know about slavery. Carashanza has never stopped grieving for Vanotaqua – it is her dream that I’ll reconquer it.” His fists clenched. “We would see Udaris united, while Eraquan would see it fragment into a thousand petty, warring states. No, Your Majesty, I have no sympathy for him.”
Ruzenathra smiled and put a hand on his shoulder. “You are one of us, Mendaran.”
Mendaran remained in the Council Chamber after the Sovereign had left, studying the globe of Udaris. Ruzenathra expected him to conquer the entire human world. It had never been done before, but there had never been a Sovereignty as mighty as Shekruvaris, or so Carashanza said.
Mendaran knew he had the power to do great things. He also knew that Ruzenathra feared he would betray her. He was half-human, and humans were naturally untrustworthy. With the magic he had inherited from his Esu father and his ability to endure the mundane world, he might bring the enlightened rule of the Ankaykari to Udaris – or he might attempt to overthrow them.
Mendaran hoped to prove his loyalty by crushing the Tuyaz-Oan revolt, but deep in his heart he also felt daunted. Would the rest of his life be spent fighting endless wars for Ruzenathra? What if he failed her? Carashanza had told him that it was his duty to save Udaris from human tyrants. Takanepi had told him that he could fight for a thousand years and achieve nothing.
Mendaran’s gaze fell upon his father’s seat. It was carved of grey wood and inlaid with gems, with the sigil of Nezruthar emblazoned on its back in silver. Mendaran found it strange to consider that, in the human world, most sons expected to inherit their fathers’ titles. He would never become the Lord of Nezruthar. No matter how many lands he conquered, he would not be granted a place at this table. As a mortal, he ranked even lower than his father’s Nayusuru servants.
Mendaran sat on Takanepi’s chair and leaned back. He might be half-human, but he had no doubt that he would make a better Lord of Nezruthar than his father. He longed to win glory for their court and see the immortals rule Udaris. Takanepi did not seem to care about anything.
“Are you getting ideas above your station?”
Mendaran’s heart lurched as Zotharan emerged from the shadows. He sprang from the chair, his cheeks burning. “I didn’t mean – be assured, I do not envy my father’s power, I just…”
The words dried up in his throat. How could he explain that he just wished he was a true Ankaykari, without sounding like a self-pitying fool? Ever since Mendaran came to the Royal Court, he had tried to cultivate a manner of cool nonchalance. Now here he was, gabbling like an idiot in front of the Nayusuru he most wanted to impress – the cold-eyed, brilliant Zotharan.
“I’m sure Lord Takanepi won’t mind,” said Zotharan.
Mendaran attempted to recover his dignity. “True. When has he ever cared what I do?”
He could have told Zotharan that Takanepi hated hearing him talk about his destiny to conquer Udaris. It was Carashanza who taught him how to weave battle spells. She had given Mendaran his first sword and shown him how to wield it. Takanepi rarely bothered to watch him dueling. When Mendaran spoke of his loyalty to Shekruvaris and his dreams of glory, his father said nothing. If Shekruvaris fell and Udaris sank into barbarism, would Takanepi even grieve?
“What did the Sovereign wish to discuss with you?” Zotharan asked.
“For some reason, she worried that I might be squeamish about killing traitors.”
“Ah. She thought you might pity the weak. Those who long to claim the freedom they have never known, and who cannot stop dreaming even when they are crushed down.”
Mendaran frowned. “Do you pity them?”
“No, there is no place for pity in my heart.” Zotharan looked amused. “But I try to understand those who oppose me. That is often the key to victory, no matter if your enemy is weaker or stronger than you. Know what drives them. Then you can manipulate them.”
“Thank you for the advice.” Mendaran felt thrilled that Zotharan was talking to him, which was foolish, since he had spoken to people of far higher rank. Perhaps it was because Zotharan was renowned as the greatest sword-fighter in the realm, and the Sovereign’s most valued servant.
Mendaran hoped to prove himself an equally worthy servant of Shekruvaris soon.