he immortals had gathered in the Court of Garashent to celebrate three hundred years of peace. They glided among the pillars in human guise, their skin pale or dark, their elaborate robes and long hair flowing around them. Above them brooded the eternally twilight sky of Askamar, the magical realm where they dwelled. At the far end of the courtyard loomed the gateway to Garashent, a labyrinthine dungeon so old even they could not recall who built it.
All twenty-seven immortals were expected to attend this gathering – the nine Esu Ankaykari who ruled the magical realm and the eighteen Nayusuru Ankaykari who served them. The pillars around the dreaded dungeon had been adorned with flowers. Braziers lit the colonnades, but a chill breeze still whispered through the courtyard, carrying withered leaves and dust.
Lady Liralian stood by a pillar in her usual black-skinned guise, studying the other Esu. Three centuries had passed without war, but she knew that eventually the Truce of Elanthar would break and one of the Esu Ankaykari would seek to conquer the rest. The Ankaykari should have been a wise and noble people, but too many of them ruled through fear. Liralian longed to found a better society – one in which no one had to dread the tyranny of her kind.
“You seem pensive,” Lord Yazelern observed.
Liralian glanced across at her friend. Yazelern looked splendid, as always. His robes were russet, amber and gold, lavishly embroidered with a pattern of leaves. His golden-blond hair swept down to his ankles, and his features could have been sculpted from white marble.
“Forgive my poor temper,” said Liralian, “but I hate these gatherings.”
“I can’t blame you.” Yazelern looked around anxiously. It was impossible to feel at ease when so many proud, powerful individuals were gathered. “Lady Ruzenathra hasn’t arrived yet.”
“Perhaps she no longer cares to celebrate peace.” Liralian felt bitter, remembering the words that she and the other Esu had spoken at Elanthar. She could still see them gathered beneath the trees of that remote isle – weary, frightened and appalled by the violence that engulfed the realm since the fall of the Sovereignty of Janzaris. They all agreed that the chaos must end.
Liralian had been weak, then. Now she had finally gained the strength to challenge her foes, but she still felt disturbed by the thought of war resuming.
Ruzenathra lacked such qualms.
The Esu Lady of Veskansare was ruthless in her pursuit of power. Those who refused to serve her were punished until their will was broken. It was only exhaustion that had made Ruzenathra agree to the Truce of Elanthar – with her Nayusuru warriors weary and her Citadel damaged, she must have dreaded being taken prisoner herself. The beautiful flowers strung around the Court of Garashent could not mask the truth. The world of the Ankaykari was savage.
“I’ve no doubt that Lady Ruzenathra will be the one to break the truce,” Liralian told Yazelern, “and it’s your Citadel she will attack first. You ought to give your allegiance to me.”
Yazelern regarded her flatly. “Must you have my allegiance before you will defend me?”
“I’m always willing to defend you – but I also intend to become sovereign.”
“Well, I am not convinced that you would make a better sovereign than myself. I ranked above you not so long ago. What has changed can change again.”
Liralian hissed softly. Yazelern was right – it would not take much for her to fall. The power of the Esu depended on the loyalty of the Nayusuru. Before the truce Liralian had only one follower, but she had recently gained the allegiance of two others – one of whom was Yazelern’s servant Olemnashial. She knew he must resent the status she had achieved at his expense.
“I hear that Olemnashial is not happy in your court,” remarked Yazelern.
“She is loyal to my cause. You’re mistaken if you think she will return to you.”
“We shall see.” Yazelern softened his words by taking Liralian’s hand. “Your followers will remain true if you are worthy. Isn’t that what you told us when we gathered at Elanthar? ‘It is the one most respected for their virtue, not the one most feared for their strength, who will ultimately unite the realm’.”
Liralian gave him a faint smile. “Yes, that has always been my hope.”
“It is my hope, also. We should stand by each other.”
“Yes, of course, but…” Liralian sighed, glancing around at the gathering.
Only Lady Saroparel seemed oblivious to the tensions. She stood on the steps of the dungeon gate, framed by its pillars. When the truce was established, she had been chosen to guard the key to Garashent, so perhaps she felt no fear. Her two Nayusuru servants stood behind her, playing music. Several other Nayusuru danced slowly, but most simply observed the Esu and whispered among themselves.
“Matters cannot continue as they are,” said Liralian. “The truce could break at any time. You ought to declare your allegiance to me.”
“If the truce ends, I’ll become your vassal. Does that satisfy you?”
“I’m sorry. I need your allegiance now. Let everyone see that you support my bid for power, and then perhaps others will commit themselves to our cause.”
“Oh you fool! How do you think Lady Ruzenathra will respond? She’s already furious that I’ve refused to become her vassal. If I proclaim my allegiance to you, she and her allies will declare war on us, and we’re not strong enough to face her yet.”
“I don’t believe Ruzenathra can defeat me so easily. I think it’s your foolish pride and your cowardice that prevent you from taking the wisest course!”
“Or perhaps it’s your impatience that makes me doubt you.”
“I am not impatient! I’ve waited years for your allegiance.”
“Let us not speak of this now, Lady Liralian.” Yazelern turned to go.
Liralian watched him sweep past in a flutter of fabric. She wanted to hurry after him and make amends, but how could she apologize? He had often demanded her allegiance when she was weak, so why should she treat him any differently?
“Were you quarrelling?” drawled Lord Takanepi, appearing at her side. His long raven hair stirred in the breeze as he gazed at her. His features were as pale as snow.
Liralian tensed, wondering how much he had overheard. Although Takanepi claimed to be her friend, he was also in alliance with her hated enemy Lady Mormariul.
Ruzenathra might be Liralian’s most powerful rival, but Mormariul was the person she truly feared. The Esu Lady of Zepzaris stood on the other side of the courtyard, her skin pale and her hair coiling in black waves. Her Nayusuru servants lingered nearby, looking nervous. They knew how unpredictable she could be. Mormariul ignored them, watching Liralian darkly as she shredded the petals from one of Saroparel’s illusionary flowers.
“If we were quarrelling, it is none of your concern!” Liralian told Takanepi.
“You must have quarreled, to be in such a bad temper.”
“I said it’s not your concern.”
“Truly?” Takanepi smiled bleakly. Liralian never felt certain whether it was warmth or mockery she saw in his gaze. “Let me guess – did you ask Lord Yazelern to become your vassal again? And he refused?”
“He’s a fool.”
“So are all those who seek to become sovereign. I thought you valued peace as I do, Liralian, but it seems you value power more. You don’t care if the truce fails.”
“That is not true! But I have foes who must be defeated.” Liralian tried not to shudder as she felt Mormariul’s gaze upon her. She knew how her enemy longed to drag her through the gates of Garashent. “While we maintain our ‘truce’ here in Askamar, our mortal followers still fight and die in the mundane world, and that cannot possibly be right! I never realized what a vicious tyrant Mormariul had become until our armies faced each other in Tan Anguha –”
“It was you who began that war in Tan Anguha.”
Liralian clenched her fists. She and Takanepi had been very close once, but now his words left her hurt and confused. “Why do you still defend Lady Mormariul? Can’t you see what she’s become? She brings dire suffering to the human world!”
“She’s no worse than many human rulers.”
“She’s an immortal. It is our duty to end her tyranny.”
Takanepi closed his eyes. “Liralian… I know you want Lady Saroparel to imprison her, but it won’t help. Her Vanotaquan followers are a brutal people. That won’t change just because they no longer have Lady Mormariul ruling them. If their empire falls, another like it will rise, and Mormariul will only hate you more. Instead of fighting her, you must try to reason with her –”
“There’s nothing I can say to her!”
“So you would see the truce broken? Suppose you are defeated? Who will champion your ideals if you are crushed by the likes of Lady Ruzenathra?”
Liralian hissed. “We’ve had three hundred years of truce, and what has it achieved? Yes, war between the Esu is terrible, but the truce is falling apart whether we want it or not. When war does return to the realm, will you fight for me?”
Mormariul prowled towards them, laying her pale hand on Takanepi’s arm. “What were you discussing?” she asked in a dangerous hiss.
“The truce,” said Takanepi.
“The truce?” Mormariul’s voice changed to a snarl. “If you want to discuss the wretched truce, discuss it with Saroparel! Why must you speak with Liralian?”
“Why shouldn’t Lord Takanepi speak with me?” demanded Liralian.
“Because you are the most loathsome of the Esu!”
Liralian’s temper rose. “You’re the one who is hated by everyone! Why does Lady Saroparel allow you to remain among us? You belong in Garashent!”
Takanepi sighed. “Lady Saroparel still believes that our conflicts can be resolved through diplomacy. You used to believe in diplomacy once.”
“Liralian only believes in diplomacy when she is weak,” sneered Mormariul. “Now that she is strong, she wants war! She is a hypocrite!”
“How dare you?” Liralian screamed.
“Must you quarrel so?” Takanepi sounded infinitely weary.
Liralian realized that the whole gathering was staring at them, waiting for the words to end and the battle to begin. There was no movement aside from the flicker of flames.
“Enough.” Lady Saroparel held up her hands. Her long sleeves rippled like water, their jewels sparkling in the silvery light. “We are here to celebrate harmony.”
“There will never be harmony between us!” cried Mormariul.
Saroparel came down the steps. “I insist that you cease your quarrelling…”
A portal suddenly swirled open at the entrance to the courtyard. Lady Ruzenathra emerged, swathed in a cowl. The fabric of the garment was dark maroon, covered in intricate symbols and set with strange, pale gems. It was impossible to see her features beneath the hood. Disconcertingly, even her magical essence was muffled. Liralian could only be certain it was her because her three Nayusuru warriors fanned out behind her.
Everyone fell silent, regarding her in alarm.
“Why do you stare at me?” Ruzenathra rasped.
Saroparel hesitated. “Lady Ruzenathra, why do you conceal yourself?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Mormariul stalked forward. “She is wounded, and seeks to hide it!”
“Leave me be!” Ruzenathra screeched, raising her gloved hands.
“It must be ugly!” Mormariul laughed. She reached for Ruzenathra’s hood, then drew away as Ruzenathra’s Nayusuru servants advanced on her with savage hisses.
“Please,” said Saroparel, “tell us what has happened.”
Ruzenathra was the most powerful of the Esu, but now she cringed beneath the gaze of her people. Her fingers clutched pathetically at the hem of her cowl. Finally she threw back the hood to reveal her beautiful black-skinned features. She allowed her human guise to reflect no sign of injury, but her crimson eyes smoldered with suppressed pain.
“I’m not as helpless as you think!” she rasped.
Liralian stared at her, unable to help admiring her strength of will.
Yazelern returned to Liralian’s side. “I hear that Lady Ruzenathra’s been traveling the Inner Dimensions,” he whispered. “They are notoriously dangerous. Perhaps one caved in on her?”
“At least she won’t be threatening us for a while.” Liralian knew she should be glad, but her heart clouded with trepidation as she wondered what had driven Ruzenathra to risk such peril.