A Betrayal

Zotharan tried to keep his expression impassive as he returned to the grand hall, where the illusions woven for Mendaran’s victory banquet were already decaying. Most of the Ankaykari had fled, not wanting to witness the Sovereign’s wrath. Only Xanuspari and Kurunari remained.

“Where is Lady Ruzenathra?” asked Zotharan.

“Gone back to Garashent to vent her fury on Lady Liralian.” Kurunari sighed, casting his gaze across the dishes that he and Arellesria had prepared. “What a sorry waste.”

Xanuspari gritted his teeth. “How could Lady Liralian have done this?”

“I don’t know,” said Kurunari. “She tried to kill Wanoa’s son. Has she forgotten how much she owes that woman? But perhaps she thinks it no longer matters, now Wanoa is dead.”

“Lady Liralian will be punished for her crime,” said Zotharan. It disgusted him that she had chosen to attack Mendaran. The young Kaniyari lord had simply been following orders. He deserved better than to be struck down like a dog in the halls of the Royal Citadel.

Liralian claimed to respect her servants, but she had not even warned Erulorian that she was planning to betray Shekruvaris. Instead, she just left her loyal followers at the mercy of her enemies. That also disgusted Zotharan. The thought of Erulorian being put under Daskesurul’s power made him sick. It must have been millennia since she last endured the cruelty of an Esu.

Of course, Zotharan told himself, Erulorian had only herself to blame. She had ignored his advice and remained loyal to Liralian, even though everyone could see how it would end. Now he must try to save her. The fact that he still cared about her made him a fool as well.

At last he sensed Ruzenathra sweep back to the Citadel. Zotharan ventured into the throne room. Normally he would have avoided his ruler at such times, but he did not want to find that she had handed Erulorian over to Lord Daskesurul before he had a chance to speak with her.

Ruzenathra sat hunched on her throne, her long hair coiling like smoke. Her eyes were glazed with rage. The Scepter of Xathun was gripped tightly against her chest, its light casting a bloody glow over her features. Zotharan almost baulked when he saw her scowl.

“She is not sorry,” rasped Ruzenathra, seeing him in the shadows. “Even after I tore her apart, she was not sorry. She thinks she’s saved Tuyaz-Oa from my ‘tyranny’.”

“She was always a fool,” said Zotharan.

“No, I’m the fool. I should have known she would do this. I should have imprisoned her as soon as the rebellion began.”

Zotharan lowered his gaze sympathetically.

“I fought so hard to become Sovereign, and I am so hated for it,” Ruzenathra muttered. “Ah Zotharan, it feels like everything is falling apart. It was never meant to be like this…”

Zotharan placed his hands over hers, feeling them shake as they clutched the Scepter. “I know.”

“I never wanted to rule through fear. I wanted my vassals to be loyal.” Tears glistened on Ruzenathra’s cheeks. “But no, they hate me, and they oppose me in every way they can. They would rather have seen Liralian as Sovereign. Miserable, whimpering curs!”

“No one thinks she can become Sovereign now.”

“That doesn’t matter! They remember what she used to stand for!”

Zotharan paused. “It’s not too late to gain the loyalty of your vassals, my lady,” he said carefully. “Simply show them that you are a gracious ruler. Listen to their concerns, and let them feel that you are heeding their advice. It was Lord Daskesurul’s greed for power that led to Lady Liralian’s revolt. You listen far too much to him, and not enough to the others.”

“You think it’s your place to advise me?”

“I have more reason to be loyal than any of your Esu vassals.”

“I suppose that is true.” Ruzenathra slumped back against her throne. “You say it’s not too late, but I now know that Liralian will never stop working against me. Not until I break her mind utterly. And her friends will hate me when they see what I’ve done.”

“Your Majesty, what will become of Lady Liralian’s court?”

“Her court?” Ruzenathra laughed shakily. “Liralian no longer has a court! Xessuralen will serve Naskremari. Olemnashial will rejoin Thasenare, for I always promised Yazelern that I’d see her returned to him. As for Liralian’s favored Nayusuru servant – she will serve Daskesurul!”

Zotharan tried not to let his tension show. “Why him?”

“Because he’s one of my few loyal vassals, and I know how it will upset Liralian.”

“If Lady Liralian’s mind has been broken in Garashent, surely there is no need to torment her further by handing her favored servant over to Lord Daskesurul? Would it not be better to let Erulorian join the Court of Ebzazire? She would be happier there.”

“What do I care for Erulorian’s happiness?”

“You are the Sovereign. You have a duty to all of your subjects.”

Ruzenathra gave Zotharan an exasperated look. “Don’t talk like that. I’d be a fool to send Erulorian to Ebzazire. Tassedehami is a snake. It’s better that his court remains weak. Anyway, how will it look to Daskesurul if I seem to favor his lower-ranking enemy above him?”

“If you allow Erulorian to serve Lord Tassedehami, you will gain his loyalty and be seen as a gracious Sovereign.”

“Daskesurul will think I hold him in contempt.”

“As I said, I think you grant Lord Daskesurul more favor than he deserves.”

“Do not question me, Nayusuru! Daskesurul is one of the few Esu who truly supports Shekruvaris. Even now, he is fighting to subdue the revolt in Tuyaz-Oa.”

“Lord Naskremari could have put down the revolt just as well.”

“Don’t be a fool! Daskesurul would be furious if I’d granted Tuyaz-Oa to his old rival. He’s already jealous of the favor I show Naskremari, and I don’t want to give him any reason to turn against me – I don’t need another viper in my Royal Court.” Ruzenathra shivered, then regarded Zotharan sharply. “Why are you putting forward all these arguments?”

“There are many people who care about Erulorian, my lady.”

“Erulorian is just a lowly Nayusuru. If Daskesurul treats her harshly, it will be because she deserves it. The servants of Liralian’s court are known to be proud and out-spoken.”

Zotharan blinked slowly. “Erulorian is my friend.”

“Your friend?” Ruzenathra sneered. “You consider that drab, dull-witted wretch a friend?”

“You know nothing about Erulorian, my lady.”

“She holds a low rank. You demean yourself by keeping company with her.” Ruzenathra shook her head. “I could think you were becoming sentimental. Is this her influence? Have you been listening to that nonsense they talk in Barezeth?”

“I’ve cared about Erulorian for a long time.”

“You should stop caring. It makes you look weak.”

Zotharan told himself that he should back down. He would only rile Ruzenathra by arguing with her. It was not easy to give up, however. He had helped Ruzenathra to defeat the Court of Barezeth, and so he was to blame for any suffering that befell Erulorian now.

“This matters to me, Your Majesty,” he said.

“Enough. Erulorian will go to Zaresnar.”

Zotharan drew back with a hiss. “I have done much for you! I betrayed Barezeth for you. I brought you that stone in your Scepter. Will you not do this one thing for me?”

“All that you have done has been in your own interests.”

“I risked everything to bring you the Xathun Stone.”

“You audacious wretch!” Ruzenathra surged up from her throne, seizing Zotharan by the front of his robes. “It was I who found the Xathun Stone! I owe you nothing!”

Zotharan stared at Ruzenathra.

“It seems you’ve forgotten your place,” snarled Ruzenathra. “You’re nothing but a servant. Your wishes mean nothing beside the wishes of my Esu vassals.”

“I understand, Your Majesty,” said Zotharan coldly.

Ruzenathra struck him to the ground, tearing open his cheek with her nails and sending raw magic searing across his energies. Zotharan hissed as his human guise burned away.

“You will apologize for questioning me!” said Ruzenathra.

“I apologize, Your Majesty.” Zotharan wondered how he could have been foolish enough to think she would listen. His desperation to save Erulorian must have clouded his judgement.

“If you ever dare to suggest that I needed your help to obtain the Xathun Stone – or worse, that you gave it to me – I’ll throw you into a dungeon and scourge you!”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Zotharan reformed his guise. “I beg your forgiveness.”

He had stopped fearing Ruzenathra’s threats a long time ago, for he was used to pain, but he could not afford to get himself imprisoned now. Erulorian needed his help.

Ruzenathra glowered at him, then slowly sank back onto her throne. Her rage drained away, leaving her looking weary and afraid. “I am fighting to hold this Sovereignty together. If you weren’t such a fool, you would see that Erulorian is of no consequence.”

Zotharan bowed his head. “Forgive me, Your Majesty.”

“We must summon our Council and discuss how to proceed with the Tuyaz-Oan campaign. Afterwards, all the Ankaykari will gather in the throne room so that they may witness the dividing of the Court of Barezeth. You will bring Liralian’s servants before us yourself.”

“As you command.” Zotharan withdrew, rage smoldering in his heart.

Ruzenathra thought Daskesurul’s loyalty was worth more than his. Clearly, he had served her for too long. It was time to bring about her downfall and find a new ruler.

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An epic fantasy saga