essuralen had spent years considering what to say to Lord Naskremari when she returned to his court. Now the moment was upon her. She silently followed him into the Citadel of Baskranase and stood before his throne. Pillars loomed on either side of her, decorated with gemstone inlays and lit by torches. A deep reddish sky spread beyond the high windows.
Xessuralen knew her friends were afraid for her, but her heart was armored against such weakness. All she felt was anger. She wondered if Naskremari had changed much since she left him. Could she still anticipate his moods? Would he want to take revenge on her?
“Xessuralen,” he said finally. “I understand that you always intended to return to me, but that you’d hoped for different circumstances. You wanted me to embrace Lady Liralian’s ideology, which – as I understand it – involves respecting the weak and showing mercy to defeated foes.”
“That is so, my lord,” said Xessuralen stonily.
“You’ve tried to explain the ‘wisdom’ of her ideas, but all I see is a threat to the natural order of our world.” Naskremari sighed. His other servants, Tarissarul and Esephrul, lingered at the back of the hall, watching him nervously. “I thought Lady Liralian was just a well-meaning fool, but now she’s tried to kill the son of Wanoa – a mortal to whom we all owe gratitude.”
“Yes.” Xessuralen’s confidence faltered. If not for Wanoa, she and many others might still be prisoners in Mormariul’s Citadel. Her belief in Liralian had been struck a heavy blow.
“Surely you don’t condone what Lady Liralian has done?” asked Naskremari.
“No, my lord.”
“You cannot wish to continue serving such a ruler.”
Xessuralen lowered her gaze. She could not help feeling that Liralian had betrayed her – or, at least, lost her way. Liralian might argue that Mendaran was a villain, but Xessuralen could find no fault with his actions, no matter how much she disagreed with the war. He had been carrying out the orders of the Sovereign. If leaders were not obeyed, society would crumble.
“My true place has always been at your side,” Xessuralen murmured.
“You broke my power when you left me.”
“It was my intention to see Lady Liralian become Sovereign.”
“Yet you say you belong at my side? You make no sense!” Naskremari slammed his fist on the arm of the throne, making Tarissarul and Esephrul flinch. He then calmed himself. “Well, the past is past. We have a new Sovereign now, and I have resolved to forgive you.”
Relief lit Xessuralen’s heart, and it was only then she realized that she had been afraid – not of anything she might suffer herself, but of seeing Naskremari act like a tyrant. She wanted him to be better than that. He probably expected her to thank him for his mercy, but she could not.
“Why should I need your forgiveness?” she demanded. “The Truce of Elanthar stated that the Nayusuru were free to serve whoever they wished. We had Lady Liralian to thank for that.”
“It was a betrayal, Xessuralen.” Naskremari growled. “You were my favored servant. I always treated you well – far better than my other servants – and this is how you repaid me!”
“I did not want you to see it as a betrayal. I wanted to help you.”
“By forcing me to become Liralian’s vassal?”
“I wanted to show you that there are other ways an Esu can rule… other ways the Ankaykari can be.”
“There is no other way. Surely you can see that, now?”
Xessuralen saw that she had humiliated Naskremari before the entire realm, and it had been for nothing. For all the good she had achieved, she might as well have stayed at his side. She narrowed her eyes in anguish, feeling her self-belief drain away like a fistful of sand.
“I am sorry I hurt you, my lord,” she said. “For this, I ask your forgiveness.”
Naskremari closed his eyes, looking pained. He hated to admit that anything could hurt him emotionally. “As I said, the past is past.”
“You are gracious, my lord.”
“I have something that I wish to return to you.”
A slender sword appeared in Naskremari’s hands. Xessuralen almost gasped, seeing the blue azuhan jewels sparkling on its hilt and the engravings across its silver blade.
“Wind-Song,” she said. “I thought it was lost in the mundane world.”
“It was,” said Naskremari. “Once of Echaza’s followers claimed it after the Battle of Kono. I sent Tarissarul to retrieve it from Vanotaqua, but it was not an easy task.”
“This sword is no longer mine. It was you who forged it.”
“I gave it to you, as a gift. I still want you to have it.” Naskremari held out the sword.
Emotion welled in Xessuralen’s heart. She suddenly felt ashamed of herself for forsaking him, when she could have stayed and tried to help him become a fairer ruler. Naskremari was not a cruel, craven despot like Daskesurul. He knew that honor was more important than power.
Xessuralen slowly approached the dais and took the sword. “Thank you.”
“We can sword-fight together, like we used to.”
“Yes.” A smile touched Xessuralen’s lips.
“But first you must reclaim your place as the highest-ranking of my servants. It has been many years since we last saw you duel. It is rumored that you’ve lost your edge.”
Xessuralen had been gazing lovingly at her sword, but now she glanced up. “My enemies have claimed that for years,” she said drily. “You cannot think it is true.”
“I would see you defeat Tarissarul and Esephrul.”
Xessuralen arched an eyebrow. “Both at once?”
Naskremari chuckled. “One at a time will do.”
Tarissarul and Esephrul stood together, looking tense. For years they had begged Xessuralen to return to Burshnar, but now she was back they seemed far from happy. Tarissarul’s amber eyes were cold as she studied Xessuralen. Esephrul just stared at the ground. Xessuralen felt disappointed as they headed to the dueling pit. She had expected a warmer welcome.
“Tarissarul will duel with you first,” Naskremari said.
Tarissarul inclined her head gracefully, then stepped into the pit. Her energies swirled as she circled Xessuralen. Although she was a sly opponent, she lacked the ferocity that marked great fighters. Like many Nayusuru, she feared too much for her own safety.
Xessuralen watched her, knowing that Tarissarul already expected to be defeated.
Tarissarul dissolved and lashed out. Xessuralen smoothly deflected her blow, seized her and dragged her down. The air ignited as their energies twisted. Tarissarul quickly broke free and fled to the far end of the pit. Her energies danced around her as she tried to entangle Xessuralen in some clever spell-work. Xessuralen countered her magic, then struck out. Her heart sang with that familiar thrill of battle – that need to crush anyone who dared to challenge her.
Tarissarul darted away with a startled hiss. She was losing her nerve. She wove back and forth across the pit, but Xessuralen knew her moves well. A well-aimed bolt left Tarissarul reeling. Xessuralen closed in. She drove Tarissarul back against the wall and grappled her down.
The lower-ranking Nayusuru tried to slither away, but Xessuralen struck her hard, smashing her into the dust. Esephrul gasped, watching from the side. Naskremari grinned.
Xessuralen struck again, not giving her opponent any chance to recover. Slime spattered across the dust as Tarissarul’s energies liquefied. Xessuralen’s own energies spat and crackled.
“I yield,” Tarissarul cried, struggling to shield herself from further damage.
Xessuralen released her. Tarissarul swirled up and resumed human guise, anger flashing in her eyes. Her hair had been styled in elaborate coils and braids before the battle, but now it hung lose. Her robes were frayed, and a bloody cut had formed across her cheek.
Naskremari turned to Esephrul. “Let’s see how you fare.”
Esephrul nervously stepped down into the pit. Like Tarissarul, he was far better at defense than attack. Although he tried to put up a fight, fear made his spell-work clumsily, and Xessuralen soon had him pinned down. Naskremari regarded him with scorn.
“Useless as ever,” the Lord of Burshnar muttered.
Xessuralen looked at Esephrul, who lay shivering in her grip, and felt a twinge of guilt. She had tried not to hurt him, but she had still humiliated him – and not for the first time. She let Esephrul go and came up the steps to join Naskremari.
“Tarissarul fought well.” Xessuralen said.
“Not as well as you.”
Tarissarul rematerialized beside them. Her scar had vanished, and she had smoothed the anger from her expression. “Very few Nayusuru fight as well as Xessuralen, my lord.”
“Oh yes!” agreed Esephrul, still looking shaken after his defeat.
Naskremari did not even glance at them. He smiled at Xessuralen. “With you at my side, the true glory of Burshnar is restored. I should hold a gathering for my allies. They won’t be in any mood to celebrate after what has just happened, but we ought to talk.”
Tarissarul bowed her head. “We shall have it arranged, my lord.”
“Shall we have a drink?” Naskremari asked Xessuralen.
Xessuralen frowned. It felt like nothing had changed. During her time in Barezeth she had resolved not to flaunt her power or intimidate those of lower rank, but less than an hour after her return to Burshnar she had already beaten up the weaker Nayusuru of her court. Surely those years in Barezeth should have left some mark on her?
“Perhaps later, my lord,” she said, bowing her head.
“As you wish.” Naskremari gave her leave to withdraw, but when Xessuralen paused by the door to glance back, she saw him staring after her with a dismayed expression.
Xessuralen knew that Tarissarul would be writing invitations, which she would deliver to the servants of Lord Yazelern and Lord Tassedehami. Esephrul was probably considering which wines to serve their guests. Xessuralen wandered along the familiar terraced gardens, bridges and balconies of Naskremari’s stronghold, feeling the hot breeze stir her hair.
The Citadel was not as she remembered. Most of the fountains were dry, the flowers had shriveled, and the vines that clambered along the courtyard walls had withered. The bright-winged butterfly-adagrias that used to flock along the roof-tops were gone. Even the sky was different, stained red by the excess of magic that now suffused the realm.
Xessuralen stood at a balcony, gazing over the parched forest below the Citadel. Lake Gesphire glimmered with a lurid radiance. The wind moaned, carrying the stench of smoke. Beyond the peaks and the wastes of Veskansare, Xessuralen saw fire pouring from the Abyss.
She shivered, remembering her ordeal in Mormariul’s dungeons. She had heard how Naskremari tried in vain to save her, but she did not think she could ever tell him how helpless and afraid she had felt. He only respected those who were strong.
Xessuralen clenched her fists and strode inside.
She came to the grand parlor, where she found Tarissarul and Esephrul preparing for the arrival of Naskremari’s guests. Somehow she had to regain their trust, but she had never been good at conversation. It was not like delivering a speech or overseeing a council of war, where she knew exactly what to say. The idle gossip that most Nayusuru loved just seemed pointless to her.
Esephrul placed a flask of quanzia wine to the table, then glanced at Xessuralen anxiously. “Greetings, Xessuralen. Did you want to help with the preparations?”
Xessuralen blinked slowly. “Help?”
Esephrul cringed. “I meant… I just… I wanted to make you feel like part of the court again.”
“Xessuralen will not help,” said Tarissarul. “This task is beneath her.”
“It’s not.” Xessuralen picked up a plate, then realized she did not know what to do with it, and put it back. Tarissarul regarded her coolly, as if she had ruined their careful arrangement.
Xessuralen assumed an equally disdainful expression.
Esephrul seemed unable to bear the uncomfortable silence. “We are so glad that you’ve returned, Xessuralen. Lord Naskremari was in such a fury when you left.”
“Xessuralen knows.” Tarissarul wove an illusionary flower.
“But now he’s forgiven you, and you are his favored servant once more. I was afraid that he’d still be angry with you, but… but he isn’t.” Esephrul clasped his hands and smiled lamely.
Tarissarul looked up from her flower-arrangement. “He wasn’t truly angry with Xessuralen. He felt wounded. Whatever she does, he will always regard her with favor, for she is noble and brave, and skilled in battle. Even her treachery has not diminished her nobility, it appears.”
“If I thought of joining another court, he’d beat me to a pulp,” said Esephrul.
“That’s because he regards us as dross.”
The pair glided around Xessuralen, surveying their work, but she sensed something strained about their manner. Esephrul cringed again when her gaze fell upon him.
“What’s wrong, Esephrul?” Xessuralen finally snapped.
“You seem even more nervous than usual.”
“It’s nothing.” Esephrul stepped back. “I… I’m just upset about Erulorian, that’s all. Thinking about what has happened to her… it brings back memories of the time Lord Daskesurul took me prisoner.”
Tarissarul held his hand comfortingly. “Erulorian will fare better than most under his regime. She’s like me. She’ll work out how to handle his moods.”
“Do you think so?”
“I used to tell her about my own years in Zaresnar, sometimes. She’ll know what to do.”
Xessuralen raised her eyebrows at Tarissarul. “I never realized you and Erulorian were friends.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to know something like that,” replied Tarissarul. “In any case, I’ve not often kept company with her since you left. I wouldn’t want to be suspected of disloyalty myself.”
She turned coldly and glided from the parlor. Esephrul hurried after her.
Xessuralen sighed and poured herself a drink, then poured another and went to find Naskremari. As usual he was in his study, reading reports from his mundane empire. A splendidly detailed map of Udaris filled much of the wall behind his chair. Documents were stacked on the table beside him, probably placed there by Esephrul or Tarissarul.
He looked up when Xessuralen put the goblet in front of him.
“Thank you,” he said. “How are you feeling?”
“How am I feeling?” Xessuralen felt surprised that he would ask.
“Are Tarissarul and Esephrul being pleasant?”
Xessuralen sipped her drink. “I wouldn’t say that Tarissarul is being pleasant.”
“She’s a snake and Esephrul is a coward, but I must endure them. I need them both.” Naskremari sighed. “I’m glad to have you back. You’re the only one I could ever talk to.”
“Even though you think I make no sense?”
“Now that you’ve returned, I hope you’ll forget the nonsense they spoke in Barezeth.”
Xessuralen thinned her lips, saying nothing. Erulorian had reminded her that their cause did not need an Esu to lead it. She could continue to uphold what she felt was right, no matter who she served.
“Xessuralen?” said Naskremari.
“I can’t forget.”
Naskremari clenched his fist on the table. “So you still believe in Lady Liralian’s ideals. Even now. Xessuralen, you are a high-ranking servant. A warrior. You can’t afford this weakness.”
Xessuralen wanted to tell him that her ideals were not weakness, but it did not seem wise to start an argument with him now. She would wait and consider how to proceed.
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