askremari came to Karazran with a leaden heart. A sweltering wind moaned from the peaks, whipping through his hair. Dust eddied across the palace courtyards. The land where Ruzenathra dwelled had suffered even worse than Burshnar, for the storms that swept through Veskansare bought not just gales but poisoned rain and fire. Not even mortal vermin lived here now.
Naskremari found the Sovereign among her maps, staring moodily a chart of eastern Udaris. Ruzenathra’s gaze drifted over the rebellious provinces of Tuyaz-Oa, the kingdoms of the Gahuzan Isles, and the hated Vanotaquan empire. Anger smoldered in her eyes.
“Your Majesty.” Naskremari bowed. “May I speak?”
“What is it?” asked Ruzenathra wearily.
Naskremari regarded her with concern. Years of conflict, rivalry and betrayal lay behind them, yet there had also been times when they were friends. Naskremari understood Ruzenathra’s determination to be obeyed, for he felt the same. He did not want her to fail.
“How long do you plan to keep Lady Liralian imprisoned?” he asked.
Ruzenathra wrapped her arms around herself, as if something caused her pain. “I don’t know,” she said, discarding the formality of royal speech. “I can hardly bear the sight of her. She thinks I’m a villain and she’s some champion of justice. It’s as if all reason has fled her mind.”
“She’s always had an iron will.”
“I hate her. She’s a disgrace to our kind. Calling us tyrants when we seek to bring order to the world, siding with mortals, claiming we mistreat our servants…”
Naskremari nodded. “I won’t ask you to show mercy to such a traitor. But what of her servants? Many feel that you’ve treated them unfairly.”
“Oh?” Ruzenathra raised her eyebrows.
“Erulorian would never have chosen to serve Lord Daskesurul.”
“Ha! Don’t pretend you care about the opinions of a servant! It makes you sound weak.” Ruzenathra’s lip curled. “I suppose you want me to send Erulorian to Ebzazire, to serve your manipulative friend Tassedehami? That would greatly strengthen your faction, would it not?”
Naskremari could not deny the truth of her words. “Both Lord Yazelern and Lord Tassedehami are upset by your decision to send Erulorian to Zaresnar.”
“What do their opinions matter?”
“They are my allies.”
Ruzenathra’s expression became colder. Naskremari had hoped she might remember how much she owed him, but perhaps she was also considering the power he wielded through his alliances. Perhaps she was feeling threatened. The thought made him tense.
“Very well,” Ruzenathra said finally. “We shall grant Erulorian to you, and you can send her to whichever court you deem fit. In return, Daskesurul will have Xessuralen. Does that seem just?”
“I cannot agree to that!”
“Then the opinions of your allies don’t matter that much to you.” Ruzenathra turned back to the map. “Has Xessuralen accepted your authority yet?”
“It seems that she is willing to serve me.”
“Seems? Seems!” Ruzenathra looked around sharply. “What’s happened to you, Naskremari? Do you no longer care if you are obeyed?”
“Of course I care!”
“You should punish that wretched Nayusuru for betraying you.”
Naskremari ground his teeth. He told himself that Ruzenathra was right – the Nayusuru were sly, fickle and power-hungry, and would never respect any ruler whom they did not also fear. He had wanted to believe Xessuralen was different, but she proved him wrong. She had repaid his kindness with treachery. Still, the thought of hurting her made him recoil, even now.
“A broken servant makes a poor fighter,” he said.
“So some claim, yet I don’t hesitate to punish my servants, and there are no fiercer fighters in the realm.” Ruzenathra gave Naskremari a hard stare. “You must ensure that Xessuralen forsakes all loyalty to Liralian. How can you trust her, otherwise?”
“You are right, of course, Your Majesty.”
“As for Erulorian, we have already made our decision.”
Naskremari understood. A Sovereign could not afford to seem fickle. He inclined his head to Ruzenathra, then returned to his Citadel, considering what he should say to Xessuralen.
He found her alone on a terrace, the wind stirring her pale hair. The sky above was fiery red.
“Xessuralen.” Naskremari hesitated. “I’ve been speaking with the Sovereign. She wants to be assured that you feel no more loyalty to the Court of Barezeth.”
“Yes, she does.”
Xessuralen gazed across the dying forests and poisoned lakes of Burshnar. “There is nothing left of that court except its dreams.”
Naskremari frowned. Xessuralen had not given him the answer he needed; perhaps that meant she was still ready to betray him. The thought tore his heart. He told himself that she probably did not want to speak about Barezeth because the pain of its downfall was still too raw, but he knew he was being a fool. He could not allow anyone within his court to have divided loyalties.
“Xessuralen, tell me that you are no longer loyal to Lady Liralian.”
“I thought I already had.” Xessuralen’s eyes narrowed with pain. “Lady Liralian has broken the law. I admire what she once tried to achieve, but I can no longer serve her.”
“Are you loyal to me?”
“What does that mean? To be loyal to someone?”
“Why are you asking me this?” Naskremari scowled. Liralian might be fond of such philosophical questions, but he had no patience for them. “Everyone knows what loyalty is.”
“Please humor me, my lord. Tell me what loyalty means to you.”
Naskremari’s immediate response was that a loyal servant was one who obeyed their ruler, but he realized it was more than that. “To support one’s ruler. To want them to succeed.”
“And what do you seek to achieve?”
“Obviously, I want to become the greatest of the Sovereign’s vassals.”
“Because then I can keep my court safe from my enemies. My lands will prosper.” Naskremari tried to keep the impatience from his voice. “You never used to ask these stupid questions, Xessuralen. The answers were obvious to you once. What happened?”
“The answers only seemed obvious because I didn’t think about them.”
“Nayusuru aren’t supposed to think. They’re supposed to obey.”
Xessuralen seemed unfazed by Naskremari’s harsh words. “My lord, if power is what you most value, then why do you chose to serve Lady Ruzenathra? Why not seek to usurp her?”
“Because I pledged my loyalty to her. We have to stand by our promises or society will crumble. It was for this same reason that I upheld the Truce of Elanthar, even after you betrayed me.”
“So you care about our people… or at least, the stability of our society.”
“If we lack a stable society, everyone suffers.”
“But when Lady Ruzenathra broke the truce, you gave your allegiance to her.”
“Because I knew she’d make a better ruler than that fool Liralian!” said Naskremari, refusing to feel ashamed. “That should tell you what I think of Barezeth and its deluded ideals.”
Xessuralen turned to face him, her amber eyes shining fiercely in the lantern-light. “Lady Liralian’s vision of a more equal society is not deluded. It works. I’ve seen it in Tuyaz-Oa. Everyone is valued. Everyone has a voice. Even the nobles are courteous to commoners –”
“And see where this has led! Tuyaz-Oa is in rebellion.”
“Because they have something worth fighting for. Something you would destroy.”
“Xessuralen…” Naskremari stared at his servant in exasperation. “Do you remember the final years of the truce? The peace was failing. The harmonious society that Lady Liralian spoke of never came to be. We needed a new Sovereign. A strong and decisive ruler.”
“That ruler did not have to be Lady Ruzenathra.”
“It could have been me, if you’d returned to me,” said Naskremari quietly.
Xessuralen’s shoulders sagged. “If it had been you, and you had taken the Scepter of Xathun, would you be any different from Lady Ruzenathra?”
“You must stop speaking like this. It’s dangerous – it sounds like treason.” Naskremari stepped closer to her. “Xessuralen, are you loyal to me? I have to know.”
“I’ve agreed to serve you, have I not?”
“I want the Court of Burshnar to be safe. I want our people to prosper. I wanted that even when I served another ruler and tried to thwart your ambitions. In my heart, I feel like I’ve always been loyal to you.” Xessuralen lowered her head. “I wish I could make you understand.”
“You think I’ve lost sight of my true self,” murmured Naskremari.
“Yes! You don’t have to be the vassal of some tyrant – you can be better than that. You don’t have to threaten others to make yourself seem strong.” Xessuralen stared at Naskremari, the hope fading from her eyes. “You’re not listening. You think I’ve let myself become weak.”
“You still speak like an Barezethan.” Naskremari struggled to hide his pain. “Yes, I think you’ve become weak. You’re no longer servant I used to trust and value.”
“I’ll prove you wrong, my lord.”
Naskremari met Xessuralen’s cool, fearless gaze, hoping she was right.
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