akanepi stood in the grand parlor of his Citadel, gazing at the ashes in the hearth. Soon his son would be gone. Lord Daskesurul’s warships had reached Ekakras. When they left on the final stage of their voyage to Tuyaz-Oa, Mendaran would be with them.
Never once had Mendaran doubted the righteousness of Ruzenathra’s cause. Somehow, the young man believed he was helping human-kind by bringing war to their lands. It always amazed Takanepi that the truth could be so twisted.
“I hope you’ll find something encouraging to say to Mendaran before he leaves,” said Carashanza, standing by the hearth with folded arms. “Your approval means a lot to him.”
“You think he still cares?” Takanepi asked bleakly.
Yephasure laid her hand on his shoulder. “He loves you.”
Takanepi remembered the baby in Wanoa’s arms. He remembered the small child who ran along the beaches of Rakukath, showing him bits of drift-wood and asking him to help build a sand-Citadel. He remembered Mendaran’s excitement when he wove his first light-orb. They had held a party to celebrate, and filled Daramorag’s banqueting hall with dancing lights.
Takanepi remembered how Mendaran had changed after he met the Sovereign. Three years spent living in Sarekordia, the capital of Ruzenathra’s mundane empire, had been enough to re-shape the young man’s mind, until he could think of nothing but the glory of Shekruvaris.
“There is much that I would like to say to my son,” Takanepi told his servants. “I want to tell him to flee Shekruvaris, build a new life in the mundane world, and never look back.”
Carashanza groaned. “You drive me to despair, my lord.”
“This realm is a prison. Of us all, only Mendaran has a chance to escape.”
“If Mendaran defies the Sovereign, he can never come back,” Carashanza snapped. “He’ll be an exile. Is that what you want? Never to see your son again? How will that make him feel?”
“The Sovereign will never let him go,” said Yephasure quietly. “She will send her servants to hunt him down. She will drag him back to her dungeons and break his will.”
Takanepi sighed. “This is why I have said nothing.”
Mendaran finally strode into the parlor, followed by Quenezarea, who had been helping him pack. Takanepi blinked, seeing his son attired like a general. Mendaran wore a silver breastplate, with flaring pauldrons and a dark blue cape flowing down his back. Azuhan jewels gleamed on his gauntlets and shoulder-guards. A crested helmet was tucked under his arm, while the sword that Carashanza had given him hung in an ornate scabbard at his hip.
“How do I look?” Mendaran asked, spreading his arms.
“Very grand,” said Carashanza.
Mendaran grinned, then set the helmet aside and gave her a hug. He hugged Yephasure as well. His smile then faded as he turned to Takanepi. “Father, won’t you at least wish me well?”
“Of course I wish you well,” said Takanepi.
Mendaran came over uncertainly and held open his arms. Takanepi embraced him. His heart felt heavy as he imagined all the fathers in Tuyaz-Oa who would be embracing their sons for the last time. When Mendaran returned, he would probably have slain thousands of people.
“Promise you will be careful,” Takanepi said, letting Mendaran go. “You are not invulnerable. In Udaris, you’ll face desperate men who will do their utmost to kill you.”
“Yes, Father, I know what a battle is.”
“This isn’t a time for jesting. If you exhaust your power, there will be nothing to keep the humans from overwhelming you. If one of them has acquired an aeyaturuzite blade –”
“Oh, you mean that stuff Lady Mormariul used to make her wards?”
Takanepi sighed, wondering why Mendaran never appreciated the gravity of anything. “Yes, the ‘stuff’ that kept me trapped in her Citadel. I believe the mortals call it ghaztarite. If one of them has acquired a ghaztarite blade from Vanotaqua, it could kill you instantly.”
“The Tuyaz-Oans would never accept help from their enemies.”
“The Vanotaquans might decide that it’s in their own interests to assassinate you. I want you to be safe, Mendaran. That’s more important to me than anything.” Takanepi made a sword appear in his hands. Its translucent silver-blue blade glittered like ice, and blue azuhans flashed on its hilt. “Take this. It’s a finer weapon than the one you have now.”
Mendaran lifted the sword. “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s called Icegale. Lady Mormariul forged it for me.”
Mendaran hesitated, then handed the sword back to Takanepi. “I don’t need anything created by the one who killed my mother. Greythorn will suit me well enough.”
Takanepi stood holding Mormariul’s sword, watching his son step away. Slivers of pain spread across his heart like cracks in the ice. He had wanted at least one good thing to remain from his ancient friendship with Mormariul – something untainted by the horrific crimes she went on to commit, and the anguish she caused him – but perhaps Mendaran was right to reject her gift. He would have used the sword to slay innocent men as they fought for their freedom.
The Nezrutharans travelled to Karazran by portal. Rain battered down upon its Court of Gates. Torches hissed and steaming puddles glistened on the flagstones. Mendaran quickly stepped beneath the shelter of an arcade to keep from getting drenched, his eyes bright with excitement.
“Please tell the Sovereign that we are here,” Carashanza said to her old friend and rival Kurunari, who had appeared at the entrance of the main building.
Not long later Lord Daskesurul came down the steps to the courtyard, followed by his Nayusuru servant Canrasiul. Daskesurul had told the Royal Council that Canrasiul would be assisting his army, but Takanepi knew the Nayusuru lord was also being sent to spy on Mendaran.
Like many Esu, Daskesurul was tormented by distrust. He probably thought Mendaran would seize his fleet and proclaim himself King of the Gahuzan Sea if no one was there to stop him – though what chance he thought Canrasiul stood against a Kaniyari in Udaris, Takanepi had no idea.
Daskesurul cast an uneasy glance at Mendaran, then approached Takanepi. He was clad in ornate, gold-embroidered robes of indigo and maroon. Torch-light gleamed on his bejeweled diadem and the fine chains that bound his hair. “Greetings, Lord Takanepi,” he said.
Takanepi sighed. He had no wish to speak with Daskesurul. “Greetings.”
“You must be pleased. Finally, you have a chance to serve our cause.” Daskesurul’s gaze darted to Mendaran again. His voice dropped to a hiss that was barely audible above the rain. “I hope your son proves more loyal to Askamar than you have.”
“I’ve always been loyal to Askamar, in my way,” replied Takanepi.
Daskesurul frowned, then looked away.
The Sovereign finally joined them. The two Esu bowed, but Ruzenathra spared them no more than a glance. Her energies smoldered with unease. Takanepi wondered what old fears had arisen to torment her now. The storms that raged over Karazran often seemed to remind her of Mormariul, the traitor who had poisoned her and stolen her precious Scepter of Xathun. All Ankaykari bore scars from the past, but Ruzenathra’s were deeper and fresher than most.
“So, it is time for Mendaran to sail for Tuyaz-Oa,” Ruzenathra said. Her voice sounded strained. “We do not doubt that he will win a great victory for us when he reaches its shores.”
Takanepi bowed his head.
Ruzenathra turned to Mendaran, the rain hammering around her. “We know that you are loyal to Shekruvaris. You are steadfast and brave, and you know your duty.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” said Mendaran.
“You must defer to Daskesurul’s generals. They may be human, but they have more experience than you.” Ruzenathra regarded Mendaran intently. “Never forget why you are fighting. It’s not for some mundane empire that will tear itself apart in few generations. We are bringing unity to the human world. Serve us well, and you will go down in history as the greatest of the Kaniyari.”
Mendaran smiled and bowed again.
Ruzenathra opened a portal to Ekakras and watched the young man stride through. Mendaran probably had no idea how much she was depending on him. There had been few Sovereignties as hated as Shekruvaris. By conquering the human world, Ruzenathra hoped to secure the loyalty of her Esu vassals. Takanepi dreaded to imagine what she would do if Mendaran failed her.
Wearily, he returned to Daramorag and resumed his place before the hearth. Lamps sent shadows wavering across the dark grey walls, bookshelves and faded tapestries. Outside, the wind rose to a shriek then faded to a murmur. Sleet trickled down the window-panes.
Carashanza appeared behind Takanepi. “So, Mendaran has finally gone,” she said, slumping onto the couch with a heavy sigh. “I’m grateful that you didn’t say anything foolish to him before he left. It’s dangerous for him to have doubts. He needs to believe in Shekruvaris.”
“You want him to remain Ruzenathra’s unquestioning tool.”
“I want him to be safe! Can’t you understand that? You know what will happen to Mendaran if he defies the Sovereign – and not just to him, but to the rest of our court.”
“Oh Carashanza…” Takanepi sat down beside her.
“You think I’ve been manipulating Mendaran – that all I care about is seeing him reconquer Vanotaqua – but you’re wrong. I love him as if he were my own son.”
“I know. He’s more your son than mine, I think.” Takanepi put an arm around Carashanza. She seldom let him see her looking vulnerable, but now she pressed against him and closed her eyes.
“You must not speak against the Sovereign,” she said. “I know you want Mendaran to be free of Shekruvaris, but if you think he’ll slip quietly away into the mundane world and leave us to face Lady Ruzenathra’s wrath, you’re wrong. Mendaran is too much like his mother.”
“That is true,” sighed Takanepi.
Despair oppressed him. Perhaps there was no escape for any of them. Takanepi wished he had listened to Liralian. He wished he had fought Ruzenathra while he had the chance. Everything might be different now, if he had given Liralian his allegiance during the Truce of Elanthar.
A fierce gust of sleet spattered the parlor windows. Such warm weather had once been rare in Nezruthar, but now even the ancient snows were thawing. Further inland, Askamar’s forests lay blighted by storms from the Abyss. Poisoned vapors drifted on the wind, causing the realm’s mortal creatures to sicken. Takanepi wondered if Mormariul would be pleased by the misery she still caused. He wondered if Ruzenathra felt as burdened by her mistakes as he did.
“I’m so afraid for Mendaran,” murmured Carashanza. “I’m afraid he’ll listen to the wrong people now that he’s back in Udaris. I’ve tried to tell him that humans can’t be trusted, but some sly courtier or general will inevitably try to persuade him to do something stupid once they realize how powerful he is. Or perhaps the rebels will try to win him over.”
“You think too much like Lord Daskesurul.”
“It’s hard not to.” Carashanza stood up, folding her arms. “At least Lady Liralian didn’t have the wit to befriend Mendaran. If he’d started listening to her mad ideas…”
“I should visit Liralian.”
“What?” Carashanza turned sharply. “Whatever for? You’re not even welcome in – in what used to be her Citadel. She’s made it plain that she despises you.”
“Yes, Liralian does despise me,” said Takanepi, also rising to his feet, “but Mendaran does not deserve her hatred. I want her to know that.”
“She won’t listen to you.”
Takanepi smiled. “Ah Carashanza, you speak as if you know her, but you weren’t even in my court when she and I were allies. Liralian is misunderstood by so many people.”
He melted into mist and flew across the realm to Barezeth. It had been years since he last came here – as Carashanza had said, he was no longer welcome. Once, Barezeth had been a land that glittered with frost. Now its pine forests lay bleak and dank beneath the dim sky. The storms from the Abyss had tainted its waters, scoured its meadows and left its creatures starving.
Liralian’s Citadel remained in ruins. She had never found the will to rebuild it. For a long time, she seemed so damaged by her ordeal that her friends feared she would never speak again.
Takanepi materialized where the gatehouse had once stood. Creepers straggled over the ruins, their roots pushing up through cracks in the mosaic tiles. A breeze rustled the sickly ferns. Liralian knelt on the dais, her face buried in her hands. Her frayed robes fluttered around her. After a while she raised her head and stared across the rubble at Takanepi.
“Why have you come here?” she asked tiredly.
“My son has just left for Tuyaz-Oa.”
“Of course he has. Do you think I was foolish enough to hope that Mendaran would refuse to fight? That he would take pity on human-kind?”
“He thinks he is saving the empire.”
“Is that what he claims?”
Takanepi felt a twinge of anger, like pain from an old wound. Liralian did not seem to realize how hypocritical she sometimes sounded. “You have often waged war in the mundane world yourself, claiming that you sought to help mortal-kind. Remember Eoradha? The Gahuzan Wars? The Janakezan revolt? Countless people died in those conflicts, but you believed it was all for a noble cause. How can you blame Mendaran for believing the same about this war?”
Liralian’s shoulders sagged. For a long time she stared at the flagstones in silence while the breeze hissed around them. Takanepi felt guilty, knowing his words had caused her pain.
“Does Mendaran know why my empire is rebelling?” Liralian asked at last.
“I believe Lady Ruzenathra told him something about the arrogance of human-kind – that they are ungrateful, too stupid to recognize the wisdom of the immortals, and so forth.” Takanepi could not hide his disgust. It grieved him that Mendaran could be so easily manipulated.
“Doesn’t he know how Lord Daskesurul pushed them into revolt by seeking to conquer their allies? Doesn’t he know of the unjust taxation and the levies imposed on them while I was too weak to defend their interests?”
“No, I don’t think he does.”
“Did he even bother to ask you?”
“If he had, I would have told him the truth.”
“But he didn’t ask.” Liralian stared ahead. “He is Ruzenathra’s tool. Her weapon. She will use him to crush mortal-kind, just as she has used the Scepter of Xathun to crush us. You should have known that this was what he’d become, Takanepi! How could he be anything else, growing up under Lady Ruzenathra’s regime? You should never have had a child with Wanoa.”
Takanepi’s fists clenched. “Even if Mendaran had not been born, Tuyaz-Oa would still be rebelling against us now. Lady Ruzenathra would just send Xanuspari to crush the revolt instead. The war would last longer and cost even more lives. That is all.”
“If Mendaran had not been born, Ruzenathra would not believe she could conquer Udaris.”
“You underestimate her ambition.”
“Your son should never have been born,” said Liralian again. “The Kaniyari are unnatural. They are dangerous. Soon Mendaran will discover the full extend of his power, and who knows how he will use it? Perhaps he’ll enforce Ruzenathra’s tyranny. Perhaps he’ll want to conquer an empire of his own. Perhaps he’ll tear down everything we’ve sought to build in Udaris.”
“Mendaran is Wanoa’s son –”
“That doesn’t mean he has inherited Wanoa’s nobility!” Liralian buried her face in her hands. “How can I not hate him, knowing the carnage he will wreak on Tuyaz-Oa?”
“Mendaran thinks he is fighting for a noble cause.”
“Then you must tell him that he is wrong!”
“If my son defies the Sovereign, she will make him suffer –”
“So you would rather the mortals of Tuyaz-Oa suffered instead? Coward!”
Takanepi turned away. Perhaps Liralian was right to call him a coward. Perhaps he was betraying his son. If Mendaran knew the truth about Shekruvaris, he would not consider it worth killing for. He might even join forces with the rebels, as Carashanza feared.
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