Mendaran strolled through the halls of Karazran, admiring its architecture. Its harsh splendor was a striking contrast to the austerity of his father’s Citadel, Daramorag. Karazran’s chambers were build of dark reddish-brown stone and illuminated by braziers. Weapons hung displayed across the walls, glinting in the fire-light. The pillars were engraved not with the intricate patterns that Lord Takanepi favored, but with snarling creatures or scenes of battle.

Mendaran loved it here, even if it was swelteringly hot. Daramorag was cold and dreary, sitting at the edge of the realm, but Karazran was the most important place in the world. He had to show the Ankaykari that he belonged here, just as they did.

Mendaran wandered into one of the courtyards, glancing up at the Royal Citadel’s torch-lit balconies, bridges and spires. Thorns had once twined the pillars, but that had been before the mad Lady Mormariul threw herself into the Abyss and caused endless storms to sweep across Askamar. Now nothing remained but petrified twigs rattling in the wind.

Mendaran suspected that he could wander for hours and not meet another person. Few mortal guests came to the Royal Citadel anymore, for they could not endure Karazran’s blistering heat or torrential acid rains. To Mendaran, the tales of the lavish banquets once held here were like stories from an old book. He had never known the Royal Citadel to be any different.

Finally, Mendaran produced his scrying stone and sought out his father’s servants. As usual, Carashanza and Quenezarea were seated together on a couch in one of Karazran’s more remote chambers. They seldom kept company with the other Nayusuru, for the Court of Nezruthar was not well regarded. Takanepi had been Mormariul’s friend before her name became reviled throughout the realm, and no one had forgotten it. Some believed that he still felt sympathy for her even now. They argued that the Nezrutharans could not be trusted.

Mendaran promised himself that everything would change once he started conquering the human world. His victories would obliterate the memory of his father’s terrible mistakes.

Carashanza looked up as Mendaran walked in. “Ah, Mendaran. You’ve been speaking with the Sovereign, I hear. Lord Daskesurul’s fleet is sailing for Ekakras.”

“That’s right.” Mendaran leaned against a pillar with folded arms. By now, another storm had broken outside. Rain hammered the Citadel’s windows. “The Sovereign just wanted to be sure of my loyalty. She seemed worried that I might feel sympathy for the humans.”

“What?” Carashanza tensed. “Why?”

“I don’t know. Maybe because I’m half-human myself?” Mendaran tried not to let his pain show. Everyone knew that humans were selfish, arrogant and deceitful – and Kaniyari were often the same. He would have to earn the Sovereign’s trust, just like her other mortal generals.

“Mendaran…” Carashanza faltered.

“Of course, perhaps she just thinks I’m a coward – too squeamish to do my duty. Has my father been trying to dissuade her from sending me to Tuyaz-Oa?”

“If he has, I’ll want to throttle him.”

Mendaran felt amused. “Can you throttle an immortal?”

“No, but it would be a suitable expression of my anger.”

Carashanza and Quenezarea suddenly stood, seeing an Esu lady appear at the end of the hall. They looked so shocked that for a moment Mendaran wondered if Mormariul had returned from the Abyss. Then he remembered that in the portraits Mormariul was pale, while this lady had jet black skin. Her long robes were tattered, and her hair hung to her ankles in wild tangles. Her expression contorted with hatred at the sight of Mendaran’s step-mothers.

“You!” she screeched, bearing down on them. Her power swirled and crackled around her, far greater than theirs, for they were merely Nayusuru. “Why are you not imprisoned? You should be rotting in the deepest depths of Garashent! You served Mormariul!”

“We serve Lord Takanepi now!” cried Carashanza.

“He’s chosen to protect you, has he? Takanepi, always so eager to defend villains!”

Mendaran felt shocked to see his step-mothers cowering. Lady Mormariul had brought great suffering to the world, but her servants had felt her cruelty, too. He saw it in their eyes whenever they heard her name. They had been powerless to stop her from hurting others.

“Leave them alone,” Mendaran said, stepping into the Esu lady’s path.

The Esu hissed. By now he had guessed who she must be – Lady Liralian, the tormented recluse whose Citadel Mormariul had destroyed. Presumably she had been forced to return to the Royal Court because of the rebellion in her mundane empire, Tuyaz-Oa.

“So you are Takanepi’s son,” she spat. “Mendaran the half-blood. Get out of my way.”

Mendaran knew he was being stupid. If Liralian wanted to hurt his people, there was nothing he could do to stop her. He was just a Kaniyari – a dangerous weapon in Udaris, but not much better than a cripple among the Ankaykari. If he had any sense, he would back down.

Instead, he gave Liralian his coldest smile. “I’m charmed to meet you too.”

The Esu lady blinked, baffled by his mockery.

“I believe that was sarcasm.” Lord Takanepi appeared in the hall, regarding the scene with an icy expression. Mendaran had seldom seen him look so furious. “It’s an annoying human trait that Mendaran seems to find amusing. What are you doing, Liralian?”

“She was threatening our people,” said Mendaran.

Liralian faltered. Perhaps even she felt taken aback by Takanepi’s wrath. “They used to serve Mormariul. How could you accept them into your court? They ought to be punished!”

“They are not to blame for Lady Mormariul’s crimes,” said Takanepi.

“They upheld her regime!”

“They opposed her tyranny in every way they could.” The Lord of Nezruthar surged forward. His voice was as cutting as the frozen winds that swept around his Citadel. “I’ll not allow you to intimidate my servants, Liralian. And you will not call my son a half-blood.”

“He is a half-blood. An abomination. He should never have been born!”

Liralian’s words plunged into Mendaran like blades. Hatred blinded him, but he struggled to mask the pain – he did not want her to see how much she had hurt him.

“Mendaran, you must forgive Lady Liralian,” said Takanepi. “She has suffered much.”

Mendaran raised his eyebrows. “Isn’t that what you used to say about Lady Mormariul?”

Liralian went rigid. Mendaran smirked. Perhaps she expected him to just cringe in shame when she called him a half-blood, but he also knew how to wound people with words.

“I’m nothing like Lady Mormariul,” Liralian said in a small voice.

“Liralian…” Takanepi’s expression changed. He held out a hand as if he wanted to take back what had been said. “Mendaran doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Liralian drew back. “I’m nothing like her…”

“I know.”

“That was the cruelest thing anyone could say.” Liralian turned and fled.

Takanepi stared at Mendaran in appalled silence, as if he had just seen him kick a dying mortal. “How could you say such a thing to Liralian?” he asked finally.

“Because she deserved it.”

“Don’t you know what Mormariul did to her?”

Mendaran turned away. He understood that Liralian had suffered and her Citadel had been destroyed – which was apparently the worst thing that could happen – but he refused to feel guilty for defending himself and the ones who had raised him like their own son.

“Can’t you see how much your words have hurt her?” Takanepi asked.

“Do you think it doesn’t hurt to be called a half-blood? An abomination who should never have been born?” Mendaran’s throat tightened. “It’s the truest words that cut the deepest.”

Takanepi flinched like he had been struck.

Mendaran stormed off, furious with himself for blurting out his insecurities. He had not wanted to cause his father any pain, or to look so pathetic in front of his step-mothers.

The Nayusuru ladies hurried after him.

“Thank you, Mendaran,” Carashanza said, gripping his arm. Her voice was still strained. “It was reckless and stupid to speak to an Esu like that… but thank you.”

Quenezarea nodded. “You have your father’s nobility.”

“My father’s nobility?” Mendaran wanted to laugh, but he felt too choked with misery.

He portaled back to the Citadel of Daramorag, where he had lived with his father since returning from Sarekordia. The freezing air hit him like a slap. Mendaran grabbed his cloak and trudged through the gloomy halls to his own rooms. Pushing open the door, he was confronted by the stacks of books that Carashanza had found for him. She was determined that he should continue his university studies, and also that he should learn more about Tuyaz-Oa before he left.

Mendaran waved his hand to light the lamps, then slumped into his chair, picked up the nearest book and flicked through the pages. The preface was filled with praise for Liralian, the Esu who had ruled Tuyaz-Oa before Mormariul reduced her to an hysterical wreck. The Esu who had just called him an abomination. Mendaran tossed the book aside. Books bored him, anyway.

“Come in,” he sighed, hearing Takanepi knock on the door. He slouched deeper into his chair and put his feet up on the table. Several thick volumes toppled to the ground.

Takanepi glided in. His gaze fell upon the scattered books. Usually he would have made some caustic comment, but this time he ignored Mendaran’s untidiness. “We need to talk.”

“About what?”

“Do you really feel that you should not have been born?”

“Oh… that. Just forget about it.”

“Is this more sarcasm?”

“No! Sarcasm is…” Mendaran gave a slight laugh, abandoning his attempt to look cold. “Sarcasm is something different. I just don’t want to discuss what happened earlier.”

Takanepi regarded the tomes on Mendaran’s table, then carefully picked one up and opened it. The gilt lettering of its cover gleamed in the lamplight. Inside, an elegant script proclaimed that the book was a gift to Lord Takanepi of Nezruthar from Lady Liralian of Barezeth.

Mendaran sighed. “Lady Liralian used to be your friend, didn’t she?”

“Yes, we were very dear to each other once, but she feels that I betrayed her.” Takanepi paused. “She was also a friend to your mother.”

Mendaran lowered his eyes. He barely recalled his mother Wanoa. His clearest memory was of attending her funeral as a small boy, hearing his father scream endlessly. The Ankaykari had all dissolved in their grief, leaving him standing alone, clutching the edge of his mother’s coffin. When he was older, they told him about Wanoa’s courage, kindness and nobility. Perhaps if he had been raised by her, he would not feel so ashamed of his mortal blood.

“Lady Liralian doesn’t look down on humans, then?” Mendaran asked.

“She claims to respect them.”

“If that’s true, then what has she got against Kaniyari? Why should she call me an abomination, if not because she sees me as a threat – Ankaykari power combined with the greed, ambition and treachery of humans?” Mendaran clenched his jaw.

“She’s worried about Tuyaz-Oa.”

“She should be grateful to me. I’m going to save the empire.”

“From what?” Takanepi asked wearily. “There is no invading army, no fleet of raiders attacking Tuyaz-Oa’s shores. The people want their independence. That is all. But the Sovereign will not allow it. She intends to crush them and place them under Lord Daskesurul’s authority.”

“Lady Liralian is no longer fit to rule Tuyaz-Oa,” said Mendaran, repeating what the Sovereign had told him. “She’s allowed the land to fall into disorder, and now this man Eraquan has taken advantage of her weakness to seize her empire. Isn’t that exactly what the Vanotaquan vassal-emperors did to Lady Mormariul? How can you not want me to fight him?”

Takanepi closed his eyes, looking tormented.

“I’m proud to fight for our Sovereign.” Mendaran heard his voice shake. “I wish you’d be proud, too. Most fathers are proud when their sons go to war.”

“There is no glory in killing, least of all for the likes of us.”

“But there is glory in serving one’s ruler.”

Takanepi turned towards the window, where sleet spattered against the glass panes. “That depends on the ruler, I suppose.”

Carashanza flung open the door and stormed into the room. Mendaran quickly swung his legs down from the table, but for once she did not seem to care that he was behaving like a peasant. “Why must you make everything so hard for Mendaran?” she snapped at Takanepi. “He has a duty to fulfil. He doesn’t need to hear this nonsense.”

“You think I’m the one telling him nonsense?”

“You’re a fool,” said Carashanza acidly. “No one but the Sovereign rules a stronger court than yours. You could have wielded great influence within Shekruvaris. You could have been the foremost of the Sovereign’s vassals, but you’ve squandered it all!”

Takanepi sighed. “What’s troubling you, Carashanza?”

“Aside from your usual uselessness? I’m afraid that you’ll be accused of disloyalty if you’re heard speaking like. If the Sovereign didn’t need Mendaran, she might already have turned against you. Haven’t you seen how high Lord Daskesurul has risen in her favor?”

“Daskesurul is a snake who will choke on his own venom.”

“He is a snake who has out-maneuvered you yet again.” Carashanza looked stressed. “It’s your son who will re-conquer Tuyaz-Oa, so why is Lord Daskesurul the one who will rule it?”

“Because the Sovereign knows I would grant Tuyaz-Oa its freedom.”

For a moment Carashanza looked like she wanted to fireball Takanepi, but then she turned sharply and came over to Mendaran. “I’m proud of you,” she declared. “Your mother would be proud too. Wanoa was someone who always did her duty, even when it was painful.”

Mendaran tried to smile, but he felt uneasy. He had not realized how deeply his father opposed the Sovereign’s ambitions. “You think she’d want me to conquer the human kingdoms?”

“Of course. Like many humans, she was loyal to Askamar.”

“Don’t lie to the boy!” Takanepi turned from the window, his eyes glittering with pain. “For too long, I’ve allowed you to manipulate him, and now you dare to speak of his mother –”

“I speak the truth! Wanoa would have understood, unlike you. Her people were warriors. She wanted Mendaran to become a leader and achieve great things. She told me so herself.”

“Wanoa would never have wanted to see her own homeland conquered.”

“My mother’s people were barbarians,” said Mendaran. “I’ve heard about the poverty, ignorance and injustice in her homeland. The Kayagas owned slaves and raided the neighboring tribes.”

“That was before they became my allies,” said Takanepi quietly. “Mendaran, I know you feel it is your duty to serve Shekruvaris, but you don’t have to conquer the world to make me proud. All I want is for you to know your own mind and to do what you believe to be best.”

“All I want,” said Mendaran, “is to be a loyal servant to the Sovereign.”

Even as he spoke, he knew this was not entirely true. What he truly wanted was to feel like he belonged. He wanted the Ankaykari to regard him as one of their own people.

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An epic fantasy saga