endaran thought he would be glad to return to Askamar for the victory celebrations, but when he strode through the portal into Karazran he immediately felt oppressed by the heat and gloom. His energies soaked in the magic of the atmosphere, feeling more alive than they had in weeks, yet his power was nothing here. Beside the Ankaykari, he was no better than a cripple.
The only person waiting to greet him and Canrasiul in the Court of Gates was the Sovereign’s servant Zotharan. Canrasiul bowed his head to the higher-ranking Nayusuru, then slipped away into the shadows. Mendaran glanced around. Spires loomed above him, dark against the red sky. The acrid wind howling from the mountains made him want to cough.
“Welcome back to Askamar,” said Zotharan.
Mendaran bowed his head. “Thank you, Nayusuru lord.”
Zotharan’s gaze settled on the small chest of ghaztarites that Mendaran carried. “The Sovereign wishes to speak with you. Are you planning to bring… those… into her presence?”
“Only because I don’t know what else to do with them. Here, you take them.” Mendaran shoved the box into Zotharan’s hands, making him blink. “Give them to her yourself.”
“I must warn you, the Sovereign is in a vicious mood.”
Mendaran’s stomach clenched. “Surely she can’t still be displeased with me? Not after I captured Yhara-uza. Emperor Yaruqual and many of his chief followers are dead –”
“You were supposed to bring Eraquan back alive.”
Zotharan turned and led Mendaran into the palace. The Sovereign was in one of her parlors, garbed in fabulous robes of deep red, black and gold. Her crimson eyes caught the firelight, making her seem even more inhuman than usual. Mendaran had never truly feared her before, but now he suppressed a shiver of dread as he bowed.
“Mendaran.” Ruzenathra arose from her seat. “You have won a great victory for us.”
“Your Majesty.” Mendaran bowed again.
“But you have also made mistakes.” Ruzenathra’s power whipped out and slammed him against the wall. For a moment, he was too shocked to feel any pain. “Was it an accident that you sank The Defender of the Waves, or did you hope to win yet more glory by slaying the emperor?”
“I…” Mendaran struggled to regain his footing.
Ruzenathra struck him again, hurling his body painfully against the stonework. He stumbled into a side-table as he fell, sending a set of ornamental plates clattering to the ground. “You arrogant fool! Do you think you can do whatever you please? Do you think you can defy us?”
Mendaran staggered to his feet. “I’d never defy you –”
“What are we to conclude, then? That you’re a liar? Or that you’re incompetent?”
“Your Majesty, please, I –”
Ruzenathra slammed Mendaran against the wall a third time.
“We can’t even find Eraquan’s body!” she snarled. “Some people think he’s still alive. Even if the wretch doesn’t return, the Tuyaz-Oans will remember him as a hero. They’re already telling stupid stories about how he battled you on the deck of his ship, defiant to the end. His tale will inspire generations of rebels!”
“I’m sorry,” Mendaran managed to gasp. “I meant to cripple the ship, nothing more.”
It was a lie, but he dared not say anything else. The next blow could easily break his ribcage. The Sovereign looked angry enough to beat him to death.
“Incompetent fool! You are supposed to be our champion – the one who will conquer Udaris in our name. You are supposed to inspire awe! Instead, our Esu vassals had to watch you vomiting over the side of that ship after the first battle. Our mortal soldiers found you sprawled in the dust with your chest full of arrows!”
“You have made our regime look weak. You have made us – your Sovereign – look weak.” Ruzenathra’s energies crackled. Mendaran feared she would hit him again. She stepped forward, her lip drawn back. “Is it true that you can wield the power of ghaztarites?”
“Yes – like any human wizard. It’s nothing!”
“That worm Ongrat was just an ordinary man, but he still used a ghaztarite to fell us. Perhaps you think you can overthrow us, as he did?”
“No, Your Majesty, never!”
Ruzenathra stared at Mendaran for a long time, her eyes like gimlets. “You think we need you to conquer Udaris, but you are wrong,” she finally hissed. “You are nothing but a tool! Remember that. Defy us again, and we’ll send you to Garashent!”
She dissolved into mist and swept out. Mendaran sagged against the wall. Until now, he had not fully appreciated the power of the Esu Ankaykari. Ruzenathra could have broken his back like a twig. Mendaran tried to steady his breathing. His body was still shaking.
“That could have been worse,” remarked Zotharan, materializing.
“She… she seemed crazy…”
“Don’t say that. She’s our ruler.” Zotharan paused. “Her Majesty has painful memories involving ghaztarites. If you have the ability to use such stones, it would be wiser not to flaunt it.”
“I didn’t mean… I never thought…” Mendaran knew he must sound like an idiot. He tried to scrape his composure back together. “So, this is what it means to anger the Sovereign.”
“We all make her angry from time to time,” said Zotharan, as he magically lifted the fallen plates and arranged them back on the side-table. “She’ll forgive you as long as you keep winning victories for her. Do you feel ready to join the others for the celebration?”
Mendaran swallowed hard. He had forgotten that everyone was gathered here to celebrate his victories. “Yes, I think so,” he said, straightening. “Thank you.”
“For… for not looking like you despise me,” said Mendaran lamely.
“Wanoa was a friend of mine. She would have wanted me to look out for you.”
Mendaran entered Karazran’s grand hall a few steps behind Zotharan. The Nayusuru of the vassal courts had decorated the chamber with splendid illusions. Light-orbs floated among the pillars, glittering upon chalices and the bejeweled robes of the immortals. Golden-leaved thorns twined the galleries. Several Nayusuru stood in a corner, playing music. Mendaran glanced at the dais where the Sovereign sat, then lowered his eyes when he saw her expression.
This was supposed to be a time of triumph, but everyone seemed tense. Even the music was subdued. Mendaran felt relieved to see his father standing at the far end of the hall. He had feared that Takanepi might remain in his Citadel, unable to bear the sight of him.
Mendaran ventured over, bracing himself for a painful exchange of words. Whatever he told himself about duty and noble causes, he knew that his father hated what he had done.
“Greetings, Father,” he said awkwardly.
Takanepi gave him a wan smile. “Mendaran, I’m glad to see you safely returned.”
“If I was ever in danger, it was through my own stupidity.” Mendaran studied the selection of cakes on a side-table, trying to decide if any of them looked worth trying. His stomach felt like a knot.
He moved on to the table where the ornate flasks of drink were arranged. He ignored the quanzia wine and instead selected a flask of venuzasire. The violet liquid glittered beautifully as he poured it into a goblet. Magic curled from its surface like steam.
“It’s unwise to drink too much that,” said Takanepi. “We can get inebriated on power.”
Mendaran shrugged, then tipped the raw liquid magic down his throat. It burned through him, making his energies shimmer and flare. He grinned. Lady Liralian stood in the corner, still clad in her rags, watching him with icy hatred. Mendaran poured himself another drink.
“Mendaran.” Takanepi caught his arm. “You’ll make yourself ill. Remember what happened during the sea battle, when you glutted yourself on enasaru?”
“Maybe I don’t care.”
Mendaran headed outside with his chalice of venuzasire and slumped against a courtyard wall. A hot wind swept past, stinging his eyes. Thunder growled in the distance. He wondered what Ruzenathra’s gardens used to look like before they were withered by storms from the Abyss.
Takanepi followed Mendaran into the courtyard. “We should talk.”
“Do you really think that will help?”
“Mendaran, what did the Sovereign say to you?”
Mendaran stared at the dead vines that coiled around the pillars. Music and voices drifted from the hall, grating his nerves. He wandered through an archway and came to a balcony overlooking the wastes. In his mind, he could still hear Ruzenathra snarling that he had made her regime look weak.
“What did the Sovereign say?” asked Takanepi again.
“That I’m an arrogant, incompetent fool. Perhaps that’s what I deserved to hear. I just thought… I hoped…” Mendaran’s voice caught in his throat. “I fought so hard for her, but all she could think about was how I’d failed her. How I threw up and embarrassed myself in front of her vassals. How I got shot down in the street…”
Takanepi closed his eyes. “I am sorry.”
“She threw me into the wall.”
Takanepi froze. “That is how she rules us,” he said, his voice icy with anger. “Through violence. It’s not the only way to rule, but perhaps it is the only way she knows.”
“She’s upset that I can use ghaztarites. I just wanted to show our enemies that their ghaztarites could not harm me, but now she seems to think I’ll use their power against her.” Mendaran looked at his father helplessly. “How can she think that, when all I want is to serve her?”
“Lady Ruzenathra is… she is tormented in her mind.”
“You mean she’s irrational. Our Sovereign is violent and irrational.” Mendaran swallowed. “Soon I’ll have to return to battle. I… I need to know that I’m fighting for a worthy cause.”
“Has the Sovereign not told you a thousand times that your cause is just?” Takanepi asked in a strained voice. “Do you need to hear it from me?”
“You can’t tell me what I want to hear, can you?”
“No, I can never lie to you.”
“Do you feel any loyalty to her at all?”
“Loyalty? After all that Ruzenathra has done to the realm, I should hate her.” Takanepi sighed heavily. “Yet she would not be Sovereign now, if not for me. It was I who returned the Scepter of Xathun to her after it was stolen. I have so many regrets, Mendaran.”
“What has the Sovereign done?”
Takanepi slowly turned away, his train trailing across the flagstones. “It is not safe to speak of such matters in the Royal Citadel. When we return to Daramorag, ask me about the Ceyth-Janzarian Wars. Ask me about the Truce of Elanthar and how it ended.”
Mendaran watched his father melt into the air, then turned and stared out across the wastes. Ruzenathra was supposed to bring harmony to the human world. Instead, her Royal Court was a place of fear and violence, where even the Esu dared not speak against her.
Mendaran felt like he had been blind.
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