Strength and Weakness

Xessuralen followed Naskremari into the parlor as their guests arrived. Esephrul was pouring the wine, while Tarissarul played music. Brazier-light sparkled on gem-studded goblets and shimmered over the brilliant gold-threaded tapestries adorning the walls.

Lord Yazelern bowed his head respectfully when he greeted Naskremari. His highest-ranking servant Arellesria stood at his side, but Larthesiul and Olemnashial had not accompanied him.

“Where is the rest of your court?” Naskremari asked.

“They are distraught over Erulorian. I feared their weeping would aggravate you.” Yazelern accepted the wine that Naskremari offered, looked haggard with grief himself.

Lord Tassedehami swept in with Drathessa, inclined his head to Naskremari, then took his usual seat. He folded his sleeves around himself, fury glinting in his eyes.

Drathessa came to Xessuralen’s side. “How are you?”

Xessuralen’s heart lifted at the sight of her friend. Most Nayusuru considered Drathessa proud and snappish, but she was one of the only people Xessuralen truly trusted. “I am well enough,” Xessuralen said, as Drathessa clasped her hands in a tight grip.

Drathessa glanced across at the Esu. “Let’s talk outside.”

Xessuralen agreed, glad to escape the gloomy gathering.

Dry leaves skittered across their path as they wandered through an archway. Clouds churned above the Citadel. The air was hot and bitter. Xessuralen paused to pull a withered flower from a shrub, feeling disturbed as she gazed around at the dying garden. Burshnar was supposed to be lush and verdant, alive with rustling foliage, glowing insects and the chatter of adagrias.

“It grieves me to see this,” Xessuralen murmured.

Drathessa nodded. “Lord Naskremari is heartbroken by what has happened to his land – or so Lord Tassedehami tells me. It seems even he loves his gardens.”

“Of course. His heart is not iron.”

“How has he been treating you since you returned?”

Xessuralen paused. “I think he wants to forget that I ever left.”

“He hasn’t punished you? You’re not even in disfavor?” Relief flooded Drathessa’s dark eyes. “If you’d heard how he ranted to Lord Tassedehami about your treachery –”

“I know. You’ve told me of it often enough.”

“I was worried about you,” admitted Drathessa, “but it seems Lord Naskremari does care about you, after all.”

“He treats his other servants badly.”

“Tarissarul and Esephrul have done nothing to earn his respect. They are weak.”

Xessuralen shook her head. “Drathessa, in The Citadel of The Mind – the book you yourself gave to me – it says that we Nayusuru should stand together against the tyranny of the Esu.”

“That’s hard to do, when some of us are craven fools.”

“If I am to bring change to Burshnar, I’ll need Tarissarul and Esephrul to help.”

“Change?” Drathessa frowned. “You think you can change Burshnar? How? Lord Naskremari is proud and stubborn – he won’t even listen to his Esu allies, let alone his servants. That’s why you left him during the Truce. Standing up to him now will only bring you pain.”

“You think I should just forget the struggle for reform, then?”

Drathessa hesitated. “How much does it matter to you?”

Xessuralen sat on a bench, drawing her sleeves around herself. For a moment she stayed silent, listening to the wilted shrubs quiver in the wind, struggling to find words. “Lord Naskremari respects me because I’m a warrior,” she said at last. “But he didn’t see me after I was rescued from Lady Mormariul’s dungeons. No one but you saw me, those times when I was unable to face the world.”

Drathessa took Xessuralen by the shoulders. “That’s over now. Don’t think about it.”

“If he’d seen me, he’d have considered me pathetic.”

“Yes, well… he’d have been wrong. No one can be strong all the time.”

“Lady Liralian would have tried to help me, if I’d let her – if she hadn’t been broken by her own trauma – just as Lord Tassedehami helped you after you escaped from Gennezra.”

Drathessa flinched. “Some people are kinder than others. I know I’m not always a kind person. You aren’t, either. It’s because we’re warriors, Xessuralen. And so is Lord Naskremari. He knows this is a savage world, and no one will respect him if he’s too soft-hearted.”

“I am familiar with that fear.” Xessuralen grimaced. “When I was in Barezeth, I tried to be more like Erulorian, but it was hard. I’m afraid of seeming weak.”

Drathessa nodded, looking uncomfortable.

“Lady Liralian is different,” continued Xessuralen. “She never feared the scorn of her enemies. She did not need to prove herself by humiliating others. It made her seem strong.”

“Lord Naskremari just thinks she’s an idiot.”

“I have to make him understand! The things Lady Liralian stood for are important. I don’t want to remember the terror I felt in Gennezra and be ashamed of it.” Xessuralen clenched her fists on her lap. “When people are helpless, they shouldn’t be made to feel pathetic. They shouldn’t be forced to obey through fear. The rulers of Askamar ought to be better than this. Our society needs to change, Drathessa.”

Drathessa sighed shakily. “You are right. Of course, you are right.”

*****

The music of Tarissarul’s harp floated around the parlor, soft and somber, as Naskremari poured more wine for his guests. He did not enjoy gatherings, but he felt they were important. By inviting Yazelern and Tassedehami to his Citadel, he reminded them that he held the higher rank within their alliance. Their standing in the Royal Court depended on his favor.

“I am sorry about Erulorian,” Naskremari told Tassedehami, “but I had no chance to argue against giving her to Lord Daskesurul. The Sovereign had already made her decision.”

Tassedehami shook his head. “You think she’d ever have listened to you?”

“Of course. I’m her most favored vassal.”

“So you claim, but I’ve seen no sign of it lately.” Tassedehami laced his ivory-white hands, regarding Naskremari with angry eyes. “Lord Daskesurul is the one whose advice the Sovereign heeds. He is the one who’s gained the most from her regime. She has granted him Lady Liralian’s former empire, and now he even has Liralian’s most favored servant –”

“And I have Xessuralen, who’s worth more than Erulorian and Tuyaz-Oa combined.”

Yazelern winced. He glanced at the three Nayusuru in the room, who were pretending not to listen. “I wish we would not speak of our servants like this. I’m sure we had more respect for the Nayusuru during the Truce of Elanthar.”

“They were still free to make choices, then,” muttered Tassedehami.

Yazelern lapsed into a miserable silence.

Tassedehami’s gaze slid back to Naskremari. “You’ve basked in the Sovereign’s favor too long, my ally. It’s made you complacent. You’ve let your rival usurp you.”

Naskremari glowered at him.

“Tell the Sovereign that Lord Daskesurul demands too much,” said Tassedehami. “He’s pushed Tuyaz-Oa into revolt, and now he’s driven Lady Liralian to attempted murder.”

“Driven her? You think he’s to blame for her actions?”

“I’m sure he’s as shocked as the rest of us, but still… he’s to blame.”

“Lord Naskremari,” said Yazelern, “can’t you persuade the Sovereign to take pity on Liralian?”

“She tried to kill Lord Takanepi’s son!” snapped Naskremari, surging from his seat. “I know she’s not in her right mind, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore her crimes! As for Lord Daskesurul, all I have to do is wait. He will defeat himself in the end.”

Tassedehami tilted his head, considering this.

“Remember how it was towards the end of the Ceyth-Janzarian Wars?” said Naskremari. “It looked like nothing would keep him from victory, but then everything fell apart for him.”

“Ah, yes!” Tassedehami’s expression brightened. “He was betrayed by his own servants.”

Naskremari returned to his seat. “Would you like more wine?” he asked Yazelern.

“Thank you, but no. I should be returning to my Citadel.”

Naskremari frowned as Yazelern took his leave, wondering how he could have so little interest in the power-struggles of Shekruvaris. The Lord of Thasenare used to delight in weaving subtle plots and alliances, but now he lacked the will to do anything except defend his own court. Naskremari sighed and gestured for Esephrul to bring over another flask of wine.

“Yazelern never used to be such listless company,” he grumbled.

“Are you so surprised that he’s changed?” asked Tassedehami, giving him a hard look. “Lord Yazelern spent a whole year in Lady Ruzenathra’s dungeons.”

“That was decades ago.”

“Such scars can take years to heal, and Yazelern is still under the power of the one who inflicted them.” Tassedehami looked away. “I don’t know how you and Lady Ruzenathra can treat people the way you do. Perhaps you’re just too blind to realize the damage you cause.”

Naskremari glared at his ally. He had protected Tassedehami’s Citadel from countless attacks over the centuries, rescued him from Mormariul during the Ceyth-Janzarian Wars and tended his wounds when he was maimed, yet Tassedehami’s gratitude seldom lasted. “I do what I must to keep my court strong. If I wasn’t a strong ruler, you’d soon forsake your alliance with me.”

“Do you truly believe that?”

“I know it.”

Tarissarul’s music filled the silence between them – flawless, intricate and devoid of emotion, like the music she must once have played for Daskesurul, before Naskremari became Sovereign of Janzaris and she chose to serve him instead.

Naskremari felt hollow. He was feared and obeyed, but no one liked him. Xessuralen would never have left Burshnar if she cared for him. Like everyone else, she only valued him for his strength – and now, for some reason, even that was not enough to secure her loyalty.

“Don’t you feel any pity for Liralian?” Tassedehami asked finally. “Lady Mormariul might have turned on any of us. Imagine if it was your Citadel that had been destroyed, and you had suffered in her dungeons. Then, while you were recovering from your ordeal, one of your rivals persuaded the Sovereign that you were no longer fit to rule your lands –”

“Enough!”

“Liralian was pushed too far.”

“Liralian is too dangerous to be released. She could cause chaos if she opposed us.”

“But don’t you pity her?”

Naskremari sighed through gritted teeth. “I was never fond of Liralian… but I would need a heart of iron not to pity her,” he admitted. “Still, she must pay for her crimes.”

“And what of Erulorian?”

“What of her?”

“You know Lord Daskesurul will mistreat her. You’ve seen how people become when they are under his power.” Tassedehami stared at Naskremari. “Erulorian is suffering, and her friends are grieving for her, but the misery of our people means nothing to our Sovereign.”

“What do you want me to do? Call Ruzenathra a tyrant?” Naskremari felt a pang of guilt, remembering how he sided with Ruzenathra when she broke the Truce of Elanthar.

He wanted to believe he acted honorably, but in his heart he knew he had just been angry. He had hated the thought of deferring to Liralian. Now shame gnawed him whenever he contemplated his actions. Naskremari glanced around the parlor, impatient with the music, the illusions and the plates decorated with sliced fruit. It all felt so meaningless.

“Let us go outside,” he said.

The two Esu dissolved their guises and flowed through the Citadel’s gates, down the mountain and into the forest. Brown leaves fluttered around them, torn free by the bitter wind gusting from the Abyss. Grief twisted in Naskremari’s heart as he materialized beside Lake Gesphire.

He and Tassedehami often used to come here, for Tassedehami loved the lake’s natural beauty, but the place had been withered by poison over the years, like everything else. The shimmering waters had shrunk, revealing cracked mud and brittle stalks. The wild-flowers, reeds and insects were gone. Only the crystal formations remained, glowing luridly around Gesphire’s banks.

Naskremari felt distraught. His lands were dying, and he could do nothing to save them. His shoulders sagged as he watched vapor snake across the shallow, murky waters.

“Xessuralen seems unchanged,” he said after a while.

“Does she?”

“She’s still dignified and courageous. Still a great warrior.”

Tassedehami regarded him in silence.

“I hope things will be the same as before.” Naskremari touched a tree, then winced as the bark crumbled beneath his hand. “She must see now that Lady Liralian was unworthy of her.”

“You’re the one Xessuralen considers unworthy. She’s been forced to serve you by the tyrant who rules us, but that does not mean she forgives you for betraying the Truce of Elanthar.”

Naskremari felt a flicker of rage. “How dare you?”

“You know it’s true.”

“Whatever you think of Lady Ruzenathra, she’s our Sovereign. You will not call her a tyrant.”

“Even though she seized power unlawfully? You know that’s what happened. You helped her do it. If you had sided with Lady Liralian, Xessuralen would have rejoined you.”

Naskremari closed his eyes. He did not want to hear this.

“Xessuralen fears you’ve lost sight of yourself,” Tassedehami continued, more gently. “She thinks you’ve become obsessed with power and you’ve forgotten the meaning of honor.”

“How do you know so much about her thoughts?”

“She tells Drathessa, and Drathessa tells me – which is just as well, or you’d know nothing, since you never listen to anything she says.”

“I’ve tried to understand her! I wrote countless letters, asking her to explain why she betrayed me. I even spoke to her myself during the Sovereign’s coronation banquet.”

“You spoke of Lady Liralian’s defeat, and of your high status within the Royal Court. You told her, yet again, that you consider Liralian’s ideals foolish. You never listened to her at all – or so she told Drathessa.” Tassedehami gave Naskremari a withering look.

Naskremari sighed. “How can I regain Xessuralen’s respect?”

“Use the influence you have with Lady Ruzenathra. If she’d been forced to stand alone against the rest of us, she wouldn’t be Sovereign now. She owes you much. At the very least, you must help Erulorian. Persuade the Sovereign to free her from Lord Daskesurul’s power.”

“Ah, of course. You want Erulorian to serve in your court.”

“I’m not trying to manipulate you for the sake of my own ambitions! I’m trying to do what is right. You sacrificed your honor to become Lady Ruzenathra’s highest-ranking vassal. Show me that you have gained something from it. Prove that she’s not an utter despot.”

Naskremari knew he should be furious – he should haul Tassedehami before the Sovereign and see him punished for his disloyal words – but he just felt so tired of conflict. He did not want Tassedehami to end up in Garashent.

“Very well,” he said instead. “I’ll speak with her.”

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An epic fantasy saga