iralian sat on a fallen pillar. Tears gathered in her eyes and trickled down her cheeks, dripping onto the cracked flagstones. Again and again she had begged Ruzenathra to excuse her from the Council meetings, but her pleas were ignored, and so she had been forced to watch as her fleet was destroyed, her former subjects slaughtered and her old imperial city besieged.
Rifts were appearing among the rebel leaders, as Ruzenathra had anticipated. Duke Jasnao of Tan Anguha was appealing to Vanotaqua for protection. A Caruak nobleman had proclaimed himself emperor, declaring that the Ghaz Ahaya dynasty was finished and only he had the strength to drive out the Ankaykari. Eraquan’s cousin Prince Kanano also claimed leadership of the rebellion, and was either in Teguaz or Eranqua, desperately seeking help from his allies.
To Liralian, the news fell like hammer-blows. She felt dazed, unable to make sense of what she heard in the Council, no matter how patiently Lord Yazelern or Erulorian tried to explain. Visons swam through her mind and blended into a fog of horror. She saw Mendaran laughing as he smashed Eraquan’s fleet. She saw the Tuyaz-Oans being cut down in the streets of Yhara-uza, overwhelmed by Daskesurul’s soldiers. She saw Mormariul blasting her Citadel apart.
Erulorian materialized. “My lady?” she said gently. “The Sovereign has summoned you.”
“What does she want with me now?” hissed Liralian.
“I don’t know, my lady. Perhaps there is some matter she wishes to discuss?”
Liralian struggled not to say something cutting to Erulorian – her poor servant was only trying to calm her. She dissolved and whipped away like smoke, sweeping into the Royal Citadel.
Ruzenathra sat on a gilded couch in the grand parlor, with her more favored vassal Daskesurul by her side. Flames danced in the hearth, their light glinting on the gold embroidery of the Sovereign’s robes.
Liralian materialized, bowing her head curtly. “Your Majesty.”
“Liralian.” Ruzenathra lifted her gaze from the scroll she was studying. “The execution of Emperor Yaruqual and his chief nobles is to take place tomorrow morning, at Yhara-uza. The wretch isn’t worthy to be brought before our Royal Court, but his death should make a sobering spectacle for the common people. Your servant Erulorian will also attend the executions, to show the rebels that they can expect no sympathy from Barezeth.”
“Why must you make us suffer like this?”
“Suffer?” Ruzenathra leaned forward, her eyes narrowing. “All we want is a demonstration of your loyalty. How does that make you suffer? Do you feel sympathy for the rebels?” Her expression darkened when Liralian failed to respond. She rose sharply. “Are you helping them?”
“How can I possibly be helping them? I don’t even have a scrying basin.”
“You’re not as powerless as you appear. You have Nayusuru servants with Citadels and scrying basins and the ability to open portals.” Ruzenathra stepped closer. “You long to see us defeated, don’t you? Just as Mormariul did when her own mundane empire rebelled!”
Liralian felt sick. “Do not compare me to her.”
“The only reason you’re not in Garashent is because the rest of the realm pities you, but we are watching you. We’ve been watching you every time the Council meets. And we have spies in Tuyaz-Oa. If you do anything to assist the rebels, we shall know of it.”
Liralian stared ahead woodenly.
Ruzenathra shook her head. “Perhaps we should give your servants to our other vassals. You’re not fit to rule them. We shall send Xessuralen to serve Naskremari, and Erulorian –”
“No!” Liralian screamed. “Your Majesty, please!”
“Do you promise not to meddle in this conflict? Do you promise on your name?”
“Upon my name, I promise not to command my servants to assist the rebels. Even if I did do such a thing, I doubt they’d obey me. They… they fear that my mind is unbalanced.”
“Your mind is obviously unbalanced.” Ruzenathra regarded Liralian in disgust.
Liralian held out her hands in a beseeching gesture. “Your Majesty, please… I am not assisting the rebels, but I cannot help pitying them. They were driven to this. They do not trust you to rule them well. And now you have sent Mendaran against them. He should not be fighting for us. I am appalled by his savagery. We all are. He should be summoned back to Askamar.”
“He is dangerous,” murmured Daskesurul. “He can wield ghaztarites.”
Ruzenathra flinched, perhaps recalling the agony Ongrat’s ghaztarite-tipped arrow caused her. “You fear he’ll try to overthrow us?” she asked, glancing back at him.
“He could unleash a plague against us.”
“He doesn’t know that – none of the mortals do. Mendaran is no more dangerous than any other wizard, and he’s far more trustworthy. He despises humankind. He wants to be one of us.”
“He’s Lord Takanepi’s son,” said Daskesurul, “and Takanepi has never been loyal.”
“Enough!” snapped Ruzenathra, but she seemed shaken. Liralian remembered how alarmed she had looked when Mendaran destroyed The Defender of the Waves. Perhaps there were already times when she regretted sending him to war. In the human world, she had no means to control him.
“Your Majesty,” Liralian held out her hands again, “please, do not make Erulorian attend the executions. It’s painful enough for her that Tuyaz-Oa has fallen into revolt –”
“Be silent,” said Ruzenathra. “If your servant isn’t prepared to watch the rebels die, then we’ll consider her a traitor as well. We’ll know that you’re both traitors!”
Ukuzechan servants hovered around Mendaran as he prepared to attend the execution of the Tuyaz-Oan prisoners. He was not used to being waited on in Askamar, but he knew he had no choice when he came to Udaris, for he was a man of high rank.
Quenezarea had packed a splendid set of grey and silver robes for his public appearances, woven of mundane cloth but designed to imitate the flowing garments of the Ankaykari. Mendaran sighed as the servants unwrapped them. The immortals wore the most impractical clothes ever made.
“Do I look ridiculous?” he asked the servants, standing before a full-length mirror in his jewel-encrusted attire. He spread his arms so that the ground-length sleeves hung around him like sails, knowing it was only a matter of time before they snagged on something.
“You look magnificent, my lord,” one of the men assured him.
Mendaran just felt like a fraud. He would never be mistaken for a true Ankaykari, no matter what he wore. Perhaps it was his complexion, which was neither black nor white, but a light coppery-brown. Perhaps it was because he refused to grow his hair down to his ankles, despite Carashanza’s claim that his short hair made him look like a peasant.
You are as much one of us as you are one of them, Nesana had said. Mendaran had killed him for that, striking him down in a fit of rage, then hating himself afterwards. The memory hit him like a siege-ram, sending cracks through his emotional defenses. He did not want to believe he owed any allegiance to human-kind, but his heritage was impossible to deny.
“I think I look stupid,” he muttered.
Mendaran paced the chamber until he felt confident that he could walk without his feet getting tangled in the train, then headed down to the balcony where Canrasiul waited. A straw-covered scaffold had been constructed in the palace courtyard below, beneath the standard of Shekruvaris. Sunlight glinted on the spears of the Ukuzechan guards stationed around it.
Mendaran felt taken aback to see a familiar figure step onto the balcony. It was Liralian’s servant Erulorian, clad in grey. Her hands were folded and her head was bowed. A murmur arose from the courtyard as she was recognized by the few Tuyaz-Oans gathered below.
“Erulorian, what are you doing here?” Mendaran asked.
“Erulorian has been commanded to attend the executions as a representative of Lady Liralian’s former regime,” Canrasiul explained, when Erulorian failed to reply.
“Do you know any of the prisoners?”
“Of course I know them,” said Erulorian quietly. “For these last twenty years, I’ve been trying to govern Tuyaz-Oa on Lady Liralian’s behalf. And before then, I often visited the imperial court as her representative. I’ve known the people of this land for generations.”
“You shouldn’t have to be here,” said Mendaran. “It’s cruel to make you watch.”
“It is the Sovereign’s will.”
As they spoke, a crowd of Tuyaz-Oans was being driven into the courtyard to witness the deaths of the rebel leaders. Those who refused to bow before the Ankaykari were beaten with clubs. A few wept, but most stood in silence, their faces set in expressions of fury or despair.
Erulorian raised her head so that she would be recognized. Her own eyes were glazed with tears. Mendaran thought she looked like a prisoner herself. It was hard not to pity her.
“Try not to look so miserable,” Canrasiul hissed. “We’re celebrating our victory.”
“Perhaps the Tuyaz-Oans will think I’m mourning their folly,” replied Erulorian.
“And aren’t you?”
Erulorian shivered. “There is so much to grieve over.”
Drums pounded as a line of prisoners was led outside in chains. Mendaran gazed down at the defeated nobility of Eraquan’s court, telling himself that he felt nothing for them. A groan arose from the crowd, but the captives just stared ahead, holding their heads high.
“Are they all to be executed?” asked Mendaran. “There are so many.”
“All who have refused to accept Lord Daskesurul’s authority will be put to death,” said Canrasiul. “That is how it always is, when we conquer a new land.”
Eraquan’s uncle Yaruqual was led to the executioner’s block first. He needed a guard to support him, for he had been wounded in the fighting, but his expression remained defiant.
“You may kill me,” he cried in a ringing voice, “but my people –”
“The rebel leader Yaruqual,” proclaimed an Ukuzechan official, drowning him out.
Mendaran forced himself not to flinch as the axe descended. He heard Erulorian gasp beside him. Blood spurted across the block, dripping from the headsman’s blade. An official held up Yaruqual’s head, displaying it to the crowd, while the man’s body lay twitching in the straw.
An elderly councilor was led forward next. He tried to address the crowd, but he was forced to his knees and held down by the guards while his head was struck off. Mendaran drew a shaky breath. Somehow, watching this was even harder than slaughtering the rebels in battle.
Slowly, the pile of headless corpses grew. Blood soaked the straw and dripped thickly down the side of the scaffold, drying beneath the sun. Mendaran felt sickened when Wizard Jarqual’s broken body was carried to the scaffold. He did not want to see the prisoners’ faces or hear their names before they died, but to turn away would have made him look cowardly.
Canrasiul accepted a chalice of enasaru from a servant. “I hate executions, too,” he murmured, not taking his eyes from the scene below. “I know you felt terrible about the mortals you killed, but this is what we do. This is how we maintain our authority.”
“I wasn’t myself when we spoke that night,” said Mendaran, tensing. He was not going to let the Ankaykari think he was weak or disloyal. “Be assured, I don’t regret anything.”
He could not bear to glance at Erulorian, who stood silently at his side.
The executions seemed to last hours. Some prisoners had to be dragged up the steps because their knees had given way. A few broke down and begged for mercy. To Mendaran’s relief, Canrasiul let those ones return to the dungeons. He felt grateful when the axe fell a final time.
Erulorian walked away without a word, swallowed by the cool shadows of the palace. Mendaran stared after her. He could afford to feel no remorse. Still, he wished he could think of something to say to her. He wished he could know that she did not hate him now.
Tears blinded Erulorian as she returned to Askamar’s Royal Citadel. She kept thinking about the way Yaruqual looked at her before he died, as if she were no better than Ruzenathra.
Yaruqual’s brother Havaqual had sacrificed his life trying to keep Eoradha free from Daskesurul’s tyranny. What would Havaqual have said if he knew that one day his own relatives would be executed by Daskesurul’s men, within the walls of the imperial palace itself?
The elderly Lord Tarkano had tried to speak before the Ukuzechans forced him to his knees. Erulorian would never know what last words he intended to say. Wizard Jarqual had been so delirious with pain that he probably did not realize what was happening when the Ukuzechans set his head upon the bloodied block. Apparently Mendaran had done that to him.
Sobs racked Erulorian.
She uselessly tried to dab her eyes, feeling Karazran’s hot winds gust around her. The heavy mundane fabric of her robes dragged in the dust as she leaned against a pillar.
“You should not be seen weeping like this,” said Zotharan.
Erulorian raised her head in surprise, realizing that it was he who had opened the portal for her. She met his gaze, then looked away, knowing he would not understand her pain. His heart was devoid of pity. “What does it matter if I weep? I’m no one of consequence.”
“You are Lady Liralian’s foremost servant. Everything you do reflects on her.”
“Please, where is she?” Erulorian knotted her hands anxiously. “Did the Sovereign truly force her to watch the executions from the scrying chamber?”
“Yes, and this time Lady Liralian did not scream or weep.”
“She… she didn’t?”
“No. Perhaps she had the wit to realize this was a test of her loyalty.”
“How could the Sovereign be so cruel, knowing how hard this must be for her?” Tears swam in Erulorian’s eyes. She was so upset that she no longer cared who overhead her. “Does she want to break her mind even further? Is she looking for an excuse to cast her into Garashent?”
“If Lady Liralian would rather see the rebels triumph, we need to know of it.”
“She won’t betray Shekruvaris.” Erulorian’s voice trembled, for she could not be sure this was true. “She no longer has the will to fight. She’s just frightened and heart-broken…”
“And angry,” said Zotharan. “The Sovereign is right to distrust her.”
“Where is she?” asked Erulorian again.
“The Sovereign has allowed Lady Liralian to return to her Citadel.”
Erulorian flew to Quoraloresea. Rain spat down on the ruins, beading the brittle grasses and battering the ferns. Liralian knelt before the broken remains of Farauquan’s tomb. She did not look up as Erulorian approached. Erulorian knelt beside the Esu lady and put her arms around her, hoping to comfort her. Liralian was as cold as a statue.
“If I were not such a wretch, I would have challenged Ruzenathra,” Liralian said at last. “I would have stood up for Farauquan’s people. I wonder if any of the Ghaz Ahaya bloodline will be left alive when the war is ended?”
Erulorian did not know what to say.
“Whose side am I supposed to be on?” whispered Liralian. “After all I’ve seen, can I still believe that our own people are nobler than mortal-kind? Are we wiser? Are we kinder?”
Erulorian hesitated. “I think we are burdened with many prejudices.”
“Those men were so brave… they died so bravely…” Liralian shook her head, clenching her hands on her lap. “They sacrificed everything, while I just watched. I feel like such a coward.”
“There is nothing you can do to help the Tuyaz-Oans, my lady.”
“Nothing? That’s what everyone keeps telling me. You, Lord Yazelern, everyone… you all believe that there’s nothing we can do to challenge Ruzenathra’s tyranny. I think you’re only saying this because you’re afraid. I think it’s a lie.”
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