ilence fell as Erulorian, Xessuralen and Olemnashial followed Zotharan into the throne room. Familiar faces turned towards them, wearing expressions of anxiety, anger, shock or contempt. Most of the Ankaykari had gathered beneath the hall’s gilded galleries to watch Ruzenathra divide up the Court of Barezeth. Erulorian knew none of them would help her.
The Sovereign materialized, brazier-light gleaming across her pauldrons. There was no sign of Liralian. Perhaps Ruzenathra was afraid to let her address their people again.
Erulorian had wanted to hold her head high when she approached the dais, but her nerve failed. Olemnashial clung to her, still weeping. Xessuralen strode at her side, fierce and aloof. Erulorian glanced at Lord Daskesurul. He stood close to the Sovereign, studying the Barezethans with a cool expression. Erulorian dropped her gaze, suddenly glad that Liralian was not there. At least she would not have to watch them being given away like slaves at an auction.
Ruzenathra’s voice rang across the hall. “The Esu Lady Liralian of Barezeth has broken our laws. She sought to murder the Kaniyari Lord Mendaran of Nezruthar. For this crime, she will be imprisoned Garashent. Her servants will be divided among our other vassals.”
Erulorian braced herself for the Sovereign’s next words.
“Xessuralen,” Ruzenathra announced, “will serve the Lord of Burshnar, the ruler whom she once so foolishly betrayed.”
Xessuralen did not even flinch. Erulorian saw the cold fury in her eyes, and feared she might do something reckless – fly from the hall, or challenge the Sovereign. Instead, Xessuralen clenched her jaw and did nothing.
“We hope you are pleased, Naskremari,” said Ruzenathra.
Naskremari looked somber. “I am, Your Majesty, although I wish Xessuralen had not returned to my court under these circumstances. Lady Liralian’s actions have shocked us all.”
“Indeed.” Ruzenathra’s gaze fell on Yazelern. “This must be especially painful for those who once considered themselves Liralian’s friends.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Yazelern whispered.
“Olemnashial will serve the Lord of Thasenare, for he was the first of the Esu to grant us his allegiance.” Ruzenathra smiled wryly, perhaps recalling how she had stormed his Citadel.
Yazelern bowed in silence.
The Sovereign’s smile turned crueler. “And the most favored of the traitor’s servants, Erulorian, will be granted to our loyal vassal, the Lord of Zaresnar.”
A dismayed murmur swept the hall.
Erulorian looked around at Liralian’s allies, trying to read their expressions. Olemnashial had already flown to Yazelern’s side and was whispering frantically, asking if there was anything he could do to help the rest of them. His murmured reply left her weeping.
Tassedehami met Erulorian’s gaze, his eyes full of anger. “I would help you if I could,” he said quietly.
Erulorian clasped her hands to stop them from shaking. She did not want to believe this was happening. When the Truce of Elanthar began, she had dared to hope for a more enlightened world. Now she was to be left at the mercy of one of the harshest rulers in the realm.
Ruzenathra held out a hand to Daskesurul. “And are you satisfied? They say that Erulorian is a fine healer and musician. I’m sure she will be an asset to your court.”
“As you say, Your Majesty.” Daskesurul bowed his head.
“You are dismissed,” Ruzenathra told her vassals.
The muttering grew louder as she melted from her throne. Daskesurul surged towards Erulorian and grabbed her arm. His grip was like iron.
Zotharan had already vanished. Perhaps he could not bear to watch, or perhaps he had decided that there was no use in caring. Naskremari stared at Xessuralen. She held his gaze coolly for a moment, then went to his side. Erulorian caught one last glimpse of Tassedehami as she was dragged from the throne room. He looked like he wanted to smash Daskesurul into the tiles.
Daskesurul portaled Erulorian back to his Citadel. “So,” he muttered, “Lord Naskremari gets Xessuralen, Lord Yazelern gets Olemnashial, while I am left with the dregs of Lady Liralian’s court!”
Erulorian felt too terrified to speak. For centuries she and Liralian had stood together, protecting each other from the cruelty of Askamaran society, but now they were both alone. Their enemies would make them forget everything they had once believed in.
Canrasiul materialized behind Daskesurul. “My lord?”
Daskesurul turned on his Nayusuru servant with a snarl. “What?”
“Zotharan wishes to speak with you, my lord.”
“Zotharan?” Daskesurul released Erulorian in surprise.
“He is waiting in your throne room.”
Daskesurul paused. “You’re right,” he said. “But why would one of the Sovereign’s servants come here?” It was considered an act of disloyalty for a Nayusuru – even one who directly served the Royal Court – to enter the Citadel of any Esu aside from their ruler.
“Perhaps he is concerned for his friend?” Canrasiul suggested.
Daskesurul cast Erulorian a withering glance. “You think the Sovereign’s highest-ranking servant would risk her wrath for the sake of this wretch?”
Canrasiul did not reply.
Daskesurul swept out. Canrasiul regarded Erulorian dully, then vanished as well. Erulorian struggled to compose herself. There was no use in fleeing Daskesurul’s stronghold, for he would just pursue her back to her own Citadel. Instead, she followed him through the dark passages of Tangurial, slithering into the throne room and hiding in the shadows.
Daskesurul did not even glance at her. His attention was fixed on Zotharan. “Why have you come to my Citadel?” he asked.
“I have come to you because I am afraid, Esu lord,” replied Zotharan. His kept his gaze lowered, but Erulorian was not fooled by his display of humility. Guile was a Nayusuru’s greatest weapon against the Esu. “Lady Ruzenathra is losing her grip on power.”
“What are you saying?”
“Her mind is consumed by fear of treachery. She no longer has the strength to rule Askamar. And so I have come to you. Lady Ruzenathra used to respect you. She was your vassal during the Ceyth-Janzarian Wars. At that time, we all thought you would be our next sovereign.”
“Are you suggesting that she needs my help somehow?”
“I am suggesting that you relieve Lady Ruzenathra of the burden of authority.”
Erulorian felt stunned. She could not believe Zotharan was ready to betray the Sovereignty he had risked so much to build. What did he think would happen to him once Ruzenathra fell?
Daskesurul drew back with a hiss. “This is treason!”
Zotharan held his nerve. “I cannot serve a ruler who is weak.”
“Even one who has the Scepter of Xathun?”
“It’s not enough to hold a weapon. You need the wit and courage to wield it well.”
Daskesurul stared at the Nayusuru lord in silence. Whatever Zotharan was planning, Erulorian feared he had miscalculated. Daskesurul was surely too cautious to turn against his ruler.
“As long as Lady Ruzenathra has the Scepter, no one will dare to challenge her,” Daskesurul said at last. “You’re a fool to think I would try. I should tell the Sovereign of your treachery. I should drag you back to Karazran myself, you false-hearted wretch.”
“Let me bring you the Scepter,” said Zotharan.
“What?” Daskesurul blinked. “You would steal the Scepter of Xathun for me?”
“Shekruvaris is unravelling,” said Zotharan coolly. “Lady Ruzenathra has just been betrayed by one of her vassals. Other betrayals will follow. How many of the Esu will she have to imprison in Garashent? And how will she govern Udaris without them?”
Daskesurul stared at Zotharan in silence.
“Lady Ruzenathra’s mind is cracking. Soon everyone will see it. And when her power crumbles, who will she will turn to? Will she yield the Scepter to you? Or will she give it to Lord Naskremari, the one who stood by her even when she had been poisoned?”
The Esu lord looked tormented. “She has always favored him…”
“And he has always hated you.” Zotharan stepped closer to Daskesurul. “Lord Naskremari can’t have forgotten how you brought down his last Sovereignty. He was merciful to you when he ruled Janzaris, but I doubt you’ll escape Garashent if he regains his power –”
“Enough! You audacious dog! You should be scourged!”
“Perhaps, but my words are still true.”
Daskesurul sank onto his throne, pressing a hand to his head. “So you’ll bring me the Scepter of Xathun? And in return, I suppose you expect a high rank in my court?”
“In return, you will promise not to harm Erulorian.”
“That is why you’re doing this?” Daskesurul looked taken aback. “I’d thought you were less sentimental than the others of your kind, but it seems I was mistaken. You’re as fickle and false-hearted as the rest of the Nayusuru!”
“By my name, I’ll bring you the Scepter of Xathun if you do not harm Erulorian.”
Zotharan, how could you do this? Erulorian wanted to wail. However oppressive the current Sovereign was, Daskesurul would be far worse. Most likely, the realm would descend into violent conflict as a result of Ruzenathra’s downfall – and none of the courts would be safe.
Daskesurul looked at Zotharan sharply. “By your name? And by your Citadel?”
“Is my name not enough?”
“The name of a servant?” Daskesurul sneered.
Zotharan finally seemed ruffled by the Esu lord’s disdain. “By my name and by my Citadel, I shall bring you the Scepter of Xathun if you do not harm Erulorian.”
Daskesurul lowered his gaze with a frown. “This is madness…” he muttered. “I can’t make bargains with a servant. I can’t have a Nayusuru in my court who is not loyal to me. And you – can you even fulfil the promise you’ve made?”
“You should not doubt me, Esu lord.”
“You are an arrogant cur!”
“That may be so, but I shall bring you the Scepter of Xathun.”
“You have no choice now.”
“Indeed – as long as you do not harm Erulorian.”
Daskesurul sighed through gritted teeth. “Very well. You will bring me the Scepter – but not yet. Not until I’m ready to make a bid for power. And when I am Sovereign, I shall see that you are punished for speaking to me so audaciously.”
“As you wish, Esu lord.”
Zotharan melted away. Erulorian dearly wished that she knew what he was planning. The Lord of Zaresnar stared after him with a stressed expression, then strode over to her.
Erulorian quickly resumed human guise and bowed her head. She told herself that, as long as she was safe from the threat of violence, she could endure life here – but she feared Daskesurul might choose to forget the bargain he had made. He seemed uneasy about it, even now.
Daskesurul gave her a hard stare. “Can I trust you to serve me?”
“Yes, my lord,” Erulorian whispered.
“Ha! I’d be a fool to believe you. You’ll betray me as soon as you have the chance. You’ll do everything in your power to return to Liralian.”
Erulorian trembled. “Please, my lord…”
“I promised Zotharan that I would not to harm you, but that’s all. I can still keep you imprisoned. I should lock you away in the depths of my Citadel until he brings me the Scepter – if he ever brings me the Scepter. Then, at least, you won’t be able to plot against me.”
“I promise, my lord, I won’t plot against you! Please! The Sovereign will expect to see me in your entourage. She’ll want everyone to know that you’ve crushed my loyalty to Lady Liralian.”
Daskesurul’s eyes narrowed. “You hold your nerve well.”
“Please, my lord, let me serve you.”
“I don’t like servants who are too bold, or too eloquent, or too clever,” said Daskesurul. “I especially dislike servants who presume to advise me.”
Erulorian dropped her gaze again.
Daskesurul turned away. “I may yet decide that I do not wish to become involved in Zotharan’s plot. I may still choose to tell the Sovereign of his treachery. If you do anything to humiliate the Court of Zaresnar, you will regret it. I’ll cast you into my dungeons.”
“Yes, my lord.” Erulorian bowed her head.
“Iruzathe!” snapped Daskesurul.
His other Nayusuru servant materialized before him. “My lord?”
“Although Erulorian has joined our court, I do not trust her. You will keep a close watch on her. Ensure she does not betray us.” Daskesurul hissed. “You failed me last time, when I ordered you to watch Olemnashial. Do not fail me again. If I find that this wretch has been plotting against me, you will also be punished.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“I must go to the scrying chamber and speak with my generals in Tuyaz-Oa. See that I am not disturbed.” Daskesurul shot Erulorian a final glare, then dissolved and swept out.
Erulorian felt limp with relief. She had not yet been harmed, thanks to Zotharan. Still, she doubted she would be free to leave the Citadel. She clasped her hands to keep them steady.
Iruzathe glanced across at her expressionlessly. “You should be grateful. Lord Daskesurul has been merciful, despite your crimes.”
“You persuaded Olemnashial to betray the Court of Zaresnar. You should have gone to Lord Daskesurul when you learned of the apparent plot to steal the Anengharen. Instead, you and Olemnashial decided to travel to Thadagru yourselves, and you wrecked his plans.”
Erulorian closed her eyes wearily. Iruzathe was speaking of events that took place years ago, during the Eoradhan campaign. “We had to rescue Lady Liralian.”
“One who was unworthy of your allegiance.”
Erulorian said nothing.
“Perhaps I should show you around the Citadel.”
“Thank you,” Erulorian sighed. She remembered the person Iruzathe used to be when he served Lord Tassedehami. He had been kind-hearted, bright and talkative back then, and he had loved Liralian’s books. Now he seemed so crushed that he barely had the strength to speak.
Erulorian feared she would become the same if she remained here too long.
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