Chapter Four – The Royal Family of Onsira
Alone, Mehiil rose above Onsira’s royal palace. This moon, known as the Night’s Shadow for its deep, featureless shade of purple, hovered above the tower, noticeable against the night sky only because it hid the stars behind it. Though it was the second smallest of Lorata’s four moons, on the night of the winter solstice, it loomed with an eerie presence that threatened to claim dominion of the sky with its solitary fullness.
Like the emperor’s domination of the Onsiran throne, it wrested control from the others, and was beginning to haunt the hearts of those who saw it. After all, it was this moon that was associated with the demon king Métius. It was thereby easy to understand why that solstice saw so many lights in the windows of the homes throughout Jzienfiarm. Candles, oil lamps, and even torchiers, flickered behind pane after pane of glass. No home that treasured the goddess was without at least a tiny light on that dark night.
Between the billowing clouds that were beginning to close like a fist around the Onsiran sky, Mehiil was the one solitary heavenly body visible. Loracaz did not stay in the frosty night’s air to stare up at it. Once out of the carriage that had brought him back from the festival, he stepped quickly through the courtyard and into the warmer halls of the palace. His personal servants greeted him, but the prince tallied only long enough to give them his snow-covered boots and coat. As he continued along the hall and pulled the gloves from his hands, he rubbed the finger where his ring had been. After years of wearing it, it would take him weeks to become accustomed to being without it.
Passing a guarded chamber, Prince Loracaz paused to listen to the voices emerging from the half-opened doors. He heard his father’s voice, but did not enter to greet him. Though the small council that he was holding concerned him, his participation was not required. He would have been too fatigued from celebration to participate in such serious decisions anyhow. Loracaz walked onward before one of the guards could ask him if he would like to enter the chamber.
Even in his time as a suitor, Z’Lé Spyrytte had rarely missed a council meeting, nor any other type of noble gathering. It seemed as though only Arialla’s parents attended more often than he had in those days. While most nobles were present only when matters relevant to them were discussed, Z’Lé was the leader of one of several mountain villages and would attend every meeting he could in order to learn about matters from all across the kingdom.
As a princess, Arialla had often been brought to the Chamber of Kingdoms to meet her suitors among the noblemen as well as to observe royal conduct. This had allowed Z’Lé many opportunities to meet with her and woo her gentle heart. His charming airs, the intriguing advice that her shared, as well as his intense interest in all noble affairs, had caught her attention.
In addition to being handsome and knowledgeable, Z’Lé’s helpful attitude had endeared the royal family and evoked jealousy in several of the other nobles, most of whom quickly lost Arialla’s interest. They had even made claims that it was Z’Lé’s goal to win Arialla’s heart merely for the sake of the throne, so ambitious was his presence in the royal halls. Despite all of this, the lovely elvan princess, heir to the grandeur of Legend, gave him her heart.
Delicate and radiant with eyes of sparkling azure and soft hazel hair, Arialla was the only child of her parents. All of Onsira was her birthright, passed down along her bloodline from the primal hero. The princess’s greatest duty was to choose the man who would become her king. After months of pondering her choice between two Elvan men, both of them as wise as they were skilled in battle, Arialla had chosen he who would change the face of her kingdom: Z’Lé Spyrytte of Dragonridge Mountains.
Now that her elegant, fearless courtier solely carried out the duties of the throne, Empress Arialla spent her days in the library, where dusty tomes and scrolls were the only solace to her betrayed heart. Loracaz found her there that night, a large, worn volume on her lap. Behind her, the windows that looked out onto the palace gardens were blanketed by heavy curtains, the embroidery stitched into their heavy cloth glowing in the light of a lantern that sat upon the book-laden table beside her.
The windows were often left open to welcome the moonlight into the library; this night, the lone dark moon would have shed no light, even had it not been shrouded in clouds and shadows. They had been shut tightly to guard against the cold as well as the darkness, and in another part of the library, a fire crackled in its hearth.
His younger brother was in the other chair, curled around the leather-cushioned arm. He slept soundly, having spent the day celebrating at the festival. A lock of black hair had fallen across his face, but he slept too peacefully to be bothered by it. How stark the differences, Loracaz thought to himself, between the Zarrek who slept so soundly, and the child who wielded his broadsword with the ease of a seasoned warrior. He hardly seemed like the same boy who went willingly to the evil temple with their father, who made him proud where Loracaz could not.
Arialla glanced up from her reading when Loracaz laid a hand on her shoulder.
“Good evening, Mother,” he said to, speaking gently so that he would not wake Zarrek.
The empress smiled up at him, pride fighting back the sorrow in her eyes. “I am sorry that your father took me in so early. I would have liked to stay with you during the festival.”
“I understand,” the prince replied as he as he began to untie his weapon from his belt. Resting the Drramin Luar against a bookshelf, he lifted Zarrek from his makeshift bed, then sat down with the child’s warm body in his lap. “He hates that I have power that he cannot deny simply because I will not act in accordance with him. I would not care were much were he not so cruel to you for it.”
Arialla nodded in agreement. “Your empathy is enough to comfort me against it.”
“I want to offer you more than comfort, Mother,” Loracaz told her. Although concern weighed heavy in his voice, he tried to soft enough that he did not wake his brother. “How can you let him shout at you like he does? Why do you always give in to his demands?”
“He is my k’hurin, Loracaz; my life-mate. You know my duties to him.”
“I do, Mother,” he replied with a regretful sigh.
“Liriel will honor you with the same devotion some day,” Arialla told her son, her voice much calmer than his. “I swore to treat Z’Lé with respect, to consider what he asked of me.”
Loracaz shook his head at her remark. “But you never promised obedience to his every whim. The ritual of union does not ask for that, nor even infer it.”
“Would you rather I anger him before the citizenry?”
“No, Mother. I am only concerned that you have handed the kingdom over to him too freely. Is there no law whereby we can end this tyranny?”
“None. Our ancestors never feared Onsira expanding into an empire; we are a place of legend, worthy of expanding. They gave the king power over all of his people, even his queen, since the first king was Jenh’s champion. Though I should have my part in ruling, he has the right to take it from me in favor of what he would prefer to do. That is why a princess’s decision of her beloved is so much more important than a prince’s; he may one day rise above her.”
“Mother, yours is that hero’s bloodline–”
“It matters not, my dear son. When I chose to become Z’Lé’s k’haarana, it no longer mattered who descended from the hero. It could just as well have been him. I thought that you had studied that much, Loracaz, on your road to becoming our heir. Certainly you did not spend your days here studying without learning that much.”
With a sigh, the prince cast his eyes down. He watched his brother sleep as he replied, “I have read the laws regarding who may enter into our family, but little beyond that.”
“He is as much a part of the line of Loracaz Antraius I as you and Zarrek are,” Arialla told him, her words gentle. Even to her grown son, she often showed the tenderness of her motherly side. “He has broken no law, not even in his invitation to the evil temple and the ambassadors from Thiizav. They are allowed here so long as they make no move against Jenh, and so long as Z’Lé does not change his attendance of the temple into worship. His few obligations are to protect the existence of Onsira as a kingdom, to uphold the righteous favor of Jenh, and to be faithful to me.”
Loracaz only nodded in reply; he was too fatigued to search for any words to counter hers.
Empress Arialla laid her book on the table, stood up from the chair, and stepped over to the shelf to grasp her son’s weapon. She pulled it partly out of its sheath to examine the workmanship. “’Tis a lovely blade, my son. If you learn its ways, it will surely allow grandeur to return to our realm. Our people wish you the best, and you honor them well in return.”
When Loracaz did not reply, she smiled weakly. “Be proud of your sword, my son. It is one of few things that Z’Lé and I have agreed on for quite some time.”
She pushed it back into the sheath and returned it to lean against the shelf. “Loracaz, have you read the Principles of Unification?” she then asked him, speaking softly to let her son know that she meant no criticism.
“Of course, Mother,” he replied. “Father would not sign the final documents on my coronation without my complete understanding of it. He outlined a very structured method for incorporating the three races and the four temples. His inspiration for it began with the village where he is from, where–”
Arialla stopped him before he could say any more on that topic. “I did not mean Z’Lé’s agenda, my son. I was asking about the ceremony of the joining of hearts. There is an ancient text on this practice; the only ritual that transcends all prior beliefs and differences.”
As she spoke, Empress Arialla walked past the table and towards the oldest shelves in the room. They held ancient scrolls, written ages before bookbinding became practical enough to be commonplace. These were the writings that Loracaz was least familiar with, since their age made them very difficult to read. Though all had been preserved through the ages, most were either written in bardic script or a version of his language too archaic to be understood. The prince hoped that he would some day have them translated so that he could unlock their secrets.
Arialla reached her hand towards one of the scrolls, and pulled it from the shelf, careful not to bump against any of the others. When she returned to the table, Loracaz saw that its rod was not any sort of wood, but ancient platinum. He stared at it with awe glittering in his two-colored eyes.
“This was given to us by the temple after I joined my heart to Z’Lé’s,” the empress told her son as she laid it in his hands, nostalgia tinging her voice with sadness. “They had made a new copy of it, and wanted to honor us with the old one.”
Loracaz could see cracks in the dry paper that wound the rod, and scratches in the metal that weighed so heavily in his hands. Pale marble was inlaid in the curves of the end-caps, fine scratches robbing it of its shine. Though the age-old parchment was quite thick, some parts of it were torn, and water had leaked through part of it at one point. The prince untied the white thread that bound it and unrolled the first layer of text.
It read, The Holy Ceremony of Unity, and below that, Joining Hearts beyond all Barriers. The letters had been carefully scripted in silver ink, so that the calligraphy flowed across the page as though it were one with the paper.
He looked up at his mother and asked, “Is this not a sacred text? Something so wondrous surely belongs in the temple.”
“The ceremony is what we need to hold sacred, my son,” Arialla replied with a soft voice. “This text only tells you what it entails, and how it is conducted. It should be available to all who wish to read it. You will need to understand its words before you undertake them with Liriel.”
Moved by the beauty of the treasure, Loracaz nodded.
“Please, rest now sweet Loracaz. Your father has planned the coming days for training as well and assigning your duties to you. Take the scroll with you.”
Arialla kissed his forehead, the scent of old paper washing over him. She had smelled of books ever since his youth, and the aroma had grown ever stronger as the years passed. Not long after Zarrek had been born, Emperor Z’Lé had begun to reveal the darkness within his heart. When he took hold of the kingdom and wrested her birthright from her, Arialla had retreated to the library, hoping to find some way to restore light to her realm. Loracaz knew that she spent hours in there alone, her only company the eons of writing collected there.
In Onsira, legends were as important as protocol and tradition. The only thing greater than Onsiran law was Goddess Jenh, and only Métius had ever dared to threaten her. Onsiran law had trusted the good hearts of its people, never imagining that there might be a tyrant twisting them for his own advantage.
Up until Zarrek’s birth, Z’Lé he had not been considered a threat, but merely the strictest and most unrelenting ruler ever to reign in Onsira, closely watching and dictating the actions of the nobles who served all across the kingdom. In more recent years, he had begun to demand riches from the citizens, increasing his tax upon them for the sake of his agenda. He imprisoned any who questioned his greed or motives. He had allowed the society to plummet into chaos by ignoring disputes between the temples, what he claimed a method to encourage them to make peace amongst themselves, and pulling the city’s peacekeeping guards into his army to serve under different duties.
It was the Temple of Métius that most worried the Onsiran people. Its dark-robed priests had not even built it themselves; they had brought a legion of workers with them from Thiizav, men and women who intimately knew how to build the shadowy temples. Its base extended into the nearby woodlands; ancient trees had been taken from it make room and support the frame. The land around the temple withered, fading to gray and sickly brown.
The people of Onsira cried out for help from their leaders, angry and afraid as the hunting in that forest worsened and the nearest farms became less fertile, but King Z’Lé would not stop the construction. On his son’s fourth birthday, he went to the temple of Métius and let the boy walk inside the abomination of architecture, with twisting spires and spiked buttresses, all of it black and red, at last complete. Zarrek had been awed by it, just as he was awed by everything his father told him and show to him. He grew up agreeing with Z’Lé that it was time that Jenh and Métius dissolve all past grievances, for them and the other gods to form friendships. The same was expected of all citizens of Onsira.
Arialla had tried to understand her k’hurin. When her people came to her, true fear in their eyes, telling her what dark things the followers of Métius has done, she spoke at length with Z’Lé. He was furious that she questioned him for allowing a temple to the god of evil into the realm. She had come to question his actions far too often, to belittle his power, and he would allow it no more. That was the first time that he’d hit Arialla, and from then on, his gentle touch faded further and further into the past.
True, Z’Lé had never left his empress wounded. Bruises, however, were not considered wounds. Besides that, few were ever left where others could see them, and those that were caused him to hide her away. No, the emperor marked her more by clutching her arms too tightly for her delicate skin to bear. In the beginning, none of the nobles knew what Z’Lé did to the woman who had once loved him. It was not until more recently that anyone noticed her growing indifference towards him, nor her periodical avoidance.
Prince Loracaz was usually the one who caught sight of a reddened cheek or a purple blemish. Most others were not nearly close enough to her to notice, and Zarrek was too busy sparring or visiting two different temples to take much notice of her. Loracaz ignored his mother’s plea not to let the matter bring him to hate his father; he man had done them both too much harm to forgive him. He did, however, keep his promise to not spread word to many about what she went through each day under the strength of Z’Lé’s hands and the wrath of his changed heart.
Knowing that his mother ready to retire for the evening, Prince Loracaz rose and embraced her, his heart heavy with the knowledge of his father’s actions. Hie gazed into her eyes, which were as blue as an evening sky; neither spoke, but Arialla understood her son’s emotions. They both wanted this darkness to end, so that they needn’t fear or suffer any longer. If only now was the time for it. If only he could impede his father from harming Arialla again. Alas, he was too weak to stay the hand of the emperor.
The only battle that Loracaz could have with his father would be one of the mind, not of weapons. The prince intended to understand all that he could; how Onsira had changed from a kingdom humble despite its legendary origins into an empire with the ambition to span the entire continent, and how Arialla had changed from the emperor’s lover into little more than his fearful possession. Perhaps he would prove that not even the ceremonial union of hearts allowed for treacheries such as those that Z’Lé had committed.
“Honor is too great a thing to let die,” Loracaz said. “Someday, I shall restore our kingdom. In the name of Jenh, as well as love.”
Staring up at her son, Arialla nodded and allowed a smile to cross her face. If anything, her son’s integral mission, the finality of his decision to undo the harm wrought by his father, lifted her heart. He gave her hope where not even the priests of Jenh could, despite all disapproval conveyed to him by Z’Lé and his growing army. She wondered if it was the same hope that Loracaz I had felt when he had found the resolve to venture into the tower to rescue the goddess all those eons ago.
Taking his Drramin Luar, his brother, and the scroll in his arms, Prince Loracaz Antraius II walked from the library. He closed the two wooden doors behind him, leaving Arialla to continue her study of Lorata’s great legends. Within them was the last ray of hope for the kingdom of Onsira. Like so many others, she looked forward to the day when her son would rule with benevolence and wisdom, but did not know how he would bring that new age through the shadows wrought by his father.