Chapter Seven The Secrets that Emperors Keep
Twelve days past the prince’s coronation, the snow still fell. It lingered in the royal city and the area around it. The suffering it had caused thus far pleased the priest who stood at the doors to his temple. His robes of black leather had quickly become soaked through as the snow drifted down onto him, melting in his body heat. Little did he care though, as he was focused on greeting Emperor Z’Lé and his son, Zarrek. They walked along the temple’s raised plaza, their own leather cloaks dark and damp, their boots splashing in the slush of the partly-melted snow. Four guards surrounded them, cold in their armor but carrying out their duties nonetheless. The priest’s pale skin wrinkled into a grin as they neared. He bowed illustriously, his hands moving with acute grace from his sides. Z’Lé only nodded in return.
“Greetings to our lord the emperor,” he uttered, his voice macabre and deep.
He turned and opened the impossibly tall, slender doors to the temple. They followed him into the great hall, where the guards closed the doors and stood before them.
Deep silence filled the temple, a stark contrast from the hum of prayer that usually filled the halls of Jenh’s temple. The black ebony spires of the Temple of Métius pierced into the darkness above them. The visage of Métius seemed to be a part of every sculpture, every piece of architecture, as though the sharp, twisting lines allowed him to watch his worshipers with wary eyes.
The elves of Onsira dreaded that place, with its dark colors and shadows, causing numerous families to leave the royal city since its construction. Some of them were replaced by families who were glad for the presence of the Dark One, rather than reviling him.
Z’Lé had decreed that any temple in the realm had complete freedom to practice its religious tenets. This allowed for the evil temple’s demanding of offerings. Métius being a wrathful god, he wanted all that Nature offered, stripping it of its every resource. The evil temple had managed to claim vast plots of land and, through their horrific ceremonies, fared well in the pursuit of growing food, despite the constant storms that bleached that land of its nutrients.
Jenh’s followers were left to choose between starvation and the path of darkness; if they submitted to the will and worship of Métius, they were supported by his temple. Not all elves held the strength of heart to deny his power, and would give in to him, even if it was only to feed their families.
The temple held Z’Lé in high regard for having facilitated growing their followers, and in turn granted him more power. Onsira’s citizens could not understand why he embraced all that Métius offered him; he had once been a man of fine nobility, articulate and intelligent. He had cared deeply for the fate of Onsira, most of all the inclusion of the mountains that formed the realm’s border. The villages there had rarely been included in the governance of the kingdom, and he intended to change that for their benefit, he had asserted, and had promised to see to it that the villages well cared-for. How he became so enthralled with the path of darkness was a mystery. They only knew that it had begun at the time of Zarrek’s birth.
Z’Lé’s origins were obscure. He had come to the capital soon after Arialla had come of age for courtship, sharing only that he was the nobleman of a village in the mountain peaks. Many were such villages, all of them small and secluded, so he was questioned no further. Z’Lé took a deep interest in Arialla, and was unscathed by the distrust of his fellow nobles at the royal councils. They did not suspect any association between him and Métius; the mountain villages had not come to councils for eons, but they were not known for any dark arts.
Now that Z’Lé frequented the dark temple, the people regretted having not distrusted him more. It was, they remembered, in a mountain tower where Jenh had been trapped. Z’Lé had reminded them of the age of such a tale, denying its relevance; he was much more interested in developing trust among all the people of the kingdom. Once respected for his ambitions, he was now reviled as having deceived and manipulated the royal family. That did not stop him from carrying out his intentions.
Inside the temple, Zarrek followed his father and the priest through the hallway, passing pillar after pillar crowded with black candles, until they entered the inner chamber. The priest walked away from the two of them to approach the altar. He spoke a short prayer to Métius before the emperor also approached. Z’Lé took a glass vial from the pouch at his belt and laid it on the bone offering plate on the altar.
The priest pulled back his robe and the shirt beneath it, revealing his scarred torso. The old cuts laced around him like tendrils of smoke, deliberately intricate. Some were stained with dark colors, others traced with piercings. Only a true worshiper would have so many, or any so strange, even grotesque, as his. The belt tied to his narrow hips held an ebony-sheathed dagger, the point facing up so that it would be easy to draw in the style of his kind.
His eyes glinted red as he drew the dagger and began to chant, softly at first, then louder. His words were in mystical Draconic, and Zarrek recognized them as words that he had heard on a few of their previous visits. Just as Z’Lé was growing impatient, the priest chanted his final words, ending with one that the youth translated as ‘deception,’ and thrust the jagged point of the blade through the glass vial on the bone offering plate.
The glass shattered, letting the crimson liquid inside flow through the wayward cracks in the thick bone like rivers of wine. The priest dashed charred ashes across it, and the mixture hissed and glowed with an other-worldly smoke. Then a grinding noise filled the hall. Behind the altar, an opening was revealed as a part of the wall slid aside. The priest knelt, closing his eyes and beckoning Z’Lé to enter the lightless chamber. Zarrek stared after his father as he stepped into the mysterious room. The chanting from the monks continued, unaffected by the noise.
The door ground and creaked shut. For several seconds that, Z’Lé stood alone in a pitch black, silent chamber. Even his keen eyes could not pick out any shapes, although he could smell everything. Leather and offering wine scented the chamber, as well as a pool of clean water. Its heat rose from the sunken bath, and though Z’Lé knew where it lay, he dared not move until a flame entered the room. It illuminated the visage of an elf whose entire body was covered in the intricate markings of Métius.
Eavan scowled at the emperor, her silver-laced black eyes glinting in the light of her single candle. She approached him slowly, staring him down, the silver beads at her ankles twinkling. He could hear the piercings in her flesh moving faintly as she walked indifferently past him to the tall candelabra near the door. She held her candle up to the others, shedding more light on the room. The priestess glanced over her shoulder, her smooth black lengths of hair glowing like silver in the fragmented candlelight.
“You have come late!” Eavan hissed.
“I had duties related to the coronation that I could not avoid.” He returned her cold glare. “Even if I had come on time, I would be too late; it is happening faster than you had thought it would.”
She looked closely at Z’Lé, noting the odd features of his face and hands, her impatience obvious. “Your claws are longer than usual; sharper. The scales are hardly more visible. To be expected when you arrive three days late! Why do you expect the spell to last when you refuse to come at the prescribed times?”
“This is to be expected, then?” He pulled the crown from his head, allowing her to see the hard growths hidden by it.
“Horns!” she yelled out. “Why did you not come sooner?”
“I could not! I was expected to be at Loracaz’s side as he was crowned.”
“And your entire day was consumed with your son’s crowning?”
Z’Lé scoffed as he released the pin that held his cloak and hung the heavy leather on a claw-like hook. “Your wish for me prioritize coming here shows how little you understand the importance of such an event. He is weak, and he is devout to Jenh, but no matter how badly you wanted me to deny him his crown and deny his rights as my heir, I cannot.”
“Do not seek to chastise me,” Eavan hissed. “What matters now is that he is your blood, and that Zarrek serves us. You have only one last part of the pact to fulfill.”
An angry rumble emerged from Z’Lé’s throat.
“Your empress is still not pregnant?” She laughed softly.
He had been removing his velvet shirt when she said this, and he scowled and cursed before throwing it at her naked body.
She laughed louder. “It took you eight years after the birth of Loracaz to conceive Zarrek. Twelve years later, you have no third. How scarred your pride must be!” She hung his shirt alongside his cloak before walking to the hidden chamber’s altar.
Z’Lé was barefoot and removing his leather pants when she spoke again. “If you chose our followers to be your sacrifice, perhaps the spell would last longer.” Eavan took long sticks of incense from a drawer in the altar and lit them with a candle. “They are far more… dedicated.”
“They are too few, and Jenh’s too many,” he replied as she carried on with the preparations. “I have more to gain from slaying those who defy me and seek to raise arms against me.”
The priestess motioned for silence. Then all that could be heard between them was the rippling of water as the emperor entered the warm pool. Eavan waited for him to be ready before parting her vermilion lips to chant. Eerie words filled the room, echoing around gargoyles and embracing the his body. Smoke rose like clouds as Eavan as stared at him, taking in every detail.
Z’Lé stared back, watching as smoke engulfed the altar and spread across the chamber. It curled around her ankles and floated on the water to wind around his body. The priestess slowly fell silent as she walked forward. She slipped into the water, which seemed to make the markings on her body glow like the silver that she wore. She positioned her body near Z’Lé’s tiled floor nearby and watched the dark spell work its haunting magic upon him.
“The spell cannot last long this time. You need a more suitable sacrifice.”
“Or a third child,” Z’Lé replied.
She scoffed. “You are still trying to fulfill the pact? Methinks even Zarrek will be crowned before Arialla will bear you the child you need to complete your promise to Métius.”
“If I could not father another child, why would he grant me the spell?”
“Métius is unjust and wrathful. Certainly you understand that it is his nature to choose conditions beyond your limits. Perhaps the transformation affects your ability to make your empress pregnant.”
Her words bit at him, heightening his anger.
“Yet she granted me Loracaz right away,” he interrupted.
The priestess moved to massage his well-muscled shoulders, regarding his flesh closely. She scowled once more. “That name!”
He turned to glance at her quizzically. “Loracaz? What troubles you of it?”
“You know the legends! He usurped our first attempts to take Jenh’s power.”
“The legends are merely stories, Eavan. Eons-old tales to make glad thoughts of Jenh and Onsira.”
“Doubt what you will, but you should never have let her give him that name. I must tell you another thing: the high priest demands that you spawn a third child within a year if you wish to avoid conflict. Less, if the predictions continue to worsen as they have been.”
“The necromancer wishes for me to create life? Laughable!” Z’Lé watched several black scales float away from him on the water’s surface as Eavan touched his cheek.
“He predicts your death if you cannot conceive this baby, Z’Lé!” she declared.
After that, he fell silent, allowing her to massage his body without the annoyance of her comments. She watched the lines of scales disappear from his flesh before moving to rub his temples, feeling the bone of the horns recede into nothingness. The shadowy spell that moved like fog through the room crept up the candelabra and slowly began to snuff the flames that flickered on the red wax. Once the last light faded, the priestess stepped back out of the water.
“You have until the winter’s snow begins to melt, Z’Lé,” Eavan warned him. “Let nobody see you if the spell fades early.”
Z’Lé rose out of the pool as she re-lit one of the candles.
“Who saw you this time, with your horns?” Eavan demanded as he dried his body, suspecting his indiscretion.
“Only Arialla,” he grumbled.
“And you would wonder why the necromancer predicts so badly for you. You try our patience with such incompetence. How are you to take her to your bed if she sees your true form? I doubt that your sweet elf princess lusts for your kind.”
The emperor abided her criticism as he dressed. He was angry that Arialla had seen the changes to his body, angry that he could not have prevented her from seeing them. In his irritable mood, after having reluctantly crowning his first son, whom he had grown away from in the years since Zarrek’s birth, Z’Lé had forgotten to put the protection of his secrets first. In his zeal to relieve his stress in his bedchamber, he’d forgotten the warning that the spell would deteriorate rapidly should he be late. He had not realized just what Arialla had seen until he beheld his reflection in the library window.
Z’Lé pulled his cloak over his shoulders and waited for Eavan to open the door.
“Do whatever you can to make her pregnant, Z’Lé. Your destiny depends upon it.” She regarded him with an unsatisfied glower and pressed a packet into his hand, the herbs inside crunching softly together. “One to forget,” she whispered, leaning in close to him. “And one to beget.”
He nodded to her before disappearing from the dark chamber.
Zarrek was sitting near a column, watching the chanting monks when his father emerged. He looked different in a way that he could not explain, which was always the case when the high priest let him into that chamber. He seemed younger, more noble and less foreboding. Zarrek said nothing to his father, simply following him back down the hall; he had learned ages ago that his father would be in a sour mood after being in that that room, and did not want to provoke him.
Outside, the snowfall had stopped, but not the torrents of wind. The snow crunched beneath their boots as they headed back to the carriage that awaited them. Even as the driver took them back to the palace, Z’Lé did not speak. Zarrek’s hazel eyes watched his father as they rode through the city, trying to put his finger on why his father seemed different. His silence make him wonder whether there was as though he hated himself, some discontent. Although something about his appearance was less menacing, he was no less irascible.
Zarrek was keen on one particular point. He had seen a painting of his parents from the day of their Kuetzarrin Rites ceremony, when Z’Lé had sworn his heart to Arialla and ascended the throne. Even though he had aged almost twenty-one years since that day, he looked now just as he had when he was joined with the princess of Onsira.
Z’Lé glanced down at his son, feeling the eyes upon him. “This shall be your realm some day, Zarrek.”
The boy was startled that his father had spoken. He responded quickly, not wanting to lose the opportunity to discuss matters. “Perhaps. Yet Loracaz is set to rule it before I can have my chance.”
“Do you not want to rule?”
Zarrek nodded. The emperor had raised him to crave power, but Loracaz was the first heir to the throne. He waited for his father’s advice.
“Your brother would sooner join the high priestess in her temple than become king. You must ask him to pass my empire to you. He can advise the throne from the temple and govern it as high priest. Yanve would certainly abdicate the office to him.”
“And if he would prefer to bring Liriel into the palace as his queen?” Zarrek was articulate for his young age, the result of spending considerable time among nobility and none with other children. “I cannot think of any way for you to forbid it, even if it has to do with equality between between Métius and Jenh.”
The emperor sat back silently. He knew well what was written in Onsiran law. Because of the kingdom’s love for Jenh, an heir to the throne may take as their beloved, rather than a member of nobility, any clergy of the elemental goddess. Z’Lé had yet to find any method of denying the throne to Loracaz, who have done nothing contrary to the laws. The only change he had been able to make was in granting equal rights for the clergy of Aamh, Kearr, and Métius.
“You will have to be the one to convince him,” the emperor told his son. “The temple of Métius is as a part of our realm now as Jenh’s ever was. Because you are familiar with both doctrines, you could best serve our people, Zarrek. Your brother’s knowledge is too limited.”
“He does not even speak Draconic,” Zarrek noted.
“Indeed. The royal family has too long neglected the dragons, in particular those in the mountains at our border. With your skills, you shall one day be the greatest, most powerful emperor that Onsira could ever ask for.”
“Why did you only teach me, though?”
Z’Lé looked questioningly to his son. “Do you mean the language and the magic?” When the child nodded, he continued, “Your mother would not allow Loracaz study it; you almost missed the chance as well. But never mind our reasoning. All you need know is that I have more pride in you for your abilities than I do in anyone else.”
“Why would she never allow it? With Métius as our ally, our power has doubled. And if we can speak to the dragons, we have their aid as well.”
The emperor nodded. “Indeed, my son. You have the intelligence of a scholar. But she fears Métius, just as Jenh does. As for the dragons, she claims that we have no need fro such allies.”
Zarrek thought deeply on this. He considered the opposite powers of Kearr and Métius, the legend of the demon god trapping Jenh in a crystal, and the ritual that made his father act so differently. Although his father was often irritated by excessive questioning, this was a rare chance for him to gain some understanding of what Z’Lé wanted for the empire.
“Not needing allies, on its own, is no reason to not speak the language of the dragons,” Zarrek said. “What other justification could she have?”
“None that coexist with my dream of unity,” Z’Lé told him. He turned and tared out the window of the carriage. “Your mother has become less understanding with each passing year; the closer we get to my goals, the more she seems to turn back and cling to ancient traditions. It is disheartening to see her lose sight of the vision that we once shared…”
“Father,” Zarrek asked, hoping that the his question would not anger him, “could it have anything to do with the priest’s spell? The final word was ‘deception.’”
Z’Lé scowled. “I shall explain nothing more until you are crowned prince and heir to Onsira.”
Zarrek dared not question his father further. “Aye, Father,” he replied obediently. He consoled himself that he least knew now that some connection lay between the strange ritual that his father periodically underwent, he had been raised, and his mother’s fear of Métius.