Chapter Ten Should Spring not Come
Empress Arialla had returned from Jenh’s temple to her palace ready to face Z’Lé. She had with her the protective herbs, and the reassurance that Yanve and Liriel would look after her. She found a warm room where she could take her tea and read, knowing that her library would be too cold, and that the repairs were long off. Besides that, she wanted to avoid reminders of what had happened. Z’Le was not in the palace when she returned, leaving her hours alone. Dinner came and went before he came back, his presence announced by the heralds. As Arialla had suspected he would, he summoned her to their bedchambers. Having already drank two cups of the antigvium tea, she steeled herself for his touch and left for her room.
When she arrived, she found that it had been cleaned, leaving no trace of what she had experienced just two nights before. Z’Lé smiled warmly to her, welcoming his empress and showing her to a seat. Puzzled, Arialla complied.
“What is it?” he asked, noticing how closely she studied his face.
“I thought…” She shook her head, curious that what she had seen before was no longer there. “You look different is all.”
Laying a hand on hers, the emperor spoke soothingly. “You have not slept well lately, my love.” He handed her a warm cup and, forgetting that she had left her own tea in another room, she accepted it. Taking a sip, she noted its different taste, but paid it no further mind.
“Your dreams have been troubled, Arialla. I hear you crying out as they show you terrible things. With everything that we have been doing lately, you have not been getting enough rest.”
She looked up into his eyes; he felt warm and affectionate, and she could not help but relax when she heard the tenderness in his words. “I have felt so tense lately,” Arialla admitted. Fatigue washed over her body as she took another sip of tea.
“Let your worries be what they are: the troubled dreams of an overworked empress,” Z’Lé told her. He was not commanding, not angry, but truly concerned for her well-being. “I want you to stay here until you recover, else you confuse any more of reality with your nightmares.”
Was it true, she wondered to herself? Seeing him now, in the daylight, she saw no mark of the beast that had harmed her two nights night before. Z’Lé was the handsome, reserved elf whom she had fallen in love with. What draconic aspects could she have beheld before? Trying to sort out her memories proved to be a difficult trial for her clouded mind. Instead, she took a long drink of the tea, as though terribly thirsty.
“Yes, Arialla,” he said, giving her a smile that showed his relief that she was relaxing. “Finish your drink, then come to bed. You need to sleep more if you are to feel well again.”
Nodding, the empress drank the last of the tea. She felt herself swept up into Z’Lé’s arms and found him gazing fondly at her as he carried her to their bed.
“I love you, Arialla,” his whispered, lying down beside her. “Whatever you are doubting between your dreams and reality, please do not doubt my love. That is what guides me through my days, as it should guide you in yours.”
She nodded, unable to question him, exhaustion weighing her down. Even if she had wanted to, she had no energy with which to question the truthfulness of his words.
“Will you promise me that, Arialla? To always believe in my love?”
She did not reply. The empress had already fallen asleep, and could hardly hear any more of his words. She fell into a deep, restful slumber, completely calm beside the warmth of her k’hurin. He caressed her cheek for a few minutes, watching her slow, steady breaths before he, too laid his head on his pillow and contentedly closed his eyes.
Only a week ago, he had been fighting her just for a chance to clutch her breasts in his wide hands, had pinned her to he bed and forced her to take his seed. That night, however, he did not touch her, but let her rest. There was a part of him calling out, reminding him to foster the love that had brought them together two decades ago, to reignite the passion that Jenh had blessed when they had taken the Kuetzarrin rites together. It pained him how demanding he had been, even though he knew why he’d had to be, and he hoped that going forward, his renewed tenderness would win her heart.
When the next dawn came, Arialla woke having forgotten her nightmares from the nights before. She felt refreshed, and somehow relieved. Beside her, Z’Lé was already awake, waiting patiently for her to open her eyes.
“Dearest empress,” he greeted her, leaning down to kiss her lips. “You slept better this time.” He smiled, happy for her.
“It is time for the coronation!” she realized suddenly, and shoved away the blankets to rush through preparations.
Z’Lé grabbed her wrist and pulled her back right away. “We have done that already, my love. Have you forgotten?”
“But…” She blinked, suddenly confused. “You said that it was only a dream.”
He shook his head, his expression turning to worry. “No, sweet empress. That much was not a dream. Let me look after royal affairs for the day; I can see that you need much more sleep.”
Curling up against him, Arialla fought back against her confusion. “Z’Lé,” she whispered, her voice trembling. Part of her did not want to ask for help, but another part of her longed to let him guide her through the strange feelings that were rushing through her.
“You will be alright,” he reassured her. “It will take time, but you will feel better.”
“Listen to me.” He leaned down to kiss her once more. “I love you, Arialla. That truth is more absolute than anything else I can tell you. It will help if you focus on that. I have enjoyed all the years that I have spent with you– every moment of them. The sons that we have together are more than I could have hoped for. I love them both, and I look forward to what their future holds. They are destined to do great things for our empire.”
Not knowing where he was leading with what he was saying, Arialla held back her words and continued listening.
“Looking after the kingdom has been arduous lately. As our empire grows, we have more and more to do. Still, I have considered your request, my love.”
“My request?” Arialla asked, recalling no such thing.
He smiled to her. “Indeed. For another child. If you feel that it would be best for our kingdom, I see no reason to deny you the babe that you desire. It has already been so long since the last one.”
Arialla gasped and pulled away. “I never asked– Z’Lé, that was your idea!”
“On the contrary. I have been telling you that we have enough to do without an infant to look after. What have you been dreaming, Arialla?” He shook his head, and looked straight into her eyes. “Get some rest. You must be well in order to conceive, my love.”
Z’Lé gave his empress one more kiss, a deep, lasting one that she would remember for hours.
“Duty calls, Arialla. If you cannot sleep, read this.” He handed her a platinum scroll, aged and worn. It seemed familiar too her, but the memory was too vague to place. “Our vows. Inspiration, I daresay.”
Emperor Z’Lé gathered up his coat, slipped on his boots, and headed for the door. She stared after him, speechless, yet thankful for the time alone to organize her thoughts.
As the winter waned and the snows lessened, Z’Lé became increasingly concerned that Arialla still did not carry his child. He had since doubled the amount of herbs that he gave to her in secret, desperate and anxious for a baby. Arialla had forgotten much of what had been troubling her up until then, and stopped trying to make sense of the contradictions surrounding her. Although she gave her body too Z’Lé easily, and had even accepted him lovingly on some nights, it had all been in vain. The fever that meant an elf had conceived never came, and her body never swelled with new life. It made the emperor spiteful and angry.
The two of them were alone in the royal hall one day. Breakfast was done, and court had not yet assembled. Prince Loracaz had seen to it, as had become his habit, that tea was served to her at her throne. She drank it as Emperor Z’Lé paced the floor, eyeing her scornfully.
His cold gaze struck her hard enough to make her look away. She pulled the fur collar of her gown closer around her neck; the last days of winter had always been coldest for her, and she was in no mind to warm herself in the emperor’s bed. All winter she had conceded to his romantic words and affections. She had let him guide her through her confused days, when she could not set any matters straight in her mind, and had laid with him each night.
Despite this newfound trust, his doting demeanor had eventually faded, and his anger revealed itself once again. Her barren body displeased and frustrated him more than he could bear. He had become harsh again, hurtful in his bitterness. Where Arialla had come to believe that it was a nightmare before, she found that his cruel hand had been real all along.
“You mock me by not bearing me a child, Arialla!”
“Surely you understand that I have no control over such a thing,” she replied, timid though her voice was.
“Yet you show no care at all for your plight!” Z’Lé growled as he leaned over her throne. “Still you are young enough to bear my children, and could have borne me many sons and daughters in all the time between Zarrek’s birth and today. Can Jenh not bless us with a third child?”
The empress dared not meet his eyes, knowing that they would be filled with such cruelty. “Perhaps it is Jenh’s will that I bear nothing until your abuse of me should cease, my lord.” Her words were soft and carefully chosen; she knew how he would react, but she dared to say them anyhow.
“That has no bearing upon it, Arialla.” His hand wrapped tightly around her wrist as he spoke into her ear. “It is because you have not given yourself to me completely, as you did long ago.”
Arialla’s stomach turned at the thoughts evoked by his words. She could hardly endure his touch now, whether her dreams– as he called them– were true or illusory. Not matter how elvan and gentle he looked now, she had begun to believe again that the beastly visage she remembered was no illusion. Her nightmares seemed too real to deny any longer.
“I feel ill,” she told him. “I beg you to allow me to visit the temple.”
“You have seen the temple more than you’ve seen your beloved library!”
He turned away from her angrily, frustration echoing in his steps as he walked to a tall window. Ser’s light fell through the glass like the sparkle of faeries; outside, a light snow powered the windowsill. made fractals of by the snow that had collected on the sill outside. “After the expense that I allowed in order to repair your library, I expect your time to be spent there, not in the temple. I had assumed that you understood that.”
“Aye, milord,” was all that she could reply. The bruise on her cheekbone ached too much for her to say more. She understood that he wanted her nearby, so that he could summon her to their bed whenever it suited him. Her only consolation was that obedience freed her from further pain– unless Z’Lé was again lashing out because she was not pregnant.
He turned from the window. Ser’s late-winter light was hardly enough to warm him, and he was weary of the cold. Bearing the Zeah of fire made winter that much colder; he felt the cold faster than others did, and longed for heat in ways that nobody else understood.
Someone knocked on the royal hall’s door as Arialla stood up from her throne. She leaned against it, her body fatigued, as Z’Lé invited in a pair of guards.
“What is it?” he demanded.
“My liege, General Elezar has returned from Jzamneh Forest,” one of them replied.
The emperor scowled at the armored elf before him. “Send the incompetent man in, then!” When the guard bowed and rushed out of the hall, he grumbled to himself, “Why bother announcing him when he is incapable of bringing good news?”
Then Z’Lé turned to Arialla. “Be gone, woman! Do not mope in my royal hall.”
She nodded to him, and turned to take a step. Before she could even descend from the dais, her mind clouded, and she felt all strength leave her body. Sank to the floor, her vision blurring as her eyes closed.
“Lady Empress!” one of the guards shouted as he returned with the general. He rushed to her side and took her hands, then looked up at Z’Lé, his heart pounding. “She is cold to the touch, your majesty.”
Arialla’s breathing was labored, yet weak and inefficient. She mumbled unintelligible sounds as the guard pulled her closer.
“Take her to her bed,” Z’Lé ordered him. Then he sighed with agitation. “Send for the priestess if you must, but otherwise leave us be!”
The guard pulled Arialla press into his arms, concerned not only for her but also for the emperor’s callous reaction. He carried her from the throne room, the other guards following them both.
General Elezar watched them leave, glad that the disruption was brief, and ensured that the doors were closed securely. He stood before Emperor Z’Lé, faint light falling on the crimson plates of his dragoon armor. It was still cold from the chill outside, but the fur and wool he wore underneath was enough to keep him warm. He pulled off his helmet, careful not to catch its intricate iron horns on the black claws that adorned his plate-mail, and placed it under his arm.
Z’Lé stared at him as he took a seat on his throne. “She refuses to be anything but trouble to me, Elezar.”
“The empress has a strong will,” Elezar replied.
Z’Lé scowled at the general’s words. “You need not remind me!”
“If only she would satisfy your demands, Lordship. You have given her all the freedoms that she could possibly request.” Elezar thought a moment on the matter before continuing. “She was very lovely when she carried your sons, milord. Another one would suit her well.”
The emperor sat silently, glaring at him.
“There are herbs that may help her, your majesty. She was the only child of her own parents, but many are those who believe they could have borne others with the herbs of fertility.”
“I have tried that already!” Z’Lé snapped his anger echoing through out the hall. “Did you think that I hadn’t? Unbeknownst to her, she has consumed them throughout the winter. Never mind all that! What have you to report?”
“Our legions are still on the eastern fringe of Jzamneh. The soldiers have poured in through two of the entrances, but none report back to us.”
“So we have missing soldiers,” Z’Lé grumbled.
Elezar nodded. “Yes sire. Additionally, magic still proves to be of no use.”
“Can you cut it down, then?” Z’Lé sat back, shadows fell across his face as he listened to the situation.
“At your command, we have attempted exactly that, my liege. The wood is strong and mostly impenetrable, What little damage my men can do heals right away.”
“Have you not tried uprooting them?” The emperor’s strained patience showed in his voice.
“Indeed, my lord. Our attempts have been numerous and varied, but we cannot pull them from the soil. My captains assert that Jzamneh’s magic is too strong.”
“So it may be. But no magic is without its weakness. Send scouts into the forest to find those you have already sent in. I suggest that you have your necromancers bond mentally with the scouts in order to track them. They, too, may not return.”
“Understood, your majesty.”
“Get out of here, then,” Z’Lé commanded him. “Return to me only when you have a full report on your conquest of Jzamneh Forest.”
The dragoon bowed deeply, his heavy fur of his cloak falling around his bent body, enshrouding his form like a phantom. When he stood up, Emperor Z’Lé dismissed him with a wave of his hand. General Elezar nodded, then left the emperor alone on his throne.
In the courtyard, General Elezar donned his helmet and stood waiting for his squire to prepare his dragon for departure. Snow fell on the city in light drifts and left the stone-paved plaza wet with a cold slush that displeased the dragoon. The squire finally climbed down from the black creature and bowed to his master. Elezar wasted no words on the boy, but climbed into his seat on the dragon’s back. The beast, at least, was warm. Bringing a heavy lance along, the squire scurried up to sit behind his master. Each pulled tight their belts before the captain shouted to his mount.
“Krre, engvi dath’tra, Dettri gen Jzamneh!” he commanded in Draconic.
The black dragon hissed and unfolded its great wings. It braced its muscular legs, it leapt into the air above the palace, then flew southeast. Elezar pinned his fur cloak close around his body to keep the cold from getting through through his armor and clothing. The squire behind him wore thick enough clothes, but shivered still, all the while clinging to his master’s lance. Snow collected on the lines of their helmet as they flew, but they were under the emperor’s orders and could let nothing deter them.
They would be able to reach the mountains– Onsira’s traditional border– but it would take them three days in all to return to Jzamneh Forest to carry out the new orders. The captain resented being sent off only hours after arriving in the royal city. His dragon, Dettri, was even more annoyed by it, having to fly the skies with no chance to rest or seek warmth. But they were well fed, and therefore offered no complaints. They would have done them no good anyhow; Emperor Z’Lé was not a man who accepted being questioned or disobeyed. The general knew very well how far his lord’s wrath went, and never tempted it.
In the palace, meanwhile, the high priestess of Jenh walked alongside two royal guards. She wondered what could have possibly fallen upon the empress. Several palace guards had rushed to the temple and demanded that she hurry to Arialla’s side. They were so frantic that she did not argue, and left wit them immediately.
Once they arrived at her bedchambers, Liriel found the empress asleep. She sat on the edge of her bed, frowning at the sight of the bruise on her cheek, and began examining her.
“She looks so exhausted,” the priestess told the waiting guards. “I wonder whether Z’Lé lets her sleep at all.”
“Sickness runs through the empire this season, milady priestess,” one of the men said. “Could our empress be ill as well?”
Liriel laid her hands on Arialla’s chest, letting her hands warm her as she breathed deeply and slowly, opening her mind to sense what may laid beneath her flesh. When she sensed nothing, the priestess passed her hands along the gentle curves of her body, then let them rest on her soft belly. The guards, seeing this, stepped closer.
“Could she finally be with child?” one asked, his voice hopeful.
The words chilled Liriel. She could not bear to see Arialla should their herbs have failed her and given the emperor what he had so long demanded of her. She let her essence connect with the empress’s, eager to sense what had come over her. Fatigue washed over her in waves, pierced by confusion, laced with pain and fear. It came heaviest and most unpleasant from her belly, but Liriel sensed no other entity within the weary form.
“There is no child here,” she answered the guards at last. “But there is a deep pain where one could have been. I must examine her further, when I can speak to her. Please come to me when she awakens.”
Liriel stood quietly and gazed down at the empress before stepping away. “May Jenh bless her with peace.”
Then she walked past the guards and into the hall, where they followed her without word, each of them worried too much for their ruler to form any.