Chapter Fourteen Brothers, Worlds Apart
It was in the library where Loracaz found his brother, huddled in the corner of a couch with a book in his lap. He sat beside the boy, who scarcely glanced from his reading to acknowledge him. The prince leaned over to see just what Zarrek had been reading all morning. There on the old, long-neglected pages was an archaic script of twisting, sharp characters. Loracaz frowned.
“Zarrek, why are you reading in Draconic?”
Finally looking up from the book, Zarrek gave his brother a perplexed look. “How else am I to read this?”
“I meant, why read it at all? That lore is what harmed Goddess Jenh ages ago.”
Zarrek grumbled and replied, “The histories of the dragons did nothing to harm Jenh. If you took the time to learn Draconic, you might know the difference.”
Feeling insulted by such a comment, Loracaz objected, “The dragons did have a role in the trickery and jealousy that led Métius and his priests to capture her, Zarrek.”
“And after that, she blessed some of the dragons with her power. Anyhow, it is just an ancient story. Right now, we should focus on making a stronger alliance between dragons and elves.”
Loracaz sighed. “Do you truly believe what Father tells you about dragons? Many of them still mean us harm.”
When Zarrek nodded, his brother looked even more troubled. “Zarrek, Father has caused a lot of suffering in Onsira in the past two years, as well as beyond our borders. Even Mother has not been spared from his anger. Can you really listen to somebody like that?”
“He is still our father; he would not lie to us,” Zarrek insisted. “He wants to unite the four races and all of the realms, but everybody else is against him. I don’t want him to hurt Mother, but she does always make him angry.”
“Do you really believe that?”
Zarrek gave an impatient sigh and closed his book. He looked up at his brother as he gathered the words that would best express what he knew. “I do not want him to hurt her anymore, but I wish that she understood Father’s goals. He wants to unite the four temples, too. Onsira has been devoted to Jenh’s elves alone for long enough, but that is all hat Mother will speak of.”
“He has filled you with grand ideas for such a young age as yours, Zarrek. Can you even understand what doing such a thing would really mean?”
“Better than you do.” Zarrek laid the book on his older brother’s lap. “This is just one of their legendary stories.”
The prince looked over the book. He could not discern what it might be about, but he assumed that it related tales of darkness and horror. “Onsira was founded on Jenh’s rescue from a horde of dragons. If we were to ally with the dragons, we would have to forgo that history. We would no longer be the kingdom of Jenh’s legends.”
“It wasn’t just dragons who worshiped Métius. Some of the elves joined them, too” Zarrek eyed his brother with frustration. “Do you really believe that all dragons are like that? Mean and vengeful?”
Loracaz stared at the embossed cover of the book, trying to remember all that he knew about dragons. Was there not a realm whose dragons were white, where they protected the cities? He might also have seen an illustration of a serpentine creature of yellow and green scales at some point. In the end, he had to admit that everything that he know about dragons came from his mother and the Temple of Jenh.
“Dragons choose which god to worship,” Zarrek informed him, “just like elves and faeries do. Father taught me that.”
Loracaz nodded. “Even so, would you let Jenh’s legend fade away?”
“What happened eons ago no longer matters, Loracaz. What does matter is that we are all here on Lorata together, so we should live together, all the races, all the beliefs. If we do that, we’ll still be a part of Jenh, but also part of something much greater.”
“Even though it means building a temple to the Lord of Demons?”
“How can we be united if we leave them out? We are all made up of the four magical realms, and we cannot deny any part of ourselves.” Zarrek frowned and stood up from the couch, glaring at his bother with a mixture of worry and disappointment. “You are no good as prince, Loracaz. I will never accept you as worthy of that crown until you can read that book!”
Zarrek left his brother with a cold stare before turning to run through the library. Loracaz heard the door slam moments later. He looked between the shelves of ancient tomes and the volume on his lap. Its cover was deep blue, embossed with interlinking coils. The Draconic words were stamped with silver foil, the calligraphy lending elegance to each letter.
Despite how regal the book looked, Loracaz could find no meaning in its words. He had never learned anything about how the Draconic language worked, despite the best efforts of the tutor that his father had assigned to him. It made Loracaz wonder, if only for a moment, whether Zarrek might be right. As much as he abhorred the thought of allowing Métius’s worshipers to reside in Onsira, he had to admit that learning the dragons’ language and culture was benign. In the end, it might benefit Onsira to welcome the dragons who served Jenh and the royal family.
Loracaz thought back on all that had come to pass since his coronation. His mother had seen something beastly in his father’s visage, and had nearly been consumed by darkness. His beloved Liriel believed in the legend behind his name, and if he really was Jenh’s champion, that meant that there was something to protect Onsira from. He did not have the same faith that Zarrek did that his father’s vision for unity was entirely pure, and he felt an urgency deep within himself to find out what exactly he was up to.
Loracaz wanted to better understand his brother. He worried more and more that Z’Lé had clouded his mind, and that the more he visited the Temple of Métius, the more likely he was to serve him some day. Despite all his talk of unity, Zarrek rarely attended the temples devoted to Aamh or Kearr. Z’Lé had pushed the boy to honor Métius on some dark pretense, and Loracaz needed to find out why. Until he understood what was going on, he was determined to stay wary.
He stood up and carried the book to its shelf. He stared at the empty space where it belonged, knowing that he could never accept the ideas his father proclaimed. He was not a unifier; he was a hero, the one man who was expected to defend Jenh against evil. What good would Draconic do him in that endeavor? They could not even help his bed-ridden mother.
Loracaz pushed the book into its place and turned to walk out of the library, reminding himself that too much darkness had come from dealing with dragons.
Zarrek walked along a hallway that wound around the palace’s inner garden. Most of the wall was not stone, but glass; window after window gave a view of the garden. Since he was up on the third floor, he could see over the trees and the way the moonlight cast a pale light on their bare, scraggly branches. He stopped beside one of the doors that led out onto a narrow balcony. As he turned its brass, the door creaked open and he stepped outside.
He could see a window with a faint light shining through it down on the first floor. He recognized it as the library, which made him think of his brother. “What a fool he is,” Zarrek grumbled to himself. “He is going to undo all of our good work.”
Gripping the railing, Zarrek stared down at the library window. He had intended to go back to his room and rest, but he could no longer do that. There was an ache in his back that had reared its ugly head as soon as he’d become irritated with his brother. It was like the call of something dark, something pulling at him that he was not quite certain the identity of. The pain only came to him now and then, but when it did, there was no way for him to sleep.
He laid his face on one hand as he leaned on the railing, his fingers rubbing the bridge of his nose as he tried to focus his mind. What his father was doing had been Z’Lé’s life-long goal. He had once lived in the Dragonridge Mountains, among dragons who were not welcome on the plains of Onsira. All of them should have been considered Onsiran citizens; the kingdom’s border included all of the mountains, and none of the other kingdoms claimed so much as a boulder of them. Back when he’d been nothing more than a marquis, Z’Lé had begun to speak for the right of the dragons, wanting to see them respected, even adored by the elves.
Zarrek knew that neither he nor his brother would exist if their father had not brought his concerns to the palace over two decades ago. That was how he had caught their mother’s eye, endearing her with his passion and spirit. In the end, it was more than just allowing dragons to roam Onsira freely; it was a dream of true unification. The young prince seemed to understand far more than his brother could.
“Why would he not want this for Onsira?” Zarrek asked himself. “The kingdom needs this if it is to remain glorious!”
Feeling his frustration build, Zarrek turned and went back inside. He rushed through familiar halls until he came to a pair of doors that he knew well. He had been born in that room a little over twelve years ago, and was welcome in it any time he wished. Leaning close to the door, he listened for any sounds that would indicate that he should not be there. It was quiet on the other side of the door, so he knocked, firmly but not too loud. When it opened, his father stood on the other side, looking down at him.
“My son,” he breathed, as though sighing heavily. “Come in.”
Z’Lé opened the door wider to give the boy room so step in, and then closed it behind him.
Zarrek looked up at his father. Although the room was half dark, he could see that the man was trying to hide the worry on his face. It was not an emotion that he was used to seeing his father express, but he knew where it was coming from. Over on the bed, his mother was lying asleep, but it was not her normal rest that she was taking.
“Has she woken up at all?” Zarrek asked his father as he walked across the room.
Z’Lé held back a sigh as he glanced over at Arialla. “Rarely.” The solitary word seemed to fill the room as he followed his son.
Zarrek knew that his mother had fainted in the throne room several days ago, though nobody had been able to determine the cause. Even Liriel could not explain why she could not fully recover. The empress was weak, possibly in considerable pain; they took solace in the fact that she was still breathing and that her heart was still beating. As much as his mother frustrated her, he was glad that she was still alive.
“There are rare moments…” Z’Le said, “sometimes once in the span of a few days, sometimes twice in one day, when she will open her eyes. It never lasts longer than a few minutes, and whoever is with her does their best to get her to eat and drink.”
“What are we going to do?”
Z’Lé shook his head. “She needs a healer, and not one who serves Jenh.”
“A worshiper of Katheria, perhaps?” Zarrek suggested.
“The demon healer?” The emperor looked down at his son curiously.
“He could help her.”
“No, son. He refuses to do anything for her.”
“You already tried?” Zarrek looked to his father, his eyes wide.
“Of course I did, my son.” He sat down in the arm chair that he had pulled up near the bed. “The problem is that Katheria knows that she shuns him and all of the demons. He would not even agree to do it for my own sacrifice.”
“What did you offer him?”
“He could have asked for anything,” Z’Lé replied, looking down at his hands. “But I have nothing that he wants.”
“Perhaps I could offer him something.”
“No!” the emperor shouted, looking his son straight in the eyes. “Zarrek, promise me that you will not make any deals with Métius, or with any of his legions.”
Zarrek stared at his father, surprised at what he was hearing him say. “Father, you… you take me to his temple all the time. Why would you tell me this now?”
“Listen to me carefully. You should respect Métius, honor him. The scars and piercings that you take are a fair trade for power, but you have to understand that they are not things of worship.” Z’Lé squeezed his son’s hand as he went on. “If you give all of yourself to Métius, if you give up your Zeah and walk completely is his shadows…”
Z’Lé sat back, refusing to explain anything. He gazed at the empress and sighed. “Just… promise him nothing. You may believe that you can meet his demands, but you must not take the risk.”
“I will do as you ask, father, but can you tell me why?”
“One day I shall,” Z’Lé told him. “For now, you must trust me. We are unifying the four gods, nothing more. You cannot worship Métius, and you cannot make deals with him.”
Zarrek nodded, then stepped closer to the bed. He sat on the edge and leaned over his mother. The pale of her skin was evident despite the shadows filling the room, and her breaths came slow and shallow. He worried that she would not be able to hold on for much longer.
“Did he do this to her?” He asked his father.
Z’Lé knew that he was referring to Métius. “No, Zarrek. Whatever did this to her, it was not him.”
“So Kearr might be able to heal her,” the young boy said, turning around to face his father.
“Perhaps. Fortunately for her, Métius has not done anything that would conflict with the holy god’s power.”
“Then we can send for one of the priests of Kearr?”
Z’Lé gave his son a hopeless look and said, “Do you really believe that they could help her?”
“We have to try. Loracaz thinks this is your fault as it is. Anything that would help her pull through deserves at least one attempt.”
“Loracaz blames everything bad on me, Zarrek. This is no different.”
“Father–” Zarrek hesitated, unsure whether he had any right to voice what was on his mind.
“Say it,” Z’Lé told his son. “When it is you and I, Zarrek, I want you to be able to tell me whatever is on your mind. If you are going to rule over this kingdom one day, I expect nothing less from you.”
“Everyone knows this, father… you did hit her.” He paused, looking, into his father’s eyes, searching them despite the shadows. “How could you do that, but also say that you love her?”
It took several minutes before Z’Lé was able to respond to his son’s words. He watched Arialla during that time, looking her over as he thought. The bruise he had left on her cheek was healing slowly, the blemish painfully obvious. He remembered the first time he had ever seen her, the way she danced around the glen high in the mountains, not far from the royal family’s summer home. That summer, her skin had been bright and rosy, so perfect and youthful. And there she laid nearly thirty years later, hardy alive. She was his, but perhaps not for much longer.
“If there is anything that you should not doubt, Zarrek, it is that I love your mother.” His voice came weary and sullen, though he did his best to sound like the mighty emperor that he had made himself into. “I have always been willing to do anything for her. That much has not changed.”
“Then why hit her?” Zarrek asked, refusing to hold back. This was too important for him to mince his words. He knew that he would have to court the ladies one day, and worried that he would be faced with a similar dilemma.
Z’Lé shook his head as though he hardly understood it himself. “She has jeopardized everything that I have built for her. This empire, our principles, even our family is at stake because she will not cooperate.”
“I do not think… I am not sure that I could do the same thing,” Zarrek told his father. “When I take a k’haarana, I do not think I could be as forceful as you are.”
The room was silent for a long time. The emperor would not meet his son’s eyes, withholding his words as he sat there thinking of what to say to him. “Here in this darkness,” Z’Lé replied, gazing out the window, “you can say these things. You can question what I have done, or tell me that you would not do the same thing. Only in the shadows, my son.”
He sighed before going on, just as one of the candles burned away the last of its wick and its light gave out. Zarrek could hear a faint uneasiness in his father’s voice, as though he fought to control some emotion that threatened to surface in him. “Your mother is the greatest joy that I have ever had, and losing her would–”
“All the more reason to protect her, father.”
“There is much that you do not know, Zarrek. I have tried so hard to keep from losing her, but she does not seem to understand that.”
“You could explain it to her, to all of us.”
“Never,” Z’Lé said, his tone final and even. “She believed in my dream of unification once, and I can help her revive that belief when she is well. Anything else…” He shook his head and said nothing more.
“What about Loracaz?”
Z’Lé scoffed. “The boy still clings to his mother’s skirts. If she learned to see my views once again, he should follow suit.”
“Father, I worry that he is going to pull her away from you. She really does believe that he is the hero–”
“She believes in stories!” Z’Lé snapped, his voice deep with frustration Zarrek thought that he also heard a growl in his throat, faint though it was. “Your mother grew up hearing the old legends while I saw my friends, my fellow dragons, scorned by the elves. Her naïveté is her weakness, and it has not been easy trying to free her of it.”
“You really do not think that the old legends are true?”
“Of course not! Son, your mother lives in fear of those legends. She is afraid of evil returning, and so she clings to her idea of a champion who can save us. Listen to me closely: we are in a new age. The world is beginning to develop its science and improve its medicine, and we cannot be left behind thinking of legends and prophecies. Your mother needs to accept that things are changing.”
Z’Lé paused, looking down at his sleeping empress. It was so confusing, being so deeply in love with her, yet so terribly frustrated with her. Her actions went against the promise they had made to each other, the words of the Kuetzarrin rites, and she did not seem to care that he was doing everything he could to preserve their bond. The emperor could feel her spirit deep in his core, surrounded by his love. He had treasured the Kuetzarrin bond ever since they had formed it together; it allowed him to feel her life-force, to sense her heartbeat. Sometimes he even shared her emotions through their bond. It made knowing that she feared and reviled him all the more painful.
In that moment, however, she seemed so quiet to him. As she laid there on the bed that they had shared for so long, she was as close to perfect stillness as he had ever felt her. After all that he had done to try to pull her closer, she was so far away from him. Worst of all, there was no new baby between them, and he was terrified that Eavan would be right, the had would not be able to complete the promise that he had made to Métius all those years ago. If only Arialla would put her trust in him and grant Z’Lé what he needed, they could be happy together for the rest of their days.
“It is time for a new way of life, a new outlook for the kingdom. Onsira is going to lead the rest of Manastaecies into an age where it does not matter what race you are from, nor which deity you honor. You can love whomever you please– and you should love, no matter what.”
Zarrek watched his father as he spoke, listening carefully to his words. The man had a real passion about what he was saying, and the boy was certain that it stemmed from something that had affected him very deeply. His father often said that elves, dragons, fae, and even the Starr should love one another, should cross the line between the races freely, yet he was not an example of it. Z’Lé and Arialla both came from long lines of elves; only their places of residence differed. It made the prince wonder why his father spoke so fervently on the subject.
Besides that, there were places were the faeries and elves did lie together, and there were those rare individuals with Starr mixed into their ancestry. As it was, not all faeries were small; some where the same size as an elf, and others could change their form, making it easy for them to be together.
The Starr were so rare that they had no choice but to choose lovers among the faeries and elves. Zarrek was not certain if there was a Starr living anywhere on Manastaecies, so the unification that his father wanted was actually with those of mixed blood. In the end, the prince realized that the one race truly left out of the accord was the dragons. Those of mixed Draconic blood were nearly as rare as than those of Starr ancestry, and most of them lived in Thiizav. Still, Zarrek put his trust in his father no matter what, and kept his realization to himself.
“I am with you on this unity, father. I will help you as best I can,” he said, looking back to his mother, “but we need her to be well again first.”
Z’Lé nodded. “I will take care of it. Do this for me, Zarrek: convince your brother to go to the Temple of Métius with you, even if it is just once. If he goes there, maybe he will start to understand that it is not so bad as he thinks.”
“Of course, father. I will do anything that you ask of me.”
“You are a good son,” the emperor said to Zarrek with a faint smile. “I only wish that Loracaz would listen to me like you do.”
For the rest of the night, Z’Lé hardly said anything else. He let his son lie down beside his mother to sleep, but got no rest himself. It troubled him too much to think of what was going on. He felt caught between two terrible outcomes over which he had little control. Either his beloved k’haarana would die on that bed just as winter was fading into spring, or she would live and continue to deny his love. Whichever happened, he could feel his heart grappling for something to hold onto. For those who had taken the Kuetzarrin rites, losing one’s beloved was the most agonizing loss. Of all things that Emperor Z’Lé feared, losing Arialla was the most terrifying thing of all.