Chapter Seventeen Peril Befalls the Royal Family
Zarrek walked along the city’s streets alone. He resented that cold that pierced through the thickness of his royal garments. Spring was very close, but Onsira felt like it was at its coldest. He pulled the fur cloak closer around him and hurried along until he reached the tall, slender doors of another temple. It rose like a palace above him, full of hidden things and shadows.
Several priestesses smiled at his arrival. He nodded to them as he walked between the carved beasts that served as pillars, showing little interest otherwise. Zarrek allowed one of them to take his cloak as he sat before a blazing fire. He stared down at the jewels he wore; a black ring on one hand, sharp and claw-like, traced with lines of crimson so deep that it could have been blood. On the other, a band of platinum fitted with a four-pointed emerald. He appreciated it for its simplicity and the way it contrasted with the twisted ring his father had given him.
“Our dear prince is so young to have come out this late.” The voice, a slimy, chilling thing that his heart quivered to hear, came from behind him. Zarrek did not have to turn around to know that it was one of the necromancers.
“I do as I like,” he retorted. As if to accentuate his words, he unbuttoned his velvet shirt, then the buttons at his wrists. He let the soft cloth fall from his body, revealing the curvatures of his muscles. Some might say that he was unusually strong for one so young. A lot could have been said about Prince Zarrek, in fact; Onsira had never had a prince like him before.
“You’ve come for more?” the slithering voice asked.
“Why else would I come?”
The voice hissed. “Your words are as sharp as your father’s. But your keener interest is an asset.”
“To whom?” he asked, narrowing his eyes at him. “You or me?”
Zarrek shuddered when the necromancer laughed; it was too unnatural.
A priestess came by with a goblet, smiling as she handed it to him. He gazed into it before taking a sip. The wine was of little interest to him outside of its ability to dull the pain. He twitched unexpectedly when she touched one of the piercings at the base of his neck. He reached back and grabbed her hand.
“You should not touch me.” He eyed her, and she backed away when she saw how serious he was, not daring to question him.
Zarrek relaxed his back as he drank from the cup, his muscles flexing. Because he trained with a broadsword, just as his father used, he was developing bulky muscles. That is not to say, though, that he lack speed or agility. He knew when to focus on stealth, was well on his way to being able to sink his dagger into any enemy he chose. The blood ceremonies that he participated in at the Temple of Métius were part of what had given him such a liking for smaller blades.
Once he recognized that the wine had taken effect, the necromancer dismissed the priestess and knelt beside the prince. His cold fingers slid graced along the flesh of his left arm, feeling the scars that traced around it like graceful lines of smoke. The scars had healed with a powdered ink in them, leaving the lines silver, black and crimson, even purple and midnight blue. Had Jenh a similar ceremony, he would have carved lines of yellow and green into his right arm. As there was no such thing, it was bare and smooth.
The necromancer could feel the boy’s strong pulse, the powerful life-force coursing throughout his young body. He refilled his cup, and began speaking to Zarrek in Draconic. The prince trembled as a different, sharper kind of cold touched the skin at his wrist. He felt a wet warmth dripping from his skin as the necromancer cut in sharp lines until they curled from his wrist to his hand. Zarrek stared down as his blood dripped to the bowl waiting below it. His essence would be given as offering to the demon god, and in return he would receive more powerful magic.
The necromancer used black ink powder to fill in the lines of this wound. It would clot with the blood and stain his scar, reminding him of his sacrifice. Once that was done, then man traced the flat of the blade along Zarrek’s arm, up towards his shoulder, where he paused.
“I can take more,” Zarrek told him, his voice low, even, and certain.
The cold hand ran along his back, as yet unscathed, as the necromancer pondered where he wanted to sink the blade. He thought of his future plans for the boy’s skin, not daring to do anything too soon. Eventually, he made up his mind, and pierced the skin just below his shoulder, carving a fluid path upwards. Zarrek felt the heat of his blood as it flowed the curved shape of the line, then the pressure of cold hands pressing silver ink powder into the fresh wound.
A moment later, an icy palm caressed his spine just below his neck.
“I could pierce it a third time.”
“A ring, then,” Zarrek told the necromancer.
“So brave a prince…” His hands caressed Zarrek’s back, sickening thoughts filling his mind. “You fear no pain.”
Zarrek drank a third glass of wine as the priest of death prepared to pierce the skin near his spine. By that point, he not only didn’t mind the pain, but took pleasure in it, wallowing in the alert state that cut through the haze of his mind. He never had a chance to see what the black priest used to cut the taught skin, but it forced his head to clear, like ice on his nerves. His heart pounded, trying to overpower the sensation, but it was too dull. Zarrek pulled a breath inward as the priest pushed a thick band of iron under his skin.
Reveling in darkness, soaring on the pain, the prince gripped the arms of his chair and grinned. He knew that his spirit writhed in the shadows within him. The first time he’d let the priest cut his skin, he’d felt torn between Jenh’s light and the darkness brought on by Métius. He had felt caught between life and death until he realized that the battle between them, like the one between pleasure and pain, was not a thing to avoid. Like an awakening, he had realized that he needed the two together. He needed Jenh’s might and Métius’s suffering just as Lorata needed both night and day, or like the natural flow of life into death and back into rebirth. He craved both at once, and his body, deep into the core of his soul, sought to unify them.
Loracaz had taken his father’s seat on the throne. Emperor Z’Lé being needed on the training fields to oversee the soldiers, the prince had been left to hold court. This was a fortunate week not only for the citizens of Onsira, but also for Mearrk’hal. When he heard that Z’Lé would not be present, he wasted no time in visiting the palace with Vincent at his side.
In the throne room, the two of them stood among other villagers, waiting for the guards to ask their names and business and announce them to the court. With Z’Lé occupied elsewhere, the hall was crowded with citizens eager to be heard fairly. Vincent occasionally sang or played his harp as the hours passed, the crowd glad for the music.
When finally they stood before the prince late that afternoon, he rose, welcoming them into his royal hall. Prince Loracaz II was dressed in his finest clothing, from silk and softened leather edged in golden filigree, to his tall, polished boots, looking regal and proud. His crown glittered in the daylight, and his smile, too, seemed to glow when the heralds announced their names.
“The great shaman at last! My mother said to expect you at some point. Welcome to Onsira.”
Loracaz looked around the hall, verifying there was nobody else who urgently needed to be heard, then called the herald to his side. He whispered to him, and afterwards the herald declared that court would be ending for the day. The prince descended from the dais and led his guests out of the royal hall, then down a walkway to a smaller room.
Once his guests were seated, Loracaz excused his guards and eased into his armchair.
“Thank you so much for coming all this way,” He began. “Our need for you increases with each passing day.”
“I am at your service, your highness,” Mearrk’hal replied, bowing his head.
“We are grateful.” The prince turned his gaze to Vincent. “We did not know that would be bringing anyone with you.”
“He is like a son to me,” Mearrk’hal explained. “From what your mother wrote, Onsira could use any ally that it can muster.”
Vincent got up from his seat, only to then kneel before the prince with all the grace and flair that he had in him. His cloak, a rainbow of woven colors, spilled around him like so much paint raining down. “I am Vincent, bard of Mithkyn, born of Ayafir, your highness.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Vincent,” Loracaz said. “Please, you do not need to show me such formality. Truth be told, I have heard tales that your voice is the grandest to have graced the stage for many a year. I had hoped to meet you one day– or at least see you perform– though under better circumstances.”
“I am honored,” the bard replied as he stood up. He return to his seat to let his father speak.
“It has been too long since I have been in Onsira,” Mearrk’hal commented as he looked over the prince. “It has changed so much in these past two decades.”
Loracaz gave a wary nod. “I take no pride in the changes my father has brought. I must admit that I fear what more may change if my father is left to do as he pleases.”
Mearrk’hal nodded. “For now, what’s important is that you have realized that you are Jenh’s champion. Have you felt how much your power has grown?”
“I fear that I have had little chance to use Jenh’s magic,” he admitted, “or my new sword.”
“I can train you, then,” Mearrk’hal assured him, “If you would allow it, that is. It sounds like an interesting blade.”
“Is that not part of my mother’s reason for asking you to come? I will be an honor to learn from you. Mother has spoken at great length of your skill and knowledge.” Loracaz seemed glad to have a kinder teacher than his father and brother. “Zarrek is impatient with me, and Father favors him to a fault.”
“From what Arialla wrote, Loracaz, your brother sounds interesting,” the shaman noted.
“He is unlike any brother anyone could expect,” Loracaz replied with a sigh. “He has potential and knowledge, but I worry about his future under Father’s influence.”
Mearrk’hal nodded understandingly before Vincent joined in with a question. “I have heard it said that he is thought to be evil. Is that true?”
“Indeed,” Loracaz admitted with a nod. “He and Zarrek often visit the Temple of Métius. He claims that his purpose is for unity and equality, but his treatment of Mother and myself is no proof of that.”
“He is cruel to her still?” Vincent frowned. If there was anything he did not tolerate, it was cruelty towards women. To hurt one’s beloved, the one who should have been treasured and protected, both perplexing and vexing to him. “Can the guards not hold him back from her?”
Mearrk’hal had hoped that Vincent would not be so quick to ask such questions, but the prince was already answering. “He would only hurt them as well. There was even one whom he imprisoned. For a short time, Father had been gentler, but right before she fell ill…”
“Ill, your highness?” the shaman queried.
Loracaz nodded. “I realize that you have have been busy with your journey here, so of course you have not heard. I was a couple weeks ago… My mother fainted, without warning, without reason.”
“Did it take her long to recover?” Mearrk’hal asked.
“She hasn’t recovered at all,” Loracaz told him, his tone grave. “For all the doctors and priests who have seen her, we still cannot understand what is wrong with her. She is weak and listless… she sleeps most of the day, and hardly eats. She scarcely talks to any of us. I’m worried that her hold on life is terribly weak…” He sighed, unable to go on.
Vincent gave his father a worried look. “If Arialla is not well enough to welcome us, would Z’Lé be able to force us to leave?”
Loracaz cut in before Mearrk’hal could say anything. “Speaking of my father, the last thing my mother wrote to you was how his appearance had changed. I should tell you now, before you see him, the day after the messenger left with that letter, Father returned to the castle looking different than how she had described him. It was like… when I was young. The scales, the horns, all that was gone. He looked younger, too.”
“And you don’t know why?” Mearrk’hal asked.
Loracaz shook his head. “It rattled her that everything she had told me about was gone. I still believe that she saw what she had described. It couldn’t have been a delusion. I twas like my father knew that he had to be more careful, though, because he was good to her for a while. She seemed exhausted, but he was kinder.”
He sigh before going on. “Then… Well, it couldn’t have lasted. No matter what she did for him, he lost his patience again. She never conceived the child that he wanted, and that made him angry. I heard him tell her that she must conceive by springtime, that there was no reason why she couldn’t.”
“I remember that her letter mentioned his demands for another child,” Mearrk’hal said. “Do you know any reason that could explain why he is so insistent?”
“Not even a guess,” the prince admitted. “Though I see no reason not to link it to his other entanglements with Métius and the black temple.”
“I hope that my brother shall join us all the sooner,” Vincent said. “If Z’Lé’s secrets involve magic and the gods as much as I suspect they do, he may be able to assist us in learning the truth.”
“What keeps him away?” Loracaz ask, hoping that he was not being intrusive.
“Sadness, I fear,” Vincent told him. “Or rather, a deep, bitter loneliness over which only time and new affections can prevail.”
“You express his broken heart so poetically,” the shaman commented.
Loracaz mulled over the words a moment before speaking a gain. “A lost love, is it?”
Vincent nodded. “I dare not say more. What’s important is that he is a sorcerer, and well trained in his magic. He would have been glad to meet you today, good prince.”
“Would he be glad to meet me, as well?”
Startled, the three of them turns to the entrance to the room. There stood the young prince Zarrek, bandages wrapped around his left hand. He looked over the guests with feigned interest.
“So this is why you stayed in the temple last night.”
On the palace’s fourth floor, at the end of a long and wide hallway, the empress lay in her bed, tucked under layers after layer of wool and fur. Her eyes fluttered open, and she could feel her heart racing. Her belly churned in pain, clenching and pulling against itself, forcing her to cry out. Her body felt as though it had torn open, letting her life essence escape her, draining her of her strength and consciousness. Feeling empty, Arialla closed her eyes and gave in to her weakness.
In the stillness that followed, she felt the hand of the goddess touch her cheek. It was light and warm, and it reminded her of her mother’s touch.
“Do not lose hope, dear daughter,” a faint voice reassured her. “Your allies are not far from you. I have sent someone to check on you.”
“I am well enough,” the empress whimpered. “I just need… to rest.”
“How long have you rested already? Take heed, my child. You have not much longer to suffer.”
Arialla grasped at the fading warmth, begging for it to stay. But it was gone, and she found herself gasping for breath and unable to move, her body somehow distant, like a thing of the past.A few moments later, her door opened, and a maid came in.
“My liege?” the young lady said. “Will you take lunch now?”
Crossing the room, she set down her tray and sat beside the empress.
“You look so pale, Your Majesty…”
The girl tucked back the blankets to try to wake Arialla, but still she would not stir. Her fingers grazed her cheek, and she gasped.
“Dear empress, you are freezing cold!”
Fraught with worry, the maid rushed into the hall to summon the guards inside. They rushed to hear aid, their armor clanging in their haste. In her chamber, they tried to rouse Arialla, shaking her, but she made no response. One of them pulled the blankets away from her, and gaped at what he saw.
“Summon the priests! There is lot of blood here. Go!”
The maid nodded and dashed from the room. The guards stared at the body of the empress, her belly and legs soaked in a puddle of rich blood despite there being no obvious wounds.
Downstairs, the girl burst into the throne room. She called out to the herald, begging to know where the prince had gone, and was escorted further down the hall. She cast aside her manners and rushed into the room where Loracaz sat with his guests. Gasping, tears clouding her vision, she cried out, “My prince, your mother–”
“What has happened?” the prince asked, rising from his seat.
“I– I am not sure. She is getting worse! She is so cold, my prince.”
Zarrek’s eyes widened, and he looked between the maid and his brother. “Is Mother…?”
When the maid did not reply, but stared at him as she tried to catch her breath, Zarrek fled from the room. His shouts could be heard as he sped through the hall, ordering the guards to bring the emperor.