Chapter Nineteen In the Light of Spring
Vincent walked at Arialla’s side as they strolled through the hallway. It was the day after she had been allowed to return home from the temple, Liriel and Yanve having acknowledged that she’d regained enough of her strength. Her week of uninterrupted rest and care had done her a world of good, and the medicine she’d been given left her feeling as though she’d never been given Eavan’s herbal mixture. She might not have been so relieved to return to the palace had it not been for the presence of Mearrk’hal and his son.
The evening air was cool and thin, quiet but for the sound of his boots on the floor and the long dagger bouncing against his hip. From the way he sounded, he could have been a guard or imperial soldier. However, he lacked the armor, and had a handsome edge to his features that was too refined for a warrior. His feet fell naturally into lithe and agile steps, which the empress took to be the result of the great deal of dancing that bards were known for.
After a while, thinking of what bards did made her curious about Vincent.
“Yes, my lovely imperial empress?” He smiled at her, his voice cheerful and lively.
“You are from Mithkyn, yes?”
“That is my home, your majesty. ‘Tis not my origin, however, for I was born in the distant kingdom of Ayafir.”
Arialla nodded. “What did you do in Mithkyn, before you came here? Surely we’ve taken you from some vocation.”
“Fear not, dear empress,” the bard replied with a laugh. “I need the riches of performing far less than I desire to protect so noble a lady of legend as yourself.”
She was certain that she felt herself blush at such a remark. “Your words speak much too highly of me, kind bard. I fear that many now frown upon me for having chosen Z’Lé as my k’hurin.”
“On the contrary, beloved empress: my words cannot honor you enough! Yours is the bloodline of the legendary hero. I have no doubt that your kingdom shall overcome this defilement.”
His kind words made Arialla smile. “With Mearrk’hal here, and you as well, I can believe that. But never mind that for now; it troubles my heart to think about. You said that you were a performer?”
“Indeed!” he replied. “I sang, I danced– I even acted. It was a wonderful time!”
“You mean that you stopped?”
Vincent nodded. “Aye, for a time. I became a professor at the music school, among other things.”
This surprised the empress. The music schools across Manastaecies hired only the greatest musicians and singers as professors. Their classes were famed for excellence. “Your music must sound sweet indeed for you to have such a vocation, dear bard. I am honored to meet one so skilled as to become a professor at a music school– and in Mithkyn, no less!”
She knew that Mithkyn was the very heart of the continent’s music and magic schools, full of mystifying beauty and a culture of both love and intellect. Vincent, she gathered, ranked high among the realm’s bards.
“So many have said,” he replied, hoping that he would be able to remain humble. “I have had just over forty years of practice. I can play perhaps twenty instruments, and I have acted and sung on stage more times than I can recall.”
“There is so much more to learn about you than I had first thought, Vincent,” Arialla said. “Is your brother much the same?”
He reflected on her words before replying. “In his own way, perhaps. He’s had such heartache in recent years that he nearly gave up sorcery. He may be of help to you, milady, once he learns to overcome the shadows in his heart.”
They came to the end of the passageway and entered a wide chamber filled with familiar voices. She could hear Z’Lé at the other end, speaking in his usual angry tone. She and Vincent stopped to linger whilst he spoke to a black-clothed priest. Eventually, the priest, Stentran if Arialla could remember his name properly, walked across the hall. The emperor followed close behind.
“Commence without me, Arialla,” Z’Lé told her, his tone more like that of a commander than of a lover. “I must go to the temple.” He had said the words as a passing note, and would have walked on past them without another word, had he not noticed the bard beside her.
“Your imperial majesty.” Vincent bowed to Z’Lé, making sure to use elaborate and sweeping gestures in doing so. He glanced upwards, cautiously, noting the emperor’s long and sharp features were sharp and long. They seemed stronger than he had noted during their brief meeting in the Temple of Jenh, a little more like what Arialla had described in her letter.
“Who is he?” he demanded of her, the bard’s show of respect have done nothing to dissuade his temper.
“This is Vincent,” she replied as he rose. “He is a bard, come from Mithkyn to–.”
Z’Lé’s black brow furrowed with anger. “We need no bards here!”
Vincent winced and frowned at such biting words; he believed that any city in any realm could do well with numerous bards.
Arialla was forming her answer when Z’Lé spoke again. “Again you do only as you wish. No matter. Trifle with him if you must. I am leaving.”
The words left Arialla nearly speechless. “Leaving?”
Z’Lé turned his back to her, moving towards the entrance hall without another word.
“Leave him be,” Stentran told her, his voice a cold hiss that seemed out of place in the royal palace. “You have done enough by nearly dying in your zeal to resist him.”
“What are you saying?” the empress demanded of him. “He could have killed me with those herbs!”
Stentran’s crimson eyes stared coldly at her. “You are not without blame, princess.” His choice in terms stung her, just as he had intended. “I have not the time to argue about it.”
The priest was about to turn to leave when he noticed the knife at Vincent’s hip. “What use is a knife to a musician?”
“’Tis of little use, I admit, though it has proven its worth in many of my travels.” He fell into another elaborate, sweeping bow as a show of humility; he did not wish to appear as a threat to a dark priest. “Indeed, I should not like to need to defend myself with one of my instruments.” He smiled with all the innocence and playfulness of his class.
Stentran did not smile back. “His imperial majesty and I should not like to see it drawn in our presence.”
“And I should like to have no need to draw it, your eminence.”
Hearing those words, Stentran turned to follow his emperor out of the hall. He offered the bard only a warning stare as he passed.
“They are troubled men indeed,” Vincent said once they were gone. “The emperor especially.”
Arialla looked to him, very much interested in his opinion on the matter.
“He is a mine of emotion,” Vincent tried to explain. “He tries to hide it… or at least, he is hiding something more than we can tell. There is something about him that I cannot quite describe, dear empress. Despite all that he has done to you, and his questionable interest in Métius, there is something more.”
“But what…” she began, then shook her head.
“This misplaced trust in a dream of unity that you describe is only a clue as to what he has to hide.” Seeing the empress’s doubtful expression, he added, “The story always goes deeper, dear empress. A bard knows when there is more to tell.”
Vincent’s words were so eloquent and respectful, despite his desire to speak otherwise, that Arialla saw no reason to doubt him. He seemed to believe sincerely in his own words, as though Aamh herself had granted him the ability to sense the unseen. It sparked in her the hope that he would be able to do a lot to help Mearrk’hal uncover the truth about what Z’Lé was caught up in, and what else he intended to do.
In the cool air of the dawning spring, Emperor Z’Lé cursed under his breath. Stentran gave him a brief, disinterested glance as one of the dragoon squires brought a dragon for them. The emperor climbed up first, then let the priest ride behind him. As the dragon took the air, Z’Lé’s temper grew.
“Why not let me fly on my own?” he complained.
“So soon? You really aren’t ready for it,” Stentran replied in a slithering voice. “I doubt that it has happened already,” he added, both of them knowing what he was referring to even though he did not say it outright. “Besides, we cannot let all of Onsira see you like that.”
“Dath laria k’hetar, véganth loth varr.”
“Harsh words for a man who himself has disappointed the Dark One.”
“K’have lathan,” Z’Lé muttered.
“Passionate words indeed,” the priest told him. “That Old Draconic has caused you enough problems already. Do you really intend to continue using it?”
The emperor gave no further reply. When they landed in front of the temple, he ignored the priest and stormed inside; a cold rain was beginning to fall, and he had not the blood to withstand the cold anymore. Z’Lé rushed through the long hall, past the twisted columns, and up to the altar. Hearing his pounding footsteps, Dintave looked up from her reading and watched him approach.
“How good of you to come, Z’Lé.”
“Varr lakanth, Dintave. G’hrre–”
“Hold your anger,” Dintave ordered him. “You may hate your guests, but you cannot speak to me like that. Mearrk’hal nearly kept you from winning your one reason for leaving the mountains all those years ago, but she did choose you in the end. He only came back here because of your lapse in care.”
Some might have found it curious that Z’Lé still considered the aging shaman his rival, but that he did all the same. He had too many sources of stress to let go of that past. He was becoming hated for his imperial dreams and invasions, and many demands for him to stop, the dark priests and necromancers were pushing him towards their own goals.
All he had ever wanted was Arialla, and the power that came with being her k’hurin, but he found himself surrounded by requests and demands. Was she not the reason he had made the agreement with Métius so many years ago? He could not even love Arialla the way he once had, so great were the demands that he have another child. He assumed that this request for his presence was related to that.
“The high priest brought you for one last meeting before you leave Onsira to brood,” Dintave added.
Stentran stepped up beside the emperor. The altar it had been prepared for the rite that opened the secret door behind it, missing only its key: the blood sacrifice. He took Z’Lé’s arm in one hand, unusually strong for a priest, wrapped it tightly around the emperor’s wrist, and twisted it as he reached for the dagger and his waist.
“As you have failed thus far to complete your pact, it is your blood that we shall here spill.”
Z’Lé struggled to pull back his arm, but succeeded only in worsening the gash that Stentran cut into his forearm. The high priest let the thick blood drip onto the bone offering plate, watching it flow down along its cracks like rivers, then released him. It hissed as though touching the Demon Lord himself, and the priest drove his knife into the bone plate. The door behind the altar ground open, spilling forth shadows darker than those in the main chamber of the temple. Stentran left the emperor to dress his wound with his own sleeve.
The hidden chamber was lit by a small, solitary fire that burned on a pool of scented oil in one of the sconces. It did little more than outline the shapes of Dintave and Stentran as they ushered the emperor inside. As the door was grinding closed, Z’Lé became aware that someone else was present in the room: a woman whom he only ever saw within that chamber. She was skilled in even the most esoteric forms of necromancy, and could perform things that nobody else in the temple could. He had never learned her rank in the temple, but imagined that it was considerably high, because it was she who performed his ritual, and she seemed to have no other duties.
“His majesty saw fit to visit us once more?” she asked in her usual irreverent tone.
“Do not mock your emperor, Eavan,” Z’Lé warned her.
Stentran pushed him into a seat, then took his own beside Dintave. Something had changed in that hidden room every time Z’Lé entered it; before that day, there had not been chairs.
“You have to answer but one question for us, Z’Lé. It the last time that we shall ask it.” Eavan held his gaze, not letting him look away, such was the darkness in her eyes. “Does Arialla carry your third child?”
The silence of his hesitation was answer enough for Eavan. She stood, pointing an accusing, damning finger at the emperor. “Z’Lé Spyrytte, as you still have not fulfilled your pact with the Dark Lord of the Abyss, you shall be cut off from all aid that he once granted you. Your spell shall fade, your army shall dwindle, and you shall lose all that you have gained since forming the agreement.”
Z’Lé stared stupefied into the darkness of the Eavan’s cowl. He could make out no visage in such darkness.
“I have foreseen the very fate that you most dread, Z’Lé,” Eavan told him, her tone grave. “The divinations have worsened hourly since dawn. Even if Arialla conceived your child tonight, there would be no hope for you.”
She noted his look of rage and disbelief. “You have no right to serve us your anger. After all, Z’Lé, there are rumors that she was taking her own herbs to prevent your child from taking root. You should have been keeping a more watchful eye on her.”
“She nearly died of them both,” he reminded her. “I could have lost her because of your demands!”
“A sacrifice fit for Métius, then,” Eavan hissed back. “I daresay– you truly are in love with her, aren’t you? She is a curse upon your heart if you would take on a promise that you could not fulfill just so you have her in your arms.”
“You have soiled your hands so badly that she will not go near you now.” Stentran told the emperor, his tone was mocking, even threatening. “Métius shall watch as your empire slowly falls. He shall take it for himself, even if it means destroying it. From this point on, so long as you live, you shall suffer. All you can do now is submit to our master, Lord of the Abyss, or fight against him as you lose everything.”
Z’Lé narrowed his eyes, refusing to simply accept what he was being told. “Even if Loracaz protects it?”
Eavan laughed, her voice sharp and trilling and evil. Her eyes lighted upon him like ice. “Since when do you believe such stories, Z’Lé? We shall entertain no more of your incompetence. Even Zarrek, a mere child, serves us better than you ever have. Get out of my temple!”
The door opened again. Eavan got up from her seat and took Z’Lé by his wounded arm to escort him out of the chamber. He struggling to resist her, nearly stumbling through the hall as he begged for another chance. Ignoring his plea, she led him past the columns, all the way to the towering doors, where she shoved him outside, onto the ground.
“There are no further chances for you,” Eavan hissed at him. She stayed in the shadows of the temple, daring not venture into the daylight even though it was fading into dusk. “Métius has forsaken you. Crawl back to Arialla and Jenh, if either will accept you when they see you for what you really are.”
Thusly finished with serving Z’Lé his punishment and ensuring that he understood Métius’s decision, she turned away from the emperor and slammed shut the doors to the temple.
Z’Lé Spyrytte, feared and reviled by his life-mate, hated by the realms he’d sought to conquer, was left alone and bleeding at the doorstep of the god who represented all that was evil and suffering, but whom he had dared to serve in exchange for his deepest desire.
After a few moments, Z’Lé began to realize all that he would lose, and just how Métius would take it from him slowly, tempting him to believe that he might have a chance at keeping it. In the end, he knew that he’d already lost what he longed for most of all. And for that, the mighty emperor stood in the bitter rain wept into the wind as it swept across the black scales of his face.