Chapter Twenty-Six The Way of the Sorcerer
With all preparations made, Shu-Giri set off with Vénes the next morning. They glided through the springtime air aback the Jzamneh dragons, which were smaller and more vibrant in color than dragons from other part of the continent. They flew side by side, Shu-Giri checking their heading now and again as the land sped by below. They landed for lunch, and again for dinner, which they took near dusk at a tavern in the hills of Rrévihn.
They set off again early in the morning, eager to cross the mountains and descend upon Onsira’s capital. The Jzamneh dragons sped through the skies with their fae-like wings, sensing the urgency of their journey, and Jzifélan came into sight just as Ser had begun to descend from the sky. Above them, a larger beast crossed the sky. Shu-Giri glanced up to find a body of bright, shimmering yellow and verdant green. The smaller dragons called out to him as they rounded the palace below. Jza called back to them. On the palace’s dragoon roost, the guards had been roused from their quiet watch by Jza’s call. One of the dragoons took note of the dragons’ colors and blew a horn to announce the arrival of visitors. This sent a herald inside with the news, whilst several other dragoons hurried up to the platform to welcome them.
“Welcome to Onsira,” the first dragoon told them, grinning at the sight of the Jzamneh dragons. She helped steady Shu-Giri’s dragon as she said, “I am Tamlin Greenhelm, knight and dragoon in her Imperial Majesty’s service.”
“Well met, Sir Tamlin. It’s good to be here at last!” Shu-Giri announced. He descended from the dragon’s back and made haste to help Vénes down next.
Tamlin assigned the other dragoons to taking the dragons to roost, assuring Shu-Giri that they would have fresh water and food. She also noted, in a softer voice, that they would be safe at the palace, what with the more aggressive dragons being away with the army. As they spoke. Vénes gazed at the palace around him, admiring the fine white stones that made up the courtyard and great hall alike. Golden minarets topped the higher towers of the palace, glittering in the fading daylight.
“You have been expected,” Tamlin told them. She wore scale armor in a shade of green reminiscent of Jza, the edges limned in gold, much of which looked time-worn and battle scarred. On her matching helmet, emerald triangles sat above each brow. “It’s good to see that you’ve arrived safely.”
“Your welcome is most gracious,” Shu-Giri replied with a wide grin.
“Please, come with me,” Tamlin said as she led them into the palace. “Her Highness has insisted that she meet with you as soon as you arrive.”
She hurried them down a spiral staircase, through a long hallway, down and down again until they reached the throne room. When the guards opened the doors for her, Tamlin Greenhelm gestured for them to enter along with her. She strode towards the throne, where her empress rested alongside her son, and knelt before her.
“My great empress, I have brought you the visitors you have called for.”
Arialla smiled, although her face looked tired, and her demeanor melancholy. “My thanks, Sir Tamlin. Rise and stand beside me, my knight.” As she complied, the empress turned her eyes towards her new visitors. “I am grateful to both for coming so quickly.”
Before she could say more to them, excited voices broke into the hall.
“Vénes! You’ve come at last!” Vincent rushed in and all but leapt into him brother’s arms. After embracing him tightly, he stood back to look the man over. Mearrk’hal followed him in, his demeanor much more docile, and nodded to the empress.
“You’ve changed, brother,” the bard noted. “What happened to you? Is it a new spell?”
“Not quite, son,” Mearrk’hal answered in the sorcerer’s stead. Then he turned to Arialla. “Dear Empress, I present to you my son, the sorcerer Vénes, and his–”
“I am his Rrandah, Shu-Giri Shentaren,” the colorful elf announced proudly, “chieftain and great treasure-hunter of Jzamneh!” He bowed gracefully, then rose to grin at everyone in the room.
“You are welcome here, Chieftain of Jzamneh,” the empress told him. She smiled to her prince, who agreed.
“Your allegiance is well-noted, Shu-Giri,” Loracaz told him. “I appreciate your tribe’s devotion to Jenh.”
Shu-Giri nodded and began, “I hope that our arrival is not–”
“You really–” Vincent interrupted, “You really did it, Vénes?”
The sorcerer glared at his brother for his impropriety, but found it difficult to stay angry at him. “I will explain it later,” he assured the bard, keeping his voice low. “For now, shall we not turn our attention to the empress?”
“I invite you to treat my home as your own, gentlemen.” The empress spoke softly, her voice calm but also tired. “You have my leave to explore the palace as you wish. Dinner shall be served soon, should you hunger. Until then, please allow us to make you comfortable here. Take the time to share your news with one another, my friends. I shall see you again after I have rested.”
“Many thanks, Your Imperial Majesty,” Vénes answered her.
Empress Arialla rose and walked past her visitors, Prince Loracaz and Sir Tamlin following her closely. With royal party departed, Mearrk’hal took Vénes by the shoulders, smiling proudly.
“I was hoping to see you let him into your heart, my son, but I never expected Shu-Giri to become your Rrandah. He really has been good for you!”
Vincent reached out to touch the sigil on his brother’s cheek. It glowed faintly as his fingers passed over it, and Shu-Giri felt warmth in his own mark. “You really did it,” the bard said again, shaking his head. “You found out how grand it is to give your heart to someone.”
“And how good it is to have a heart given to me,” Vénes added.
Mearrk’hal exchanged knowing looks with his old Jzamneh friend. Then he led the group from the throne room, down the hall to a smaller room, where they could sit and talk more restfully.
“Has much changed?” Shu-Giri asked, wondering about the news since his friend’s letter.
“A bit,” Vincent answered. “To begin with, I hadn’t realized that the empress had a dragoon as a royal guard.”
“I thought that strange, myself,” Shu-Giri commented.
Mearrk’hal took on the explanation of this. “The dragoons are Z’Lé’s addition to the army. When Loracaz was a child, the emperor wanted to make the dragons a more important part of Onsira, so he did what many other kingdoms did and trained dragoons. He even assigned one to serve Empress Arialla directly. That was Sir Tikaj, but he was sent to the front when the empire began to expand, and Z’Lé neglected to assign her another. Now that the emperor is away, she has chosen Sir Tamlin to protect her.”
“It sounds like a long time to leave an empress without a guardian,” Shu-Giri noted.
Vincent scoffed. “He could have been protecting her from him,” he added bitterly. “I’m sure that having Arialla all to himself made it easy to make the choice to take away her knightly protector.”
Vénes took this information in quietly, nodding with understanding. “And you have yet to see the emperor?” he queried.
“He spoke with us but once,” Vincent told him, “and it was as he left the palace with the priest of Métius. He was angry…”
“With his empress?”
Vincent shook his head. “Not just her. He did not want to see me, nor Father, nor even the priest. He was in terrible spirits, and not all of it because we’d learned that he’d been giving the empress Gravium.”
“A fertility herb?” Vénes asked.
Vincent nodded. “Can you believe that he gave it to his own k’haarana in secret?” The bard scorned Z’Lé under his breath. “She almost died because of it.”
Vénes thought this over before responding. “Gravium is not deadly on its own.” He looked to his brother for further explanation.
“Empress Arialla explained her letter in more detail when we arrived. Z’Lé’s abuse of her was cruel, and he expected another child from her if he was to end it. She complied with him in part, but she was taking something to prevent conception in secret.”
“I see,” Vénes replied with a slow nod. “That would indeed be lethal. I am relieved to see that she is still with us.”
Vincent did not look as relieved as his brother. “She should have regained all of her strength by now, Vénes. There is something more going on.”
“The emperor has put her through a lot of suffering,” Vénes reminded him. “That kind of pain takes longer to heal.”
Sighing, the bard explained himself further. “There is something else wrong. I cannot explain it, but there is something.”
“We can find out what it is,” Shu-Giri chimed in. When Vénes looked his way, he went on, “Her astral form would reveal what has hold of her. With the two of us together, we should be able to see a great deal more than I could alone. It should be quite telling.”
“So it’s true that Rrandahs have power beyond those of a typical sorcerer!”
The treasure-hunter grinned at Vincent, nodding emphatically. “Would she agree to let us gaze at her astral form?”
“She may,” Mearrk’hal answered when the bard faltered.
“Let us ask her if we may do so tomorrow, then. For tonight I want her to rest.”
“Her Imperial Majesty consents to your request,” Sir Tamlin informed Shu-Giri over breakfast the next morning.
“I am glad to hear it,” he replied, smiling to the iron-clad knight.
Empress Arialla’s personal guard took a seat across from the sorcerer and his Rrandah, greeting Vincent and Mearrk’hal as well. Without her helmet, they could see that she had a full head of blonde hair, which she’d pulled back into a long, thick braid. She looked to be no more than a decade older than the empress, and had clearly been through a lifetime of training. Her emerald eyes shone as she engaged them in conversation.
“I’m eager to help her resolve her troubles, my good men,” Tamlin told them. “It would seem that they have multiplied ever since Tikaj was removed from her service. Arialla should never have lived to see suffering like this.”
Vincent nodded and added, “Woe to he who distresses so fair a lady, should he cross my path, and woe to those who halt me in my path to show him equal pain.”
This made Tamlin raise a brow and give the bard a sharp look.
“A line from the ballad of an old opera, dear knight.”
“Chose your words carefully, bard. You may act the hero in your plays and songs, but within these halls, you’ll need a wary mind and a strong arm to defend yourself. I know not when the emperor shall return, just as none know where he has gone. They say that you have yet to gain his favor.”
Vincent smiled warmly. “Well met, good sir. I meant only that I am with you in defending the empress– right to the glorious end!” He raised his cup to the knight.
Sighing, Tamlin shook her head. “You have played the hero in too many plays to believe that he always wins. Emperor Z’Lé has amassed a might that we cannot yet fully fathom, and it’s with his disappearance alone that his army has receded.”
“I have Aamh on my side,” the bard added. “And a great sorcerer with a Rrandah to equal his power. I should add, it was Vénes’s magic that subdued the forces invading Jzamneh Forest– and that was before Z’Lé left without an explanation.”
Having heard enough from vincent, Sir Tamlin turned to Mearrk’hal. “You were dearly trusted by Her Majesty’s parents, I recall. I hope that your faith in this bard is as well-placed as you once were in Arialla’s court.”
“I would not bring a bard of folly here,” the old Shyal’In elf assured her. “He has speed and skill enough to look after himself.”
“And the empress,” Vincent added, which brought him a glare from the dragoon.
Once breakfast was cleared away, Sir Tamlin escorted the palace’s visitors to Empress Arialla’s chambers. Prince Loracaz was there with is mother, having come to seek her advice on matters of the royal court. He nodded to them as they entered.
“I am told that you wish to view my mother’s astral crests. Will that truly help you to understand why she is still not well?”
“Some things, my prince, we cannot know without doing so,” Shu-Giri answered the prince. “And I should add that in all the times that I have used astral vision, or visited the plane, some good has come of it.” He shared a knowing smile with Vénes.
“Will my presence hinder you?”
“Not at all, Your Royal Highness.” Shu-Giri’s eyes hopped about the room, looking for a soft place on the floor. He noted a wide rug and several small pillows.
“This will be easiest on us all if you kneel somewhere comfortable, Your Majesty.” He gestured to the rug, and handed some pillows to the empress.
Once she was comfortable, Shu-Giri knelt before her, and Vénes beside him. He took the sorcerer’s hand as he began a slow chant that sent waves of dark colors down his arm and up the other’s. Blue and red lined Vénes’s forest-green eyes, then merged into a rich shade of purple, forming a sigil the matched Shu-Giri’s own.
“This is the astral vision,” the Jzamneh elf explained in an even tone. “It’s like viewing a shallow layer of the astral plane. What you shall see, Vénes, is not her astral form, but the crests that show who and what she truly is. She will be covered in symbols showing things that have happened to her, and the things that make her who she is.”
Vénes nodded, watching the empress quietly.
Shu-Giri stood up carefully, leading Vénes as well. “Focus your vision,” he whispered, slowly releasing the sorcerer’s fingers from his grip. “You can see as well as I can.”
Shu-Giri stepped towards the empress with a calm unlike the Jzamneh. He lightly touched her forehead, and the crest there glowed, a bright coat of arms etched in symbols both green and gold. “This is her identity. It is unique to her, and it shows who she is. Those linked to her will bear this crest on some other part of their body.”
“Here, on her heart, are smaller crests.” Shu-Giri explained the Zeah crest, the elvan, and the royal lineage. “Because she comes from Onsira’s royal line, Jenh gave her access to all the elements of Zeah, save those that Métius stole ages ago. For those who bear one element, I would know which was theirs.”
“And those who do not follow Jenh?”
“We could see that, as well. Here,” he pointed to her belly, “Are the womb crests. They show that she has borne two children, and the main aspect of their identity crests are shown on them.”
“It’s really that detailed?” Loracaz cut in. He could not see what they were seeing, but he heard the explanation well enough.
Shu-Giri nodded to the prince. “Far more so. There are many symbols that are not mine to explain. But this…” He gazed at the largest of her crests, on her chest opposite her heart. It seemed to be edged in string, and glowed a warm rosy color. Threads came of off it and wrapped around part of her body, then trailed off until they disappeared in the distance.
“What is that?” Vénes asked, curious about what this complex symbol might be.
“The Kuetzarrin crest,” Shu-Giri whispered. “The bonds of love, the linking of two beings. It goes deep, all the way to the astral.”
“Like our bond?”
“Rrandah, crystal hearts, magical pacts; they all run deep. But Kuetzarrin is the most solemn of all. We must go deeper, Vénes. Something is not right here.”
Loracaz was concerned by Shu-Giri’s words. “What–”
Mearrk’hal placed hand on the prince’s shoulder before he could ask more. “Trust them, your Highness. Shu-Giri knows the astral very well.”
Loracaz nodded as Shu-Giri sat back down on the pillows on the rug. He chanted another phrase, then he and Vénes both closed their eyes and fell silent.
For the sorcerer and his Rrandah, the room lost its color, and material objects lost their form. Before them sat the empress, glowing with verdant amber light, the colors swirling like water. Her crests faded as they sank deeper into the plane, only the Kuetzarrin insignia remaining. It glowed with its rosy color, the threads still fading into the black distance.
“Is it those strings?” Vénes asked.
Shu-Giri shook his head, half distracted. “Those should exist. If her k’hurin stood beside her, they would link to his own Kuetzarrin crest. The strange thing is…”
Vénes moved closer, trying to see what he was puzzled by.
“This is supposed to be her k’hurin’s identity crest. And he would bear hers. But.. this one is not quite clear, as though he were in some kind of distress. Not only that…” He sighed, then asked, “What is Z’Lé’s lineage supposed to be?”
Vénes thought for a moment. “He’s Elvan, Shu-Giri. Her majesty would not take a dragon, given Onsira’s troubled history. You should know that.”
“Pure elvan?” Shu-Giri asked, staring at the symbols. “Nothing mixed?”
Vénes shook his head. “I do not remember it ever being said that he was anything but elvan.”
Shu-Giri gave him a pained look. “His crest has nothing elvan in it, Vénes. Nothing fae, either. Even if his bloodline was mixed, it would show. But Z’Lé… he has not even a distant elvan relative. He is draconic, right to his core.”
The sorcerer looked puzzled. “How can that be? Perhaps something has altered his crest.”
“His identity is immutable. Nothing can change it; not even the gods. If something had changed in him, another crest would arise to show it. They are permanent, Vénes. Some break after a time, but they still remain. They are the history of one’s life, the story of who and what we are.”
“Then the emperor is not her true k’hurin?” Vénes queried, thoroughly baffled.
“Or else her k’hurin is Z’Lé, and he, in turn, is a dragon.”
Vénes thought this over for long minutes, considering all the implications of such a statement. Could Arialla truly have not known?
“The distress that you saw…”
“I cannot be certain,” Shu-Giri admitted. “His life may be in danger, or he may be going through some kind of trial. Whatever it is, his suffering is weighing on her.”
“Then, if she is weak, perhaps he is more so.”
“Not all explanations are so simple when you speak of the astral, dear sorcerer; never forget that. Should you come here alone, do not expect everything to be as it seems. The crests seem basic enough, but the realm goes so much deeper.”
Vénes nodded. “Of course, Shu-Giri. But for now, do these threads show where Z’Lé has gone?”
“They should. I cannot tell how distant he is from us, but I can try to gauge a general direction. Let us return.”
Shu-Giri and his sorcerer focused their minds upon their physical forms and returned their consciousnesses to them. Vénes opened his eyes and stood, looking to his father. His Rrandah proceeded more slowly, then pointed a finger behind the empress.
“Is this the southern wall of her chamber?”
“It is indeed,” Loracaz answered him.
“I thought as much. I believe that Empress Arialla’s k’hurin is somewhere south-west of here. How far, I cannot tell.”
“Then we should search the mountains,” Loracaz said, “and the border of Enhar and Rrévihn.”
“The south-west…” Arialla thought aloud. “Beyond those kingdoms lies Jzamneh Forest.”
“Indeed, your majesty,” Shu-Giri replied. “Though I doubt that he has gone there. Thiizav, perhaps, but not in his condition.”
“What did you see, exactly?” Mearrk’hal asked.
Shu-Giri watched as Vincent took the empress’s hand and helped her into a nearby armchair. Then he began to explain to her what he had learned. “Your k’hurin’s crest shows that he has a fully draconic heritage, your majesty. Having never met him, I have no explanation as to why.”
“Draconic?” Loracaz cut in, raising his voice. “My father is elvan.”
The treasure-hunter bit his lip, unsure of how to respond.
“Shu-Giri is the most skilled man I know at reading astral symbols,” Mearrk’hal explained to Loracaz. “It is a rare talent, my prince. If he has determined the crest to be draconic, then it is so.”
“Then what I saw was true,” Arialla breathed, her voice a faint whisper, her skin pale.
“Aside from that,” Shu-Giri went on, “all I know is that your k’hurin is the father of your boys, and that they should by all rights look like half-dragons, given their crests. They bear some stranger markings, which may be what accounts for the princes’ elvan forms.”
“Then my brother is no different,” Loracaz noted.
Shu-Giri gave him a solemn nod. “I regret to be the one to give you such news, sir. Until I see Z’Lé for myself, I can infer nothing else about him, save that he is in distress.”
Arialla’s gaze shot up when he said this. “What has happened to him?”
“That, too, is untold, but it is what keeps you so ill, your Majesty. The Kuetzarrin bond is meant to safeguard both lives that it has brought together, and to that end it gives one an inkling of what the other is experiencing. You were meant to seek him out and arrange his rescue.”
“How–” The empress caught herself, then asked instead, “Is he dying?”
“That may be,” Shu-Giri said, hating to have to share such painful news, “but for now he is alive. Should life leave his body, Empress, you will know. I hear that it comes as a great sorrow, an ache–”
“Enough,” Vincent interrupted. “How cruel that even his death would harm her.”
“You are overstepping again,” Mearrk’hal whispered to the bard as he grasped his shoulder. “Hold your tongue, whether or not you can hold your thoughts.”
Vincent stepped away from his father and took the empress’s hands. “We are here for you, your majesty. Whatever Z’Lé has done, we shall protect you.”
“As relieved as I was when he left… I fear that I must ask you to find him.” Arialla’s voice trembled as she spoke, and she could not lift her eyes to meet Vincent’s. “He weighs heavy on my heart, but I fear that only he can explain what we need to know to bring relief to us all.”
The bard sighed, saddened to see her clinging to thoughts of her harsh k’hurin. He drew in a breath and told her, “As you wish, it shall be done. We shall find him, sweet empress.”
Hearing his words, Arialla lifted her head and laid a hand on Vincent’s cheek. “Thank you, kind bard. I daresay, it is good to have you here with us.”
And she smiled faintly.