Chapter Twenty-Seven Mighty is the Emperor
High in the Dragonridge Mountains, a great beast stirred in his cave. He groaned as he shifted the black mass of his body. His bones ached and his scales stank of old blood, and his heart burned. Outside, the fire had dwindled and was now hardly more than smoke. The dragon stared at it through golden eyes, cursing the cold. He folded his wings neatly at his back, then pushed his weight off the crude bed of leaves and grass that had been made for him. The effort was a burden still, but he’d regained enough strength to accomplish the task.
Z’Lé crept past the edge of the cave, turning his horned head to search for anyone else. He was alone; Elezar and Zarrek had gone off while he slept. Pulling the last of the meat from the spit above the fire, he peered up through the trees. Ser’s position told him that it was already late afternoon. If the two had gone off to find food or herbs, their return should not be long off.
Finishing the small meal left behind, Z’Lé crawled up the rocks to the top of the cave entrance and lifted his head above the trees. He took several breaths of cold air, then released a mighty growl into the skies. It echoed down the slopes and across the peaks, and sent several flocks of birds flying. From further up the mountains, the shadows of two dragons descended. Their bodies of dark blue scales glided down to the entrance of the cave, where they landed, looking up at Z’Lé.
“It’s good to see you awake and moving about, Father,” one of them said, watching him with the same golden eyes that Z’Lé had.
“So you really were here, Velik.”
“Yes, Darrithi– Father.”
Z’Lé turned to the other dragon, whose eyes shone with a blue both pale and bright. “Did you tell Zarrek who you are, Gashar?” His voice was stern, the Draconic words cold.
“Of course not,” Gashar replied. “We have enough sense to let to you be the one to tell him, Father. Although it is too bad; he is our half-brother, after all.”
The black dragon frowned at the younger ones.
“We only came to help,” Velik insisted.
“We heard all of what happened,” his brother added. “Métius did not expect you to survive the reversion.”
“Do not be naïve, son. He may have only hoped that I would survive, just to worsen my suffering. What does it matter? The demon lord has separated me from Arialla.”
The blue dragons looked to one another, unsure of what to say to their father. They decided to wait until the others returned to say much more.
It wasn’t until dusk that Dettri did at last glide towards the cave where Z’Lé had lain for the past few weeks. By then, the transformed emperor had already found a lake by a waterfall in which to bathe himself, and the younger ones had cleared away the crushed plants that had been his bed and revived the fire.
When Dettri landed, Zarrek leapt from his back, shocked to see the cave empty. “What happened?” he cried to Velik, rushing into the cave to see if perhaps his father had gone deeper inside.
“He’s awake,” the dragon answered him. “He went down to the waterfall to wash off the blood and stink. Gashar is with him.”
“He is strong enough for that?”
Zarrek gave Velik no time to explain anything more before rushing down the winding path to the cold falls. Elezar remained behind to pull the saddle and pack from Dettri’s back. On the shore of the lake, Z’Lé crouched, his back to the pathway. Gashar lay on a rock further up, basking in the remains of the daylight.
“Father!” Zarrek called out, running towards him. He stopped, seeing that his father was chewing on the remains of some forest creature that had been caught for him. “Darrithi,” he said in Draconic, “I was worried when I didn’t see you back at the cave.
Z’Lé set aside his meal and rose to greet his son. “Finally you have returned.”
The young prince smiled up at his father. “It’s good to see you out of bed, father.”
“At last I am stronger, son. What have you brought back from your long time away?”
“Elezar has news from the city.”
“Good. Then let us hear it from him.”
Z’Lé roused Gashar, and the three walked back up the hill to sit around the fire. Elezar was already preparing the bloodberries for his master, and had laid out several small creatures that he intended to roast for dinner. He bowed to Z’Lé and went on to finish the medicine.
“That mixture you’ve been making has worked well, Elezar,” Z’Lé commended him. “I feel my strength returning now that the transformation is complete.”
“Thank your son and these dragons for knowing what would help you,” the general replied. “Every drop of elvan blood flowed out of you, and I had no way of restoring it. You could very well have bled to death.”
Z’Lé nodded, then changed the subject. “What news have you?”
“The empress has formed an official search party for you, my liege. When you disappeared, some of the dragoons set off to find you, but quickly gave up. The empress did not seem to care what became of you until her new visitors arrived.”
“Who are they?” the emperor growled.
“A sorcerer, this time. I hear that he is from Mithkyn, but he has the look of a desert elf. And his Rrandah is from Jzamneh Forest.”
Z’Lé narrowed his eyes, growling deeply is frustration. “A sorcerer with a Rrandah is doubly powerful. Where does Arialla find such people?”
General Elezar looked to Zarrek, both knowing that the emperor’s rage was growing.
“It seems that Mearrk’hal brought them along with him, milord.”
“Like he brought that bard?”
“Yes, sire. Except that their arrival was delayed.”
Z’Lé thought quietly for a moment. “A Jzamneh elf, is it? I suppose their meddling is what halted our advance into the forest. What is the bard up to in my palace?”
“Your majesty, he has been looking after Arialla, alongside her newly-chosen honor guard.”
“Honor guard?” Z’Lé asked. “It seems that she is quite discontent without Sir Tikaj. Whom did she choose, Elezar?”
“Sir Tamlin Greenhelm,” the general replied, uncertain whether or not to expect his liege’s rage.
Z’Lé let out a huff. “Her family has served Arialla’s for many a generation. I might have been worried about such a choice, had I not so many other things on my mind. Is Arialla really consorting with him? The bard that Mearrk’hal raised?”
When Elezar nodded, the emperor snarled, but went on. “What of Tikaj’s men?”
“Defeated to very nearly the last man, I fear, your majesty. He he been sent to patrol the imperial borders for now. ”
Zarrek watched as his father sighed, and waited for several minutes for him to say anything more.
“Does anyone know what has become of me?”
“I don’t believe so, sire, outside of believing that you still live,” Elezar replied. “If they know anything more, then they have not spoken of it.”
“What of the Spring Council?” the young prince asked, suddenly remembering the event.
“Your brother is taking care of matters related to the council,” Elezar told him. “The city is busy with ambassadors and traders. Several messengers have been sent out across the land, or have arrived from other kingdoms. With the empress still ill, everyone is asking whether Loracaz plans to preside over the council this year.”
“What of my empire?” Z’Lé queried.
Elezar thought over what to say, then explained, “We have made no new advances, but we have not rescinded any land, either. Enhar, Rrévihn, and K’hithvahn have all sent large delegations, perhaps in hopes of making negotiations to restore the borders of the kingdoms.”
“And Arialla seeks me out? It is usually she and I both who preside over the council. You could not learn what she wants of me?”
The general shook his head. “She has been very private ever since she fell ill, your majesty. Whoever is left of the imperial army, she has ordered to break camp and look for you. I have overridden her–”
“What do you mean, ‘whoever is left?’” the emperor snapped.
“Sire, when you left Onsira, your armies began to dwindle. Some of the soldiers were captives from other lands, and they returned home once they saw the opportunity. Others have simply disappeared.”
Z’Lé took a deep breath. “Those sent by Métius,” he grumbled.
It was no secret to Elezar that Z’Lé had been given the aide of a darker force by the Destroyer. The demon-like soldiers had nearly doubled the size of the imperial forces, and could take a new material form if they were killed and sent back to the underworld. They were the same force that had been aiding the attack on Jzamneh. As Vénes had discovered, Kearr’s pure magic was the only thing that could nullify them. Up until the sorcerer had come to Onsira, that part of the continent had known few who worshiped Kearr who could also fight back.
“He is recalling his forces, I suspect,” Z’Lé’s voice rumbled.
“What should we do, sire?” Elezar asked his lord.
“When I have regained more strength,” Z’Lé answered, “I shall see to all of this. Until then…” He looked to the blue dragons and his elvan son.
“Yes, Father?” The boy stood, looking up at him hopefully.
“I take it these two have been of great help to you in your time here?”
“They have indeed. I’m grateful to them both in helping me assure your survival.”
“And they came to help you without telling you anything more than their names?” Z’Lé went on.
Zarrek nodded, the others looking on.
“There is a reason that Gashar and Velik came to help us, my son.” Z’Lé’s voice trembled as he began his explanation. “You know that I lived as a dragon in these mountains long before I saw your mother. Long before Arialla was born, I had a draconic mate.” Z’Lé noticed his son staring at him intently, and he pressed on. “I gave her two eggs, and the dragons that hatched from them are before you now.”
Zarrek furrowed his brow, incredulous. “You mean to say that–”
“Sire!” Elezar exclaimed.
“Ve–” Zarrek stuttered, “and Gashar are my– my brothers?”
“Half-brothers, my son.”
The young prince glared at his father for long minutes, an array of different thoughts flashing through his mind, unsure what was more important to give breath to first. “And you lived with Mother all those years without her knowing, separated from your first children?”
“I did, Zarrek,” the emperor replied with a slow nod. “They were more than old enough to care for themselves by that time.”
“Our mother left this world decades ago, Zarrek,” Velik assured him.
“We didn’t mind that Father wanted a new mate, even though she was the elvan princess,” Gashar added. “All we worried about was the pact that Father made with Métius.”
“So–” Flustered, Zarrek sealed his lips and sat staring at the blue dragons. “Then you are older than we had believed,” the lad at last commented.
Z’Lé nodded. “So I am. Métius gave my elvan form a body younger than my draconic years.” He watched his son brood silently. “Are you now angry with me as well?”
“Father… You went through the rites of Kuetzarrin with her. As a child of that bond, I know how much you love her. I know how much you need her to love you in return. “
“And yet?” Z’Lé pressed him, knowing that the boy had more to say.
“Yet after all these lies…” Zarrek shook his head, unable to make sense of all his thoughts. “I know that she would have trouble accepting this.”
Sighing, Z’Lé lowered his head.
Zarrek stood up and walked over to his father. He laid a hand on his father’s head and gazed into his sorrowful eyes. It seemed as though he could feel his father’s pain, his desperation to be loved by the one woman whom he treasured so dearly. Zarrek’s young heart weighed as heavily as his father’s, and he wished desperately that he could make his mother understand how badly Z’Lé needed her love.
Plans for the Spring Council were not going as well as Loracaz had hoped. The prince was beginning to learn that his father had put a lot more into planning the event than he’d ever before realized. The delegates from the neighboring kingdoms, the very ones that his father had been invading, refused to tithe the council, and were making demands that the prince struggled to accommodate. While he understood that they had just cause to be angry, it was not the prince who had scorned them. He was beginning to wonder how his father had run the council since he’d begun his imperialistic endeavors, and hoped that his mother would soon have the strength to come to his aid.
The Spring Council was a formal event held by all the kingdoms of Manastaecies, who sent their ambassadors to Onsira, where the event had been hosted for centuries. Some representatives stayed for weeks, discussing all manner of affairs with those from other kingdoms, while others only visited briefly. It was not merely an event for Onsira to sort out its affairs, but for all kingdoms to meet with each other when they might not have been able to otherwise. It was meant to be a peaceful place at which warring kingdoms could arrange a truce without the presence of their offending rulers, and for distant lands to communicate and share their news.
A date was set aside for the Grand Forum, in which all lands present would meet at once to share their most important news and requests. Loracaz had found it difficult to settle on a date with so many entities submitting or demanding their own preferences, but he’d managed in the end. While that counted as one task completed, he still had many more to attend to, from welcoming and meeting with delegations, holding court, and planning out the agenda for the forum
“Ayafir’s queen has sent word that her delegation is on its way, my prince,” his herald told him one cool spring morning.
Prince Loracaz sat in the forum hall at the head of the curved table that served the heads of the kingdoms. His scribe and herald sat beside him, assisting him in his work. His mother sat further down, Tamlin Greenhelmj behind her as she sipped her tea. Also present were Mearrk’hal and his sons, as well as Shu-Giri and a few other ambassadors who had taken the time to attend the planning session. Ser’s light shone in through the stained glass windows, brightening the high walls of the great hall.
“Very good,” the prince replied. “I was worried that she would have kept them at home this year, considering that she is in mourning.”
“This is why the Spring Council is for ambassadors,” his mother explained.
Loracaz nodded to her, then asked the herald, “Have we satisfied K’hithvahn yet?”
“The ambassador is frustrated, your highness. He wants to know what will become of the empire, and at the same time Her Imperial Majesty has requested his help.” The herald looked to Mearrk’hal. “Amaten took your message to the king, and was sent here as a member of the delegation, but his ambassador is proving difficult.”
“I understand,” Loracaz sighed. “I will meet with him personally.”
“Enhar and Rrévihn are becoming more cooperative, but they are still on guard.”
“Thank you, herald,” the prince told him. “Now for those present here. Ambassador of Mithkyn?”
The representative stood, and the herald introduced her. “The honorable Lady Lycora, Your Highness.”
She smiled to the prince, lowered the gaze of her long eyes, and made a gracious curtsy. “Thank you for your hospitality at this council, kind prince. You have my congratulations on your coronation.”
“It’s good to have you here, Lady Lycora,” Loracaz replied. “I hope that all is well in Mithkyn.”
“Oh, indeed and of course,” she answered in a sweet voice as she sat down. “I see that you have one of our bards here.”
Loracaz glanced to Vincent for a moment. “Is he so famous?”
“A man of his talent is of course well known in our land. Have you yet to hear him sing, your highness?”
“The prince is far too busy for opera, I fear,” Vincent answered for him, feigning sadness.
“A shame,” Lycora said. “Aamh has given him quite a gift.”
“Then, at milady’s suggestion, I hope to one day hear his voice in song,” the prince rejoined. Then to Lady Lycora, “Have you any needs for the Council or Forum?”
“All is well, dear prince. We eagerly await the date of the forum.”
“I am grateful to you then, Lady Lycora. Who else is here, herald?”
The royal herald announced the ambassadors of two other kingdoms, who were also quite pleasant. Then he said, “Thiizav’s ambassador is due to arrive tomorrow morning, your highness.”
“I understand,” Loracaz replied, looking over a map of the continent. “What of the Great Desert?”
The herald raised a brow. “Jzienfiarm, sire?”
“The very same.”
“Jzienfiarm is not in the habit of attending the Spring Council, your highness.”
“We have delegates here from as far as the Isles of the Wise. Why would Jzienfiarm not send even one man?”
“They are a private people,” Vénes answered in the herald’s stead. The prince turned to him.
“You are from there, are you not?”
The sorcerer shook his head. “My father was, but I wasn’t born on the sands. They are secluded and secretive, and even I have not been allowed in that vast desert.”
“Have we at least requested their presence?” the prince asked his scribe.
“Every year, sire.”
“Perhaps we can ask them again. If they knew the urgency of this year’s council, they might be persuaded to come,” the prince thought aloud. Then he looked over the map again. “Has Mékneh sent their representatives?”
“I fear that I must disappoint you again, sire. The forest realms do not do business at the Spring Council. Jzamneh Forest visits late in the spring to barter their goods, and Mékneh in the summer to trade their silk, but otherwise they keep to themselves.”
The prince looked over at Shu-Giri. The treasure hunter felt the prince’s eyes on him, and was compelled to speak. “We have enough work to do just managing the caravans passing through this time of year, Your Highness. I fear that Jzamneh has little to do at the council.”
“Won’t you come to the forum this year, chieftain?” Loracaz pleaded him. The other man blushed at the reminder of his station. “You did just recently prevent my father from invading your forest.”
Shu-Giri sighed. “I suppose I may as well. But remember that I am not chieftain for much longer. Our dear Liaphense has already taken over many of my duties to allow me to be here.”
“Of course,” Loracaz replied with a smile. “Now, how can we get Mékneh to send someone?”
“You cannot, unless your need is dire,” Mearrk’hal informed him in an even tone. “They will not come for the sake diplomacy alone.”
“Then I shall have to accept that. Is there any other business regarding the Council or the Forum?” Prince Loracaz asked those gathered in the hall. When all declined, he dismissed the gathering and excused himself to hurry on to other matters.
Shu-Giri followed Vénes out of the hall a few minutes later. “He really has embraced his new duties.”
The sorcerer nodded absently. “I suppose any new ruler would want a full assemblage.”
“You mean his insistence in having someone from Jzienfiarm?”
Vénes stopped in his tracks and stared at Shu-Giri. “I have often wondered what I would say if I met one of them. I never could settle on the right words.”
“Perhaps you could ask about your father.”
“I fear the worst.” Vénes’s gaze fell downward. “I hardly want to know the details.”
Shu-Giri could see that Vénes struggled with the idea, and took his hands. “Whatever choice you make, I am here to help you.”
Vénes pulled his hands away and hurried down the hall.
“Vénes!” Shu-Giri called to him, hurring to catch up to him.
“Shu-Giri–” the sorcerer started, exasperated. “Stop reminding me. Stop asking me about my people. I do not need to be reminded of–”
Vénes glared at his Rrandah.
“So that’s it,” Shu-Giri said, having suspected that his emotional state was due to memories of Lysander. “Did he have this very same conversation with you?”
Fuming, tears welling in his eyes, Vénes stormed off again. This time Shu-Giri let him go, determined to give him enough time to sort out his own thoughts.
“A difficult man, is he not?”
Shu-Giri turned around to find Vincent beside him, watching his brother walk away. “Even I have had a hard time pleasing him. It seemed that only Lysander had an easy time getting along with him, and I daresay that he has been worse ever since he lost him.”
“Was I right?” Shu-Giri asked him.
“That Lysander said the same things about his homeland?” Vincent asked. “Yes. Lysander had promised to help him find a way into Jzienfiarm, to be there with him when he learned more about his family. It’s one of the reasons he no longer wants to go there.”
“He cannot wish to only go with Lysander…”
“That’s not quite the case, my friend. Vénes would probably love to go with you. You have helped him start to accept his loss, but he still has more to do. Some of it he has to do on his own, but a lot of it will be accomplished with you at his side. Lysander was a big part of his life, so letting him go has to happen on many levels.”
Shu-Giri felt his heart ache. “I thought that I’d helped him so much more already.”
Vincent put a hand on his shoulder to reassure him. “You have. He used to have a much deeper pain, something inconsolable. But now… You have made it possible for him to overcome some of his pain.”
“Thank you.” Shu-Giri told the bard, trying to smile.
“Will you come with us to the Temple of Jenh? The empress is planning to go there soon.”
“Of course!” the treasure-hunter replied, this time truly grinning.