Chapter Forty-Two The Call of Fate
Inside the Temple of Jenh, Loracaz laid beside his beloved, grinning through the light-headed feeling that he’d gotten from making love to her once again. He caressed her shoulders absent-mindedly, feeling completely content. Alas, his joy was not to last for long; a loud knocking on Liriel’s chamber doors startled them both.
“My lady priestess,” Yanve’s voice called from the other side of the door. “Are you yet awake?”
Wide-eyed, Liriel looked up at her prince. He rolled out of the bed as quickly as he could and began searching for his clothes. Liriel reached for her robe and slipped it on as she slid off the soft mattress and set her feet on the floor. Loracaz was still fidgeting with his belt when she grasped the handle of the door, waited a moment to make sure he’d finished with that and found his shirt, then opened the door to the hallway.
Yanve stood there with Mearrk’hal, as well at the bard and the sorcerer, his Rrandah beside him.
“Good morning,” Liriel greeted them, staring curiously at the rather unexpected gathering in the hall.
“Good morning indeed,” the old shaman replied. “Her Royal Majesty has sent word that she wishes for her son to return home right away.”
Liriel turned to look behind her, where Loracaz stood buttoning his shirt. “Your mother has sent for you, my love,” she said in a soft, calm voice.
Loracaz was not nearly as serene as the high priestess was acting. He’d hoped that she would delay the others, perhaps even let them believe that he’d slept in another room and have them wait in the study for him to come by. As soon as that crossed his mind, however, he remembered that she couldn’t deceive them in the least. Besides that, she’d lain with him with the conviction that Jenh had blessed their love already.
He turned around and his eyes shot up, looking at each of the men waiting in the temple hallway. He realized that they would notice, that they would easily guess at what he’d been doing undressed in the chambers of the high priestess, his promised future princess. Yanve stared back at him, too appalled to say anything.
Shu-Giri was the only one grinning. “So it;s true that you’ve chosen the High Priestess of Jenh to be your k’haarana. Congratulations, dear prince; she is lovely indeed.”
“Oh no…” Vénes breathed, looking down and shaking his head pitifully.
“What is it?” Shu-Giri asked him, his smile fading at the sight of his sorcerer’s reaction to the scene before them.
Sighing, Vénes replied, “You’d be the last one to understand it. Loracaz is the prince, Shu-Giri. He was supposed to wait until after the Kuetzarrin ceremony to share her bed– especially with her being the high priestess. The royal family are some of the very few people expected to follow tradition and protocol in this matter.”
It took the Jzamneh elf a moment to accept that explanation, but then he, too, began to look disappointed.
“My dear Liriel,” Yanve began, concern filling his voice, “if only you’d asked for Jenh’s blessing…” He stopped himself from saying more, wanting to speak to her in private.
“What can happen if he lays with her before the ceremony?” Shu-Giri whispered to his lover so that the others could not hear.
“Things could go very wrong,” Vénes whispered back. “The original hero was just as young as our prince is now, and he’d yet to take a lover. There are scholars who debate whether his chastity played a role in his ability to rescue the goddess.”
“Surely that couldn’t have mattered to Jenh”
Vénes shrugged and whispered, “I remind you that she didn’t trap herself.”
Shu-Giri thought that over, then nodded.
While they were talking, Prince Loracaz II had gathered his things together and was lacing up his boots so that he could leave for the palace. Yanve was speaking to him in hushed tones, and the prince only nodded in reply to each thing he was told. When his boots were tied and he stood up straight, he whispered to the high priest, who had a mournful look on his face. Still, he gave the prince his blessing and good wishes, and headed back to the doorway.
“I will wait for you in the study,” Yanve said to Liriel before leaving the room and walking down the hall.
Shu-Giri watched him go, feeling the tension that now occupied the minds of his allies.
“Will you come to the palace this afternoon?” Loracaz asked his beloved.
“I’m not certain,” she admitted after a moment of thought, saddened by the sudden air of disappointment with which the others had reacted. “I shall probably be needed here, to lead the people in prayer and protect them and best we can.”
“Very well,” Loracaz replied, his throat dry; the others could tell that he was bothered. “Then I leave you with this…”
His arms wrapped around her tightly, pulling her body close against his. He laid a kiss upon her forehead and gazed into her crystalline eyes.
“Ransha’iirah, tiflor kentaya,” he whispered into her ear, ancient words for love and fondness.
High Priestess Liriel smiled faintly, trying to hold back a sniffle that betrayed the confusion she was now feeling. “Ra- rasha’iirah,” she breathed back.
Loracaz let go of her with great reluctance, took a deep breath, and grabbed his cape before storming into the hallway. Vincent and Mearrk’hal followed close behind him, but Vénes and his Rrandah stayed behind a moment to speak with Liriel.
“Are you all right, dear priestess?” Shu-Giri asked her, stepping trepidatiously into her room.
“I am, faithful elf,” Liriel replied with a nod. “I don’t regret what we’ve done.”
“If you consider that your hearts are already one, then there is nothing to regret,” he told her. “Whatever they say, propriety cannot supersede what is within you.”
His words made Liriel smile. “You have a kind spirit, Shu-Giri. I would like to get to know you better, when all of this is over. It’s rare that a Jzamneh elf comes to Onsira.”
“Delightful!” Shu-Giri told her with a grin. “I shall be here any time you call, kind priestess! Until then, remember that Jenh has never let us down before. She is a forgiving goddess, and we are, after all, mere mortal elves.”
Liriel thanked him, and he left the room with a bow to walk with Vénes out of the temple, where they joined the others in the wagon that was headed back to the palace.
Arialla sat in the throne room, alone but for Tamlin and Tikaj. Over two hours had passed since she’d sent for her son to be brought back home, and still she waited for him. It had been a long night for her, staying up late to stare at the city. Only sheer exhaustion had gotten her into bed, and she would not speak of the dreams she’d had; they confused her as much as they enticed her. She was comforted only by the hope that good news would come with the morning.
At long last, the herald announced the arrival of the royal prince. Arialla stood up expectantly, but before he could finish his announcement, Zarrek burst through the doors. He pulled open the clasp on his cloak and eyed his mother warily.
“Zarrek,” she breathed. “We didn’t expect to see you here.”
“I stand with my kingdom,” he replied. “Forget about anything that made you think otherwise.”
“What about the dark god you worship?” Arialla asked as she returned to her seat.
Zarrek grumbled and sat on his own princely throne, slouching down to brood for a moment. “I do not worship him,” the young prince insisted once he had calmed down a little. “While there are those who do, there are also some who find other ways to gain his favor and his power. I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Watch your tongue, Zarrek. I understand more than you think.”
Zarrek scoffed and looked away from his mother.
“The guards said that you went to the evil temple this morning.”
Shrugging, he told her, “Only to see if I could learn anything about what the Destroyer was planning to do. But they wouldn’t have me there, and nobody would answer my questions, so I know that they have no loyalty left for me.”
“He can never be relied on, can He?”
Zarrek disliked her tone, as though she were hinting that she’d warned him against the Temple of Métius before and was now pointing out that she’d been right all along, so he only scoffed again and stayed silent. Arialla was just as content to let him be.
By the time Prince Loracaz did arrive, the tension was as thick as the morning fog, and Zarrek wasn’t going to let his brother break it easily, especially not with the bard present. His father had warned him about Vincent, and the uneasy feeling he had about him being near the queen. Zarrek intended to honor his father’s wishes, and to make sure his mother did the same.
“Welcome home, my son,” Arialla said in her warmest tone as she stood up and crossed the room to embrace him.
Zarrek stared at them coldly, his eyes black and shadowy from the lack of sleep he’d had the night before. Arialla didn’t even bother to hide her obvious preference for her older son, the supposed hero of the land. Zarrek didn’t believe in the old legends and prophecies; they were no better than faerie tales as far as he was concerned; and faeries were a fickle and playful bunch, nobody to be relied on. Loracaz was hardly competent at anything, and Zarrek couldn’t understand what his mother saw in him that was so special.
Loracaz glanced to Mearrk’hal for a moment, then back to his mother. He pushed away any worry that the shaman would tell her what had happened, and forced himself to smile. “Why have you called me back so early? What’s going on?”
“The white mages have arrived,” his mother explained. “They’re prepared to defend the kingdom against the coming evil. They would like to meet you, my son.”
“Or course,” Loracaz told her, smiling more openly now. “That is a great relief, actually. Liriel and I were worried that they wouldn’t arrive before Métius made His move.”
“How is she today?”
“As lovely as usual, mother. She has faith in my ability to see us through this, and her belief is all I need.” Loracaz paused a moment, called up his courage, and took a deep breath. “When all of this is over… just as soon as the kingdom is safe again, we want to take the Kuetzarrin rites together.”
“That is good to hear! I’ve been waiting a long time for you to say just those words. Come, walk with me and you can tell me more about it.”
Arialla hooked her arm with her son’s, and together they headed towards to wide double doors of the the throne room. Behind them, Zarrek stood up and began to follow.
“Zarrek,” Arialla said, pausing to look back at him. “You should wait here while we visit with the white mages.”
“Why?” the younger prince asked, his voice bitter. “Am I no longer welcome in the ancient tower in the garden?”
“That isn’t the case,” Arialla replied with a sigh, “and you ought to know better.”
Before his mother could say anything more, Zarrek snapped, “The mages only want to see Loracaz? I am too evil to go into the tower? Tell me, mother!”
Arialla shook her head, looking to Loracaz. “He’s been angry like this ever since I returned to the palace without Z’Lé.”
“Because you did nothing to save him!” Zarrek cried bitterly, furious that she would speak to his brother and not to him directly. He was no longer willing to wait for her replies, let alone listen to them. “He wasn’t trying to harm you; if you refused to eat, or to go near him, that’s your own shameful stubbornness to face. You denied his love, you denied his heart– and why? Because he was born a dragon?” the young prince scoffed and cursed in Draconic. “He gave up everything he knew because he loves you, not because he wanted to let Métius into the kingdom!”
“Zarrek, stop speaking to your mother–”
“You have no right to speak to me, Mearrk’hal!” Zarrek screamed at the old shaman. “You shouldn’t even be here.”
Pausing to catch his breath, Zarrek wiped tears of fury from his eyes. “Your love could have saved him, Mother, had you honored him better. Métius and his followers may be full of lies and secrets, they may cause pain and decay and turn their backs on those in need whenever it suits them, but the one thing they will honor until the end of time of love. If you could have found your old affections for him somewhere in your heart, he wouldn’t have to suffer right now.”
“Love a dragon?” Arialla asked, incredulous.
“You’ve loved one for over twenty years! Do you still not understand it? If you’d found the will to love him still, your love would have transformed him.”
“True love’s power…” Vénes whispered to himself, clutching his Rrandah’s hand.
Arialla eyed her son warily. “And what of the harm that he’s done to our kingdom?”
“What of me, mother?!” Zarrek called back, losing control of himself. “You conceived me through your love for him. You gave birth to me. Am I no longer worthy of your love? Think carefully, mother, because whatever you say about me, you say of Loracaz too!”
Zarrek didn’t wait for her answer. He stormed past everyone, shoving Vincent out of his way as he passed him and cursing about bards and music. The young prince rushed down the hall and down the stairs that led out to the garden. Arialla watched him go, watched him burst through the doors and into the cool spring air.
Loracaz reassured his mother, then continued walking with her. “Let him go. If he’s in the tower and meets the white mages too, what harm can he do to them?”
“I would be more worried about where his loyalties lie,” Vincent commented as he and the other followed along. “Is he now going to help the followers of Métius?”
“Vincent,” Mearrk’hal said in a wary voice, “it’s not your place to ask that.”
“How is it not?” the bard replied. “We came here to protect Onsira, and we need to know what we’re facing.”
“It’s all right, Mearrk’hal,” Arialla said, her voice calm. “He has a point. Still, I don’t think Zarrek intends to help the evil threatening us. They wouldn’t speak to him at the temple this morning, and the very fact that he’s home with us should mean something.”
Vincent nodded, and together they walked out into the garden. Zarrek was already at the doors of the tower, but as much as he pulled on them, they would not open. He turned and glared at his mother.
“You know that the tower is protected,” she explained to him. “It won’t open to uncertain intentions.”
“You can’t fight this battle without me,” Zarrek insisted, his voice still cold and angry. “If you shut me out, you should shut out Loracaz too!”
Sir Tikaj shared a glance with Tamlin, wondering if he should step in and ask the empress whether he should escort Zarrek back to his room. Tamlin didn’t seem worried enough to pre-empt her, so ultimately they let the empress handle the child on her own.
Arialla laid a hand on her son’s shoulder. “If you come with us, then you’re helping protect Onsira.”
“Why would I not?” he asked her. “I already told you: I stand with my kingdom. Loracaz is not any good with a sword, and I never intended to hand this realm over to Métius. I want my birthright, not a life of servitude under the shadows.”
“Watch what you say,” Loracaz told his brother, his irritation showing. “My abilities will show when the hero’s legacy comes forth in battle. You have yet to see any of it.”
Zarrek shrugged. “Jenh may as well have given me the power. At least I wouldn’t rely–”
“Enough!” Arialla told her sons. “I willn’t listen to you argue while danger encroaches upon us. Hold your tongues, both of you.”
Loracaz nodded, but Zarrek made no show of whether or not he understood or intended to cooperate. Satisfied that her sons would behave, Arialla stepped towards the tower doors and reached for the handles. The magic surrounding the tower reacted in waves of golden-green light like a drop of water disturbing the stillness of a midnight lake, and the doors slid open slowly.
“Come on in…” Arialla told the others, though they could all hear the uncertainty in her voice.