For the light to
triumph, there must be darkness...
Restoration by Carol Berg
...Aleksander was not dead. The tale of the streets, that the Emperor's murderer--what was left of him--hung in the marketplace, had frozen my heart. But it was a Frythian slave who had been found kneeling on the Emperor's vast bed, bathed in royal blood, and who now provided a vultures' feast in the heart of Zhagad.
Frythia was likely already in flames. Soon there would be nothing left of the dignified little mountain kingdom, no structure, no artifact, no animal, and certainly no human with any identifiable drop of Frythian blood. But all that was no matter to the people of Zhagad. Every man and woman of them was convinced that the slave but did Prince Aleksander's bidding. Certainly those who stood gaping at the grisly remnants of treachery had no doubts about whom to blame. …couldn't wait for the gods to crown him…I heard they argued…threats were made… Not enough his father let him rule…the Emperor was ready to revoke his anointing… I was beginning to think he'd come to manhood… No rumor of a kanavar, no supposition drifting through the streets that perhaps Aleksander was the target and not the arrow. The finest imperial torturers had succeeded in eliciting only one word from the assassin, so observers said. "Aleksander." After seven hours they'd had to stop, else there would have been too little of the Fryth left to do sufficient screaming when they disemboweled and dismembered him in the marketplace.
I needed to fly into the imperial palace of Zhagad. To enter the walled inner ring of the royal city, much less the palace, one needed a Derzhi sponsor, and I doubted Aleksander was available. Despite my dislike of the alien cravings and the feelings of vulnerability that accompanied it, bird form had its distinct uses. So I crammed myself into a deserted alcove, a stifling, nasty place at the end of a beggars' alley, and began. Settle yourself, fool, I thought. Find him, warn him, and get away before you kill him.
As always, I constructed the shape of my desire inside my head, summoned melydda from the deep center of my being, and tried to release my physical boundaries. The change should have happened easily…an effortless merging of my limbs and torso with the image in my mind, a chilly shudder as I gave off heat, the natural result of shifting to a smaller form, a momentary adjustment of the angles and sensitivity of vision and hearing, and a breathless rippling pleasure as I touched the truest nature of my race. Thus Blaise and Farrol and others like them experienced shapeshifting. So I had felt it once when Denas and I had taken wing in the storm-racked demon land of Kir'Vagonoth. But on that hot morning, I felt as though my bones were cracking, as if my eyes were being squeezed out of my head, as if my skin were being peeled away by a Derzhi torturer's knife. Three rats hurriedly buried themselves in the rotting refuse, as I sank to my knees in groaning misery and forced myself into the shape of a bird.
My silent demon lurked within me like the worm at the core of a ripe fruit.
The Imperial Palace was ominously quiet. Its graceful cloisters and cavernous halls should have been bustling with gold-clad chamberlains and leather-clad hunting parties, with legions of slaves and servants, with white-robed warriors newly arrived from the desert, with stewards and clerks, their shoulders hunched with the burdens of running an expansive empire, with weapons makers and tailors, musicians, gem merchants, and priests, and everywhere beautiful women dressed in silken gowns. But on that morning, as I fluttered through the latticed courtyards and shaded arbors, perching on balcony rails and roof tiles and chimney holes, listening at windows and doorways, I glimpsed only a few fearful slaves scouring footprints from the tile floors, every man and woman of them with bruises and bloody streaks on faces or shoulders. Nervous slavemasters have heavy hands.
Here and there in corners, small knots of courtiers huddled whispering, their verdict the same as in the streets. A slave could never have done such a deed alone. Someone had drawn off the Emperor's bodyguards and ever-present courtiers. Someone had left a dagger in the Emperor's bedroom where weapons were forbidden and had told the slave where to find it. Someone powerful had thought to profit from this death, and it was clear who looked to profit the most--the same one who had been summoned to answer charges of conspiracy not two days previous, the same one who had been the object of the Emperor's screaming rage when closeted with him before last evening's meal, the same who had refused to sit at his father's table a mere three hours before the deed was done.
The rustle of my wings quickly scattered the gossips. The falcon was the symbol of the Emperor's Denischkar house, and those who noted me cast their eyes nervously to the heavens beyond my wings, as if expecting Athos himself to follow and render judgment on the cowardly villain responsible for this most heinous of all crimes--regicide, the murder of the god's own voice on earth.
I found Aleksander in the Hall of Athos, a vast columned temple dedicated to the sun god, built in the heart of the palace gardens. The soaring dome was sheathed with gold inside and out, and pierced with slits and delicately etched windows so that on every moment of the sun's path, sunbeams fell like fine lacework upon the floor. The thick stone walls held the coolness of the night just past, and the high windows and broad doorways drew in whatever fair breeze wandered over the city. I settled in one of the slots in the gilded dome. Far below me spread a vast floor of shining white marble, inlaid with patterns of cool green malachite. On it lay two bodies, one draped in gold and one in red, both mortally still. As if Athos's own beams were insufficient to the day, the two were surrounded by a thousand burning lamps of gold and silver, some set upon the floor, some hung on the forest of columns that supported the dome and the arched vaults of the side temples, some dangling from lamp stands of wrought silver and bronze. Among the lamps were braziers, burning sweet herbs and incense, so that wafting gray-green smokes obscured the mingled light of morning and the flickering death flames. At the great arched doorways that opened onto the Emperor's gardens stood guards, their naked backs rigid and their spears crossed. The silence was absolute.
My falcon's heart racing, I shot downward toward the two still figures and took a closer view. Raptor's instinct told me that only one of the two was dead. Ivan zha Denischkar, the one in gold. He lay upon a golden bier, four rampant lions with amethyst eyes holding up the corners, and he was draped in cloth of spun gold, adorned by a falcon worked in silver thread. The long white braid that lay over his right shoulder was unadorned, and a finely crafted sword, well used and plain, lay lengthwise on his body, hilt upon his chest. His face was cold and still. No sign of death terror for this man, stabbed by a gelded bodyslave as he was prepared for bed.
Aleksander lay face down upon the stone floor, his long, lean form laid out square to his father's body. His arms were stretched to either side, the scarlet robe of mourning spread gracefully like the plumage of a fallen bird. His long red braid--the outward symbol of a Derzhi warrior's manhood--was gone, cut off, leaving just enough fiery red hair to touch the floor, like a shaggy curtain to protect his private grief.
I settled on the floor close beside the bier, behind a giant bronze statue of the sun god's horse. Shielded from view by the statue's massive base, I shifted back to human form. Again it took far too long, and I was near prostrate after. I was nauseated, sweating as if I'd run ten leagues in the desert. My senses were near drowned by the thickly scented smokes and perfumes after an hour with little sense of smell, and I felt as if someone had slapped on blinders and stuffed my ears with wool as I reverted to my own sight and hearing.
I leaned against the block of marble and waited, trying to shake off the unhealthy disturbance of my shifting. The Prince had not moved since my first glimpse of him. How did he mourn his cold and ruthless father? The father who had indulged his every boyish whim, and then given him to his harsh uncle to raise as a warrior. The father who had condemned his only son to die when Aleksander could not prove his innocence of that uncle's death, and who had yielded only one fierce embrace when at last the truth came out and the executioner's ax was stayed. The father who had been unable to face the rigors of ruling after so close a brush with disaster and laid the mantle of empire on a young man who scarcely knew himself. This day would be very hard for Aleksander, far beyond treachery and danger and duplicity. If they had parted in anger, as rumor had it, things would likely be worse.
"Time gives us no indulgence, my lord," I said at last, speaking softly from my hiding place. "And so I must intrude upon your grieving. I wish I had no need." His enemies were moving.
A long while passed before he answered, as if he had a very long way to come from wherever his thoughts had taken him. He did not shift a muscle, thus leaving his voice half muffled by the floor. "Have you a wish to die this day, Ezzarian?"
Despite the somber circumstance, I smiled. Whatever threat an observer might have noted in those words was belied by their history and the particular dry tone in which he voiced them. When I was a slave and the demon Khelid had afflicted Aleksander with an enchantment of sleeplessness, I had made a choice to venture the half-crazed Prince's presence to tell him of it. On that day he had spoken those words and meant them…and come very near fulfilling their mortal promise. Now they were a symbol of the gifts we had given each other.
"There seems to be a surfeit of death," I said. "That's why I've come."
"I cannot leave here before sunset." His quiet voice was slightly hoarse. It was almost midday, and he had likely taken up this vigil in the middle of the night. "It would do him dishonor."
"Then I'll wait until sunset. Though I've no cause to love the dead, for the sake of the living I would do him no dishonor."
"Oh gods, Seyonne,"--the quiet words ripped through the suffocating scents and smokes of death--"what cause have I to love the dead? And yet I would neither move from here nor have the hours pass, because the next thing will be his burning and nothing will be left of him." The Prince remained prostrate, as if bound to the cold stone.
I could say nothing to ease him. My own beloved father had been as different from Ivan zha Denischkar as lush, green Ezzaria was from the Azhaki desert; his death in the Derzhi war of conquest was still my own deepest sorrow. And so I could not guess how much of Aleksander's loss was love and how much was emptiness. Ivan had been ruler of all the known world for thirty-four years--a lion, a terror, a ferocious and intimidating warrior, the blazing, inescapable sun in Aleksander's sky.
Creeping darkness stirred within my head like a cat disturbed from afternoon sleep. No. No. No. Terrified that my murderous madness might explode so near the Prince, I called upon every mental discipline I knew to quell it. I had no time for madness. Kanavar had been spoken. Aleksander was going to die if we couldn't find some way to stop it. A man needed no prophet's gift to know.
The Prince did not speak again through all the long afternoon, and I would not do so until he gave me leave. Perhaps even enemies and mortal danger needed to wait on grief. But I stayed with him and watched his back. My duty…and my desire…was to protect him. It was an unnerving thought that his nearest danger was likely my own hand. I watched that, too.
When the last remnants of the daylight had faded, leaving only the pale circles of lamplight in the smoky haze, Aleksander stirred. He pushed himself up to his knees, mumbling a soft curse as he stretched his shoulders and neck that must have been as stiff as unoiled leather. Then he turned around, sat back against his father's bier and glanced over at me, running his fingers through his short hair, as near embarrassment as I had ever seen him, more naked without his warrior's braid than when he was unclothed.
Though my instincts were screaming at me to hurry, I waited for him to begin.
"You're here to warn me of the kanavar, aren't you?"
I felt a bit of a fool. "You know of it?"
"In the past three months, my five most trusted advisers have died, one from rotten meat, one from a septic wound, two in drunken falls, one at the hand of his wife who claimed to know nothing of the dagger in his throat even as she was hanged. During the same time, my three most reliable bodyguards have been discovered in intolerable disciplinary infractions--falling asleep on guard, dicing, thieving. All have been reassigned by their commanders. And the commanders themselves? Kasko has retired to his Capharna estates, suddenly deaf. Mersal has recently found a yearning to guard the frontiers instead of his prince. And when I summoned Mikael from Capharna, a man who would have considered himself blessed to lay down his life for me, he got himself dead in a paraivo. It seems he forgot his childhood lessons and set his tent in the dune path. When the storm came in the night, he was buried alive. Does it not seem a strange coincidence? The Hamraschi are so anxious to see me impotent, they make themselves ludicrous."
"But none of these deaths are provable as murder, and none can be linked to the Hamraschi." Derzhi were masters at such intrigues. Aleksander not least of all.
"They're clever enough. I'll give them that. They smirk when none but I can see it, while expressing concern to all that I am too whimsical and ruthless with those who dare disagree with me. To stand by me has become a death sentence."
"What of your wife, my lord?"
"Well out of the way. Once I understood their foul game, I took Baron Gematos' daughter to my bed and a slave girl or two--all of them quite willing, you'll be glad to know. You can well imagine how Lydia took to that. People thought the walls of Zhagad would fall at last. Then I put on my own display of temper. Three years wed with no heir…everyone was expecting it long ago." Someone would pay for forcing Aleksander into this. In only a few fatal instances had I heard his voice so soft and deadly. "I named my wife barren in front of half the nobility of Zhagad and dismissed her to her father in Avenkhar."
"Stars of night…and you didn't tell her why?"
"It's safer this way. Her father can protect her better than I at the moment. Kiril is safe, too. My idiot cousin had a brush with a poisoned dagger and a maddened horse before he believed my warnings and contrived a public falling out with me. I…persuaded…Sovari to go with him, and they are now guests of some crone of a Fontezhi baroness who enjoys hearing them complain about my cruel humors. Yours is the first friendly voice I've heard in months, and you don't sound too cheerful."
"They tried for me, too."
"Bloody Athos. Were you hurt?"
"A good man was killed instead. And others…it was a close thing."
Aleksander examined me carefully, and then his fists clenched and his cheeks flamed the color of his robes. "Your son…ah gods, Seyonne. Not your son. The bastards!" No one could read a man's unspoken words as Aleksander could.
"How in Druya's fires did they find you? I'll swear I told no one but Lydia, and no matter what she thinks of me, she would never betray you."
"I never thought it. I understand about palaces and servants, rumors and spies…a messenger could have followed me when I picked up your message in Vayapol…any number of slips."
"I'll find him…whoever it was. I'll have him dead for it."
"What's done is done. Blaise has hidden the boy so even I don't know where he is now." I leaned closer and dropped my voice. "But you…this business of your father…it's part of it?"
He closed his eyes and shook his head. "No. Not even the Hamraschi could be such fools. Why make me emperor when they are bent on undoing everything I've tried to accomplish?"
So he didn't see the truest danger. "My lord prince, in the streets they are saying you commanded your father's death. They're saying the Twenty will--"
"These matters are not settled in the streets. I am my father's anointed heir. It will take more than peasants' prattling to undo it." Even on that dismal night, the Prince could not unmake himself. His scorn could wither a healthy oak.
"But you quarreled."
Aleksander grimaced. "A month ago I was on the Suzaini border. Bandits--damned villains threatening ruin across the whole eastern Empire. Twenty villages already destroyed; granaries ravaged up and down the border; horses stolen or slaughtered. In the midst of the campaign, my father summons me back here to answer ‘unnamed charges.' If I'd left right then--"
"You refused an imperial summons?" No wonder Ivan had been furious with him.
The Prince was twisting the hem of his mourning robe, a long red cloak, fastened about his neck with a band of silverwork. "We'd lost nineteen warriors already, chasing the cursed bandits. I wasn't going to waste their deaths to answer some pissing accusations no one would explain."
And abandoning the mission would have left the Suzaini to starve. Their granaries and horses were their life. When Aleksander was twenty-two, he wouldn't have considered that.
"So I finished cleaning up the mess, then rode like a paraivo. Got here yesterday at dawn. Found the paraivo was already here."
"No doubt." A god-raised desert sandstorm would be nothing to Ivan's rage.
Aleksander leaned forward, his face ruddy with remembered anger. "And who was with him but Leonid, the Second Lord of the Hamrasch, so concerned at the insolence and insubordination of my delay, the very one who had brought ‘certain matters' to my father's attention… All of it stupid. Contrived. It would have taken only a day to clear it up."
But the Prince had been tired and angry and headstrong as always. "You weren't given a day."
He glanced up sharply. "No. It's only my neck they want. Murdering my father as well is not going to get them anything. We don't do things that way. Until I have a son, my heir is my father's cousin, a puling coward who makes me look scholarly and temperate. But the rest of the Denischkar would fight for him anyway, and the other hegeds would never allow old Hamrasch to say who sits the throne. It would be the end of the Hamraschi; the entire heged would die."
But of course that was the very problem. Clearly the Hamraschi didn't care if they died. What in the name of the gods had Aleksander done to raise a kanavar from one of the most powerful Derzhi families?
From outside the room came the droning of a mellanghar and a powerful male voice beginning the Derzhi mourning song, a winding, wordless lament that could make a mountain weep. Rage drained from the Prince's face. He shook his head slightly and waved his hand, as if to silence his own thoughts, and then got slowly to his feet, turning his back to me. "I'll be occupied until dawn. Come to my apartments then and we'll talk. Be discreet, Seyonne. I'd not lose you, too."
"My lord, I need to go…" I'd not yet told him all I'd learned. Did he even know that the Frythian had accused him? But the time was not right to tell him anything. As Aleksander stood beside his father's body, his broad shoulders grew rigid. Curious, I slipped quietly to the edge of the marble block where I could get a broader view of the hall to see what had alerted him.
No unseemly disturbance or untimely intrusion had caused Aleksander's tension, however, but his own act. Beneath his red and silver cloak, the Prince wore black breeches and a sleeveless shirt of embroidered red silk, and now he had used his father's sword to cut three long gashes in his bare left arm. As I watched, he did the same to his right and began drawing circles about his eyes and on his cheeks with the blood. He had already forgotten I was there.
I withdrew into my niche, trying to convince myself that I could manage shifting form again. If I was going to stay through the night, then I might as well be useful and keep up my watch. And no non-Derzhi was going to get near Ivan's funeral rites. As I sat there in the smoky dimness, trying to summon the will to shift, someone in soft slippers hurried across the vast room.
"Your Highness, the procession is engaged." The gold-clad chamberlain dropped to his knees behind the Prince, whispering just loud enough to hear. "The bearers await your command…"
Aleksander, eyes fixed on his father's body, gave a slight nod. But the chamberlain did not go.
"…and, Your Highness, please forgive me for carrying any other message than those required by this most mortal…most dreadfully grievous…and I would not speak it if not commanded by my lord High Chamberlain who was himself commanded by His Highness who waits outside…demanding…insisting…most kind lord that he is-"
I winced. The servant's craven, crawling stuttering was just the quality to put an edgy man violently out of humor. And Aleksander was a very edgy man. The Prince did not raise his voice, but might have bitten the words out of the stone floor. "Speak or I'll rip out your useless tongue."
"I am bade to tell you that His Highness Prince Edik has arrived in Zhagad and says he must see his beloved Emperor and cousin laid out before the rites begin."
Before Aleksander could answer, a clattering of boots and unmuted voices violated the reverent stillness of the temple. No servants this time. I could hear the clink of gold chains around their necks and feel the steel presence of their weapons. The very air carried the assurance of royal privilege. The newcomers stood on the far side of the bier, just out of my line of sight.
"Shades of Druya, Aleksander, what have you done to yourself? You look like a some barbarian priest calling up gods to protect his village." The visitor had a lilting voice that curled around its edges, as if he were forever on the verge of sneering laughter. "One might think you were actually mourning the old devil's passing."
"Have you come to lick at the trough now he's dead, Edik? Do you think I've forgotten that he forbade you to stand or speak in his presence?"
"Ah, my young cousin, this is the time to draw up the ties of blood, not --"
"On your knees, Edik, and hold your coward's tongue! You are in the presence of your Emperor, and until he is ash, you will obey him." Aleksander strode to the end of the bier. "Bring in the bearers!"
No one in the palace could have failed to hear Aleksander's scornful rebuke of his visitor. But only I, with a Warden's hearing, could have heard the visitor's whispered response, buried as it was beneath the shuffling clamor of those who came to carry Ivan to his pyre. "And afterward, dear cousin Zander…once my cousin is burnt and only you are left…then what?"
I crept along the floor far enough to glimpse the three on the far side of the empty bier, and the odor of danger was so strong, it almost gagged me. Two Hamrasch lords stood smiling at Aleksander's back, and before them, kneeling on the floor, was a middle-aged man. His sleek blond braid fell to the side of his placid face. No anger twisted his full lips, no offense or indignation marred his wide brow or glinted in his narrow-spaced eyes. But he had ridden into Zhagad with a troop of Hamrasch warriors, and he propped his hands and his chin on a stick of polished wood, still stained with the blood of a clumsy slave.
Copyright © Carol Berg, 2002
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