Dream of Love Dream of Hate Chapter 12

Tailei stood before the man who called himself king of Apalakki, studying him as he studied her. It was he who led the rebellion against the bloody tyranny of the Sangi, who claimed to belong to a distant branch of the royal lineage, who sought to drive Kasus into the east as a usurper, but he mainly struck her as being bull-necked and bullish in temperament too. And what did he make of her, a young woman who offered him the services of an army of dead men? She had shown him that her magic was real, but did he see it as a tool, a toy, a threat?

Baghīl,” K’azis said at last, speaking to the servant who stood by the door with bowed head. “Illuhat’ Gisīl talutkkun.” The servant returned a few minutes later with Gesil, a Sughin man with a blindfold over his eyes.

“You send and summon this man, but I will come for you when you are strong enough to face me,” Gesil said. Was he mad?

“Ah, Gesil, tell us about Hekkzaghin, about Kasus, about Ghilik,” said K’azis in the Sughin tongue, rather poorly, but he got his meaning across. Tailei intended to learn the Apalakki form of speech, but was nowhere near fluent yet.

“The three wolves that the serpents let loose to tear and shred the world, before the proper time comes for them to enfold their territory in the coils of death.” Gesil was grinning now. “Curs! They have tried to harness the serpents, but the fangs have sunk into their flesh and the poison will soon be in their minds.”

“Very good. Curse the tyrants! May they die forsaken and their elements be used to make worms and flies.”

“The curse may take you also. You think you can drive out the serpents, but they may not be done yet with your city.”

“If you must speak ill, speak ill of Kasus who blinded you and put you to torment, not me who set you free.”

“Set me free? This body is only a husk for me to use as I will. It does not matter to me what happens to it.”

K’azis sighed. “You oracles are more trouble than you are worth, I think. What good has a message from the gods or from the Earth herself ever done for mortals?”

“I was a mortal once…”

“We found him in the prisons,” said K’azis to Tailei. “I gather he had said something to displease his former masters. Gesil, this is Tailei.”

“A pleasure, my lady,” said Gesil.

“What can you tell me about her?”

“I know Tailei very well, now don’t I? She’s been given great power indeed. Well might Kasus tremble when her army rises up to fight him.” His voice shifted and became softer, more melodious. “I look forward to meeting you very soon.”

K’azis nodded, smiling and showing his misaligned teeth. “You’ll have your chance to prove yourself,” he said to Tailei, “and if you do well I will reward you. Give me Apalakki.”

“It is yours,” Tailei said. They were always present in her head now, and to give them orders was as simple as moving pieces on a siaren board. K’azis had claimed the palace and driven the Sangi out, but they had taken a new stronghold in one of the great oracular domes in the eastern quarter, from which they commanded their Sughin and wrought havoc on the neighboring parts of the city. Elsewhere in the city were others who fought for Kasus and Hekkzaghin, but the Sangi were the greatest of the threats that faced K’azis, and now Tailei too. She sat on the floor and closed her eyes, and her hands moved to orchestrate her soldiers.

There was little challenge anymore for her in these matters, as much as she wished for a challenge to distract her from the voices of dead men. Even Malg’us was there, though she had not seen him since that dreadful day when she had discovered her gift. The Sangi worshipped death, but against the dead they could do nothing. The oracles were weeping and proclaiming the end of prophecy and the silence of the Earth as the dead men marched past them to seize the Sangi and bring them to the cruel justice of those who had suffered their bloodlust.

And when all was done, Tailei strolled through one of the gardens near the palace in Apalakki, awaiting her summons. It was raining, but despite the heavy clouds only a light drizzle fell to the earth. None of the flowers had budded yet, but she paused for a moment to admire a sculpture of a young man with lily-of-the-valley draped over his shoulders. As she turned away, she saw an elderly woman scuttling towards her, and she paused.

When she reached her, the old woman brought her hand up to stroke Tailei’s hair. “You are Tailei?” she asked.

“I am.”

“I was told to tell you that your uncle is calling you home.”

Tailei nodded. “Will he be coming to fetch me?”

“You are to wait for him near the temple of Vaghatin, in the western quarter.”

“I understand. Thank you.”

Tailei did not hesitate for a moment, but returned to her room to gather together her few possessions – mostly clothing – and bundle them together so that she would be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Then she went down to the appointed meeting place.

It took her a few hours to reach the temple, especially as several times she had to evade men who approached her with smug leers and invitations. It was one of the larger temples in the city, with an entire order of priests dedicated to the god of war. With the conquest of Apalakki by Kasus and his barbarian hordes, opinion in the city had turned against the god who had failed to help them, so that donations and sacrificial offerings were at a low ebb.

A priest sitting by the threshold saw her and raised his hand in warning, and she stopped where she was, some distance from the entrance. Women were not allowed to enter this god’s temple, she had learned. In this realm, women were not allowed to take part in war, and so neither could they be accepted by Vaghatin. Her face twisted up as she looked at the priest sitting there fanning himself, but she waited patiently. Women may not be able to fight, but nothing prevented them from sending men to fight for them.

It was not long before she saw K’azis’s aide Tal approaching her with hurried steps. “Ah, you are here. Come with me, if you please,” he said.

“Is everything ready, then?” she asked quietly.

“Yes, of course everything is ready. Come with me.”

She followed him back towards the palace, her thoughts unhappy ones. She did not like being here, did not like what she was doing for these men. Then why are you here? something asked her, and she answered the only way she could. Because she had been given this gift, and she must use it to do some good in this terrible land.

K’azis was waiting for her in the throne room, already sitting in the emperor’s seat and being attended by purple-robed servants. On his brow he wore the Star of Lasghigel, the wheel of diamonds that Tailei had brought from the palace in Alhunvin. “The last of our enemies will be killed or frightened into obedience, thanks to you. I congratulate you on your success.”

“Thank you,” Tailei said. “And your end of the bargain?”

“Of course. K’azis son of Buldinukk does not break his word. Tal. Ildukimrāl āksin?

With a mildly reproving look, Tal took a clay tablet from a stand near the doorway and held it up. “These are the words of the agreement by which Tailei of the Zconr becomes duke of the armies of the empire. She will lead the living and the dead to war in the north, the west, and the east. She will be given all honor and praise.” As Tal droned on, Tailei felt the presence of her servants nearby. There were more and more of them now, for she would walk through the field of battle when all was done, chasing away the scavenging birds, and kneel to kiss the fallen soldiers with her kiss of new life. And the more servants she had, the stronger she felt in her own body. Something was changing within her – her mind was being wrapped around with iron bands, shaped into a new form. And she could not predict what would be the end of it.

All was quiet in the ducal chamber, situated in a far corner of the palace and decorated with dusty ivory statuettes. It had lain empty for some time now, she suspected, but no longer. A throne sat at the head of the chamber, a smaller copy of the great chair of the emperor. In perfect stillness Tailei ascended the steps to the throne and seated herself in it, and the darkness settled in around her.

To the north of Ghizdulah the rumors spread of Tailei and her armies of dead men, fear and awe exaggerating their number twentyfold. Gladly the Sughin threw down their Sangi overseers as imposters who claimed to speak for Death when they had no real mastery over it. According to the rumors, Tailei was divine, a daughter from the line of the old trickster Apalakki himself, or perhaps she was a demon in the shape of a woman. Was it perhaps she who had cut down Kasus and Hekkzaghin in Malhun? As for the P’ugdaghun, they were all fleeing to Vunis, but they left the legend of the silent throne boiling in their wake, and what was more silent than death itself, the death that now spread out along the coast?

At last Tailei and the armies of Apalakki, living and dead, pressed close to Malhun lands, where the throne had now been taken by a new king, a man who had been able to step into the place left empty by Kasus, killing or otherwise dealing with his competitors. It was not only the throne of Malhun that he claimed, but the young empire itself, and so he sent an ambassador to Tailei’s camp. This ambassador was, judging by his appearance, one of Kasus’s countrymen; he introduced himself as Sratau, servant of the emperor Taghgos.

“I know Taghgos, and have counted him a friend in the past,” said Tailei. “Apalakki has no desire to steal land from the realm of Malhun.”

Sratau smiled on one side of his mouth. “That is very well for Apalakki, a most becoming humility, but I serve the emperor of the south. You are his subjects, his rebellious subjects. I have not come to ask for mercy, but to demand your submission. I hope I have made myself clear.”

“Words are easy, but deeds are another matter. Or haven’t you heard of the duchess of Apalakki and her army?”

“I have heard many rumors,” said Sratau. “I have heard of a woman who calls forth the dead to fight for her. A lone woman. I wonder what would happen to the feared army of Apalakki if she were to die? Say because she unwisely accepted to meet with an ambassador who was clever than he was scrupulous. Or suppose she was poisoned. It really doesn’t matter to me. I do wonder what would happen, though. All that power resting upon a lone woman.”

“You shouldn’t trust every rumor you hear,” said Tailei, but Sratau’s calm stare told her that he was not fooled by her bold front. He nodded slightly.

“Let’s put it to the test, shall we?” he asked, and suddenly there was a knife in his hand. He struck as fast as a snake, blade swinging towards Tailei’s bare neck before she could do anything to react. But there was a rush of wind, a sound of feet on the ground, and pale hands pulled Sratau away from her. She met the empty gazes of her children of death with her own. A few of the soldiers who were still alive asked her what to do with Sratau.

“He’s a false ambassador,” she said, “and he has outraged the gods. Death is the penalty for his blasphemy, and then I will send him back to his master to deliver my message.”

Taghgos was no fool, and when the next ambassador came from Alhunvin he brought with him a promise of peace and a gift of gold. So the empire of Kasus came to an end in name, but from Kupavim to Malhun, people began to quietly call Tailei empress, the bearer of the Star of Lasghigel, and some even referred to her as the Lady.

And Tailei came then to Alhunvin to confirm the submission of the King of Malhun to the Duchess of Apalakki. She smiled at Taghgos as he helped her step from her chariot, but he didn’t look at her, keeping his gaze away from her, and far away from the dead man who was her driver and who stood perfectly still, his hands loose on the reins. “It is a pleasure to see you again,” she said in a low voice.

“It is a pleasure to serve you,” he replied gruffly. She considered him quietly for a minute, then gestured for him to accompany her into the courtyard of the palace, where tables had been arranged for a banquet. Sparrows stuffed to bursting with onions and spices, date pudding shaped into miniature castles, whole roasted lambs positioned as if grazing on a field of chives, and more fanciful creations of the Alhunvin cooks made it plain that conquest and madness had not harmed their ingenuity. Tailei sat at the head of the table, her silent bodyguard looming behind her so that there was a nervous paleness to the faces of everyone she looked at.

Actors came in during the meal to perform the epic of Apalakki in a realistic fashion, behaving as if the heroes they portrayed were everyday men and women, albeit prone to giving long soliloquies that Tailei’s interpreter struggled to keep up with. Tailei was vaguely familiar with the story that unfolded before her: the birth of the young hero Apalakki, his rivalry with his brother P’ugdagh, whom he banished at last to the sea, the death of his father fighting wars in the north and Apalakki’s ascension to the throne of his ancestors. Then came the birth of Pirlisu to Apalakki’s wife, and, if Tailei could trust her interpreter, there wasn’t the slightest hint that Pirlisu was the son of a god. She nodded to herself.

Pirlisu and his mother were exiled, but Pirlisu returned and set in motion the tragic events leading to Apalakki’s death and apotheosis as a royal Zinrin spirit. When it was done, Tailei set down her goblet of wine and told her interpreter to say to the actors, “The gods bless you and Pirlisu son of Antark.”

Fīranilut ārig ggul bi Pirlīsu kixan Antark.

The actors bowed to her and she heard appreciative murmurs for her acknowledgment of Pirlisu’s divine ancestry. Night was falling quickly, the stars coming out above their heads, and the palace chamberlain showed Tailei and her attendants to a room with beds and mats for them to rest on.

But Tailei woke up at the darkest hour of the night and found it impossible to get back to sleep. She rose from her bed, intending to maybe take a walk through the palace, and then she noticed that the dead were slumped against the walls, sleeping as soundly as the living. Only the barely perceptible twitches of their eyes and fingers told Tailei that they had not returned to their natural state.

“But my dead don’t sleep,” she said under her breath.

“There are none, living or dead, who can resist the power of the master,” said a voice from the doorway in the Apalakki tongue. A man with veiled face stood there, his hands clasped together before his stomach. “The master wishes to see you.”

“What is your master’s name?”

“That is not for his servants to know, but his title is Lord of Dreams.”

“I’m starting to think all of this a dream. Tell me then, what he wants with me, and say it in plain words.”

“For ages beyond reckoning the master has ruled Alka’al, and you question him? He is lord of dreams and lord of nightmares, and you would be a fool to ignore his command.”

“Very well, I’ll see where this dream leads,” said Tailei, and followed the veiled man out into the open air. Waiting for them just beyond the gates to the courtyard was a man in a black cloak dotted with specks of white as if to match the sky above. He was tall and slender, and as Tailei approached him she saw that something was odd about the cast of his face, though she couldn’t say what, any more than she could describe exactly what marked a funereal tune as different from a happy one.

“And we meet at last. But I am the Lord of Dreams, and you are only the latest petty queen in these lands,” said the tall man. He spoke so quietly that she could hardly hear him, but the words were those of her homeland far away in Zconr, and the reminder of her own people was a sudden pain to her. “And I have seen many of your kind come and go, for I have lived long.”

“Have you seen many who can raise the dead?”

“Nor have I yet. But what power you have is not of yourself, is it? For it was given by one of the old magicians lingering past his proper time, and he had his own purposes, and the basilisks had their own purposes, and what are you?”

“My realm encompasses nearly all of Lakki! What are you? A king who hardly ever steps outside his tiny kingdom?” Tailei demanded. She was still not sure if this was a dream or reality, but she could show no weakness. Lord of Dreams or not, she didn’t mean for Alka’al to get notions about the frailty of its western neighbor.

“And you disdain me? But you are the thrall to the ancient masters and I am free. And my children live though they sleep and dream. Nor do I seek a quarrel with you or your masters, but I summoned you to warn you. For long ago I stared into the rifts that break the usual succession of miles and years, and I have seen what no mortal has seen, and I see it still. Now the lands east of the Sakkuru do not belong to you or the basilisks, and I urge you to be content with what you have, for my hand is strong.”

“I neither had nor have any wish to trouble your realm,” said Tailei. “Under the eight winds I can swear it. There is no reason why Lakki and Alka’al shouldn’t be at peace now as they have been for uncountable ages.”

The Lord of Dreams lifted his head upwards, but his eyes remained on Tailei. “Nor do I seek to take the men of Lakki into my care, for I have cares enough, and the business of the basilisks is not mine to concern myself with.” He touched two fingers to his forehead in a curious salute.

Then his servant led Tailei back to her bed, where sleep took her immediately. But she knew in the morning that it had been no dream, and that she had met with the Lord of Dreams himself, and that meant she was mighty indeed. So after she left Alhunvin she went to Tiggras and there she summoned the alchemists to her. “I would like to live forever,” she told them. “Tell me how.”

~

Majelis had insisted that he go first to Teolphar, despite Uromalkhuros’s warnings that he had been supplanted and would not be welcome in the city now. Thetta didn’t seem to mind one way or the other: she was in a state of numbed shock after the chaos that had fallen upon Alhunvin. But as day followed day she began to speak more, even venturing an occasional smile. She had not been particularly happy before, the charming foreigner Kasus having altered into a neglectful husband shared with two other women, in a land where no one behaved with propriety and she had no friends except Uromalkhuros and his men. Now that world had been destroyed underneath her, a feeling that Majelis understood very well, and so he spoke to her with comforting words.

They came to Teolphar early in the morning, and while most of the Khiar remained outside the walls to avoid alarming the guard, Majelis and a few others entered the city. Majelis and his companions went first to the high tower on the pretext of consulting the oracle, Majelis intending to ask if he should go to Khiar, but even though his face was concealed by the hood he wore, he was recognized. Amil, one of the tower guards, spotted his dark skin and prodded back his hood. Amil’s eyes widened. “You!”

“Yes,” said Majelis. “I have returned to my tower.”

“Your tower?” Amil asked, and his mouth moved silently. “Perhaps I should take you to meet Elsasel. High Priest Elsasel.”

“So that is how the fruit has fallen,” said Majelis. “Of course, I’d be happy to see Elsasel again.”

Amil led them up to the chamber that had once been Majelis’s own, and while he remained in the lower room with Majelis’s Khiar guards, Majelis ascended to speak with Elsasel in the presence of the Flame itself. Elsasel was waiting for him, and when Majelis’s head appeared through the hole in the floor, he exclaimed, “You’re not dead! Well, maybe it would be better for you if you were. There can only be one high priest of the Flame.”

“You’re right,” Majelis said, finishing his climb and seating himself before Elsasel, “and I am he.”

“Are you? You have no city, no oracle, hardly any guard.”

“Is it force, then, that determines the Flame’s blessing?”

Elsasel looked pained, and it was a while before he replied. “Before Emperor Sarekham, the priest of Teolphar was nothing. It was the Khiar emperor who put my forefather, or rather, our forefather, Hazmno in this chamber a thousand years ago, and he did it with the power of his armies. The Flame blessed his sword; the sword did not reflect the Flame. Do you understand?”

“And what of my consecration?”

“What of it? I, too, am consecrated. I have put aside my wife. And, if it’s permitted for me to say so, I have done far more for Teolphar and my office in under a year than you did in three, and I intend to do more yet. Kings and lords from all around will seek my blessing. The Halarenkhe will come to me for advice, and it will be apparent whom the Flame has blessed.”

“And my fate?”

“That is for you to decide. I considered you a friend when you were in my service; I still consider you a friend, but you know as well as I that having two high priests in Teolphar is not a good thing, not for the city and not for the Flame. The Beast loves discord.”

Majelis lifted up his hands, but said, “I pray that what happened to me never happens to you. If you want, I will leave Teolphar immediately.”

“That would be best. It’s a pity that you were never given the chance to make all that you could of your office, but the Flame is wiser than we.”

“So it is,” said Majelis. “May I greet Selinel before I go?”

“She is occupied with her duties, and I fear that you would only unsettle her mind and allow the Beast’s hand in her soul.”

“I understand,” Majelis said. “Goodbye, then. I wish you the Flame’s blessing.”

“And may you prosper in whatever you do now. But please don’t come back to Teolphar.”

Majelis and his companions were escorted by armed men outside the walls, where they joined Thetta and Uromalkhuros again and rode north. “You didn’t want to be priest again?” Thetta asked.

In his awkward Khiar, twisted towards the speech of Teolphar, Majelis said, “No. I have sinned. I never should have been high priest of the Flame at all.” He did not look back towards the tower of the Flame as it shrank away in the distance behind them.

~

Now Thetta returned to Khiar, and the news of her arrival spread quickly throughout the land. Immediately she and her companions were summoned to the imperial presence to recount what had happened in the south. The empress Meseisalkines had died not long ago, and the new emperor was her son Heohyltakyneos, a man with deep lines in his face and weary eyes. Majelis found it difficult to follow all the words that passed between Heohyltakyneos and Thetta, but he knew they were talking about Kasus. Finally Heohyltakyneos turned to Majelis and asked something.

“I beg your pardon, but I am not yet accustomed to your way of speech,” he replied.

More slowly now, Heohyltakyneos said, “And thee are a scryer to all these?”

“I am,” said Majelis. “The realms of the south have fallen into the anarchy of the Beast.”

“And thee are the Flame it hierarch?”

“I was, until I was replaced by another.”

“Were thee?”

“Kasus kidnapped me for some time and when I returned, another sat in my place.”

“Which is nae seemly. And thee are the Flame it hierarch, nae mind Teolphar. Thee have a sound chair in Khiar til end of days.”

“I am grateful beyond words,” said Majelis. “But I am unfit to serve as high priest. My sins are great.”

“Nae mind thee. It shall be for tomorrow, nae?”

Majelis bowed low to the ground. He was allowed to stay in the palace itself, in a room of his own, and when servants appeared with lit candles to be placed around the walls and mandalas for him to meditate on, he surmised that despite his protests, he was to be treated with all the honors of the high priest of the Flame. And day by day he learned to speak the language of Khiar, sister to that of Teolphar, and to began to read the amazingly complex symbols that were used to write it. Everyone he met treated him with respect, even honor, but his thoughts lay coiling within his mind, hatching a gloomy darkness that kept him within the palace, never once venturing out into the city.

Calcam had been right. Majelis had thought that by embracing his office he could put his past sins firmly behind him, but he was a murderer, a fornicator, a thief, and he would always be so. A voice told him that he hadn’t died for nothing, but the memories were as vivid as reality.

A man named Anunto came to see him, explaining that he had been a companion of Kasus when he had come to Khiar. “How are my old friends,” he asked, “Alzurid and Semsa, Kasus and Tailei?”

“I cannot tell you about Tailei,” said Majelis, “but Alzurid and Semsa were well the last I saw them. They’re going to be married, I believe. As for Kasus, he is dead, and his empire crumbles.”

“Ah,” said Anunto, closing his eyes. “The contest between the Flame and the Beast is mysterious to man. Who can say whether it goes well or ill?”

Then, one day in late autumn, he was visited in a dream by a woman, or perhaps a goddess, who wore the forked hat of a cardinal. She appeared to him like one of the women of Sretskalawa, dark and slender, but she used the language of Teolphar. “Majelis,” she said. “It was not you who stole me.” Now he recognized her as Asatis.

“But it was,” he replied, and bowed his head. “Don’t you remember? It was I who took you from your parents to hand you over to my brother, for no better reason than that I wanted to thank him for what I considered his kindness to me.”

“It was not you who stole me,” she repeated, and now he recognized her as Selinel, and he understood that she was more than that, and reddened in shame for his clothes, which were stained with the dust of his long journey. “If you loved me, you would take me back.”

“But you have another servant, better than I.”

“He seeks his own glory, but you have ever sought mine. I have chosen you; now you must chose me. Or were you brought back from Aratus for no reason? Your sins are great, but see!” And Majelis saw thunderclouds rolling overhead, and stinging rain fell and washed the mud from his robes.

“I will obey,” said Majelis, raising his head to meet her eyes. She smiled at him, and he awoke.

The morning after his dream Majelis asked to see the chief priest in Khitharenes, an aged but nonetheless lively man who regarded Majelis with a great deal of skepticism. “I am the high priest of the Flame,” Majelis said. “Or at least, so I was consecrated in Teolphar. I have been asked to take up my office here, but I must unburden myself first. I was a great sinner before I knew of the Flame, yet I have failed to be properly shriven.

“I was a fornicator, for I lay with many women and acknowledged none of them as my wife.

“I was a thief and a dealer in human flesh, for I took a maiden from her family and delivered her to another’s lusts.

“I was a murderer and a parricide and a traitor, for I desired my inheritance and so betrayed my father into the hands of those who killed him at my command.”

“These are grave sins,” said the priest.

“They are. Very grave sins for the high priest of the Flame to carry.”

The priest nodded and pressed his hands together in thought. “Your sins are grave,” he said finally, “but the Flame burns hot. Maybe through the greatness of your salvation many will be amazed and see the Flame more clearly.”

Majelis nodded doubtfully. “May it be so.”

“As for shriving you, the Flame stands behind me and burns you clean as you speak. Can you not see it?”

He almost could, almost saw the flickers of light behind the old priest, but he winced and turned away. “I wish I could,” he said. “I believe, but I am afraid nonetheless.”

“Are you meditating daily?”

“Yes.”

“That is good. Shield yourself from the Beast and you will be at peace.”

Majelis found the first part of the priest’s speech more useful than the last, for peace eluded him no matter how much he meditated. Priests began to come to him in his chambers and ask his advice, and he gave them whatever help he could, until one day the emperor himself visited him. “Your grace,” said the emperor. “We hope you are finding Khiar hospitable.”

“I have been made very comfortable, thank you. Will you have tea?”

“Not at the moment, no. We heard your account of the death of Mirathol the Varluker woman with foreboding; now our fears have been realized. The life of Mirathol was bound to the covenant between Khiar and Varluker, so now the covenant is dead and we are at the mercy of our enemies, who are strong and as fierce as the Beast in all its wrath. It seems to us very likely that Khiar will be overrun and the Flame will be snuffed out in this world, for we are weaker than we once were. May the Flame illuminate its servants to protect itself!”

“And I am the greatest of its servants,” Majelis said. “But what can I do to protect it, besides tell the Varluker that their daughter is indeed dead?”

“You have not heard how the Varluker were turned back the first time, have you? It was fifty years ago, when I was still a child, but I remember it quite clearly. Terror spread through the city, and from the meanest street to the highest room of the palace, we were all convinced that it was the end of days. I had quite vivid nightmares about horsemen trampling me or wolves devouring me.” The emperor smiled then, and his gaze was far away. “Then he came from the rebellious cities beyond the mountains, the high priest of the Flame did, and though many scoffed and called him a foreigner and an imposter, he approached the Varluker with no weapon or guard. Whatever it was that he said to them, it convinced them to ride away again and leave us unharmed, and we gave him a great feast, but he only counseled us to trust in the Flame before returning to his home. That was a true high priest!”

“And if I do the same as my predecessor, I would be a true high priest as well,” said Majelis. He looked at the candle burning in the center of the table between them, and saw in it the Flame itself, illuminating the entire world and his own soul. “I will try myself and see if I am consumed or blessed in the heat of the Flame. If I am blessed, I will return and serve in my office as I should.”

So it was that Majelis rode to face the darkness falling towards Khiar. He knew nothing of the Varluker besides the name and the fear that was in the faces of the Khiar people, a fear that seemed more than natural. With him rode a handful of the empire’s bravest soldiers who had volunteered to accompany him on his perilous task.

“The High Priest of the Flame comes forth to deal with the slaves of the Beast,” they announced when a few of the Varluker rode forth to meet them.

“What is your priest to us? We will make him our slave with the rest of you, and no matter that his skin is burned black.”

Majelis cleared his throat and said in a loud voice, “Your concern is not who I am, but what I serve.”

The foremost of the Varluker laughed. “You serve fire, which is extinguished in an instant, but we serve the wolves of heaven, who have never been defeated. It’s the wolves of heaven who walk among us and guide us.”

“And may I speak to the wolves of heaven?”

The Varluker did not answer, but turned their horses and rode away. Majelis exchanged glances with his companions and said at last, “We’ll wait here for a few days and see if they return.”

They did indeed return after two days and nights, but this time they were led by a man with a silver mask that covered his entire face. “You have called for the wolves of heaven,” this man said to Majelis, “and here we are.”

“I greet you in the light of the Flame, of which I am high priest. What is the meaning of your hostility towards the Khiar, who have done you no harm?” Majelis asked.

The wolf looked at Majelis for a long silent moment, then laughed mockingly. “What is this? Have you brought a half-wit to treat with us? Are there no more men of sense left in Khiar?”

“Forgive my unskilled tongue, but as you can see I am an alien in these lands. I know little about you or the Varluker, and so I ask again, what is the meaning of your enmity to the Khiar?”

“If you think we are enemies of the Khiar, you are mistaken.” The wolf dismounted and began to walk towards Majelis, whose horse shook its head and turned aside. “Just as you are mistaken if you think that you are the favored children of the earth, you who cram yourselves into stinking cities and make gods for yourself to replace the one you abandoned. But we have fallen into the hands of the grandam giantess herself, we do her bidding, and when we have chastised you with sword and fire, you will obey her too. She hungers for you: you will not evade her for long.”

Majelis trembled at these words, but he raised his hands to the heavens and cried, “The Flame aid me!” And immediately there was a flash of white light in his vision, nearly blinding him, and all his hair stood on end. The words that came into his mouth were in a strange tongue that sounded to his ears almost like the barking of wild dogs, but he knew in his mind what they meant. “Remember, curs, who it was that banished you in the days of the first Golden Men. The wastelands are your prison! You are not to leave them until you are summoned forth, or your judgment will overtake you, hounds chased down by hounds. In the name of the light that drove the ice from the world, go back to your cage!”

The wolf fell backwards, lifting up his arms as if to protect himself. He snarled something wordless and sprang back to his horse. “Khiar slaves!” he shouted. “Meddle not with the lands to your east! You will not be warned again!” He and the Varluker turned their horses and galloped away.

And soon afterward it was reported by scouts and friendly tribes that the Varluker were gone again on their endless rounds of the steppe. Majelis found himself acclaimed a hero by one and all, no matter how much he insisted that he had done nothing apart from the Flame. Again and again he was informed that the Flame would only deign to shine through the holiest of men. It was clear that he would have some work to do in the instruction of his subordinate priests.

And throughout the land the news spread that the High Priest of the Flame had returned to Khitharenes, driving back the Varluker with the blazing light of his soul, and all rejoiced and celebrated the coming age.

~

As Semsa helped Noxagh carry the sack of grain to the caves from the impromptu bazaar that had sprung up around the visiting merchants, she gave one final glance to the eastern horizon. Every day now she hoped to see Alzurid returning to her, and every day she was disappointed, and had to force herself not to entertain the darkest possibilities of her imagination, where reddened knives and hooks lurked. The life here in Tanos was not bad – although Gavat Meld’in, the local Sangi overseer still swaggered like a tyrant from the days before Maghd’u, the danger of war and slavery had been eliminated – but she could not bear to live in the old way forever, not now. B’oli and Hekkzaghin and Alzurid had changed that.

He did not come on the next day, or the next, but on the following day Semsa was carrying a pot of water when a hand landed roughly on her shoulder. “Hello there, my quiet pretty girl.” It was the overseer. He leered at her, and there was something darker and more frightening than simple lust in his eyes. “You keep to yourself, don’t you? Not very sociable, not for someone looking like you. Why don’t you come with me and we’ll have some fun.”

“No thank you,” she said, shifting quickly away from him, but his fist tightened around her arm.

“I think it’s time you were taught a lesson about who you should obey,” he said, and his other hand went to one of the several blades hanging at his belt.

Then he fell to the dust, and Semsa could breathe again, and now the pounding of hooves over the last few seconds came to her attention, and she saw Alzurid astride a horse, unsheathing a long saber. “What is your name?” he asked quietly.

“Gavat, of the Meld’in tribe,” said the overseer in a dazed voice, shaking his head slowly.

“I am Alzurid of Lazu, and if you even try to lay another hand on my wife, you will regret it. Did Hekkzaghin put you in charge here? Hekkzaghin is dead. His empire is falling apart and his power is crumbling. You have no more authority here. Begone!”

Gavat stumbled to his feet and fled, and Alzurid turned to gaze upon Semsa. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to.

“Your timing was very lucky,” said Semsa.

“Not luck. The Fates,” he replied with a twinkle in his eye.

She laughed, overcome by joy, and said, “Your wife, am I?”

“Perhaps I anticipated. But I think we’ve waited long enough, don’t you?”

She blushed and said, “Yes, absolutely.”

“And if anyone objects to you marrying an outsider, there isn’t anything they’ll be able to do about it. So how does this work?”

“Well, we hold hands over a sacred stone and if our families have agreed, we will be husband and wife. But I don’t think we need worry about the second part. I was under B’oli’s authority, before he died.”

“And my family, of course, is far away from here and probably don’t care a whit what I’m up to.”

“The nearest sacred stone is just on the other side of the caves. Let me tell Noxagh at least,” Semsa said.

“Very good,” said Alzurid, and kissed her deeply.

~

Alzurid did not have to wait long for Gavat Meld’in to return, accompanied by one of the Sangi, whom Alzurid vaguely remembered confronting before. The Sangi didn’t bother with pleasantries or greetings, but said immediately, “I am Mub’is, a child of Death. We have heard that you have been troubling our people and especially our good servant Gavat. What brings you into our realm, and what defense do you make for yourself?”

Alzurid had been sitting above the entrance of B’oli’s old cave, sorting through a basket of figs, and when Mub’is spoke he stood up to face him, setting the basket by his feet. “Well,” he said, “I suppose I can only defend myself by saying that Gavat was an extremely poor overseer, who abused his position and mistreated the women whom he should have treated like sisters. But somehow I doubt you will accept such a defense. As for what I am doing here, I have recently married a Sughin woman.”

“You are an outsider,” hissed Gavat. “You defile her when you touch her.”

“I defile her?” asked Alzurid, eying Gavat.

“Enough,” said Mub’is. He took a deep breath, and his face wrinkled as he looked at Alzurid. “Take your concubine and leave. You don’t belong here. This is the realm of Death.”

“This land, like all lands, belongs to the Omnipotent. Death has ruled here for less than ten years, and now it has taken Hekkzaghin himself.”

“You lie!”

“Go to your brethren and give them this message: the Tanos will no longer tolerate the Sangi lording over them, nor their assassins prowling in the night,” said Alzurid, and Gavat and Mub’is laughed incredulously.

“I warned you before. Death will come for you. I could kill you right now,” said Mub’is, stepping closer to Alzurid and hiding his hands in the deep folds of his robe. “Then your impudent tongue would be quiet.”

“You would be two men against three hundred. I have not spent my honeymoon, as we call it in Lazu, idling. The Tanos are prepared to strike down whoever attempts to put the yoke of the Sangi back on their necks.”

Mub’is’s right hand appeared, holding a dagger. “Death accompanies me,” he said.

“I have seen death laid low,” said Alzurid. “And the Living accompanies me. Leave us at once.”

“So be it. I declare a sentence of death upon you, outsider. Your life is in the hands of the Sangi as an offering to Nosseli.”

By now the three of them were no longer alone, as some men of the Sughin had seen the confrontation and drawn near. Mub’is smiled coldly at them, then gestured to Gavat to follow and walked away. Alzurid wasted no time in explaining what had happened to the onlookers.

“This is your chance to end their tyranny,” he said. “I confess that the weaker part of me would rather be in the west, where I’d be safe from assassins and murderers, but my wife is one of you, and I will gladly shed my blood to help her and her kin.”

Paghkken, who looked far older than his few years and had fought against Hekkzaghin in the recent revolt, stepped out from the others and, spitting in his hand, held it up for Alzurid to take. “I will shed my blood with you,” he said. “We have had enough of the law of Death.”

Alzurid spat and gripped Paghkken’s hand. “Then we’ll drive the Sangi back to their fortress and into the sea.”

“The Fates will weave it.”

It was not long before men came from other tribes to consult with Alzurid about the battle against the Sangi, meeting near the Tomb of Maghd’u, a tall stony hill where the prophet Maghd’u was supposed to have spoken to the Fates themselves, and underneath which he was supposed to be buried.

One of the Sughin in particular, an old man named Maltak, proved to be a particularly valuable source of information on the events throughout his land. He would tug on his long white beard and, raising his head to face the sky, recite in a sing-song voice the names of various tribes and their successes or failures. Paghkken knelt to sketch out a rough map in the dirt. When Maltak had finished, he descended to Alzurid’s side. Sangi influence had always been weak in the distant, harsh, Ad Kghalzik, but there was no help to be found in the tribes of Ad Sulum, who were now finding new homes for themselves in the eastern lands thanks to the Sangi. They would never turn against the new order of the world. The Ad Belaghis, the home of the Voskalo who were as fierce in these days of peace as they had been peaceful in the days of constant war, had cast off the Sangi yoke through large portions of the north, despite Hekkzaghin’s recent depredations. As for the Ad Fezetni, and the Ad Asatni where the Tanos dwelt,
though the Sangi held little land directly, their assassins still haunted villages and camps.

“We should strike their fortress,” said Alzurid, and marked it on the map in the dust. “The sooner the better. We are warriors and they are assassins; we work by day and they by night; if we delay long, they will bleed us to death with their daggers.”

Elggagh looked up from his scrutiny of the map. “I agree,” he said in his slow, cautious voice. “But my father commanded me to ask you this question. How will the tribes treat one another now that Hekkzaghin’s rule has come to an end? Will we return to the ceaseless struggle for dominance? With all the bloodshed and slavery accompanying it?”

“I’m not your king, or anyone’s,” said Alzurid. “Nor am I a god, and the future of the Sughin is not mine to determine. I cannot say what you should do, but I can give you advice if you want it. My ancestors have passed down to me a great store of wisdom in such matters.”

“When the battle is done, then we’ll have time to plan such things,” said Elggagh. “I know that my father has been most eager to meet you.”

“And I’m eager to visit the Voskalo,” said Alzurid. “I pray for that day to come soon.”

It was close to evening when he found Semsa at the peak of the Tomb of Maghd’u, sitting and looking up at the sky. “I can’t hear them anymore,” she said, and smiled wistfully. “Maybe the dragons have given up on me after I failed to call them to aid you. At the time I feared I could be releasing something better left bound in the mountain, but maybe I was wrong. Do you think I was just imagining things, or did I make the right choice?”

“You were right, or at least, I think so,” Alzurid said. “Majelis and I were delivered from our prison according to the wisdom of the All-Knowing. I sought Nusgwedn looking for a holy place, but we only found ruins and death, and who knows what darkness could come from there?” He glanced towards the southwest, wondering if across the water the dragons were circling in the air above the mountain. “So much of the past is lost forever. So much we’ll never know. Well, I do know this at any rate: you were led to a trap and refused to step in it.”

“I nearly didn’t. Since my parents died I’ve been standing on the edge of my tribe with B’oli, respected and even befriended but never truly a Tanos sister. And then G’aghla died, and Hekkzaghin became something else, and everyone seemed to be running away from me; not you, though, so when you were taken, I was ready to tear apart the world if it would bring you back to me. I understand the dragons. They’ve been prisoners too, waiting the long years since they were betrayed.”

“The basilisks may have plans yet for the dragons. I hope not. I haven’t felt their presence since I was freed, so I can hope that they’ve departed for at time.”

“The basilisks are the dragons,” Semsa said, her voice almost a whisper, but clearly audible to Alzurid in the still evening air. “I know that now. They were driven out so that the dragons could become faithful servants of man, but when Nusgwedn fell they returned to their old homes with sevenfold strength. They are always watchful and their eyes see far.”

“Ah! How I wish I could visit Nusgwedn in spirit, but that power has been stripped from me, it seems. I am just a normal man again.”

“You saw a lot while you were in prison, didn’t you?” she asked.

“I did. I wandered from the great icy fields of the far north to the western ocean. I saw the deserts of Jibun and the jungles of Sretskalawa, and the lands in the east where men live in ox-drawn wagons. I have seen nearly all the world, I think, seen enough for six men. It’s time for me to stay put for a while,” and saying this, he kissed her.

And at last those of the Sangi who did not surrender were either killed or holed up in the fortress called Kighzlamu, the Broken Tooth, after the jagged shape of the hill it rested upon. Day and night the besiegers kept watch, and several assassins were caught skulking around the camp and put to death, for upon rejecting the doctrines of the Sangi, the Sughin had returned with redoubled fervor to Maghd’u’s teachings. Alzurid did nothing to stop them. Some things were against the law of all civilized nations.

It was Tsrari who emerged from Kighzlamu in order to speak with his besiegers. He was alone, and somehow looked smaller than when Alzurid had seen him last. His eyes were tired and his skin tight against the bones of his face. “So,” he said to Alzurid, Elggagh, Paghkken, and the other leaders of the Sughin tribes who were with them. His use of the Sughin language was remarkably eloquent, at least as far as Alzurid could judge, and he smiled as if greeting friends. “You don’t want Nosseli to rule over you? She will claim you in the end regardless, but the Book of Land and Sea recommends that the rites not be conducted in an entirely hostile land. None of the gods favor us, not even our beloved. She has taken Ewitss, and if what I’ve heard is true, she has taken an avatar in the east.

“So be it! You have defeated us; we will leave these shores and go where we will be welcomed. Maybe it will be granted me to die in her arms.”

“Leave then!” Maltak exclaimed, his voice trembling. “Never bother us again, or we will use your blood to water these sands! But begone!”

“We will take to our boats, then,” said Tsrari. “Kighzlamu, and all this wretched desert, shall be yours again. Enjoy them.”

~

The call came to Alzurid and Semsa as they rode through the desert of Ad Fezetni towards the coast. Alzurid intended to show Semsa the lands that lay to the west of Sughin before returning north to his home, but as the horse rounded an outcropping of rock, there was a man standing before them whose dark skin was a startling contrast to his cloak of light gray feathers. “Alzurid! Semsa!” he greeted them in the Sughin tongue. “You have traveled far! Please come and rest while the sun is high!”

“Do we know you?” Alzurid called back. “You are familiar with us, I gather.”

“We met briefly, some years ago. I spoke harder words to you than you deserved, but we did not know you as well then. I am a gardener.”

“The Wulam!” Semsa exclaimed, and the man spread his hands.

“You are correct. Maybe in the future your people and mine will be more friendly than we have been, but for now I’ve been sent to invite you to our garden. It is a very great honor.”

Semsa bowed. “I accept, on my part.”

“And I’d be delighted. But the gardens are many miles from here, certainly,” said Alzurid.

“How do you think I came to be here without horse or camel or food or water? Follow me, if you want to see a mystery.” He winked and stepped aside into a fissure that split the rock. It was wide enough for Alzurid and Semsa to lead the horse through into the darkness, following the gardener, even as the ledge blocked out the light of the sun from over their heads. Then the light was completely gone, and a sound like water lapping on rock grew louder. For several minutes they continued forward in the dark before the sound faded and a sliver of light appeared ahead.

When they emerged from the tunnel, Ad Fezetni was gone and before them was a valley of such a brilliant green color that Alzurid’s breath was quite taken away. A cool mist settled on his skin as he stepped out of the cave and he felt himself smiling. “Is it like the garden you have been searching for?” Semsa asked, squeezing his hand.

“No,” he said, “but it has its own beauty. And you know well that I have stopped searching.”

“These are the gardens of the Wulam,” said their guide. “My name is Aujar, and I’m one of the gardeners.”

“I remember now,” said Semsa. “I asked you before why you denied us your incense.”

“And I answered, though I fear you may not have been satisfied. This place is protected from many evils, but we cannot protect the entire world. We do what we can to forestall the old gods and their slaves, but often there is misery in the world no matter what we do with our incense. And often enough we make the wrong choice.” Aujar took a deep breath, then gestured down a narrow path to the buildings that were set lower down in the valley. “You have fought hard against the basilisks and suffered much. It will be our pleasure to treat you to a great feast tonight, but first would you like to see where the incense grows?”

“Certainly,” said Alzurid. “I’d like to hear about the old gods as well, if it’s not forbidden.”

“Why should anything be forbidden you?” asked Aujar as they began to walk, the horse plodding along beside them. Although a beast of melancholy disposition, even it seemed pleased to be here in the valley, pausing to take greedy bites of the fresh grass. “Here in the south we remember many secrets that you young folk have forgotten. We remember the old sins and the old gods that we turned to in the days of darkness, how we escaped them, and the price we paid. You have met the cannibals, yes? They remember that what a man eats is taken into him, and so by eating human souls, innocent souls, strong souls, they became greater. Wretches! But we gardeners are few, and grow fewer.”

Aujar’s anger was surprisingly fierce, reminding Alzurid of a desert storm that came suddenly down from the west and was gone again. They continued down to a grove of trees whose branches were covered in white-and-red flowers and where men and women were moving from tree to tree tending to the cuts in the bark from which drops of syrup occasionally fell into ornately carved bowls. There was a sweet smell in the air.

“Your child will be blessed for having come here,” said Aujar, glancing at the still-gentle swell of Semsa’s belly. She smiled and crossed her hands over her stomach.

Later, as night fell and the fires were lit in the great hall, Alzurid and Semsa sat with the elders of the Wulam and ate from a common dish with them: bread and a rich dark sauce, vegetables with a delicate taste, a fragrant drink something like wine. Alzurid was deep in thought throughout the meal, but when the dish was taken away he looked up and, after thanking his hosts for the meal, said “I also appreciate your generous words about us, but I am troubled by the thought that if I had not come to this land, many evils could have been avoided. It was my quest to Nusgwedn that released the dragons and the basilisks.”

“If you had not come, the evils might have been worse,” said Aujar, shaking his head firmly. “You were not the only one seeking after the basilisks, and we are fortunate that the gifts of the magicians were given to you, neither of whom misused them.”

“What about Tailei?” asked Semsa quietly.

“If Tailei ever comes here we will tell her many things. But if you like, we will forgive you for whatever harm you have done us, and you may forgive us, if you choose, for not telling you more than we did. We should have, but at the time we didn’t know you as well as we do now.”

“You’ve been watching us?”

“Not like the basilisks have, no. But we have friends in many parts of Kimu, Sughin, and Lakki. What little we could do to help you, we did.

“So you will be going on to Kimu, and our blessings will go with you. I foresee that you will be happy.”

“Well, I certainly forgive you for any inaction of yours,” said Alzurid, and Semsa nodded. “The Wise knows that I too have long struggled with when to act and when to stand by. Perhaps I will do better now that I no longer walk alone.”

Semsa said, “I’ve been troubled by nightmares all my life and have been afraid of the night. Childish, perhaps, but that’s how it was. Perhaps I was forewarned of what was to come. But of late, my dreams have been happier.” And she took Alzurid’s hand.

Dream of Love Dream of Hate Chapter 11

Kasus opened his eyes, and for the longest time he had no idea where he was. The ceiling seemed to spin above his head, color merging with color and figure with figure. After a while he remembered the night before, and the celebrations of his victory. He smiled, and lifting himself from his couch he looked over the room where he had fallen asleep, seeing with satisfaction that bodyguards were standing patiently near the threshold, and the boxes of tribute stacked by his head.

He staggered dizzily as he let go of the couch, and it took him a few minutes to fully recover his balance. As he was walking uneasily past his guards, he saw Thetta and Masila coming towards him, almost marching in unison. A wry smile passed over his face and he paused to wait for them to come closer.

“You said nothing about where you were going,” Masila said, her eyes flashing at Kasus from above her veil. “Nothing! What do you expect us to do when you leave us without a word?”

“I expect you to be good and to govern the palace servants, that is what I expect. Trust that I will return in good time, having been victorious over our enemies. See, I have brought you jewelry that the queens of the P’ugdaghun wore.” He turned back into the room and kicked open one of the boxes to reveal its gleaming contents.

Thetta knelt by the open box and brought out a necklace in her clenched fist. “Do you think that this will keep us quiet? I do not care what you do, but we are not your slaves, to be ignored and treated like cattle.”

“You are lucky, you know,” said Kasus. “My father was nowhere near as considerate of his wives as I am of you. I am kind and generous to each of you, and if I do not tell you where I go every hour of the day, is that such a burden? Here, Thetta, take this. I know you are fond of pearls, and now that we are at the threshold of the great ocean you can have them in plenty. Now. I am quite willing to discuss your concerns, but right now…” He paused, seeing G’aghla stride between the guards with her arms crossed. “It is getting rather crowded in here…you can request an audience if you have something to say to me. Inform one of my many officials – I have more of them than there are fish in the sea – and he will tell you when I am not…occupied.”

“Did Hekkzaghin tell you where he was going?” Thetta demanded of G’aghla.

G’aghla looked anxiously from Thetta to Kasus. “Please.”

“I am with my wives right now,” Kasus said, waving his hand. “As I said, I will grant you an audience later.”

G’aghla’s eyes rolled back and she bared her teeth in a wild grin. Then, after just a moment of this, she relaxed. “I will obey,” she said, and turned to walk away.

“As for you,” Kasus said to Thetta and Masila. “Leave me at once, and return when you have calmed. I am the emperor, not you, and not you. I will explain why I went and why I said nothing, but you cannot simply demand such things of me, who am the closest thing to a god walking on this earth. I sincerely hope that you understand, and leave, before I have you taken out by force.” Masila’s shoulders sank and she obeyed, but Thetta remained in the room, staring fiercely at Kasus. “What about Mirathol,” he asked after a moment in the Khiar tongue. “Didn’t she want a part of your little rebellion?”

“I don’t think Mirathol cares a bit about you or what you are doing, but I do.”

“Mirathol does what she has been assigned by her chieftain, and does not ask for anything more. A most curious way of going about one’s life; not a rule I would like to live by, I imagine. Please understand,” he said, putting his hand on Thetta’s arm. “There is a certain etiquette that the emperor of Lakki must follow, an etiquette that demands he take his place among the gods of the heavens, not with mortals.”

She shrugged away from him. “I have noticed that you do not wear the Star of Lasghigel,” she said. “Do you honor us so little in the north?”

“I will wear it,” he said, and gestured for her to follow Masila out. In truth he had misplaced it somewhere he could not remember, but he would assign someone the task of finding it.

Kasus cast his eyes back towards the top of his head as he turned away from the threshold. He should have anticipated that Thetta would be difficult, but Masila was supposed to be meek in the way of Malhun women. Occasionally he would think that marriage was not worth its political gain, but then he would catch sight of Thetta’s soft face, or Mirathol’s long night-black hair, or Masila’s startlingly light eyes, and he was reminded why he had taken them. Jewels in his crown…

Time to think on sterner things, though. He imagined that Daghat’i, his loyal and frightened P’ugdaghun councilor, would be glad to know that Istis had been secured. Kasus looked forward to the day that he would be able to relax and enjoy the luxuries of his position without all the arduous duties that were imposed on him.

~

Hekkzaghin watched his fingers twitch back and forth as he sat in the chair waiting. Every few minutes or so he would forget why exactly why he was waiting, and start to get up, but then he would remember. He was there because G’aghla was talking to Kasus, that oh-so-glorious emperor who took whatever he stretched out his hands to enfold. Hekkzaghin’s fingers twitched faster, dancing from one knee to the other. You have to be patient, he told himself. Wait just a while longer. She will reveal her soul to you. He was being very clever, he thought, far too clever to spoil things now.

Then, at last, she emerged from one of the hallways leading to the throne room, and Hekkzaghin stood up to stand in her way. It took an awkward second before a smile appeared on her face and she looked away. “Hekkzaghin,” she said. “I didn’t…I didn’t know you were back.”

“I imagine not.”

“While you were gone I’ve been making arrangements for the Sangi to deal with your problems in Apalakki,” she continued. “Those vultures are more useful than I thought, but I hope that you are taking care so that they do not betray you. A rebellion like that would not turn out well, for you or for your empire.”

“The Sangi? The Sangi are…no, I would rather not hear about that right now,” Hekkzaghin said. “Come with me, if you please.” He smiled at her puzzled look, and touching her arm guided her away from those halls, towards their own chambers. Once they were within, and the bright colors of the mural were over their heads, Hekkzaghin turned to face her with his smile twisting upwards into a wild grin he couldn’t control. “G’aghla, my dearest love, G’aghla my little mouse. You have done better than you had hoped.”

“I don’t understand,” she said, her puzzlement growing. “Do you mean to say that you have triumphed over the rebels?”

“I have, but that is not it…” He giggled and ran his hand down the side of her face as if to peel away the skin and reveal the red flesh beneath. “You…you are only pretending to be alive.”

G’aghla drew in a hissing breath and her eyes widened fearfully. “Whatever do you mean?”

“Everyone’s pretending to be alive, but you…you’re very special, I think. Ghilik claims he brought you back from the dead, but I don’t think you are the girl I loved. You’re someone else, aren’t you?”

“You have been on a long journey, and you must be exhausted. You will be thinking more clearly when you have rested.”

His emotions were roaring within him now, his anger and fear like a flood pouring out from his mouth. “Who are you? I remember better now the G’aghla I used to know, and if you are her than death has changed you beyond recognition!” He wrapped his hands around her throat and she gasped. “Who are you?”

For several seconds she struggled in his grasp, then as his hands tightened and she began to cough and choke, there was a blinding flash of white light and he found himself curled up against the wall. His head was spinning. He squinted up at where G’aghla stood, dangling a milky white crystal on a chain from her left hand. “All right,” she said. “My name is Narasiben.”

“What do you want with me?” Hekkzaghin asked, but he was exultant inwardly. He had been right! G’aghla had been lying to him! She was something dead walking about, a skeleton dressed up in living skin. He found himself laughing uncontrollably. “Narasiben? What kind of name is that?”

“It is a very old name, from a very old people. My people betrayed me, and so I destroyed them.” Her eyes, so long wide and meek, were flashing with anger, even with hate. “For years beyond count I have been trapped in the darkness awaiting a chance to take vengeance on the world for imprisoning me – and do you think I will let you live now that you have discovered me?”

Her right fist clenched, and Hekkzaghin felt the muscles in his neck strain, as if his head were being twisted to the side. He found the knife at his side and pulled it from his belt, and as pain flared up and down his neck, he lunged at G’aghla – at the being that had taken G’aghla’s body. Casually she held up the crystal and his arm twisted backwards.

“My people were very skilled at creating devices that could alter the mind, but to alter the body takes very powerful magic indeed.” Her fingers stroked the roundness of the crystal. “The basilisks have such power. That is why I chose to help them.”

“I loved you!” Hekkzaghin shouted.

“You never loved me. You loved G’aghla, and you love this body, but G’aghla’s soul has fled across the western ocean, and her body is mine now.” For a moment her hateful expression flickered, and the old G’aghla seemed to be looking pitiably at Hekkzaghin, but then she was staring mockingly down at Hekkzaghin again. How had he ended up on the floor? His dizziness was worse then ever, and it was not helped by his utter bafflement at what was going on.

“If,” he began to say, his thoughts finding coherent form. “If you are not G’aghla…”

She gave him a scornful look. “I certainly am not.”

Hekkzaghin laughed again. “Then I can kill you!” He hurled himself at her, his knife flashing out, and managed to knock her backwards. The knife cut deep into G’aghla’s hand and the crystal fell to the ground, bouncing once, and out of the corner of his eye Hekkzaghin saw it fracture, its smoothness broken by jagged black lines.

“Hekkzaghin…” said G’aghla, looking up at him and spreading her hands. Her face had softened almost immediately. “Where…where was I? What did you do to my hand?” she asked, eyes shifting to the blood pouring down her arm, her face crinkling in pain.

“You’re a liar,” Hekkzaghin said. “You’d like it if I let you go. They’d all like it if I let you go. But I am not so easily fooled – I don’t understand, do you want me to keep from you the greatest gift I can give?”

“You can’t do this!”

He suddenly saw in her face, afraid but lovely still, the potential for years of continued happiness ahead of them, and he hesitated. He could hardly breathe, he wanted that happiness so much. He wanted to lean down and kiss her, and –

No!

He had to control himself. Had to be in control.

“I am Hekkzaghin,” he said. “I choose what I feel, what I do. I choose everything.”

In a single motion he had raised his knife again and he stabbed G’aghla through the chest. Her eyes widened with shock, but he did not see it. He was laughing, a frantically joyous laugh. G’aghla was crumpled at his feet, but he paid no heed. She was no different from any of the other enemies he had tortured and killed, and never had been. He was fooled no longer. He was in control of his feelings, in control of everything.

He could control more. He had been passive too long. Names whirled through his mind, the names of cities and kings. He sank to his knees, his laugh wracking his body.

He remembered Melagus’s words to him in his former life. “Even you are bound by the Fates, Hekkzaghin, despite your name. We are but men, after all.”

“Oh no, oh no. I am so much more than that…”

~

True to Calcam’s word, he came frequently to visit Majelis and Alzurid in their cell, keeping them informed about Kasus and his empire. From Sughin to Apalakki there were rebellions against the rule of the new emperor, and so Calcam was gone for a time with Kasus to deal with these matters, but he returned and rejoiced when he saw that Majelis was unharmed (Alzurid he treated with more reserve). “But Kasus has been telling the most terrible lies about you,” Calcam said. “He said that you killed your own father!” Now Calcam gave Majelis a sidelong glance, waiting for what he would say in response.

Majelis sighed, closed his eyes, and said, “Yes. I am a parricide. It would be easy to put the blame on my brother, to say that it was all his notion, but that would be a lie. We betrayed and delivered our father over to be sacrificed. I repented, oh so many times even before I was taught about the Flame, and now I can only stand in its light and hope that my sins are burned away.”

“You are not a holy man!”

“I never said I was, only that the Flame is holy.”

“And you spoke to me of what is good. And I trusted you!”

Alzurid began to ask what they were saying, but Calcam flung out his hands in his direction.

“I do not know you. I do not know Majelis. I know no one but Apatal. Enough!” And Calcam fled with his torch, and darkness and silence crept into the cell again.

“The Flame is even here, and I am forever with the Flame,” said Majelis quietly. “But the Beast is strong in these parts of the world, and for many years I have been his servant. And now see what I have done to my young friend! I should have begged his forgiveness, but instead pious nonsense filled my mouth.” He laughed hoarsely. “It would serve me right if I died here and was forgotten forever by all those people walking about under the sun. My brother has defeated me utterly; his name will live on when mine is no more. Well, may it be so! The Beast triumphs in this age! The Flame will burn all the world in the end of time.”

“I can pray to the Grace on your behalf,” said Alzurid softly.

“Thank you,” said Majelis, lowering his head to his chest. There was the sound of heavy steps coming down the hall towards them, and what sounded almost like laughter, but he was too lost in despair to give it much mind.

~

Kasus’s eyes were closed as he sat on his couch, and though his body was perfectly still, his mind was traveling fervidly through other realms, and as much as he tried to enter a calm state halfway between being and non-being, he was perpetually being disturbed by dark fancies. The utter disappearance of Semsa and Tailei, for one thing. Perhaps they had simply returned to their homes, but it angered him that they had slipped out of his grasp so easily. He would have to talk to Ghilik…no, Ghilik was more trouble than he was worth now. His eyes snapped open suddenly as he found it impossible to maintain calm.

As he stood up, he decided he would talk to Hekkzaghin at the first opportunity, to see about the Sangi and Ghilik, though he had little doubt that the Sangi would be above all else loyal to him. The only difficulty would be Ghilik’s formidable supernatural abilities. As Kasus thought, his head lowered and his hands crossed behind his back, a messenger peered into the room. “Isah wishes to speak to you, my lord.”

“Isah? He may enter.”

Kasus looked up a moment later to see Isah standing in the threshold. “There is good news from the north,” said Isah, pressing his fingers together. “The cities there have been impressed by your defeat of the P’ugdaghun, and they have decided to turn over that rogue general, Napilsar, that they have been sheltering.”

“Good. Arrange for a part of our army to travel through the region to make our control visible.”

“And the general?”

“He has earned death by his obstinate resistance. Deliver him over to the torturers so that he may serve as an example for all who are hesitant to submit to me. Have a message announced, something perhaps similar to ‘Let all who would fight against the Lady see and tremble. The Lady awaits you, and your only choice is whether you come to her peacefully, or with torments.’”

Isah bowed low. “I will see to it.”

“Was there anything else?”

“No, my lord. Nothing.’

A suitable length of time after Isah had left, Kasus stepped out of the room, one of his guards whose name he couldn’t remember following at his side. He had not gone far before reaching one of the gardens suspended on balconies over the dirty streets of Alhunvin, and paused to inhale the scent of the flowers. As he stood there, he heard a wild laughter coming his direction as it echoed around the hall behind, and the guard moved slightly to stand ready for any kind of attack. Kasus waited patiently, enjoying the colors he saw out of the corner of his eye. He could hardly remember what it had been like to live amid the squalor of the city, without wealth or pleasures. Especially because every time he consulted his memory, the hunter was waiting for him, so that these days he rarely ever thought back beyond a month…

The source of the laugh came into view, and Kasus was rather surprised to see that it was Hekkzaghin, walking at a lazy pace towards him, his head rolling about on his shoulders. “Oh, it is the emperor…” Hekkzaghin said.

“Yes,” Kasus said. “It is.”

Hekkzaghin paused, and his laugh quieted. “You know who I am?”

“You are the great chieftain of the Sughin.”

“No…no…I am not…I am more…you really think that men can become gods?”

Kasus looked at Hekkzaghin wonderingly. “It is not that men can become gods, but that some men have always been gods.”

“Yes! That is how it is. That is how I found out. A god can do anything he wants – isn’t that what you easterners say? We always mocked you for it, you and your pantheon of immoral immortals.” He giggled suddenly. “And I can do anything I want, and Fate will not stop me. Earth cannot stop me.”

“Hekkzaghin,” said Kasus, taking great care to keep his voice calm. “What did you do?”

“I killed her,” Hekkzaghin said. “I killed G’aghla.”

Even Kasus could not keep his shock from blazoning itself across his face and in his voice. “Why?”

“Because,” Hekkzaghin said, biting his lip. “Because she had been lying all along. That doesn’t matter!” he snapped upon seeing Kasus about to speak. “I killed her because I could. I could drive the knife…what you should ask is why I do not kill anyone else.”

“You have a responsibility to your people,” Kasus said, his tone shifting between sharpness and gentleness. He was very startled by this sudden madness of Hekkzaghin’s, and was not sure how to deal with it.

“My people are mine, to do with as I please. Do you expect me to tell you what to do with your own people, Kasus Asra?”

Kasus shook his head. “That is all right,” he said. To play along with Hekkzaghin’s whims would probably be best for the immediate present. “Is there anything you needed from me?”

“No. I was just on my way to the dungeons.” One side of Hekkzaghin’s mouth quirked upwards. “Are there any prisoners especially bothering you?”

“I very rarely visit that part of Alhunvin,” Kasus said.

“A pity, a great pity. It is the loveliest part of the city.” Hekkzaghin gave a final laugh and drifted away.

When Kasus was sure that Hekkzaghin was out of sight, he clasped his hands together and mentally added Hekkzaghin to his list of people who would be much more convenient dead. Kasus was in power now, and it was far past time to clear away the scaffolding that had brought him here.

~

Hekkzaghin was met by one of the Sangi as he passed the threshold to the lowest parts of the cells, where all hope was swallowed up by gloom. “My chieftain,” the Sangi said. His name was escaping Hekkzaghin, was dancing at the edge of his mind together with so many other things. “It is a surprise to see you down here. Was there anyone you were looking for in particular?”

“There are prisoners of special importance to Kasus?”

“Yes, a handful. This way, if you please.” Hekkzaghin followed him to a small narrow chamber where two men were shackled to opposite walls. One was dark and slight while the other was pale, with a thick beard. Both were gaunt, their ribs sticking out through their skin, and both blinked as the light of Hekkzaghin’s torch shone in their faces.

“This one is for punishment,” said Hekkzaghin’s guide, pointing to the dark man, “and this other for persuasion. Neither one is to be killed.”

“Let me see if I have not lost my skills at punishment and persuasion,” said Hekkzaghin. Something about the dark man’s face caught his eye, and he peered closely at him. “You know, you look an awful lot like Kasus Asra.” As he said the name, a curious wry look crossed the dark man’s face. “Are you from the same lands as he? Do you even understand what I am saying?”

“I don’t believe he does,” the light man said, and Hekkzaghin clicked his tongue.

“I recognize you, though,” he said to the light man. “You are Alzurid, aren’t you, from the north?” He laughed quietly. “You were so careful earlier to avoid offending me, but now here you are, my victim.” Hekkzaghin glanced between the two prisoners. “What have you been discussing?” he asked smilingly. “You have been cooped up in here for some time with no pleasures other than conversation, isn’t that right?”

K’arisna,” Majelis said at the same time that Alzurid said, “Philosophy.”

“What was that?”

“He said, religion,” Alzurid replied.

“How interesting. I have just had a revelation along those lines, just a few hours ago, no more. You see, I am a god, so whatever I do, is right. If I burn and maim you, that will be right, because I am a god!” As he spoke his voice rose and rose in pitch. “What do you think of that?”

“There is a law that binds even your gods,” Alzurid said. “The gods are not the greatest entities in the universe.”

Hekkzaghin puffed air out between his lips disdainfully. “A law to obey? You would make it no fun at all to be a god.” He reached out his open hand behind him, and his Sangi attendant placed in his palm a cool metal bar. Hekkzaghin brought this around to show Majelis the point of the bar, heated to a painful red glow. “What exactly did you do, Majelis, that made this punishment necessary? I hope you committed some terrible blasphemy against the king and the gods, because my punishment will be a most terrible one.” He grinned at Majelis’s sudden fearful look, then moved the end of the bar slowly closer to Majelis’s right shoulder. He saw Majelis twist slightly away, but his bonds were too tight to allow him much success.

And then Majelis’s jaw clenched and his eyes squeezed shut as the brand seared into his skin. Hekkzaghin inhaled the ugly scent of burning human flesh with a grim kind of pleasure, then pulled the bar away and turned to Alzurid.

Weda`gasrulina. Ra` `marusuna, `sa besse`ina `wa ka`jale,” he heard Majelis gasp.

“What? Translate!” demanded Hekkzaghin.

Fisāsur zli sasan. Ninna hanrasur, t’i kkhil vilapris ār,” Majelis said, his voice nearly a whisper.

Alzurid fixed Hekkzaghin with an unreadable look. “You contradict yourself. If you do something wrong, you are therefore no god.”

“Is that so?” Hekkzaghin asked casually. “What about you, Alzurid? What do you need to be persuaded of?”

Alzurid stared up at him with sad eyes. “To betray myself.”

“What upon this wide Earth does that mean? If anything, I would say that allowing yourself to be shackled and injured is a betrayal of yourself. Those are nasty cuts on your stomach, but not enough to persuade you, I see? Allow me to try.” He brought the bar close by Alzurid’s wounds and watched the sweat glisten on his forehead by the light of the torches. “Are you persuaded? There is absolutely nothing you can do to stop me, I hope you know.”

After a moment Alzurid shook his head slowly, and Hekkzaghin moved closer.

~

At that same moment, Semsa sat near a group of outcroppings from the rock, looking down at the sea lapping the coast a hundred feet below. The sun was at its peak in the sky, draining the vitality from Semsa and the color from her surroundings. She heard someone approach her from behind, probably Vilarla, and she waited.

“Semsa?” Vilarla asked in her hoarse voice. “I heard that you were leaving tomorrow morning, and I thought you might want some civilized company before you visit the savages.”

Semsa smiled, thinking of Apalakki, Khitharen, and Tiggras, and looking around her at the dwellings even rougher than those of the Tanos tribe. But she nodded at Vilarla nevertheless. “That would be nice, thank you. I see you brought water – I was getting quite thirsty here.”

After Semsa had taken a long sip from the narrow-necked pot and handed it back to her, Vilarla said, “In the days that you have been with us, you have kept your mouth shut regarding your intentions. But no one, neither woman nor man, travels to Jibun without sufficient reason. It might lighten your mind to speak of it. One woman alone can only give dark counsel to herself.”

“All right,” said Semsa, “if you wish it. But you may not believe all that I have to say.”

“I have seen flying serpents and sand demons with my own two eyes. I am not prone to doubt such things.”

Semsa stretched out her legs over the cliff face and leaned back to stare up at the sky. “The man I long to marry is trapped in the cave of a tyrant,” she said, wondering as she did if Alzurid was here in spirit watching over her. “I am going to Jibun because there is a lost city in the mountains that may be able to help me get him free.”

“I don’t understand,” Vilarla said. “How can a city help you?”

“It is a city where many powerful things are waiting, and I hope to call upon them, so that they can be raised from their slumber and set loose upon our enemy.”

“It is a dreadful thing that you plan. Jibun is an evil place.”

“I know, but there is nothing else I can do.”

Vilarla shook her head. “You are brave, much more brave than I am. At least allow me to implore the great mother to look with favor on you, so your quest will be well-nourished in her arms.”

Semsa rubbed her cheek, hiding her amusement as she remembered the grotesque idol from her last visit to the Musrah. But more powerful than her amusement was her honest gratitude for the kindness that Vilarla was offering. “Thank you,” she said, then repeated, “Thank you,” and sat up to look out at the far coast, and the hills that were just barely visible on the horizon. Nusgwedn was waiting for her. And deep in her soul she felt a legion of cold voices whispering her name.

When Semsa departed, she waved to the Musrah family gathered on the shoreline and shouted a last farewell before turning back to her destination, the coracle rocking beneath her. She put all her weight into the oar, cutting through the water, but the far shore remained frustratingly distant. The water – vast and unfathomable, constantly rising and falling as her coracle moved through it – unsettled both her mind and her stomach, and every moment she feared that she would be overturned and swallowed by the deep.

Traveling to Jibun in this fashion was almost a nightmare, but at long last the journey was over and she was lying on dry ground next to the coracle, taking deep breaths. She was not sure at first what to do with her boat, but finally settled on wedging it between rocks further up the shore. By the time this was accomplished, it was getting late in the day, but Semsa had no intention of resting yet.

Even in this season of the year it was remarkably hot, and she thought to herself that it was probably a good thing Tailei had halted in Apalakki, to go about the business she said she had there. Semsa had been born in the desert and had spent most of her life in it, and although it was no friend to anyone, at least she knew its moods well. And with Tailei’s absence, the strange noises following after them in the night had ceased too, and now she dismissed the memories as nothing more than an active imagination.

From the other side of a crest of rock running parallel to the coast, she could see the gloomy hills of Jibun, with the desolate towers and the lights of tiny fires that filled the land before her. She bit her lip, remembering the fierce tribe that had assaulted the travelers the last time she had visited this place, but there was no help for it. If she went forward quietly and quickly, perhaps she would be able to reach Nusgwedn without trouble. And once in Nusgwedn, nothing could stop her.

At least, that was how her plan went, and she did not dare to think that it might fail. With the sun sinking beyond the hills ahead, and a cool wind howling past her, Semsa began to walk down the slope towards the mountain in the far distance.

When she grew too tired to walk on any longer without rest, she curled up in a hollow of a large rock and slept, but fitfully, and woke well before dawn to continue on her way. It was late the next day when she first began to notice that she was being followed. She clutched the hilt of the knife she had brought with her and silently implored the Fates – and Alzurid’s Good – to let her pass without being attacked.

But her prayers were in vain. As she lifted herself up a particularly steep incline, a strange hand reached down to clasp her wrist. She noticed only its fingernails grown long like claws and its skin a mess of crossing scars before the hand twisted, wrenching her arm painfully and then letting her drop several feet to the bottom. As she recovered herself and rubbed the places where the rocks had bruised her, she saw several men closing in around her, and fear and anger rose and threatened to consume her wholly.

A big man rubbed the flesh of his chin and glanced from side to side at his compatriots. “Wanī́rū zgwasu. Râ kárû di lwû.

Râ sihil ho, mā?” asked another.

The big man eyed Semsa closely and smiled at her. “Lukwal luglágn râ. Háratôna sûrznā́m tadāríl râ di ngwáhā́mdū́. Akātza pern grūl béralt…” His smile deepened, and he showed his teeth.

And Semsa’s terror fled from her, and she fixed her eyes on the big man, her face as cold as the heights of the air. She screamed, a deliberate scream like the screech of a bird, and it was answered by a similar call from above. A shadow swept over them, something with long leathery wings and a beak like a sword. The men fell to their knees as the dragon’s gaze passed over them; Semsa rose to her feet and continued on her way.

When she came to a group of tall rocks sticking out like fingers from the ground she collapsed among them, hugging herself as she sat, and closed her eyes tight. The dragons are yours to do with as you wish. If you want, you can use them to build, to frighten, to kill…they will be your servants as they were the servants of the Ghadari in the Gardens of the Sun.

She looked up at the sky and saw five, ten, fifteen dragons circling above. After the way they had saved her from the bandits just now, she knew she should feel warmly towards them, but they still inspired a cold fear in her as she watched them. Finally she stood up and, orienting herself towards Nusgwedn, continued on her way as the stars came out. The dragons were beginning to sing now, a haunting croon with harsh undertones. One would sing higher, another lower, and the two tones melded together, seeming to shake the very ground beneath Semsa’s feet, and she shuddered.

When daybreak neared she was passing through the ridged towers that marked the graveyard of a civilization, and she decided to find shelter from the day’s heat in one of these until dusk. She ducked inside the nearest of the towers, a building that was relatively untouched by decay, although as she entered she found that part of the ceiling on this lowest level had caved in, and through the hole above, through a window beyond, she could see the sky.

She stretched her blanket over her face, trying to ignore both the grumbling of her stomach and the song of the dragons. Nevertheless it seemed like an eternity before she fell asleep.

Late in the day Semsa woke, brushed a large spider off of her legs, and crawled out into the cooler air of the evening. Nusgwedn was very close now, a vast shape that stood at the forefront of the looming mountain range beyond. She was parched and hungry, but all that mattered was the lost city that waited for her with its hundreds of dragons. Even Alzurid was receding from her mind as the desert pared her thoughts down to what was absolutely necessary. She was going to Nusgwedn, she wanted to stay out of the worst of the sun’s heat, and she had to conserve her water. There would be great channels of water once she reached the city…she tried not to think about that. It was almost painful, imagining it.

And then, a stream lay before her, raging with the waters of spring that flowed down from the mountain. She knelt and lapped up the water greedily, and then twisted around to dip her feet in its coolness. Refreshed, she continued onward.

By the next morning she had reached the first of the buildings that surrounded the mountain, and early in the afternoon she paused next to a tall gold-capped spire, uncertain of where to go now. She stared up at the dragons, and after a moment noticed that they were flying in lines to and from a spot far above her on the mountain slope. A nest, something whispered in her head. Their home. Do you want to go there?

Yes, she answered, and a dragon descended, alighting on the ground not far from where she stood, squatting on its clawed feet and broad wings. It lowered its head, apparently offering her a seat on the back of its neck. After a moment of hesitation, she lifted herself up and over its scaly skin, gripping tightly with her legs and arms, hardly daring to think about what was to happen next. The dragon whistled through the nostrils near its eyes, then stood up, and Semsa nearly fell off but clung on even tighter. Then it made a small hop, its wings began to move, and just like that they were in the air.

Semsa stared down as the ground dropped away, unable to grasp fully what was happening. Her stomach leapt up, and she swallowed and looked ahead at Nusgwedn, and at the pier ahead that was carved out of the rock of the mountain. She closed her eyes, and after a minute or so there was a soft bump, and the dragon’s head twisted around.

It had settled on the edge of the pier, which jutted out into the middle of the air. Other dragons were perched all around, watching Semsa with their keen inhuman eyes. She half-climbed, half-fell off the dragon’s neck and looked ahead, to where the pier vanished into a dark tunnel within the mountain. It was colder up here, and she wrapped her blanket closely about herself and went towards the darkness. Then she paused, and turning back to the dragon that had carried her, said, “Thank you.”

Even with her eyes adjusted to the dark, Semsa still had difficulty moving forward in the shadows of the tunnel. But what she saw was not as important as what she heard: the rustling of wings and claws against the rock walls, and the gentle crooning that began to fill her mind. For a split second she felt as if the dragons were a part of her, like her arms or her legs, and she knew that now was the moment when she could call them forth and take what she desired.

She closed her eyes, trying to recapture that control. Then a thought slipped into her mind from somewhere else. You will destroy Alhunvin as Nusgwedn was destroyed.

“I destroy only injustice.”

It will not end with that. They are terrible creatures.

“The Fates will not help me – I must do for myself.”

How then are you different from Hekkzaghin?

She collapsed against a wall, her eyes snapping open. “Who are you, and how dare you accuse me of, accuse me of…” Silence, and Semsa lowered her head in despair. “Whatever god you are that was worshipped in this place,” she murmured, “if you can hear me still, then help me!” Words failed her, and she wept, unable to continue or even take another step. Totally helpless, she silently implored the Fates and the god of the mountain to help Alzurid, and the dragons slipped further away from her, leaving her alone in the black.

~

Hekkzaghin was rocking back and forth, standing at a window of the palace and looking out at the ceaseless rain. He was not smiling – it was not one of his gleeful moods but a dark mood where death seemed to have triumphed already and all that was left was for him to die himself.

He heard footsteps behind him, and at last he cheered up slightly. Maybe he could kill someone for intruding on him. When he turned his head to see his victim, he was amused to see that it was Kasus, and one of the coward’s guards. “How did you know I was here?” he asked.

“It was chance,” Kasus said. “But opportune chance. How has that prisoner, Alzurid, been doing? Have you persuaded him to help me?”

Hekkzaghin finally chuckled. “Oh, I doubt he will be able to help you. I had a little too much fun, went a little too far. I doubt Alzurid is in any condition to do much. I don’t even know if he will last the night. At least he was luckier than the other prisoner with him.”

“What happened to him?” Kasus asked, no emotion apparent in his voice.

“He died… I asked him to serve you, but he wouldn’t. I asked him to worship me, but he wouldn’t. Even when the skin flayed from his body and the blood poured out. I suppose he really was devoted to his god in the end, even if it did him no good. He really should have worshipped me, wouldn’t you say?”

“I see.” Kasus turned on his heel and began to walk out of the room, but in quick strides Hekkzaghin reached the threshold before him and stood in it, blocking him. “What is this?” Kasus demanded. “Treachery?” And the guard’s arm began to move, but by that time Hekkzaghin already had a blade out and drove it into his throat. “Treachery! You have killed my brother, who had the blood of the gods in him!”

“You should have considered that before turning him over to me.”

Kasus had stepped back, and now he knelt to yank away the fallen guard’s sword. “A normal man does not kill his wife for no reason. You are a madman, and a madman makes the worst kind of king. Let me pass.”

“You would be rid of me, then? You have used me to obtain glory beyond your most wondrous dreams, and now you no longer need me? But, Kasus, Kasus, Kasus, Kasus, I am death, I trail behind all your conquests, and you cannot simply dismiss me.”

“The Sangi are mine,” Kasus said, and Hekkzaghin saw with glee that his face was pale and his knuckles white on the hilt of the sword. “They always were. And the Sughin will follow the Sangi, not you. Don’t you realize how much they hate you? You are a monstrosity, and they will be glad when their Fates have wiped you from their skein.”

“Are you trying to make me kill you?”

Kasus sneered. “I have no intention of dying.”

“I don’t care!” Hekkzaghin cried, and lowered his sword and ran forward. Kasus parried easily, and Hekkzaghin was surprised by how much strength was in his blow – though he realized he shouldn’t, given the size of the man. He eyed Kasus with a new respect. “I will teach you what I have taught so many others. You will never take what is mine!”

He thrust in at Kasus’s right side, and Kasus twisted away, but not fast enough. The blade caught him near his ribs, but as he jerked back, it came out of Hekkzaghin’s grip. Hekkzaghin flung himself forward before Kasus could take advantage of the accident, and struck him on the face again and again. He kneed Kasus’s hand and the other sword clattered to the ground. But Kasus managed to free his arms to lash out at Hekkzaghin, bruising his ribs painfully.

“Guards!” Kasus called. “Treachery!” Hekkzaghin punched him again in the mouth, breaking a tooth, before he could say anything. He ignored the way Kasus was pummeling his sides, ignored the pain, focused his entire mind on winning this battle.

“This is not treachery,” he said. “This is the natural ending of things.” As he spoke his hands slipped down to tighten around Kasus’s neck. Despite Kasus’s frantic kicks and the thick muscle in his neck, Hekkzaghin pressed inexorably, unceasingly, until Kasus’s eyes began to bulge.

~

The hunter was drawing closer now. He was there ten minutes ago. When Kasus had walked through the hallways on his way to confront Hekkzaghin, the hunter had been trailing just behind him and his guard. Two minute ago. Hekkzaghin had blocked Kasus from leaving, and the hunter was looking over his shoulder, and the hunter was smiling. Thirty seconds ago. As Hekkzaghin and Kasus grappled, the hunter was kneeling, his face coming closer and closer. The shadow of Kasus’s memories fell upon him, and the hunter was here.

~

With one final twist, it was over. Hekkzaghin looked at Kasus and almost felt sad. “What worlds we could have conquered, you and I, if we had not turned on one another in the end.” He fumbled in his purse and drew out two coins. Then he ground them into Kasus’s eyes and closed the lids.

Recovering his sword, he stood up and stepped over the guard’s body on his way out. “G’aghla,” he murmured without thinking. “Kasus.”

He did not know for how long he walked aimlessly through the palace, nor were his thoughts at all coherent as he wandered. The halls were strangely empty, without any sign of the attention Kasus’s shouts should have drawn. After some time Hekkzaghin paused, hearing rapid footsteps behind him, and turned to see a child approaching him, a curiously formed sword in his hand. Without any articulate word, only a cry of rage, the child raised the sword and ran towards Hekkzaghin.

“This is wonderful!” Hekkzaghin exclaimed, dodging easily. “I have never killed anyone as young as you before.” But as he looked more closely, he was less sure that this was indeed a child and not an adult of particularly youthful appearance. “Tell me, who are you? Or do you not speak my language?”

The child pressed forward again, driving Hekkzaghin back to the wall. Their swords clashed again and again, and Hekkzaghin began to realize that, with his injuries from the battle with Kasus and the skill the child was showing, he would have to try very hard to win this. For a split second he considered calling for help, but he was Death, and he would win alone.

He realized, as he fought, that his face was covered in sweat, and almost reached up to wipe it off before he recalled himself. The child’s teeth were bared as he struck what should have been wild blows, what by the way his arms and legs moved should have been inaccurate and glancing, yet somehow it was all Hekkzaghin could do to keep him back.

He was Hekkzaghin; he was the emissary of death on this earth. He couldn’t die. He couldn’t die!

“What do you want?” he said again, and managed to gain an advantage, forcing the child to take several steps backwards. Hekkzaghin giggled – this was all so ridiculous! What – what did this tiny swordsman think he was doing?

It was so simple, his mistake. He judged wrongly what his opponent was going to do, his hand twitched in the wrong direction, and the child’s sword raked down his side, spikes cutting through cloth and flesh. He screamed and threw himself furiously at the child, but with a calm, almost beatific, expression on his face, the child stepped to the side and drove his sword up through Hekkzaghin’s stomach. A darkness began to close in around Hekkzaghin as pain wrenched his insides.

And he laughed, laughed uncontrollably. This could not be happening! This was not right! And yet somehow…

~

Alzurid was dying. It was painful to breath – one of the many blows he had been given had shattered a rib so that it pierced a lung, and he could almost feel the air wheezing out of it. No matter. Majelis was dead already, and soon Alzurid would join him. He had been preparing all his life for the moment of his death with meditation and reasoning, yet he could not help but feel how unfair it was that he should die when he had at last found a kind of peace.

For although the loss of the stone garden in Lazu had killed his mother, Alzurid had not suffered, just as his father, who was not of the royal lineage, had not suffered. His father had not been bound to the sacred places of the land, but Alzurid ought to have been deeply affected by the garden’s destruction, made sick to his very heart. And yet…

Alzurid’s mind was wandering as he grew weaker. He was not sure how long it had been since Hekkzaghin had left them. It didn’t matter much.

He had not cared about the garden, he realized, not deep down. He was bound, but had slipped loose of the binding when he had slipped loose of his home and his family to wander the world. And he understood at last that, in abandoning his home to find the stone garden, he had abandoned the very reason for the garden.

“Semsa,” he whispered, even though it made his throat ache and his breath burn him like fire.

Although all was dark around him, he somehow perceived that there was someone approaching. Perhaps it was a quiet footstep, perhaps a stirring in the air, he could not tell how he knew, only that he knew. Alzurid waited for the newcomer to speak, or for life to finally ebb out of him, whichever came first.

Then he took a sudden breath despite the pain. For rather than ebbing out of him, life was flowing in. And even though there was no light, he could see. A young man, perhaps thirty years old, was leaning against the wall facing his cell, a crude wooden yoke resting on his shoulders. The expression on his face was indescribable by mere words. Alzurid took another breath, and another, and somehow breathed by the power of the young man’s own breath.

The newcomer said nothing, yet at the same time Alzurid felt as if he did not need to speak, that he was the very voice speaking everything around him: the walls and the chains and the darkness itself. He put his hands on Alzurid’s chest, and Alzurid could feel the bones and flesh knitting together again. The cuffs holding his wrists and ankles snapped open, and Alzurid fell forward, bruising himself when he hit the floor, but he didn’t mind. He delighted in this new pain, for it meant that he was free.

On the other side of the cell, Majelis raised his head and opened his eyes. “`Es ja`rasrikeats?” he asked, his voice weak, then, “Am I not dead?” The young man turned and began to walk away, and Alzurid, stumbling to his feet, could not help but follow. He heard Majelis following behind him too.

When they emerged at last from the prison, the sun was setting over the walls directly in front of them, sending a sharp glare into Alzurid’s eyes. He didn’t mind this pain either. In fact, he almost laughed from joy. It had been raining earlier, so that the muck was flowing through the streets, but Alzurid was too delighted to care.

A shout came from ahead, and Alzurid saw the magician, Ghilik, running towards them, howling something inarticulate. He could just make out repeated imprecations and insults, seemingly directed at the young man. When he was close enough, Ghilik threw himself at the young man, beating him with his fists, but his victim seemed unperturbed.

“Be healed,” he said, using his mouth for the first time since he had appeared, and Ghilik screamed, then gasped. His eyes widened and blood trickled from the corner of his mouth, but he stared up at the young man with wonder. He sank to the ground, all the bones in his body seemingly giving way.

Ghilik held up his hands and stared at them as if for the first time. Then he returned his gaze to the young man, and he said, “Thank you,” before collapsing utterly. When Alzurid came forward to investigate, Ghilik’s eyes were blank and his breathing had stopped. Alzurid remained for a moment with his hand on Ghilik’s shoulder, then he looked back to see the young man was no longer there, and Majelis was gazing up at the sky.

“I was dead, wasn’t I?” he asked, and Alzurid nodded. “Well. I think that now I have looked on the face of…”

“We should be leaving,” Alzurid said when it became clear Majelis was not going to say anything more. “We do not want to be found here.”

There was someone shouting from a tower nearby, which alarmed Alzurid until he realized it was a cry of mourning. “There is something odd in the city, I think,” Majelis said.

Alzurid blinked in the light, trying to discern the caller, but was unable. As he listened more closely, he thought he heard “the king is dead! The great Kasus is dead!” He repeated this, and saw Majelis lower his head, sorrow and relief passing over his face in quick succession.

“Before we go there is something I think we should do,” Alzurid said.

“Lead the way,” Majelis replied. Already others were beginning to emerge behind them from the prisons with cries of wonder.

Alzurid had often wandered the palace and surrounding areas in his dreams, and so did not find it difficult to locate one of the back entrances to the palace and enter, Majelis following behind him. They passed only a few denizens of the palace as they went, a frightened kitchen servant or one of the Sangi blinded to everything but his loud wails and the cuts he was inflicting on himself with his knife, but no one who could keep them from going on.

Then, at one of the entrances to the inner courtyard, they found Calcam slumped against a wall, his bloodied sword next to his hand, his stomach cut open. But he was still alive, if barely, and he smiled when Majelis knelt by him. Majelis waved for Alzurid to go on, and so he passed through the entrance, and eventually found the chamber he was looking for on the palace’s upper level, its door shrouded by a curtain. He heard muffled weeping from within, and brushed the curtain aside to enter. Thetta sat on the floor by the window, her chin resting on her hands as she stared outside, while Mirathol was standing by the curtain so that Alzurid nearly walked into her as he entered.

“You have heard the sad news, my ladies?” he asked.

“We have,” said Thetta, taking a choking breath. “And everything is in ruin.”

“Where is Masila?” Alzurid asked.

“She was taken away by her brothers,” said Mirathol, a smile touching her face. “But no one cares about us.”

“Come with me. We’ll find Uromalkhuros so you can return to the north with him.”

Thetta rose, but Mirathol took a step back towards the window. “The day for the wolves of heaven to mete out justice is drawing closer,” she said, her unfamiliar Varluker accent becoming thicker as her voice rose. “I was a necessary sacrifice to fill out the allotted time, but I am no longer in a position to serve my masters! It is time to die.” And before Alzurid or Thetta could do anything to stop her, she lifted herself up carefully onto the window’s ledge, then was gone. With two quick strides Alzurid reached the window and looked down to see if there was any hope, but shook his head and guided Thetta out of the chamber.

~

Majelis took Calcam’s hand as the Eja man spoke. “I am sorry for what I said. You may not have been the holy man I thought you were, but I should have listened to you. I killed the wrong man. Ghilik told me. The destroyer of cities was Kasus, not Hekkzaghin, and Ghilik, not Kasus, was meant to be the king of the west. I failed to kill my brother’s murderer. My oath is broken. My ancestors have been angered. I could never return home to marry and make a house of my own. I could only die.”

“The Flame,” Majelis began to say, but Calcam interrupted him.

“I hear the spirits, Majelis. As on the day of my initiation, when barbs and thorns tore my flesh, I hear them again. Please! I don’t want to face them alone. Tell me your Flame will help me.”

“Less than an hour ago I was dead, and now I am alive, and I have committed the worst of sins,” said Majelis. “You will not go to the spirits by yourself, without help. I promise.”

Again Calcam smiled, and it was obvious now that he was hiding terrible pain. He smiled, and coughed, and his eyes closed. Majelis said a prayer, and by the time he had finished, Alzurid and a woman he didn’t know emerged from inside the palace.

“Thetta is a noblewoman of Khiar,” Alzurid said to Majelis, after a moment of silence in respect for Calcam. “Kasus brought her from her home. I was thinking it would be best if she were to leave Apalakki with us, as I doubt she will be treated well now.”

“I will be returning to the north,” Majelis said, tilting his head to the side and considering. “They will have chosen a new high priest in Teolphar, but it may be that there will be room for me in Khiar. After all, despite what that Teolphar council might think, I am the true and the only high priest of the Flame. They put me in place, but they cannot remove me as easily as all that.” He looked down at Thetta and nodded. “Will you be going back to your home, then?”

“I will,” Alzurid said. “My traveling is at an end, and I have found what I have been looking for all these years. But there is one place I should visit first.”

~

As Apalakki lay atop the hill, his companions gathered around him and wept for him. Among his twelve companions he divided up portions of the realm, and Zalgain he made to be king after him. Then he was taken to the shores of Ghizdulah and laid to rest in a cave there, and no mortal eye saw him again, nor can mortal mouth say what the Fates did with his soul. For as I have found it written in the archives of the city, “No warrior was braver, nor king wiser, nor any man more blessed by the gods.”

-Generations of K’itarbul (X)

Chapter 12

Dream of Love Dream of Hate Chapter 10

“Everybody knows in their heart how they are going to die,” said Ghilik, wearing a smile that was at odds with the grimness of the dungeon surrounding Kasus and the small group of Sangi. “It is their greatest fear, their deepest nightmare, so deep that they are not consciously aware of it. Yet an occasional tingle, a twinge of unease, gives it away, tells them that this will happen to them, that this is their specific fate. One man shudders to hear of a drowned victim, another stops his ears when his friend tells him of a hunter torn to pieces by lions. And it is your duty to introduce them to death, to bring them face to face with what awaits them.”

He walked several steps to a prisoner who had been brought from his cell and shackled here to the stone wall. An ugly man made gaunt by his imprisonment, he stared at them with vacant eyes that told Kasus clearly that he would never be surprised or dismayed by anything that befell him again. Ideally, that meant it would be a matter of indifference to him what he said to his interrogators.

“Find out whatever you can about this plot,” Ghilik said, turning back to the Sangi. Without looking he took the prisoner’s chin in his hand. “Do whatever you have to.”

~

“I’ve won,” Kasus said, and laughed with a rich sound that filled the room. “I don’t have to worry about…ah, thank you, Mirathol…I don’t have to worry about the conquest any more. It has been done. Now I can simply enjoy myself.” He took a long gulp of the sherbet Mirathol had brought him, then gave Alzurid a sharp glance. “But don’t think you can go home just yet. You would be able to help my empire very greatly.”

“I have spent many years traveling,” said Alzurid, “and I am not accustomed to lingering in one place.”

Kasus’s eyes glittered. “You should accustom yourself. Men with powers such as yours do not appear every day, and the powerful will make use of them one way or another. Please, Mirathol, join us if you wish, or go elsewhere, but do not stand in the doorway hesitating. It discomforts me. Make sure not to forget to veil yourself again!” he called as she vanished around the corner, then he sighed. “If women were not so lovely…but they are, in mind and body, and so we marry. You do not say very much, Alzurid, as if some spell has been placed on your lips. That is quite all right: I am very used to people falling silent for fear of me.”

“I am not afraid of you,” said Alzurid.

“Oh? Really?”

“No. But there is nothing I can say to my advantage right now.”

Kasus laughed again. “Is such caution a common trait of the men of Lazu?”

“It has been said that it is easier to drag the sun from its course than to make one of the Lazulhi speak frankly. We have learned much from our rule by the Duri.”

Kasus nodded. “I will be marrying a Malhun princess soon, as you may have heard.”

“You are collecting wives like baubles,” said Alzurid.

“It is one of the advantages of power. An advantage you could have if you remain at my side, to help me rule.”

“In Lazu men only take one wife each.”

“Isn’t it sad to deny yourself in such a way?” asked Kasus. Alzurid made no reply, and he shrugged. “Well, I suppose tastes differ, after all. Speaking of tastes, do you care for opium?”

“I have heard that such things have more peril than usual this far to the east.”

“I assure you that in small doses it is utterly harmless.”

“My habit is ale, and I prefer to imbibe with old friends, and with some of the less venomous members of my family.”

“Most excellent, a most excellent perspective. My family was not particularly kind either. You can go to do what you will now; I dismiss you.”

“I have one last question, though, as I have not seen Tailei for some weeks. By any chance do you know what she has been doing?”

“Oh, I do not believe so. She has been talking with G’aghla a great deal, but I could not begin to say why.” He smiled a catlike smile and reclined on the couch, his hand reaching for a blue porcelain bowl whose contents Alzurid could not see. Alzurid inclined his head and left.

Semsa was waiting for him, and when he appeared she told him hurriedly, “I have made arrangements with some of the Sughin I knew of old. Exactly twenty days from now we should leave the city. Did you find out where Tailei is?”

“No, not yet.”

“I worry for her,” said Semsa, her hands clasping together. “Something terrible happened to her in Nusgwedn but since Malg’us died she has shut herself away from everything, as far as I can tell. I do not want to leave her behind to suffer only the Fates know what destiny.”

“I will try my best to find her,” Alzurid said. “But I suspect she will not want to return home.”

~

Tailei closed her eyes tightly, and when she opened them again, G’aghla was standing in the entryway. “You were telling me about the basilisks when we talked last.”

“I think that is right,” said G’aghla, then, awkwardly, “I am sorry. If you were busy…”

“G’aghla, these talks of ours are the only things that keep me from hurling myself off the city walls. I can feel the dead men, you know. They are in Alhunvin, and they call to me.”

“Servants always call to their masters in such a way. A slave without direction is a pitiful thing.” G’aghla pursed her lips and shook her head. “But you were given your magic for a reason, you know. The Fates have decreed it.”

“The Fates decree nothing. Men and women are free.”

“Are you sure of that?” asked G’aghla.

“I am. I have been given this power – very well, I will use it to help the Zconr. I do not care what that dead magician had in mind for me. I am a child of the eight winds, and I will do what I choose. Isn’t that what Hekkzaghin claims for himself, a nature that overcomes Fate?”

G’aghla looked down. “Hekkzaghin is different,” she whispered.

“I am sorry for upsetting you,” Tailei said, taking G’aghla’s hands in her own. “What were you saying yesterday, about the basilisks being benevolent spirits originally?”

“The Sughin forgot the basilisks, and so in time legend transformed them into first unpredictable tricksters, then into personifications of evil. But the old traditions lived on among some of us.”

“From what Ghilik says, I am not so sure they are benevolent.”

“Ghilik is a very peculiar man, and he is not the clearest in his explanations. He is like a sky clouded by dust, so that shapes are distorted beyond recognition. Do not pay much attention to him when he speaks of the basilisks – he would make Sogha, the kindest Fate, sound like one of Hismogh’s minions. But in the end, the basilisks only want to help us. They helped me once, a long time ago.” G’aghla’s hands trembled repeatedly as she spoke this last sentence.

“They brought you back to life, and it is a sour joke that they only grant me a mockery of resurrection,” Tailei said.

“Your magic could hardly be more different from that of the basilisks,” said G’aghla. Her eyelids fluttered spastically, and she put a hand to the side of her head.

“Are you feeling all right?” asked Tailei, concerned.

G’aghla shook her head slowly, but what came out of her mouth was, “I am fine, don’t worry. If you are confident that you know what to do with your magic, then may the Fates bless you and your tribe.”

“Thank you, G’aghla. And may the eight winds bless you. You have been a good friend to me, and a great help after what I have done.”

“You have done nothing to be ashamed of. I admire you very much. You are a worthy daughter of the Zconr.”

Tailei felt herself smile, and she put a hand over G’aghla’s arm. “If only that were so,” she said.

~

Kasus lounged back in his throne and waited for his councilors to arrive. When all twelve were kneeling before him, he waved his hand. “You may rise,” he said, looking over the priests, representatives, and generals from Sughin, from Kupavim, from Apalakki, and from Malhun. Even the fiercest and fastest, as the wolf said to her cubs, would starve without well-chosen companions. “Tell me, what has been happening in my kingdom?”

“Yes, tell us,” said Hekkzaghin, entering and leaning against the wall. He crossed his arms behind his neck and gave Kasus a sardonic smile.

Kasus felt muscles in the side of his face twitch. “Go ahead,” he told the councilors.

“The Duri have sent diplomatic emissaries to the Sughin. They recognize the greatness of your empire,” said G’ezosbal. He bowed to Hekkzaghin. “You have made us a mighty people.”

“And the P’ugdaghun?” Kasus asked sharply.

Daghat’i’s eyes shied away from Kasus’s gaze. “The P’ugdaghun have been fleeing in large number to Vunis, frightened by your power and might.”

“And?” Hekkzaghin asked.

“And, there have been rumors of mild dissatisfaction with your reign, especially in Apalakki. There have apparently been meetings between Apalakki lords and high-ranking P’ugdaghun officials, but my spies have been unable to learn what has been said between them. There are stories that your empire is the subject of prophecy, and that the same prophecies predict its overthrow.”

“I have heard similar stories, supposedly from the oracle of Teolphar,” said Isah. “It is said that the oracle has been instructing people to oppose you, and giving many similar pernicious utterances.”

Kasus tightened his hands on the arms of the throne. “Teolphar is outside the bounds of my control yet, but I imagine that I will be able to take steps to put a leash on that oracle they have.”

“And will your Khiar friends let you?” Hekkzaghin asked.

“Khiar deliberately shields itself away from the reality of the world,” snapped Kasus in reply. Almost immediately he forced himself to calm down, letting his head loll back as he smiled at Hekkzaghin. “It is really no wonder that they supported me. Now it is time to ensure that, in reality, my empire will last. I will manage Teolphar personally, but I want any sign of rebellion crushed immediately, and anyone instigating it to be executed in some suitably horrible fashion.” Hekkzaghin chuckled at hearing this. “It is time, I trust, for the Sangi to prove their worth for a king as they already have for a general,” continued Kasus, covering his mouth in feigned boredom.

“We need prove ourselves to no one but Nosseli,” Tsrari said.

“I know that well,” said Kasus, sitting upright and nodding to Tsrari. “And I hope that you will serve her thoroughly indeed. Now, what else should I know about my empire?”

~

It was the second day after the feast of Golden Khrijosas, who the common folk said had captured the Beast with a hook through its nose. The fire in the chamber danced to one side, even though there was not the slightest trace of a wind or any gust of air. It flickered in front of Majelis’s eyes, and he sat back with a sigh, his meditations interrupted. Mere seconds later there came a voice from below: “Holy One?”

“You may enter,” Majelis said.

Tanurol’s head poked up from the ladder. “There is a man who insists on bringing you a message. He says he is sent by the emperor of the south, but if you do not want to see him we will turn him away.”

“No, I will come down to talk with him.”

“Come with me, Holy One.”

Majelis pulled his hood over his face and climbed down the ladder, following Tanurol through the halls and stairways of the tower, arriving in the end at a chilly room where a man waited, sitting in a chair. It took Majelis several seconds to remember where he had seen the waiting man before.

“Kkuda Majelis,” said Sratau. “You have come up in the world since you ran away from the Kaghatil.”

“What brings you here, Sratau? Do the P’ugdaghun seek the protection of the Flame from the dark things of the sea?”

“I am not here on behalf of the P’ugdaghun – you should know that an ambassador is not necessarily bound to any one king. My allegiances now lie with your brother, the emperor of Apalakki.”

“And what message does Kasus have for me?”

“You are quite eager to get down to business for a child of Sretskalawa. Have you forgotten how to wrap your words in flowers and feathers?”

“I am no longer a prince, Sratau, I am a priest of the Flame, and my concern is not with war and taxes but with the fate of men’s souls.”

“If you want to talk, then let us talk,” Sratau said, rising to his feet. “If you have given up all worldly power, then do so honestly, but do not meddle in the affairs of kings.”

“Explain yourself.”

Sratau jabbed a finger in the direction of Majelis’s face. “You know what I mean. Your oracle is stirring up dissension against the emperor. Confine yourself to advising people in love and domestic matters, not in higher affairs.”

“Do you dare to place bounds upon the Flame?” Majelis asked calmly. “The oracle is not subject to any king or emperor.”

“If you are going to make trouble for the emperor, then you should be aware that the emperor is capable of making a great deal of trouble for you. Shut the mouth of the oracle, or hope that your Flame will protect you from the anger of my master.”

“There is nothing you can do to harm me.”

An angry smile flitted over Sratau’s face and was gone in an instant. “We will see. I have orders to remain in Teolphar to observe and watch for signs of rebellion, and if anything unfortunate happens to me, it will be taken as a sign that Teolphar has sided with the enemies of both empires.”

“I will see that every measure is taken to keep you safe, then,” said Majelis dryly. “Was there anything else you have to say to me?”

“Oh, no, no. I would hate to keep you from your prayers. I hope you are happy with your new god, this Flame that was unknown to your fathers.”

Majelis smiled and nodded. “I am very happy, yes. Thank you for your concern.”

Sratau glanced over his shoulder suddenly, but there was nothing apparent behind him. “That is all, then, for the moment at least. I would offer to talk about the home we have left behind in the east, but both of us have abandoned that home.”

“May the Flame burn within you,” Majelis said as he turned to go. There was no reply from Sratau.

Majelis, of course, had no intention of binding the oracle’s words just because his brother was irritated, but the accusation of political meddling intrigued him. Kasus considered him naive, perhaps, but he was not nearly naive enough to believe that his priests would abstain from using the influence of religion for the gain of Teolphar. It seemed unlikely that the great oracle herself would be involved in such things, but it would not be hard for a priest or vestal to deceive a visitor and give their own message.

Or it could be nothing but the paranoia of an insecure ruler and his ministers. Majelis regretted not asking Sratau for more details, but there would be enough time in the future to summon him again. He found his feet bringing him to the chamber where Selinel sat in meditation upon the Flame, and their sound against the floor caused her to turn her head.

“I’m sorry – I interrupted you.”

“No,” she said. “I was just thinking about…did you need something?”

“I was wondering if you’d heard anything to do with the oracle giving political messages.”

“I have. Once. It was my cousin’s husband, a few weeks ago, actually. He asked if he should go with a caravan to Apalakki, but he was warned that tumult was soon to be overtaking the southlands.”

“Thank you, Selinel.”

“There are no problems, are there?”

“Don’t worry. It is nothing that the Flame cannot bring us safely through.”

She smiled her dimpled smile and he smiled back before walking out, heading back towards his own meditation chamber. The things of this world were nothing in comparison with the beauties and glories of the Flame that burned at the bottom of creation, and over the years his mind had been turned ever more to that perfect fire rather than the lamp that was his physical aid to meditation. So now as he rested again in the hard cold comfort of his room, his thoughts wandered in the farthest realms of reality, and his conversation with Sratau passed utterly from his mind.

Majelis did make some effort in the following days to find out what precisely Sratau was objecting to in the oracle’s responses, but learned little. Sratau was enigmatic when pressed, insisting that Majelis knew very well what was happening in Teolphar, so Majelis ultimately decided that his brother was provoking Teolphar purposefully, but for what end he was not sure. The priests with whom he consulted seemed equally baffled.

And then one night he awoke suddenly with a weight on his chest and hands around his throat. He struggled against the pressure, striking with his hands and feet against the demon that sat atop him, but a ringing blow to the side of his head stunned him and left him helpless as he was pulled from his cot and gagged with wadded cloth and bound with ropes. He felt a temptation to murderous anger, but resisted it, letting his mind focus on other things, on the purifying Flame and the promise of eternal life to those who ruled over their passions. He could not, however, repress his fear as he was lifted in the air and his captors began to climb down the ladder.

He closed his eyes and hummed around the gag, in the tones of the prayer that was spoken at the setting of the sun, to bid it farewell and hurry it on its way again to the dawn. The response of his captors was to strike his face roughly, but he paid little attention.

Then his motion came to an end and he fell against stone, opening his eyes to see that he was now in a bare room lit only by a single dim lamp. The gag was torn from his mouth, and he looked up. Sratau was staring at him, arms crossed over his chest.

“What do you mean by this?” Majelis asked.

“My patience has run out,” Sratau said. “I went to ask the oracle a question, and the response was that I should find a new master to serve! Such partisanship is an affront to the emperor! You must put an end to it!”

“I may be the high priest of Teolphar, but I have no authority to do what you ask.”

“Don’t be a fool. You have moral authority beyond whatever your little laws dictate. And as I hear you have managed to make yourself rather unpopular with the…cardinals…you should not hope that they will help you.”

“I can only let the Flame speak with whatever words it will. A voice from beyond the world cannot be stilled.”

Sratau uncrossed his arms and pressed the tips of his fingers together. “Every god is subject to the laws of the world, even the great god Bade himself.”

“The Flame is not a god,” Majelis said.

“Forgive me for my confusion, then, since you are a priest and this is a temple.”

“The Flame is beyond any gods.”

Suddenly Sratau had seized Majelis’s hand, and in his eyes were dancing a thousand imagined cruelties. “Enough of your arguments. Say that you…swear that you will bring Teolphar in line with the emperor.”

Majelis exhaled and fixed his eyes on Sratau’s angry gaze. “I will not.”

“Oh? You may say that now, but your pain has hardly begun.” He made a sudden motion, and Majelis felt his body twist away even before there was a crack that ran up his arm and a terrible blinding agony in his hand. Sratau let him fall, and through a haze Majelis saw that one of his fingers was hanging at the wrong angle. Then Sratau was slapping his cheek harshly. “Stay awake, or you’ll miss all the fun.” He took hold of another of Majelis’s fingers and bent it backwards in a motion that would normally have made Majelis cringe but now, with the pain and the nausea already overwhelming, he could not find it within himself to flinch or shy away.

Sratau was singing. “The first son went to war; there he broke his back. The second son went to trade…have you changed your mind? No? The second son went to trade…” Snap. Majelis cried out, wanted to scream until all the pain was forced out through his mouth. “…there he broke his purse.” Sratau almost gently took another finger, and Majelis didn’t hear the phrase that followed in the torrent of agony.

“Really, your hands are going to be completely useless by the time we are done. You are the one dragging this out. Just agree to help your brother and I will stop. What do you say?”

“No…” Majelis managed to gasp. The Flame be with me, the Flame protect me, the Flame be with me, the Flame protect me, the Flame be with me “the fourth son…” the Flame protect me, the Flame be with me, the Flame protect me “…there he broke his…” Flame be with me, Flame protect me, Flame be with me…

The pain was too much, and then there was darkness.

~

“Ah, there you are, Alzurid,” said Kasus, hurrying down a short flight of steps on the outside of the palace. “I was going to send a servant after you, but the gods smiled on me. I have been thinking about the fate of my empire, and as between us we have seen all the civilized world, I should like very much to discuss these things with you.”

“Of course,” Alzurid said. “I am always glad to talk about the philosophy of government.”

“You were not doing anything important, were you?” Kasus asked, his tone making it quite clear that Alzurid was not. “Come with me,” and the two of them entered the lower level of the palace, accompanied by a handful of guards. The room that Kasus often used for such conferences was a sizable one sitting off the central courtyard, with large windows letting in the cooler morning air. Kasus sat down and propped his feet up on one of the tables.

“There are two kinds of civilized societies, I think, in the history of humanity,” he began, “just as there are two seasons in the year. There is a rainy season and a dry season, so likewise there are societies with a flourishing culture and those where all has dried up into custom and old ritual. One naturally passes into another as time goes on.”

“And which is your empire?” Alzurid asked.

“I am a storm,” said Kasus, “the first storm of spring. I destroy what is old and ossified so that the new may sprout.” His eyes danced, and Alzurid suspected from the smirk on his face that he was not entirely serious. “What do you think of that?”

“I am reminded of Duri history, and how the acquisition of the various Raqh kingdoms led to artistic glories as they came in closer contact with other lands, but I am also reminded of the despair that settled over Lazu when we were conquered. A hard storm may bring rain, but it also tears up crops and trees.”

Kasus laughed. “Very true. Perhaps it is imprudent for me to attempt to foresee what has not yet come to pass, but it is certainly most amusing.”

“How is your empire getting along in the present?”

“That is none of your concern, for the most part.” Kasus leaned back and rested his chin on his fingers. “How long ago were you conquered?”

“Longer than I have been alive,” Alzurid said.

“And have you ever been involved with rebellion?”

“I became a peddler to avoid such things.”

“I have had occasion to hear about dissension in my empire, and dissension in such a young empire can be very dangerous indeed. Every manual on kingship that has ever been written makes that clear. It occurs to me that your magic could be useful in rooting these criminals out.”

A jolt went through Alzuird, yet he kept his gaze fixed on Kasus rather than, as part of him wanted, fleeing into his realm of his dreams. “I am not sure I am able. I need to know specifically what I am looking for.”

“That information can be provided.”

“If you press me, then so be it.” A grin appeared on Kasus’s face, but it melted away when Alzurid continued to speak. “I must tell you that I will not do what you ask. I am not one of your subjects, but a citizen of the Duri empire. I will give you what little advice I have, but I will not be your spy.”

“Well,” Kasus said, rocking forward again and rubbing his hands together. “Well, you are putting yourself in a very unpleasant position. There are a number of quite nasty things I can think of that will no doubt persuade you to be more amiable.”

Alzurid swallowed, but continued to keep his gaze firm. “No.” Kasus stretched his arm behind his head and snapped his fingers. Almost immediately Alzurid heard footsteps behind him and looking, saw a large man approaching. He turned back to Kasus and smiled. “What are you going to do with me?”

“Lock you away for a while. You have had enough luxury – it has made you forget yourself. We will see if less comfortable conditions can persuade you to see where your interests truly lie. I do not have the patience to use words any longer.” He made another gesture, and Alzurid was pulled to his feet.

Alzurid twisted his head around and nodded at the brute who had him by the shoulders. “No need to drag me,” he said. “I will go with you freely.”

The response was a dour look and a forceful tug. “Take him to the scorpion room,” Kasus said. “I do not believe it is occupied at the moment. But tell the warden not to let the Sangi get their hands on him just yet. I have yet to decide how precisely I want to question him…”

So half-pulled, half-walking, Alzurid made his way across the courtyard to a narrow gated entrance. A sentry saw them and opened the gate to let them through, and they descended a flight of steps and passed through a series of rude passageways that burrowed ever further into the earth. Finally they stopped, when the only light was from the faint torch that Alzurid’s guard held in a thick-fingered fist, and Alzurid was pushed forward into a tiny cell. Then there was a grating sound and he was left in total darkness.

He felt along the walls, finding them rough and filled with pits and gaps. One gap was large enough for him to stick his arm through three-quarters of the way up to his shoulder. As for the door, it seemed heavy and immobile. The air was stuffy but he did find it to be fresher near a small hole in one corner, and so sat with his head next to this.

And as he sat he let his mind go sweeping away out of his prison, finding Semsa sitting in the room she shared with Tailei. He watched her for a moment, wishing he could tell her where he was and not to worry, as she surely would when he did not return. But as much as he had tried to influence the world while dreaming, he was never able to. “Lest I should think myself like unto the Omnipotence,” he said aloud.

“Hello? Is someone there?” It was a voice echoing through the largest of the holes in the wall, and although Alzurid’s knowledge of the language used in Malhun was extremely limited, he could just barely understand it.

“Hello?” Alzurid called back.

“Yes!” was the hoarse reply. “What is your name?”

“Alzurid!”

“It is a pleasure, Alzurid. I am Majelis Asra.”

~

The moment Alzurid was gone, Kasus lifted himself to his feet. Despite what he had implied while speaking with Alzurid, he knew quite a lot about the rebellion brewing in the west – every pot leaked to some degree or another. He knew that several P’ugdaghun ships were involved, those who had not resettled in Vunis in their superstitious terror. Perhaps it was because he was a renegade that they had a special hatred and fear of him. Very well, he could use that fear against them.

Apalakki too. He realized now that he had made a serious mistake in Apalakki. Instead of staying longer to consolidate his rule as the emperor of Lakki, he had gone off into the north to dally with Thetta, leaving Hekkzaghin and Ghilik as his representatives. The only people they could charm into obedience were the loyal Sughin and the Sangi fanatics. And on his return, he had immediately set off again. It was no wonder that Apalakki was eager to join up with a rebellion.

Although there was some manner of dissension among the Sughin tribes, Kasus had found it exceedingly difficult to learn the details, even with the Sangi as Hekkzaghin’s eyes and ears walking among them. He had no idea how many tribes were involved, what they planned, and even what motivated them to ally themselves with the easterners, though he had his suspicions.

Such were the thoughts that filled his mind as he went to find Ghilik, but he had not gone very far before he heard a soft voice calling his name. He turned and found Masila behind him. “Where have you been?” she asked. “Father has given up on you and gone home already.”

“I was engaged in very important business,” he replied, putting an arm around her waist to draw her closer. “Tell me, what did he say to you about me?”

“He is loyal, I assure you,” she said, glancing over at him fearfully.

“I am sure of it. You need not worry for his sake. But I will have to talk with him about the matters of Alhunvin at the next opportunity.” As he looked at her he mentally delayed his conversation with Ghilik to a later time. “I have not spent as much time with you as I should, my darling, and I think we should remedy that immediately. What do you think of that idea?”

“It sounds lovely, my lord.”

“Good,” he said, and holding her tightly to him, he began to walk towards the open courtyard, in the opposite direction from where he had been heading.

~

Semsa followed the guard down past the prison cells that lay in the tunnels beneath Alhunvin. Although she occasionally cast nervous glances up at him, he seemed to be focused entirely on his duty. Soon he stopped, and pointing to a tiny window half the size of her head, said “Alzurid,” and stepped away.

“Alzurid? Are you there?” she asked, putting her face next to the square gap in the stone wall.

“Semsa!” Through the window she saw first the outlines of his chin appear, then the rest of his face come into view.

“What happened to you? What did Kasus do?”

“He asked me to do something to help him, and I refused. It seems he is not particularly fond of people who turn down his demands.”

“What will we do?” She felt tears stinging in her eyes.

“I will take the first chance I have to escape, and then we will go west as we should have long ago.”

“Escape? How on this earth do you intend to escape?”

He fit his hand through the window and she closed her fingers on his. “I do not know yet,” he said. “But I will come up with something. They’ve moved me twice already, so I may be able to take advantage of that. Don’t worry.”

“Have you sought the help of one of your gods?”

Alzurid chuckled. “It would be difficult to explain right now the details of my theology, but suffice it to say that the Good, being Wise, is aware of my difficulty without my having to explain. All will be well in the end, I am certain of it.”

“I love you,” she whispered.

“Be careful,” he said, kissing her hand.

She took a deep breath, wiped her face, and saying, “I will return to visit you again soon,” stepped away. “Guard? I am ready to leave.”

Without a word he led her up, out of the prisons, and she returned to the room she had been given. Tailei was there, sitting in the darkness, facing away from the door with her hands clasped on her knees. Semsa stepped closer and said in a quiet tone, “Tailei?” Her voice broke, and she sniffed again, clearing her throat. “Tailei?”

“What is it?” Tailei asked without moving.

“Kasus has put Alzurid in the dungeons,” she said, trying to keep her voice calm and steady.

“Would you like me to speak to Kasus about it? I do not know how much influence I have, but I would certainly use all of it to help him,” and finally Tailei stood and turned around to face Semsa. She noted with concern the worn fabric of Tailei’s clothing and her gaunt face.

“You have not been eating, have you?” asked Semsa. “How can you do anything if you are starving yourself?”

“I am fine, Semsa. Worry about Alzurid, not about me. It is getting late, isn’t it? Tomorrow. Tomorrow I will see what I can do about the matter. As for you, have you eaten?”

“I have not…when I found out about Alzurid I went immediately to the prisons.”

Tailei looked at her with a sad smile and said nothing. Semsa found a place to sit down and did. Staring into the shadows, she began to sing an old song of the Tanos tribe, a song about a long-ago battle that ended in disaster for the Tanos. It seemed fitting somehow.

~

Kasus did not stir himself until late in the morning, and Masila had already gotten up and attended to the servants. He was pleased to find a dish of bread and lentils prepared for him, and ate this as he looked out the window at his city. When it was noticed that he had woken, a few visitors were brought in one at a time to speak with him about various inconsequential things, and he listened patiently and sent them away with valuable gifts.

Thetta came to visit him, and he spoke fondly to her, though she appeared sorrowful. She missed her home no doubt – well, he missed his home too. He kissed her on the cheek and sent her away. The next person who was ushered in by a servant was Tailei, and he nodded cordially as she entered.

“I hear that you have imprisoned Alzurid?” Tailei asked, and Kasus stifled a sigh. This was going to be a rather difficult conversation, he could tell.

“I needed to persuade him to help me, as you have. I have no intention of harming him, only of constraining him until he sees the matter in a different light.”

“I see. So if I were to refuse to use my magic in your cause until he is released…”

“You are hardly indispensable, Tailei, and I cannot be sure that Alzurid will not be more useful to me in the long run. So I would do nothing – oh, but I believe that I would be compelled to punish you for your defiance. A king, after all, cannot be weak for even the slightest moment. I am sure you understand.”

Tailei looked at him, her expression indecipherable. “I understand,” she said, and now he noticed the general weariness of her demeanor.

“I am sure that all of this will resolve itself,” he said in a softer tone. “If you want to help Alzurid, do what you can to persuade him that he is being most stubborn and foolish. Did you have anything else to say to me?”

“No. Nothing.”

She turned to leave, and he called after her, “I may have need for your magic in the coming months. You will be able to do that, yes?”

She paused. “Yes,” she said, and then walked out. Kasus sighed loudly now and picked at the last few lentils. Ghilik. He had been going to talk with Ghilik. With another sigh he stood to give the orders for Ghilik to be found and brought to him. He was quite curious about what Ghilik would have to say about the plot against him.

Ghilik came to him with an old notebook hanging from the tips of his fingers, and smiled ingratiatingly at Kasus. “I was just laughing at the misconceptions and mistakes of my former life,” he said, holding up the notebook.

“It certainly took you long enough to come here,” Kasus said, then paused, as a sweet, almost sickly scent filled his nose, yet with a fire to it that cleared his thoughts. He shook his head, feeling for a moment as if he had stepped away from the edge of a precipice, alertness and relief ruling his emotions simultaneously.

“Ah,” said Ghilik, “some of my incense clings to me still. The damned Wulam have denied it to us, but I was able to procure just a tiny bit to study. It is marvelous, isn’t it? If I had enough, I could use it to bind the loyalty of our Sughin even more. We will have to deal with the Wulam when we have finished in the east.”

“I asked you some time ago to look into a little matter for me…”

“Have you been paying attention to northern Malhun? You may find yourself in trouble there, too, if you do not keep a sharp eye on it.”

“I do not seem to recall asking you to tell me about Malhun.”

“Of course. The Sangi and I have interrogated a number of prisoners as you commanded, and we have learned many things. You sit comfortably on your throne here in Alhunvin, but you do not see that you are sitting on a very slippery deck indeed. If you make a single false move you will be swallowed by the deeps.”

“Please explain using more facts and less poetry.”

“You have heard already about Apalakki and the P’ugdaghun, so I will inform you about the Sughin. The kings of Kupavim remain loyal and thoroughly frightened by your Sughin barbarians, but the chieftains of eleven tribes have been preparing to break free from Hekkzaghin’s rule.”

“When and how?” Kasus asked.

“The first strike has been set for the day of the eternal sun. You will have to ask Hekkzaghin about that.”

“What fools,” Kasus said, chuckling and sitting upright. “They really think they will make things better for themselves by fighting me. If I know Hekkzaghin, they will soon learn better. Ah, why can’t they simply enjoy their lives, now that the burden of ruling has been taken away from them?”

“Not all men are as you are,” Ghilik said quietly.

“Most unfortunate. Power without any accompanying duties is a wonderful thing. Pleasure without difficulty…”

Ghilik laughed scornfully, nothing like the nervous laugh he had once had. “Pleasure indeed. Your physical luxuries are hardly what I would call pleasure.”

“Whatever could you mean?” asked Kasus, a dangerous edge to his voice. “The physical is only a reflection of the spiritual, and physical pleasures are models of spiritual pleasures.”

“It is revolting, and all of us hate it.”

Kasus froze. “All of who?”

“You…you and your kind are disgusting things of matter that somehow keep adding to yourselves…vile patterns that will not stop feeding themselves…you may as well be pigs at the trough – you lie to yourselves that you are noble and holy, but you are nothing more than…” Ghilik gasped for breath. “I apologize for my outburst,” he said. “Something came over me. You understand.”

“Of course,” Kasus said. “Have I ever told you about my old tutor when I was a boy, who spent the great majority of his time buried away in his library? He emerged one day muttering about twelve categories of plants, and was never the same. You should be careful, Ghilik. Sanity is a very fragile thing.”

“Oh, I have passed beyond and beyond sanity,” said Ghilik, “to the land where one’s mind is no longer one’s own. I am having some of the Sangi prepare a report for you. Make sure you read it carefully. It would not do to have you fail now when you are so close to achieving the destiny of Lakki.”

“And when I achieve that destiny, will I be remembered?”

“You will be remembered everywhere the basilisks hold sway,” Ghilik assured him.

“Good. Good…”

“Because they do have power, Kasus. In Nusgwedn I faced a trial where it seemed that I could do nothing except die. We were all going to die, and I was powerless to help because I was a useless man who had thrown away every chance I had in my life, and so I gave up. I gave up and offered them my life, and my offer was accepted.” He turned on his heel away from Kasus. “That is all. If you have any more questions, you know where you can find me.”

~

Clutching the basket of victuals to her chest, Semsa followed the prison guard down into the pit of the dungeon, where a hundred foul smells and a deadly miasma wrapped around her. “Here,” the guard grunted after a few minutes. “Moved ’em to give ’em a little company. Keeps ’em from going mad, you know, not that I’m not sure your lovely face won’t help.” She was glad that in the dim light she could not see the look on his face.

Peering ahead, she saw that Alzurid was chained hand and foot in an alcove, next to another prisoner whose head was lowered and hidden in shadows. “Alzurid,” she whispered, and Alzurid looked up, and she nearly gasped at the sight of his face, which was more haggard now than she had ever seen it, even in the trials of the journeys to Nusgwedn and Khitharenes. “I was told it was all right to bring you food.”

“And beer?”

“Yes, a little.”

“As long as Majelis can have some,” Alzurid said, nodding with his head towards his fellow prisoner.

“Of course,” whispered Semsa.

After Alzurid had taken a long draught of the beer, he smiled at her, his lips wet with froth. His eyes remained tired and sad. “Has any progress been made with Kasus?”

“I…I am not sure. Tailei has not told me anything.”

On the other side of the alcove, Majelis stirred. Looking at Semsa, he said, “Il vilaprul ip’ukkhunl sarāth? Il thukhilra jálutsse rikh nākhul zālunmī iv ārik thuh tunl?

“He has mistaken you for a beautiful messenger of the gods,” Alzurid said, and his eyes lit up briefly. “Vilabar Sinsa,” he said to Majelis. “Vilabrul hā mila-unl, ggāza takul bit’ ful.

Majelis gave a dry, painful-sounding laugh. “Anīthvin kkul. Thuhpit’, iv run, phulith vālas sis thuh lu.” Alzurid nodded in the direction of the pitcher of beer.

“I dreamed again last night,” Semsa said as Majelis drank. She looked seriously at Alzurid, who nodded again.

“Tell me about it. It will distract me from my morbid thoughts. Oh, it is all right about Majelis. He is a priest, and a good priest so far as I can tell. Besides, I am not sure how well he can understand the speech of Sughin.”

“It was another of the dreams where I am wandering a desert harsher than the Sand of Bones itself, and as I wandered, I came across a woman standing perfectly still in the midst of a raging wind. She was tall and golden-haired, and more beautiful than any poet can tell. Without turning around she spoke to me, and said that her name was Narasiben.

“‘You fear them, don’t you?’ she asked me.

“‘Yes,’ I replied, and I knew what she meant then, but I can’t remember now what we were talking about.

From somewhere in the tunnels around them a scream pierced the air and died away in seconds. Semsa swallowed and resumed her account. “‘You should not,’ she told me. ‘They have always been the friends of mankind, loyal servants and helpers, and it is not their fault that we have turned away from them. The story of Rakka has been long forgotten by your kind, hasn’t it?’” Here Semsa paused for a moment. “Have you ever heard of Rakka?” she asked Alzurid.

“I know of a northern tribe by that name, or something close to it.”

She shook her head. “No, this was a different Rakka, according to Narasiben a person, not a tribe, who lived on the coast somewhere a very long time ago, before even Nusgwedn had been founded. He caught fish and raised a family and lived peaceably enough until raiders came down from the hills to ravage his village.

“Rakka was visiting a holy island and worshipping in the manner of his people when the news came to him that his boat had been wrecked. ‘Ah, a terrible woe, but as long as my family is safe, I am content,’ he said.

“The next day another message came. The raiders had encircled the village and burned it to the ground and taken all its people into slavery. Rakka stood up from his worship and cast the sacred cup to the ground. ‘What manner of god are you?’ he demanded, ‘to watch me suffer like this with a face of stone?’ He stormed out of the holy place without bothering to perform the ceremonial purifications, and the moment his foot touched the ground outside, he was stricken down by an ailment that left him paralyzed and in the care of the…some strange word I don’t remember…until he had recovered.

“Rakka returned to his home then, and wandered amidst the devastation weeping for his friends and family. He was sitting on the beach watching the dragons fly overhead – there were more dragons in those days, Narasiben told me – when a man approached him. It was a young man, bearded and carrying a rough wooden yoke over his shoulders.

“‘Who are you?’ Rakka demanded. ‘Leave me to be with the dead.’

“‘But you are alive,’ the young man told him.

“‘Would that I were not.’

“‘You take the hand of your greatest enemy much too quickly.’

“Rakka laughed. ‘If death is my enemy, then it has already beaten me. I have nothing left in life, and if you are who I think you are, then I blame you more than I blame death.’

“The young man pointed up at the dragons. ‘Do you think that they do not give cry when their young perish, they who are the mightiest of the children of Heaven and whose wings create the thunder? And do you think that I do not weep with them?’

“‘It is easy to weep,’ said Rakka. ‘If you loved your children, you would not bring them to the slaughter, but you have betrayed both the dragons and me. I will take these dragons, and I will teach them, and someday I will soar up to Heaven itself and face you.’

“That was the story Narasiben told me, though she said there were other versions, including one where the young man gave the dragons to Rakka as a gift, and one where Rakka’s descendents submitted themselves to the will of Heaven, but she said that her version was closest to the truth.”

Semsa fell silent for a moment, thinking back to her dream and trying to remember the exact words Narasiben had used, but it had all faded so quickly and she was forced to fill in the gaps with her own imagination. She must have been quiet for some time, for Alzurid said eventually, “I am left hanging,” and laughed weakly at his own joke.

“I am going to go back to Nusgwedn,” she said.

“Why in the name of the Wise would you do that?”

“Because Nusgwedn is where all this began!” she replied, finding herself suddenly to be almost in tears. She paused for a second to collect herself. “You, you were given the ability to wander outside of your body. Tailei can do something unnatural, even if she won’t tell me what it is. And I, like Rakka, can command the dragons. I can make Kasus let you go.”

“How?”

“Kasus’s power is built on Ghilik and Ghilik’s magic, and Ghilik learned something in Nusgwedn that carried Kasus to power. I am sure that I can find something to help you, whether it be a forgotten spell or the wings of the dragons. That woman in my dream, Narasiben, she told me about her own history with the dragons.

“She had been an outcast,” Semsa continued, “banished from Nusgwedn for her ambitions, and as she wandered in the wilderness beyond the civilized land, she came across an ancient mausoleum carved into the rock. It was ancient even then, thousands of years ago. And it was inside this mausoleum that she found the basilisks.

“Only the basilisks themselves know what they are, perhaps, but they told Narasiben that they had been wrongly imprisoned and that if she let them free, they would help her take control of the dragons that the people of Nusgwedn used as servants. And she agreed. And she returned to Nusgwedn with the power that the basilisks had given her to call up the dragons and send them against their former masters. What Narasiben did for evil, cannot I do for good?”

“There is danger in power,” Alzurid said.

“But there is so much good also. And if you could save all of Lazu from being blotted out by the Fates, wouldn’t you take up what you have forsaken?”

“I was not arguing with your decision. I think you are right, and I wish all the blessings of the Good and the Might upon you.” He took her hand and drew her closer to kiss her forehead. “Brave girl,” he whispered, and she squeezed his hand once before pulling away and with a final glance, approaching the guard to be let out of the dungeon.

~

Calcam too came down to visit the prisoners. When he first entered their cell and saw Majelis, he stared at him for several minutes before crying out and sitting next to him, tears running down his face. “You have been betrayed,” he said at last. “If you want, I will free you. My sword is in your hands.”

“No,” said Majelis weakly. “It would not be possible no matter your skill. We must trust in the Flame.”

“I trust in you,” Calcam said. “That is enough for me.”

“There are things you can bring to help us, if you wish. Decent food and water, and medicines if you can find any: the air here is not healthful.” Seeing Calcam’s wary glances at his fellow prisoner, who was listening without understanding to their Teolphar speech, Majelis added, “This is Alzurid, a traveler and a good man.”

It did not seem to occur to Calcam that he could intervene with Kasus, nor did Majelis wish to suggest it to him lest his words to Kasus put him in danger. Perhaps as a savage child of Eja, Calcam doubted the ability of words to counter action. Majelis remembered long ago meeting a man from the Wicerem islands near Eja who had told him “flesh and stone are mightier than breath.” It was almost as if he were standing there in Calcam’s place, his face solemn as he spoke his proverbs, and Majelis was sitting in the comfort of his palace, surrounded by luxury.

Majelis blinked and raised his head. “I’m sorry, but I’m deeply tired,” he said. “As I said, the air here is not healthful. Please tell me what you have been doing since we parted.”

“I have served Kasus,” said Calcam. “There is not much to tell. I have seen many strange people and understand little of what he said to them. I practice with my sword. I await the fulfillment of my oath.”

“Oath?” Majelis asked.

“I will tell you now. And Alzurid, if he will not betray me. I was a sentry for my people on the last day of my old life,” he said, crossing his arms behind his back and speaking in an odd sort of half-trance, his words emerging in rhythm despite their lack of poetry. “I was atop the western wall, looking out over the sea and joking with my companion Cicunca.

“We saw the P’ugdaghun ship approaching. We ran for the inner compound to tell the others. Old Kalwu gave the order to take up our weapons. My father gave me a stone knife. We stood on the beach waiting for the coming of the P’ugdaghun.

“Strange men, the men of the sea, with light skin, long and straight hair, dully colored clothing. They gave us gold from far coasts where ants grow to the size of pigs. We gave them feathers of a bird which accompanies the souls of the dead. When the bargain was completed, we waved our swords, the P’ugdaghun shouted. I hoped that the next time the P’ugdaghun came I would have made a sword for myself.

“But that night maja-spirits stole away my brother Apatal, Apatal who caught lizards, left them in the most mischievous places, Apatal who scolded me for not hurrying fast enough to the hunt, Apatal who was hard at work fashioning a sword from a shark’s jaw with all the appropriate rituals and trials of purification. In one of these rituals he vanished, the vigil of the god Palim, to whom he had gone to pray at midnight.

“My mother said, ‘The maja have taken him. We can do nothing.’

“Etanga the wise man said, ‘Let your memories fall into the ocean. Your life continues.’

“Cicunca said, ‘I would not trouble the maja. Think more on your duties.

“I listened and nodded. But I looked on my brother’s sword with a growing fire in my heart. The maja had not stolen my brother. The god Palim provides special protection from the maja. The P’ugdaghun are often stealers of men and women. But when I told my father my thoughts I was rebuked and warned that the P’ugdaghun were the richest and most powerful of the ocean traders who visited Eja. The P’ugdaghun should not be offended.

“I went and fetched the sword of Apatal. I declared before my father, ‘I swear by my ancestors’ ghosts that I will find my brother and return with him if he be alive. If he be dead, I will hunt down and kill his murderer and restrain my anger from all who do not stand in the path.’

“My father said, ‘With this vow both my sons have been stolen away. Leave us, then. Go and do what you have sworn, and may you return successfully.’

“A few weeks later a trading ship from Ulkkvar came to the village. I had spent the intervening time making pingkelca figurines with which I could buy passage to the land beyond the waters. So I left Eja. I did not know where I was going. But I was determined to fulfill my oath however I could.”

Majelis closed his eyes, and Calcam put a comforting hand on his face and said, “Trust that I will keep you from harm. I haven’t seen the Flame, but I have seen you, and I think that if you perish, honesty and kindness will also perish from under the sky.”

“Revenge is not the way of the Flame,” said Majelis in a whisper. “The Beast hunts, but the Flame gives light to all.” His head drooped and he slept.

~

Kasus crossed his arms behind his back and smiled as Tailei entered the room. “You summoned me?” she asked, making a small bow but adding no honorary title.

“I did,” he replied. “I have been thinking many things over, Tailei, thinking about your role in my empire. I imagine you have your own ideas in the matter. Tell me about them, if you would. Please do not be concerned that I might take your words ill. You may speak freely, and I will not punish you for it.”

“I would like to go home and help my people against their enemies, if you no longer have need for me.”

Kasus hummed in response. “Yes, I rather expected that you would want that. But perhaps I have a better proposal for you. I am considering an alliance, between the Lakki empire and the Zconr kingdom. There is still a Zconr kingdom, I hope? I have been perusing some old tablets and the Zconr seem to have been quite a power in the west in the days of the old empire.”

Tailei smiled a bitter smile. “Our stories say the same thing, but we have been shattered and enslaved by the Duri, and only now are we beginning to recover our strength of old.”

“Nevertheless,” Kasus said, tapping his finger against his lips. “For two rising powers it might be wise to stand together. Consider my proposal, and consider also that an alliance of such import would be well symbolized by a marriage.” She laughed once, but quickly covered her mouth and gave him an apologetic look. “Is marrying the emperor of the south such a humorous prospect?”

“No, it is just that…aren’t you married already? Three times over?”

He gave a small shrug. “Yes. What of it? I rule many cities, and I have many wives.”

“The birds, you know,” Tailei said, hiding a smile, and Kasus looked at her oddly.

“What do you mean, birds?”

“My people say that the first parents of the human race learned from watching birds that they should mate in pairs. Though it would be a great honor to be a wife of the emperor, I must decline. I have no intention of being one wife among many.”

Kasus blinked slowly, then laughed. “Perhaps that is wise of you,” he said. He kept a perfectly measured smile on his face to reassure her that he had not been lying when he had made his promise of no retaliation for her words. “Very well, then, but consider the other alliance I offer. I would not like to give up so easily the power that you possess.” He allowed the smile to slip away for just a moment, allowed the hunger within him to show itself. Tailei licked her lips fearfully.

“I…I will consider it. I…do not know how much I can promise you, but I…will consider it.”

“Consideration is all I ask. You may leave, Tailei.”

When she was gone, Kasus relaxed and let his arms hang at his side. He was somewhat disappointed that Tailei had refused to marry him: she was beautiful enough and useful enough to serve him well as a wife. Perhaps it was for the best, though. Tailei would be a sharp knife, but a knife that could turn in his hand and cut him. Perhaps that undead army could turn against him, and steal his empire away. If she proved false in the slightest fashion, Tailei would have to be removed – and unfortunately, the surest way of doing that was to have her killed.

He just hoped that she wouldn’t prove immortal somehow. That would be the last thing he needed. And with her useless, Semsa gone, and Alzurid obstinate, Kasus’s trust in Ghilik was ebbing rapidly. He had plenty of advisers now, useful advisers who didn’t spend all their days down in the darkest cells obsessed with torture and the basilisks. Perhaps it would be possible to eliminate Ghilik, too.

~

Semsa was gathering together what she would need for the journey ahead when she became aware that Tailei was standing in the threshold of her room, watching her. “Tailei! It has been months since we talked.”

“You are going somewhere?” Tailei asked quietly.

“I am going on a journey to see if there’s a way for me to help Alzurid.”

“Yes, I’ve heard about that. I am sorry. Where are you going?”

“Sughin.”

Tailei nodded and approached Semsa. “I too will be traveling soon, and my aims aren’t far from yours, I think. Apalakki is my destination; maybe you and I could travel together as far as Ghizdulah.”

“I want to know why you’ve drawn away from me, from everyone. Malg’us’s death must have hurt you badly, but the woman who bears all her burdens herself will be broken under them,” said Semsa.

Tailei’s gaze seemed to pass right through Semsa, and though Semsa touched Tailei’s arm, she did not react. “It is not Malg’us’s death that hurt me. If you knew what I can do, what I plan to do, you would curse me and flee from me. I must walk alone now.” But despite what she said, her arm trembled.

“Once I leave Apalakki, anyway,” Semsa said, venturing a light remark. Tailei seemed neither amused nor offended, but only nodded again. “It will be dangerous.”

“No it won’t,” said Tailei, smiling for the first time, but Semsa was not comforted. “It will never be dangerous for me again.”

“What do you mean?” Semsa asked, but Tailei said nothing.

They left Alhunvin in secret, taking the long road to Apalakki, carrying few supplies with them. Semsa heard noises, especially at night, that frightened her, as if bandits were following and watching them, but when she mentioned it to Tailei, Tailei told her that it was nothing she needed to worry about. Frequently they came across dead animals, recently slain with iron weapons, and these formed a regular part of their meals, though Tailei refused to answer any of Semsa’s questions. Even after Semsa parted from Tailei the noises and gifts continued, ceasing only when she came to the lands of the Sughin, and there she heard rumors of armies of dead men that stalked the night.

~

Kasus snapped awake from some dream, of which all he could remember was a dark dread and a pair of hateful eyes. “…awake, great emperor?” someone was saying, and he saw that it was Daghat’i. “My apologies, but you asked me to wake you the second the messenger arrived.”

Kasus looked fondly at Thetta still asleep, then stood up and stretched his arms. “Yes, yes. Give me just a moment to prepare myself. Send in one or two of my servants, if you will.”

As the servants placed his robes over him and doused his face with scented water, Thetta stirred and cast a bleary look over at him, then lay her head back down and burrowed beneath the blanket. Kasus stepped out of the room and nodded to Daghat’i. “What was the message?”

“Nothing more than this. ‘The cubs are loose.’”

“Then there is no time to waste. I must leave Tiggras immediately.”

“Where are you going?”

“To war, naturally. It is a little late in the year, but the rebels seem not to care, so why should I?”

“You will be fighting the P’ugdaghun?” Daghat’i asked. “That is a great…that is something beyond all hope!”

“It would be much wiser for you to keep your hopes until I return victorious, and then we will all know that the kings of the sea can be cast down from their invincible rule.” Kasus began walking. “I will expect to meet with the others when I return, of course, and I expect to hear good news about the situation in the north. I hope you understand.”

“All your servants will do what they can.”

“I hope so,” Kasus said, and shook his head. “I very much hope so.”

The ship was waiting for him as expected, a medium-sized vessel whose name was Valuhkkaghil and who was captained by a man eager to align himself with Kasus against the hierarchy of the P’ugdaghun. There were several others like him who had been swayed by promises of riches and power in Kasus’s service, despite their theoretical loyalty. In the end such loyalty was nothing but a belief that the P’ugdaghun could provide certain things for them, and when they became convinced that Kasus would be better able to provide these things, well, it was natural that they would ally themselves with him.

Nevertheless, Kasus was not quite so foolish as to take himself aboard one of the P’ugdaghun ships without plenty of guards, and he had with him also a contingent of sailors from other ships whom he knew to be rivals of the Valuhkkaghil. They would have to stay close the coast, as the winds were against them at this time of year. The P’ugdaghun had chosen the time of their rebellion wisely, and moreover had struck earlier than he had anticipated, a week before the Sughin’s Day of the Eternal Sun. If Kasus’s ministers had been less wary, it was possible the rebellion would have gotten much further than it had. It was still possible that everything he had done would be ruined by these annoyances.

“Welcome to the Valuhkkaghil,” said the captain, saluting him. “Are we going straight to Istis?”

Kasus nodded. “I hope that you will be on your guard for enemy ships.”

“Of course. But if it is not presumptuous of me to ask, do you expect this one vessel to face the entire force that will be arrayed against us?”

“The time when the P’ugdaghun great fathers were the only rulers of the sea is coming to an end. No such empire can last forever – no tiger can sit on one rock forever. There will always be a younger, stronger challenger. The old tiger’s teeth will wear out and his limbs grow weak…” Followed by his guards, Kasus descended into the lower parts of the ship, remembering his time years ago on the Kaghatil. They were not fond memories, and that Aratus-damned hunter was always there in the corner of his vision. But now…now he was more than just an itigh, he was more than just a captain. He was now very near to being a son of the gods in power just as he was in blood.

Someone was saying something to him, he realized, and it took him a moment to recognize that it was one of the guards, a man with a perpetual wry look to his face. “…your discretion, of course, emperor, but I would suggest one of these rooms here, where it won’t take years to get to the deck.”

“A room for some pilaghim would be best, I am sure,” Kasus said. “That is the second rank, beneath captain, and their rooms are quite, quite, pleasant. Here is one.”

He stepped into the spacious chamber – spacious of course by the standards of a P’ugdaghun ship, not by the palaces set upon the land. It was just large enough for him and his guards, they lying upon scratchy blankets on the floor and he in the soft bed – soft again by the standards of a P’ugdaghun ship. It had been a long time indeed since he had voyaged by sea, but when the moorings were undone and the Valuhkkaghil took to the water, he found his legs easily adapting once again to the rocking of the waves beneath the hull. And when once he would have saluted his superiors, all aboard saluted him.

Well before coming anywhere near Istis, Kasus began to meet with the alchemist Ghilik had sent along, a man named Harak who kept his own counsel when he was not overseeing the great vats of the gods’ fire. Kasus was naturally not pleased by Harak’s reticence, but that did not matter as long as his engines were successful. And thank you for your gift, my beautiful Thetta. Now I can light even the waters of the sea afire…

The Valuhkkaghil was joined before long by three other ships that had through persuasion and threat joined with him. Not all of the P’ugdaghun were cowed by superstition and blind loyalty, Daghat’i had found. Some of them were very willing indeed to side with Kasus if it would give them more power. When the old dead wood of the hierarchy had been cleared away, they would find all the power they sought.

Kasus was reminded of a battle the Kaghatil had waged against Gath raiders, in which the terrible rams had come into play to tear apart the enemies’ hulls and condemn their sailors to Pesrula’s kingdom in the deeps. It had been a close thing then, and if he was fortunate this battle would be much less dangerous.

They rounded the peninsula of Apalakki, and Kasus stood upon the deck staring off at the city, wondering how far the rebels had gotten and how quickly they would crumble when he returned with an army. The captain approached him on the third day of the expedition to tell him that another ship had been sighted on the horizon, and that it was not waving the black flag of loyalty to the empire. Kasus nodded, and said only, “You know what to do.”

“Certainly, emperor,” said the captain, saluting again. Kasus watched for several minutes as the hand signals were passed between the Valuhkkaghil and its sister ships, then he gestured to the guards who were with him and returned to his cabin. He had never been in a sea battle before, and he rather doubted that it would be a pleasant experience. Once he was reclining on his bed staring at the wooden ceiling he reached for the bag in which he kept his supply of opium. There was no need for him to be awake for the battle – his captains and his engineers would, he was sure, take care of everything. Was he not aided by the spirits of water and air, whom the P’ugdaghun feared above all else? Languidly his fingers delved into the bag.

“Emperor? Emperor?” It was a voice from the edge of the world, beckoning Kasus to follow it over an invisible wall, and who could say what was on the other side? He twisted in the darkness, hesitating between staying where he was and going after the sound that came so urgently to his ears. “Kasus!”

He opened his eyes to see someone standing over him. “What is it?” he asked, his tone sharp.

“Forgive me, please, but the captain thought you should know. You have won, my lord. The enemy is terrified and fleeing, overwhelmed by your might.”

Kasus shook his head, clearing the last of the murk from his mind. “Good. Most excellent.” He raised himself slowly to his feet. “Now we clear out the rats in Apalakki. Congratulate your captain for me, and give my special thanks to the alchemist Harak. When we return to land I will honor them both.” Bowing, the man went out.

There was a spot in Kasus’s head that was beginning to throb painfully. He scratched at his hair and wondered how Hekkzaghin was faring, wondered if he had stirred himself from G’aghla’s embrace to confront whatever portion of the Sughin tribes were going along with this revolt. Kasus was confident in the Sangi’s ability to maintain the order of his empire, but if Hekkzaghin proved to be useless he would have to reconsider the close relationship between them.

His guards were bringing him some water to wash his face, and he smiled upon them. So far at least, everything was going his way.

With the loyalist P’ugdaghun ships fled, there was no difficulty at all in blocking off the harbors of Istis and waiting for the city’s surrender. Kasus did not think it would be long at all before that surrender came – to the north the P’ugdaghun had only enemies. What fools they had been! They had been rulers of the sea, but so easily could have stretched out their hands to rule over the cities and farms of dry land! Instead they had left it for Kasus to take both sea and land into his grasp.

And indeed, it was not long before the message came that Istis had surrendered, and Kasus landed at Istis with all the glorious pageantry he could muster, with flags and trumpets and glittering gold shields. But he was wearing only his uniform from aboard the Kaghatil, the uniform of a low-ranking itigh, to show that all the hierarchy of the P’ugdaghun meant nothing to him.

Kasus was met by one of the Great Fathers, a stout bearded man whose uniform was festooned with ornaments around the collar. Perhaps this man had been good-humored once, but now his face was solemn. “I am Kinlin,” he said. “On behalf of the P’ugdaghun of Istis, I offer my submission.”

“I have no need of your submission – I will rule over you whether you like it or not. Your ships are mine. Your cargoes are mine. Istis is blockaded by the fire that comes from the deeps, and your captains have already sworn fealty.”

“Nevertheless,” Kinlin said, obviously forming the words with difficulty. “I want to assure you that we will not give aid to your enemies so long as you sit on your throne. We are your children now, and beneath your wings we shelter from the storm.”

Kasus nodded. “I am pleased, and as long as you keep your word I will protect you. Do you truly look on me as a father?”

“For the sake of the P’ugdaghun, I do.”

“But if you had the upper hand over me, what would you say?”

Kinlin looked away from Kasus, and a very slight smile appeared on the visible side of his face. “I would say that you are a devil, Kasus Asra.”

Kasus chuckled. “Bravely said. Thank you. But this devil has beaten you soundly, so you must pay the price. Allow me to explain the terms under which you will be ruled from now on. You see, my throne is not a silent one.” A paleness passed over Kinlin’s face, and Kasus smiled.

He inquired about two of those who had been aboard the Kaghatil: Zigha his wife and Sizag the captain. Sizag was duly brought before him, no doubt expecting humiliation or death, but Kasus only remarked, “Mysterious are the ways of the gods,” and sent him away. As for Zigha, she had died in childbirth a few years back, which saddened Kasus for a time until he reminded himself of his wives back in Alhunvin.

Calcam stood at his side through all these things, saying nothing, a fine quality in a guard. Although it had never happened in Kasus’s sight, a few of the P’ugdaghun had mocked Calcam as an Eja savage, but his sword had quickly corrected them. By now Kasus no longer feared that Calcam had left his home in order to take revenge for what Kasus had done, and indeed regarded it as a foolish idea. The Eja lacked the subtlety and patience for such delayed vengeance. The only difficulty Calcam presented was that occasionally he would ask for the freedom of Majelis, whom he revered as the high priest of the Flame, but that didn’t bother Kasus greatly. He would release Majelis, and Alzurid too, when they agreed to his requests, and he doubted either of them was foolish enough to languish in the depths of Alhunvin for long.

But one evening as Kasus was thinking sadly about Zigha and drinking more than his fill of wine, Calcam approached him and fell to his knees. “Great emperor, I ask you again: what has Majelis done to anger you? Let the peace of the Flame quench your wrath and let him go to his sacred duties, if I have served you well.”

This subservience irritated Kasus more than any of Calcam’s plain words had, and he threw his wine goblet to the floor. “Sacred duties? What sacred duties? In Teolphar they’ve already chosen a new high priest! Majelis is nothing anymore, except as my subject, as my high priest! Whatever he has is mine to give him, understand?”

“Majelis is a holy man,” said Calcam. “That he has from the Flame.”

“A holy man?” said Kasus, tossing back his head and laughing. “Is that what he says? Let me tell you the truth about Majelis, my little friend. He’s done one of the worst things a man can do, one of the worst sins. He killed his own father.”

“You are a liar.”

“By Dangus, you are bold. But I’m not lying, not about this. Our father was a cruel man and he stood between us and the kingship, so we put him out of the way. It wasn’t terribly hard, not in Tsebiss, where the greatest sacrifice one can give the gods is the sacrifice of a prince, who may not otherwise be touched. Let me tell you about your beloved Majelis! He was never happy where the gods had placed him! He always doubted himself and relied on me because I wasn’t weak like him. And he hated our father, oh how he hated him. Majelis was glad when we delivered him over to the priests to be butchered. You should have seen the smile on his face. Ask him! I may lie, but he will not. A holy man! Would a holy man kill his father, deliver him trussed to be slaughtered on the altar?

Calcam stared at him, then lowered his face to the ground, his limbs trembling. He turned then and ran out of the room. Kasus leaned back and laughed again. To worship Majelis of all people! Better be disillusioned now than later, he supposed, and though he was now quite cheered up, he returned to his wine.

~

In the first light of the morning, when the sun was just beginning to illuminate the room, Hekkzaghin lay staring up at the ceiling and its mural, which was poorly done but impressive to Hekkzaghin nonetheless. It depicted many things, most prominently a fierce battle on the earth while in the sky a red-haired man struggled against a bull. He was not sure what, if anything, such symbols meant to the people of Malhun, so he attached his own meanings to them. He saw himself as the man striving with the bull that was Fate and his enemies and the gods of the east, all in one. Though the bull’s horn pierced the man’s side in a spray of crimson paint, the man was clearly the master, his hands gripping the bull and forcing its knees to the ground. So it would be with Hekkzaghin and everyone he set himself to fight.

He turned his head slightly to look at G’aghla and smiled, his thoughts shifting their course to other equally pleasant matters. She was facing away from him, and after a few moments she turned over, her eyes wide open. “You will be leaving soon, I take it?” she asked.

“You mean to take care of those rumors about our tribes?” He laughed quietly. “There is no need to worry about that. My Sangi are swift and merciless, and if any of the Sughin dare to betray the new order of the people, then they will soon learn that the Sangi are eager worshippers of their goddess in truth. They do not need me to direct them, do they?”

She sat up, her hair falling all about her shoulders. “Those are the words of a cowardly old chief, not the brave warrior who delivered us from the Ad’os.”

“I am not a coward,” he said, his voice suddenly cold. “Never call me that. I would fight against the sun if I could.”

“When fools would make a mockery of you, you must destroy them!” she said, and her face twisted startlingly. “They must see your full wrath and tremble! If you sit here doing nothing, your power will vanish before you know it.”

“That is true,” he said, “but when did you walk in the corridors of kings, to give me such advice?”

Her face twitched again, and taking a deep breath she shrank back. “Forgive me, Hekkzaghin,” she said meekly. “I forgot myself for a moment.”

“You are G’aghla Tanos, the daughter of the chieftain Melagus, aren’t you?” he asked, feeling a strange sense of disorientation, as if she were not who she seemed, as if he were not what he seemed. He was light-headed and his limbs felt like they were about to float away.

“Of course,” she said with a puzzled smile. “Who…who else would I be?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “You just sounded different. But whoever you are, you are right. I should return home and see what challenges my rule. If I did not, I would not be worthy of you.”

She colored and twisted her head away. “All right,” she said. “I will miss you, I hope you know that.”

“And I will miss you. Very much.”

Kasus and Ghilik had arranged somehow for a P’ugdaghun ship to transport Hekkzaghin and his chief Sangi across the ocean to the shores of the Sughin lands. Hekkzaghin had never, of course, been aboard any kind of seagoing vessel, and he discovered to his delight that it was not as dreadful as he had feared. In fact, when he stood overlooking the wild emptiness of the waters to the south, and feeling the floor shift and tilt beneath his feet, he felt the seething chaos within him merge with the world around. It was a wonderful, exhilarating sensation.

He saw a fin rise briefly from the water and smiled. He knew from Ghilik that the P’ugdaghun were terrified of the things that lurked in the depths, but he embraced what was dark and hidden. Already he was remembering what it had been like to hold death in his hands as men were struck down in the battle all around him, remembering the thrill of tearing life away as his enemies fell like withered trees. He was looking forward to it very much.

The Sangi had holed themselves up in a fortress some miles west of the point where Hekkzaghin landed, in a place that had ever been the abode of tyrants and lawbreakers. Hekkzaghin himself led the first scouting party, walking with a confident strut even as his head darted from side to side in anticipation. He sighted a man seated on one of the many rocky outcroppings overlooking the broad plain and the sea beyond, a sword balanced on his knees. Coming closer, he recognized the man as Dasgeghu of the Voskalo.

“How have you come, with all your quirks and fears, to be the great chieftain of all Sughin?” Dasgeghu called when Hekkzaghin had come within shouting distance. “Never let it be said that the Fates are predictable, or that the skein is easily read. I told my kin that if you give the lion your hand, he will take your arm also, and behold, I have been proven right. Take your soldiers no closer. The Voskalo stand in your way.”

Hekkzaghin laughed. “What makes you think you can defeat me?”

“You were my student, Hekkzaghin, and you have taken an oath not to attack the Voskalo, nor to have others attack us on your behalf. Let your brother tribes of the Sughin decide their own affairs, as they have since Maghd’u.”

“No oath can stop me,” said Hekkzaghin in a voice that was half a whisper, half a shriek, and the soldiers behind him came forward with weapons drawn. “No!” he shouted. “No! Let me kill him myself.” He approached Dasgeghu with his sword ready for the Lion form, and Dasgeghu raised his own sword.

“Will you take upon yourself the name of oath-breaker?”

“I would, gladly, a hundred times,” said Hekkzaghin, and asked, “Do you remember the substance of our last conversations?”

“Six years have passed, and you think I remember?”

“We spoke of the Fates, I think, the Fates and Death, and I said that Death was stronger than the Fates, though I doubt that you believed me. Well, the time has come to demonstrate that I was right!” In an instant he had flung himself towards Dasgeghu, his sword cutting down, and Dasgeghu twisted aside, bringing his sword up to deflect the blow.

“Even you can die, Hekkzaghin,” said Dasgeghu.

“I die every day!” They circled one another, and Hekkzaghin exulted in how much his strength and skill had grown since their last duel.

“Treachery!” Dasgeghu shouted at the top of his lungs, and a few seconds later there came a shout of reply. He took advantage of a momentary slip to lunge and hit flesh with his blade, and Hekkzaghin fell back, gripping his side. A smile flickered over Hekkzaghin’s face.

“Do you dare…would you dare injure the master of the Sangi? Do you think he is put here for you to mutilate?” He was flushing with anger, sudden flaring anger. “You will pay for your presumption!” Then he was atop Dasgeghu before he could defend himself, fighting with quick sharp blows that drove Dasgeghu well backwards amid the rocks. Suddenly Dasgeghu caught his ankle on a stone and a burst of pain and loss of balance made him fall. For just a second he lay on the ground with legs sprawling, but it was long enough for Hekkzaghin to drive his sword through Dasgeghu’s shoulder, then raise it and drive it through the other shoulder.

“Now,” Hekkzaghin said in a quick voice, and brought the sword down again into Dasgeghu’s chest.

And Hekkzaghin continued on, he and his men easily defeating the Voskalo warriors who tried to stop them, and came to one of the fortresses that lay at strategic points in the coastlands of the Sughin realm but had been abandoned with the law of Maghd’u. Hekkzaghin wondered as he marched whether it would not be best to repair these decaying structures and establish garrisons once more to hold sway over the land. On the second day since they had landed on the shore, a haggard-looking Sangi appeared from the hills and would not accept even a sip of water before reporting to Hekkzaghin.

It seemed that the Sangi had sought refuge in one of these castles, and were besieged by a much larger force of rebels than anyone had anticipated. Hekkzaghin’s fists tightened as he listened, and his lips curved upwards. “I congratulate you, Ghazab’il,” he said. “You did very well making it to me undetected, dancing with your lady of death. You will be well rewarded both here and in the eternal dying. Now explain to me and my commanders how the land is laid out around your fortress. I will take the rebels and crush them in my hands one by one.” He bit his lip, but a high-pitched chuckle slipped out nevertheless.

But in his escape Ghazab’il had been spotted by the damned cursed rebels, and it was not long before a small band of them came over a hill in pursuit. They halted immediately in some confusion upon seeing Hekkzaghin’s forces, but neither Hekkzaghin nor the commander for the closest company of soldiers had any intention of letting them go back to tell their tale. The band put up a brave and desperate fight, but in the end those that were not dead lay wounded and bleeding on the ground, not far from joining their brothers in the embrace of Death. Hekkzaghin laughed to look upon it, and laughing he told Ghazab’il to take his fill of the sight. “Vengeance will soon overtake all the rest of the rebels!” he said, and Ghazab’il smiled back at him coldly.

It was turning out to be a fine day for battle, Hekkzaghin decided, looking up at the sky. A fine day to satiate his growing urge to slay, to carve living flesh into shreds, to dim whatever light the Fates had put into the eyes of his victims. He listened with half an ear to what his commanders were saying to him, answering their questions as best he could, but his mind was elsewhere, on the strife to come.

It was amazing, wasn’t it? Amazing how soft he had become over the past months. He had been lingering in G’aghla’s warm arms so long that he had become nearly a…a different person. Gentle, and meek. Even as he remembered this he could see her face in his mind, and feel himself melting inwardly, and he pulled himself away. He was angry at himself for letting himself slip thus. Good. Anger was good. Anger gave him the strength he needed to control the Sangi and rule the Sughin. And to cut down every single person who had the presumption to stand in his way. He envisioned the terrible punishment he would give to the leader of this rebellion, envisioned flesh flaying off in strips. And in hardly any time at all, they were upon the rebels.

“They will be no match for us,” was Hekkzaghin’s only comment to his commanders. “Go forth. Let us win.”

He was shivering with anticipation. He looked at the rebel camp and the confusion that had obviously overtaken it with his arrival, and he was happy beyond words. It was time to taste death again.

How many men died in his trail? Hekkzaghin did not bother to count. If he had ever doubted it, he knew now that he was what the Sangi called an avatar of death. None of his enemies could even lay a scratch on him as he fought his way towards the grand tent that would be the heart of the cancer. His vision was glazed red and he saw in flashes as he pressed forward, and his sword seemed to move of its own accord.

“Hekkzaghin,” a familiar voice said, bringing him up short. He blinked the haze away and found himself facing a man bulky with muscle and with a sad determined face. After a moment, Hekkzaghin remembered his name.

“Tefgha,” he said. “You…you were always the most loyal to me.”

“A long time ago,” Tefgha said, shaking his head. “My loyalty is to the Sughin and to the Tanos, and you have become a traitor to both.”

“You are the traitor,” said Hekkzaghin, his voice shifting wildly. “You are a traitor, and you must die. It is my law.”

“Your law? Just like it is your law to violate the honor of single combat?” Tefgha gestured behind Hekkzaghin. “I see that you have archers and slingers in your train. The sword is the weapon of a brave man; the bow is the weapon of a weakling.”

“It is no wonder,” Hekkzaghin said, shaking his head, “that the Sughin have been so weak for so long. We have crippled ourselves, and I will not let you cripple us again. The world is ours to take!”

Their swords met and clashed and despite all Hekkzaghin’s strength he was pushed steadily backwards by the larger man. He lifted his head and laughed.

“What is funny?” Tefgha demanded.

“I was just thinking how deluded you must be to think that you can defeat me, any more than you can have victory over death. Death claims its victims without cease, and so do I.” Hekkzaghin’s sword flashed into the Snake and nicked Tefgha’s arm. Blood spurted out, and Hekkzaghin could see Tefgha’s grip on his weapon weaken. He moved forward and twisted his sword into the Mouse form to cut into Tefgha’s arm again. Tefgha’s sword clattered to the ground.

“The Fates,” Tefgha said in a stunned voice as Hekkzaghin struck a final blow through his side, tearing him open in a mess of gore.

“What was that?” Hekkzaghin asked.

“The Fates,” said Tefgha again, more quietly, “will…destroy you…in the end…” Redness flowed from his mouth and he crumpled. Hekkzaghin laughed again.

“When we were children together I did not take you to be such a fool.” For a moment he remembered back to when he and Tefgha and Gesil had fought together against the Ad’os, when they had trusted one another with their lives. Then he crushed that memory deep within himself and crying out his own name, he turned away from Tefgha’s body and ran to cut down another rebel.

And in the end, when the last of them had been killed and the Sangi in the fortress had emerged to join in the slaughter, Hekkzaghin sat by Tefgha’s tent, splashing water on his face from a basin within. His thoughts turned in regular patterns within his mind. He had killed them all – he was not troubled by that, of course. To deny what he did with the blade would be to deny who he was. But it had occurred to him, as he had gone from wounded man to wounded man finishing them off, that this was the wisest course. Eliminate your enemies completely before they have a chance to strike back: that was the key to total victory.

Hekkzaghin finished washing and straightened. Why then, he wondered, did he leave so many enemies alive in the eastern lands? It was clearer to him now that he had returned to the desert, where the sun itself strove to kill him. He had been entranced by the luxuries of the east and forgotten what was necessary.

“Do you have anything to say?” he heard someone ask hesitantly, and without turning he shook his head. He had not been sure whether to return to Alhunvin immediately or linger in the desert to make sure that the rebels were utterly destroyed, but his mind was clearer on the matter now. The enemies here were obvious: they raised their banner and called for his death. In the east, in Lakki, they lied and hid themselves and pretended to be his friends. He rocked back and forth thinking about it. He would have to clear that whole nest of serpents out, with the aid of the Sangi of course. And it would begin with those who called themselves his closest allies.

~

And Apalakki fought with might, but the Hisame were beyond count, like the stars in the sky. Again and again he called for his allies and for his sons, but he was left utterly alone. Finally he called for the son of his wife, and called for Pirlisu, but Pirlisu was far away in the woods of Bimalin. So Apalakki cursed Pirlisu and named him a bastard, never to inherit any portion of Lakki, whether desert or river, mountain or plain. Apalakki called on Vaghatin, and Vaghatin came down to fight with him.
-Generations of K’itarbul (X)

Chapter 11