Hamideh Kador ran her thumb over the wax of the broken seal again, feeling it move this time. She had spent most of the trip absently tracing its edges and it had become supple with the attention. It had initially struck her as strange that such an old tradition would be employed when untold numbers of messages could be so quickly relayed by electronic means.
Yet during the journey, as she reflected on the letter in her hand, she had come to appreciate the gesture. It was tactile. Real. Another of their private luxuries. She dug her nail into the pliable wax and thought about her task.
Her reverie was broken by the sensation that marked their exit from warp speed.
She sighed. The past few months had afforded her so little time to herself. Her hours had been filled with a constant procession of busy people with concerned faces. A journey like this one had become her own private indulgence, even though it was at another’s behest. A few hours to sit and think.
She gripped the letter at its end, tapping it twice on her knee before tucking it away in her coat and sitting forward, looking out the window again.
There was a light knock on the door.
The Kador Family guard stepped in wearing a uniform that was far too immaculate for her taste. He noticed her look at the sheen flashing from his boots, her brows knitting, before the fierce eyes met his own.
“M’lady, we’re about to dock.”
“Thank you. Please ask them to have everything ready. I do not want to be here longer than I have to.”
“As you wish.”
She stood, watching him turn and close the door again before she closed her gold-trimmed coat, tugged at the bottom of it and frowned again. She donned a black sheer robe laid out for her that morning, then reached up to pull its hood over her head and shoulders.
Despite her desire for a measure of anonymity, the portly official that greeted her as she stepped onto the station reached out a sweaty hand to grasp hers and bowed slightly. She quickly scanned the corridor into the station to ensure no one along it might have seen the act of deference.
“Lady Hamideh, a pleasure to, ah, meet you,” he paused as her kohl-rimmed eyes fixed his and he was struck by her gaze.
Her first impulse was to chastise him for not only announcing her but greeting her so informally. Years of training and experience won out. She was well practiced at showing civility to those who barely merited it. So she gave him a smile and tried not to withdraw her hand too quickly.
“And you, M. Tresein. I thank you for your courtesy and professionalism,” she said, choosing to remind him of his duties in a way that would also flatter him. “It is rare to find someone that can exercise discretion under such circumstances. We are most grateful.”
He stood tall, puffing his barrel chest out and smiling proudly.
“I understand that you don’t wish to advertise your presence but can I offer you a quick tour of the station, M’lady? As you’re no doubt aware, we don’t get many Amarr visitors.”
Hamideh raised an eyebrow slightly. This man was a buffoon. It would be best to ensure a favorable impression of the visit against his inevitable breach of confidence.
“I’m afraid I must decline, M. Tresein. Time is of the essence, unfortunately. There is much to attend to back home. I must also admit some discomfort, both due to my family’s last unfortunate visit to this system and because of the relationship my people have had with Egonics Incorporated. Perhaps you could put me at ease and enlighten me about your work here as you take us to our purpose?”
Again, the red-cheeked administrator beamed, and with a spring in his step he turned and gestured down the corridor, holding out his other elbow for her to take.
“Of course, please come this way. We have the body secured nearby. Do you have the letter?”
When she held it out she saw his eyes widen with avidity as he reached to take it for inspection. Of course he knew about the curling black script at the bottom. The private message. She almost hesitated to give it to him fearing she was about to watch the creature lick the words right off the page.
As Tresein greedily read the postscript, Hamideh turned her head quickly to her security retinue and nodded sternly before turning back to her guide. He finished his petty self-indulgence, folded the letter again and wiped at the corner of his mouth as he handed it back. Hamideh made herself smile warmly despite a new wave of revulsion.
“I understand that you are prolific in your creative output at this studio?” she asked, lightly resting her hand on the elbow he’d offered.
“We’re one of the most productive studios in the entire corporation, m’lady!” he replied excitedly. He then proceeded to babble for the entire ten minutes it took to reach their destination. Her bodyguards looked about them as they walked, taking in every detail and examining every face that turned towards them. For her part, Hamideh thought back to the previous day.
She’d been called to Uriam’s side with some urgency. When the Order of St. Tetrimon admitted her to where the Royal Heirs were being sequestered, she was told what was happening.
He hadn’t eaten or slept for over a standard day. After months during which he’d showed no signs of fear or ill humor after losing in the Succession Trials, suddenly he’d shut himself in and refused to entertain any visitors. His only request had been for his heir-elect to attend him.
Even the small group of choral singers that he’d requested to have at his beck and call to regale him with divine song had been sent away. There were no more extravagant dinners with rare delicacies. No more requests for books and art, or even the holoreels delivered by Gallente guests that he’d once enjoyed. The Kador Family poet that had been visiting with wine and laughter had been turned away with disturbing finality.
The general concern was that Uriam had finally acknowledged what was to happen to him and it had caused some kind of collapse. Hamideh had thought this at first when she’d entered his darkened quarters and found him in a rather disheveled state, wearing the previous day’s clothes and staring blankly out the window from where he sat on the floor, leaning against an ornate couch. She’d had to raise her voice before he even acknowledged her presence in the room.
After a pause he’d explained himself. Slowly. Still sitting on the floor. She’d wondered how long he’d been there. He did not smell of his usual scents this time. Eventually, he’d picked up the letter with its broken wax seal from the floor beside him. Picked it up and handed it to her before telling her what he wanted. He had a task for her. His last request.
She tapped the folded paper against her leg again with her free hand, as if to focus her attention back to the moment.
“...and that’s what I understand to be the Empire’s most significant disagreement with Egonics, specifically,” Mr. Tresein finally finished, stopping and gently withdrawing his elbow. As she withdrew her own hand she noted the plain grey blast doors and the security officer standing on guard beside them.
Hamideh had not truly been listening but she’d used half an ear for form’s sake, keeping her head down in her hood as they’d walked through the corridors of the station. When her host paused she simply nodded and covered her lack of attention by feigning thoughtful consideration of his words.
“I believe you have it right, Mr. Tresein. I thank you for your perspective.” She cleared her throat. “Now, is she in here?” Hamideh pointed to the doors, hiding her impatience.
Tresein had been so caught up in what he actually believed was an opportunity to make inroads into the Amarr market for Egonics Inc. that he seemed to have forgotten the purpose of her visit. He’d paused with his hands behind his back, waiting for her response to his pitch, before her gentle reminder of her actual business here.
“Oh. Yes. Ahem, right in here,” he said, remembering himself and pressing his thumb to the security reader by the doors. As the doors opened with a faint hiss, three more security officers waiting inside the storage bay beyond got to their feet from a scattering of low crates they’d been lounging on. One of them hurriedly threw something on the floor, stepping on it with his heel, while another rather unsubtly attempted to waft away the blue haze around them. The last of them ignored all that, adopted a stone-faced demeanor and walked over to the casket that occupied the center of the bay.
It was suspended off the ground on a small maglev trolley, and it descended slightly as Hamideh Kador reached out to the small glass window in the lid. Even though the window was somewhat frosted with ice on the interior, she could still clearly see the exceptionally pale face within. The clarity was such that she even noticed the thin layer of frost on the skin and small crystals of ice in the dark eyebrows.
Hamideh thought she looked beautiful.
“Thank you again, M. Tresein,” Hamideh said, turning back to the odious creature. “We’ll take her back to Amarr forthwith. She is keenly awaited.”
In the Scriptures, there is a tale of a place of battle near the Great Interior Desert on the continent of Ves-Udor. When the Amarr launched their Reclaiming to conquer the Udorians and other peoples of Athra there were many famous battles and countless notorious acts of war, but within the Sarum Family, Satach’s Spite is remembered above all.
Although seldom mentioned among the commoners, except perhaps to illustrate some lesson of faith, there were times enough when Udorian armies defeated the people of Amarr, routing God’s armies. One such defeat left a Sarum general named Satach encircled by the enemy, cut off from the bulk of the retreating Amarrian army, with only a thousand men at his command. Fighting for their lives, they succeeded in breaking through the Udorian lines and found refuge in a region of deep canyons.
In one of the valleys, Satach found a deep set of caves large enough to conceal his entire force. They hid there, tending to their wounded while hoping that relief would come. After a month had passed, Satach knew that no-one would come to rescue his company. He kneeled in one of the cave’s springs of water and asked God to help him and his men.
The Scriptures say that the water turned into blood for all the men to see, and Satach knew that his divine calling remained as it had always been. He was chosen to slay God’s enemies, and God had granted him the perfect home to strike from.
For the following seven years, Satach’s force mounted a campaign of careful but ruthless raiding against the Udorians, far behind the enemy’s lines. Throughout these years, the location of the cavern remained a most carefully kept secret. It was only on the eve of Satach’s relief by a resurgent Amarr army that his location was betrayed, after the Imperial envoy that had met with the Sarum general was captured by an Udorian scouting party.
When the Amarr Empire’s force arrived, they were merely in time to witness the final act of a devastating Udorian assault against the outnumbered Sarumites. Despite their arrival and intervention, Satach’s company was slaughtered to a man. But for every dead soldier from Satach’s company there were eleven dead Udorians. The dead filled the entire valley floor and inside the caverns the holy spring was once again filled with blood.
The Empire’s relief troops found that the cave had been carved into a massive subterranean fortress, and a beautiful chapel had been built around the pool where Satach had prayed. The location was given over to the Sarum Family as a fief in perpetuity, and remained a prized fortress and sanctuary for millennia despite its poor location. Over the years, the entire cliff the cave was set in was carved into beautiful artwork commemorating the battles of Satach’s company, and the valley was named for his long campaign of bleeding the Udorians. It was even said that the canyons received their red color from the blood of the Udorians slain in the final battle.
But with the coming of the modern age and the interstellar expansion of the Amarr Empire, most places like the Carved Fortress of Satach’s Spite were forgotten. There were new shrines, new holy sites, and new splendors of creation to which the devout might make pilgrimage. Only the Sarum Family continued the practice of journeying to the ancient place, to drink from the holy spring and to remember the holy purpose of their house.
And sometimes, it served as home to those honored lords and ladies who wished to seclude themselves.
The King gazed out over the parapet of his castle onto the battlefield below. So many bodies had been dragged from the field, and yet more would die before the day was at an end. He could hear the desperate timbre in the voice of the bishops promising the glory of God to the few haggard knights and peasant soldiers standing firm. But the black army on the opposite rise spoke more firmly even in its absolute silence. Promising death and destruction.
The sun was setting. The King gazed out at his opposing equal, finding little comfort in his knowledge that this was the last day for the both of them.
This contest was merely a formality.
“Who are you playing, Merimeth?” the King’s advisor asked. Merimeth Sarum startled awake from his reverie and rubbed his weary eyes. The bronze spears of the sun’s light stabbed at him across the desert, illuminating the vast chamber of red stone. He felt exhausted.
“Khanid,” Merimeth replied. The other snorted with blatant disgust, nearly spitting on the intricately carved floor before remembering himself and where he stood. This was the chamber of their ancestors. It would be dishonorable to treat it so.
Merimeth cradled his head in one hand, resting his elbow heavily on the table while his other hand idly counted the few remaining pieces he had at his disposal. The game was definitely lost, that much was clear. It had been for months. He might be able to punish the black king with a spiteful final offensive, but the Sarum lord found that he preferred this state of the board. A day of inevitable doom frozen before the sun might set.
“I fear he has you beat, my liege.”
“It seems that way,” the Heir Sarum sighed and looked up at his successor. Arrach stood between two of the room’s mighty pillars. His hands were folded behind his back, his face held towards the endless desert. The sunlight gilded his iron grey hair and cloaked him with a long shadow. Merimeth thought that the man suited the room much better than himself.
“I haven’t been here since I was a child,” Arrach said, as he gazed out at the desert the tower loomed over. It was much newer than the ancient fortress underneath, this tower, being part of the more extravagant palace that had been constructed atop the cliff which Satach’s fortress was carved into. “My mother lived here for a time.”
“Did you do as I asked?”
“I have carried out your last request as instructed, my liege,” Arrach bowed, bending at the waist just enough for protocol’s sake. As he returned to his habitually ramrod straight posture, he withdrew something from his belt and held it out. “And I have brought you this.”
Arrach stepped over to where Merimeth sat and placed a small, intricately fashioned golden scepter in the middle of the game board. Carved with images of war and glorious triumph, it was a smaller version of the artfully sculpted pillars that lined the room’s open wall. Merimeth ran a trembling finger over the golden images. Such a ritual item would seem to be a fitting addition to his funerary dress.
“Are we in such a hurry that we disregard tradition?” Merimeth asked.
“The tradition of honor goes before all else. This is a symbol of our house.” Arrach lectured with a stern tone. Looking up at him, Merimeth felt like a child. He would rather look away. Grasping the scepter tightly, he let his thumb trace one of the rings that circled it.
“I didn’t ask for any of this.”
“Yet here you are.” Arrach observed, and turned away to regard the desert once more.
Out beyond the ancient fastness made palace, a brand new temple had been erected on the desert plain. A mile-long promenade of black glass had been melted and formed out of the sand itself. At its end, a great stone ziggurat rose like a crystal from the dunes. Preparations had been underway for some time and neared completion.
Crowds of pilgrims and, well, mere onlookers were already encamped under the hot sun in pavilions kept cool by cunning artifice. The floating pavilions of the Great Houses and the Emperor Family hung above all. House banners crossed with mourning bands billowed next to the Imperial black and gold. Aside from these latter, only the copper and tin banners of Tash-Murkon displayed no funeral trappings.
“Do they think this is honorable? These gaudy gallows? This gross misuse of holy technology?”
“I suppose they expect us to go out in style.” Merimeth did not look out. He had endured months as a spectator to the preparations already.
“Style? This is an insult. We are Amarr. We do not burn men on stage to entertain the audience,” Arrach growled.
An image of a city burned to its foundations as an example to all flashed through Merimeth’s mind but his reply was mild, “We are slaves to providence, as are all.” The Sarum heir was not inclined to fence with Arrach, already tiring of the other’s ranting jabs.
Arrach turned to look back at the lord of his house. “Some of us more than others. You have been bound by others all your life, Merimeth. Now you have a final chance to prove that you are the true master of your life.”
“We’re all dead anyway. Is there really any point to symbolic gestures?”
“What are pawns or kings but symbols? Yet symbols can change, my liege. At the board’s end, the pawn can show its true strength: if only as a last act of defiance against a cruel fate.”
Merimeth frowned and met the older man’s gaze. “I have never known you to outright insult me, Arrach, but comparing me to a piece in a game may be the closest you have come.”
“You think you are the player of this game, my liege? Need I remind you who it was that ordered the construction of this grotesque spectacle?” Arrach gestured out, toward the setting sun and the ritual field. “Who set you on the path that led you here today? Who marked your ear for slaughter?”
“Would you rather it be you sitting in this chair? And me chiding your impotence?”
“At least I would know the path of honor when it was offered to me!” Arrach planted both hands heavily on the table. The pieces jumped on the board. The white king nearly toppled. “I would know my choice.”
Merimeth grasped the scepter tight. His knuckles pale, his eyes hot with fury. “And what if I choose to just accept my fate and walk the mile in peace? Would that not be my own choice?”
Arrach stepped back, his deferential composure yet contriving to subtly display his contempt. “No my lord, that would be committing to the role your aunt wrote for you.”
Merimeth slumped back into his lonely chair. He let the golden scepter rest in his lap, a vessel adrift on a billowing sea of blood red robes. “When every choice is death, the force of these points as to who has made the choice are lost on me. Go now, Arrach. You fulfilled your duty. Leave me in peace. God be with you.”
Satach’s Fountain had changed much since the days of the Athran Reclaiming. Once it had been a natural spring of mountain water running through a cleft of stone. Centuries ago someone had carved it – at with some stage of the massive fortress’s embellishment – to take the shape of the First Prophet offering a bottomless jug of truth to the masses thirsty for deliverance. The trickle poured into a pool, with a soothing noise that drowned most other sound.
Despite occupying the large central chamber of the ancient holdfast, the fountain was a private and peaceful place. Aside from the countless statues of saints and commemorated heroes, only two figures interrupted the emptiness of the great hall.
“I have done as you asked, Yonis. But it is not right.” A trembling voice, hushed in fear of still statues and absent guards, yet cresting over the noise of the water.
“It is what is necessary.” A voice resonant with assured pride and resolve.
“It is not fair to demand this of me, uncle.”
Before the carved likeness of Dano Gheinok, First Prophet of the Amarr, Arim Ardishapur stood bowed under the gaze of Yonis, his uncle and lord. The latter already stood prepared in his death garb: a pristine white gown reaching all the way to the floor with little adornment.
“It is what is necessary to protect the realm,” Yonis said again, with finality. There was no point arguing. The work was already begun, already in motion.
“This is not our way...”
Yonis let his exquisitely silvered, mechanical hand brush through his nephew’s brown hair. “The Ardishapur way is one of resolve to act in faith. Remind yourself of who it is that guards me here; who founded this misguided cult the demon queen has snared with her will. What I ask is yet a far cry from the holy deed of the Hand.”
“He is not the kind of saint I aspire to be, uncle. I do not wish to have this on my conscience.”
“It is not on your conscience, Arim. It is my will you execute. This is my final command, and I expect you to obey before you can be rid of me.”
“You talk of purity, Yonis. How can this be pure?”
“To wash away a stain is to take it unto yourself. The water that cleanses is never clean.”
Arim looked away. His face turned to the pool of the spring. It was clear, but in the basin of red rock set in this dark chamber it might as well be blood. Yonis knelt down by his side and grasped his right hand. “Witness your own silver hand. Remind yourself of its lesson, Arim. We must wear every attempted slight as a mark of honor. But we must also honor our jailers’ inspiration: these hands are not to serve men; they are devoted to God.”
Arim turned his face to meet Yonis’s heavy gaze. Among the statues of saints and prophets, pale and dressed in radiant white, the Ardishapur Heir looked perfectly in place. These were his peers. Arim knelt with him, his metal fingers idly grasping the hem of his uncle’s white robes. His soft weeping was muffled by the pouring water.
Grasping his nephew’s head in a caring embrace, Yonis brushed Arim’s tears with delicate silver fingers. Smiling softly the Ardishapur Heir recited a bit of doggerel prayer that a mother might say over a babe.
“I will take your sins,
For my soul is marred.
But pray that for my works,
I am not from Heaven barred.”
Ersilia’s heel strikes echoed through the winding halls of the northern wing of the palace of Satach’s Spite. She felt lost. It had been months since she’d visited here, and much had changed. She trusted her silent Tetrimon escort knew the way well enough, but few of the corridors felt familiar to her.
On her last visit, the place had been full of people, echoing with the business of the Imperial Chancellor. Today it was silent. An entire wing had been granted to Aritcio so that he could continue his duties as head of the Imperial bureaucracy despite his sequestration. Even in the enforced isolation he had continued to be one of the most powerful men in the Amarr Empire, and it had been evident. Now, though, he was surrounded only by empty offices and halls echoing to lonely footsteps.
She rounded a corner and knew that she was nearing Aritcio’s personal reception hall. A familiar face waited near the door.
“My Lady Ersilia, a pleasure to see you,” said Alder Brenean with a deep bow. He was Aritcio’s personal aide and closest confidante, a common man of the people. For eight years he had served arguably the Empire’s most powerful man, but to Ersilia’s eyes he seemed humble as ever. Even so, the short, dignified man seemed more confident than he had been when she first met him.
“And you, Alder. How is our lord?”
“Our lord is at peace,” he said with a soft smile. “I am the last to leave. He awaits only you.”
“Thank you Alder, for everything.”
He nodded solemnly. “It has been my honor.”
She watched the older man walk away, then turned to the door and steeled herself. After a few minutes, she opened it.
The sun of the late afternoon bathed the chamber in hues of orange, setting the ever sanguine stone aglow. The room had previously housed a small replica of the Table of the Chancellor from the Imperial Chancellery Court in Dam-Torsad, but now that too was gone. There were no more petitions to be heard, no more orders to be signed. No more business to be done, indeed, except that which waited beyond the flesh-hued walls of the fortress-palace.
Aritcio was nowhere to be seen, but Ersilia saw a side table set for a private dinner. Draped over a settee was the Imperial Chancellor’s court robe of office, made new to be worn once. She ran her fingers over the muted details and their house crest sitting below the Imperial sigil.
“Would you join me for my last meal?”
Ersilia spun around, startled. There were instincts she tried to curb, but today every fiber of her being was tense. She willed herself to relax and meet her cousin’s eyes. Aritcio was standing in the doorway to his chambers, his attitude far more casual than she had seen in a decade. He smiled patiently, but his eyes were tired.
“You have sent everyone home, my lord. Who will cook?” she jabbed at him, feeling old defenses slide into place.
“It would be my honor.”
“You? Since when do you know how to cook?”
“Alder has been teaching me. His patience is remarkable, and I have had much free time lately. He has taught me how to make all my favorite foods.”
“So what will we be having?”
“Salted Rockjaw stew with black bread.”
“Sounds delightful, Chancellor.”
Aritcio laughed, and Ersilia joined in.
“I have it nearly ready. Stay here, I will be right back.”
Again left alone, Ersilia returned to her regard of the ceremonial robe. Was it just an outfit, or was it a character to be worn? The honorable man, the dutiful lord, the altered sinner? Aritcio was a man who had been stripped naked to his very soul, and then clothed anew in quick-grown flesh. It was clear that he was changed, that his works since had been good. But still Ersilia could not quiet the panic in her heart when she looked at his face, or stop her hairs from standing on end when he spoke.
“What is the matter, Ersilia?”
She took a breath, searched for another line of thought. One to match her hesitation. “You haven’t asked me to complete a final request for you, Aritcio. It is tradition.”
“I asked you to come here, and you did. I request that you have dinner with me. Do you obey?” He asked with a genuinely jovial smile, as if it was their own little joke.
“I obey.” She said, clenching her muscles to suppress a shiver, painting on a strained grin.
The meal was a quiet affair. Apart from some pleasantries and Ersilia commending her cousin on his newfound culinary skills, few words were said until the plates were clean. Ersilia could tell there was something on his mind, but was loath to press him. When Aritcio spoke it was in a quiet bashful tone, refusing to meet her gaze.
“In truth, I did have one, real request, before I go.”
“I need you to forgive me.”
“I need you to forgive me for the things I did to you.”
Ersilia took a sharp breath and pushed her chair back. Her heart drummed, her brows furrowed, and her fingers balled into fists. Aritcio looked up from his plate and his eyes widened in shocked realization of the line he’d crossed.
“I am sorry, Ersilia! I take it back! Forget the request!”
At the sight of his expression, Ersilia was taken aback. She was seldom this transparent, but Aritcio had always had a way of exposing her true feelings. “No, no!” she protested, and made to speak but hesitated.
The room was silent for a moment unmeasured except by their beating hearts.
“I could never,” Ersilia started hesitantly. “I could never forgive the old you for what you did. But I think you have changed. The Aritcio I shared a meal with has done me no harm. I can forgive the new you.”
“In the end, what more could I ask of you?” Aritcio said, and together they shared a melancholy smile.
When Hamideh entered Uriam’s rooms this time he was pulling the sleeve of his finely embroidered coat in the mirror. He paused as he saw her walk in behind him. Uriam looked more dignified and regal to her than he had been for some time. He was clearly going to considerable effort. She saw his eyes go to the black and gold urn in her arms, and heard him draw in a ragged breath. He closed his eyes for a moment.
Then it was like he was switched on again and he turned, animated.
“Hamideh, my dear,” he smiled, walking towards her. He paused half-way and finished buttoning his cuff.
“Uriam,” she replied. “I’m glad to see you looking well. The last time I saw you, well, you seem better.”
“I could say I wasn’t myself, but that wouldn’t be true now would it? Still, it could be said that you saw me diminished.” He looked her in the eye. “As you’re aware by now, she was everything to me.”
Hamideh held his gaze for a moment without replying. Even so, she had questions.
She stepped to the nearby table and carefully placed the urn on it, turning the container slightly so that the small indentation in the lid faced him. She breathed deeply, steeling herself.
“Uriam, you’ve stated on many occasions that I am the obvious choice for the next Kador Heir despite my age.”
“Without a doubt.”
She exhaled through her nose.
“Then why do you continue to test me?”
He shook his head slightly. “No, my dear, no. I am assured of your suitability. Something that you’ve only reinforced going to Ratillose yourself despite the complications it could cause when it becomes public knowledge. I don’t test you as much as try to help you learn. You must conquer your own doubt, especially after today. Show them who you are, before they try and tell you.”
Hamideh folded her arms and narrowed her eyes.
“They’ll be asking questions about her soon. He hides it from most but Tresein is at heart a climber and a schemer with a hunger for scandal. Word will get around.”
Uriam tilted his head. “And when it does?”
“I’ll speak the truth. If that’s not what they’ll traffic in, I don’t care.”
“Excellent,” Uriam smiled, clapping his hands. “House Kador has nothing to worry about.”
Hamideh turned away from him and started walking around the table, looking at him sideways.
“If I’m going to speak the truth I’ll need it though, cousin.”
Uriam’s eyes were on the urn now, his smile slowly fading away.
“What do you need to know?”
“Ratillose. Why?” she asked curtly. Time was running out.
He sighed. “There were a number of reasons.”
“I’ve heard some. Tell me something real.”
“As you already know, the fact is that there had been talk of attempted seizures of Gallente assets. Our new Empress had even then spoken loosely of the rich Gallente stations floating around in her region. You’ll need to watch her.
“She spoke of Quafe, Impetus, Aliastra and others. I did my utmost to be a part of these speculations. I was unsure, though mostly against it. I didn’t think it was wise but I was advised this was because my judgment was clouded. I already had contacts in the Federation, a curiosity about them, and of course I’d met Jeanelle very early in my travels.”
Uriam stepped forward slowly and stretched out his hands to the urn on the table between them. He paused, his hands trembling slightly, only a fraction of an inch from the urn’s shining black surface before he actually grasped it, quite suddenly, and held it up for inspection.
“You met many Gallente women, Uriam,” Hamideh said, pursing her lips. She had moved behind him by now and so couldn’t see his face. His body didn’t even flinch at the jibe, however.
“Oh, you’re much too clever for that, Hamideh,” he murmured, turning his head slowly to her as she came around his other side. “The first after her may have been a true infatuation but it was ultimately born of a desire to be free of the original obsession. When it became enough evidence for some that I had a predilection, and I realized my first feelings had not gone away, it proved a convenient cover for both of us.”
“She must have loved that,” Hamideh scoffed.
“All of them were her,” he said, meditating on the urn again. “And none of them.”
She shook her head, bemused, and looked away as she continued pacing out laps around him and the table. She wanted to challenge the rationalization but there wasn’t the time. There were other questions that needed answers.
“And Grand Admiral Eturrer? Was he one of your contacts?”
“Eturrer was meant to provide the intelligence needed to convince my colleagues that assaults on the Federation would be a mistake.”
Hamideh swept her hand over the flames of a candelabra as she passed it. “But he served quite the opposite purpose?”
“Yes, militarists and money alike were taken in by his talk of yet more holes in the Tripwire network. You know how much old iron and old gold we owed debts to by then. They wanted glory and the spoils. Eturrer was a catastrophe.”
“Which led to a series of events that you lost all control over. What’s more, by the end of it all you couldn’t even use the Grand Admiral as evidence that you weren’t entirely at fault.”
“Thanks to Jeanelle.”
Hamideh stopped. She bit her bottom lip, thinking.
“She was getting back at you?”
Uriam’s brow furrowed. He didn’t reply. There was a glimpse of pain on his face.
“How did you hurt her?”
“We’d both said it was over for good that time. It was the closest we would come to being free of each other,” he whispered. “Might as well try to cut out your own heart.”
Hamideh moved closer, straining to hear him. Then it dawned on her and her eyes widened.
“Uriam, as per her directions, after we’d identified her body and returned her here she was cremated. The mortician’s report noted a scar running from…”
Uriam raised a hand and despite herself she stopped. He lifted his head up, stood straight and tall.
“I don’t know, Hamideh, whether I’d hope for God to fate you with such a connection to a person that would drive you to be both your best and worst in a single lifetime,” he looked at her solemnly. “I have considered it both a blessing and a curse. While I cherished her more than my own self there were times enough that I wished she was dead. That she had never been.”
Uriam held up the urn and swallowed, his voice almost breaking, before he pressed on. “I hurt her and she hurt me. In a way, as perverse as it may seem, it was further affirmation of who we were to each other.”
Hamideh shook her head and scowled. “Did you invade Ratillose intending to move on to Ondree? That’s where she was born, wasn’t it? Was it a show of force?”
“She might have been born in Ondree, but she gave a portion of her life to Egonics in Ratillose. It was a gate and a memory. They attached their little spigot and drained her of her talent. You’ve seen her words.”
Hamideh felt the letter, still tucked into her clothes.
“So, all those lives? All those ships?”
He snorted. “Nothing so trite. As I’ve explained, there were many reasons, numerous pressures. I misplayed my hand with Eturrer and had to let things go forward. At least I could direct the forces along a path that might have been of some benefit. And after all, the kind of thinking that led to the adventure was quashed.”
“So was your reputation.”
“As you put it, I don’t care.”
They both turned to the window then, hearing the murmuring of the crowd growing in volume as latecomers arrived and notables took their places.
“And what if Ratillose had been an Amarr victory?”
“If it had succeeded, well,” he stared at the floor, “everyone would have started to race through doors unexpectedly blown wide open. However, in the first strike, the entire Mobrault constellation – her home – would have been mine.”
Neither of them spoke or moved for a moment. Then the door beside them opened and a knight of the Order of St. Tetrimon appeared in ceremonial robe and mailed coif.
“Lord Kador, it is time.”
Uriam nodded, cleared his throat and then walked past Hamideh, into the corridor beyond. She stepped out behind him and watched him go, the sun flickering over him as he walked past the patterned wooden windows.
“You’re a fool,” she eventually called, smiling sadly.
He spun on his heel and walked backwards a couple of paces, holding the black and gold urn tightly to his chest with one hand and making a flourish with the other.
“So what else is new?” he laughed. Then he turned the corner and was gone forever.
She pulled out the letter, read the curling words of its postscript again, and shook her head before going to her own place for the evening’s ceremonies.
Khemon Dulsur an-Tetrimon sat back in his desk chair, turned towards the window and contemplated the shimmering sands of the desert beyond Satach’s Spite. Soon enough it would be time to gather his charges together for their final journey. Dulsur grimaced, his task these past months had brought him no satisfaction and no small frustration.
A soft chime sounded and Dulsur turned back to face the door.
“Enter,” said the Grand Master of the Order of St. Tetrimon.
Udo, still Paladin Senioris after all these years, entered and respectfully ushered into the room a man in richly decorated robes that spoke of high status without ostentation. The man was handsome though aged, smiling though having about him an air of cautious experience. Dulsur was well familiar with Kalefa Sufrin an-Kador, High Chaplain of the Emperor Family, and something about the cleric’s demeanor evoked a sense of foreboding.
Dulsur stood up and walked around the table to meet Sufrin and clasp hands with him. “High Chaplain, you are most welcome. That will be all, Udo.” As the Paladin Senioris withdrew, Dulsur indicated a pair of comfortable chairs arranged to look over the desert plain. “Please sit, let us talk.”
“Thank you, Grand Master. You are well, I trust.”
“Quite well, thank you.” Dulsur had not seen fit to hide his unease and waited for Sufrin to reveal the purpose of his visit.
“Excellent,” Sufrin glanced quizzically at Dulsur and his calm smile quirked wryly for an instant. “I read your final report on the sequestration of the Royal Heirs with great interest, Grand Master. There was much, ah, food for thought.”
“Only thought? What of action? If you read the report, then you surely must be as disturbed as I am?”
“My dear Dulsur, while I agree that certain of the interactions between Heirs and successors could be considered, well, unusual and that some of the final requests are rather peculiar, I am not inclined to alarm. It does not seem to me that any of the matters in the report imperil the fulfilment of the, let us say, necessary essentials of this evening’s rite.”
Dulsur shook his head in dismay. “You adopted a similar position when it came to the report, clear in its implications, on the Tash-Murkon assets that were in place during the trials.”
“Now, Dulsur, we’re surely not going to rake over those coals again? There are always those who can’t see beyond loyalty to House and Heir. What of it? I’m quite sure your knights would have capably thwarted any renegade actions had it been necessary.”
Dulsur snorted. “And I am quite sure of where the orders and the money actually came from in that case.”
Sufrin sighed. “Is there really any purpose in belaboring a moot point? Haven’t you yourself publicly pledged fealty? You have been unstinting in breaking the backs of the heretics and fanatics who would question the divine will.”
The Grand Master stood up and paced back and forth, his frustration evident. Turning back to the quietly patient High Chaplain, he pointed an accusing finger. “You have made me a politician, it’s true. I’m no longer a soldier. No more than you are a priest!”
“Come now, Lord Dulsur an-Tetrimon, it’s your office that made you that. Your office, your vocation and your predecessor.”
“Perhaps so.” Dulsur sat back down. “But look you, some of these men we’re to burn this day are surely desperate. You’ve read my report and know what each has had delivered into their hands. Do you really say that we let the affair proceed as things stand?”
“I do. Take no action. Let each of them meet their ultimate lord in their own way.”
“And what of the abomination?”
“Well, he’ll die too, of course.”
“But not his successor.”
“I believe his family would withstand the loss of both of them, Dulsur. I can’t see that there is much to be done about that situation, much as we may not like it.”
Dulsur met the other’s gaze and nodded. “As you wish but mark me well, Sufrin, there will have to be a reckoning sooner or later.”
“There is always a reckoning in the end, my dear Grand Master. But we must accept that our role is not always to bring that reckoning to a head.”
Khemon Dulsur an-Tetrimon raised his hand in weary assent and looked out at the early evening’s light slanting on the ruddy sand and stone of Satach’s Spite.
“So at last, it’s time.”
The Khanid lords strode down the gilded steps to the hall of assembly together. Down there, the Heirs Kador and Kor-Azor were already waiting, together with Court Chamberlain Pomik Haromi, the ever calm Kalefa Sufrin an-Kador, and the Tetrimon Grand Master, this latter attended by several of his knights.
“I had hoped sweet Catiz would be here to bid you farewell,” Farokh Khanid, Duke of Sib and heir to the Khanid Kingdom, laughed.
“Ah, such a shame that I shall never see her again,” replied Garkeh Khanid, King of Khanid, with a grin, play-acting a longing gaze of forlorn love.
They both laughed then, drawing dire glances from their soberer fellows.
“The Duke of Sib should take his leave. The ceremony is about to begin, and I am certain he would wish to be seen in his place as crown prince of the Khanid Kingdom,” Haromi chided.
Farokh Khanid bowed deeply before the Court Chamberlain before doing the same toward his king. “Fortune speed you on your way, Majesty.”
“The King is dead,” Garkeh said, smiling broadly.
“Long live the King!” Farokh replied with a salute, then bowed again and left the hall.
Khemon Dulsur an-Tetrimon watched the Duke go with barely concealed disgust, before gesturing to his knights to take their places by the gateway. Beyond those stone gates, banded in iron and gold, the noise of the crowd was reaching a new pitch of raucous anticipation mixed with reverential chanting.
“Have the Lords Sarum and Ardishapur gotten themselves lost?” Garkeh asked, looking around for his missing peers.
“They will be here shortly,” said Dulsur tonelessly.
“I hope you’re right. I wouldn’t want to miss my own execution because of those two.”
“You may be assured that no such accident will transpire, your grace.”
Kalefa Sufrin an-Kador turned away and looked up the stairway.
The remaining Heirs soon appeared, escorted down into the hall by their Tetrimon guards, making up a full company of ten with their fellows already present. The final march demanded its proper escort.
“We are all assembled,” Haromi said and struck his ceremonial staff on the tiled floor. Merimeth joined the group with open arms and wide strides, greeting the other lords with a pleasant smile. Yonis remained quiet, and kept his hands folded in the sleeves of his white robes.
After greetings had been exchanged by those so inclined, High Chaplain Sufrin an-Kador addressed the ceremonial party. “Blessed Heirs, it has been an honor serving God and the Empire at your side, but the time has come for our paths to part. The divine order demands that you take your leave of this room in God’s house and take your places at His side. Your passing will usher in a new era in the life of Holy Amarr, with our great Empire prospering under the wise rule of Empress Catiz.
“You have named the new Heirs of the Amarr Empire and by that sacred duty secured the Imperial Succession. Only your final duty remains. It is the sure will of Her Imperial Majesty Empress Catiz I that you walk the path to the Temple of Ascension, where you will take your places and undergo the Rite of Shathol’Syn. By that sacred and willing act of faith you will join with blessed Jamyl and set your own blessings upon the people of the True Faith.”
Garkeh Khanid’s sardonic grin widened a trifle and Khemon Dulsur an-Tetrimon lowered his head.
Chamberlain Haromi stepped forward and spoke to the Heirs, “Do you understand your duty?”
All five indicated their understanding and agreement, with nods and gestures of assent according to their temperaments.
“So recognized. Go now, with God.”
Haromi struck his staff on the floor once more, five times, before the heavy stone gates facing the harsh desert opened, and the march began.
At the end of the long obsidian road was a tiered temple fashioned from black stone. Along the face of the temple was a stairway two hundred steps high. At the top of the steps was a wide circular dais of pure white glass, set in a mount of gleaming metal. Arranged in an arc at the center of the glass circle were five ornate wooden thrones, each carved with the motifs of the five houses: Ardishapur, Kor-Azor, Sarum, Kador and Khanid. Merimeth took his designated seat in the center, with Yonis and Aritcio to his right, Uriam and Khanid to his left.
As they took their seats, they each became keenly aware of the thousands of faces eagerly awaiting their deaths. This was it, in these moments the entire Amarr Empire held its breath before things proceeded as ordained. Looming close, though not too close, the Emperor Family’s pavilion hung perfectly still despite a gentle wind, with Empress Catiz enthroned in the center, surrounded by honored guests from within the Empire and beyond.
Uriam was the last to take his seat, the urn he’d carried along the black path carefully held on his lap. As he took his place, the Tetrimon escorts stepped back from the arc of thrones and retreated down the steps of the ziggurat.
Shortly thereafter, the shield projectors surrounding the glass circle erupted into life with a low hum. An indistinct cylinder of faintly distorted light surrounded them and stretched into the sky. The distortion, rippling slowly like heat off the desert, glittered here and there as the light breeze blew sand and dust against it. The platform began to grow cold, and all the sounds from the crowd and ceremony outside were silenced. The heirs were left to themselves. Sequestered again, after a mile of absolute exposure.
Just inside the shielding stood an hourglass, filled with golden sand, counting down the remaining seconds. “Well, always nice to know when you’re going to go.” Khanid quipped, gesturing at the object and its rapidly emptying upper bulb. Yonis Ardishapur huffed in response and stood up, wearing a strange expression.
“What is it, youngster? Need to stretch your legs before the long trip?” Khanid laughed and stood up as well. Merimeth, looking back and forth between the two men standing at the ends of the arc of chairs, seemed bemused. Aritcio looked concerned, and rose to stand in front of Yonis.
“Someone should have dealt with you a long time ago,” Yonis spat at the Khanid King, and unfolded his arms to reveal a slim blade of iridescent black glass in his silver right hand.
“Yonis! No!” shouted Aritcio and quickly stepped in with a clumsy hold that could have been taken for a brotherly embrace.
“Pathetic old fool!” Khanid laughed. “There is no world beyond this one for you!”
“Let go of me! I refuse to face the Divine and my ancestors with that thing at my side! He is an abomination and he must be struck down!” Yonis gasped, his fanatical gaze transfixed on the Khanid King even as Aritcio pressed against him in an iron grip.
Merimeth stepped over to the struggling pair and put his hands on their shoulders, “Stop, my brothers, stop. Think of what you’re doing. We may be seen only dimly through this haze but seen we are. Take this madness no further, Yonis.”
Yonis looked into Merimeth’s face, stricken. “Aritcio. He, he slipped onto it.”
Merimeth glanced down, saw the blood underfoot and shuddered. “Come, let’s help him to his seat.”
“Stop this now!” Uriam cried, stepping over to place a restraining hand on Khanid’s shoulder. His expression was one of horror and fear, and no small amount of anger.
“Stay out of this!” Khanid barked and shrugged Uriam off violently, making the Kador heir stagger back. The five figures froze at the sudden, tragic noise of porcelain shattering.
Falling to his knees by his throne, Uriam gazed into a pile of scattered ashes and the shards of the urn. Slowly, his hands moved as if to contain the mess. Khanid looked down at Uriam’s bowed form, then turned back to the others. Ariticio sat back in his throne, a hand pressed to his stomach.
“You see, Yonis?” smiled Khanid. You don’t have to be concerned about the purity of your travelling companions! Uriam’s whore won’t be joining us after all.”
Yonis took a horrified, convulsive step back towards his own throne, while Merimeth seemed to shake himself and advanced towards Khanid.
Khanid looked puzzled as Merimeth came on, arms wide open. “What’s this, whelp? Come to give your elder and better a hug?”
Merimeth rushed suddenly forward, flung his arms around Khanid, brought right hand to left and pulled apart the Sarum Family scepter he carried with him.
As the blade entered Khanid’s lung, he coughed and grinned once more. “Oh! Well played, Jamyl’s puppet! Ah, it seems we finished our game after all! Yes, well done but, um, futile and far, far too late.”
On his knees, Uriam’s voice cracked with grief and fury, his arms raised to the sky, as if in a final benediction, before the last rays of the sun disappeared behind the temple, and the sands ran out.
“Why must you ruin all that is beautiful?”
The glass platform erupted in pure white light, slicing the sky like a heavenly sword. Contained by the shielding, the tachyon siege laser beam’s passage from ground to stars was soundless and emitted only that light symbolizing the divine will. It blazed forth for second’s beat, then faded away, the shields dropping to reveal not a trace remaining atop the ritual ziggurat.
Aboard the Emperor Family’s floating pavilion, Empress Catiz I leaned over to Pomik Haromi and whispered, “Do make sure that the final cut of the official holo-record reflects clearly the, ah, fraternal love and deep piety our royal cousins displayed at the end. We must not allow the shield haze to obscure such devotion and faith.”
Haromi coughed, glanced over at Sanmatar Maleatu Shakor, who appeared to be grinning fiercely as his companion Keitan Yun spoke into his ear, and sighed. “Yes, Majesty. It shall be as you say.”
This love is so luxurious. It has also been so bittersweet.
I’ve lived so much of my life longing to be somewhere else.
The thought of enduring without the respite of your company is a shadow
That shadow drains the distant horizon of all color and warmth.
Take me with you, beyond, and into the setting sun.
By the time you read this, I’ll already be waiting.
Be brave for me, Uriam.
Hold me close.
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