“The past is a story whispered from bird to tree, from tree to wind, from wind to cloud. When the cloud dissipates, it is no more.”
—Traditional Lo Ar proverb
Photo © Ytzeek
“The Scepter of Akatala and the Azidaja cannot be separated. Wielding the Scepter reveals the Azidaja as the divine son of Akatala and the rightful ruler of all lands, known and unknown. Akatala takes back each of his sons in time, yet he grants us the Scepter to carry on the line. So it will be for all time, until the world is united, and all people bow to the Scepter of the One God.”
—High Priest Niket An, upon the coronation of Azidaja Velibor on his fourteenth sun-day.
* * *
When the first sword struck the son of God, Eznan stopped running, transfixed. Crouching, he splayed his hand in front of his face, shielding himself from both the sight of his sovereign’s murder and the expected splash of divine blood. The blood arced high, but landed many paces from where Eznan hid behind the throne. He watched in horror as a soldier stepped in the untouchable blood, his soft boot leaving a sticky print.
Azidaja Velibor collapsed in a heap, bleeding now from multiple gashes.
All around Eznan, metal clanged and warriors yelled and women shrieked, yet still he stared. How could Velibor—chosen of Akatala, ruler of all Lo Ar—be killed with mere metal? How could mortal men destroy the azidaja, much less the azidaja’s own men, in his own temple? Eznan waited for Velibor to stand, to fight back. Any moment, the azidaja would be filled with the fierce light of Akatala. He would rise in glory and smite his attackers.
The usurper rebels smashed their weapons down upon the prone ruler, shouting with vicious delight. His elaborate gold and sun-feather headdress lay skewed to one side, attached only at one ear. For the first time, Eznan saw the gray hair underneath. It was matted with blood. Another blow, and the venerable skull was crushed.
Even then, he expected a miracle, an intervention. None came. Velibor would not be getting up.
Eznan clasped his hand over his mouth to keep from crying out. My lord! Why had Velibor not called on the might of Akatala? Why had he not struck down his attackers with the holy scepter? No mortal had ever survived the lightning from that magical rod, whether wielded by Velibor, or his father, or his father’s fathers before him.
Wait—the scepter was not in the azidaja’s hand. Eznan’s eyes darted around the room. None of the attackers held it. Good. But where was it? That scepter must not be recovered by the rebels. It must not be raised by the hand of a usurper.
There! He spotted the yellow feathers of the scepter, peeking from beneath silky pillows and robes abandoned by the fleeing wives and concubines. Knocked away in the initial attack perhaps, or dropped and accidentally kicked, or—although Eznan could scarcely imagine this—stolen by one of the azidaja’s wives, part of the plot.
Fewer women screamed now. Most had been dragged away or lay inert. They had not gotten far in their escape attempts, with their royal silk kazaraks fit snugly around their legs, and the golden shoulder bands holding their upper arms fashionably in place.
The last of the loyal guards still fought the rebel soldiers, despite being outnumbered. Both sides struggled to avoid tripping over the bodies strewn across the carpeted floors. More and more of those bodies were royal guards. Eznan tried not to look at their faces, preferring to remember them from happier times instead.
Soon, the fighting would be over. Soon, Eznan would be spotted.
Sensing his moment, Eznan dashed out. He grabbed the scepter with the robe that lay over it, careful not to touch the holy artifact with his sinful flesh. So lightweight, for such a momentous piece of wood.
Eznan bolted. Two paces. Four paces. Six. He was almost to the archway when a familiar voice called out behind him.
“It’s Eznan! Don’t let that priest escape!”
A rebel soldier turned away from the guard he fought, reaching toward Eznan as he tried to run past. Eznan was well into his father-years, but a lifetime of walking the temple steps kept him strong and spry. He jumped to one side and kept running. The rebel missed Eznan’s arm and grabbed the robe instead, almost pulling it from Eznan’s hands. Eznan held onto the scepter through the smooth fabric, panicking when it started to slip. Suddenly, the rebel’s grip loosened—Eznan saw the royal guard yanking his dagger from the man’s neck—and Eznan pulled away. The robe flipped up for a moment, exposing a flash of yellow.
“He has the scepter! Stop him!”
The guard caught Eznan’s eye, just for a heartbeat, before turning to rejoin his last battle. Eznan recognized him.
Akatala bless you, son. You will be remembered.
Eznan ran. Leaping over the bodies piled at the archway, he landed on a lord’s silk cape and teetered, flailing his free arm to catch his balance. He spotted rebel soldiers down the hall and sped off in the other direction. It took him deeper into the temple instead of out, but he had little choice.
In one room, servants huddled around a noblewoman, looking up at him first with hope and then with fear. He had only enough time to whisper, “Hide!” before he was past. He could not slow down, not even for the wife of his good friend. The scepter was more important.
Akatala bless you, daughter. You will be remembered.
Feet pounded the stones behind him, getting closer. They were faster, younger, but Eznan knew the temple better. If he could get to the south windows, he might elude them. He turned, ran, turned again. Yes, this would work. Eznan slipped off one of his heavy brass bracelets and threw it through the next doorway, grateful to hear something crash and fall to the floor. He ducked behind a wooden screen, clutching the beads in his beard-braids to silence them.
His pursuers rushed in moments later, shouting as they spotted his decoy disturbance in the next room. They thundered past, yelling ahead for him to stop.
When they had gone, Eznan went to the window. The sight of beautiful Galakor under attack filled him with agony. Clusters of minarets reflected the sun, standing as mute sentries to the cacophony of crashes and clashes and screams from below. Flames sprouted from under white roof tiles, engulfing whole neighborhoods—the foreign district, low market, Temple Road. He could well guess which temples had been burned first. Spires of smoke filtered up from many other places. Crowds of colorful nobles and muted peasants streamed down winding streets toward the gates, while other streets were eerily empty. Not far below him, the wondrous Fountain of the Sun was in rubble. Along the royal promenade, men cheered while pulling down the statues of rulers and heroes, smashing them with hammers. From here, they looked like northern barbarians. Only Zivko would ally himself with their most hated enemies to win himself the throne.
Eznan tore himself away from the heartbreaking sight of such wanton destruction of the capital of the civilized world. He steeled himself for the task at hand. Galakor was not dead. Only wounded. It would be rebuilt. It always had been.
Strapping the scepter to his back with the robe, Eznan carefully lowered himself out the window and dropped onto the roof below. He landed hard and twisted his ankle, falling and rolling toward the edge of the roof. He spread his arms and legs, grasping for a hold, stopping barely in time. He stifled a groan as he stood. No time for complaining. If he could get two roofs over and down the back stairs without being caught, he would be free of the temple, and into the city. He hoped to lose himself in the chaos, and make it to the mountain gate undetected.
Akatala, protect me.
* * *
Eznan knelt beside the rough stone wall, grateful for the soft grass under his knees, even more grateful to be off his swollen ankle. He unwrapped the shifral he had used to hide his face and beard, carefully peeling the rough fabric away from the wounds on his left arm. Even disguised as a peasant woman, he’d been attacked. By now, men from all sides of the conflict were frenzied with battle lust, attacking anyone they saw.
If only he had a spade, to dig a proper hole. Eznan dug at the dirt with his fingers, pulling back the grass in hunks of sod. Finally he had a hole three hands wide and half as deep.
Eznan pulled his priest sash over his head, kissed it, and reverently moved the scepter from the robe onto the sash. He took a last look at the holy artifact. It was so close he could almost smell it—its familiar asymmetric curve, the prayer runes carved into the side, the bands of the three precious metals, the feathers that never faded. He gently tucked both hands under the sash and lifted the scepter, marveling that the weight of history could be so light on his palms.
To think, he was actually holding a branch from the Tree of Promise, the tree whose form Akatala had taken when he spoke to the Prophet.
All praise to Akatala.
Eznan felt drawn to the scepter. He delayed letting it go as long as he dared, stopping for a prayer of gratitude with each fold he made, until the sash completely wrapped the scepter many times over. He lay the bundle in the hole gently, slowly, as if it were alive. Placing the first handful of dirt onto the holy relic was the hardest, but the sounds of shouting spurred him on. He replaced the dirt and sod back over the hole, patting them down as best he could.
Eznan allowed himself a smile, proud that he had succeeded until the last in keeping the scepter from touching any flesh that was not divine. Proud that he had kept the traitor Zivko from using the scepter to legitimize his coup.
He studied the area, trying to memorize the specific location on the wall. He would return to recover the scepter once the rebels had been deposed and the empire was settled again. How could he mark the spot? Not with the symbol for Velibor, or Eznan’s own priest symbol—those would be too obvious. No, one of the symbols for Akatala. The symbol for thunder. That should be safe enough. With a pebble, Eznan tried to scratch the rune into the stone above the burial place. The pebble was too soft to cut the stone, leaving only a soft gray trail across the surface.
As long as Eznan returned before the first spring rains, it should be fine.
* * *
Disguised as a peasant woman once more, Eznan limped back toward the city walls, pushing against a river of people fleeing out the mountain gate. He knew he should go with them. Hide. That would be safer. But he had to see if his family was still alive, and help them if he could. They could be cowering at home, or perhaps sheltering in the neighborhood temple.
The streets were quieter here, further from the main square and the temple. The smell of smoke and burnt flesh hung heavy in the air. Bloody corpses bore witness to earlier fights, but the only current clashes sounded far away. Muffled cries and quickly-shuttered windows as he passed reassured him that many people had stayed home. His family may yet be safe.
The boy dashing around the corner seemed as surprised as Eznan by their sudden meeting. He held a spear defensively before him, his face screwed up in fear or in anger, it was hard to tell. He was old enough to wear an urkat, hung over one shoulder, but his chin was still baby-bare. Eznan’s shoulders relaxed as he recognized the boy. He unwrapped the shifral to show his face.
“Do not fear, Kalov, it’s only me. Is your family safe? Have you seen my wife?” Eznan stepped forward, his hand out in greeting.
The boy stepped back, holding the spear up higher. “Traitor! This is your fault, you and the other priests, turning the azidaja against the old ways!”
Those were not the words of the Kalov he knew. What had people been telling this boy? Who had—
Eznan looked down to see the spear thrust through his stomach, thinking the wound rather than feeling it. For a moment he was more confused than hurt. “But Kalov—”
The pain exploded when the spear withdrew. And worsened when it hit again, although this time the boy’s aim was less lucky, barely slicing along the side of Eznan’s ribs and grazing his arm.
A hubbub of voices from around the corner gave Eznan hope of rescue. He stepped back, but his injured ankle gave way and he fell, slamming against the packed dirt of the street. His head filled with the sound of throbbing. The murmur of voices faded before he could recognize any of them. Before he could tell whose side they were on.
* * *
The new azidaja paced before the throne, the stolen stalas of office hanging from his shoulders. Even though Zivko stood taller than his predecessor by several fingers, both ends of the stalas pooled on the floor. He kicked the cloth as he walked to keep from tripping, periodically tugging on the gold chest chain that linked the panels.
A man stood before him, legs wide and shoulders back. He had started out proud. Now his arm visibly strained from holding the head out for this long. Blood from the severed neck dripped onto the carpets, adding imperceptibly to the stains from the previous day. Beside him and a half-step behind, a pale boy cowered.
The azidaja pushed his face closer to that of the dead man’s again, and barked at the man. “You—tanner. Are you certain this is Eznan? What was he wearing?”
The man cleared his throat. “Yes, I am certain. I knew Eznan.”
“Did you get his ring?”
“No, I… His ring?”
Zivko strode toward the throne again, running a hand over his shaved head. “And you were the one who killed him?”
“Yes. And the boy, Kalov. He landed the first blow.”
Zivko marched back to face the tanner. A slow smile crept across his face, watching the man strain to keep the head held up. Abruptly he frowned, and knocked the head out of the man’s hand. The head flew through the air, spattering a few last drops of blood. It landed with a wet thud and rolled toward the semi-circle of people standing in waiting. Those nearby jumped back. All except one merchant with an odious, painted-on smile, who gingerly stepped out the head’s way with his toe pointed, as if dancing with it.
The tanner leaned back as the azidaja’s face closed in on his own.
“I wanted him alive. You idiot!” The shout echoed through the high-ceilinged chamber.
The man flinched. The boy whimpered.
“Do you have any idea where he put the scepter? Did he say anything at all about that?”
The man shook his head vigorously. The boy seemed too scared to move.
The azidaja growled low, then turned, dismissing them with a flick of his hand. He caught the eye of a guard. “Kill them.”
The tanner begged for forgiveness, struggling to recapture the azidaja’s attention as the guards grabbed his arms and started to pull him away. Kalov sobbed and went limp.
Zivko turned and raised his hand to the guards. “No, wait.”
The tanner smiled weakly as Zivko approached, then gasped as the azidaja’s blade pierced his gut and sliced upwards.
Kalov’s cries grew more frantic and he pulled against the guards’ grip. Urine poured down his leg, under the skirt of his urkat. His wailing ended in a gurgle when the blade swiped across his neck.
“That’s better. Noisy child.” Zivko smiled, briefly, rubbing the boy’s blood from his face. He wiped his hand with his tunic, seemingly indifferent when he smeared blood on the royal stalas.
Nobody dared mention the reddish smudges remaining on his cheek.
As the bodies were dragged away, the new azidaja sat on the throne. He perched there long enough to drum his nails against the marble four times, then pushed himself back up, leaving a palm-print of blood on the armrest. Zivko swept his gaze across the room, encompassing everyone there, guards and lords and merchants alike.
“Find that scepter. That is your absolute first priority. All of you, go! I want it now!”
After a startled pause, someone near one of the back doors retreated a few steps, turned, and ran. With that, the crowd scattered.
* * *
next: Act II