Sunset (Part 1)
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.”
Continued in part two