Sunset (Part Two)
Continued from part one
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.