The Yagu stood on the verge of a sheer scarp, overlooking the glittering wastes that were his home. All around him the blizzard voiced its fury, but he was untouched within it. Glinting arrowheads of ice spiraled and darted in the throes of the storm, afraid to draw his blood. The winds, though they howled across the tundra flats and gnawed at the escarpment on which he stood, were no more than whispers to his misshapen ears.
Out of sheets of sleet his fellows trudged, as unbothered by the weather as he. They moved into a rough semicircle behind him, six tall, grey-green humanoids wreathed in frost. Small tusks jutted up from the edges of their mouths, and similar growths protruded randomly from their skin like grappling spikes.
The First continued to watch the storm. "Caelian, tell me what you know."
The youngest of their number was lame on his left side, and his arms and chest were laced with fresh scars. "It was Timothean. He brought a mortal man into the prison of the Sword, and I was overpowered." He hung his head against his shame, "I sent out the alarm too late."
The First wore a wry smile only the wind could see. "We slept deeply, and we slept long. It is not your fault alone, I have been remiss. Since waking, I have travelled Mythopoeia by ways unwatched and unknown, and what I discovered is what we have feared. This world is disintegrating."
"You speak of the ripples," Quirinal, the Third, said. "The breaking of the Sword caused upheaval, but it will calm."
"No," said the First. "What I see was written in the webs of power long before the breaking. We made our pact with the wizards, and kept the Sword safe for as long as it could be kept. This world has known an unnatural peace, and that peace is coming to an end. The Tower of Sorcery wanes as magic burgeons anew. The end we fought to avoid will shortly arrive."
The Yagu were silent for a time, each alone among his brothers. They did not gather, as a rule, and they did not hurry.
"Is there nothing we can do?" Caelian asked at last.
The First looked through the storm, as if expecting the hail and fog to part at any moment, revealing an answer. "There is much we can do but nothing that would save Mythopoeia. We were able to travel here from our world because this realm is perilously near to chaos. The veil is thin and cannot last."
"I won't run again." Caelian said.
Quirinal growled his agreement, as did of the others. The First continued speaking.
"Timothean was meant to be a guardian of order, and he has turned upon it. We could be guardians in his stead, if you all will it, though it will mean our lives."
"There is some hope," Caelian said. "We are still strong."
The First gestured toward the gravid clouds. "Choose quickly, he will be here soon."
Their eyes went to the north. Something was approaching through the blizzard, tearing through it. A whirlwind, a thin spire from earth to heaven moved with uncanny purpose toward them. The Yagu summoned their magics, rich blue vines crossed their mottled flesh, grew brightly from their eyes.
The funnel of the whirlwind dissipated as it climbed the cliff, revealing a man at its center. He was nearly as tall as the Yagu, wrapped in a heavy ochre cloak. About him was a mantle of azure shards, crystal slivers no larger than a finger, no smaller than a nail.
"Timothean." the First said.
"Palantine," the man replied.
The air cried between them as the world bent. The cliff quaked, and the storm was rife with a strange, unbeautiful light. The already grim features of the Yagu hardened as they pressed forward a single step, the dark ice vines of their mancy rippling and multiplying.
Timothean flung out his cloak, arms held wide, and violet fire crackled across his skin. His eyes stretched enormously open, and he roared with the voice of the wind, as the essence of Mythopoeia channeled through him. The crystal shards were suddenly alight, too bright to look upon. The Yagu faltered as the cliff crumbled beneath them.
Caelian's wounds were opening again. Timothean was more powerful now by far than he had been during their first encounter. "He has the Sword's power!" Caelian shouted over the din. "It's in the shards!
Their garments, little more than rags, were torn from them, and their thick skins were lacerated by the emanations of Timothean's sorcery. Their own mancy quavered. This was not their home, and they were not as potent as they once had been.
"Go!" Palantine commanded. "Regain your strength, and I will hold him as long as I can!"
Timothean's voice, the voice of the wind, drowned any response. He was a shade amidst the blaze of blue and violet. Palantine channeled at his full capacity, stretched beyond it to give his brothers a chance to free themselves. He took up the strands of their mancy and held them all, drawing from the depths of himself, from the memory of ice that was the world they left behind. They were a people that had been hunted, the last of their kind here, perhaps anywhere. They naturally avoided death, but did not fear it.
The escarpment was torn from beneath them. The wizard and the Yagu stood alone on twin islands of rugged stone. The six were gone, and with the last of his will Palantine called up winter from below, a dread leviathan of frost. Its jaws snapped over them and after a moment, there was silence in the wastes.
* * *
Rain funneled down the troughs in the roof tiles, sliding over the flecking of ice that had formed during the night. Thin flakes of snow mingled with the water, which stung with cold. In the City of Immortals, on the island of Onshu, inclement weather was no excuse for a servant's delay. The morning's quiet bustle was no different now than it would be in spring. The business of Immortals was always pressing, more so for the ones made to carry it out.
This was the Emperor's city, and all leisure not owed to him was stolen.
Umiko was one of the hurried ones, a bundle of box lunches slung from her shoulder. It was a mark of her training that despite her haste, the boxes were held in such a manner as to prevent jostling. The straps were oiled, and the wood treated so no rain would harm them. Umiko herself was not so well protected.
Her hair was tar slicked across her skull and around her neck, and her kimono clung to her in an uncomfortable and unwomanly fashion. The material chafed her shoulders and waist when she shivered. The streets were geometrically exact, the cobbles hard beneath her sandals. Umiko was grateful for some things, one being that she was not as low as the servants who repaired the roads all night, grinding and polishing on their knees. This city was the only home she knew, and she reminded herself every day how lucky that made her. It was the home of the immortals that she knew better than her own face. As a skilled servant, she was expected to be everywhere, and to have been nowhere.
The home of the Kensai was not as extravagant as others of his rank might have made. He was charged with instilling swordsmanship in the Emperor's sons, and had stood in the presence of that person most august. Yet his house was only a single story, modestly appointed, and wrapped around the courtyard where they trained.
Umiko let herself in through a side door and made her way to the kitchen unescorted. This was another novelty among the homes of the immortals; Master Kensai had only the few servants necessary for comfort, nothing extraneous or ostentatious.
There was an old woman in the kitchen who cooed over Umiko and her soaked attire. "You didn't remember your parasol," she chided.
"It wasn't raining when I started." Umiko arranged herself as best she could, wringing out her hair and kimono by the fire. It felt good to have her feet out of her sandals again, and a part of her wished she could linger here with the kind old woman for a little while, but that was impossible.
"Shall I take it to them?" The woman doted over the girl, asking as she did every time knowing full well she could not carry the prince's meals.
"No, Granny. Thank you." Umiko smiled at her. The princes’ meals had to be prepared in a particular manner by particular people. They had to be carried by someone who had been sanctified, and trained in the art of serving immortals among immortals. These were the Emperor's own sons, and Umiko's wrists bore the tattoos that marked her as a servant who could kneel in their illustrious presence and arrange their meals on a platter.
She went into the building’s inner hall. A paper screen separated it from the courtyard, and through it she could see the lithe shapes of the men upon the porch. Umiko slid open a screen and laid her bundle on the low table that had been set for their meal. A servant of her caliber did not beg permission to enter a room, but existed invisibly and left no trace behind her but the fruits of the duties to which she was bound.
Lanterns hung from the eaves, protected from the rain by wooden caps, and those spare fingers of flame produced a muted glow that brought the princes into focus.
Jushiro and Kirisaki were the nearest in appearance. They were boar featured, with surly, strong faces and too small eyes. It was rumored that they had the same mother, which was unheard of for the Emperor's prospective heirs. It was tradition that the bloodline most fit to rule would rule, and so the Emperor begat his heirs on every possible candidate. Umiko's gaze could no more than brush over the princes, and she would never be brazen enough to meet their eyes directly.
The two boars in particular frightened her, for they were known to be cruel.
Their half-brothers fought on the grass, three of them in an eerie deadly play. The names of their sword styles and techniques were a mystery to a mere servant, but she would have liked the leisure to watch them. Their motions were as neat and beautiful as those of any dancers she had waited on.
Sosuke was the eldest, tall and humorous, his long hair bound in a cue. He laughed at the others, and it galled them. He fought with the katana alone, whereas the other two had drawn their waribashi a well. His blade moved in wide, fluid strokes, parrying and teasing. They were fighting him together, their frustration growing.
Hoshi was the middle brother, dark and fierce. He drove forward in a rush, his swords meeting only air as Sosuke spun to the side. There was a barely audible snick as a steel tip parted the black ribbon tied around Hoshi's neck. He was finished, and he came to the porch to watch with the others.
Shinji was the youngest, smallest, and reportedly the most tempestuous of the Emperor's sons. He was naturally quicker than Sosuke, but his skill was of an order below. Umiko was able to steal a few glances as she worked. Raindrops were severed, and Shinji fell back. He brought his swords around in an arc, and Sosuke struck the katana out of his hand. Shinji shouted and lunged with his shorter waribashi, a desperate maneuver that was rewarded with a cut ribbon. Sosuke sheathed his blade and walked away while Shinji was still realizing he had lost.
Umiko had the tea ready, it was cold, but prepared with the required motions and stirs. Sosuke was served first, followed by Jushiro and Kirisaki, then Hoshi and Shinji, whose irritation was barely concealed. He was uncommonly pretty, his skin a light enough grey to suggest Fae heritage. The Emperor's garden contained every sort of Faerie known to legend, and those that were able had born him children. There was a stigma against half breeds despite nearly all of the immortals having a hint of Fae blood in them as well. Umiko had experienced that discrimination, being lighter skinned herself than most servants, though hardly anyone would suggest she was a half breed. The eleven recognized noble families all kept Fae women as concubines, blossoms from the Emperor's garden given as gifts or favors in generations past. Being immortals in more than name, full blooded Fae knew a slavery that would not end. But the rare offspring of those unions were either killed or raised as concubines themselves, to be passed along to other families. Sons were allowed essentially normal lives, though they would have less status than even another bastard.
Umiko tried not to look at the royal half-breed. Sulking or not, he was the prettiest man she had ever seen, with smooth, fine features and lips as beautiful as a courtesan. She watched their hands, by this means gauging whether they required more tea, or whether she should place more rice or fish on their plates. The gestures were informal, but she read them as easily as a language. Umiko had always understood people, known their desires almost before they did. It was a talent invaluable to a servant, and part of the reason she had been granted such an honorable position. Their emotions felt like temperatures to her, with Shinji running hot, and the others cold. Sosuke alone was balmy.
No words were exchanged, and the rain pattered continually on the green clay shingles of the roof. There had been snow this year already, and when night came the pools would freeze wherever they stood. The winter was uncomfortable for the underclass; sleeping in a drafty sort of barracks with thin grass blankets to protect them from the chill.
She waited on her heels for the meal to be finished, patient and empty. Shinji's gaze fell upon her like the caress of flame. He required neither food nor drink, and his hands relayed no sign of his wishes. Umiko waited for a signal that would not come. A prince could do as he liked, but it was still improper to stare at her this way. She was neither courtesan nor concubine, intentionally invisible. He wanted her to look at him, she was sure of it, though if she was wrong and she met his eyes it could mean the loss of her position or worse. Removing the tattoos on her arms would be far more unpleasant than receiving them had been. Umiko had always trusted her instincts.
Their eyes met, and the half-blood prince gave her the slightest of smiles. Her attention snapped instantly back to the platters, her cheeks burning.
The screen slid open, and Master Kensai announced that the meal was finished. The princes rose together and followed him inside. Umiko raised her head once the immortals were gone, repacking the boxes and returning them to the kitchen. Everything the princes ate from would be burned, so that it could never be used by witches to harm them.
"Is there something wrong?" Umiko asked.
"What do you mean?" The old woman took the boxes from her and placed them on a raw tallo tray in a large oven. "I am well."
Umiko frowned. The Kensai had been icy, rigid, not at all the impression he had given her at other times. She shook her head. It was not her place to wonder. "Nothing, Granny, let me help you."
* * *
Five half-brothers sat on their heels in the Kensai's meditation chamber. It was dim and warm and slightly noxious; the incense forever burning was cloying in its intensity.
Their master was a slender man in a plain linen robe. He had a thin mustache and a sallow look, as if he were not well fed. His swords were ever at his sides.
"You five," he said, "are the only remaining sons of the emperor gifted in the warrior's way. There are other sons, as you know, but they cannot be heirs."
He clasped his hands at his waist and stared over them, thinking. There was nothing to do but wait. There had been other sons before them; they all understood themselves to be a crop from which only one would be harvested. Two of their generation were dead already, lost early to the training. Little more than twenty years ago there had been an heir to the mask and the throne. He had failed his father, and a new crop had been raised. An emperor lived long, and had no more important task than choosing a successor; thus the tasks and training, the many mothers of various and sundry kinds. Their father was already well into his second century, but if none of them proved worthy he would begin again. The city of immortals was populated by men and women all related to one emperor or another, though the links were often tenuous and ancient. They all knew what was coming.
"You are his sons,” the Kensai said, "and your privilege is great in equal measure to your burdens. Much is given to you, and more is asked." He examined all of them, his eyes roving as thoroughly as any master artisan weighing the success of his labors.
"The Emperor has decreed that the five of you will be pitted against each other in single combat. You will not fight unto death, but some may die, because no contest will end until the Arbiter decrees a winner. There will be no forfeiture."
Shinji listened to his teacher without hearing. Images flitted before his mind’s eye; dark water on the grass, a dark robed figure with a golden mask, blood flowing from his hands where he stood upon the stage and watched. And there was dragon in the field, all oil and hungry midnight. His father was not there, would not come until a winner was chosen, perhaps not then.
The reaction was sudden and irresistible. Shinji was not afraid of dying. He hated who he was, hated the flesh that housed his spark. His brothers were all more than him, because their mothers were not Fae from the garden, but ladies of the courts outside the capital. Their births had affirmed alliances of many centuries, or brought fortune to forgotten houses. Shinji could train forever, but he would still be the child of a pet or a whore, it did not matter to him which.
Their tournament would begin in one month. It would be Simber then, the tiger's time, and a fitting space in which to kill each other. The Arbiter would not let any of them lose easily. Shinji stood without permission and left without apology. He knew he would regret insulting the Kensai later, who was doing nothing but his duty, but for the moment he was too angry to care. He had always been quick to temper, far less in control of his emotions than the other princes. His Fae blood, perhaps, making itself known.
Shinji resided in the compound of one of the eleven high lords. Lord Raven was among the least influential among them, and it gave him honor to be housing one of the Emperor's sons, regardless of which son. Shinji came home unseen. It would have been a simple matter to enter through the main gate to the Raven district, but he scaled a wall instead. It helped to put him in a better mood, avoiding soldiers and climbing into the third story window of the building he occupied alone.
Lord Crow had come to terms with the fact that Shinji enjoyed upsetting the other nobles, and so he had granted him a base somewhat apart from anyone worth offending. It was a three story tower with few furnishings, for Shinji did not collect them. His interests waxed and waned with the moon, and the courtiers had learned they could not ever truly please him. Once, he had been enamored of landscapes and the walls of his domicile had been decked with the works of the finest masters. When he stopped caring, the hangings had been handed out to servants, who could not accept them, or left in the street for any passerby. There had been similar passions for poetry, and paper folding, and history. All had ended with distressed servants and vexed aristocrats.
Now the prince kept only the kimonos he needed for daily wear and training, and those tools needed for the maintenance of his weapons.
He slipped down the stairs and gave the servant girl who was waiting for him at the door a shock. He wasn't supposed to have returned yet, and so he caught her napping in an obeisant position. She shot up, then back down into the seated bow.
"Master, please forgive me."
"Prepare the bath," he said, feeling slightly guilty. She was hardly out of childhood and clearly terrified of him. It wasn't as if he had ever hurt her, or raised his voice to her, but some things couldn't be helped.
The bath was in the back of the ground floor. There were hot springs in the city, but the water for personal baths was usually heated with a wood stove. Shinji paced while his water was heated. The anger coiled once again in his stomach. It was an expected occasion, the duels to come, whether it was announced today or in ten years. Shinji recognized the foolishness of his feelings. This was what it meant to be a prince. It was his helplessness, the inability to change his fate that frustrated him so. He was powerful compared even to other immortals, and still he could do nothing.
He rinsed his body with cold water, and then stepped into the wooden tub. The heat soothed him somewhat, and his thoughts turned momentarily to an easier subject. The girl who served their lunch had reminded him of someone; a face he could not place. Attractive, though not a notable beauty, she had nevertheless caught his eye.
There had been a face like that when he was very young and had been allowed into the garden with his father. It was a place lovely and horrible. The flowers were all Fae, and the vines, and the trees, and this gave them a luster and heady pungency no regular plant could imitate.
But that was the gilding of the gardens. There were statues, the criminals and traitors put to death by the emperors over the centuries. These people had been lowered into molten tallo, and now gleamed forever with the reflection of their agony. There were thousands of them.
Shinji had been led to a child his own age bound in oricalcum chains. It was the face like the one he had seen today, bound forever in his mind.
"Could you love her?" The emperor had asked, and Shinji had not known what to say. He had been a boy, and this was one of his earliest memories.
"Time, proximity, and pressure," his father had said. "You do not have time, as I ask your answer now. Would you take her as your lady, to save her from this place, and have me set you as a lord of your own fief? Would you ask that of me now?"
Shinji could say nothing, but he shook his head involuntarily, and that was answer enough.
The emperor had tapped the girl on her forehead, too confused to be properly afraid. She had collapsed as lifeless as any meat.
"I have no use for her then." The mask of the emperor frowned as if it were a true face. "There is a lesson here, Shinji. There is no one in the whole world but you, and so, you are responsible for the whole world. All things hinge upon your decision. This is what it means to be what I am."
Shinji remembered the words, though he hadn't really heard them in that moment. He had been staring at the dead girl, knowing it was his fault.
© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl
What lifeless, lives, and even smiles.
the pallor of a bone?
What wears a mask of human skin
and sits upon the throne?
Updates: Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted
The first war fell and nine were done
with never more to make
from first to last they follow fast
until the world shall break
The mighty have been bound in chains
our magi, they are dumb
it's written in the boughs above
how near, the end, to come
Wizards work to weave the worlds
sorcerers bend their bounds
but both do bow to the wilding song
in terror of those sounds
The Coriander Verses