Lord of Skies

Darkness. Pain. Above all, the stench. If there is one place entirely unfitting for a ter'rai ("prince" in the common tongue), the privy chute through which he crawls gets his vote. The rough-hewn chute angles sharply upward, pressing in on him from all sides, making every inch of upward progress along its twelve-foot length nearly impossible.

Walls twelve feet thick, he thinks, twelve feet and still it stays aloft.

His lower body is dead weight, knees and feet unable to find purchase against stone walls slick with human waste. He gags, a dry, painful wretch that he is growing accustomed to. His stomach is empty, its lukewarm contents left several feet behind him to mix with drying excrement. His chest and arms have never been so sore, now forced bear the full burden of propelling not only his body but also the oversized armor he wears, armor that scrapes continually against the rough stone walls with the low, constant rumble of a bonfire, burning strong and bright in the foreground of his memory…

* * *

Twelve years old, I sit with the Council, feeling for the first time the steady heat of the ceremonial fire. It is a bonfire like any other, flame and wood, smoke and heat, nothing more, but for me it represents something greater. I am still a year away from being recognized as an adult, from being officially allowed to attend a Convening, but I am a ter'rai, after all, and am afforded special privileges accordingly.

Besides, this is my father's moment, the night that will set into motion the events that will make my father's name revered among men. Tonight, my father becomes legend.

No one could keep me this.

My father stands tall, dressed in his finest robes, basking proudly in the silence, his unorthodox, daring vision, a dream that has cost him his wife and taken him to the brink of insanity and back, at last laid before the Council of Nine.

War, my father plans war.

No one moves, and I think for a moment that no one will challenge him, that the Council has seen the genius of my father's dream, and has accepted his radical vision as their own.

But then, the shadows ripple. Someone, one of the Council, stands to face my father. Firelight plays off his face, reveals his features.

Darius. I should have known.

Darius, older than my father, presuming himself wiser than my father. Darius, who has challenged my father at every possible opportunity, stands now to face him.

A murmur runs through the Convened. They can feel the impending storm.

The two men lock eyes. A long second passes before Darius speaks.

"There is no reason to do this, Aran."

"There is opportunity, and that is all the reason I need."

"The Saera have done nothing to warrant aggression."

"Those lands were once ours."

"And we traded them. Diplomatically. They weren't stolen, Aran, weren't wrested from our grip. We gave them up."

"In a time of weakness, of need. If my father had been ter'el, there would have been no need of compromise."

"And yet, when your father became Elder, he didn't try to reclaim those lands. He didn't make plans to conquer."

"No, it has been left to me. My father is gone, but he will be remembered for his greatness. And so shall I."

So shall I, so shall I. The words echo inside me even now. They were everything to my father, and they are everything to me.

Darius nods slowly. "This is not about the Saeran lands. We do not need them. This is about you, proving to the Convened and to yourself that you are as great as your father was."

"I will be greater."

"I have no doubt of that. But this is not the way. Unmerited aggression has never been our way. You do not need to conquer to be great. Your father knew that."

"You will not change my mind."

"This goes against all that we stand for."

"When it is done, you will see that I am right."

Darius turns from my father, turns from the flame and looks out into the darkness that harbors the Convened. "I hope you're right." He bows slightly and moves off the Council floor, out of the light.

The Council's function is to advise, persuade, nothing more. All power rests with the ter'el, the Elder. My father.

"So I have spoken," he declares, "so shall be done."

Twelve years old, sitting in the flame-cast shadows, I smile.

* * *

There is no smiling now, teeth gritted, his aching hands searching for cracks, handholds in the reeking rock. Waste-caked fingers brush against a pair of unsoiled areas on the wall. He braces his arms against these surfaces and propels himself forward. It is a dangerous maneuver, and he pays for attempting it, his underdeveloped arms betraying him. He collapses forward, his chest smashing into the stone floor. His armor clangs loudly against the stone, loud enough for someone to hear, he fears, but there is much more at stake.

He runs a hand across his breastplate to be sure the protruding half-spherical gem has not been jarred free or shattered by the impact. He judges the unseen jewel to be intact and breathes a deep sigh of relief, for which he is immediately regretful, the putrid smell of the chute saturating his senses.

He coughs wretchedly, alone in the darkness, the only light in the long slanting chute the undying gleam in his cold, ebon eyes, eyes of a child, unaged unlike the rest of his lanky, adult frame, eyes that have seen so many things…

* * *

Thirteen years old, I hide behind a silken veil in the throne room, listening to the rising voices of old enemies. They were here before I arrived, drawn to the sound of conflict. The translucent veil hides their identities, but I know exactly who they are.

"Stop this, Aran. End it now, before everyone is dead." Darius' voice has changed since I heard it last, six months before at the Convening. It is worn now, tired, hinting at frailty. Commanding our army has aged him.

My father's voice is strong as ever. "We are close. One last push, and we will reclaim what is ours."

"One last push?! We're losing, Aran! We have no more soldiers."

"We are all soldiers, everyone of us. Warriors."

"We've already been conscripting for months. We're reaching the dregs of our male population. If you tore yourself away from your charts and history books, if you'd actually seen the battlefield, you would already know this! By Aeshan, we're enlisting children now, Aran, children!

"So be it. They will see combat. They will be there to witness our enemies fall."

"And your son, Aran? Will he see this?"

My father steps forward, threateningly close to his Darius. "What must be, must be."

Darius turns away from my father. "It will not come to that. I came here to find out for myself if you're as blind as they say you've become. I must confess, such reports reached the battlefield, but I did not believe them at first. Zealous, yes. Misguided, perhaps. But not foolish. But I have seen it for myself now. This campaign is over. The orders for retreat are already on their way."

My father moves to face Darius. "By whose authority?"

"The Council's. We met last night. They…we have decided that you are unfit to rule. I alone defended you, Aran."

"You know the Law, Darius. I am ter'el for life."

"Yes," Darius answers sadly, "for life."

Light flickers in the general's hand, then the blade is gone, buried deep in my father's stomach. He falls forward, collapsing against Darius. His feet give out, and he slides down to the floor. Darius steps out of view, and I hear a door open. He returns, eight faceless figures following behind him. Nine, nine silhouettes standing over my father's body.

The Council.

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AN: I am not in the practice of posting unfinished stories, but this one is proving to be longer (and at times more difficult) than anything I have written so far. This is also my first foray into the fantasy genre, but I am not of the "this is my first X, so plz be nice" persuasion when it comes to my work. As I am relatively uncomfortable and highly inexperienced in the genre, I would greatly appreciate your comments and criticism.