The Emperor of Neär

Heirs and Lovers

It was the end of the second week of the siege, and we were still no closer to getting inside the castle. The walls were still holding, and so far they had managed to keep our soldiers from climbing over the walls. Many had died already, and most of them had been our soldiers. I had felt each and every one of them dying.

I looked over to my right, at Nehreb. He was staring fixedly at the castle, barely listening to his sister Nefertiri next to him. She was telling him something about the effect throwing fire over the walls would have on the soldiers inside. She seemed to be in favour of the whole idea, but Nehreb didn't seem to pay attention.

I turned and looked at the castle again. Somewhere in there was my grandmother, locked inside her quarters by Achet'namen, second son of the late Emperor of Neär, and Nehreb's older brother. Achet'namen had managed to get the throne he had longed for all his life by means of murder and treason. Nehreb and I were here to punish him for that - to punish him for the murder of his father and brothers.

So far we hadn't had any luck.

It had been almost a month ago that Prince Farsès, rightful heir to the emperial throne of Neär had been killed. Two assasins, late at night. It was over before anyone knew what was going on.

We had made camp only a week's travel from the castle, and except for the guards everyone was sound asleep. I was sleeping quite happily in Nehreb's arms. We were on our way to give Farsès his throne back, and in a few weeks, surely everything would be all right again. We didn't at all expect something like this to happen.

Suddenly we were awakened by the light of torches and screaming and yelling. Hardly awake and confused, I tried to find out what was wrong, but all I could make out was that there was something with Farsès. I grabbed Nehreb's arm and pulled him out of our tent. Outside, there was a lot of running and yelling, and I noticed there were far more guards than usually around Farsès's tent. When we reached the tent, Nefertiri came out, tears running all over her face.

'Corian, Nehreb...' she said, sobbing.

'What? What's happened?' Nehreb asked. Nefertiri looked at me.

'Don't you feel it? Didn't you feel it coming?' she cried. 'Couldn't you have warned us?'

'Warned you for what?' I said, still confused. Right now, there was such a chaos around me I couldn't make out anyone's thoughts or feelings.

'Come inside,' she said, and we followed her in.

Farsès and two dark shapes were lying on the ground by his bed. All three of them were still holding swords. There was a lot of blood, and not one of them moved. Farsès's dead, blind eyes stared at the ceiling of the tent.

'No!' Nehreb screamed. 'He can't... It's impossible... No...' He knelt down beside his brother, tried to find some life in the lifeless body. Now I could finally feel what Nefertiri had been talking about. Death. Farsès was gone, forever. I could hardly believe it. It had only been a few months since Achet'namen had poisoned his father, and now he had killed his brother. No doubt he would be coming for Nehreb or me next.

I sat down next to Nehreb, put my arms around him, but he froze at my touch. I looked at him, tried to see what I couldn't feel. He wasn't cyring. Why wasn't he crying? I was crying. When the emperor had died, he had cried. But not now. What was going on inside him? I whished I knew, god, for the thousandth time in my life, I wished I knew what he was feeling. It was constant agony for me, to know the feelings of every single living human being in this world - but not those of the one person I loved more than anything else.

'Do you know what this means?' he whispered. I nodded.

'Achet'namen is dead,' I said. 'Or he will be the next time I lay eyes on him.' But Nehreb shook his head.

'No, you don't understand,' he said. 'Farsès is dead. I'm the heir to the throne now. When we reach the castle, and Achet'namen is defeated, I will be Emperor. And once I'm Emperor, I won't be able to have you.'

'What?' I said. 'No, don't be silly!' And just for the sake of it, added, 'I love you.'

'Don't you see?' he asked. 'Up until now, it never mattered. I could live with the fact that people despized me for my cursed gift, and my affair with you, because I was just the youngest son, and you were all I needed. But once I'm Emperor, I can't be different. An Emperor needs to be perfect, needs to represent his people. And as Emperor, I will need to see to it that my family doesn't end with my sister and me. All of this means I can't keep you. They would loath me for having an affair with one of my Lords - a man, for God's sake, they wouldn't understand - and there would be no heir to the throne.'

'Other people's expectations have never stopped you before,' I said, getting afraid and angry.

'No, but that was different,' he said. 'Now, I will be important!'

'You've always been important!' I shouted. 'You're a goddamn prince!'

'Yes, but I'm the only one, now, aren't I?' he said. 'There used to be five of us, Corian, remember? Five! And Achet'namen and I are the only ones left, but he has lost all rights to live!' I remembered. I remembered Mochaneb and Ramsos, who had sided with Achet'namen, and as their reward, he had killed them. I didn't hate them, more or less pitied them. They had never been really part of the conflict. That was between Achet'namen and Farsès. Between Achet'namen and Nehreb, now. But still, his reasoning didn't make any sense to me.

He shook his head.

'You don't understand,' he said. And I never would, would I? That was just my curse, not knowing what went on inside him.

'And don't look at me like that,' he said, sounding angry.

'Look at you like what?' I snapped back.

'That tortured look of yours, when you're trying to feel me and you can't!' he said. 'I know when you do that, I can see it, and you need to stop it! You can't feel me, alright, so get over it! Stop acting like it's some great insult to you, because it isn't. Do you have any idea how it would make me feel if you just knew exactly what I thought and felt even before I knew it? It wouldn't be fair, and this way it is, and you just keep sobbing over it as if there's been some big mistake!'

'What a coicidence,' I said bitterly, 'because that's just the way I feel all the time! You seem to know what I feel just perfectly, but I have to stumble in the dark, hoping I'm doing the right thing!'

'Well, welcome to the real world, Corian!' he said. 'Have you ever looked at yourself in a mirror? Your face shows me all I need to know. But you don't look! You only try to feel, to listen, you don't look at me!'

'Don't be ridiculous!' I said. 'And anyway, why is this about me? You are the one who's walking out on me!'

'Because I have to! Being Emperor brings its responsibilities, its duties, I can't just ignore that!'

'Not now, no,' I yelled back. 'You hypocrite, you used to claim you didn't care for responsibilities, for duty, and now, when it comes down to it, you step away from it just like that!' I snapped my fingers. 'You're a chameleon alright; you shift attitudes just as easily as the colour of your skin!'

'A hypocrite,' he said, his voice dangerously calm, and then suddenly he laughed. 'You call me a hypocrite, you... you selfish little... I thought you were someone of integrity, character, but all you care for is your own pleasure!' I hit him. Tears troubling my vision, and angry, furious with him for saying all these things that were or weren't true, and for leaving me. He stared at me, shocked, and then flung himself at me. We fell down, struggling, fighting. I didn't feel pain when his fists hit me, only the wounds he had left inside me, by his words. And I fought him furiously, fighting to keep him away from me, and to keep him close at the same time. Fighting was good; then at least he was close to me, we touched, and I had a chance of stopping him from going away. Fighting because I wanted him; because I wanted him to want me, or want me more than his misguided feelings of responsibility and duty told him to give me up. And I wanted him, here, right now, and I didn't care we were still in Farsès's tent, that Farsès's dead body was lying almost next to us. I wanted him to take me, relentlessly, lovingly, I wanted to hear him say he couldn't live without me, that he needed me and he wouldn't leave me.

But he tore loose from me, throwing me down like a ragged cloth, and that was probably not far beside the way I actually looked.

'No,' he said, his voice think with - what? Rage, regret, sadness, misery? - and straightened his clothes. 'I have to do this.' And he walked out of the tent

I lay gasping and sobbing on the ground, totally not understanding what just had happened and why. We had never faught before, Nehreb and I, and I had never imagined we would. 'He loves you madly,' my father had told me, and I had believed him, had sometimes thought to have seen it in Nehreb's eyes. How much had he ever loved me, really, if he could leave me now, just like that?

Nefertiri came in; she had left when the shouting had first began. She had thought this fight was something Nehreb and I had needed, but was as surprised as I was about the outcome. She sat down next to me and put her arms around me. She said nothing; I could feel her compassion, her astonishment. She didn't think Nehreb had done the right thing, but wasn't going to say this to him. She wasn't going to help me get Nehreb back.

I pushed her away, got up and ran out of the tent, looking for Nehreb and found him talking to his - yes, really his, now - army. And they mourned with him over Farsès's death, and they roared with him when he promised him Achet'namen was going to pay for it all. When he promised them he would lead them into victory. He was theirs now, and not mine.

Trying to fight back my tears, I went back to my tent, our tent, my tent. How could it have all come to this? Why did it happen? Why now, why me? Sobbing and wallowing in self-pity, at last I fell asleep.

'Your Highness, one of my men found this near the river.' It was Lord Venouto, with a piece of paper in his hands. He gave it to Nehreb, who read it and then passed it on to me.

It was a letter from my grandmother. Apparently, she had been playing politics all the time she had been confined to her quarters, and she had formed an anti-Achet'namen alliance, which only excluded those who were absolutely loyal to Achet'namen. They would help us get inside, by opening the small gate in the riverside of the wall. Then we could open the main gates from inside and conquer the castle.

'Could you..?' Nehreb asked me without really looking at me. I nodded. He had barely talked to me, let alone touch me, since the night Farsès had died. But I knew what he wanted from me, and I would do it.

I closed my eyes and blocked out the thoughts and feelings of our soldiers, and went inside the castle. My grandmother was easy to find, and it was even easier to find out that the message wasn't a trick. Everything in that letter was true; they were going to let us in the castle. I quickly searched Achet'namen as well, and was relieved to find that he didn't know about the  plan. As far as he knew, we weren't going to get inside for at least several more weeks.

'All clear,' I said. 'Achet'namen won't know what hit him.' Nehreb nodded, eyes the castle with a grim satisfaction in his eyes.

'We'll wait until dark,' he said. 'Venouto, find fifteen skilled fighters and send them inside once it's dark.' Lord Venouto nodded and bowed and walked away.

'Let me go with them,' I said. It was a ridiculous request; I hadn't practised my sword-fighting for weeks, and was still somewhat suffering from an arrow-wound in my side. I was in absolutely no shape to go in there and fight. I was just saying it to see if Nehreb still cared at least enough for me to forbid me to go in there.

He looked at me, deep in thought.

'Al right,' he said. 'You will lead the men Venouto chooses.' I nodded and hid my disappointment. Just a few weeks ago, he would have done anything to prevent me from doing such a stupid thing. His love must be really gone then, or so deeply surpressed that there was practically no difference.

But my love still lived, and I just couldn't bare staying here and seeing him drift farther and farther away from me. I might die tonight - but that was a whole lot better than spending the rest of my life loving someone who didn't love me back.