AN: Alright, I wrote this a while ago with the sole intent of creating the sappiest possible thing I could, of course your mileage may vary in that regard but take it as a word of warning anyway ;)
Set in the same world as The Leap and a little while after the end of that, this story gives a little bit of insight into the world state, but is mostly just schmoopy drama of some sort.
Fog again today, rolling over the dark winter ocean to encompass all of Ohnalí. I closed my eyes and breathed deep the cool moisture. Here there was strength, here there was peace. Almost a lifetime spent in Ohnalí, perfecting my mind and body had granted an inner calm that so many strove for. It had not been easy. I had so many doubts in my youth. The worst caused by…well that was the past. Though soon it would find a way to catch up with me.
The door was gently scraped open. "Zaifesöray, I have your breakfast here."
I opened my eyes but did not turn to look at the young apprentice. "Thank you. Just leave it on the desk."
"Of course." And he was gone as quietly as he had entered.
A chorus of rain began to fall steadily and the sound of the apprentices in the next garden over turned to surprise and laughter as they quickly fled inside. I found myself smiling even as I pushed myself off the floor. The terrible ache in my knees grew worse each year. After such a long life of vigorous training and exercise, they had eventually started to give way. And unfortunately soon would be one of the rare occasions I left the complex for Nuulerí. The trip was far too difficult and it would not do for the average man to see the Zaifesöray struggle with the mere act of putting one foot in front of the other.
A low groan and I eased myself onto the stool before turning the lamp light up. I had been saving this section of my personal history until the last. It was the most vivid, and infinitely the most painful. Now no longer could I postpone the inevitable—it must be done. A testament to my life: my trials, failures and triumphs. It was expected of every Sörayn sín Líshíryn, the warriors and intellectuals of Lharlolei. Not that many desired the task, let alone succeeded. To have the knowledge that after one's death, one's entire life would be studied and analyzed by others.
But I was Zaifesöray and I had achieved peace. It was my duty to all to share in the knowledge I had gained through my tribulations. At the very least this portion of my life would hold interest to those interested in the political struggles of the Black God's lands.
Smoothing the page one last time, I took a sip of the warmed wine and began to write the beginning of the most trying time of my life.
The cry of gulls so familiar to me as we set in at Kaktanash's port. I had not known why I had been chosen to be a part of the embassy sent to Ynala, but I didn't care at the time. I was young and curious—there was so much of the world outside Nuulerí and Ohnalí to explore and this had seemed like the greatest of opportunities.
One of the things I still remember even now is the brilliance of that day. Such a surge of radiant life is hard to come by—the colors, sounds, scents—all of it so lucid that I wonder at times if perhaps it was a dream. Not much after felt so forcefully real, because there was a harshness to it. No calm.
The docks were a flurry of men, getting everything ready for our arrival. My master and the head of the Lharloleian envoy, Emnasam, came and patted my shoulder. He knew how nervous and excited I was. He also knew my true purpose there. As only two others did. How such a key component in their plan remaining ignorant could help I do not know. Still I do not fully understand the lunacy behind it.
My legs were rocky as I walked down the plank and was assaulted full force by the stench of Ynali waters, somehow even worse than the scent of Lharlolei's capital.
It was a blur of movement until the path branched out and we reached the Sea God's Plaza. A chaos of orange and yellow tapestries, the royal colors I learned to become sick at the sight of. There the Ynali court had chosen to meet us, such an unusual courtesy, but then again they were now led by an unusual man.
A cough worked its way out from deep within my chest and I bent over to let it rip through my body. I was not sick, nor had I a weak constitution. Even the memory I had spent so long cherishing and suppressing was enough to throw me into spasms it seemed. This was part of the journey I must make. The last opportunity to encounter and destroy any impurities before my death.
I tilted back the last of the wine and settled down again, leaving the rest of my breakfast untouched. It would be some time before I felt hungry again.
I recall how he was the centre of it all. So many flamboyant people, beautiful people in their bright clothing—yet he held a sense of gravity, of weight and reality that they did not. I had known instantly this was Gavril Torbaltin, the prodigal young king of Ynala. The one that had pulled the country together following plague, war and natural disaster—and then he had improved upon his predecessors' reigns.
Despite only hearing rumors and reading one report, I had come to admire this young man. One who had accomplished so much at a younger age than myself. Though through our time spent together, I came to learn how much of his soul he traded to have such social grace and power.
Our envoy was introduced and the entire time I watched his face it was alight with intelligence and observance. However, that was just one of the myriad of faces he showed me. Even now I hold no certainty over who this man truly was. Perhaps nothing at all.
Delicate pale skin, elegant bone structure, deep red hair and unreadable blue eyes—that was my first impression. Not a beautiful person, but with that charisma, he did not need such an ordinary thing as beauty.
We went about the strange and intimate Ynali greeting of meeting lips. I had been told it meant no lies would be spoken between the two people, not that that stopped anyone.
When I reached Gavril, we exchanged names and performed the greeting. My nose filled with the scent of mint he used to flavor his breath and my head was dizzy from the small smile he gave me when we moved on to speak with the next person.
I had been brought as a youthful companion to gain favor with the king; I had been all too willing to fulfill my role.
Taking a deep breath, I rolled my wrists and stared down at the cramped handwriting. It may have been a wiser idea to ask an apprentice to be my scribe, but this was a personal journey. A journey through youthful infatuation and the pain it had brought me when the realization struck that the man I grew to adore was nothing like I had thought him to be.
Another glance at the paper and I sighed before scattering the drying salts over it. There was still several days time to finish before he arrived. The next memory could wait a few hours to be recorded.
My feet felt the smooth wood beneath them as I walked over to the porch and down the steps onto the sandy path. I was surprised as a light wind whipped my now damp robes around me. Shivering I continued on up to the small hill overlooking the water.
My chest burned with the pure energy of nature swirling around me. What man could compare to this? We could not. All we could hope for was that when the time came to rejoin the Great Spirit, our souls would be pure enough that we would not have to repeat our lives on this earth again.
To be complete.
Another deep breath before I realized my legs had begun to shake from the exertion. I returned to my rooms and changed, before emerging to make my rounds of the complex. The apprentices and sörayn greeted me with bows and smiles that I returned. We exchanged some pleasantries, misgivings and small stories. I was glad that so many appeared to be at peace here, especially after that incident with the mage two—or was it three—weeks ago.
The rounds were completed and I returned to my room, and the desk. I placed the tray on the floor to give more room for my papers and began again.
My job as it turned out, was to fill my days with pleasing Gavril and thinking of ways to please him. I found the arrangement completely acceptable for it gave me so much time to explore the great capital of Ynala, famed for its decadence and debauchery. It took me many days to sort out how to find my way, but thankfully I had a friend to get lost with. Imrah non Atarah. A young woman from the Oszoni embassy.
We both knew we were the young people sent to befriend the king, and though our countries were allied, whichever one grasped Gavril's favor first would be the one who gained dominance over the other. She took it all as a competition to be won—so much fire and passion in her soul. I however, just wanted a friend.
At the time it seemed inevitable that Imrah would beat me for the king's friendship. She was far more exotic: a sword dancer from one of the few remaining nomadic tribes in southern Oszon. Gorgeous, precise, educated and fierce—she fit in perfectly with that place, whilst I did not.
I was just another apprentice Sörayn sín Líshíryn. I felt so ordinary and insubstantial compared to the all the other people I met. Yet when the flurry of initial activity died down, and Gavril started to visit with each of the envoys separately, beginning to pick out his favorites to spend time with, I was one of them.
Usually it was the three of us, Gavril often wishing to see Imrah and I spar. My martial arts against her sword dancing. Later I came to realize he enjoyed fostering the rivalry between us, but at the beginning it had just seemed like good fun.
When weeks had passed and Gavril began to spend time with us individually, I had asked him why he enjoyed my company. His reply was, 'There is something about you Lharloleians I find soothing. And you in particular, you are a dreamer, and yet you could topple me to the ground anytime you pleased. In one word if you wish, I enjoy your grace'.
I was stunned to silence and had difficulty speaking to him for many days. One may think this is the sweet and awkward stage of courtship that is what I too had thought. The truth however, is that it was all according to Gavril's plan.
During this time, I was blind to political machinations of the other diplomats. It was not my duty to be a part of the maelstrom, but I should have assisted Emnasam all the same.
You must understand, almost all the nations wished to gain favor with the powerhouse that Ynala was becoming. Even xenophobic Xione had sent Kinahsin, a man I feared being left in the same room with. Yet it was not the obvious that we had to worry about, but the Sardawnen envoy. Sardawn, the country of the blunt and honest. It was not until the very end that we realized just how much damage that small and pleasant woman, Llyn Kenway, could do.
The words echoed in my mind as I set the pen down for the last time today. It was time to prepare myself to speak over the dinner. After putting on the ceremonial robes, I paused by the shelf of scriptures. Should it be one of these ancient texts, things they had heard many times, words we had twisted to fit our ideology? Or perhaps today, and the rest of my days, I should give them my own personal wisdom?
Chuckling dryly, I picked out the oldest book we possessed. Maybe after my memoirs were done I would be better suited. The halls were filled with hungry men and boys making their way to the mess hall, my assistant Enívran found me and I asked him how the day had been. Since I had begun to age enough that the day-to-day running of the complex became nigh impossible, he had done an admirable job of taking over. I knew he would make an excellent Zaifesöray after I passed. Just a few more years of wisdom and he would be ready.
So much talk and laughter, at times it was overwhelming. Enívran patted my shoulder as he went to sit with the other seniors. I bolstered my strength and set my shoulders straight as the crowd began to hush. Passing them, I smiled. This was not a frightened silence that I had experienced at the Ynali court, this was respect.
It took some effort to hide the pain walking up those five small stairs caused me. However, it was worth it to gaze on the sea of rapt faces waiting for me to speak. I felt overwhelming love for those under my care and prayed there would never be a day I let them down.
Placing the tome on the pedestal I gestured and grinned broadly. "Are you all enjoying the lovely weather?"
That got a few snickers out of those that looked particularly wet. I continued, "If you all would like, today I thought to go back to the beginning and read the founders words to us."
Some perked up, others shook their heads and returned to eating. I could understand. The writings of Eon were a little hard to wrap one's head around, despite the difficulties in language that over five hundred years had caused.
Regardless, I opened the book easily to my favorite section. The one where he had become enlightened after his struggles of the Purge. I took a deep breath and began to read. "And so after all, what now have I become? It is…"
Another morning of soft rainfall. Some kind apprentice had already brought my breakfast in while I had lain and watched the shadows on the wall. This time with less food and more wine—I could not thank him enough.
As I had already spent too much of the morning dawdling, I sat down immediately at the desk and took only a moment to gather my thoughts.
Yet it was not until much later did we realize the full extent of her plans. It was many years before I came to terms with the fact that they were not evil, merely selfish ones that could have started another war if Kinahsin had been a different man.
After that one night where Gavril had told me words I longed to hear, I nearly floated on clouds. So I did not notice that Imrah did as well. It was only after a little while that she could not contain her joy to me. She told me that the king had given her similarly appraising words, though ones tailored to her.
With a sense of dread I shared what he had told me as well. I remember perfectly how her dark eyes had flashed with disbelief, hurt and then anger. She wanted to rush to Gavril right then but he was in a meeting at the time. Instead we waited in his rooms.
I sat on the stool on the balcony that looked to the northern mountains of Noren, and Imrah paced around. Such a feeling of doom that I found it difficult to breath. Now of course I realize how foolish that was. I have never known true despair nor likely will I ever.
Gavril returned and Imrah attacked him with words. That was one of the only moments where I think I saw the real Gavril. A blank and calculating person in the face of immediate adversity. There was no humanity in that expression, until soon it was covered up by an apologetic smile.
'Cannot both things I said be the truth? Why must it be one or the other?'
That silenced Imrah and forced me to think. A part of me knew then that this was hopeless, yet still my lusting, youthful side found only wishes in those words.
Imrah, however, did not.
She looked at me and knew I still did not understand my purpose. So she yelled at me. 'You still don't get it do you? We're not here to be friends, they chose us specifically—groomed us even—to please him. And I will not lose to you! A man! Why would they bother to send a man? The Lharloleians are too focused on their twisted love to realize there is no hope for you to bear him an heir! What point is there in your being here?'
The quiet after the slammed door was one of the most awkward I had ever experienced. Gavril actually laughed though, and smiled in a way that still heats my face.
'I had wondered if it was an act you had. I am glad to know you are truly that naïve.'
Flustered, I had fled.
Feeling awakened emotion, I covered my mouth, a movement I had not used in at least forty years. Despising this lack of control, this lack of calm—I forced myself to relive every painful moment. I examined it, and then gently laid it to rest. No more did the memory trouble me. Gavril had no hold over me any longer.
Such a relief, I could not believe that I had put it off for so long.
With a smile on my face, I stretched back and then stood. Today the warships from Neckt would be docking on their way to Lyyran. The whole thing was pointless. Three years there had been war, even the new Black God, Ranah, joining the fray to assist in eradicating the evil of Blood Magic. Once and for all she said.
Smirking, I piled my dishes on the tray. There would never be an end. I wondered how she could not see that. Though it was not my place to say. My place was to continue counseling our queen in the wisdom of neutrality. We must at least keep our small section of the world calm.
Picking out the formal blue robes lined in white, I examined my figure in the mirror and deemed it worthy for the occasion. If nothing else, Gavril had taught me the importance of appearances—not as a vanity, but as influence.
Though the frizzy white hair was not a sign of a powerful spiritual leader. I sighed and let the long braid loose before combing some oil through to calm it down. Re-plaited and I was ready, now all there was to do was wait.
Flustered, I had fled. The king had not followed. I believe what he said was a slip of the tongue. For then I learned just how much he enjoyed manipulating me.
After that incident, Imrah and I refused to speak to one another. It seemed we had truly become enemies, just as our leaders were now starting to rip each other apart as Kenway watched.
I found solace in a new friend. A chance meeting in the library at night with Gavril's older brother Mikhail, and I found a soul as pure as I wish to be. Shy and sweet, almost childlike despite being five years my elder.
We talked for a time, him freely admitting that he indeed was the one rumored to have started that minor slave rebellion that was put down quickly before the plague began. How the rumors could have made him out to be so wicked, I will never know.
I had asked why his brother had chosen to call him back from exile after their father died in the earthquake. The strength and sadness in his reply was immense, and unfortunately made me forgive Gavril instantly.
'I am the only person that reminds him of who he is.'
A strong desire grew in me then. A desire to find out what this man saw in his brother. Regardless, we grew close and I found a friend for life. He even came to visit me in Ohnalí several times a year until his death two years ago. I know he rests with the Great Spirit, and am glad he found peace at last.
I had to stop. Poor, sweet Mikhail. Throughout a trying life in which he never received the one thing he truly wanted. A thing so simple to find that in itself was tragic—throughout it all he never once complained and thought only of others.
It had been some time since I last thought of him. There had never been pain at his death. Truly, his soul would be happier with the Great Spirit. Of this there was no doubt.
A knock at the door before Enívran entered. "Zaifesöray, the ships will be here in a few hours. Queen Zirrah wishes you to be at her side when they dock."
"As the queen demands." I paused. "Would you mind fetching me my staff?"
Enívran's face softened. "Of course." He went and retrieved the polished black wood from my closet and handed it over.
My hand found the familiar spot and my fingers settled perfectly in place.
"Are…are you sure you wouldn't rather have a mount?"
"I am." I smiled at him. It's only a quarter hours walk Enívran. I'm sure I can manage that much."
"If you insist. But don't blame me when you fall in the mud and arrive covered in it."
"That bad is it?"
He grinned at me. "I'll tell them to get your carriage ready."
Sighing in amusement, I followed down the hall at a slower pace. Enívran could be far too clever at times. He would do very well. Better than I most likely.
A couple of apprentices waved me good morning before vanishing off to practice. Then I emerged into the stable. I took great pride in how excellent we had made it over the years. Clean and well kept with healthy horses, far better then it had been twenty years ago when all we had was a couple nags and a sickly mule.
I leaned on my staff and watched as they led my blue roan out from the stall and harnessed him.
Enívran came up to me. "All ready for you Zaifesöray."
"Thank you." I patted his shoulder while using it for support as I made the giant step onto the two-wheeled carriage. Then a quick salute and I was away to Nuulerí.
The road was indeed nearly impossible to traverse in the parts where the stone had sunken into it and my poor horse struggled to get me through. Though for the sight of the rolling green hills it was worth it. The farmers' fields did lie bare, but in a month's time that would change.
In the distance, the shape of the towers became clearer through the haze. Lharloleians had always had a fondness for towers. It had to do with reaching towards the sky, though I was pleased the complex had no such things.
The bustle of people became more apparent when I reached the bridge to cross over this arm of the river. Nuulerí was embraced by it. The water did cause problems; many of the houses were sinking into the earth, but that didn't stop people from living here all the same.
At the bridge, the toll collectors were about to stop me, but they sighted my robes and waved me on past. I refused and pulled the coin-line out of my sleeve and handed them the single copper it took to get into the city. The man bowed emphatically at my offering, as if it were far more.
Passing the other people on the bridge they all stopped to bow as my carriage rolled by. Now I recalled why I never left the complex—the disconcerting worship combined with the stench. Oh how Nuulerí smelled! I covered my nose in vain and proceeded down the main street to the queen's tower.
The crowd parted around me, some of the more devout even whispering prayers in my wake. Thus it was a relief when the high walls around the tower became clear. The guards readily led me in and assisted me in dismounting.
The air here was far fresher, as the Queen Zirrah kept a fern garden scattered through with white flowers, that though ordinary looking, had the sweetest scent.
"Zaifesöray, this way please." A nervous guard reached out as if to hold my arm, but then scratched his chin.
"You'll have to excuse me. I was admiring the queen's garden."
I could tell the poor man was in a rush so I smiled at him and then followed up the marble stairs. The tower was a huge one, but thankfully the throne room was only on the first level. It was not long until I entered the austerely decorated place, and the irritated queen turned to smile at me.
"Vazsero, so glad you're here so soon! I was afraid you'd try to walk and get stuck somewhere along the way." Though plain of face and frail of body, our queen was radiant. Small white flowers and clear stones twisted into her long, dark hair and stood out against amber skin. Enormous brown eyes told every emotion, currently good humor, as they looked at me. One always knew what Queen Zirrah was thinking.
"No, Enívran managed to convince me that was a rather foolish idea today."
"I'm glad. I need you here to help calm me down. It's so hard dealing with those brutish Neckts."
"The pleasure is all mine your majesty."
I returned exhausted but satisfied. The meeting had been successful, the general a far more pleasant man that Queen Zirrah had feared. If I hadn't known better I would have said he courted her. An amusing sight to imagine: delicate Zirrah together with that huge, hairy man. Hah!
It was late, and I rushed to my room then to the mess hall just as the last stragglers were trickling through the doors. Trying to keep myself composed, I hobbled up the stairs—and fell. The room went silent as the book clattered onto the floor. Shaking my head, I pasted a smile to my face and adjusted myself so I sat on the stairs.
"I hope you do not mind if I stay seated today. The queen tired me out more than I thought."
There were a few chuckles and some kind soul passed the tome back up to me. I spread it on my lap. An unfortunate incident, but then so many things are. It was how one chose to deal with them that truly mattered.
Through the madness that followed, I failed to notice Emnasam's growing frustrations—that is until he began to take it them out on me. Cursing my state of foolish youth and ignorance constantly, berating me for not having won Gavril over—these and more. Now I do not blame him, I mostly agree with him. Then however, I lashed back, taking more and more walks in the capital's safer streets.
Kenway noticed I had grown distant from the king, and used this opportunity to insinuate herself into the Lharloleian embassy, with me as a voucher. I had foolishly pled her case to Emnasam, who no longer had the energy to argue with me. Of course the Oszoni took this as a sign of aggression and the verbal attacks eventually led to physical violence, only Gavril's guards holding of one or another's death.
After that Gavril ordered talks to cease until tempers cooled. Llyn, Mikhail and I took a trip to a lake outside the city, strengthening our 'friendship' further. When I remember back, I know now that Kenway was gracefully beginning to pry and draw forth any precious information she could. Yet it all seemed so sincere as she comforted me over the situation between Gavril and Imrah, even bringing up an emotional story of her own.
Nighttime on the wharf, water lapping our feet and the two moons above nearly full. Both of us weary from emotion, but still Llyn's eyes watered as she told me about the relationship she had once had with the king of Sardawn, a relationship that had ended with her exile to this mission. Even now, I believe her to be genuine. Not even Gavril can fake the pain in her voice, and he is the best actor I have ever encountered in my many years of life. Remember this when you remember her. She was not just a tool of treachery.
Upon our return, events began rushing forward so fast it still seems like a blur. While we had been away, there had been an attempt on Gavril's life. Then I thought the path to wisdom was to forgive him, now however, I see my error. I knew what type of person he was.
It wasn't until many months after the execution and marriage that I pieced the puzzle together and discovered that the entire thing had been a ruse of his design. Enough to manipulate me back to him, expose his true allies and enemies, and throw a wrench in Kenway's plan. He may not have known what the plan was, or even who was behind it, but he knew there was one. He always knew.
That second night, after I had learned of the 'plot', I had gone to his room. Harsh silence save for the world outside this one small place, but at that moment it became my reality. Every movement he made, every sound and breath—was perfectly clear. Eventually I asked him why? Why he would not show me who he was, not even a sliver of his humanity and imperfections. Back then I believed that he was truly untouchable. The truth only became apparent in time; that was not perfection, merely a flaw of tremendous distortion rather than an easy to find crack.
The reply came with anger in his voice and tears in his eyes. 'You know…I am so afraid of failure. The sad part is, I am failing—spectacularly—and nothing I can do will stop my fall. So you see, I am not perfect… Is that what you wanted? For me to admit my own humanity? Do you have what you want? Will you leave me alone now?'
I caved to him almost immediately, and that night—
With a grimace I attempted to write what came next, the part of my life I was most ashamed of. It disgusted me, what had once been pleasure turned to loathing. Because I knew that those same hands touched Imrah the same way, and that same mouth pleaded the same words of love.
It was all so hollow and filthy.
No. Even that experience had helped me learn. Of how blinding lust can be and how real love—not physical weakness—brings clarity. For was that not what I felt for my flock, my home and the Great Spirit? Pure love, love that filled me with content and not self-loathing.
That night we made love. It was remarkably awkward and somewhat painful, my first and I surprisingly expect his as well. But it was sweet. Though in the morning, I awoke alone, yet another sign that I followed the wrong path.
Following that night, Emnasam became pleased with me. He said that at least one thing had gone right. Because as tensions rose between Oszon and Lharlolei, Kinahsin grew ever more impatient with how nothing seemed to move forward.
He came from a different world than us. Despite being Ynala's next-door neighbor, Xione has a culture I can only think of as alien. So serious and constrained, abusive towards women, and yet they have the most beautiful language. It is not so much speaking, as singing. On the rare occasion I was invited to a meeting I waited for Kinahsin's turn just so I could listen to how the Black God's tongue transformed into a thing of magnificence.
Though that is irrelevant. What is not is the fact that the Xionen mood towards all the delegates became hostile. We wished he would give up and return to his homeland, but he did not. I wondered why he bothered remaining, as his antagonistic mood garnered no favors. Later I came to realize that being direct was the norm of his culture and he was frustrated with all the dancing the other envoys did. He thought it pointless, as do I.
Noon now and the sun was having a rare moment of brilliance. I should not be wasting it here. Stretching my back, I wandered out until I found the instructor of the youngest apprentices. The little boys watched curiously as I spoke with their teacher and we agreed to take them on a walk along the beach.
When the instructor announced to them the change of plans, they exploded with excitement and I grinned. Children were made perfect. It was only when they were exposed to the world that impurities began to stain their souls. That was what we tried our best to ward off in Ohnalí.
We took them to the tide pools, making sure to watch carefully as they clambered over the rocks. Not carefully enough as one boy from further inland fell in the water and the instructor was forced to dive in to save him. But no harm was done and I hugged the boy to my side as he shivered from the shock of it.
Alas, playtime was not to last long as clouds from the south appeared over the Changing Sea. We rounded the boys up, and soon after stepping inside the rain began to fall hard, followed by the sharp crack of thunder.
A few of the boys squeaked in surprise and I was pleased when their instructor sat them down and told the story of why the Great Spirit created storms. I however, should return. I was almost finished, and I knew it had to be complete before tomorrow.
But I do not hold much importance in how the political situation devolved, I left before it came to its conclusion. Everywhere I turned, every aspect of our lives felt on the verge of an explosion: imminent violence, hidden nights of trysting I only felt ashamed of afterwards and my friends spiraling into fits of depression or anger. I foolishly went to one of the meetings during this time. The tense silences made it difficult to breathe and I wondered how all that good will at the beginning of the year had turned to this. The answer lay with Kenway and Gavril. Each working separately to divide us, for different reasons—but the goal was the same.
The catalyst for my departure was a chance encounter with Imrah while walking through the halls of the palace. Normally we passed by without a glance, but today she saw something on my face that deserved a question.
'Why so happy?'
I'll spare the crude nickname she used, as it was a fair question. There was no reason to be celebrating. None other than the fact I had spent the last night with Gavril. Other than that my life and the lives of my friends was in shambles. Mikhail had fallen ill, Llyn banished from the Lharloleian rooms and Emnasam had not had a decent nights sleep in over three weeks. She forced me to realize that I should not jauntily be wasting my time wandering about, but assisting those that needed me.
She was so surprised when I bowed to her and offered a thank you. I thought perhaps that would be the end of it, alas no. The personal side of my life had chosen now to explode, the rest soon to follow.
'You know I won right? While you were gone, to the lake with his brother, Gavril showed himself to me. I've seen his heart. He trusts me. Just last week, after that huge argument, we consummated our relationship. I expect a proposal and an alliance any day now.'
I stared at the page blankly. It was surprising to feel nothing at all. So many emotions and now—nothing. Smiling suddenly at the flash of lightening I felt my energy renewed at the realization that the memories troubled me no longer. The first couple days had been arduous, but now they felt as distant as my first memories of entering the complex.
We had stared at each other for a while until I asked what he had told her. Confusion entered her eyes, the concept most foreign to Imrah that I almost felt the villain for asking at all. But it had to be done for us to both see the truth.
What he had told her was almost word for word what he had told me. Gavril had played us again. It hurt when she had asked in horror if we had slept together; my red face was enough of an answer.
Despite knowing that Gavril was having a private dinner with a diplomat from Noren who had arrived just today, Imrah ran to his rooms, me trailing after and calling her name in vain.
The door burst open and just like several months before, she shouted at him, demanding an answer. Had he really slept with me?
The first reaction came not from Gavril, but from the diplomat. I had heard rumors that the believers in the angels despised one of the purest forms of love. That between two souls of the same body.
His pale eyes widened in surprise, then disgust. I remember feeling small against his outrage as he stood and spilled his dinner, plate shattering on the floor. 'Majesty, is this accusation true?'
Gavril's face was calm for only a fraction of a moment, before contorting into one of bemusement. 'I can assure you it is not.'
I had thought him ashamed of me, but then it dawned on me he didn't even care enough to be ashamed. There was simply more to lose from admitting the truth: an alliance with their subordinate neighbor to the north and the one that would be gained from marriage to Imrah. Gavril had weighed the options and I had come out the lesser.
Not waiting to see the expression on his face or the lies he would make up, I left immediately. I went to Emnasam and informed him I had failed completely. There was no longer a purpose for my presence and I should return to Lharlolei as soon as the next ship sailed. In hindsight, I see how childish my fear was, but then it had been dire to escape from my pain.
Emnasam saw the panic in my eye, and forced me to calm down enough to manage to tell the story. He began to tremble with anger. At first I thought it was me that had earned his ire, then it became apparent this was not the case.
'Lharlolei does not need the friendship of such a monster. We will leave as soon as I can find a message.'
To me this did not make sense, but I had misjudged Emnasam. Having spent too long at the Ynali court, I had become accustomed to people scheming and doing anything to get the upper hand—without principle. Yet through it all, Emnasam had not forgotten what it meant to be a Lharloleian. He said the type of man Gavril was, was indicative of what his policies would be. We dared not ally with such a cretin who would treat a lover like a plaything to be tossed aside.
The next day I said my farewells to Mikhail, Llyn and a few of the servants and commoners I had befriended. It seemed strange that I was the one that had conclusively ended the alliance between Ynala and Lharlolei, and by extension, broken the triad my country had made with Oszon and Merusaia for hundreds of years. Though, one will note that Merusaia eventually followed after us to join Lharlolei and Syynaryyn in neutrality.
During the journey home, Emnasam and I comforted each other over our respective losses. This was when our relationship began, and despite him being over twenty years my elder, I developed a deep love for the man. One of strength and calm unlike the passionate, ephemeral feelings I had held for Gavril.
I had to pause. Later on in my writing I had already spoken of my time with him and his eventual death only five years after our relationship had begun. Memories of him always put me in a state of content. Gentle hands and a seductive voice that could promise you the entire world by just speaking your name.
Chuckling, I reminisced over the one time he'd stolen me away from the complex to visit the theatre in his hometown, a small and quiet place just up the coast. He'd misread which play would be performed and we'd accidentally been forced to sit through one better suited to those who enjoyed a more…base sense of humor. He had apologized so profusely over it, Great Spirit keep his soul.
Not now Vazsero, you're almost done.
We learned after our departure, that soon after Gavril's marriage he had been poisoned. Thanks to the help of mages, he had survived. Yet all clues, as well as the previous attempt led back to Kinahsin. They locked him away during investigations, and only on the day of execution did evidence reveal it had been Kenway all along. In an attempt to ingratiate herself into Gavril's presence she had made an elaborate ruse of tracing the planted trail back to Kinahsin.
It was her that hanged that day. She died in exile, and despite the despicable actions she took, I feel for Llyn and pray for her soul to this day.
After that incident, it would be in Kinahsin's right to petition the Black God for war. Yet he did not. He returned to Xione and they increased the patrols along their border and reduced trade to barely a trickle. They had chanced a glimpse at the outside world and not been impressed. I cannot blame him.
Finishing with a flourish I scattered the salt and yawned gratefully. The oil reserves were almost gone and it was most certainly time for rest. Tomorrow would be an interesting day.
The wait went by in a flash. It was far warmer today, almost like a heavenly shower. I admit to giving in to childish whims, and the apprentice that brought my breakfast stared as I spun outside letting the water wash over me. Other than that incident, I remained in my rooms, reading and staring out at the soft rain.
It was not until after the high sun had passed, that Enívran had a short note sent to me. 'He is here'.
Soon I could tie this one unfinished thread off. Not feeling in the hospitable mood I remained sitting on the stairs, and the short time crawled by. Eventually the shush of the door and strangely limping footsteps came from behind me. I did not bother to turn.
"Vazsero…you did not come to Imrah's funeral." The voice in the Black God's tongue was weathered, a mature version of the one I remembered so perfectly. No effect on me—a good sign.
"I did not. She would not have wanted me there."
"You also ignored the invitations to my daughters' naming ceremonies."
"And my son's, as well as his coronation."
"Your majesty is observant." This was easier than I had dreamed. I felt nothing towards him. No lingering lust, and not even anger. Perhaps I had truly purged myself with just the writing.
A dry chuckle and the limping came closer, until a warm body sat next to me rather ungracefully. "And yet you attended Mikhail's cremation."
"He was a true friend." Finally I turned to get a look at the man I had not seen in almost fifty years. Shoulders sloping from the weight of rule he had carried so long, and a bit of a gut developing. Hair long gone grey with only a few strands of red left had retreated from his temples to produce a rather severe hairline. Strangest of all was seeing those calculating eyes starting to cloud over with cataracts, surrounded by deep lines.
A crooked smile emerged as he said in perfect Lharloleian, "You aged far better than I."
"An idle and stressful life did you no favors," I replied, smiling politely in return. "You will have to forgive me for being blunt, but why is it you have chosen to visit now. The father of one of the two leaders on the rebellions side meeting with the Zaifesöray will cause much talk."
More laughter. "You've discovered the use a silver tongue eh?"
"Gavril please—no games. I think we're both far too old for that."
He sighed and closed his eyes. Then the amusement vanished, replaced by one that could only be described as detached in a cruel way.
Gavril said in a voice I barely recognized, "I guess you're right. The longer I'm at it the harder it gets. Promise you won't tell anyone how nasty the last Ynali king is?" He gave me a sidelong glance with a wicked glint in his eyes.
I merely shrugged. "Who am I to say if this is who you are. You have so many faces I cannot fathom which one is real."
"In other words just get on with it and leave me alone right? I can accept that." Another chuckle, this one dark. I began to wonder if this was perhaps not a ruse at all.
Gavril leaned forward and rested his chin on his hands. "With my boy now firmly taken over, he's kicked me to the sidelines just as I taught him to. At first I was at a loss as to what to do, then I realized I had never traveled outside of Ynala in my entire life. You being here is a bonus because I have something to tell you, think of it as an apology if you want."
"And it is?"
Smiling grimly he kept staring out to the beach. "Since you were the one that was strong enough to reject me, I chose you. It's ironic, but since the moment you both landed in my city I expected this to happen. Though I thought Imrah would be the one to leave, it was you. Then I knew you to be an equal."
I had not been expecting that. Regardless I asked calmly, "You believe I will take your words at face value? After all you have done, how you twisted the lives around you, you expect me to think you're telling the truth now?"
"Gaijech avaüren! What would be the point in manipulating you now?"
I frowned and held my hand under the water from the roof. "It is your nature. Like the rains fall to the earth, like the plants grow the seeds to be their offspring, so to does Gavril Torbaltin lie."
He squinted at me then rolled his eyes. "You've gotten even worse in your old age. All that spiritual nonsense."
"It is truth, a thing you are unfamiliar with speaking." I stood and went to my desk. "Would you like some wine?"
Pouring the two glasses I couldn't help but smile. It had been a long time since I had heard any Ynali spoken here, the last being Mikhail. Carefully, I walked back and sat down again. I asked, "So what you wish me to believe is that ever since I left, you have been pining away for me all these years?"
"Frütt. Believe whatever you want. I came here as much for me as for you… I came to make peace."
I took a sip and nodded slowly. "Admirable, if it is true."
"Tennet! Just stop—I understand you do not trust me, you do not have to keep repeating yourself." Gavril chugged down his wine. I considered the person sitting beside me. They bore only fleeting resemblances to any of the other 'Gavril's I had witnessed. This one was unrefined, a jagged and painful air hung around him in the way he addressed me.
I set my cup down. "As your majesty wishes."
"Don't call me that," he snapped and rubbed his temples. "No one has called me that in almost twenty years." There was a long pause until he glanced at me. "How do you seem just like the Vazsero I remember and yet nothing like him at all?"
"I am not him, but he is a part of me."
He rolled his eyes again then went to pour himself more wine. My curiosity was piqued enough to ask, "How did you get that limp?"
"Imrah stabbed me a few years into the marriage. The mages couldn't set it fully to rights."
"Good for her," I mused.
"Yes keep on saying things like that. I am so enjoying your caustic pleasantries." The way he held the leg as he lowered himself set off sympathy twinges in my knees.
He took a few sips then said, "I suppose I also had a question for you. Did you love me before I betrayed you?"
"No." The reply came quick to my tongue and caused him to laugh harshly. Once he quieted down I explained, "What I felt for you was not love, despite what I told myself at the time. After leaving I was fortuitous enough to find true love, and am surrounded by it every day even still."
Another pause and he asked quietly, "I anticipated a harsher welcome than this Vazsero. You disappoint me."
"I do not hate you Gavril, but I do not like you. You were a man that did much for the greater good while sacrificing those around you. I understand it is a difficult balance for a ruler to make." And that was the truth right there. The weight of it washed over me in a sudden wave and left me feeling possibly lighter than before.
"…So I am just another ruler that needed to accomplish the necessary? Just another man?"
He tapped his hand on his knee before heaving himself up with a groan. "Thank you. I'll be leaving tomorrow around midmorning."
"It was our pleasure to host such a prestigious man such as yourself."
Gavril did not reply as he let himself out, and the limping gate retreated to the guest rooms. With that I quickly summarized our meeting to my notes and stashed them away. Now if nothing of note happened until I passed, my memoirs would be complete.
That night I was awakened by an oddity in the rhythmic sound of the rain. Someone was prowling the halls, perhaps a full bladder? I did not envy their trip to the privy. Instead the footsteps stopped at my door and opened it. I sat up in bed, about to give a sharp reprimand when I saw Gavril's silhouette. His eyes caught the faint shine from the silver moon as he quickly came to kneel beside me.
A dry hand touched the side of my face cautiously, as if afraid I would vanish. "Have me tonight."
I pushed his hand away. "Gavril, no. Your dramatics are not helping either. That might have worked on the man I once was, but not me."
He swore under his breath. Then he glared up at me. "Please."
"You're not pleading your case very well. Besides, you really want two old men rolling around in bed together. If I remember correctly you prefer…flexibility."
"Frütt! That's not really my intent." His hands reached up to shackle my face and this time I allowed it. Gavril's face came closer until I could feel the movement of his lips and the stubble scratching my face when our chins rubbed together. "You have changed Vazsero. You are so much stronger than me now… I want you to take me."
I pushed him away slowly in disgust. "Is it all about power with you? Who has more power? Even in something that should be simple and beautiful and pure? Leave now."
"I refuse." To my surprise his eyes started to water as he planted himself next to me. Instead of a master manipulator all I saw was a tired old man trying to hold himself together.
Unsure if what I was about to do was correct, I did it anyways. "Come here then. I will show you how it should be done."
His eyes widened, and then narrowed in suspicion, but he could not stop himself from coming over to me. I lay us down and stopped his hands as they tried to pry my clothes off. Situating myself so his head rested on my chest I said, "So tell me of your life. Anything you wish."
"This is ridiculous. Pillow talk? Really?"
"Is this not what you asked for? For me to take you any way I pleased?"
It was somehow so easy to begin. I stroked his thick hair as he began to talk. Of how growing up in a household with four older brothers had been torture. Always teased and bullied, or worse—ignored. The only ones he'd had were his mother and Mikhail, they were the only ones that respected him as a person. Then his mother died, and he had to grow up fast in the Ynali court. Everyone was scheming and plotting, everyone whispered behind everyone else's backs. I could see it, a young Gavril, not even ten years old, learning how to deceive because that was part of the game that had to be played. He had already seen how it claimed the lives of his three oldest brothers.
Expressing surprise at the fact that Mikhail survived as long as he did, Gavril explained that his brother had always been different. Innocent yet worldly. A paradox of human nature.
Then it all turned worse when he got to the part of Mikhail's exile. He actually began to shudder, then cry. They had been at war with Oszon for nine years and were already short on manpower when the plague hit. Gavril's voice became hollow as he described how the bodies had piled up in the streets, clogged the sewers and the docks.
Next came the earthquake that had destroyed almost the entire southern coast of Ynala, and thus created a giant wave that swamped its cities on the other side of the Sarafina Channel. His voice shook as he told me about how his father had been half crushed by the rubble, and he had held his hand until the screams of pain stopped. But there had been no time to mourn—he was the last of Torbaltin of the main line. He had to take charge and organize the people.
He hadn't wanted to, he was only fourteen years old. But no one else could, or should he emphasized. It had to be him. He had fought to gain control over the unruly nobles that balked at serving a child, but he had used his wits to bring them into line and eliminate all those that wouldn't.
After a year of searching, Gavril found his brother again. He started crying anew, and I instinctively held him tighter. That was the highpoint of his life. His country was being reborn with him as the visionary leader and he had the only person he trusted by his side.
Then it fell apart again. The other countries took note of the change in ideology Gavril had compared to his father, and flocked to him. That was where I came in. I learned just how complex and tense the situation had been. While Imrah and I had gone blissfully unaware, selfishly thinking only of ourselves, he and the other diplomats had been fighting wars with words and hidden whispers.
He told me how he hated Imrah and I, while simultaneously desiring us. As the months passed he came to understand our personalities and the hate became the acceptance that he would inevitably choose one. With more bitter laughter in his voice, he related his side of my departure. How his choice had crystallized then shattered in a swelling of admiration and knowledge that the one best suited for him would leave.
I asked him why he did not say goodbye. He replied, 'Would you have even cared?'
I knew I would not have and waited for him to continue.
Then came the poison. He knew Kinahsin was innocent, but was unsure who had actually sent the assassin: a member of the infamous Stage group that had killed himself immediately upon capture. For days he had lain in bed, hovering between life and death, seeing feverish illusions of dreams and hopes he had shoved aside in the face of reality. A happy family, honest nobles and a state at peace. Gavril just a young scholar that toured the world with his brother Mikhail.
Had his dream been that simple? Apparently it had been. But when he awoke he was back, surrounded by sycophants and the imminent death of an innocent man that could start another war. He had ordered his best to find out the truth, ignoring the evidence that Kenway had given him. He said there had always been something off about her; she lacked an unidentifiable inhibition that most people had.
The truth had been found out and he had been all to pleased to see her hanged. Relations with Sardawn did cool, but they understood and agreed to a neutral relationship.
Then the marriage to Imrah, which the people celebrated with a festival that lasted for days. It had been hard, neither of them really liked the other despite the physical attraction and Imrah watched his every move like a hawk. Gavril muttered that at least the sex had been good and I snorted in response.
Two daughters, identical twins had been born hardly a year after the marriage. There was no affection when he told me of them and their beauty. Imrah's dark hair and skin with his blue eyes. He told me Sayahren and Miruah and been taught by their mother to not trust their father. They respected him and could enjoy his presence, but held no familial love. That instead was transferred to uncle Mikhail. The same thing happened when his son Danya had come three years after the twins.
This time he attempted to get a monopoly on the boy's time, and during childhood this worked. Yet as the need for educating the future king grew, Danya saw less of his father and after a few years spent abroad in study, he returned a different person.
With that, every aspect save for time spent alone or with Mikhail, became work: governing a country, handling external affairs, spending time with his family for public events. When his son had taken the crown, he expected to be able to fade away to some country estate, but the people demanded him there. No king had done so much for Ynala as a whole, and they wanted him beside the new one. His son grew to resent this and became more and more acerbic as soon as they were in private.
It was then that Gavril began to feel old. With his children making snide remarks at him and his wife joining in just as easily, there was nothing he could do to control them. No amount of restrained emotion or pleasantly blank faces could stop it, and he realized he'd lost something along the way.
So he fled, and missed the loss of the only person he cared for. Cursing himself, he remained, an unwanted guest in his own home. Until Imrah died, then there was nothing tying his children to him. So he left on the world tour he had dreamed of so long ago.
The words faded into the rain and I felt my own eyes begin to water. Gently, I craned my neck so I could kiss his forehead. I whispered, "Wouldn't it have been easier to tell me this at the beginning when we first met?"
"No, because it took a lifetime to sort out."
I laughed quietly and nodded in agreement. He had not had a terrible life, but it was one without color. Just a long slog through the years, doing what he must. I did not agree with his methods, but I could understand them.
I kissed him again. "It is a pleasure to meet you Gavril Torbaltin."
"Likewise Dnamin Vazsero… Thank you."
"Do not thank me unless you have found the peace you seek."
He sighed and turned his neck to look at me. "Not yet. I guess I have to stay a little longer."
"You can if you wish."
The next day I awoke with the former king in my arms, looking much rested despite having so little sleep. He gave me a bemused frown when I shook him awake.
"Did last night really happen? If so forget I said anything."
"I'm afraid I cannot."
He groaned and pulled the blanket over his head as a child would. Such an act from one of his age made me laugh as I ripped the coverings away. Today I would show him my peace, and hopefully he would come understand it as I did.
"Get up, life in Ohnalí begins early and breakfast will be brought soon."
Gavril froze. "I should return to my room. It will not do for them to see—"
I held my finger up to silence him. "They will not care. Anyone may take comfort from any other. The pleasures and the repercussions are their own. There may be talk, but none of it will be mean-spirited."
"…How strange your world is," he scoffed, then smiled.
We ate in comfortable silence until I had him put on a rain cloak for we were going on a stroll down the beach. The retort was sharp, "Vazsero, you know very well how I feel about your nature walks."
I shook my head and handed him the waxed cloth. "Those do not count. It was only a garden within a city, not true nature."
He grunted and gave in to my will. So strange to have a compliant Gavril, but I should know that he was tired of being in control. I wondered if it was a relief having someone tell him what to do.
We hobbled over the damp sand together, and I found the pace much easier to manage when I wasn't chasing after boys. Over the course of the walk I learned more about Gavril. He had a child's cruelty, laughing at kicking crabs into the water much the same as the apprentices did. When staring into the face of the Great Spirit's perfection, he preferred silence over words. I caught him watching the openings of light through the grey clouds over the water. He grimaced at me and kept walking.
Eventually the drizzle came to an end, so we spread the cloaks on a dune and sat. He said, "I have revealed my entire tedious life to you. I expect the same in recompense."
"Very well." I picked a rock up and managed to skip it several times. "That is fair."
So I began. I told him how my life had begun in a small fishing village down the coast. We were poor, and I the oldest of four other children though the youngest of us, my baby sister had died only a year after her birth. The catches we brought in were getting smaller and smaller, there was just not enough money or food to keep us going. Eventually, my parents decided to sell me to the Sörayn sín Líshíryn, and after that I never heard from them again.
My life at the complex was completely foreign, I was used to hard work but the discipline was beyond me. I misbehaved, joining together with some of the other boys to cause trouble.
Gavril snickered at that. He had a hard time imagining me as a troublemaker. I merely raised an eyebrow and said it was true.
One night we went too far and almost caused the death of one of our instructors. A mistake over just how poisonous a certain snake was. We were forced to keep watch over him, make sure he didn't fall asleep while the healer rushed from Nuulerí. Watching him struggle to stay awake, even trying to comfort our tears, set their entire ideology into focus. I understood the words that had been falling on deaf ears.
After that, I devoted myself to the mental studies as much as the physical ones. That drive sacrificed some of the friends I had made, but by then they did not matter anymore. What did was purifying my soul. The drive is also what signaled me out as a candidate for the Ynali expedition.
I briefly touched on the year we had spent together, as I wore my emotions boldly on my sleeve back then. It was fairly obvious to guess what was on my mind.
Here Gavril stopped me. "I know what happens after, I had…people keep an eye on you from time to time."
"That is frightening." I frowned and began to feel uneasy.
"Nothing so terrifying as you assume. Over the years I have made sure to keep tabs on a large number of people, including ones I have never met. After you became Zaifesöray, I believed it prudent to watch you."
Ah, how like Gavril. We fell to silence and the rain began again. Wandering back I had a noon meal brought in.
This time Gavril asked rather abruptly, "Do you think you could love me?"
I grinned. "It is a possibility, but don't get your hopes up."
And that is how it came to be that the former king of Ynala, one of the most powerful people in the world, chose to stay in Ohnalí. He remained by the side of the Zaifesöray, until the latter's death occurred nine years later. But he did not move on after that. The life of the Sörayn sín Líshíryn had captured him; never before had he thought such peace was possible. The complex was his home until his death, shortly after that of the Zaifesöray.
The man closed the book and rubbed at eyes that could barely see the words in front of him. After Vazsero had passed, the world had returned to the never-ending series of trials he had spent so long in forgetting. The Sörayn sín Líshíryn were kind and generous people, but they were not the Zaifesöray.
Slowly, the man crawled over to the bed and slipped himself beneath the covers. His breath rasped harshly as the strain almost did him in. He had promised to finish Vazsero's memoirs, and he had. There was nothing else left to do.
With a smile on his face, the man whispered, "I hope you waited for me you rotten bastard."