by Nate Weisman
The orchards of suna stretched across the horizon as far as Ava could see. In fact, they were all she had seen in some time, and though they were beautiful, they were also monotonous. The boredom was all the more agonizing because Ava knew the choice that awaited her at the end this journey.
Three days had passed since Ava left Raga Dasra to deliver her letter to Lady Luja. She had traveled the distance on a large litter pulled by a Sentinel golem commanded by her Sworn Sword, the Lady Bhavati. Behind her rode a small entourage of two bodyguards and her own handmaiden. Ava didn’t often live to the full extent of her privilege, usually forgoing her entitlements for the honor of serving as Raga Dasra’s lady in waiting. It felt good to be in treated again like the noblewoman she was, if just for a short while.
In the distance, the palace of Lady Luja rose above the horizon as the party approached. An ornate example of the Golden Age of Durani architecture, the palace boasted a large, domed central hall, surrounded by several storeys of terraced gardens and large glass windows on every side. Ava had heard stories of the palace from Luja before, yet even the Lady’s own grandiose descriptions fell short of conveying the building’s opulent beauty.
The palace buzzed with activity. Luja’s Zikia harvesters toiled in the orchards, and the buildings around the palace bustled with the household staffs of over a dozen nobles. From the arrayed banners, Ava could see Luja had attracted support from both the capital and the Lower Empire.
Lady Luja’s personal butler stood at the bottom of a sweeping marble staircase leading to the palace’s golden double doors, engraved with the sigil of House Lipta. Ava’s litter came to a stop directly in front of front him, and the butler extended a hand to help Ava descend.
“My Lady has been expecting you, Lady Ava. If you would please follow me, she has prepared something special for you.”
Ava looked to Lady Bhavati. It was only a momentary hesitation, but the butler picked up on Ava’s unease.
“There is no cause for concern for your safety, Lady Ava. My Lady guarantees you are under her protection, and you will have no need of your Sworn Sword during your visit.”
The butler led Ava through the palace toward the garden behind the house. As they passed the main hall, Ava noticed the other nobles around a large table. At the head of the table was Lord Kirti Dasyu. Ava had known Kirti in her younger days. She had envied him then for being a scion of House Dasyu, easily the most respected noble house with undiluted ZIkia blood. He now appeared to be presenting a plan to invade the northern parts of the Empire.
“With our combined strength and surprise, we will be able to remove Dasra and her key allies from the fight before too much blood is spilt. Shock and awe will be our greatest allies in this battle,” Ava overheard Kirti saying as he looked up at her through the doorway. Ava moved away, acting as if she hadn’t heard anything of importance.
It was no coincidence that Ava’s visit coincided with this summit. It was clear to Ava that Luja wanted her to see the power she was mustering. The question was why. Why would Luja show Ava her allies, possibly even her plan of attack? Was it as simple as showing that her behavior in Dasra’s court wasn’t just furious noise without significance? Luja was playing a serious game—that much was clear. However, Ava was uneasy so long as she remained unsure what game was being played.
Ava was next led through a door depicting the orchards beyond in a mosaic of rare stones the size of Ava’s hand. The effect when the sun struck the door was a gleaming, translucent vision of the bounteous trees. Through the doorway, a winding path took Ava through the labyrinth of a garden to a secluded alcove where Luja waited under a tent, relaxing on a lounge beside a table spread with meats, cheeses, and fruit. Another lounge waited empty across the table from Luja.
The mistress of the palace looked liked a different women than the bloodied warrior who’d burst into Raga Dasra’s court. Now decked in the finest silk, reclining, and sipping wine, she appeared little more than a spoiled princess. Perhaps that’s all she really is, Ava thought for a moment.
Ava had expected her audience with Luja to be in formal setting, before the lords Luja had rallied to her cause, or the ministers of her local government. To be presented to her in private, instead, was unnerving. Maybe Dasra had been right, and Ava had underestimated Luja’s affection for her—or this was some kind of trap.
“Lady Luja, you favor me greatly by receiving me in such a familiar manner. You honor me and my Raga Dasra in doing so.” Ava took her place on the lounge, but sat upright.
“There’s no need to be so formal, Ava. I thought meeting with you out here might help you relax. I can only imagine how hard Dasra works you,” Luja crooned, pouring a glass of wine and handing it over the table.
“I do forgo certain privileges in order to hold my position. And actually, it is on behalf of my Raga that I come seeking your audience.” Ava reached out and set Dasra’s letter on the table.
“I’m quite aware you’ve come on a mission from our tyrant friend, but I was hoping to make your trip not only productive, but relaxing. Come, let’s the two of us talk without worrying about Dasra, like we used to when we were just girls in the capital.”
Ava took a long sip of her wine. “Much has changed since we were young. We are not the children that you remember anymore, Luja.”
Luja reached across the table to put a hand on Ava’s arm. “Some things never change.” A smile creepy across her lips. “Do you remember the the trouble we got into? Like when we snuck into my father’s stables and tried to steal one his Jeweled Harpies?”
Ava couldn’t help but let out a laugh. “We would’ve gotten away with it if you were half the golem knight you claimed to’ve been. No amount of planning could have hidden you tearing the roof off the building when you tried to lift off, though.”
“Father was less than pleased with me. I was forced to double my riding lessons for the next month! He said no daughter of his was going to ride a golem like a drunken idiot.”
Ava’s smile faded from her lips. “It’s been years since we were close. I’m not who I was then, and neither are you. For that matter, Eretsu isn’t the same, either. We must adapt to the world as it is, not to how you want it to be.” Ava gently moved Luja’s hand from her shoulder, but held it longer than necessary.
“This is true,” Luja agreed, taking up her glass of wine from the table. “Jahnu’s death and the War of Blood and Stone have certainly changed the world. With change comes opportunity, Ava. It’s the end of an age. It is within our power to shape a new age, a new empire, a new Eretsu, one where snakes like Dasra are not necessary.”
“You sound like Sudhamra with his populist huffing. Luja, don’t treat me like some commoner who’s easily bought with vague promises.” Ava finally reclined back on the lounge. Luja had played her hand. If she thought Ava was going to be swayed by an appeal to their shared childhood, she had made a fatal miscalculation.
“Dasra is a beast that will swallow all of Eretsu if allowed. This I promise you in no vague terms. She enticed my brother with promises of wealth and glory. ‘The Savior of Two Rock’—that’s what she said they’d call my brother. Now she claims the whole endeavour was my brother’s idea, distancing herself from the debacle of the campaign.” Luja’s stare hardened as she remembered the battle.
“I watched my brother burn alive in the wreckage of his Jagara. I heard him scream as the golem’s mass collapsed on top of him. You’re lucky to not be a knight, to be spared the horrors of war. I will never forget the things I saw at Two Rock.”
“I feel for you Luja, I do. Surely, though, you can see how ridiculous it is blaming Raga Dasra for Lord Yalo’s death. He marched under his own volition with his armies and the Raga’s.”
“If Yalo had waited, gathered the forces he needed from the Lower Empire and the capital, Two Rock would be back safely under the protection of the Empire, and the Gudanna Dominion would be scattered like the desert sand it came from. Instead, Dasra insisted on a surprise attack that didn’t give us time to prepare adequately. Now we find ourselves losing another war with the Gudanna. Meanwhile Dasra sends more troops not to the front, but toward the Wildwood? Even if my brother’s death may be no one’s fault but his own, surely you can see Dasra’s leadership will doom the Empire.”
“So your solution is to throw the Upper Empire into civil war while we have the Gudanna on our doorstep? That hardly sounds like it will be for the good of the Empire.” Ava thought back to Dasra’s tale and the bloody feuds that once dominated Durani Politics.
“Among my supporters I have a brilliant young tactician. Perhaps you have heard of him: Kirti Dasyu? He has assured me that, given the proper conditions and planning, we can overthrow Dasra with minimal bloodshed.”
“If you think you’ll be able to recreate House Hamazi’s bloodless coup, I fear you didn’t read your history very well, dear Luja. It took generations to build the support from the nobility and the plebs to overthrow the old Durani Emperor.”
“Dont you see, Ava? The people cry out for change. They feel the burden of Dasra’s tiresome rule. It’s also no secret Dasra has made enemies for herself among many of the families of the Upper Empire. Conditions aren’t the same as in those days, but they are similar.”
Luja took a moment to empty the rest of her glass before continuing. “Given your trusted place in the Raga’s household, your support of our cause would make victory almost assured.”
Ava couldn’t help but let out a laugh.
“At last, Luja, you show yourself. You wish to turn me from friend to assassin. I am insulted.” Ava had always taken pride in her ability to conceal her aptitude for ruthlessness, yet twice in as many weeks she found herself singled out for that very quality. Perhaps her performance of the quiet and dignified lady in waiting needed some work.
“Assassination? I would never ask anything of the sort from you. I will best Dasra with the same honor that I will bring tothe Upper Empire with my rule. The information you could provide us with would be invaluable.”
“Assassin, spy; the difference isn’t as great as you make it sound. Once you get into the business of secrets, one thing inevitably leads to another.”
She isn’t so different from Dasra, Ava thought to herself. She lacks Dasra’s strong resolve, though. The houses of the Upper Empire aren’t so easily ruled. Poor Luja and the Upper Empire would be torn apart by the families whose ambitions would be unleashed with Dasra’s death. The Raga was right: Luja’s plans couldn’t be allowed to come to fruition.
“Come now, you must already have a wealth of secrets just from being so close to Dasra. There’s no need for you to bring risk to yourself by snooping around. Calling it spying blows what I had in mind out of proportion.” Luja poured herself more wine, and refilled Ava’s glass.
“Well, if you wouldn’t have me be your spy, what was it you had in mind?” Ava asked, sitting up and leaning toward Luja.
“I only thought to rely on a friend, of course,” Luja replied with a sly smile. “And when this messy business is over, I can assure you that you will be more than simply a lady in waiting.”
“So in the spirit of ‘friendship,’ what is it you think I know?” Ava asked.
“The Wildwood. What do you know of Dasra’s plans?” Luja demanded bluntly.
She has never been the most tactful, Ava thought. May as well play along.
“The Raga has received reports of a Gudanna force making its way through the Wildwood under the protection of the Samula tribe. She’s sent troops to harass the Gudanna and make any tribe that shelters them pays for it.”
“Surely that isn’t all she has planned. There must be more,” Luja pressed.
“True,” Ava conceded, thinking of what other information she could offer to Luja. “In his last report, Lord Kopa, who’s been leading the Raga’s forces, mentioned that his Onyx Daggers weren’t enough to achieve the Raga’s goals. I suspect that Mihik and Amba will march in force. After all, Amba will never pass up a chance to prove her iron on the battlefield, and Mihik’s hatred of the Zikia is well known.”
Ava watched as Luja slowly mulled over this new information. Ava connected the dots for her: “With Mihik and Amba marching to the Wildwood, Dasra will be without two of her staunchest supporters. A perfect time for you to strike.”
“So does this mean you will join me?” Luja said, leaning in closer toward Ava, her breath brushing gently on her neck. “I knew I could count on you.”
“It would be hard to pass up your offer,” Ava answered. “The life of a lady in waiting does get to be tedious.” She ran her hand through Luja’s hair.
“Come, let’s join the rest of my guests. They’ll want to know you’ve joined our cause.” Luja stood and offered her hand to Ava.
Together they headed back toward the palace, leaving Dasra’s letter behind, unopened.
By sunset the great hall had been converted from war council to dining room. A long table covered with pristine white cloth now dominated the center of the hall. Luja’s banner hung proudly from the rafters in front of each pillar lining the chamber.
As Ava entered the room after Luja, the other guests made polite bows in their direction. Luja motioned for them all to sit, and led Ava to the seat at her right hand.
She plans for me to be her Queen. Ava amused herself with the idea.
“I have great news,” Luja declared. “My dear friend Ava has agreed to support our endeavour. As Lord Dasyu no doubt has informed you, the insights Ava will be able to provide will ensure our victory.”
The congregation cheered in response. Among them sat members of many of the old families of the capital, most living off the wealth of the mines and underground realms to which their houses held claim. However, other than Kirti, the only person of particular note in attendance was Lady Yata, the younger sister and representative of Marshal Taya.
Luja’s announcement was swiftly followed by a procession of the Empire’s finest delicacies. The conversation erupting around the table quickly changed topics from politics to the latest gossip from the capital. Yata dominated the discussion, but to Ava she appeared more interested in who could throw the best party than who was fittest to lead the Empire.
As the meal drew to a close, Kirti Dasyu and most of the party excused themselves for the night.
“Kirti, you shouldn’t be so dour. Tonight we should celebrate!” Yata playfully reached after Kirti as he rose from his seat.
“I would prefer to hold my celebration till we have won. You will have to excuse me if my faith in our coalition is not strong as yours,” Kirti retorted sternly, brushing away Yata’s hand.
“Well then, we’ll just have to find a way to enjoy ourselves without you,” Yata pouted, dropping a small golden purse onto the table. “Lucky for us, I have one of our great Empire’s finest indulgences available, something I know my Lady Luja will enjoy even if Lord Dasyu refuses.”
The golden purse held Durani Amber. Made from the grinding mana-rich crystals into a fine dust, Amber was the drug of choice among the Durani elite. Yata took a sizable pinch of the powder from the purse and mixed it into her wine glass before passing the Amber to Ava and Luja.
Ava accepted the gold purse, mixing some of the drug into her own drink. Partaking in Amber was far from safe. Enough of a dose would give the feeling of all the power of an Ancient One, and some even claimed it had enabled them to perform incredible magical feats. Take too much, though, and the drug could kill, or cripple the ability to manipulate mana and thus wield magic.
As Ava took a deep sip from her glass, she could feel the effects of the drug begin to take hold immediately. This was the closest she’d come to knowing the feeling of power that sorcerers and golem knights took for granted. She felt a thrumming in her veins, her eyes widening as if seeing the world the world for the first time. If only everything could go as smoothly, Ava thought. She almost wanted to thank Yata, the poor fool.
The night stretched on toward morning, and Yata continued to make sure the Amber and wine continued to flow. In the din of merriment it was easy for Ava to keep adding more and more Amber to Luja’s glass.
It was almost too easy, Ava thought. To think Luja could be so dangerous to Raga Dasra and the Empire, and yet so easy to dispatch. Ava was almost disappointed in her old friend. If you couldn’t survive this, there’s no way you’d be able to control the houses of the Upper Empire.
Ava’s efforts soon started to show results. Yata was in the middle of a rant about the degradation of Durani nobility since Dasra and Sudahamra took power when Luja pounded the marble table in support, and shattered the heavy slab.
For a moment, Yata, Luja, and Ava looked at each other in shocked silence. Yata’s laughter broke the tension.
“Perhaps we should consider retiring,” Ava said halfheartedly. “Never a good idea to have too much Amber, anyway.”
“I expected more of you, Ava,” Yata mocked.
“Moderation isn’t weakness,” Ava replied dismissively. Running a hand through Luja’s hair as she stood, Ava leaned down to whisper to her: “Sleep well, my dearest Luja. Forever you shall be my friend.”
Ava woke not an hour later to the sound of large explosion from the floor below her. Turning over in bed, Ava let herself smile and enjoy the clamor of the chaos that rapidly consumed the palace. The yelling of the household guards and the screams of the injured coaxed her out of bed, and into the hallway. As she left her room, Ava put on a frenzied act, calling out for someone, anyone, to tell her what happened.
She hadn’t walked a hundred yards before Lady Bhavati was by her side, hand on the jeweled hilt of her blade, an heirloom Ava had bestowed upon her when she’d bound herself as Ava’s Sworn Sword. Together they made their way toward the source of the explosion, a parlor off the main hall.
The room’s exterior wall had been completely blasted away, and blue mana-flame still lingered, flickering over much of the rubble. Luja’s body lay near what remained of a desk, her left arm missing, her face a black husk. Kirti Dasyu knelt beside her, examining the corpse.
Yata was nowhere to be seen, rightly afraid that Luja’s death would be blamed on her.
“I think it would be beneficial if we pretend this summit never happened,” Kirti suggested, standing and brushing ash from his hands. “The last thing I need is to be tied to this disaster. My enemies in the south would no doubt try to use this to undermine my standing with the Raja. I imagine that Raga Dasra would likewise be less than thrilled to hear how easily your colors change.”
Ava nodded silently, in mock awe of the scene before her.
“I will be leaving now. I suggest you do not linger yourself, Lady Ava.”
“I will… I agree. We should leave immediately.”
Within the hour, she and her entourage were once again on the road through the orchards. Ava looked back at the scarred palace, the scene of nobles hastily departing conveying the distinct impression of rats fleeing a sinking ship.
A mockery, truly, Ava thought. Our Empire needs strength. It needs will. It needs to be ruthless to survive. It needs Dasra.
Illustration: Joel DuQue