Over a thousand bulls, cows, goats, waterfowl, and crocodile had been sacrificed on the Great Royal Son's behalf, but still the gods remained silent. The steps of the temple were slick with their blood, pooling in the inscriptions on the bricks. The air was hot and thick with the smell of their burnings on the funeral pyres from the previous day. Izriamat hoped the storm that was sure to come this afternoon would clear the air in the city. She didn't want to choke on the scent of smoke for the rest of the day.
She walked solemnly behind the netkoleh and his first wife, trying to keep her face from falling into the ap-athy she felt for the occasion. Behind her stretched the rest of the royal procession; the other wives and concubines, their children, the royal priests, courtiers, and servants. Each of them was garbed in the dull gray funeral clothes traditional in the capital, gray the color of ash. She stole a glance behind her, watching the long line of dullness trail down the steps of the god's hill and down to the Way of the Sky. Soon they would leave a trail of red behind them, marring the clean street. It was a shame.
They entered the shade of the temple, the air growing even hotter and thicker. The vents in the stone ceiling weren't enough to purify the air here and Izriamat found her eyes beginning to water. The stinging was a blessing; now it would seem as if she were actually saddened by her stepson's passing. Indeed, it was a shame that one so young was joining his ancestors, but would she mourn any of the netkoleh's lineage? No. She prayed daily that their damned line would die out. But as she listened to the shuffling of hundreds of feet behind her she knew her prayer was folly.
The sun suddenly shone again on them as they entered the open courtyard in the rear of the temple. The funeral pyre was erected in the center of the courtyard, the scent of the ola oil sweet and strong on the breeze. The rest of the procession filed in behind them, crowding into the space and filling the arcade around. Behind her, Izriamat heard the sniffles and sobbing of the princesses, the four of them standing with their nannies. Beside the netkoleh, his first wife finally broke down in tears. He put a tender arm around her shoulders. Izriamat had to resist crinkling her nose. She hated his hands. They were the hands of a defiler.
After a moment, the crowd parted behind them and the priests entered, carrying the body of the boy on an elaborate palanquin. It took twelve men to carry it, it was so laden with his possessions and items to carry him into the next life. The priests circled around the closest of the royal family, finally coming to a stop in front of the boy's parents. Sobbing, his mother took out the large white feather of purity and tucked it in the boys crossed hands so that the gods would know his heart was clean. Izriamat kept her disdain locked down. If his heart was truly clean, the gods already knew that. No feather would save his spirit.
The netkoleh stepped before his eldest son and leaned down placing a kiss on the boy's lips. It would be his final blessing on his son and heir. Former heir. The boy would never inherit the title of netkoleh, the incarnation of Koleh on earth. That would fall on his next eligible son. Izriamat's nose did wrinkle then. It would be her son. To think that her blood would be forever mixed with his made her stomach twist. For the first time she wished that her counterpart would conceive again quickly.
When her husband stepped back from the body, the priests lifted it again making a slow, dignified approach to the pyre. Once the palanquin was secured on top, the high priest brought out the ceremonial torch. He bowed to the netkoleh, offering it to his sovereign. The netkoleh took it solemnly, staring at the unlit wood for some time. Izriamat leaned over slightly to try and get a hint of his expression. He was supposed to begin the incantation to ignite the torch with a sacred fire. Even the first wife glanced over to him, unsure.
Another few awkward moments passed and he finally took a deep breath to begin. The torch burst into flame, the netkoleh's face still stoic. He passed it to the priest who in turn approached the pyre. The celestial flame eagerly took to the kindling. Flames leapt to the ceiling. The smell of a myriad of herbs filled the room. It was a nearly successful attempt at masking the smell of burning flesh.
The entire party stood there, watching the fire for nearly an hour. Wave after wave of heat washed over them, until everyone was covered in a fine layer of sweat. Izriamat resisted the urge to fan herself. What she would give to be near the sea again and feel it's cooling breeze.
The last of the fire died out, it's fuel crumbling at last into ashes. The ceremony was done and she held in her sigh of relief. The crowd parted again to let the netkoleh pass through. Izriamat stepped aside for her husband and the Great Royal Wife. Her counterpart wept heavily, but their husband didn't. One could think it was a sign of strength, but she could tell it was something else. There was a cold, empty look to his eyes. Unease started deep in her core. As she filed in line behind them, a chill ran up her entire body. Her husband was a deeply emotional man. This death had wounded him like no other. His sorrow would last for untold months, but there was something more to it. They passed from the temple and feeling wouldn't abate. There was more brewing in his heart and spirit than sadness
Bakari looked out over the capital of Metkara and the lazy trails of smoke coming from the temple on the god's hill. Someone else's loved one would be burning to sever their ties to this plane and begin their journey to sail the heavens. The sky was beginning to grow overcast as thick clouds moved in from the south. Any further funerals would be postponed until tomorrow. It was just as well. It wasn't as if there were any gods to send them to.
For weeks he'd pleaded with the gods to heal his son. The boy's illness had set in quickly, sending his heir and true son on a quick, downward spiral. It began as a simple cough, as if nothing more than dust was plaguing him. In a week it progressed to fits that let him gasping for breath. Just six days ago, he took to his bed, coughing up blood and barely keeping anything down.
Bakari leaned forward in his chair, resting his chin on his entwined fingers. He was the embodiment of Koleh himself, the power of a god wrapped in flesh. Yet nothing he could do, nothing he could say, no magics or rites he could perform healed his son. The gods kept their mouths shut and their power locked away from him as if he were some common mortal who wronged them. He was the netkoleh. They had chosen him and his line. This was a betrayal.
Tears welled in the corner of his eyes as he thought about his departed son. The boy was so strong, so clever. Now, the one left to replace him was the infant son of his second wife. He blinked the tears away. If only Arkole hadn't born so many daughters he wouldn't have to look to Izriamat for an heir. It was a miracle that his northern wife even conceived.
Talk ran about the palace of her being barren. How could she be a man's wife for seven years and not quicken even once? It wasn't for lack of attention. He dared think he desired her more than he loved Arkole. But last year the impossible happened and, early in the season of storms this year, she brought forth a son. The boy was strong with lungs like a bull, but Bakari now understood how fleeting strength could be.
He looked back at hearing the honeyed voice of the Great Royal Wife. She'd changed out of her mourning clothes, back into an everyday dress and makeup. He beckoned her closer, onto the palace balcony. "What is it?" he asked, still looking at the smoke coming from the temple.
"I came to see if you were all right," she asked timidly. It was so unlike her. "You did not seem yourself earlier."
"We'd watched our son burn, Arkole. You were not yourself either."
He felt her soft hand on his shoulder. "I was only concerned."
Bakari sighed. "I will be fine."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes!" he snapped. If she wanted someone to fuss and dote over why didn't she attend to the gaggle of daughters she'd given him.
Her hand slid from his shoulder, but she didn't leave. He could feel her hesitation. "Will... will you come to my chambers tonight? I need you." He didn't answer her. "Bakari, my husband, we need each other. You... you must have an heir."
Bakari rose, turning on her. "You would replace our son, our beloved Koletun so quickly? My heart has been ripped from my chest and you only worry about having me between your legs."
"No, my husband, that's not what I-."
"Were your tears at the temple even real?"
Arkole burst into sobs, burying her face in her hands. "Of course, my tears are real. My heart has been broken too. I saw the son I birthed and nursed sent to the gods today. How could you think that I want to re-place him?" She took deep breaths in an attempt to calm herself. "I was only thinking of your line."
Bakari's anger abated as he watched his first wife, his first lover, crying. He placed his hands at her shoulders. "My line is secure. I have another son."
She looked up to him, wiping tears away. "Not from that woman."
Why was she trying to anger him again? "That woman is my second wife."
"I'm sure she still stubbornly prays to her people's gods. She'd poison the boy against us."
"That is my son regardless of her beliefs. He is my seed and chosen of Koleh. The netkoleh have taken a wife from their people since their kingdom was conquered."
"But none of their children have ever become the netkoleh. Will the gods be happy with someone with their blood as their body on earth?"
"Then the gods shouldn't have taken my son away from me!" he roared. Arkole took several steps back from him. "If you want someone to blame, then blame them. Go to the temple. Ask them why I couldn't heal my son. Ask them why they could create the world, separate the sky from the land, but they couldn't heal one small boy! Ask them!"
Arkole looked at him, mouth moving like a fresh fish. "You... can't mean what you're saying."
Bakari sat back down angrily. His right hand balled up tightly, pressing against his chair's armrest.
"All that I've done in my life, I've done in their name. I am supposed to be their speaker on earth, yet I've hardly felt their presence. Even when I've used their so-called power, I've felt no connection. If they've ever truly been listening to me, to my pleas they've kept their answers to themselves." He rested his chin on his fingers again. "I am supposed to be both here and with the gods at the same time. In my life I've always felt solidly here."
He stopped himself before continued. He feared he might say something that would horrify his wife even further. There were thoughts beginning to brew in his mind that he wasn't sure he wanted to be fully formed. He frowned deeply.
"Leave me," he commanded his wife. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her nod and quickly exit. He needed to be alone for some time. He had much to think about.
The morning sunshine was warm on her face as Izriamat nursed her young son. He was hungry this morning and eagerly latched on. It was strange, to feel nothing for one's own child. She'd grown more attached to him over his short four months of life, but still he felt like a stranger to her. It was as if she held someone else's child instead of her own. In a way, it was someone else's child. He already favored his father in looks. She didn't know how she would act towards him as he grew older.
She thought great Yutuu had mercifully closed her womb when she was brought here to be the netkoleh's queen. She couldn't understand why, after so many years, she would be given a child and, worse yet, a child with that man. That man who ripped her from her home and her calling under Yutuu. That man who selfishly threw aside tradition and refused to wait for her sister to come of age. That man who made her, a dedicated priestess, a symbol of the empire that her family had to bow down to. Her aunt had died under the weight of being the old netkoleh's second queen. She often wondered if that would be her fate as well.
Izriamat breathed in deeply, fighting back the sorrow. How she longed to return home, to see the beautiful northern ocean again. If she were to return home, somehow, she could no longer have her greatest joy, to serve in the temple. Her heart broke anew every time she thought of her vows, to be a faithful servant to the god of the sea and to only be wed to him, vows shattered on her wedding night. She remembered her father's controlled outrage at the idea of her marriage, yet there was nothing to be done about it. Going against the netkoleh's wishes and the treaty formed generations ago would be a declaration of war. Her father loved his people too much to set them against an entire kingdom. She was the price to pay for their continued peace, just as her aunt was be-fore her, and her great-aunt before that. She knew her father understood that, but what she would give just to let him know that she was not completely crushed by her role.
The baby grew fussy and she held him up to burp him before giving him her other breast. As he still fed enthusiastically, she was suddenly glad for his wet nurse. She didn't know how she could have dealt with this both day and night.
She heard the shuffling sound of sandals and looked up to see her husband entering her room. When they were first married, it was a struggle to keep her scathing looks from showing. Now, it was habit. She lowered her head to him.
"My husband. To what do I owe this visit?"
He walked over to her, placing a hand on the baby's tiny head. "I came to check on my son."
His son. As if she had nothing to do with it! "He's fine, hungry but fine."
"Why is he so hungry? Is the nurse not feeding him enough?" He looked around the room at the servants waiting at the edges of the room.
"No. He's just growing." She was sick of his out-bursts. "His body needs more. He is fine."
He ran his fingers across the boy's fine hair. "That's good. That's good." She watched as his eyes moved from the child to her bare breasts. His hand moved to caress her chest and up to her neck. "And, how are you? I know yesterday was a... difficult day."
Her skin crawled at his touch. "I'm fine. Death is a part of life. It has no care of age or station." She made a fuss of rearranging the baby, which her son didn't seem to appreciate.
Bakari didn't take the hint and ran the back of his hand along her jawline. "As wise as you are beautiful."
"And how are you doing, my husband?" she asked casually.
"I've been doing a lot of... thinking. Trying to decide what I should do next, what steps I should take."
Izriamat didn't like the way he phrased that. It usually meant he was plotting something. "I am sure that your infinite, celestial wisdom will guide you in whatever path you take." That should please his ego for now.
He suddenly looked to her. "I will need your help, Izriamat. Change is coming, great change. I only tell you because you are stronger in will than Arkole." She was shocked. In the strict hierarchy of the palace, she'd be-come accustomed to being second to Arkole in every-thing. "I see that I will need you to act in my stead many times in the near future. You and she will become as my right and left hands. You two will be my voice in the places I cannot be. I'll need you to be ready."
Izriamat stared at him blankly. He'd never confided in her. He'd never referred to her as an equal to his first wife. It just wasn't done. In the few years she'd known him, he proved himself as a man who took every-thing to heart and lashed out from the heart. He was dangerous when he was emotional. Unfortunately, it wasn't he who suffered from his outbursts.
She chewed her lip. "How soon will you need me?"
"Soon," he answered with a determined smile.
She nodded, her mind racing. Deep within her heart, she felt that whatever his plan was it would trap her here even more. Her mind ran to the faces of her family the last time she'd seen them, full of helpless sorrow.
"My husband, may I make a request?"
"What is it?"
"May I travel to Wiluru to see my family?" He looked to her, skeptical. "It's been seven long years since I've seen their faces. I wish to see them again and then, after that, I will be forever at your side." He seemed to be rolling the thought over in his mind. She begged Yutuu to move his heart. "Please, my husband. I have done my duty and given you a son. Please grant me this one request."
"You may go," he said at long last. "But return soon. I need you more here and my son will need you as well." He leaned in to kiss her and she accepted it even though she wanted to wretch. He stroked the baby's head one more time and left her chamber.
Izriamat called for a servant. Her husband was a strange creature. She handed her now sleeping son over to the servant and rearranged her clothing to cover her-self. She knew now that the rest of her life was to be filled with more misery, but at least now there would be some point of joy to look back on and remember. She began planning for the trip she thought she'd never be able to take.
Hetsaf arrived faster than Bakari expected, but his half-brother was always a punctual man. He strode in, the gold necklace of chancellor around his broad shoulders. It amused him. Hetsaf did favor Izriamat in many ways. They were first cousins, after all, but their demeanor couldn't be more different. His brother may have had a Wiluruan mother, but he was an egan through and through. There was no one Bakari trusted more in this entire kingdom.
He smiled as the other man bowed to him. "You called for me, netkoleh. How may I serve you?"
Bakari poured wine into his shallow dish, sipping thoughtfully. "Do you love me, Hetsaf?"
His brother was clearly confused by the question. "Of course, I love you, netkoleh."
"No, no, no." He shook his head, setting the container of wine down. "Do you love me? Bakari, your brother?"
"Yes, I do."
"Would you follow me even if I weren't the netkoleh?"
He could see Hetsaf struggling for a proper answer, but he had to test him. He needed to know who was loyal. "Yes, brother."
Bakari nodded, sipping again. "Do you remember how hard we tried to save Koletun? All of those offerings, bled and burned on the altar of Koleh." His brother nodded. "I tried everything to save him. Now I realize that this was just a lesson, the most important lesson that I've ever learned. There are no gods. There never were."
He found himself pacing back and forth in the small room. It felt liberating to finally say what had been on his heart this past day. "Everything this kingdom has accomplished hasn't been the will or work of the gods. It has all been the work of our people, the work of our ancestors. Was it a god who came down from the heavens and finally conquered the warriors of the south? No. It was the work of me and my father. I am the hand that guides this land, because without a true leader it would fall into chaos."
Hetsaf simply stared at him, his face impassive. Bakari wondered if he'd said too much, if he'd pushed him too far. His brother finally lowered his head. "What do you need me to do?"
Bakari's heart swelled. He put a hand on his brother's shoulder. "I want the gods erased from every corner of this kingdom. I want every priesthood dis-solved. Every shrine must be destroyed no matter how small. I want the texts burned. We won't live by their lies any longer."
Hetsaf sighed. "This won't go well with the priests. What will we do with them?"
"They can work for a change instead of getting fat off of the gold offered by the common folk."
"What of the Arak'guun?"
Bakari paused, thinking of the sect of assassin priests. The high priest might seek to turn them on him and his family. They were a dangerous lot. "We'll have to see if we can bring them to our side in this. I think they will be useful."
"Many of them are zealots."
"I think they will see the light."
Hetsaf folded his arms, staring intently at a spot on the floor. Bakari loved when his chancellor was deep in thought. "Will you delay the Pilgrimage?"
Bakari released a breath between his teeth. Had it been five years already? He tapped a finger on his chin, pacing the room again. He hated that long trip and it would be even longer this time since they had to travel through the south. After a few months, he always grew tired of the monotony of grain and luxury tallies. He put his hands at his hips. "We won't delay it. It will be a good way to spread the word of my decree."
Hetsaf frowned deeply. "The people may resist."
"And that is why we must move swiftly. Begin to have the palace walls cleaned today. I want this place rid of every picture and every inscription of the gods."
His brother bowed. "Yes, netko-." He paused, looking up. "What shall we call you?"
Bakari took a thoughtful sip of wine. He hadn't considered it. "Call me emperor."
"Yes, my emperor."
Newa dangled the knife slowly above the man's chest, the point dangerously close to his skin. His victim was tied down to the stone slab by his wrists and ankles without any slack to struggle. The man panted, panicking in the sort of way Newa delighted in. His apprentice stood in the corner, watching the confession. Newa knew the boy would be a bit squeamish about this, but he had to learn. An unrepentant sinner must be brought back to the right path and men like this could only be reined in by force. He moved the knife up to the hollow in the man's neck allowing the cold blade to rest lightly. The sooner his apprentice learned to enjoy shedding blood the better.
"Do you know why you're here?" he asked.
The man licked his lips nervously. They hadn't given him anything to eat and drink since they drug him out of bed yesterday evening. Newa knew the man had to be nearly out of his mind with fear. They'd barely told him anything about his capture, but he knew he was in the clutches of the Arak’guun. "I'm a sinner," he croaked out. "I've sinned against the ways of the gods." His eyes flicked about the room in a panic. "Please," he said looking back at Newa, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry for all that I've done. I swear I will make amends."
Newa pressed the tip of his knife into the man's skin, coaxing a small drop of blood to well up. "No, it's not so easy for someone like you. I know all about you. You are unrepentant, unashamed of your transgressions. You've flaunted them before man and before the gods who see all. There is only one true way to cleanse you." He waited a moment to leave the man in suspense. "You must confess your wrong doings. All of them. Every sort-ed detail."
"I'll tell you everything."
"Yes, you will." He pressed the knife in a bit more causing a trickle of blood to run down the man's shoulder. "I will get the truth out of you because I know every way to pull it out of a man. Don't even try to lie. I will know. If you do, I have been given the distinct permission by the gods themselves to punish you for a false confession." He withdrew the knife looking at the blood on the tip. "Such punishment is... an excruciating affair."
The man's eyes widened at the sight of his blood dripping from the knife. Immediately, he began divulging his deepest, darkest secrets. He had a penchant for very young women. He cheated on his yearly taxes. He beat his wife and children without reason. He drank to excess. All this Newa already knew. He'd observed the man for weeks. But to get it out of him was part of the fun of the experience. There was always something they didn't want to speak aloud. Always something they tried to hold back from him. Getting that last secret was where he found joy.
The man finally ran out of secrets to tell. He began to lick his lips again. Newa didn't miss the habit. He was still nervous. He was still hiding something. Newa smiled at the man. "Do you not feel better?" The man nodded furiously.
Newa began walking around the room, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "So, you have confessed every-thing?" The man nodded again. "Are you sure?" he asked, enjoying the game of cat and mouse. There was a minuscule pause but he nodded again. Newa stopped, just beyond the man's head, just short of the edge of his field of vision. "You're lying to me."
Horror lit up his face. "No, no I'm not. I swear." He began to sweat, the beads shining like jewels on his fore-head. "I've told you everything."
"No, you haven't. I can tell." He sighed dramatically. "Now, I have to punish you."
The man began to protest but Newa stabbed the knife into his shoulder. The sudden scream made his young apprentice jump. Newa chuckled. He remembered when he was so young and inexperienced. However, at witnessing his first confession he was thrilled when his master began to torture their subject. The rush then was the same for him now even after a decade.
He carved at the shoulder muscle carefully, using the man's own struggling to cause the cut to go deeper. He didn't plan on crippling the man, but he would leave wounds that would take ages to heal and scars he would never forget. Newa finished the crescent shaped incision on the man, flicking the blood off of his knife. He gave his victim a moment to get over the pain and focus. When the man's eyes finally locked on him, tears running down his cheeks, Newa smiled. "Have you decided to tell me your last secret? Truly you'll feel much better if you do."
"Please," he begged. "I've told you everything."
"Lying again." Newa began running the knife along the man's ribs, shaving off a thin layer of skin. With the precision of a surgeon, he shaved another layer off, the blood running freely down his side. Newa waited a moment, seeing if the man would confess. The man took a deep breath and opened his mouth to speak, but Newa began shaving again. Each shaving he callously tossed to the floor. He took to his work like an artist, making sure each spot he shaved started precisely where the last left off.
By the end of half an hour the man's entire chest and stomach was raw and bleeding. Satisfied with his work, Newa flicked the blood from his knife. He looked to his subject with a kind smile. His grin was greeted with a look of pure pain and terror. After another suspenseful moment he bent back over the man, bringing his knife up to the man's thigh.
"All right!" the man croaked.
Newa stopped, looking up towards him. "Did you have something to say?"
The man swallowed and took a moment to pull himself together. "I'll confess."
Newa made a show of examining his knife. "I'm listening."
"When I was a young man, I slept with my step-mother while my father was away." He took a few more painful breaths. "She had my child. I never told my father what happened. He still believes his grandson is his son."
Newa was almost disappointed. That was all. He was expecting something truly blasphemous. He hid his feelings and regarded the raw, bleeding man with a grateful smile. "It is good that you confessed." He made a gesture over the man, invoking the powers of the Judge of All. "Now that you have cleansed yourself, you can now be forgiven by the gods. You have been given a second chance to live free and clean. Grasp onto it with all your might. There is no one alive who has been given a third chance."
The man nodded weakly and Newa could tell that he was succumbing to shock. He looked to his apprentice who stood slack jawed from his corner. "Yanu," he called, snapping his fingers loudly. "Give the man a healing potion, a sleeping drink, and bandage him up." The young man nodded and began gathering all he needed.
Newa smiled as he left the small room. Young Yanu would learn much from healing up the man. Next week, they would work on a body or two to learn the intricacies of killing. Even in a city that burns their dead, fresh bodies were easy to find. He set out down the hall-way that led back to the bed chambers wanting to change out of his robes that were splattered with blood. It just wouldn't do to be seen out like this. As he turned into the more common areas someone called his name. He looked over to see one of his brethren hurrying up to him. The other priest's face was a maze of worry.
"Is something the matter, Itakoleh?"
Itakoleh fell in step with him, leaning close before talking. "Have you heard what's going on in the palace?"
Newa nearly rolled his eyes. He could care less about palace gossip but he indulged the faults of the closest thing he could call a friend. "What's happening?" he asked echoing the man's whisper.
"The palace is being stripped of every statue and painting of the gods." Newa's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "They're even chiseling out the inscriptions on the walls. There's talk that the netkoleh wants to erase the gods from the land."
Newa sucked in a breath. Now this was troubling. This could lead to civil unrest. At least the proper priests wouldn't be happy about it. His own order might have to go underground. He didn't think he'd like the life of a fugitive. He'd already lived on the streets once. He wasn't thrilled at the prospect of returning there.
"Where did you hear this?" he asked after a moment.
"I overheard Gebun talking with his lover, you know, that maid from the palace. She was nearly frantic that she had to take all the statuettes from the lesser wives chambers."
Newa rubbed his chin. "Disturbing indeed."
"I don't like where this is may be headed."
"Then we'll have to look to our leader and the gods themselves for our help." He placed a hand on his compatriot's shoulder. "Thank you for bringing this to me." He looked around suddenly remembering that they were still in a public place. "I don't think you should let this get out too far. You know how some of us are."
"I'll heed your advice," Itakoleh said nodding and went on his way, giving a gracious smile as if they'd been talking about nothing more than the weather.
Newa hurried along, wanting to get back to his chambers to change but more over to talk to the leader of the order who'd been his teacher when he was brought into the Arakgu'un. Newa didn't care what happened to the proper priests. They were lazy charlatans who used half of the offerings left behind for their own gain. They were leeches of the state, every single one of them. They didn't believe in true justice like his order. The Arakgu'un were the ones who did the dirty work of turning around the worst of sinners. They were the ones who truly kept this land from descending into depravity.
Newa reached his chamber, stripping down from his old robes. His leader would have a plan. He trusted that old man with his life. He would have a way to preserve the order in the face of the upheaval this would cause. Newa smiled. Maybe they would even have to choose a new netkoleh. That could prove interesting.
It was late that night when Hand of Gu'un had a chance to speak with Newa. He'd been waiting patiently outside his office for an hour as the leader spoke with someone important. Finally, he heard his old mentor's voice beckoning him inside. Newa opened the door, not realizing who the company was in the room. He hid his surprise as he bowed before the netkoleh's chancellor. His suspicions were raised, but he kept his voice even.
"I am honored to be in your presence, great Hetsaf." He turned and bowed to his leader. "Honored Antakhanan."
His leader and mentor beckoned him closer. "I'm actually glad you came, Newa. The chancellor has brought me some... interesting news and I want you to be a part of this."
He kept the frown from his face. "You know you have my utmost loyalty."
"That's good to know."
Newa looked at the two of them, standing in an almost conspiratorial way at Antakhanan's desk, looking like old friends, or worse, like vultures waiting for the lions to finish at a carcass. "What's going on?" he asked feigning ignorance.
"What we are about to discuss must not go past this room. Am I clear?" Newa nodded to him. "Good."
Hetsaf shifted his stance. Newa noted that there was more authority to his posture now. "The death of the Great Royal Son has affected the netkoleh greatly. He has come to realize that the gods have never truly been with us and it has always been up to man to determine his outcome."
Newa stared at the two men making a slow look of shock spread over his face. It was a shock to hear this blasphemy confirmed but he wanted to know more. A deluge of questions stormed in his head but he settled for one. "Why have I been deemed worthy to hear such knowledge?"
"I trained you myself," Antakhanan answered. "I know your mind and I know you would be one of the ones least disturbed."
Hetsaf jumped in next. "My brother, the emperor, doesn't wish to disband your order. In fact, he wants to keep you all on as assassins on his behalf." He paused. "At least the ones that would be loyal to him. Are you one of those?"
Newa knew a trap when he saw one. "I am faithful to my leader. Where he goes, I shall follow."
Antakhanan nodded and looked to Hetsaf. "That is why I brought him in." He smiled. "I've chosen to follow our... emperor."
"Then I will follow him as well."
Hetsaf nodded with a satisfied smile. "That's good to know. The emperor will have orders for you all short-ly, but for now, carry on as if nothing has changed." He nodded to Newa and his leader. Newa bowed deeply as the man exited.
He began to follow the chancellor, but his leader called to him. "Newa, stay for a moment." The man motioned for him to close the door and come closer. "Are you sure that you're okay with this?" His mouth asked the benign question, but his hand was a flurry of motions. Do not worry, he signed in their secret hand language. What did I teach you early in your studies?
"You know that I'm loyal. I owe you everything." That we're here to preserve the balance and peace of this city and beyond. It doesn't matter which of the gods we bow to.
"So, I can trust you?" Even if we have to go along with this blasphemy, we will still be able to serve Gu’un and through him Koleh.
"Of course, you can trust me, master." Under-stood. I will keep this to myself until you let me know it's time.
"Very good, Newa. I'll call for you again when you're needed."
He bowed lowly to his leader and backed out of the room. His mind was working furiously as he walked down the hallway. Antakhanan was right. The state may have disavowed the gods, but that didn't mean he had to stop his righteous work. He would bring people to true and absolute justice until the day he rattled out his last breath. And he planned on that being ages from now.
The moon cast the cliffs in an odd shade of gray as Efah climbed up. Each new handhold dislodged sand into her face. She cursed the soft rock, hating every moment of the dangerous climb but it would be worth it if she found something. Her foot slipped again on the sandy cliff face, her heart nearly stopping. She climbed up well past where any of her partners dared go in the hopes of opening one of the higher, untouched tombs. She prayed to the new gods and the old not to let her fall. From this height she'd surely die.
Efah hadn't planned on the life of a grave-robber. She just fell into it, but it was better than being poor. Kanta's band needed someone as small and thin as she was and Kanta was a good persuader. The treasure they found and sold over the past year kept clothes on her back and her belly full. It was the longest she'd ever gone without being hungry. Sure, it wasn't luxury, but she was satisfied. Now if only she didn't have to climb so high.
Efah was relieved when she pulled herself up and found a small path cut into the soft limestone. As she rose to her feet, an eerie, chilling wind blew past, kicking up dust into her face. She coughed hard, forcing one stinging eye to stay open. Most people thought this vast burial site was haunted, that the spirits of old, egan kings long gone still lingered here. She didn't believe it, but there was always the feeling of being watched when they came. During the day it wasn't so bad, but at night it felt like someone breathing down your neck at times.
She shook the feeling and carefully made her way along the narrow path. Luckily, light poured back down when the moon finally emerged from a sheet of clouds. She ran her hand along the wall, pressing in every so of-ten feeling for weak spots. There had to be a tomb here somewhere. There wouldn't be a path if there wasn't somewhere for the path to lead to.
Efah stopped when her fingers ran over a peculiar rough spot. She stopped, lightly running her fingertips over it again. She rubbed harder and sand began to fall. Soon an inscription emerged, then a name. She couldn't read it, it was in the language of the Ega, but she could tell it must be of an important person. She rubbed more and part of a detailed relief emerged. Her eyes widened. This was what they were looking for.
"Did you find something?" came the shout from the ground.
"Yes," she shouted back. "We may have found a hidden one."
She took out her knife and began tapping at the cliff with the butt of the hilt. A few taps and the knife sunk through a soft spot. She grinned, using the hilt to knock through the opening. Sand and shards of old brick began to fall at her feet. Soon she had a hole large enough for her to shimmy through. "I'm going in," she called down.
It was a tight fit. She scraped her arms on the rough sides, but it wasn't anything she hadn't endured before. At least in this tomb, she wouldn't have to worry about rats, owls, or snakes that had made their home. They weren't inclined to welcome such a large intruder into their spaces. She tumbled in, trying her best to roll to her feet. Feeling around her belt, she located the oil-soaked torch she'd been given. She set it on the ground, quickly taking out her flint stone. A couple of flicks later the hallway was filled with light.
Efah gawked at what she saw. Vibrantly painted paintings covered the walls. Elaborate pictures of kings, animals, wars, captives, and egan gods stretched as far as she could see. A certain excitement welled up within her. This was the first untouched tomb she'd ever found. The best they'd done before was to come across a resealed one that hadn't been completely looted over the years. She continued down the narrow hallway carefully. They might finally be able to have a little bit of luxury after today. Perhaps she'd be able to buy a decent pair of sandals, maybe even a proper outfit and not the hand-me-downs of the rest of the band.
The entrance hallway led into a small room that had yet another hall beyond it. Efah's excitement grew. The size of it and how much effort went into carving this into the cliff told her that all of her efforts would be paid back ten times over. She stepped into the small room and was met with a loud, resounding crack. Efah jumped back, terrified, holding her torch out like a weapon.
She looked down to see what she'd stepped on and saw a broken bone on the floor. She held the torch out farther and saw that the entire floor of the room was covered in skeletons. Her breath caught. So, the old stories of servants being buried alive was true. Swallowing hard, she continued on, picking a careful path across the room. She didn't exactly believe in ghosts, but she didn't exactly not believe in them either.
She let out the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding when she set foot in the next hallway. This one was short, only a few feet. As she moved along, torch trembling in her hand, she saw something shining in another room. She willed herself to hurry and came into the next open space. Efah held in her laughter. Every inch of the room was filled with treasure. There were statues of gold, urns painted with gold and trimmed in pearls. A huge mirror leaned against the wall. That would fetch an enormous price if they could figure a way to get it out of here. The large coffin in the middle of the room would surely hold a dizzying amount of jewelry.
Efah untied the cloth from around her waist, us-ing it as a makeshift sack. She quickly grabbed several of the lighter gold items, leaving the rest for when her band made its way in. Her stash securely tied, she made her way back through the halls and outside. The moonlight was spotty, clouds shifting across the face of the moon. It was a relief to breath the fresh air again, even if it was dusty. Her sack clanked loudly on the ground.
"Efah, is that you?" she heard from the ground far below.
"I'll be down in a minute." She looked around for a better path down to the ground. She wasn't too keen on climbing back down the crumbling cliff that brought her here. She snapped her head to the right, sure she saw something moving in the shadows. There was nothing on the path ahead of her, but she knew better. Her hand went to her knife. There were wild dogs about in places like this, or worse, lions that had wandered from greener lands.
She waited for a few more moments, until she was sure nothing was there. Relieved, she took her hand away from her knife. Then she did see movement, a fluttering of feathers. She almost cursed as a trio of vultures hopped out into the moonlight. Was that all? Efah was tempted to throw a rock at them for terrifying her when a larger shape came into the light.
It was like the shadows birthed him forth. He was tall, taller than any man she'd ever met. Around him was a cloak of feathers, black as the night, leading up to the collar of stark white plumes just like the vultures that preceded him. His skin was a sickly color, the chalky brown of a man who'd died in a river. He moved closer to her, his steps not making a sound. Efah wanted to run, to get as far away from this man and this place as possible, but her legs refused to obey her. She was rooted to the spot.
His eyes rose to meet hers, two milky white spots in his bald head. Efah began to tremble even though he stopped over ten feet from her. The vultures hopped about perching on the small rocks in the path. Her breath came raggedly. He looked like death itself. No, she realized a moment later, he was death itself. Tears began to form at the corners of her eyes. Why had death come for her? She was young. She was healthy. He had no reason.
"There is an upheaval in our lands." His voice was a whisper, but she heard him as clearly as if he stood be-side her. "The old, true ways are being erased."
"I don't understand," she stammered, not even sure if she should be speaking to him.
"You, child of the south, must spread the news. There is going to be a rebirth. But in order for the land to rise anew, there must be a casting off of the old. There must be death."
His eyes seemed to catch hold of her soul. "If they do not throw off these false ways, then there will be even more death, more burning, more blood spilled. I name you, Efah Aboujale, my herald. You who have already known a lifetime of deaths will be my voice. Tell them."
She blinked and he was gone. She vaguely heard her band calling to her from below, but her body seemed still out of her control. All she could do was stand, trembling, as wetness spread down her legs.
Seabirds called overhead and performed aerial feats as Yutuuan walked through the noble paths of Wiluru. The birds fought over fish stolen from the ships that had just pulled into port. He looked out toward the sea and his heart tugged. A sigh escaped him. What he would give to be out at sea right now.
"We'll set sail before you know it, your majesty," his bodyguard said behind him.
"Not soon enough," Yutuuan threw over his shoulder. He didn't miss the smirk on Naret's face. The man knew he grew antsy on land but he didn't need to patronize him.
A group of noble women paused, bowing as he grew closer. Their braids, decorated with interwoven ribbons of blue and white, swung down into their faces. He greeted them, gifting a smile to the one who one who dared look up at him through her hair. Yutuuan chuck-led as he heard them giggling behind him. She would probably be talking about the crown prince's smile for a week.
"If you are looking for a task, my prince, you do have the academy."
Yutuuan twisted his mouth. Leave it Naret to try to keep him responsible. He did need to take a day to visit the military school. While it was always good to show his face to his soon to be soldiers and sailors, it was the magicians he was most interested in. They had a number of magic users that would be retiring soon and if he could take a look at the students that might be filling the ranks all the better. He envied them and their powers. Magic was a subject that was beyond him. Not to mention that the rigorous training and religious study wasn't appealing to him in the least. No, he would stick to swordplay.
They passed under a great shadow and Yutuuan glanced up at the towering facade of Wiluru's temple to Koleh. The great statues that flanked the entrance stuck out like a sore thumb among the surrounding buildings. Yutuuan scowled. Just like everything else they'd imposed on them. Most of the egan people that lived in Wiluru had adapted to native ways, many of them residing here for generations. But the temples, built early in the days after their surrender, were stark reminders of their occupation.
"My prince," Naret whispered urgently, "your expression."
Yutuuan came out of his thoughts and realized a priest at the steps of the wide entrance was staring at him. He relaxed his face looking away. A thought brought his gaze back to the entrance. "Come, Naret," he said with a sudden smile. "Let us pay our respects and look like loyal members of the empire."
He ignored Naret's over dramatic, long suffering sigh and began climbing the stairs. The priest who'd stared at him, lowered his head as Yutuuan approached. The prince made a note that he didn't lower it appropriately enough for his station but it wasn't worth squab-bling over. "Welcome, Prince Yutuuan," he said with an accent that marked him a Wiluruan Ega. "May Koleh shine down on you."
"Thank you," Yutuuan replied with a smile that faded as soon as he entered the dark interior. Mindful of eyes on him, he kept his face pleasant but not too inviting. The temple was busy this morning. Egan worshipers and Wiluruan converts milled about. Yutuuan swept his eyes over the gaudy temple, looking about the priests and priestesses. He made his way to the main altar going through the motions of fervent worship. He reached in his belt for his money pouch, pulling a trio of gold coins and placing them on the altar.
"Thank you for your most generous offering, Prince Yutuuan," said a priestess nearby.
Yutuuan smiled at the familiar voice. He subtly took in her curvy frame as he turned to her.
"Koleh has smiled down on me and my people for so long how can I not give generously?" He saw the little twitch at her nose that meant she wanted to laugh.
"I would hope to see you worshiping here more of-ten. Koleh can work wonders in your life."
Yutuuan reined in his smile as the linen moved across her hips when she shifted her weight. "I will consider it." He lowered his voice. "Perhaps you can show me how to worship him properly."
Coins were dropped on the altar noisily and Yutuuan looked back. Naret stared at him with a tired expression. The priestess cleared her throat to hide a chuckle. He lowered her head to him.
"If you will excuse me, Prince Yutuuan. I have work to do in the back."
Yutuuan grinned brightly then brought it back down. "Of course." He nodded as she made her way out of the main room.
"My prince," came Naret's stern voice at his shoulder. "Let us go."
They left the temple in silence. Yutuuan was almost amused at how obviously annoyed his bodyguard was. "What?" he asked once they were outside.
Naret didn't answer at first and the prince could tell the man was chewing back a response. They walked a little farther down the path before the answer finally came.
"You must be more careful. Can you imagine the scandal if your little... tryst with that priestess was discovered?"
"We won't get discovered. We're careful." He took in the scathing glance Naret gave him. "Fine, we could be more careful. But that's half the fun." He playfully shoved the servant who'd become his dearest friend. Naret sighed, rolling his eyes deeply. "Now, if you'll ex-cuse me," Yutuuan said stopping at an alleyway, "I've been invited to a meeting."
Naret's eyes widened. "You can't be serious."
The prince quickly made his way down the narrow path. "Just keep watch. I'll be back shortly." He chuckled. "Well, not too quickly."
He laughed at Naret's face and kept moving. He'd done this how many times and his bodyguard was shocked every single time. Yutuuan slipped from the side alley to the one running behind the buildings on this path. He kept his head down as laborers passed him. Luckily most of these people wouldn't have ever seen their prince up close so he was unlikely to be recognized. He swiftly walked to the back of the temple, turning away as two priests came out into the alley. He ducked down the skinny side alley beside the temple, stopping below a small window. His heart thundered at the thrill of his recklessness. It was the middle of the day. He could get caught at any moment, but as he told Naret, that was half the fun.
Yutuuan pulled out the already loosened wooden bars from the window, pushing them inside. One last look around and he climbed in, rolling in and coming to his feet. He smiled as he looked up to his beautiful Talekh, waiting on the other side of the room. She rushed up to him, crushing him in a hug and pressing her lips to his. Yutuuan wrapped his arms around her tightly.
"You've been away too long," she whispered in the midst of their kisses.
He pressed his hands on her buttocks, grateful for more than enough to hold, bringing her hips flush with his. "Then I'll have to make it up to you."
They stripped each other quickly, their kissing be-coming more insistent. He picked her up, using the wall to support her as they began their lovemaking. Their session was rough and needy, each clinging onto the other when they'd finished. Yutuuan let her back down, Talekh still holding onto him for support. He took in the scent of her hair, the thick smell of temple incense mixed with her sweat. It was the smell of danger to him and he'd always liked danger.
"I have to find a way to get you into the palace so that I can have you all night," he said while he rubbed her back and bottom.
Talekh looked up to him drunkenly. "We have to." She licked his chest. "By the gods, I want more."
They moved in to kiss again when there was a sound in the hallway. They scrambled to dress, Talekh shaking her head at herself the whole time. He pulled her in for a quick kiss before she turned toward the door. "I promise I won't be away as long."
She pushed him away. "You'd better not be. Koleh doesn't look kindly on oath breakers."
He made the sign of supplication, doing his best to look remorseful. A quick climb out of the window and he was back in the alley. Talekh blew a kiss at him as she set the bars back in place. Yutuuan sighed as she disappeared from sight and hurried back the way he came. Everything about this affair was wrong. He was a prince of Wiluru. She wasn't just a priestess but also one of the netkoleh's many lesser sisters. If word of it made it out it would be a disaster. Naret was right. He had to be more careful. He spared a glance back toward the temple. But the reward for such a risk was too great to give up.
He made his way back to Naret who'd waited patiently on the noble path. "You see," Yutuuan whispered when he reached him, "that didn't take long."
Naret took a quick moment to straighten out his prince's clothes. "Were you ready to head to the academy? I'm sure they'll be thrilled to have a visit from you as well."
Yutuuan rolled his eyes. "Very well. Back to duty." They passed back by the temple on their way. Yutuuan looked up to the ugly statues of the sun god again. While tacky, the temple did have its merits.
Izriamat looked out over the city of Djelebe, the infamous library and the wall built to protect it. The library and surrounding university loomed higher than the surrounding buildings, dominating the skyline. Her ancestors were sent to learn here for generations. Her younger brother would have as well if he hadn't thrown himself into his duties as the commander of Wiluru's military and navy. It would be a nice stop on her trip north. They'd rested here on her first trip south and the governor had been so kind and welcoming to her. She hoped he would still give her a proper welcome despite the news she bared.
The gates opened wide for her caravan's entrance. The doors were as high as the walls, with ornate carvings of scholars and other wise men traveling to the shining star of knowledge that was Djelebe. Horns blew heralding their arrival. People in the street, dressed in the customary long robe of their people, parted, curious as to who the important traveler was.
Izriamat shifted in her saddle, the horse's slow gate becoming tiresome. She wanted to be inside and out of the glaring sun already. For a week they'd been travel-ing across the great plains of Ega. It was hot and growing hotter as the dry season approached. But she guessed that she should be thankful. The rain they had encountered was spotty and short. It could have been storming the whole time.
They wound their way through the city to the governor's palace, a sprawling building decorated with bright geometrics. It was constructed in the same, simple design as the rest of the city, smooth walls with windows as the only architectural feature. There were few representations of life here in the city. It was as if everything was decorated to not be a distraction to the scholars. She nodded in admiration. It was a welcome change to the gaudy paintings of the capital.
They were welcomed into the palace, their horses and other animals taken away to stables well hidden from onlookers. Izriamat brushed the dirt from her dress. The doors ahead of their party opened and a group of people hurried out. She recognized the man at the head of them immediately. His balding spot had grown since their last meeting. Mgobe was an amicable man if not a bit on the nervous side. She was sure if she was able to get to know him more, she could count on him as a friend.
He and his party bowed to her deeply. "Queen Izriamat, we welcome you to Djelebe. I hope your trip was pleasant."
"It was, Governor Mgobe." She shielded her eyes from the sun. "I'm glad to see that you are still doing well."
"Perhaps a little older and a little slower, but well just the same." He gave an uneasy chuckle. "Please, come so that we may show our great queen the hospitality of our city."
Izriamat gave him a small smile and followed. The moment they entered the shade of the palace cool relief washed over her. She took down the scarf from over her braids, subtly dabbing the sweat from her face as she did so. Mgobe took her to a large, comfortable looking room. Low cushions were arranged around a large, low table. The table held drinks freshly prepared for her arrival. A pair of servants stood at the ready along the wall.
"How long will we have you here, my queen?" Mgobe asked as she sat. He lowered himself down with a grunt.
"Only for a night." She raised the cool liquid to her lips, forcing herself to not guzzle the entire glass. "I must make it to Wiluru."
"Ah, finally visiting family?"
"Yes." She debated on telling him the truth. It was disturbing news. But he was a king. He had a right to this knowledge. "I have news from the capital. It would be best if we spoke alone." She nodded her head at the servants. Mgobe was confused, but gestured for them to leave. Izriamat waited another moment before continuing. "Official word will come soon, but the Netkoleh has declared that there are no gods."
The scholar choked on his drink. "What?" he croaked out after calming his coughs.
"He's calling himself the emperor now. He's had the palace wiped clean of anything with the gods’ names or faces. I've never seen such blatant blasphemy."
Mgobe opened his mouth, then stopped and considered before speaking again. "Surely, he just means this for the gods of the Ega."
"All gods. He'll probably send people soon to cleanse your city too."
The governor quieted, deep in thought. "What of the books and scrolls?"
"I don't know. I don't know how deeply he's committed himself to this." Worry for the great library fur-rowed her brow. "Perhaps he'll overlook them."
Izriamat worried when a response didn't come immediately. Mgobe's gaze drifted upward to the high ceiling. He released a slow breath. "We... thank you for the warning."
"What will you do?"
"I will obey the Netkoleh."
She nodded. She wasn't sure how to feel about easily he sided with her husband, but it was his decision to make. Not hers. She forced a pleasant smile onto her face. "Let's speak on something far less troubling. Might I have a tour of the famous university? I wasn't able to see it the last time I rode through."
Mgobe's face lifted, relief obvious in his expression. "Of course, my queen. I will be happy to give you the tour myself."
We hope you enjoyed this excerpt. The Royal Heretic is available now for pre-order. Official release date is July 1, 2020.