Chapter Eight -- The Taj Demands

The Taj Demands

                Angaama the Just loved his children. Like a Father, his only wish was to show them the way. He led them to the sea, a long journey that cost many lives. A test of their devotion, their belief that his way was right. Was the only Right.

'The Right must act as Beacons in the dark', he said as he raised the Kingdom of A’al into being with a thought. Buildings grew whole from the ground, magnificent estates, buildings of gold and ivory, painted with all the world’s colors. ‘Here is the seat for The Right. Here, my children, we will show the world the way.’

Angaama the Just loved his children, but he did not trust them to always do Right. They were not an avatar of justice as he was. Their wants, their human foibles, would lead them astray. So he conspired to place himself among them. He conspired to guide them in secret, and, as it always is with Gods, he found a way, and named his duplicity righteous.

 

 

Familiar as she was with the Palace's wonders, Raynelle was still awestruck by the opulence of the room before her. Its walls peaked, collapsing towards each other as they rose in the shape of a pyramid, lined the whole way with abstractions etched in gold and silver. When you stared straight at the images, whatever wonders they depicted, they stood static. But out of the corner of Raynelle's eye, they swirled and danced, their movements licentious, enticing and… dangerous. The flickering candlelight from the chandeliers that hung and swayed gently only highlighted this odd effect. Raynelle tried and failed to banish them from her mind as she approached the table at the room's center.

                Seated there, on the opposite end from the side she entered, were two figures. The table was carved from one impossibly long piece of what looked to be ivory. Ivory from the tooth of a creature that would have stood hundreds of feet high. Raynelle shuddered to think of the nightmare this beast had been harvested from, and yet saddened to think of the fate that must have befallen it. It was faint still, muted by death, but the pain and anguish of its passing still resonated in this room. No pain truly disappears, but simply fades and, with time, is half-forgotten. But the scars from the wound it left on the world always remain.

                Corinda was dressed in regal finery, as befitting one who was Queen in all but name, a glittering dress wrought from diamonds, smelted by the finest from the impossible fabric of the Dreamscape. No doubt she had it harvested by a team of Pullers—those who could reach into their dreams, or the dreams of others, and remove something into the real world. Her earrings were color and shape-shifting wonders, their off-putting aura mimicking that of this dining room's walls.

Beside her sat, or rather was propped, The Taj. Also regally dressed, but his robe seemed merely a shroud draped around a corpse. Once he had been a proud and capable ruler, a conqueror who greatly expanded A'al's borders. Very little remained of that man, merely a shadow, merely whispers of his former greatness.

                Raynelle bowed before the spectacle these two inhabited. In spite of her annoyance at the summons, her mistrust of Corinda and her fear at what she might be compelled to do, she was still awed by the audience she'd been granted and by the new wonders she had seen. Every trip to the Taj's Palace surprised.

                "Please, be seated," It was Cor who spoke, Raynelle would be surprised if the Taj himself said a word during their dinner, much less acknowledged her presence.

                As she sat, two servers entered from a door melted seamlessly into the wall to her right, bearing their meals. A succulent feast of meats and cheeses, Raynelle wondered how the Taj would handle the rich fare, but only two place settings were laid. One in front of her, one for Cor. A glass was laid before them both, and filled to the brim with ruby red wine. Then came something she did not expect, the Taj spoke.

                "Please, madam, eat. I may not do it much myself these days, but the food is good and through your consumption I might enjoy it vicariously."

His voice, though quiet, was not frail but clear and sharp. His eyes sparked like cold flints beneath the wrinkles. His countenance was cogent, and though he was small, Raynelle could see now the competence and confidence radiating from him in proud golden waves. Raynelle paused. Something was wrong. Last time she met The Taj, a brief audience to be sure, he had seemed a doddering, senile fool, grasping to the throne with the strength of his reputation and countrywide admiration. No doubt the fear that he left behind no heir, leaving succession after his death very much in doubt, also played a part in his extended tenure.

Something had changed. Either over the past ten years The Taj, ruler of A'al had managed a miraculous recovery, or…

…or what?

"Please Raynie, eat… we insist." It was Cor who spoke now. She smiled after. But there was no mistaking the ice in her stare, or the edge in her words.

So she did, and for a moment was distracted by the food. It was delicious. Despite her unease, she found she was famished and in short order she cleared the plate in front of her. It was reloaded by the server beside her, the other stood beside Cor ready to serve her should she need anything. That plate too was emptied.

"Good, eh?" The Taj chuckled good-naturedly to himself, then coughed and muttered wistfully. "It's been so long since I enjoyed a good meal. Nothing but liquids and pastes these days. My doctors are very strict, you see."

Her hunger sated, Raynelle took a sip from her glass and had to stifle a gasp. The wine was almost better than the food, but she did not let it distract her. In The Taj's amber confidence, she sensed it. Though subtle, though quiet, there was apprehension within him as well. A thin yellow line of… fear?

"You didn't bring me to the palace discuss your nutritional needs, majesty," Raynelle said, with a courage she did not feel. "Perhaps you might tell me what your lordship requires."

"Ah, direct and to the point. Delightful." He turns to the suzerain next to him. "You were right about her Cor."

"I have my moments," The suzerain demurred. Raynelle noted Cor's own golden aura, pure, with no fear, no doubt. Despite The Taj's improbable cogence, there was no doubt to whom the true power in that room belonged.

"Would you do me, the honor, my dear, of explaining to your 'friend' why we invited her here?" His voice, thin like a reed, needled at Raynelle. She was uneasy, he was hiding something… but what?

Cor distracted her by speaking, in spite of how she distrusted her, in spite of the wounds they had visited on each other, Raynelle had to admit, she was still beautiful. Treacherous, but beautiful. “Raynie, how familiar are you with Dauphin, and the legend of its usurper God?”

Where is this going? Raynelle wondered.

“Everyone knows the story,” She began cautiously, “Jethro, the chosen king of Eleazar, defied him. Stole a piece of the divine for himself and made himself immortal, named himself a God. But the love of his life… Anna, I think. She was struck ill and lapsed into a deep rest. Perhaps the trickster God’s retaliation. And despite the king’s immense power, he could only preserve her, not heal her nor wake her. Over the centuries he became mad, and gave himself over to despair.”

“That’s correct!” Cor smiles, “You know your history.”

“But… what does any of this have to do with me? Or with A’al at all?”

Corinda leaned forward, despite the length of the table that separated them, lending to her words a conspiracy’s air. “Well there’s what you don’t know, what we’ve just learned from our spies in Dauphin. A coup is imminent, if not already underway.”

Raynelle’s breath stopped in her chest. “What?”

“Jethro will soon be dead, or overthrown. After a long convalescence, Eleazar strikes at last.” The Taj spoke now, mostly to himself, unaware of shock and disbelief this registered in the Empath.

“How?”

“In Dauphin, rumors fester,” Cor said, leaning back, “Rumors of a Dreamweaver, or even two, emerging from among the ranks of Dauphin’s nobles. They grow dissatisfied with the mad Godking, who has little interest in politics or in the growth of his kingdom. They say he hasn’t left his castle for decades, maybe centuries. Generations of idleness fomented unease. They fear they have become vulnerable to assault from us, or from kingdoms of the Steppes to their south.”

“So… what-”

“What does that have to do with you? I’m getting to that.” Cor frowns at her interruption. “Before we can move, we must have more information. We need someone of you skills. Someone who can read people better than most can read books. Who will go unnoticed. Someone…”

“Expendable?” Raynelle finished.

“I would prefer to say… ‘not directly tied to A’Al’s autocracy’. But in either case, we need you, Raynie, to go to Dauphin and keep us informed on who is really in power. So that we may know how to act.”

“And how am I supposed to do that?”

“Use those abilities of yours, cozy up to these insurgents. And simply report to us on their movements.”

Fear settled deep in Raynelle’s gut, out of the corner of her eye the shapes on the wall continued to move and shift, almost maliciously.

                “And if I refuse?”

                This question the Taj answered, standing as he did. “My dear Empath, what makes you think you have a choice?” A sudden darting movement distracted Raynelle from the table for a moment, a dark shape on the wall left its confines. A silver tentacle extended, grasping for a server who stood mute by their empty dishes. He did not even have time to scream before he disappeared behind the swirling masses on the Taj’s dining room walls.

                “You will do as the Taj demands,” The old ruler continued, as if nothing had happened as if death to him was as regular as the passage as time, bearing as little notice as the rising sun. “Or you will never leave this palace. Simple as that. Now… will you serve?”

                Raynelle gulped, and despite the invisible noose closing tight around her neck. Despite the warning wails of her dreams. Despite the painting that promised oblivion, and the sense that to head to Dauphin was to head further down this path, she nodded her head and acquiesced. What choice did she have?

Chapter Seven -- Into the Belly of the Taj

             When Raynelle was young, she drowned in the world, suffocated by Man’s emotional hues. Their colors a force too pressing to be denied. As a child, before her parents understood her gifts, she would wail when they made to take her from the home, even for a simple afternoon stroll. She shut herself in. She burrowed her head in her closet, seeking solace amidst the garments’ layers. It was only after her mother and father fought, over her mysterious affliction as it happened, and their obvious raw, blood red and omnipresent anger confronted her, did she begin to connect her affliction with the troubled minds and hearts of those around her, and in so doing she began to find a way to temper and control her Empath’s gifts. Through the years, she matured into a self-taught master of emotion.

            And then the Suzerain found her. Cor seduced her. And things were never the same.

            Be careful Raynie. Markus had told her as she left.

            Aren’t I always?

            Yes, but… He wouldn’t say it, but she knew, and he knew she knew. His concern was not just about her safety, but her sanity. He worried about the powerful emotions, the connection between these her and Cor. Even after all these years, it would not be so easily forgotten.

            Now, as a cabbie pulled her through the wide streets of Aankh, A’al’s capital, the Taj’s glittering jewel from where Corinda ruled his empire, the colors were muted. His wheel cart dragged over the cobble stones, the fraught lives of men and women around her a mere murmur. Her cabbie pulled her along with the well-muscled legs of an ox, bore his pain with a silent placidity. One who had accepted his life, and the necessary difficulties therein. She sensed an amorous pink in him, and the pale blue of grief, and wondered what lover, or lovers, he had, and who he had lost. He did not proffer small talk and she did not begrudge the silence. All the better to prepare herself for the night’s coming confrontation.

            What do you want, Cor? What do you need so badly you would turn to me for it?

            In her mind she returned to that morning’s painting, poring through the image. Its nuances. Its hallmarks of damnatiom Was it a coincidence that she pulled something of such ill-portent from the Id just as Corinda, a woman for whom once made her heart race at the slightest touch, arrived at her door? Such destruction, such horror pared with a woman of such ambition. What eschatological path did she choose by attending this meeting? What was at stake?

            She continued to watch the evening, darkening, quieting with the setting sun. But the universe provided her with no answers. She offered up a silent prayer to Wysheid, God of wisdom, compatriot of A’al’s birth God Angaama.

            “Wy the wise,” She said aloud, “Guide me to the right path, as you have always done. Light my way in this darkness. Grant me the tools to protect me from those that would do me harm. From those in the shadows, those monsters, who would drag me into the night.”

            From Cor. She added in thought, for she might well prove to be a monster herself. Who knew what path her old lover would force her down? All Raynelle could say for certain was there would be no escaping this meal unencumbered, without becoming burdened by Corinda’s passion, her patriotism. The weight of the Taj behind her, Corinda spoke with divine agency. The influence of Angaama bore down on her tonight. His will would not be denied.

            Finally she reached her destination, paid her fare, tipped the cabbie generously for the discretion implied in his silence. He must have known, if not the details, the general import of her meeting tonight. How often did he ferry his fares to the holy seat of Governance? He murmured his thanks, and disappeared back into the evening gloom.

            And so it sat before her, the Palace of the Taj, an illusion of austerity. Despite the ascetic conceit, the grey walls, the squat flat roof, the simple gravel pathway that lead to a rusted gate in mimicry of Wysheid’s legendary mountain recluse, she knew inside lay many wonders. That the Taj’s reputation as a man of the people, as one unconcerned with pomp and flash, was a convenient lie all in service of making a man who had not been seen in public for over a decade seem accessible still. She knew of the Palace’s catacombs, the treasures and dangers buried within. Cor had shown her much when they were together, they had delighted in those passageways once. They had…

            Raynelle shivered, though she could not tell if it was from pleasure of loathing.

            “Wise choice,” Cor’s current pet’s blistering bluster interrupted her sensate memory. “Had you not come…”

            He left the threat hanging, it was all Raynelle could do not to laugh. This fool, looming as tall as he did, muscles bulging as they did. She was sure he served Cor’s needs well, but he was no more threat to her than a fly. And so she ignored his boast, smiling warmly instead and offering her arm.

            “Would you escort me inside, Mr…”

            She could tell, he was taken aback by the breeziness with which she dismissed his menace. “Sterk.”

            “Just Sterk?”

            He took her arm and didn’t reply as they approach the Palace Gate.

            “There’s power in that name.”

            He grunted, but still did not speak. The red of his anger and black distrust faded for a bit, revealing a touch of blue. He was warming to her in spite of himself, or at the very least, his passionate distaste had cooled. Even strong men melted before a woman’s mollification. She scoffed inwardly as his weakness. A few words, and he would crumble before her, a few more to rebuild him, and then he might even turn against the Suzerain he held so dear.

            But first, she had to know what Cor wanted. What service could only an empath render?

            Arm in arm they entered the palace. Even to Raynelle, who knew what to expect, the transformation from modest exterior to extravagant interior stopped her breath for a moment. Powerful dreamweavers built this place centuries ago, and as such the palace, which appeared from the outside to be only a score yards wide and ten or so feet high, opened into a miracle of a marbled entranceway, stretching vast distances in both directions. Its ceiling as high as the sky. They descended the stairs, which lit up beneath them as they past, colors more varied than the rainbow, almost as diverse as the colors of life itself.

Hanging on each side of the stairs as they passed were rich arras, decorated to abstraction, the images swirling, only hinting at solidity. The eye easily lost itself in the complexity, drawn inwards… inwards. One could spend a lifetime, several lifetimes, on these stairs, pondering the meaning of the hidden truths in the wall-hangings. But Raynelle moved on, not once slowing her step to admire the artwork, though its makers possessed skills beyond even her dreams. She knew what lay beyond these draperies, the absolute darkness in which these unnatural stairs hung, as they descended from the façade and into the Taj’s true palace. His dark guardians, unseen except by those who attempted to do him, and the Suzerain, his mouthpiece to the world, harm. Only one who knew to look for them could hear them muttering in the void just beyond, and Raynelle had no desire to tempt their foul appetites.

Eventually they reached the bottom, to a door carved out of black, rocks harvested from the dead volcano that loomed over the city, opposite to the side lining the shore. It melted seamlessly into the black of the walls, and the tapestries, once so colorful and playfully abstract, faded to gray and darkened, darkened. To descend the staircase was to descend into night. Sterk held her back, and knocked on the gnarled door, once, twice, announcing, “Raynelle of Aa’l!”

He then turned to her and smiled, not unkindly, but a streak of sadism yet remained in it. She could see, also spooling into his tableau of blunt emotions, a trickle of bright yellow fear. Though it did not touch his eyes. She thinks: Perhaps I underestimated this one. He’s smarter than he seems.

“You must enter alone,” He said, almost a whisper, and began the long ascent. Before he got too far he turned back to her: “Good luck.”

She lingered at the door, and as she did so it swung open as if of its own accord. Exhaling deeply, she still did not enter. Here was the threshold. She stood, she knew, upon the precipice of no return. To cross into the dark—she could see nothing on the other side—would be to commit, entrusting herself to Corinda’s scheme, and Cor… she was not one to trust.

She closed her eyes.

Let it end, and begin again!

She heard her dream's words echo through the stairs. On the other side of the door lay that moment, back up the stairs there was… nothing. Nothing but the past, her apartment, her paintings, her attentive and doting Markus. She could be happy there, she knew. She could be content, and grow old, and die in blissful ignorance. And yet…

And yet…

She walked into the darkness. Into Corinda’s clutches. Into the belly of the Taj.

Chapter Six -- Fire From a Burning Sky

Raynelle always closed her eyes to paint, and let the world speak through her. Let the images bubble from within and leap from her brush onto a yearning canvas. The colors and images therein told a story. She felt them in flashes, gone from her mind as soon as they came, from potential to reality in the blink of an eye. She closed her eyes, and she felt:

-Light, burning light, an amber fire in a pool of blue. Beaming down into a woman transfixed by flames. She took it all in. She was the center, and all around her lay poor players. Prone and silently screaming.

“Let it end, let it end,” Their open, frozen mouths seemed to plead.

LET IT BEGIN, AND END, AND BEGIN AGAIN. Was her only reply, this mortal beacon who called down the inferno, the cleansing blaze of Androgiin.

This was the end, and in it, reflected the beginning. She opened her eyes, full of pulsing incandescence, piercing the curtain of the world to see the fabric underneath. She pulled, and it unraveled, and it became-

A crashing knock shook Raynelle from her reverie.

“Open up! In the name of the Suzerain!” Came the harsh demand.

And then echoed a soft rebuke. “Oh for ‘Giin’s sake, calm down! This isn’t a raid. Raynie? I know you’re in there.”

The painter stopped. It was Corinda, the consummate politician and leader of the seaside kingdom of A’al in all but name. Even before she went to the door, the defacto ruler’s desperation crushed over her in dark, blue waves. Cor had come to ask her a favor, Raynelle knew, and it must be a mighty big one to bring her to her door, after all that transpired between them.

Raynelle threw a shawl around her bare shoulders. She always painted as close to nude as the wind that whistled through her rooms would allow. And her windows were always open, all the better to let the world’s color, her muse, in.

Empath. Raynie’s title, gift and curse, the whole emotional course of the world was her oyster, a torrent that poured constantly through her. She was no dreamweaver, she could merely sense, perceive, and interpret the tides of the Dreamscape, and not alter or use to destroy as those mythic men and women of old were rumored to have done, but it had its advantages and considerable disadvantages nonetheless. The suppurating wound at her doorstep was a powerful reminder of both.

She padded down the steps, cold to her lavish, if petite, domicile. Its walls painted a passionate dark crimson and adorned with her own artwork—ranging from the abstract to the ominously clear, and threw open the door to her past, as she worried what its presence before her augured for her future. Corinda had the gall to be wearing a smile, and even more to her discredit, had not seemed to age a day in the ten years since they last spoke.

“Raynie-” She said, then halted, unsure of how to proceed. A rare occurrence for her, the empath knew. The imperious guard whose bellows announced their presence stood before her, like a block carved from flesh, possessed of all straight lines and, she could tell, with an intellect denser than iron.

“Would you like to come in?” An empty gesture, offered to be refused.

“No, I-haven’t the time. I-”

“What do you need, Cor?” Their exchange of pet-names felt hollow, the hurt behind them as palpable as if no time had passed. She could feel the words they had never said to each other, hanging in the air, the unstruck blows of parting.

How could you leave me?

How could I? You are the one who left, became this… painter. This crass thing. We were destined for greatness.

This life you built, amongst royalty, amongst politicians and duplicity. It was never what I wanted. You knew that when you chose to pursue it.

When you chose-

-Power

-Freedom

-The pulpit.

-The brush.

Over me…

No, they said none of these things. And the fruit they shared was left to wither on the vine and now, face to face, they felt the poison of that silence still. Of words unuttered, too late now to say. And yet, Raynie knew, she felt with the force of an explosion, the desperate need that drove Corinda to her door, to ask of her a task fit for only her skills. She sensed doom down the path of acceptance, but felt also a rekindled longing.

Corinda sensed her unasked question. Why are you here? Why now?

“Not here,” She replied to the unspoken sentiment, then smiled again. “Come by the palace tonight? The Taj and I would welcome you as an honored guest.”

With that, she turned and left and spoke no more. Her solitary guard, who probably had no clue how unnecessary her was, fixed her with a glare.

“I’m sure I don’t need to say it-” He began in a tone she assumed he thought menacing.

“Yet you seem to think you must.” She jibed, though why she antagonized this brute more than she must escaped her. Her own raw emotion she supposed.

She felt the anger in him flare brilliantly, a burst of bright red he suppressed with great difficulty. After a minute, he composed himself: “It would not be wise to refuse her interpretation… Raynie.” He sneered while using her pet name, thinking it would wound her. Thinking that he understood it was a dirty thing that transpired between her and his mistress, her former love.

She could feel his devotion to Cor, and how he blithely misinterpreted it as love. He would die for her gladly. Poor fool. To think you grasp the essence of life, but to understand so little—the tragedy of the stupid. And yet, Raynelle couldn’t help but envy the man. Ignorance brings such clarity to one’s world.

She returned upstairs, to her painting. She would have to finish it later, having lost the thread, or not at all. Who knows if that particular dream would ever return to her? What other direction might she pick up on that night? Still, she studied it for a while, regarding a particular prone figure, struck by the sense of familiarity it inspired. The face was little more than a blur of abject terror and despair, and yet…

She shook and head, turned from the painting to an open window, where bright yellow chased burnt orange chased crimson and the purpled dark from the sky. The sun was rising and the world woke with it. Where the people of A’al rose, and the quiet bustle began. The sliding doors of opening shops, the distant call of early morning merchants. The laughter of children and the loving chiding of their mothers carried to her by the wind. A brilliant kaleidoscope of feeling, as diverse and beautiful as the sunrise above. Behind her, a man stirred.

She turned, and as he woke, let him, Markus, see her face.

Even as he yawned, his first words were as astute as always:

“It was her.” No question, no need to clarify which ‘her’. Markus was no empath, but he remained an astute judge of her emotional state nonetheless. No doubt her thoughts were as plain as day because of it.

“She needs me, for-I don’t know what. But she’s desperate. She wouldn’t come to me unless there were no other options.”

He remained silent. He always knew when there was more for her to say, and when only time would coax it out.

“That tells me… this is dangerous, her task. This path might lead to the end.”

“They all do, eventually.” The hard look on his face told her he knew of her secret longing for death’s respite. How many times had she woken beside him, weeping, someone else’s tragedy crashing over her, overwhelming her, mixing with her own loss? How many times did she wish that her mind, and soul, could be entirely her own?

She yawned, and turned back from Markus to watch the lightening sky.

“I’m tired Markus.”

He moved, and in moments, his hands were on his shoulders. “Too tired for…” He left the question dangling, and a sudden tumescence asked the rest.

She smiled, and turned to him. Her shawl drifted to the ground, and her hands descended to his fifth limb.

Once there, she let her actions do the talking.

 

Chapter Five -- At the Base of the Mountain

            The boy knelt in a pool of blood and viscera that was once his friend, grey velvet eyes distant and frightened, brimming with tears. He looked up at the figure towering above him, his lips quavering. “Mar? General? What did-What have I done?”

            His dark mentor watched him, arms crossed, saying nothing as the boy continued to weep. After a few minutes, he sighed, “Are you finished?”

            “F-finished?”

            “Pitying yourself? It’s pathetic.”

            “But I k-killed Ryan! He was my friend.”

            The general knelt down, though even on his knees, he still dwarfed the boy. Grabbing him by the chin, he forced the child Duncan’s eyes to meet his own.

            “Well then, never forget this lesson. This is who we are. Dreamweavers, sojourner’s of the Dreamscape, ones who walk in the liminal space between wakefulness and sleep, between men and Gods. We are those who take, and take, and take from the minds of others. We observe their dreams, their nightmares and memories. There’s nothing and nowhere Man can hide from us. We observe, and when we find their greatest fears or shames. We manifest them, manipulate them, and therein lies our strength. But you must be deft, child. Or else…”

            Here the General Rabe Mar paused, and looked around at the gross carnage they sat in for effect.

            “Or else all you strived for will be for naught. Now ask yourself, boy, how badly do you want to be king? What are you willing to take? Who are you willing to lose?”

            Even as hot tears stained his cheeks, Duncan could feel a strange, new power brewing in him, matched by his nascent ambition. The youth knew his answer. His family name must be restored. He WOULD be king. No matter what the cost.

 

            The Queen Anna/Saiin languished on the cold, uncomfortable throne, shuddering in the damp room at the heart of Castle Dauphin. Its floor loose cobblestones. Unlit chandeliers, whose ornament had rusted away after centuries of disuse, creaked from the ceilings. Mildewed walls, that stretched into shadows, that smelled of dank and must, surrounded her. She waited. Waited for night to turn into dawn, for the moment when the fruit of Eleazar’s long centuries of carefully laid plans finally rose to the fore. She remembered Dauphin’s gentle caress, as she felt Elly’s, the God of tricks, violent need. Remembered how deeply the ‘true God’, as he liked to call himself, mourned the betrayal of the androgynous creator Giin, and how that sense of betrayal echoed in all his tricks and misdeeds. Her heart raced. Was it fear that spurred it so? Anticipation? Or the realization that birthed slowly blossoming plots of her own…

 

In the fog, settling even thicker than normal on this week of the Festival of Mists, little more than a slow enlightening of the surroundings heralded day’s arrival. The woods grew a little clearer. Its shadows shrank. The silence of night gradually relented to the calls of a coming morn. Birds chirped in the thicket of branches overhead, in response to the ever quieter call of insects, which had ruled the dark. General Rabe Mar, Dauphin’s latest Fist, stood with his small company of dragoons, waiting at the base of the mountain. The forest hemmed around them, yet even so he seemed a giant. The air around him felt compressed, like reality was drawn into his dark presence. He rubbed his bald scalp, lips pursed in an impatient frown on his brown face. There they hid, watching the barren stretch of land that lead to the path up towards destiny, towards the mad king. There they waited, the two score battle worn soldiers, the best and bravest and most loyal of the Fist’s army.

Today was the day. The day this so-called ‘God’ Jethro would finally die. The crux of many decades of work, accruing assets in the background, gathering the silent support of the most powerful voices in the King’s council; and many consults with the God of Tricks in the dark.

“He’s late.” Oran, his sallow faced second in command, muttered.

Rabe closed his eyes, and in that instant, tasted the violence and joy in the mind of his young protégé. He had killed the night before, he had… played with his food. Reveled in the death for hours after. And his grim countenance grew even grimmer.

“I sense he is… delayed, but will be among us shortly.” Oran frowned, clearly not satisfied with the explanation, but nodded and stepped back into the shade. A good man, trustworthy, he had served the general well for many years, survived many bloody battles in the name of a king they now prepared to oppose.

General Mar frowned up into the receding gloom, unable to see to the top of the mountain before them with the obscuring murk, but he knew what awaited them nonetheless. A long climb, the castle and its labyrinthine bowels, and, perched in his throne room like the prize at the center of a maze, or a deathly trap more like, the immortal yet decaying king. He knew, even in his much deteriorated state, the Godking was a powerful foe. That he would need his protégé, the arrogant, entitled, Duncan, youngest brat of the Goodwyn family, at the fore—both for his abilities, which as a Dreamweaver and politician, if not as a warrior, now surpassed even his own, and for the legitimacy his heritage would lend the revolution. He had changed so much from the frightened boy he had first known all those years ago, both for the better and for the worse.

He looked around at the men and women, good soldiers all, that surrounded him. All wearing brave faces. He knew that fear and doubt, well hidden, brewed within them. How could it not? They, and their mothers and fathers for generations and generations, had been taught to revere Jethro, not just Sovereign but as God. Perhaps they learned of the true God, Eleazar, Lord of Deception, in secret. Snatches of truth gathered here and there, but here, at the precipice, with the prospect of overthrowing the deific ruler of their land nigh, doubt emanated from them like beacons of warning.

He sighed, and prepared to encourage the men. Duncan’s presence eluded him, aside from the residual echo of the power he’d used the night prior, of the memories plundered and the life took, but he knew how badly the young man wanted to rule. He knew he would soon arrive, and their mission would start, and so he turned to speak to the small band of warriors, to inspire them for the battle ahead. His voice hale, deep, strumming with violent melody: “I know you are afraid-”

A voice rang out from above, proud and clear, interrupting the general, “To kill a king? Overthrow a God? How could you not fear?”

Duncan descended into their midst, a vicious smile on his face, his cloak smeared with congealed blood. The assorted warriors stood a little taller in his presence, and The Fist, great general though he was, could not help but rue how easily the younger man’s charisma surpassed his own. How, in spite of his flaws, his arrogance, how little he had proven with them in battle and blood, he inspired fiercer devotion just with words. The youngest of House Goodwyn continued:

“However, I do not fear. And here is why: Jethro is just a man! A powerful man? Yes. One who has ruled this nation for centuries? Of course. But a man nonetheless. An old, lonely, grief-stricken man who wields a power that does not belong to him. I have spoken to the true God, Eleazar, the Lord of tricks, and we, we have been chosen! Or fates belong to him. He has named this balance as ours to redress! This kingdom ours to reclaim! Destiny bows to us now.”

And with that, he left the forest behind, marching toward the mountain. Not even affording a backward glance, so sure he was that the General and his men would follow. They had waited and struggled to long to hesitate now. To their credit, Mar was glad to see that even though they clearly wanted to rush after the unproven hero, spurred on by his brave words, the arrogant pup who had lost much and taken much more, they waited for his silent nod to charge after.

Duncan smiled to himself, he could see the day would go well. He had sensed the truth as he approached the forest that surrounded the castle, and now saw that the General, aging as he was, powers fading as they were, could not sense the same: their king, Jethro, ruler of Dauphin, was already dead. Something, or someone else, awaited them atop the mountain. A presence with great power of its own, with motives unknown. He sensed the God of Tricks hand in this, and knew, whatever might come, one obstacle to kingship had already been removed from his path. And as they ascended the mountain, he felt a burgeoning thrill. Every step they took brought him that much closer to the throne…

 

As they approached, Anna rose, she knew that Eleazar had asked her to remain seated. He wanted them to discover her before her husband’s ashes, arrayed before her as she claimed the seat of power. But she sensed the approached young lord, felt his power, how it approached that of the Gods and knew he needed a more dramatic demonstration. With a snap of her finger, the dead king Jethro’s ashes recongealed into the illusion of flesh, and he was resurrected, in image if not in truth. And he followed after her, this façade, with shambling steps as she prepared to leave the castle and great the would-be conquering heroes.

            They must be made to understand. She thought, with a grim smile of her own. Even if the king is dead. A Dauphin still rules this land-

            -A Dauphin will always rule.

Chapter Four -- The Ballroom in the Stars

The King and Queen of Dauphin, Jethro and his Anna, danced in a ballroom lit by the stars. No others in the castle even knew it existed, for in truth, it did not. Not in the castle anyway, nor on any other physical plane. This room was a creature of the Dreamscape, and in it, all things were possible. The regal pair two-stepped through the universe, made love in a field of poppies at the center of a blazing star, waltzed through the sky with thousands of figures scurrying below like ants, lay together in a bed of diamonds, hard edges and sharp angles belying the impossible softness with which they touched their joined skins. A bejeweled sanctum of ethereal delight.