Azriel watched as Thayne approached Rhyshladlyn where the Qishir stood in the center of the training fields and his eyes narrowed. Everything about his niece’s body language screamed reluctance, condolences, apologies and that was just the surface of it. And given that she was raised by one of the Race, Thayne wasn’t one to show that much emotion in any form, let alone bodily. So it caught his attention and held it.
In her hand, the General held a single envelope that seemed to vibrate and he realized after Rhyshladlyn had looked up that it was because Thayne was trembling as she held it out. He could barely make out the words she spoke to Rhyshladlyn but he didn’t have to hear them clearly to know that it had something to do with Relyt and possibly Alaïs by the way Rhyshladlyn’s face brightened before he all but snatched the envelope from Thayne’s hand and tore it open.
Almost immediately, the elation that had shadowed his Qishir’s face fell away in pieces until all that was left was stark horror. As all color drained from his face, the air around him seemed to shimmer as the shadows on the field lengthened and shuddered around him despite it being midday and the only shadows those cast by the warriors training around him. But as those eyes scanned over the paper in his hands a second and a third time, his hands beginning to shake, mouth moving though no words came out, Azriel was already halfway to him, calling out his name. As Rhyshladlyn looked up and met his gaze, Azriel felt the hopelessness and guilt smack into him like a blow to the chest and he stumbled but didn’t falter. Because the last time Rhyshladlyn had had that look on his face he’d murdered his mother with cold, calculated precision and the Anglëtinean was nearly certain that the reason for that look now, nearly a year later, was not present in the war camp that surrounded them. Rhyshladlyn didn’t have a safe outlet for whatever emotion ended up winning out in the maelstrom currently swirling behind those eyes so Azriel had to get him calm before he lost enough a modicum of control.
“Rhyshladlyn,” he called again, hands held out in front of him, palms facing the Qishir who stared at him with a look not unlike one a wounded, cornered animal would give to the predator that stalked it, circling in for the kill. But he didn’t respond, didn’t move, just stood there, hands shaking where he held that paper, the muscles in his forearms standing out with the clear effort required of him to keep from crumbling it. “Rhys-kyn?” Azriel tried again but still got no reaction save that colorless, blank expression, and tumultuous eyes blinking rapidly while his mouth worked around words that never crossed into the audible spectrum.
As he stepped around Thayne, he was vaguely aware of the silence and stillness that had fallen over the training fields around them but he wasn’t surprised by it. It had only been a week since Rhyshladlyn had dropped his glamour, since he had taught every warrior and soldier within Thayne’s army a valuable lesson that would no doubt save many of their lives. But no one had forgotten the strength that lurked beneath a façade that, once seen through, could not be entirely believed anymore. So when Rhyshladlyn’s first choked wail slipped out the entire camp shuddered as one body, the entire camp winced, the entire camp went even more still, the silence settling in strong and fast.
Because Death was on that field standing among them. Even if the god itself hadn’t appeared, its Scion was channeling it as his rage twisted around and cooed to the guilt and hatred and hopelessness that battered the air like the fists of a drunken father on his children. And every single warrior and soldier recognized the danger that stood in their midst and prayed it didn’t recognize them.
Everyone except Azriel. The only one bravely stupid enough to face down Death’s Scion and keep going, unmarked and unafraid.
“Rhys…talk to me,” he implored. “What’s going on? I cannot help if you don’t tell me what’s wrong.”
And High Ones See them all, Rhyshladlyn tried to speak but the effort only resulted in his wailing increasing and so the Qishir just closed his eyes tightly and bowed his head, hands thrusting the paper they still held out towards him. And if Azriel hesitated in taking it, it had nothing to do with being afraid and neither did anyone acknowledge his hesitation. I am not afraid of a piece of paper… just what it says on it. It had to be something truly unexpected and bad for Rhyshladlyn to have reacted the way he had and so quickly at that.
Gingerly he took the paper and turned it to face him, willing himself to breathe deeply and calmly, to feed that calm to the Qishir that had begun to shake bodily by then. There was no greeting, no formal structure to the letter, and it took him several lines before he knew that he was reading a letter and once that realization hit? It made the contents all the worse. It made his stomach drop to play with his knees while it pushed his last meal violently back up his throat. It made keeping calm so he could send that calmness down the link to Rhyshladlyn all the harder to maintain.
For while he had tried to prepare himself for whatever that paper had contained that upset Rhyshladlyn to such a degree so swiftly, nothing could have prepared him for what he read.
Would that this was easier to write. Would that I didn’t even have to write it. Would that I didn’t shake and hate that I was penning this down, that I was even here to witness this atrocity at all. But I am so there is naught to be done for it but be a witness, to render aid where I can and pray that the end result does not kill me….
I am sorry that the first contact I make with you is for this reason but I thought it best you know of it from mine own hand, mine own words, and not those of someone else. Though by now I’m assuming you’ve integrated fully with the General’s army and for that I am grateful for it means this will reach you all the sooner. It will hopefully also give you something to focus on before the Cliffs erupt into this World. I have spent two months and some days here and if the Cliffs do not actually erupt here, I will be very much surprised. For it feels as though they already have; as though I have crossed the River but instead of going to the Plains, I have arrived at the Cliffs and no amount of begging, of showing the good deeds I have done, will see me off them.
By the Many, how do I even write this? How do I say what needs — I don’t want to write those words any more than I wanted her to speak them to me. It makes them too real but I have felt the Truth of it for myself when I laid hands, so I… I’m just going to —
Alaïs is with child. He… he… took her. Her words exactly were he, “did with me what he couldn’t with Rhyshladlyn…he begot a child.” I did not know until very recently when I finally convinced her to let me lay hands to discern why she seemed so sickly of late. I am so sorry. It happened before I even arrived here and by the Many had I known — I cannot express my regret and my sorrow that I had not recalled the Contract sooner because had I? Perhaps I could have prevented this from occurring, even though my Lady informs me that I wouldn’t have had I been here to try. It is difficult to believe her.
The young is due on your nameday, though that is not the day it should be born, but rather the day it will be born. Alaïs plans to use it as the ritual’s sacrifice to the Old Ones. “Perhaps then They will hear our prayers for salvation and mercy.”
I will admit that I am… I am having trouble reconciling my race’s nature-born and cultural response with my personal, heart-born one. I wish to aid her, I can see the point in not allowing this young to live to term, to live to potentially take after its sire, but it is still a life… it is unknowing of the wrongs it represents. And even though it is killing its mother, I cannot bring myself to fully justify its murder, even if the reasons are sound, even if the way it shall be dispatched is merciful in a way.
I would give my gretluos to be with you right now… I would give everything I am and ever shall be to have you both here, to be able to seek counsel of you directly rather than pen this letter like a journal entry… for it took me a week to be able to find the correct words and even now, I’m debating burning this version as I have burned the hundreds that have come before it. But I can’t… I won’t. You deserve to know and I am — we are — running out of time.
Alaïs is dying and I fear that I am not too far behind her. I don’t remember the last time I slept fully, truly. I’m always on edge wondering if he’ll be around the next corner, ready to accost me again. No meal feels fulfilling, like I could eat the City’s entire food supply and still hunger for more. She says it is worse here than it was before you left. Like the very City itself is mourning, like death stalks those who want desperately to avoid its attention and avoids those who cry out for it. I do not know how you survived this for as long as you did before you finally ran. Your strength is far greater than I realized or even gave you credit for. But… I am not as strong. I cannot do this much longer and neither can Alaïs, never mind the City’s inhabitants.
So, I ask that if the plan to lay siege to the City was to occur after your nameday, please for the sake of all of us, make it that night. Make it that day. Make it tomorrow. Anything, please. Just hurry.
Because I have no idea how much longer we can go on as we have been.
It wasn’t signed any more than it had been addressed, but the magickal signature laid into each word was Relyt’s even without him mentioning his gretluos, even without him mention the Healer’s Contract that had seen him safely into the City and thus the Palace. And the knowledge that his qahllynshæ-bròtr was suffering to the degree that he was just to see Alaïs safe, just to appease Rhyshladlyn’s worry, was almost enough to make him violently ill.
He cursed long and loud in Anglë’lylel and tossed the letter at Thayne just as Rhyshladlyn’s legs gave out and he threw his head back and screamed, the sound reverberating along Azriel’s bones, making the ground tremble and the sands shift with promised danger. He sank heavily to his knees in the dirt, arms wrapped tight around his Qishir’s quaking body, his own magick swirling out and around them as he did his best to contain any blasts of power while simultaneously trying to keep Rhyshladlyn from losing complete control.
They both knew that Shiran City was a hotbed of nightmares born and raised and cultivated lovingly by the Lord King that had ruled over it for nearing two thousand years. But Relyt had only heard rumors, had only experienced a few weeks worth while Rhyshladlyn was still there, while Anis and Azhuri were still alive. But with their deaths, with Rhyshladlyn on the run? Anislanzir had nothing to focus his insanity on, had nothing to keep himself in check. And so both were allowed to run amok and do their damnedest to take out everything and everyone around them in the process.
We never should have sent him in alone… but by the High Ones, we didn’t have a choice. We didn’t have a choice.
As he began to sing haltingly in Anglë’lylel, he heard Thayne curse harshly behind him. Burying Rhyshladlyn’s head in the crook of his shoulder, he closed his eyes tightly against tears he didn’t want to shed, tears that shouldn’t exist. But they did. And as Rhyshladlyn continued to wail and scream, as he continued to hiccup and sob and shake and break apart in a completely new way, Azriel found himself fighting not to do the same.
He kept the sobs at bay, he kept the screaming swallowed down. Instead he transferred it into his singing, let it out that way as his voice shook and wavered but didn’t falter, didn’t go silent. He sang words of comfort and love and acceptance but his tone was filled with rage and grief and hatred. Because over the same sixty years it had taken him to fall for Rhyshladlyn irrevocably, he had come to view the twins as the younger siblings he’d always wanted, had always craved. Their acceptance had meant more to him than he had ever had words for and now that he did have them, he may never have the chance to say them. Not with Anis dead and Alaïs swiftly following behind her twin. And that both enraged and terrified him. But now wasn’t the time to handle his own emotional response to this latest issue.
So he pushed all of that aside because none of it mattered right then. What did matter was calming the Qishir that had once more broken down in his arms. What did matter was that he had to calm him, had to get him stable, before he could — would — answer Thayne’s questions that she was directing at him silently through body language and facial expressions, understanding without needing to be told that speaking them before Rhyshladlyn was better was inadvisable. When he gave her a small shake of his head she nodded her understanding before she closed crimson eyes so very much like her mother’s and her voice added to his, effortlessly taking up his song.
And then the voices of several others rang out almost immediately after hers until it was not just Anglë’lylel, but Gretlök, Yurosäng, Nochrelín, and several others coloring the air as every warrior in the vicinity raised their voices in their native tongues, singing war songs, songs of mourning, songs of hope, songs of love and laughter. And hearing those songs, hearing those voices, and knowing what the act signified was what broke his hold on his own tears and he let them flow down his cheeks unhindered as he clutched Rhyshladlyn’s sobbing, screaming form all the tighter.
It didn’t matter that each song was different, that different languages were used, they harmonized and formed a melody that was breathtaking for its beauty and the message it held. For an army of several hundred thousand warriors and soldiers in one single moment pledged solidarity with a Qishir that had lost too much already. And it gave him precious hope that he was scared to accept because he knew that this new development wasn’t the end of Rhyshladlyn’s suffering, knew it in his bones even as he prayed desperately that it was the last.
“Hope is for the weak, Ri,” Lulphé murmured conversationally as she plucked the profered blade from Father’s hand.
“No, it’s not,” he retorted, unwilling to just sit back and not at least fight verbally. His body may be incapacitated but that didn’t stop his voice.
Her laughter was harsh and prickled along his skin. “You’ll change that statement soon enough.”
“Don’t lose hope, Rhys,” he whispered into his Qishir’s hair, breaking from his singing long enough to speak. “We will get through this. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, my Qishir, you just need to keep going. We’re almost there.”
Rhyshladlyn finally quieted then, his sobbing and wailing trailing off into eventual silence, his shaking subsiding until he finally took a deep breath and like the ocean in a storm that had dissipated, he calmed entirely. And with his regained composure, the group of warriors that had been singing around them trailed off into silence so thick that when the Qishir spoke, Azriel wondered if the entire camp could hear him.
“I make no promises, Azriel,” his voice sounded flat, distant, and it worried him to hear it but he’d learned that so long as Rhyshladlyn was speaking or making some kind of sound, he wasn’t so far gone that there was no pulling him back to stable ground.
“All I ask is that you try,” he countered. “All I ever ask is that you try.”
“Now that… that I can do.”
Why does it feel like he’s just humoring me? Azriel wondered as he looked up and saw Thayne standing at a respectful distance a question clear on her face.
“Shall we make preparations to lay siege on the day of the Festival of the Flesh?” Thayne asked, breaking the silence that surrounded them, shattering the tension like a blade through glass.
“Yes,” Rhyshladlyn said as he sat back, dislodging Azriel’s hold around him but not moving out of his reach entirely, not yet. Azriel caught a passing glance of the cold, dark look that contorted the male’s features as the Qishir turned to face Thayne and judging by the way the General flinched bodily, the full force of that look was far worse than a brief flash of it. “Yes,” he repeated with a greater surety, “let us make preparations, General Thayne Firesbane. For in less than two months time, Shiran City and Anislanzir shall fall.”
A yip-yip went up at that, each warrior and soldier picking up the cry until the entire camp thundered with it and Rhyshladlyn turned to look back at him and Azriel swallowed hard at the sight of his Qishir with tear-swollen cheeks and nose, eyes fever-bright from crying, a dark and sadistic smile twisting his expressive mouth, one eyebrow raised, hair an absolute mess as it haloed around the top of his head. For even like this, he was striking.
“Shall we?” Rhyshladlyn asked, repeating a question from months before when they stood on the roof of their cabin and he couldn’t help but smile at the memory. Because he had thought all hope was lost that day only for Rhyshladlyn to show him otherwise.
“Aye,” he replied as he rose to his feet and held out his hand to help Rhyshladlyn to his. “Mind doing the honors?”
“With pleasure,” Rhyshladlyn laughed, the sound joyous and filled with wonder as he took Azriel’s offered hand and allowed the Anglëtinean to pull him to his feet.
Fuck it, Azriel thought as he pressed their foreheads together, cupping his hands to either side of the Qishir’s face. Even if he is humoring me on trying, on not losing hope, so long as he keeps laughing like that for me, I’ll have hope enough for both of us.