73

Of all the Sacred Twenty-Three Cities, only Zhalharaq City still held what was known as the Watchtowers: seven obelisks that extended nearly a thousand feet into the air, sleek and gleaming like hammered steel, their points extending far above the glowing golden walls that surrounded each City. One stood for the Heart of the City and the other six were representative of the most Balanced Court: the Steward, the Companion, the Warrior, the Scribe, the Healer, and the Clergy. It was said that when a City had a Qishir ruling with a full Court that each member of that Court would meet the Watchtower that corresponded to them and that the seven of them would become the flesh-bound tether of the City, the ones tasked with defending it on a physical level as well as a magickal one.

Every one of the other remaining Cities had one Watchtower, the Heart of the City, which fed it power and kept it safe and listed as a Sanctuary, but only Zhalharaq had retained all seven. No one knew why of all the Cities, only Zhalharaq had kept its seven Watchtowers, why only its inhabitants still called the obelisks by such an archaic name. Neither did anyone know when or how the other twenty-two Cities lost their other six Watchtowers or why. Only that it had happened and that once it had things had seemed… off. That no matter how close the bond, no matter how powerful the qahllyn between Qishir and qahllynshæ, there was always something that kept the Court from feeling whole.

She could remember when she was little, Great-Grandmother and Great-Grandfather had told them stories of how Aèl City’s Watchtowers had always sung throughout the day, soft notes of calm, harsh notes of warning, flowing notes of acceptance; had told stories of how those sleek buildings pulsed and thrummed with power, soothing and neutral and kind.

But then the Greywalkers had been killed off or sent scattering to the Fourteen Corners and those structures had gone quiet, had lost their glow. Where once they were powerhouses they were now merely markers, a link to a past few remembered anymore. Though it was said that a few of the other Cities’ Watchtowers still held their golden glow, Zhalharaq’s did not. But given those that did glow only had the Heart of the City remaining, it wasn’t entirely surprising.

And so for millennia the Watchtowers had been silent, dormant, standing as a testament to the greatness of those who had erected them, placed them at strategic points throughout the City. Since the Greywalker race had fallen, however? She had never once seen them pulse like the Records said they used to and neither had she heard them hum or sing like her great-grandparents had said they used to.

That is, until the day the heir to the Sinner Demon throne had perished at the hands of an Ancient that had leveled Majik World. On that day? The Watchtowers woke up and began to sing softly, a single set of notes, ones she didn’t recognize. And with their awakening, she had picked up the two-way mirror she hadn’t touched in decades to call her brother. Because she knew as well as he did the Stories that surrounded the Watchtowers; that when they came awake singing, War would shake the Worlds and a catastrophe unlike anything the Worlds had seen since the neodrach gender was gifted to the Worlds by the gods would occur and reshape everything. And it had scared her that those Stories may be real, that she would be alive to see the Worlds changed so drastically that anyone alive at that exact moment in time would refer to things as Before and After like her great-grandparents had. So she had called her little brother, the one that had always seemed like the elder sibling to her. She had always felt safe with him, even when he had every reason to want her dead, every reason to act upon that want, she still felt most grounded with him nearby.

The call she had placed hadn’t gone as well as planned but she had accomplished what she’d set out to do and that had to be enough. Azriel knew what was necessary, whether he had passed it along or not was another matter. It had been enough for her just to hear his voice, to see his face, to see that he was happy even if he was on the run, even if his Qishir had just lost his brother, even if his entire World was crumbling around his ears, again. He had looked good, solid, strong, healthy, happy, and while he wouldn’t believe her if she told him, it made her feel good to see that.

But he had destroyed that mirror and now as midday struck and the Watchtowers came alive, glowing a pulsing gold, their soft singing now all but deafening and filled with words that were repeated over and over, she wished he hadn’t. Because she didn’t doubt he would have known what Song the Watchtowers were singing; it was just who he was, a veritable walking library of miscellaneous information. But instead, as she was unable to reach Azriel, she had sent a runner to fetch her the tome that held the old Sinner Demon War Songs from the library because that had to have been what it was. For through the connection the Watchtowers shared with their singular siblings in all the other Cities, the sound of bells ringing came through as clear as though the ones within Zhalharaq itself were being rung.

“A parody,
From so long ago.
A memory we used to know–
A message from me unto you,
Of words that say,
‘I love you, I do.'”

“Because my heart falls with these tears,
My World is built on faulty fears.
Can you return to me now?
For I give all I am with this vow:”

And she had stood on her personal balcony overlooking the City while she read that it was the Song of War and Love, one that was a carry over from when the Greywalkers still occupied the Cities. As the Records went, it was a Song written by a warrior who was not a fighter by nature but rather one who preferred solving conflict in more diplomatic ways, who didn’t want to fight but was forced to in order to keep himself and his loved ones alive, to the one who had defended him against all odds but ultimately failed to keep them both safe. It was a Song that spoke of Love gained and lost, of hope shattered by disappointment, of forgiveness begged for but not received. Of all the Songs to use to begin the war, she had to admit that she was rather shocked Anislanzir had chosen that one.

But given that it was the Lord King? She really shouldn’t be surprised, not after everything he’d already done. He was if nothing else insanely unpredictable. And that unpredictability coupled with his insanity was one of the primary reasons she hadn’t moved against him even though he had broken nearly every Law and Etiquette in the Worlds, even though she had irrefutable proof of his crimes. It was too great a risk to move as the Eighth Qishir against him. Not when she couldn’t be certain he wouldn’t level Shiran City to avoid paying for his crimes, regardless of whether said City was occupied at the time or not.

So she had sent Azriel to the City in the hopes that the Lord King would have done harm to her kin because then she could move against him as one seeking retribution for their blood. But Anislanzir, in his ever present unpredictability, had left Azriel alone physically. Instead, the Lord King had simply upped the ante against his youngest, the one who had been desperate for someone to save him, who had screamed and begged from that day when the Lord King took his wings all the way up until the day she had written that missive after Azriel’s tribunal. Anislanzir had seen Azriel not as the threat he was, not as the attempt of a Qishir to unseat him, but as a pawn to use to break his neodrach child, to break the mind of the most powerful Qishir to awaken in the Worlds in generations. And so once again her hands had been tied. And it ate at her that she had been forced to stay her hand, to wait, to watch, to catalog, and pray to the gods that had long since stopped listening to her that someone would stop him. Had prayed even harder that Rhyshladlyn would realize that he didn’t need anyone else to save him, that he was more than capable of saving himself.

And what was worse stil was that all her inaction had done was widen the canyon that had spread between her and Azriel. He didn’t grasp that she was not just the Qishir of a Province or a World, but the Qishir of the Seven Worlds and what actions she made had ripple effects. She had to see every possible outcome and plan accordingly knowing all the while that should she make one mistake? It could cost her millions of lives. Not that Azriel understood that. Not that she had ever bothered to try and explain it to him. Not that he would have likely listened if she had.

“My Qishir?” a timid voice called from the doorway that lead back to her rooms and she fought not to jump at the voice that broke the ringing bells and War Song that thickened the air of Zhalharaq that lay spread out below her. With a deep breath to calm her suddenly racing heart, she set the book the runner had brought her on the small table beside where she stood at the balcony railing.

“Aye, Eiod?” she called back to her personal servant, the only other Anglëtinean in her Court besides her children, eyes still riveted on the closest Watchtower, the one that rose up from the center of the Eighth Palace’s main courtyard, that War Song emanating clear and haunting from every inch of its surface.

“Lady Xitlali is calling on the Court to gather to determine whether to join Lady General Thayne with the full might of the Eighth Army or merely try and play neutral in the war.”

Of all the things she didn’t want to hear, that was one of them.

She sighed softly, lifting her hands to remove the torque from her head, turning it so she could stare at the teardrop garnet that was crafted to match her eyes and her wings, wondering how it was that she had gotten to the Throne of the Seven Worlds, how she had managed to successfully usurp everyone else far more qualified than she for the position, take over, and then keep her position of power. If one were to ask her brother, she had done it by underhanded tactics. If one were to ask her sire, she had done it through the cunning he had given to her from his strong bloodlines. If one were to ask her mother, she had done it through her ability to see all sides and exploit them where absolutely necessary. If one were to ask her mate — may the High Ones forever See and Keep em — , she had done it because no one else wanted the job of ruling every single Dhaoine in the Seven Worlds. And if one were to ask her daughters?

She laughed, short and bitterly under her breath. If one were to ask Thayne, she had done it much the way Azriel believed though the female would never say as much outright. If one were to ask Xitlali, she had done it through force of will and power and backhanded deals done at just the right moment to be of most benefit to herself. Of the two of her children, Xitlali was the closest to getting it right.

But as the years had dragged into centuries and then into millennia, she had begun to wonder if any of them were right or if there was something greater pulling the strings that made up not just her life, but the lives of everyone. And she was tired, so tired. It was nearly time for her to abdicate her throne or finally lay down to sleep until the next lifetime, if there was one for her, but she hadn’t chosen which of her children to name her successor. Though of the two, Thayne was probably the most levelheaded, the one most likely to be diplomatic and understand the politics that came with having such a wide-reaching Court as hers. Whereas Xitlali was more likely to react rashly and with pettiness; for all that she was extremely intelligent she was not known for patience or her ability to see every side, especially when she didn’t want to.

Never mind that lately her youngest child had been making more and more actions like the one Eiod had come to tell her about. Movements that, were it anyone else but her blood performing them, would be constituted as treasonous and acting against the ruling Qishir and therefore punishable by death. And it was something that made her far more inclined to demote her youngest to rule over a village cluster at the minimum, a singular World at the most. For both her children were of the Qishir caste and so they would have Dhaoine that were qahllyn to them, so she couldn’t have them not rule somewhere. Much as Xitlali should probably be put in a hole somewhere and left to rot let alone reminding her more and more of Anislanzir of late.

High Ones prevail her if those two thoughts weren’t downright frightening.

“I promise to never hurt you,
If it’s the last thing I do.
For in my arms you’re at home,
With me you’re never alone.”

“Was I extended an invite to this gathering?” she queried at length, realizing she had gone for some time without responding as she had gotten lost in thought while looking over the torque that denoted her status within the Worlds. It was a fine work of craftsmanship. Even millennia after it was forged the engraving of the Blessing of the Throne was still easily made out; the looping, musical-note-like script of her native tongue crisp and beautiful even if she hated it.

The pause before Eiod responded was just long enough to tell her that she had not been given an invite even if what he said was, “I was not informed directly of this gathering, my Qishir, I merely heard of it in passing.”

Your tact is perfect as always, Eiod.

She hummed thoughtfully. Perhaps Xitlali had gotten a bit too comfortable with her freedoms. She may be old and tired, but she was still the Eighth Qishir. It wouldn’t do for the female to try and usurp her just as what was shaping up to be a Worlds War was erupting two Worlds over, one which her first born was on the front lines of. She really did need to contact Thayne and find out how the planning was going. After all, last she had heard from her heir, the General had been pulling her hair out trying to figure out a way to lay siege to Shiran City and not lose the majority of her army in the process. I wonder if she ever succeeded in finding a way? 

“When is the Court meeting?” She placed the torque back on her head and turned to face the servant who stared back at her with gold eyes so much like her brother’s one eye that she wished he hadn’t destroyed the mirror they used to communicate when he was first sent to Shiran City if for no other reason than she wished to hear his voice, to be soothed by it, which was absurd. They had always been pitted against each other, ever since they were very little, ever since he was born and their parents saw his mismatched eyes and matching wings. Even Touched as he was by the High Ones, he was still an abomination and the responsibility had fallen to her per their father’s dictation to cleanse him of it or drive him into exile if he couldn’t be changed.

But despite that, he had been her one constant. No matter what she’d done to him, even when she’d killed his wife and child, he had not abandoned her, not fully. Pulled back, went into hiding, dropped out of contact and seemingly off the face of the Worlds, yes. But he had never abandoned her.

“Standing here I’ll wait for you,
As I’ve always sworn to do.
There’s nothing left for us to fear,
For our time is finally near.”

“There’s so much left for us to say,
Things that have gone astray.
Words we’ve left unspoken,
Creating hearts so broken.”

It was one of her biggest regrets, listening to their father, believing so easily in the Race’s purity customs. If she hadn’t, perhaps she wouldn’t have lost the one person who cared about her well-being, no matter how much he protested the fact. Her second biggest regret was believing that Azriel’s mate and child had played any true part in the attempted assassination of the Qishir of Anglë World. It hadn’t been until she’d severed the fledgling’s head from his shoulders and seen Azriel lose total control seconds before he collided with her that she realized she had made a colossal mistake. One she would never be able to correct or make up for.

“Now, my Qishir.”

She cursed harshly under her breath in Anglë’lylel making Eiod jump to hear it. It was common knowledge that she hated the language of the Race, that she forbid it to be spoken in her presence unless visiting dignitaries from the Anglë Race did not know Common or any other language she spoke. After all, had she and Azriel been born to any other race? She wouldn’t have the guilt she did keeping her up at night. She wouldn’t have nightmares that saw her come awake screaming, her silencing charms barely strong enough to contain them to her rooms. She wouldn’t have scars from where she attempted to take her own life in retribution when Azriel had failed to deal the death blow that day so long ago.

So her hatred of her own kind focused solely on the language she had been raised speaking. She had even refused to teach her daughters the language herself, had instead called in tutors until even they were not good enough because they were not native speakers and she had refused to allow any other Anglëtinean in her Court besides her blood and Eiod. But eventually she had no choice: either she taught them herself or brought in a native. And after a miserable attempt to teach them herself, she had extended an olive branch of sorts to Azriel. She had asked him to meet his nieces, to show them how to be proper ladies of the Race, how to speak their birth tongue with grace and beauty. He had refused, rightfully and understandably, but she had counter-offered to remove all bounties from his head, to give him a job as a spy within her Court, to offer him the full protections only a Qishir of her standing could. Had said he was free to leave at any time once her children could speak their native tongue.

With no home, with no Qishir of his own, with no kin by blood or marriage besides her — rather, blood kin that acknowledged him — he had no option other than to accept. But once his obligation had been fulfilled? He hadn’t left. Instead he’d remained at the Palace, working as her spy, as her dignitary visiting other Courts, teaching her warriors and soldiers how to fight, teaching her children valuable lessons after her mate had passed. He wasn’t there as often as Thayne would have liked, of her two daughters she had taken the greatest liking to Azriel, but he was there often enough.

How differently would things have gone had he not accepted and instead had continued to wander the Worlds as he had been? Would he have still managed to make it to Shiran City, to find Rhyshladlyn and set in motion everything that has come to pass? 

She doubted it, but it was still a set of questions that kept her up at night, among all the other reasons she couldn’t sleep.

“Would that they could see us now:
Me with a broken vow

And you standing all alone
Lost and without a home.

“It started off so innocently,
But grew to something we couldn’t foresee.
And soon we were left with only,
Sharp and twisted memories.”

“Then let us make to the gathering. I have a mind to crash their party, Eiod,” she smiled viciously and knew by the way her servant gulped that it made her eyes shine in a way that was unnerving.

The male Anglëtinean returned her smile and bowed low at the waist with a flourish that she knew Azriel must have taught him. “As you wish, my Qishir, shall I get your battle dress?”

How many people in my Court have my brother’s mannerisms that I never noticed before? 

She glanced down at the dress she wore: crimson bodice with black lace overlay that hugged her form and pressed her ample breasts up and together, the black lace straps hugging the curve of her upper arm just below the bend of her shoulder, with flowing crimson skirts with the same black lace overlay as her bodice. It wasn’t her battle dress by any stretch but she still cut a formidable sight in it regardless. And it was one of her favorites. Plucking up a handful of her skirts she twirled once before raising an eyebrow at Eiod who was grinning.

“Forget I asked, my Qishir. You look fit for war,” Eiod commented, his gold eyes heated.

“We shall play later, Eiod,” she admonished with a fond chuckle. “For now?” She waved a hand in the direction of her rooms that lay beyond the balcony door. “Lead me to this gathering of my Court headed by my youngest daughter.”

Eiod bowed low again. “As you command me, so shall I perform.”

As Lulphé followed Eiod through the door, she paused to look back at the pulsing Watchtower as the last verse of the Song of War and Love echoed across the City and wondered, not for the first time, why Anislanzir chose that Song to call the Worlds to war.

“A parody
From so long ago.

A memory we used to know–
A message from me unto you,
Of words that said,
‘I loved you, I did.'”

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