“You cannot be serious! We can’t just sit here while she fights on the Field and sieges against that City alone,” Xitlali snarled, voice ringing off the walls of the hallway.
Lulphé sighed loudly, eyes rolling up towards the ceiling as she closed them, not caring that it wasn’t ladylike to do so. She was tired and this conversation had occurred at every opportunity her youngest had found to accost her over it. Ever since she’d interrupted the ungrateful bitch’s little soirée, it had been a constant thing. She’d never wished she didn’t have children as much as she had in the last, gods surrounding, she didn’t know anymore how many days had passed since that War Song had echoed across Zhalharaq. But each day she found herself doing her best to avoid her youngest, doing her best to avoid anyone in her Court who had sided with Xitlali. And most days she proved at least marginally successful.
“Mother, are you listening to me?”
But there were some where she proved she was not as skilled of a tactician as she thought herself to be.
That or the gods were bored and figured her to be swell entertainment.
Has her voice always been so screech-like and annoying?
“Yes, Xitlali,” she replied, tone that used on a child throwing a tantrum head tilted up towards the ceiling, eyes still closed as she spoke, “I am listening to you, but what you propose to do is impossible let alone ludicrous. Thayne is not alone, she is surrounded by six hundred thousand of the best warriors and soldiers trained under my banner and you would do well to remember such before you propose we send the remainder of the Eighth Army to aid her,” she turned and stared hard at her youngest who, to her minuscule credit, flinched. “And if one can believe what little reports are making it out of Fènwa, she is fighting alongside Rhyshladlyn and his Court, and from what I’ve heard of them? Thayne is better aided by Rhyshladlyn and his males than any number of warriors we could send from here.”
She advanced a step on Xitlali, delighting just the slightest in the way fear sparked across her daughter’s red-brown eyes as she backed up, “Never mind that there is no guarantee any units or platoons we send from here would reach Thayne and her army in time to provide any real aid save for counting the bodies after the initial wave of fighting has ceased.” She held Xitlali’s stare for a moment longer, “Now, if that is quite all, I have somewhere to be.”
When it seemed she would receive naught but silence as a reply, gods be praised, she turned and resumed her walk back towards the War Hall where several advisers, runners, and captains within her army were gathered, waiting. She was of a mind to send supplies with the swiftest Line Carriages Zhalharaq had and replenish Thayne’s army as best she could in that way. But she would not send the several hundreds of thousands that made up the Eighth Army that had stayed behind when Thayne had left two Worlds away and leave not just her City but herself virtually unprotected.
Not that Xitlali knew any of that, not that she would let her know that. Her youngest had strode too close to the line of treason with calling her Court to session as she had. Her daughter bore the still-healing marks across her face as punishment and as a warning to any who would side with her what Lulphé’s line was. Especially now that she was more than convinced Eiod was right in thinking Xitlali meant to take the throne from her and the only way to stage a successful coup was with the General of the reigning Qishir’s forces elsewise occupied and the bulk of said forces elsewise engaged. And that thought was far more troubling than the knowledge that the Watchtowers were awake and singing and that they hadn’t ceased to do so since Anis Ka’ahne had perished.
But she also wouldn’t tell Xitlali of her plans because if the petulant female had not figured it out on her own by then what the best course of action would be in order to keep themselves safe at the Palace as well as help Thayne’s army on the Field, then her daughter would only serve to argue if she were told. It was a probably the female had: no matter how sound the idea, it was guaranteed not to work if it came from anyone but herself.
The more steps she took the longer Xitlali remained quiet behind her and she was very nearly to the large bank of windows that proceeded the end of the hallway. The continued silence was odd and she didn’t trust it. Her youngest had never been one to stay silent for long, especially when she wasn’t getting her way.
Perhaps she has learned after all?
“So you’re going to just do nothing? How could you!”
I stand very much corrected.
“Thayne is your heir, if she dies you have no one to take over your throne!” Xitlali’s voice whip-cracked out down the hall, holding enough power that she felt it smack against her back and she froze mid-step.
That last statement is untrue, little one. I would have you to take over my throne, wouldn’t I? But we both know that will never happen.
A low growl rumbled in her throat, a sound she hadn’t made in such a public place in centuries and the servants who were present in the hallway stopped, freezing in place, their shock a rich scent that filled the air like spices drifting from the kitchens. The few Court females and males and neodrachs that where going about their daily business also stopped walking, eyes riveted on her and her disrespectful daughter. Not all of them were old enough to remember what happened the last time she growled so publicly, but they would have heard the stories from those that were.
She was not called the Crimson Qishir without reason. But her first born hadn’t even been conceived when she had earned that title, so she wasn’t surprised Xitlali kept talking as though she were unaware of the danger that she had put herself in. As though she had no self preservation instinct. In that moment she felt a strong pang of longing for her eldest. She didn’t doubt for a moment that had Thayne been present she would have known what was going on and done her best to curb her little sister. But Thayne wasn‘t present. She was doing something worthwhile. She was proving her worth as an heir to the throne of the Seven Worlds. Unlike her little sister.
“Rhyshladlyn is powerful yes, but I apparently needs must remind you that Anislanzir ripped three wing sets out of his back, had tortured him for at least 80 years, and did so much more without the Qishir doing anything to fight back. So forgive me, R’eht-mo, if I do not think that he and his “Court” are sufficient aid sent to my sister in order to see she lives through the siege on Shiran City.”
There was a cacophonous silence that filled the hallway around her. As the Anglë’lylel word for Mother echoed out, her growl dropped to the subvocal range and she rounded on Xitlali whose eyes widened, face draining of color, just as her voice snapped out, “Attend,” to the accompanying gasps of horror and shock that echoed along the hallway.
She watched as her daughter dropped to her knees, her fear almost palpable as she visibly tried to fight the order that danced along the hall, catching the attention of everyone even if it was directed solely at the thankless brat before her. The longer Xitlali fought against the order and remained unsuccessful, the more afraid she became and that fear thickened the air with a sickly sweet taste. Because as a Qishir, she should be able to fight the order, all Qishir were. But there was a clause most didn’t know about. Only one attend could not be fought against and that was one spoken by the Eighth Qishir. The only Dhaoine in recorded modern history to be able to refuse the attend of the Eighth Qishir had been Rhyshladlyn. Not that anyone save the courtier who had delivered the message to her and those in the Records Hall at the time knew of it; she’d sworn them all to secrecy and made it a blood pact so that if that oath were broken the breakers would die as would any Dhaoine they spoke to.
Advancing slowly she let her wings slip out and flare wide in a clear display of dominance and aggression and Xitlali’s eyes widened even further, lips moving to try and speak but no words came out. While she approached, her eyes traced the diagonal slashes she’d made with her nails; four perfect lines that spread from the top right side of Xitlali’s forehead down across her eyes, her nose, and stopping at her jaw where it slopped up towards her earlobe. She found herself lamenting that it was only the one slap she delivered that birthed those marks because it seemed her punishment hadn’t been harsh enough. Even if those marks would scar, a permanent reminder of the humiliation Xitlali had faced before the entire gathered Court, it didn’t feel like it was enough.
“You will remember to whom it is you speak, child,” her voice was soft but the attend swirled around every word made it carry the length of the hallway, made it harsh as it smacked against the walls and the floor. “I am more than your mother, I am your Qishir, and you will pay me the proper respects due unto me by virtue of my position over you. Just because you are also a Qishir does not mean that you are granted impunity to speak upon me however you please. There are rules to engagement and you will adhere to them properly or I shall strip you of all titles and banish you from my Court and my bloodline.
“Furthermore, you ignorant child, Qishir Rhyshladlyn did not fight back against his sire because he was a child and if he had fought back his siblings, mother, and personal guard, among many others, would have paid for his insubordination a hundred-fold. So he stayed his hand and waited. And were you in possession of even a sliver of the tactical training I saw fit to make sure you and Thayne attended, you would have been able to comprehend that. So do not dare speak on things you have no experience of ever again, especially not as an insult to one of greater standing than you. Am I clear?” She took a deep breath as the memory of the scarring Rhyshladlyn had shown her courtier what felt like a decade ago but was really only two — gods was it really only two years ago — rose up bringing with it a wash of guilt strong enough to make her taste bile. It was only by the grace of the gods that she fought the memory back into its cage and swallowed the urge to vomit back into her stomach.
Xitlali nodded vigorously, obviously terrified and unable to speak for it, but despite her fear, Lulphé could see the rebellious hatred building behind her eyes. Perhaps I should show her what I saw that day? Maybe then she’ll understand. But as quickly as the thought rose, she brushed it away. That was not something she wished to share just yet. Let that be saved for some time when Rhyshladlyn could best use it to his advantage. He was nothing if not one with a penchant for dramatics.
“Good,” she smiled then, not even caring that it didn’t reach her eyes and not acknowledging what she saw behind the mask of fear and acquiescence the female wore. “Oh and one more thing,” she moved too fast for anyone to catch, hand gripping Xitlali around the throat and hauling her to her feet and bringing her within inches of Lulphé’s face. “If you ever use my native tongue directly to me like that again, I will take your tongue from your mouth and then feed it to you for dinner. And if you ever attack me with your magick like that again I shall teach you personally why I am called the Crimson Qishir.”
Xitlali struggled in her hold, breaths wheezing out past her lips, her hands slapping uselessly against Lulphé’s arm, as she tried to say something but Lulphé didn’t give her the chance. Just rolled her eyes at the pathetic display and dropped her to the floor where she landed in an undignified heap.
“There is much you do not know about me, Xitlali, about what I do day to day, the planning I perform or don’t perform behind closed doors,” she wiped her hand on her skirts before idly smoothing the wrinkles out. “I suggest you devote to memory this encounter, child of mine, and take from it a valuable lesson,” her tone was light and conversational, meant to throw off not just Xitlali but all those witnessing their interaction.
Given the shell-shocked expressions of those around them, she had succeeded.
“And what lesson is that?” Xitlali asked, the words sounding more disrespectful than her tone as she slowly got her feet under her, still kneeling as the attend had yet to be lifted, one hand rubbing at the bruising already showing up on her throat.
Part of her wanted to dig deeper, to bring that disrespect and the rebellion that birthed it to the surface so she could tear it apart. But she refrained. If only barely.
Some battles were better fought at a different time.
“Just because you are not told it is being done or see it being done does not mean it isn’t,” and with that she turned and continued along her way towards the War Hall, ignoring the murmurs behind her as the attend order fell away and the shock wore off from those who had been in the hallway.
Let the Court and Palace staff talk. Let them speak of the insubordination of her own flesh and blood. It mattered not. She was prepared for Xitlali’s inevitable coup, had been for a couple decades now, though she had never thought it would ever come to pass; rather, she had prayed it wouldn’t.
She had contingency plans in case her blooded heir didn’t step off the battlefield alive, especially given that said heir also didn’t have children and she herself was without a mate. Azriel may not appreciate her any more than he already did for who her contingency plans involved, but it wasn’t his decision to make. Someone had to rule the Seven Worlds. And if Thayne was dead and childless when Lulphé was no longer able bodied or minded to rule or was dead herself? Any option was better than Xitlali. And there were only a handful of Qishir powerful enough and respected enough to take the Eighth Throne and hold it. So really she didn’t have a choice. Much as she lamented that fact.
As she passed by the bank of windows in the hallway that faced the main courtyard and the Watchtower that stood there, she promptly did a double take before coming to an abrupt stop as she turned to face the windows fully. She narrowed her eyes as she approached the windows, leaning forward with her hands gripping the sill. It took her several moments for her brain to register what she was seeing and when it did fear cascaded down her spine.
The Watchtower, where once it had been grey stone, sleek and beautiful but muted, had begun to glow and pulse a steady gold. The longer she watched the brighter it became, the golden hue pulsing intermittently, the hum of that pulsing growing louder and louder until she could hear the glass of the windows before her whine in protest. Could feel it slip and slither along her awareness as it thrummed heavily against her bones, the sound mingling with the groaning of the stone sill beneath her hands as it protested the grip of her fingers which threatened to break it.
She was only vaguely aware of the shouts of surprise all around her as she took off at a run away from the windows towards the War Hall.
That was the first time in a millennia that Lulphé ran through the Palace, throwing out a Call along the link she shared with her qahllynshæ as she did so to meet her in the War Hall. Because the last time history recorded one of the greyed-out Watchtowers of any of the Sacred Cities began to glow, one of their number had fallen.
And she had the most terrifying suspicion that she knew exactly which one was about to die.