Everything was going well, well enough that she was wondering where the trap was. Even though it was clear that it existed in the emotional storm that filled the halls of her home, that shadowed the streets of her City.
Everything was going well and it made her suspicious in a way that she hadn’t been since she was much younger and Azriel was barely flying on his own, had been barely strong enough to lift a sword, and Father had told her to fix him.
But no matter how closely she looked, she could only see the laughter and the merriment the holy day brought. Could only see the shadows of the brother she had abandoned and would do anything if it meant she could bring him back.
The festivities had begun at dawn and gone throughout the day, everything going as smoothly as it did every year. Zhalharaq’s citizens were laughing and joking and making music as they decorated their City with colored lanterns and streamers, as they flooded the Palace halls with merriment and helped Palace staff prepare the feast. But under the merriment was an undercurrent of mourning that saw wreaths of flowers and bowls overflowing with offerings placed at the bases of each Watchtower in the City, with the Heart Watchtower that stood in the main courtyard of the Palace having more offerings than any of its six fellows. And Lulphé didn’t doubt that it was because news of Azriel’s rumored death and Rhyshladlyn’s disappearance had spread through the Worlds faster than a lightning strike.
And that news had made the festivities of the day hold a hint of loss, of grieving. But the people who lived within the walls of Zhalharaq seemed to rather pay their respects by making offerings at the Watchtowers and the Temple but otherwise felt that a day that was also the nameday of the most powerful Qishir to walk the Worlds should hold a proper amount of celebration. Her City’s people seemed to take the way the buildings and Watchtowers and streets glowed an even brighter golden hue than they had in millennia in stride. As though this was just the norm now; as though it was perfectly expected with Shiran’s fall and the death of the Qishir that had been tethered to it. Though no one questioned how a Qishir that was half-Ancient hadn’t gone nova, how the only casualties were those who hadn’t made it out of the City in time.
Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
It made her head swim with the mixed emotions that thickened the air. It was why she had spent the majority of the day sequestered in her rooms as much as possible. Well, that and because she was having trouble keeping her perfect mask in place when every time she caught sight of someone wearing grey with stripes of orange, amber, red, or silver adorning their bodies, it made her think of the brother she had lost; it made her think of the Qishir she had failed. The amount of times Eiod had had to pull her into an empty room before she broke apart and sobbed in the halls was ridiculous and she’d long since lost count.
She had no real right to mourn, or so Thayne had told her when she’d finally managed to get in contact with her after the Shiran City disaster and the event. Told her that she had brought this on them all, that her lack of action, her meddling, had led to everything Anislanzir had done, led to Azriel’s death, and Rhyshladlyn’s disappearance. And while she knew most of the reason Thayne had said that to her was because her daughter was in pain herself, Lulphé found that there was more than a modicum of truth to the words. Found that her eldest was far more self aware and Worlds-aware than she herself was anymore. Found that while she was so wrapped up in her own self pity and self-loathing, Thayne was already thinking ahead, was already trying to figure out how to repair the damage dealt to the Worlds, dealt to the Sinner Demon and Anglë and Ancient races; was already working on how to help the Grey Court. And all she could do was try to hold her composure, to try and not think of Rhyshladlyn, of the Court that was left in limbo and half in shambles, of the millions dead in Shiraniqi Desert and the hundreds of thousands more that were injured. Because when she did think about it, guilt sang hot and hard, stealing her breath and making her eyes sting.
Because that guilt only worsened any time she thought about her brother. Any time she caught one of Azriel’s quirks manifesting in Eiod’s mannerisms. Any time she saw her youngest stalking through the halls with a gleam in her eye that spelled only disaster. Any time he saw her oldest’s set jaw and blank face and deadpan eyes. Everyone in her Court, in the Palace itself even, seemed to have at least one quirk of her brother’s and it only served to make everything worse.
Especially because Thayne had been right: Azriel’s death was on her hands as much as it was on Anislanzir’s. By the Cliffs, she should have gone straight to the war camp when Shiran fell but instead she’d bypassed the City with Eiod, picked up speed on the empty Ilzuhdae Line, and ran. Told herself that she’d gone straight home because in the aftermath the Worlds would need the Eighth Qishir on her throne making preparations to rebuild if possible, to recover the dead, and make sure that proper burials and grieving was had for everyone involved. Had told herself that it would be like when Majik World had been destroyed by Amèl going nova, only this would be more localized, smaller in scale yes, but still just as devastating. And the recovery and rebuilding of Majik still wasn’t done.
But that wasn’t the real reason she’d run. She’d run not because of the logical, practical reasons — even if they were perfectly valid ones. No, she’d run because the idea of facing Thayne in her grief immediately after, the idea of encountering any of Rhyshladlyn’s surviving Court, had scared her nearly as much as watching the earth open up and swallow Shiran City whole, leaving nothing behind until weeks later when the seven Watchtowers had sprouted from the sands. So, wracked with guilt and fueled by fear, she’d latched onto any credible excuse to head home and ran. Azriel was right…I am a coward.
And in the three weeks that had passed between that fateful day and the Festival of the Flesh, she had wallowed, mourned as much as she could get away with, and bit her tongue when she couldn’t. Kept up her duties hearing pleas for aid, holding open Court, and meeting with the Qishir of the Seven Worlds to try and make a plan for how to proceed in the aftermath of the disaster of Shiran City. And when the Festival of the Flesh arrived? She’d showed her face as much as she could without breaking down, hiding when she could, and before she knew it, the day had bled into night and the Taking Ritual had begun.
She didn’t feel even a slight stirring in her body as she watched it. Felt cold even while she watched as the rest of the Court and the guests shifted and twitched and sighed, biting back their own moans at the sight before them. Felt the magick gathering in the Hall but it didn’t touch her like it used to. Even though it was nice to have both of her daughters in attendance with her for the first time in nearly a decade, as one or the other had always been out of World for the festivities and unable to make it back home, it felt empty. As though enjoying it would be an insult to her brother’s memory and to the Qishir who had sacrificed literally everything to try and save him. An insult to that very Qishir on what would have been his 92nd nameday.
And Kírtlaq shooting her surreptitious glances, a hopeful smile lifting his lips, didn’t help in making her feel better. If anything it only made her feel incredibly uncomfortable. Ever since Ryphqi City when she had spoken with Eiod after taking her androgyne form first the first time in far too long, she had no desire to lay with her Companion in that manner again. But she wouldn’t tell him that, not tonight. Maybe tomorrow, once she had spoken with Thayne and had some time to rest.
The Qishir and maequïn had just finished and stood to face her, preparing to speak the ritualistic words that ending the Taking Ritual when the doors to the hall swung open with enough force they bounced off the walls, swinging back towards their normal positions, only to strike an invisible force that kept them from closing again. The Qishir and maequïn darted quickly out of the line of sight of those doors as shouts of surprise danced around the Hall and a sinking feeling twisted her stomach into knots.
She rose to her feet slowly as her Warrior palmed the hilt of his sword and her Companion moved to stand between her chair and Thayne’s on her right, all swirling furious energy ready to attack whoever had interrupted the Taking Ritual. She reached out her hand and touched Kírtlaq’s arm, shaking her head slowly, signalling him silently to stand down, clearing her throat to signal Uveis to do the same. Because she knew who it was.
She knew before Thayne stiffened and a gasp rattled out past her teeth.
She knew before the shouts of shock slipped in from the hallway as servants and staff caught sight of the late arrival.
She knew before that power unlike anything she had felt in her life except for one random event two years ago rolled into the Hall like an ominous wind.
She knew before her herald stumble into the room, eyes wide and face stained with tears, face flushed.
She knew before he stammered, trying to speak a name, trying to do his job only to choke on the words.
She knew before the unspoken attend slapped out against him, compelling him against his will, despite his absolute terror, to speak.
She knew before his words hit the air and made every single Dhaoine in attendance draw in a sharp breath and hold it.
“Qishir Rhyshladlyn Nhulynolyn GreySong Ka’ahne, blood born of Queen-heir of the Ancients and Esteemed Lady Queen of the Sinner Demons Azhuri Rinnae GreySong and second son born of Lord King of the Sinner Demons Anislanzir Faolan Ka’ahne, god-Marked by the Faceless, the Nameless, and the Soullessly Heartfelt, Oathed Qishir of Azriel Kasuske of House Veratone who was High Touched by Azriel Anafiel and Ckushayel, Qishir of the Grey Court, wielder of Beannacht and Mallacht, Maestrer of Coldfire and Ordered Chaos, Tethered Heart of Shiran City, and kè to Nhulynolyn, Shadiranamen, and Xheshmaryú Otherborn.”
Her heart slammed against her ribcage hearing the titles attached to that name, ones that would no doubt go down in infamy after his survival of Shiran City’s fall. Her breath came short hearing a title that had only ever been given to Awakened Greywalkers; a title which gave her an idea as to what happened to Shiran and how he’d survived it, why Shiran’s seven Watchtowers had rose from the desert weeks later.
“Thank you, herald,” a voice like mead poured over gravel slipped out from the shadows of the doorway, holding a multiplicity that made the air in the hall quiver, “that’ll be all.”
“My p-pleasure, Qishir Rhy–” but he was cut off with a choked cry as another wordless attend whispered out.
She watched in horror as it hit the herald. Watched with wide eyes as he lifted his hands to his throat, sank his claws into either side of his neck, and with a desperate whisper of, “His name was Azriel Kasuske of House Veratone,” pulled and ripped out his own throat. Her hand flew to her mouth to stifle the cry that threatened to escape. He fell face forward onto the stone as screams erupted around the Hall. By the High Ones, he spoke a death attend.
Before anyone could move, Rhyshladlyn stepped into the light and she wished more than anything else at that moment that he hadn’t.
His true face, the purest form of it, was clearly visible, had spread so his true form was what strode into her Great Hall with all the banked rage and violence of a hurricane gathering just off shore. It was so much worse than the true face she had seen nearly a month ago when he had performed an Oathing Sacrifice. For while trickles of ice blue fire still dripped from the holes that spread across his left cheek, down his chest over his right ribcage, and just below his left collarbone; while tendrils of silver-grey smoke rose off his skin like steam, there was so much more to it now.
He smiled at her with a mouth that was too large for his face, that spread back nearly to his ears when his lips twitched, moved a body that was at once too tall and yet not with a lithe grace that made her think of water, his wings resting docilely against his back but she could see them rustling with a restless energy that made her nervous, the skin of his torso and arms marked with delicate, intricate grey swirls, his god-Marks glowing brightly against his tanned skin. The light dimmed in his wake, as though he swallowed it and returned more shadows than a single body should give off, stopping two handfuls of feet inside the Hall, only a foot away from the herald’s body and the blood that pooled with a slowing speed around it. He didn’t even spare it a glance. He was violence and death personified, fury made flesh, and for a moment she fancied she understood why his kind, why the Greywalker race, had been hunted and killed.
Before her was a creature that had no traced of Dhaoinity left in its orange-amber eyes. Before her stood a fallen god. And if she thought she knew fear before, she had been so very wrong.
“Qishir Rhyshladlyn,” she greeted into the silence of the Hall, nodding her head politely as she slowly dropped her hand from her mouth, praying that her expression didn’t show the disgust-laden fear that made bile rise in her throat, “welcome.”
He raised both eyebrows at her, face shifting into what may have been an expression of feigned surprise, but with his true face showing it was hard to tell. The muscles of one’s true face operated differently than those of the glamour that covered it.
“Oh am I?” he quipped back, the derision in his tone making her bones hurt. “Because from where I’m standing, bereft of an invitation that had been extended to a member of my Court,” he flicked his fingers at Thayne who flinched, “but not to the entirety of said Court especially not me, one would think I am in fact not welcome.”
Beside her Thayne stiffened before bowing her head, face coloring with the shame that fell off her in waves, hands curled into fists on her lap, knuckles white. Her motherly instincts demanded she snap at the other Qishir, demanded she defend her child, but before she could do more than acknowledge the want, Rhyshladlyn spoke again.
“And it is my nameday no less?” he clicked his tongue. “How very rude of you, Qishir Lulphé.”
“You were unreachable, Qishir Rhyshladlyn,” she answered diplomatically, trying to stall long enough to figure out what was going to happen, though whatever it was she doubted it would be anything good.
She didn’t get the chance to say anything else because Thayne rose to her feet and strode off the dais and towards Rhyshladlyn, head still bowed, eyes averted. Stopping just before and to the side of the Qishir, her daughter spoke with a clear voice that was near a shout in the thick silence.
“My Qishir, I sincerely apologize for any insult I have dealt you by attending,” she said nothing else and didn’t move. Neither did Rhyshladlyn.
The pregnant pause that followed made Lulphé fight not to fidget as Rhyshladlyn kept staring at her, not acknowledging her daughter in the slightest. As the minutes dragged on, as the tiny hairs on her body stood up, as a shiver of warning and danger licked down her spine, she realized that Rhyshladlyn was waiting for her to speak her own apologies. Realized that her daughter’s words meant nothing because it was not Thayne who should apologize, but herself.
But she had no reason to apologize, not with regards to extending an invite to the other Qishir, but she did have reason to apologize with regards to Rhyshladlyn’s loss. Though words would never be good enough, she knew that, but it was all she could offer.
So ignoring Kírtlaq’s hiss to stay back, ignoring Uveis’ reproachful look, ignoring the muttering of the rest of her Triad and Sacred Three, she stood up from her chair and stepped down off the dais until she was a few feet away from it. Spreading her arms and wings wide, angling the latter so that they were in a docile, only slightly submissive display, she made sure her voice carried to everyone in the Hall and whatever servants and staff were outside in the hallway.
“Qishir Rhyshladlyn, I offer my most sincere apologies unto you for any and all wrongdoings I have had a hand in, dealt directly upon your person, or caused due to lack of proper action.”
Rhyshladlyn’s smile slowly faltered, slowly fell, before it was gone, head tilting slowly to the side. She blinked and suddenly the Qishir was right in front of her, inches away, the fury and grief she’d felt blanket the Worlds three weeks ago even more intense when its palpability was less than arm’s reach from her, smacking against her like a storm surge beats against a shoreline.
“Sorry isn’t good enough,” his voice when he spoke shook the very air around her, made it bend and crackle, smelling like electricity just before lightning struck. Made it go stagnant and old in a way she remembered all too well, all the more potent for the Qishir that caused it was now inches from her versus Worlds away.
She gasped when one hand curled around her throat, hearing the roars of her Companion and Warrior, hearing Xitlali snarl something that wasn’t remotely diplomatic. But Rhyshladlyn’s attend hit the entire Hall silencing them all, making them all witnesses to whatever he was about to do to her.
“Not even your death will be good enough,” he continued, a dissonance to his words that made her blood thunder in her ears, made her mind go foggy at the edges. Her hands flew up to claw at his arm, feet kicking as he lifted her bodily off the ground. She tried to scream, to toss her power at him, but he stood there unmoved and unaffected. As though she were a small sapling attempting to beat down a huge oak.
“But fuck if it won’t be a fine place to start,” he shifted so that her Court and Thayne who still stood near the doors had a clear view of them in profile. “I did warn you after all, did I not?” Rhyshladlyn asked and the memory flooded her as he cocked back his left hand.
“Tell her that if he dies because of her orders before I can get him out, I will show her exactly how I managed to refuse her attend order two years ago.”
She struggled all the harder but it was pointless. She knew it was but her instincts didn’t care.
“For the crime of endangering my Oathed Companion in a way that led to his death, for the crime of knowingly allowing a child raping un-male to continue to engage in inappropriate relations with his children, for the crime of covering evidence of the aforementioned incestuous relations, for the crime of unjust murder, for the crime of abusing your power to further your own personal agenda, I hereby sentence you to death,” he intoned, voice holding a finality that made her head swim and her lungs seize. “Before all gathered this day, I Call to the gods of old, new, and future, and give to Them your life, your magick, and your blood as sacrifice for a more prosperous future.”
The magick gathered during the Taking Ritual thickened and she wondered absently how she had forgotten it was even there, wondered at how one Dhaoine could be so powerful that ritualistically gathered magick was overshadowed by his own.
“Have you anything to say in defense of yourself?” he asked and she would have laughed at how preposterous it was if she didn’t know it was a required question in situations such as these.
She gulped in deep lungfuls of air when his grip around her throat loosened, eyes falling closed.
“I have no defense I could speak for all that you listed I have done and I freely admit that. I only ask that you spare my Court and my daughters for they had no hand in my machinations and thus are innocent of my crimes,” she answered and opened her eyes to see what might have been a tiny hint of respect flash across orange-amber eyes. But it was gone too quickly for her to be sure.
“Unlike you, Lulphé Akkensahn, I do not place the blame of one’s parents on the shoulders of children. Neither do I attach blame where it is not due.”
It should have been a relief to hear that but if anything it wasn’t. Though, she knew this day was coming. Knew it since the moment she had murdered Azriel’s wife and son, knew it the moment that she had seen her brother for the first time centuries later when she’d called him to the Palace to teach his nieces Anglë’lylel. Knew it the moment she had asked that Dreamweaver to Weave her a reality where she’d done that moment correctly, only to have it fail.
Rhyshladlyn leaned in then, his lips brushing her ear, and whispered for just her to hear, “Say his name, Lulphé. Let it be the last thing you ever say.”
But she wouldn’t say Azriel’s name. Wouldn’t speak it out loud not just because she had no right to say it anymore, but also because that wasn’t what she would die saying. She had something she had never spoken, one last bit of unfinished business and she would be damned if she died before she could. So as Rhyshladlyn’s hand descended on her, as she felt Time slow to the crawl that it always did before death hit, she tilted her head away from her executioner and looked over towards the dais where Eiod stared at her with wide gold eyes, face a riot of denial and horror. She just smiled at him, the soft sweet smile only he had ever seen in the privacy of her rooms, in their shared bed. Tears fell down his face at the sight.
“U’ei oy vol.”
Eiod’s anguished cry was the last thing she heard before agony ripped along every nerve ending as Rhyshladlyn’s hand pierced her chest and his power slammed into her seconds before all awareness left her.