Nothing is quite right in the mighty Empire of Zanuth-Karun, and Serdaro Ashosu knows it. The elders of his tribe are uneasy; the Llorani whisper behind closed doors. Something is brewing in Sayis, and Serdaro is determined to find out what it is.
But rumors cannot be trusted, and even the greatest of men may lie when power is at stake. What starts with an innocent question ends with the collapse of a great age, and sends the world plummeting into battle with a terrible evil, forcing Serdaro to make an agonizing decision when the fate of the future is suddenly thrust into the hands of the young Moreivi.
This is the prequel to The Last Death of Tev Chrisini, set in the twilight days of the Empire.
Serdaro Ashosu picked at the grass, plucking a few stalks and tearing them into pieces. There was dirt under his fingernails, which would annoy his mother, but not half as much as Daralya was annoying him at the moment.
“I just don’t see why you won’t come with me,” he said peevishly. It was a beautiful midsummer day, and they were sitting at the top of the tall earthen embankment that surrounded Sayis, a popular spot for picnics and sunbathing among those residents who couldn’t afford the luxurious resorts and summer homes that dotted the countryside.
“Because Yarrin offered first,” Daralya said. “I told you that. You should have asked me sooner.”
“I wasn’t here. That’s not fair.”
Daralya shrugged. “That’s not my fault.”
Serdaro made a little noise of frustration. The solstice festival was the biggest celebration of the year in Sayis, and no one worth a brass farthing would dare attend alone. He had taken Daralya for three years running, which was quite a coup, considering that she was the most sought-after girl of his acquaintance, and he was little more than tolerated by his peers.
The fact that he was Moreivi intrigued her, but it didn’t endear him to his fellows. They often took it upon themselves to test the claims of his heritage, by pushing him down the stairs, throwing rocks and ice at him in the winter, or even slashing at him with their pocketknives. Daralya never really stood up for him, of course, fearing retribution by the bullies, but neither did she take an active part in the teasing, and he thought he was able to count her among his very few friends. It was better than being Llorani, she had tried to comfort him one time, when he was nursing a black eye behind the merchant’s offices where he worked. She had been trying to help, but it hadn’t been much consolation.
The Moreivi were mistrusted and somewhat feared in Zanuth-Karun, and especially in its capital city of Sayis. They had appeared suddenly from the Mormora Mountains two centuries ago, driven out of their hidden city of Yhen Lidra by a terror even they hesitated to mention out loud. A hundred years was little more than the blink of an eye to one of the immortals, and they were still struggling to adjust to life under the Empire’s rule, finding a place and a purpose in their new home.
Serdaro had been born in Sayis, but was several times older than the sixteen years he appeared to be. Moreivi children grew up slowly, until they stopped outwardly aging when they attained full adulthood. It had been one hundred and fifty years since Serdaro’s birth, and it would be at least that long, if not longer, before he reached his prime. Until then, however, the only things that separated him from any other young person in the city was his ability to quickly heal from all the wounds inflicted upon him, the burden of his extended youth with all the attendant angst and uncertainty, and his religion, with its foreign rituals, that made the Eidarhta church so very suspicious of his people.
That’s why he had been away for a week, and that’s why Yarrin had been able to ask for Daralya’s hand before he could have a chance. They had tried to adapt the summer rites to their new situation, substituting the high, barren ledge of the Cirera, the gateway to the heavens, for the tallest rise of the craggy hills around the River Sigai. It seemed like a poor replacement – even Serdaro felt that, though he had only heard tales of their ancestral home and had never seen it in person.
But the women had danced in their swirling costumes of bright silks draped with exquisite glass beads, and he had been given his own drum for the first time this year, which was something of a rite of passage. It had almost been fun, until he had come back and learned about Daralya’s decision, and his good cheer had instantly soured into a seething adolescent resentment. It wasn’t the first time he had thought that being Moreivi was ruining his life, and he was quite certain it wouldn’t be the last.
“Tell him you changed your mind,” Serdaro said.
“I can’t do that.”
“Because it’s not right. If I did that to you, you’d be furious, wouldn’t you?”
“But he’s not me. He can take anyone he wants.”
“And I’m the one he wants,” Daralya said, not without a little smug self-satisfaction. Yarrin was quite a prize: a purebred Eidarhta minister’s son, rich, good looking, and intelligent, though he wasn’t above flaunting it.
“Then what am I supposed to do?”
“What about Nissola? She might go with you.”
Serdaro made a face. “She hates me.”
“No, she doesn’t.”
“So she lied last month when she said those exact words to me, did she?” he challenged.
“Oh. I didn’t know that. What did you do?”
“Nothing. Her brother doesn’t like me, so now she doesn’t either.”
“You could always come with us, I suppose,” Daralya said, although clearly she didn’t mean for him to accept the offer.
“Right. I bet Yarrin would love that. Listen,” he said, standing up and brushing shreds of grass off his breeches, “I have to go. I’ll see you later.”
“Walk me back into town?” she asked sweetly, trying to make peace. He hesitated, but then he stuck out his hand to help her up.
“Just remember that I’m the one who always walks you home,” he said. “He never takes you anywhere.”
“I’m busy. I work for a living, in case you haven’t noticed. What does he do all day?”
“I’m sure it’s none of your business,” she said primly, but he was fairly certain that she didn’t know either. “Besides, you’re not working right now, are you?”
“That’s because we got back early. I will be tomorrow. Not that there’s any point if I’m not going to the festival,” he added. “I was going to treat you, but I suppose I won’t need the money.”
“Stop sulking, Daro,” she said distractedly as they passed under the watchful eyes of the guards on the gate. They had stared at her when they left the city, and they were staring again now. She had told him once that she didn’t like it, but that didn’t stop her from running her fingers through her strawberry hair and smiling winningly at the youngest of them. Serdaro pretended not to notice.
He knew that she was only humoring him when she spent time with him, and that no matter how much he longed for her to beam a smile like that in his direction, she never would. In a few years’ time, she would marry some wealthy Eidarhta who didn’t deserve her, and at some point he would be asked to pick a Moreivi bride, to keep his lineage uncorrupted by mortal blood. It was the way they had done things for uncountable millennia, and there would be no exceptions.
“I’m not sulking,” he muttered as they walked along the main thoroughfare of the city. It was crowded, as it always was, and they had to dodge and weave through throngs of merchants and shoppers, messengers, servants, and the occasional curtained sedan chair holding some wealthy patron or another.
“You can take me to the lantern festival in a few months. I promise,” she said.
“You don’t have to give me a consolation prize,” he said, a little irritated at her tone.
“Very well. Then maybe I’ll go to that with Yarrin, too.”
“No, no,” he said hastily. “I’ll take it.”
She nodded, satisfied. It was actually very nice of her to offer, he reflected. He was probably underestimating the damage being his friend was causing to her reputation. She probably just pitied him. Still, it was better than nothing.
She even gave him a little peck on the cheek when they arrived at her house, a quietly well-off residence in a popular neighborhood that befitted her father’s discreet role in one of the large banks. She didn’t invite him inside, but that wasn’t unusual. Her parents did not approve of their friendship, and had been quite vocal about it.
Serdaro sighed as he made his way to his family’s house. He lived on his own, of course, in a modest set of rooms above a millinery shop close to where he worked, but he didn’t feel like being alone all evening, and his mother always liked it when he stopped by. Besides, Veirran was in town for the summer rites, and he wanted to spend as much time with his older brother as he could before he went back to Echsir. They had barely gotten to see each other at the ceremony, since they ran in such different circles, and he was supposed to be leaving again soon, although where he would be posted this time was anyone’s guess.
Veirran was dozing on a wooden chaise under the spreading oak tree that took up most of their small front garden. Serdaro was planning to sneak up on him, but the creaking front gate spoiled his approach almost immediately. His brother opened one eye, then sat up when he saw who it was.
“Where have you been all day?” he asked as Serdaro slumped down on the lounge chair next to him.
“With that lass of yours? What’s her name again?”
“Daralya. And she’s not mine. She won’t have me.”
“Of course she won’t. What have I told you about otassi girls? It’s not right that you like them so much. You won’t ever be able to be happy with one – or at least, not for long. The sooner you learn that, the better. You have so much choice here in Sayis. Take advantage of it. And then come out to my next posting with me, so I won’t be so bored.”
Serdaro laughed. “I thought you left because I was too boring to tolerate any longer. Why the change of heart?”
“I didn’t think I’d miss Sayis so much. People here might look at you strangely, but at least you don’t have to hide who you are all the time. It’s nearly impossible to do out in Echsir, and I have almost no chance of a promotion, since no one will take a gamble on putting me in the public eye.”
“I thought the Llorani didn’t care.”
“They don’t. The Llorani don’t hold that much power there anymore. There have been many different peoples moving in since I first arrived there, and of course the Empire meddles with everything. I’ve only been out there for five years, but it’s hardly recognizable anymore. The Kialdari don’t understand us, and the Church – well, you know what they think. It’s not as welcoming a place as it used to be. I’m not sorry to have left, though I’ll wonder where they’ll put me next.”
“You could move back here,” Serdaro said hopefully.
Veirran smiled. “I thought you wanted me to go so I’d stop annoying you.”
“I didn’t think I’d miss you that much, either. I hate it here. All I do is work myself to the bone so I can get beaten up every day for having the audacity to walk around town.”
“Why do you let them?”
Serdaro gave him a look. “You know I’m not allowed to fight back.”
“That’s ridiculous. Of course you are.”
“You really have been away too long. Elder Ranelma came to every house personally to warn us to keep our heads down after that incident with the Llorani boy who got himself killed. I thought Father would have mentioned it to you.”
“He didn’t. I suppose he didn’t think it would apply to me.”
Serdaro rolled his eyes. Veirran was not someone who got accosted on the streets. Besides the fact that he was six foot tall and built like an ox, so unlike his reedy younger brother that they constantly had to reassure strangers that they were, in fact, related, Veirran had spent the last fifty years in the Empire’s army, traveling to far-flung lands and conquering them soon after. The army was the one place where the Moreivi were valued, although few ever joined of their own volition, considering the use they were often put to.
“Fine. We can’t all be famous heroes like you, though,” Serdaro said.
“Maybe not, but you could try. If you hate it so much here, why wouldn’t you? I have a friend that could get you into a good regiment. You could make something of yourself, instead of being some wool merchant’s errand boy until he passes you over for one of his own kind.”
“I’m his head clerk, Veirran,” Serdaro said defensively. “Three different offices report to me. And I have my own errand boy. I’m not nothing to them.”
“Whatever you say. Come inside,” he said, standing up and hauling Serdaro to his feet by his collar. “What is that?” Veirran asked, surprised at a bright red slice mark on his back, revealed by the gap in his shirt.
“I told you no one likes me,” Serdaro replied with a shrug.
“Bloody hell, Daro. I didn’t know you were serious,” his brother said, concern instead of anger in his voice.
“I don’t care. It doesn’t even hurt.”
“That’s not the point.” He marched his brother into the house, spun him around when they reached their father, reading in the library, and pulled down his shirt to expose the wound again, despite Serdaro’s strenuous protestations. “Did you know about this?” he demanded.
Enryn Ashosu looked up from his book and sighed. “Again, Serdaro?”
“That’s not – Veirran, that’s not fair,” he snapped, finally struggling free and putting his clothes to rights with an indignant glare. “It’s fine, Father. Really. Rusarch’s bleeding bones,” he muttered. “I came for supper and all I get is abuse. I thought I was supposed to be safe from it here.”
“Just don’t tell your mother,” Enryn said mildly, glancing back down and turning the page.
“You’re not going to do anything about it?” Veirran asked.
“What is there to do?”
“Report it? It’s a crime and it should be punished. No one else can get away with that sort of thing.”
“They won’t hear our claims,” Enryn said. “They say it doesn’t matter. We are trying to come to a settlement about it, but it’s difficult. Besides, the court is preoccupied at the moment.”
“With what?” Serdaro asked curiously. Gossip rarely reached him in time to be relevant, and the chance to be able to spread a rumor instead of receive one was nearly irresistible.
“The Emperor hasn’t been himself lately. They say he spends hours in his study, locked away with books about enchantments and the pitiful charlatans who call themselves magicians these days. Jh’taith has always been taken with that sort of thing. Apparently he wishes to study the arts, but why he has not asked our keliphu to teach him the proper way, I don’t know.”
He sounded very disapproving. He was not one to show much emotion under any circumstances, which meant he must feel very strongly indeed about the subject. “What’s wrong with that?” Serdaro asked.
“He is otassi – what does he know? He doesn’t have the discipline to study the deep magic properly. His kind is so easily led astray by its promises without thought of the cost. It should be forbidden. They should be controlled.”
“That’s what they say about us,” Veirran pointed out.
“Perhaps. But the difference is that we are right and they are wrong,” their father said with a smile. “Go say hello to your mother and leave me in peace until supper,” he added, shooing them off.
Serdaro found Ganeya in the parlor. His mother was working on one of the many thousands of quilts she made to give away to the needy, a welcome hobby even in high summer, when the barren cellars of stone dwellings that often housed the poorest residents of Sayis barely warmed above their winter chill.
She smiled broadly when he entered, and kissed him on the cheek when he embraced her.
“Hello, Mama. Do you have room at the table for me tonight?”
“Always, darling. I thought you would have come sooner, to see Veirran.”
“I’ve seen quite enough of him already,” he replied, still miffed about his rough handling. “Father is in a bit of a mood,” he continued conversationally, wandering over to the table with the candy dish and scooping out a handful of sugared almonds.
“He’s very upset about politics,” she replied, doing nothing more than giving him an admonishing glance as he popped the sweets into his mouth.
“He’s always upset about politics. I don’t see why it matters so much.”
“If you’re saying that just to annoy me, dear, then you are succeeding admirably.”
Serdaro grinned. “I’m trying to distract you from telling me my hands are too dirty to eat with.”
“They are. You must have been out with Daralya again. Why won’t you leave that poor girl alone?”
“Now you’re just trying to annoy me.”
“I have a list of girls as long as my arm who would all be delighted to meet you,” she said as she drew the needle back and forth through the colorful cloth in quick, practiced motions. “You’re not a child anymore. You need to start thinking about these things. You don’t want to be alone forever, do you?”
That was the point, really. Having children wasn’t a particularly important factor for the Moreivi, considering their population never decreased. Most only had one, if they bothered at all. It was the companionship that his people truly prized: the binding together of two spirits in a special ceremony called the loburi di’seraja, the exchange of souls. It was the only thing, they said, that could truly banish the loneliness of their long existence. It was the only thing that made immortality worthwhile, and it could not be done with a mortal – or at least no one had ever tried.
It was an unbreakable commitment, although if a couple successfully passed the required tests, they almost never had any thought of dissolving the union. But Serdaro had no interest in binding himself at such an early age. He wasn’t lonely; he was just…dissatisfied. Love might fix that, but so would a lot of other things.
“Why don’t you ever make Veirran sit through these lectures?” he asked as he dusted the last grains of sugar from his palms.
She smiled slightly. “Because Veirran will simply walk away, and you turned out marginally more polite.”
“I didn’t know that was an option.”
“As much of an option as pursuing an otassi,” she replied pointedly. “It isn’t one.”
“Yes, all right, all right. I take the point. I’m going to go wash up.”
“Anything to get away?”