Steps came softly down the corridor; Idren’s crystalline eyes rose to the doorway, the soft gold halo of her long waves shifted as she turned her gaze.
Ahn’Maht stood weakly in the doorway, leaned against the frame. The light silhouetted her mangled frame with broken feathers and bone jutting out of her back. Gone was the beaded gown and coiffed hair, replaced by pants and a leather jerkin, deep slashes cut in the back to accommodate her gnarled wings. Of what was left of them.
Rising from her seat, Idren spoke softly, “Please let me try to heal them, they’re going to be very painful…”
Ahn shook her head ‘no’. She slumped and slowly made her way to her mother, crumpling into Idren. The little ankou laid her head on Idren’s shoulder quietly, a few tears leaking onto her tunic.
“I have to go. His soldiers are waiting. I have to speak with Aunt Darliah and Faia. We have to …take care of him. Some want to inter him in a tomb. Some want him burned. Do …you know what he would’ve wanted?” Ahn’s face was blank, tired.
Idren breathed in deeply, “Your father would have wanted to be burned. I think that is what Faia and Darliah would want, also. What do you want?”
Ahn’Maht paused, unsure. “Burned. It’s in accordance with his people’s customs. And I think he’d like it that way. Its … more flamboyant.”
Idren smiled and hugged Ahn, “No matter what happens, you remind me of him. You always have, and you always will. Stubborn. Loud. A penchant for flair,” she paused and looked Ahn in the eyes, “but with a great, strong heart. “
Ahn’Maht pulled away and sighed, the trace of lift on the corners of her mouth, “The soldiers are waiting. He’s waiting.”
Idren’s face fell, “And they can wait a little longer…”
Ahn turned towards the door and replied over her shoulder, “No. Time is the one thing we don’t have. Every moment we wait, every moment we grieve – Markus takes more fathers from their children.”
And with that, she was gone.
The grey skies hung over the mobile forces of the Empire, and the fires lit within did nothing to fight the press of its darkness. A portal opened quietly near the command tent and a cloaked figure stepped through. The soldiers that surrounded it sprang into action – and a small hand poked out of the dark fabric and made the sign of the Empire’s fist, then reached up to draw back the hood. Ahn’s face void of all emotion, she nodded in acknowledgement.
“Take me to him,” her voice low and strong, “please.”
The officer closest to her extended a gauntleted hand for her, which she took. The onlookers uneasy, their faces awash with a mix of sorrow, anger, and confusion. She was guided to a gilded structure, bigger than the rest of the residential buildings.
A familiar face awaited her at the door, standing a single guard. Tacticus.
“Ma’am…,” he started. His mouth opening but no other words came out.
Her breath caught in her chest, “Open the door, Tacticus.”
He stepped aside and let her enter. Her father’s space ablaze with his lanterns, just like home. Scrolls and tools and weapons were thrown haphazardly in all directions. His body laid on his war table, hands clasped over his chest with his sword, a fabric shroud placed upon his face.
Ahn stepped toward him, pulling the shroud away. Her eyes drifted to his armor and his blade, “…Faia.”
She turned to Tacticus and took a deep breath, “Bring the commanders. All of them. Send for Faia, and Aunt Darliah if she’s here. Prep the pyre. Send the blacksmith, please.”
He nodded, turning towards the entrance, “ma’am?”
She paused, “yes?”
His eyes went to the body of her father behind her, then to her, “I’m sorry about your Father. I’m sorry about your wedding. I’m just …..sorry.”
She smiled with a weak nod, “Thank you. Hurry now.”
When Tacticus left, she went to work. Removing all of her father’s armor, she piled it next to his war table in a great clanking heap. Dragging his sword clumsily off his body, she doggedly and haphazardly leaned it against a pillar. She dampened his shroud from a glass of water and gently wiped his face.
He lay before her, pale and cold. His white clothing appeared ghostly in the dim, blue lanterns. His circlet laid gently upon his brow, rarely worn but for special occasion – like weddings.
“Can’t have anyone seeing you like this,” she wiped smudges of dirt from his now pale and waxy face. She ran her fingers over his beard, “……you look like you’re just sleeping. You never slept.”
Her chin quivered, “But you can rest now. I’ll finish this. I’ll finish this for you. No matter what. I promise.“
Tears ran down her cheeks openly as the door opened, her face rising into the light to face those coming in. She turned to them, chin up, shoulders square.
Faia entered quietly, her face wracked with grief and fury; beautiful in her rage. Their eyes met and they nodded to one another, no words required.
His officers and commanders filed in, the few trusted of them that there were, and a blacksmith – last but not least.
They awkwardly waited, none wanted to be the first to speak.
She pointed to the blacksmith present, indicating to him to come forward. She turned her gaze to the armor in the floor. Ahn inhaled and opened her mouth, her father’s voice rolled off her tongue.
“I want this reforged. I will make myself available for fittings. You will receive some scrolls with the new insignia,” she gestured to the sword, “this too. I will send you the tome on the methodology needed. Only Faia or I may carry or lift this weapon. Smelt it down. Split its core. A new spear for Faia – a scythe for me. Understood?”
The man nodded nervously, and went to make a speedy exit.
“One more thing….”, Ahn gently and reverently lifted the circlet from her fathers brow, walking to the smith and softly putting it in his hands – wrapping his fingers around the metal. “….melt this down into a dagger. I’m going to put it in Markus’s eye,” she hissed.
Faia snickered and what was briefly a smile flitted over her face. Ahn turned to her cousin and gave her a handful of scrolls.
“Faia, please see that these get to Shackleford. He will be getting them to their intended recipients. Theyre very important and I would trust no one else but you. Powerful alliances rest in the delivery of these letters. They must get through.”
Addressing the room more completely, she turned to Arodor’s command. Ahn reached up and flipped her cloak off and threw it to the floor. Several present held back gags at the site of her mutilated back, still oozing blood and marrow from the splintered bones.
“I, Ahn’Maht Sael’nir, hereby take control of my father’s Empire. By right of my birth, by right of my name, and by right of his personal guidance – I stand before you as Empress Scion of the New Empire. I have several cycles before I am of age to stand alone in his shoes, and he has put in place a council to guide me. As of this moment, I will be overseeing field command in league with General Fel, Severance of the Concordant Council, and the Iron Legion. We will work alongside of my aunt and the Templars – and with my council members of the Convocation. I will also call upon my relatives and contract bearers in the now United Fey – as an attack upon one is now an attack upon all,” her lips curled into a snarl, “Arodor is dead. Who among you will help me avenge him?”
Slowly, after a stunned silence, the first officer stepped forward. And then another. And another – until all present were united in their silent sworn fealty and oath to vengeance for their fallen emperor.
Her sorrow dropped away, her eyes bright and sharp, Ahn rolled her head on her neck and the broken feathers protruding from her back shuddered.
She bared her teeth, “I will do anything it takes to destroy Markus. I will take any burden, and sacrifice anything I can – except for you. Except for those who trust in me. I will see him dead and in torment for all of eternity for what he has done to Memora and the people who call her home.”
She paused and pointed to the door, “We have to tell them. But I want you all to know – always trust in me. Even when things look at their worst. No matter what happens to me. I will protect you. Remember that. Always. When it looks crazy out there, do as I do.”
She looked to Faia, a range of emotions crossing her face, putting her hand on Faia’s shoulder with a gentle squeeze, and left her father’s quarters after picking up a large white fabric scroll from her bag.
She crossed a small common area and climbed upon a stack of pallets so that she could be seen, scroll in hand.
A small crowd began to gather than turned in to a large crowd – soldiers, displaced civilians, merchants, children. The eyes of the Empire were upon her.
A pyre was prepared along side where she stood, stuffed with kindling. A unit of the Empire’s finest carried her father on a large plank of timber and laid him upon it. Her lips moved and spoke an incantation; a small spark of fire appeared in her palm.
“I stand before you now, a face you all know. The face of the First Child of the Empire – now Empress Scion,” she bowed her head to regain her composure, “as you can see – my father has fallen. He died nobly. He saved me and my husband from Markus the Vile. Markus came to my wedding to kill my intended….and my father…..gave his life for us.”
“Not only did Markus do this to me,” she turned to reveal her shattered wings, “and not only did he kill my father – he stole a child. A very important little boy. And we are going to get him back and return him to his mother, where he belongs.”
Ahn gestured to Tacticus, who brought her a large bundle wrapped in cloth. She dropped the bundle to the ground and unwrapped its contents – what was left of her wings. She laid them overtop her father as a shroud, and lit the pyre.
“When Markus took my father, he took my will to fly.”
The flames swelled over him, almost afraid to burn him. As if even Embercrown grieved as they did. She again mumbled and the flames began to consume him. Tears streamed down her face as she stood motionless, her hair singing from the heat. She stared into the fire until Arodor was no longer recognizable, and then turned to those gathered.
“WILL WE ALLOW THIS?,” she shrieked, “WILL WE ALLOW MARKUS TO SNATCH BABIES AND KILL FATHERS?
Her eyes narrowed and she opened her arms to the sky. A small voice cut through the crowd. Ahn’s head twisted on her neck, looking for its source. Mina, looking older now and carrying the weight of the world on her tiny shoulders, popped out of the mass of people just below her. Unafraid of repercussion, she pushed past the bodies as Ahn jumped down to her off the raised pallet.
Mina wrapped her arms around the shivering fey, and Ahn’Maht placed a hand on her head.
“This is what we fight for. For Mina. For me. For children who have lost their way – for families destroyed. For homes burned and pillaged. For the justice Memora herself cries out for. And I will give it to you. “
With a flick of the wrist, Ahn’Maht opens the white fabric and reveals the new sigil of the New Empire.
- Grace Hegwood