WARNING: This story contains massive spoilers for those who have not read both Rage of the Old Gods and Children of the Gods.
© 2013 by Tyler F.M. Edwards.
It was with great trepidation that Alistos entered the Piran palace. His footsteps echoed ominously–it seemed to him–in the marbled halls, and a thin sheen of nervous sweat greased his palms. He picked imaginary pieces of dirt from his new breastplate, a beautiful work of polished black metal. His new commander chuckled at the tick as he led Alistos around the outer ring of the domed palace.
The breastplate was a mark of Alistos’s new position, the same position that was the source of his anxiousness. After years of training and hard work, he had been handpicked for the greatest of honors. He was now a member of the Regental Guard–once the Royal Guard. From this day forth, it would be his duty to stand by and protect the ruler of his ancient nation–the regent-lady herself, the Hero of Heart.
“She likes to meet new guards one-on-one–get to know them,” his new commander had told him when he had arrived at palace gate. Now, time seemed to stand still as Alistos–son of a potter, former prisoner of the Arcanids, survivor of the Retribution and the Redemption–walked to his first meeting with one of the greatest figures of human history.
They came to a closed door, and the guard commander stood aside, gesturing for Alistos to go ahead. Swallowing, Alistos stepped forward and knocked.
“Enter,” a woman’s voice said, muffled by the door.
“Pride,” the guard commander said.
Taking his meaning, Alistos straightened his back and forced confidence into his face. I am Piran, he reminded himself. An heir of Jansia. A scion of ancient civilization.
His sweaty hand slipped a little on the knob as he went inside, carefully closing the door behind him.
The regent-lady’s study was a spacious but sparsely furnished chamber with wide windows looking out over the gardens. They presented a clear view of the black tomb of the previous ruler of Pira, the hallowed martyr Tyrom. The flowers covering its surface wept violet flames as they had since the day of his burial. It was a macabre location for the regent-lady to do her work, but Alistos doubted anyone would ever question her choice.
The ruler herself sat with her back to him, scrawling on various official parchments with a peacock quill. From behind, she did not cut an imposing figure. A small woman from a small race, she could have been mistaken for a child. Her clothes were fine, but they were obviously designed for comfort and not ostentation. Her shoulder length hair, a darker and earthier shade of brown than Alistos’s, bore no adornment.
She set the quill down and turned to him. Her broad face gave her a friendly, girlish countenance, but even so, her appearance would have been unremarkable but for two things. The first was the claws on each of her fingers, even now growing back after having been shrunk to allow her to handle the quill. The second was her eyes. Her pupils were an arresting shade of midnight blue, but more remarkable than that was the endless sorrow in them–a sorrow that even he, having lived through the horrors of the Automatons and the Arcanids, could not comprehend.
“Alistos, is it?” she said, her tone welcoming.
He nodded, a little stiffly.
“Welcome to the Regental Guard, Alistos. If the recommendations of your previous commander are any indication, I’m sure you will do the Guard proud.”
He bowed, attempting to conceal his blush. “You honor me, milady.”
“What’s your art?” Leha asked as he straightened.
He knew immediately what she meant. All Pirans chose an art early in their life and continued to perfect it until the day of their deaths. In many ways, it was what made them Piran. “Drama,” he said.
“Could you give me a demonstration?” she said.
The request caught him somewhat off guard, but he wouldn’t be Piran if he wasn’t ready to demonstrate his command of the arts at a moment’s notice. He let his shoulders slump, taking on the posture of a tired veteran. His eyes stared as if he was looking off into the distance, and he leaned on an imaginary spear.
“And now the jackals tear at the remains of what was once grand, and the last remnants of Mother Jansia fade into darkness,” he said, speaking from his throat to make his voice sound rough and grizzled. “We here within the provinces can only watch as what took centuries to build comes crashing down in weeks. At long last, the Age of Jansia has closed.”
He straightened, clearing his throat awkwardly.
“Very good!” Leha exclaimed, clapping her hands together once. If she was humoring him, she gave no sign of it. She seemed genuinely impressed.
“Thank you,” he said. Despite the importance of this meeting, he found himself relaxing. Her friendly, unpretentious demeanor made it almost impossible to stay intimidated by her. He now understood why the peoples of three worlds had been so eager to place themselves under her banner.
“That’s from Twilight of Empire, isn’t it?” she asked.
He nodded. “It is.” He found his already high opinion of the regent-lady rising. Though she was universally beloved by everyone in Pira, the people knew that she was not one of them and would not have the same knowledge or appreciation of Piran culture as her martyred predecessor. He would not have expected her to recognize the play he’d quoted, but clearly, he had underestimated her devotion to Pira.
“We should put together a production with the palace staff sometime,” Leha said. “I hear one of the cooking girls does an excellent Eliora.”
Despite himself, he smiled. “I think I’d enjoy that.”
She returned the smile, though the expression never quite reached those sad eyes.
* * *
Over the next few days, Alistos settled into the routine of being one of the Regental Guard. He was assigned to the day shift and watched over the regent-lady as she went about the business of running the nation.
In truth, it was mostly very boring. She spent most of her time signing paperwork, meeting with delegates from the Heartlands and other nations, or planning the reconstruction of Pira. Even after several years, and even with thousands of Reborn Arcanid slaves willing to lend their considerable strength to the effort, Pira still had a long way to go to regain its former glory.
Still, despite the mundane nature of the regent-lady’s life, he enjoyed the opportunity to get to know her, to study her. She was such a legendary figure that it was sometimes difficult to reconcile the myth with the very human–if somewhat unusual–woman.
He quickly came to admire her devotion to her work. By the time he began his shift just after dawn each morning, she had already breakfasted and begun her work for the day. When he left for his bunk in the barracks each evening, she was still hours away from her own retirement.
It wasn’t that she didn’t tire. Her exhaustion showed in the way her shoulders slumped as the day wore on, in the dark circles under her eyes, and in the weak little sighs she let out when she thought no one could hear. It seemed that she simply saw Pira’s welfare as more important than her own.
Alistos felt warmly reassured by the fact that devotion to her adoptive homeland was not simply a story spread to please the peasantry, but at the same time, part of him worried that was pushing herself harder than she should. But then, she had survived Garribis and the Automaton Lord, he reminded himself. Surely a few hours lost sleep rebuilding a nation would not cause any lasting harm to someone who had lived through such trials.
Or so he hoped.
He didn’t become acquainted with Leha by observing in the background, either. To his surprise, she took an effort to get to know him, engaging him and the other guards in conversation whenever she could spare the time–usually at meal times. He told her of his early childhood, of Pira before the wars, and of his rise in the military in recent years.
He carefully avoided mention of the horrors of fleeing the Automatons during the Retribution and being imprisoned by the Arcanids during the Redemption. Those memories were still a raw, aching wound upon his heart, and he had no desire to revisit them. Based on the fact that she never asked about those times, he judged that Leha felt much the same.
She was always warm, pleasant, and charming, but as he grew more accustomed to her and lost the intimidation of hero worship, he noticed something was amiss with her behavior. He probably wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t been trained in acting since childhood, but he could tell when someone was putting on a façade. He didn’t think she was lying, exactly. She really did seem genuinely interested in him and her other servants. But yet he couldn’t escape the feeling that she was putting on a show every bit as much as he had been when he’d quoted from Twilight of Empire.
Perhaps she simply didn’t want people to see how deeply the wars had affected her. She put on a strong appearance, but she could never quit banish that sad look in her eye, and on the rare occasions he saw her expression when she thought no one was looking, it was as bleak as the frigid fields of Sy’om.
And then there were the stories he heard from the other guards and from the palace staff. Stories of maids hearing her pace within her chamber at all hours of night, of the way she sometimes grunted and cried in her sleep as if still fighting the old battles, of her secret midnight visits to the tomb of Prince Tyrom.
As the weeks went by, Alistos started to feel oddly powerless. He was supposed to protect the regent-lady, but it seemed like what she most needed protection from was her own mind. And that was a foe he could not fight.
* * *
A few weeks into his assignment, as flowers bloomed and the sleet of a Piran winter turned to the drizzle of a Piran spring, Alistos had the opportunity to accompany the regent-lady on a journey outside Pira.
It was the Festival of Renewal, a weeklong celebration commemorating the anniversary of the defeat of the Arcanids and the liberation of their countless slaves.
That single event had changed the world immeasurably. Not only had it ended the nightmarish war known as the Redemption, but it had also provided a fresh start for all of humanity. Before, the human race had been but a shadow of its former self, crippled by the Automatons. Their numbers had been depleted, and their spirit had been all but broken.
The freeing of the Arcanids’ slaves had changed all that. Those who’d been freed, the Reborn, had swelled humanity’s ranks and provided the boost needed to begin rebuilding civilization in earnest. More importantly, their purity of heart was an inspiration to all who met them. It was impossible not to feel the fires of rekindled hope in the face of their boundless gratitude and innocent joy. It was the goodness of the Reborn, more than any military victory, that had saved humanity.
Every nation had its own festivities to celebrate the Festival of Renewal. Leha would oversee many of the events in Pira, but for one night, she headed south to Uranna to participate in the Festival as celebrated by the people of Tallatzan City, and Alistos was one of the guards chosen to accompany her.
They traveled by jumping point, arriving a few minutes’ walk outside the city. They could have jumped directly to the city, but Leha had insisted they walk the final distance. As soon as they arrived, Alistos understood why.
Before the wars, a Urannan saying had been, “Uranna is a garden.” After the country was ravaged by Automatons and Arcanids, the saying had become, “Uranna will be a garden again.” It seemed they had succeeded in this goal.
They arrived on a dirt road running between two cherry orchards. Spring was already in full swing in this southern clime, and each and every one of the trees was in bloom, creating a riot of pink and white blossoms. Wildflowers added further color wherever they could find space. It was just before twilight, and the lowering sun painted the sky a fiery contrast to gentle colors of the orchards. Alistos caught his breath, inhaling air sweetened by flowers and the fresh scent of new growth.
They headed down the road toward Tallatzan proper. Alistos and the other guards gawked unabashedly at the lush countryside. The few glimpses he caught of the land surrounding the orchards looked to be much the same: farms, orchards, and woodlands flush with new growth.
Uranna was a garden.
Alistos shook off the spell, realizing he was no longer paying attention to the regent-lady. Although the risk of anyone trying to harm her was laughably small, he still had a job to do, and he wasn’t about to neglect it.
He focused his gaze down at the little woman. She, too, was taking in the sights, but unlike the guards, the Urannan countryside didn’t seem to please her. In fact, her expression could only be described as desolate. She obviously took no pleasure in the beauty all around them.
The dark expression was only there for a moment. As soon as she noticed him looking at her, she plastered on a contented smile. Although it seemed genuine, he’d seen through her performance.
He frowned a little in confusion. It had been her idea to come through the orchards. It made no sense that she would insist upon it if it gave her no comfort.
If this had been his first day with the Hero of Heart, he never would have understood. But he had seen the way she worked herself to the bone for her people. He knew that the welfare of those under her charge meant more to her than her own life. And as he saw the way the Urannan countryside lit up his fellow guards, he understood.
It was all for them. For Alistos and his comrades. She wanted them to feel the joy she could not.
He looked upon the regent-lady with new eyes.
They emerged from between the orchards and came in view of the city. Tallatzan City had been built atop the ruins of an Automaton ziggurat, spreading across several rectangular platforms of a dun-colored substance that was almost but not quite stone. The machinery of its original rulers had been stripped away, making way for a walled city of multi-story homes and shops of pale local stone. A blackened stump of the same not-quite-stone as the ziggurat rose above the city – a former Automaton watchtower, preserved as a symbol of human victory.
They headed up a large ramp toward the main gate. Locals and other visitors were funneling into the city, and they cheered at the sight of Leha. She waved at them politely.
Inside the walls, the air of Tallatzan was festive, and the streets reverberated with music and laughter. Garlands and streamers hung over the doorways of homes, and beneath every window, planters bloomed with flowers and cooking herbs. The scent of exotic delicacies wafted over the city, making Alistos’s mouth water.
The streets were packed with joyous revelers. Alistos prepared to push them aside to clear a path for his mistress, but they parted of their own volition upon seeing the regent-lady, shouting things like, “Hail the Hero of Heart!” Leha blushed and offered her thanks to them as she walked by.
Alistos relaxed, basking in the reflected glory of his leader.
The crowds in Tallatzan were a mixed bunch. Like most countries, Uranna had been devastated during the wars, but many people from other nations had emigrated there to take advantage of its fertile soil and mild weather, creating a kind of melting pot. And so there were many native Urannans – exotic folk with pale skin, round faces, and blue-black hair – but there were also tall, fair Tors and Clanspeople and small Heartlanders, Leha’s own kin. He even spotted a few Lost Ones from Tyzu, their open smiles belying their monstrous appearances.
Fully half the crowd was composed of the Reborn: dark-haired men and women with broad smiles and bright violet eyes. Most of them had belonged to soldier and worker strains when they had served under the Arcanids, and these were tall and broad-shouldered. Others had been Grayskins, bred to be assassins, and they were smaller, their skin still bearing a slight gray pallor.
The regent-lady’s party arrived at one of the city’s main squares, where the hub of the festivities was. A stage had been set up at the far end, and a band of Heartlanders played a raucous song with fiddles and flutes. To Alistos’s Piran ears, the song was very crude, but he found it charming in a rustic way.
“Leha!” a woman’s voice called.
An elegant couple emerged from the crowd. The wife, the source of the call, was a breathtaking Urannan woman in dark clothes. She had warm eyes the color of tea, and she moved with the grace of a dancer. The husband was a small, stately dressed man with curly brown hair and sapphire eyes. He carried a wide-eyed little girl on his shoulders. The girl had her mother’s bluish hair and oval face, but her blue eyes were her father’s.
Although he had not met them before, Alistos recognized the couple as Yarnig Tor Lannis, former emperor of Tor Som, and Natoma, Leha’s mentor during the Retribution.
“Auntie Leha!” the little girl on Yarnig’s shoulders squealed, reaching out to the regent-lady.
Leha held out her arms, dulling her claws for safety. “Abiri!” Leha said, naming the child.
Yarnig handed over his daughter, and Leha swung the little girl about, making silly faces and causing Abiri to giggle uncontrollably.
Alistos watched his mistress closely, trying to see if this was another performance for the benefit of others, but he couldn’t tell. If it was, it was as good a job of acting as he had ever seen. He supposed that, no matter how haunted she was, some things must still give her joy, if only fleetingly.
And as the little girl squealed with delight, bringing amused smiles to all within earshot, he had to admit that there were some things that were bound to reach even the most hardened veteran.
Once Abiri had laughed herself into exhaustion, Leha gave the girl back to her parents, exchanged some small talk with them, and then let them fade back into the festivities. The regent-lady then turned to her guards.
“You don’t need to stand around like this is a parade ground,” she told them. “It’s a festival. Enjoy yourselves!” She gestured to a nearby table covered with food and beverages for the celebrants.
Most of the guards needed no urging, eagerly heading over to stuff themselves with roasted meats and fine Urannan wine. Alistos hesitated, though, shifting awkwardly.
Leha sighed at him in mock exasperation, planting her hands on her hips. “Go on. Nothing’s going to happen to me. I swear, you Pirans take everything so damn seriously.”
At that, Alistos could only chuckle. She knew her charges well. “I will. Apologies, milady.”
He headed over to the food table, Leha shaking her head behind him. He poured himself a cup of sweet wine and let the raucous Heartlander music wash over him, listening to the crowds cheer and laugh as they celebrated humanity’s rebirth.
* * *
The music of the festival seemed distant as Leha leaned sat against the cold stone wall of the alley. She sighed to herself, running her claws through her earth-toned hair. She liked Alistos and the other guards for the good and loyal people they were, but it was a relief to be free of them, if only temporarily.
Times like this were hard for her. She saw the joy of those around her, but such warm feelings could not breach the cold that gripped her heart.
These days, she mostly felt empty. She had lost too many people in her time: her friends in Three Gates, Abra, Yeldar, Sheen, Lahune, Sosk, Tyrom, and the countless hundreds under her command whose deaths she had felt through the psychic link that had bound her armies.
She had been through too much and witnessed too many horrors. There was a part of her she’d lost, and without it, things like the new beginning she had given humanity, or even simpler joys like good food and spirited music, could not comfort her.
Her mind went back to a conversation she’d had with Eranna during a similar celebration in Retgard a year ago.
“It’s too late for us,” the Tor empress had said, her dour face showing age beyond her years. “We gave everything we had and more to create this new world, and we succeeded, but this world isn’t meant for us. We left ourselves behind on the old battlefields. All that’s left for us is to make sure our work is complete, to live for the future.” She’d gestured to a mixed group of Tors and Reborn dancing in the Tor peasant style. “We live for them now so that they can have the lives they deserve, the lives we can’t.”
Leha had only nodded.
Now, in the alley in Tallatzan City, Leha turned back to the crowd. She could just glimpse Alistos chatting with a Reborn woman and smiling.
Leha’s moments of true happiness since the last war had been few, but seeing the young guard enjoy himself, a weak sense of satisfaction penetrated the cold fog around her mind. No matter what the wars had done to her, the world lived on. She had sacrificed everything, but it had not been in vain.
The corners of her mouth twitched upward, ever so slightly.
* * *
Alistos was surprised to see how readily the other guards let their charge slip out of sight. He acknowledged that their position was largely ceremonial – the thought of anyone trying to harm Leha was absurd, and even if it came to that, she was worth more in a fight than the entire Regental Guard combined – but he was still shocked by how quickly complacence set in after a few years of peace.
He looked off to the edge of the square. He could just glimpse the regent-lady sitting in the shadows, unnoticed by all. The fact that she had managed to make it out of the crowd without being mobbed by admirers led him to believe she had practice with this.
She might think she had succeeded in hiding her true feelings, but Alistos understood. The events of the wars haunted her beyond the ability of any festival to dispel. He thought of going to her, but if she wanted to be alone, that was her right. Though he had experienced his share of pain at the hands of the machines and the Arcanids, he couldn’t pretend to comprehend the burdens she carried.
“Excuse me,” a voice said, interrupting his reverie. “Could you pass those pastries?”
He turned his gaze away from Leha to a woman on his left, and he felt his pulse quicken. The woman was Reborn, a former Grayskin by the look of her. She had a kindly face and dimpled cheeks, and the setting sun glinted a burnt orange upon her ebon hair. Her oddly colored skin lent her an exotic charm, and for a moment, he lost the ability to think of anything but her intense violet eyes and the way her dress clung to her body.
He came back to himself and handed her a basket containing confections made from Tyzuan fruits. She thanked him and walked away.
He took a moment to recover, breathing heavily.
Alistos glanced back to the regent-lady, who still sat in her shadowed alleyway. She seemed the picture of loneliness. He wished there was something he could do to help her, but she was beyond his ability to aid, he knew.
But his thoughts did turn back to her deciding to jump into the orchards so that the guards could enjoy them, to her insistence that he and the others enjoy the celebration. He thought also of the consideration she gave to her servants, and the tireless devotion with which she worked to rebuild Pira. Even if some of her affability was forced, she obviously wanted her people to be happy above all else.
He turned around, searching for the Reborn woman, and found her only a few feet away, smiling at him. He returned the smile and went over to her.