Summer, Month of the Gaia Reborn
Year 857, the Ascension of Kings
Ember Hearth Palace in the city of Anahir, capital of the Old Myrian Empire
Azat listened to the haunting silence in the wintry morning air, a mournful wind rustling through the garden paths, the only song to lure him out of his inward musings. A piece of him feared to know what the new day had brought to the Autumn Realms of Old Myria. A labyrinth of hedgerows separated the small sanctuary hidden at the garden's heart, where he contemplated in silence, almost forgetting he wasn't alone anymore. He could barely see beyond the flickering torchlight burning around the base of a fountain, still overflowing with water.
The skies were still dark, only kindling with the soft morning light that came right before the breaking dawn. He tried to remain unconcerned, wanting to distance himself from the thought of grief and uncertainty. Yet Lady Sahem Sadoyan had come by his room in the dark hours of the night and informed him she could not sleep either.
So, they had ventured into the blissful haven of the palace garden, when the night had become so black that it blotted out their vision, save for the gentle light of burning torches. They waited for news of the Autumn Queen's imminent death together, in the gardens of an abandoned palace and silent capital city.
Sahem eventually broke the silence hanging in the air. The sound of her quiet voice felt like the first words he had heard in months. "It's difficult to believe, isn't it? The Autumn Queen laid down on her death bed after all these years. You used to jest with her, remember, Azat, that after a century of life, you were convinced that death would not touch her."
Azat frowned, guilt-stricken by the memory. "Your family has always been unusually long lived. Your mother almost convinced me she would never leave Ember Hearth. Her courtiers were whispering rumors that Goddess Jumanah was her birth mother, and that she maybe immortal." He shuddered. "It's difficult to fathom how the queen has fallen ill enough that death looms by her door each night… I-"
Sahem cleared her throat, interrupting Azat's thought. "Enough about my mother. If you're curious about the cause of her illness, just look through any window in the palace that faces south… you can see the Old Myrian heartland burning."
She suddenly came to her feet, an unspoken sign that she longed for the familiar halls of Ember Hearth Palace once again. Without a word, Azat stood beside her, just as dawn's first fledgling rays came cresting over the eastern horizon. He couldn't help but notice how fragile every individual lance of light appeared on today of all days. He tried to remember when he had last seen a rising dawn so pale. Azat called on the guards, and they emerged out of the shadows, the torches they bore aloft making their cobalt cloaks shimmer in the wane sunlight. Together, they began their return to the palace.
He replied, sighing, "and the blood of thousands feeds the mountain valleys and rolling hills of Old Myria. Your mother saw the Autumn Realms through several wars over the course of her reign. Grief from the destruction would not have laid her low so easily."
Beside him, Sahem made a subtle nod. "True, but none of those wars have gone so poorly for our empire like this one has… how many centuries has it been since the Children of the Sun have defiled Old Myrian soil? Since when in our history have their legions come within a week's march of Anahir, capital of all the empire?"
Azat grimaced, "never in our history. Yet the Autumn Queen I've always known is strong of heart. If she could, your mother would be on the battlefield, encouraging her warriors while watching them drive their spears through her enemies' hearts. She could always stir the meekest of men to commit to the ferocity of battle. I've seen her stare down the Dominion's God King once".
Sahem asked, "And what about you? That God King challenged you to a duel meant to decide the fate of an entire war, not my mother. He challenged you, Azat. The Autumn Queen's obscure champion. My mother's stalwart blade, keeping vigil over her Autumn Throne."
Azat stepped around Sahem, opening the heavy oak door before them to allow her first entry. He said, "Sahem, the Autumn Queen begged me herself from her death bed. Anyone who has faced this Sun Caller King has fallen before him. I know not if he is a god, but I must face him."
"Then what will you do, Lord Zakarian? He is undefeated. Your death would be just another self-sacrifice. You cannot save anyone by getting yourself killed. Would you weigh the fate of an empire on the gods' scale, and just pray for victory?"
He didn't know. Killing a mortal god would be of some difficulty. It mattered little how much he thought it through or answered every question about how feasible it was.
Lady Sameh's burning demand echoed through the halls of Ember Hearth Palace. Shocked gasps from handmaidens hidden in the gloom reminded Azat Zakarian that not everyone had abandoned the ancient heirloom. They tread windswept corridors built from checkered tiles of alabaster and matte black stone, spiral granite stairwells jutting from the foundation to reach the palace's higher tiers. Looming monuments of Old Myria's greatest legends kept their solemn vigil from dark alcoves hollowed deep into cobblestone walls.
The beauty of Ember Hearth seemed like a shell of her former glory, without the families of the Shaira nobility milling through its halls. The epitome of scholarship and education ceased to matter without the children of Lords and Ladies playing at intrigue in the shady nooks outside the academies. Embassies would serve no purpose, without Lords and Ladies wagging their tongues, striking affluent trade alliances and declarations of war by the hour. A queen could never rule an empire without loyal subjects, willing to abide by her mandate and serve her in all things.
Yet here Azat lingered in the shadow of obscurity, amid the emptied halls of Ember Hearth Palace. All the Autumn Queen's servants abandoned her stronghold and capital city for fear of conquest. Unattended, Ember Hearth's windswept corridors dimmed, becoming dark like the clouds of a brooding storm. All the Shaira nobility were fleeing into the west for their lives, while all the warriors of the Autumn Realms fought a bleak defense in the Southern Reaches.
Azat heard Sameh's quiet voice resound through the dead weight of silence bearing down on them. Every syllable uttered from her lips filled his ears like the declaration of a royal mandate.
"Lord Zakarian," she called again. "Will you answer the God King's challenge to meet him in open battle?"
Azat paused, breaking his stride to look into the deep emerald of Lady Sameh's eyes. Sameh paused beside him, leveling her expectant gaze with him. She stood before Azat, unwavering. The fluttering trails of her cerulean and pallid white dress bunched between her anxious fingers. Anxiety exuded from her like an infectious energy, making his heart race uneasily and churning his thoughts. He inhaled deeply, then sighed out a long exhale.
Azat answered, "I will do what the Autumn Queen commands. You know more than anyone, Sameh, that this decision does not lie with me."
Sameh glanced away from him, like she could no longer bear looking Azat in the eye. She said, "And what if it did, Azat? Would anything change? Would the fact alone that your queen left the decision to you… would it stop you from riding out there on those distant battlefields and into your death?"
Despite the sting behind the accusation, Azat stood firm, unable to turn away from his oath to the Autumn Queen.
He replied, "I could have ridden out there months ago. I could have abandoned you without a second thought to face destiny itself, but I'm still here. Meanwhile, all the Shaira have fled and every warrior sworn to Old Myria has ridden south to meet the Dominion's approaching hordes… I should be on those battlefields, Sameh, fighting beside my kin for Empire and Queen. I should be out there fighting for you… Yet here I am, waiting in these abandoned halls, where only the royal family and their most trusted servants endure the solitude in hope of better days."
Sameh interrupted, "And what about your unborn children?"
"You can tell them I died for their futures should I perish before the end of this war. I won't be the father that will watch them grow up, only to one day tell them I stayed behind while the greatest war of our time was raging, and that tens of thousands of their brethren died in my stead…"
Sameh said nothing. He heard only the subtlest sigh of her shock, but that was enough to drive a lance through his chest.
Eventually, she regained her composure. She answered, "then ride out like the fabled hero you believe yourself to be… should you die, no one shall mourn you or remember your name. Should you somehow survive by Jumanah's miracle… one day you'll come to know the children you abandoned here today, but it will not be for many moons. You will not see them for as long as I live."
Azat opened his mouth to speak, but Sameh shunned him with the turning of her back to him. Before he could say anything, she hurried back the way whence they had come, disappearing into the shadows.
Despite himself, he had not the strength to tell her to stop. He knew and understood that she would not reason with him. Azat's destiny laid out plain before him, an inescapable feeling driving him toward the last confrontation that would end the five-decade long war between the Old Myrian Empire and the tyrannical power of the Carth Dominion. He could see little reason to decline the God King’s challenge when he could save the lives of thousands by his acceptance alone. Even should he be defeated, and Old Myria surrendered… the chances of his countrymen winning the conflict through any other means dwindled with every passing hour.
Fifty years of pointless death, Azat thought, plaguing all the continent of Khios from one end to the next. The Children of the Sun sought the resurrection of their fallen deity, faithful that their constant pursuit of war would grant him life once more. Sirius, the Solar God, who reigned from his sunlit throne, a golden burning star shining in the void. The God King who ruled them possessed some measure of his blood and divinity. A mere man elevated far above mortal capabilities… immortal and imbued with an otherworldly strength and shining radiance.
God King of the Carth Dominion, Firstborn of the Children of the Sun, and Sun Caller King of Tushik – City of Grand Canals.
The Children of the Sun desired their share of the Solar God’s divinity, of which he and his descendants in the Sun Caller Kings offered freely, to those devoted enough to drive darkness and night from all Thearus, and grant Sirius the foundation upon which he would usher in the final age of humankind. The children of man would be reborn, and the Children of the Sun recreated first to reign among all the civilizations therein as gods among men.
A foolish tale meant to frighten children, Azat knew, or an excuse to hide behind their relentless conquest in search of long dead gods, forgotten from bygone eras, now buried deep beneath the soil of Thearus.
He peered through a nearby archway into the moorlands beyond Ember Hearth. The idyllic city of Anahir swept across the rolling countryside, cloaked beneath a shroud of frost and powder snow. Past the capital city, the southern horizon burned, the fertile provinces of Cressa's Lantern and the Suranna Plains reduced to scorched earth in the Children of the Sun's passing. Thick plumes of charred smoke drifted toward the clouds, blotting out the Veiled Mountains in the distance.
Azat Zakarian knew what he must do and promised to meet the Children of the Sun in open battle, and claim the head of the Carth Dominion's so-called immortal God King…
Another dawn crested the Veiled Mountains in the east by the time Azat assembled his retinue accompanying him in Ember Hearth. The Black Wolves, twenty famous champions from the Island of Irothis, prepared themselves to ride into battle outside the palace walls. During the last decade, Azat had journeyed across the whole of the Autumn Realms. Irothis, the place of his birth and the only home he could ever dream of, made even the lofty halls of Ember Hearth pale by comparison.
Pristine suits of lamellar crafted from hundreds of individual iron scales, interwoven into thick and durable hides, shielded them from head to toe. His retinue of sworn brethren struck a fearsome visage behind amber plumed helmets and silver masks crafted in the visage of their deceased ancestors, howling in rage from beyond the grave.
Azat stood apart from his brethren, lingering by the gargantuan double doors of the palace gates, built from enduring oak, and reinforced beneath a framework of steel plating. In patience, he waited for the dawn's golden radiance to strike Anahir and Ember Hearth palace's limestone spires exactly right. Instead, the light appeared to vanish into the roiling clouds of smoke rolling over the Veiled Mountains, flooding the Suranna Plains behind them.
Princess Hazan Sadoyan's declaration came upon the billowing wind, reaching Azat before he realized she had even sallied from the palace to greet him a final time. He knew her words pertained to her younger sister, Sameh, Azat’s bride in waiting.
"You surprise House Sadoyan yet again, Lord Zakarian." she said. "You've shocked me more than any man ever could, and you're no lover of mine. I thought I knew you better than this. I suppose Sameh must have thought the same when you said everything you did to her earlier this morning."
Azat turned away from the wane sunlight glimmering through the smoke clouds, back toward the open palace gates. He watched Lady Hazan approach through the courtyard, leading an entire procession of Ember Hearth's handmaidens. One hundred in number, the young Shaira women emerged from the dark halls of Ember Hearth. Dressed in all-black attire, the sun's pale light did little to lift their somber countenance or their disquiet spirits. He knew they did not want him to leave, but they had come anyway, each maiden bearing a bundle of handpicked lavender and roses in their gloved hands.
"Your Grace…" he began, "You should not have come. The Black Wolves of Irothis don't deserve the honor of a queen's royal send off."
Hazan pursed her lips into a neat smile. She replied, "I am not your sovereign, Lord Zakarian."
"Your Grace, please, could you cease calling me by that title?"
The subtle arch of Hazan's brow made him tense with anticipation. She had some hidden point behind her coy dialogue, he realized, something she wanted him to understand before he went charging off into the sunrise.
Hazan pressed her hidden agenda. She answered, "If you can call me 'Your Grace', Azat, then I can address you as Lord Zakarian."
Azat did little to hide his puzzlement, shrugging. "The difference here is that the Autumn Queen is on her deathbed while her country burns… and you will receive her crown and take her place any moment now. You always knew the truth… I am no noble, but a farmer's son, raised on a quiet farmstead. Should I survive to see better days, I'll spend them tilling the black soil on the Isle of Irothis."
"Fates can change, Lord Zakarian… your mundane life ended the night you took up the sword and knelt before my mother's throne to swear your fealty. You became a companion of the Black Wolves and even earned the respect of the Sworn Brotherhood. You've never set foot on that damn farmstead ever since and at this rate, you never will. While I am to succeed my mother's reign of Old Myria and take her crown, it won't happen a moment before her death. As I understand it, you cannot take Sahem's hand in marriage without bearing the title of lord. When I become the next Autumn Queen, my first action will be to gift you with the affluence of a Shaira noble, and a wealthy source of income worthy of it. I will seek to grant Sahem and you some deceased lord's estate or another, hopefully on the Isle of Irothis. Then, you can waste the rest of your days away together, raising your twin sons."
Azat's stony countenance softened at Hazan's alluring promise, knowing she had little reason to give such favor to him. Azat managed a weary smile, the expression betraying the immense burden he wore. He said, "You are kinder than most to promise me anything, and pure of heart to achieve any of those promises on my behalf, but… I fear Sahem has turned her back on what we've always dreamed of."
"Lord Zakarian, I cannot think of many who would swallow their pride to become the consort of a royal princess. You were craftier than I thought, gifting her two twins before she thought to take another noble's hand."
Azat sighed, "It wasn't intentional."
Hazan chuckled, "So I've been told, but the damage there is done. One cannot simply erase your status as the blood father of Sahem's children. Of course, you know the Autumn Queen would accept none of what we are speaking about, but I am not my mother. Sahem is my younger sister, and there is little chance she'd succeed the throne after me or the other elder siblings in line to be crowned before her. In a strange turn of events, I believe you're the only man she's ever truly cared for. I don't think a little lover's spat will change any of that. All you need to do is help our countrymen end this invasion, and come back home alive."
A glimmer of hope kindled within Azat's chest, but he dared not let the kindling ignite into a blaze. Leaving Ember Hearth behind would become even more difficult then.
He answered, "I will do all that I can, but I can make no promises."
Hazan nodded. "That should suffice. Jumanah has blessed you many times over for many deeds of lesser effort… I will have our stable hands remove the equipment from your horse."
Azat paused, looking to the noble mount waiting patiently by his side.
"You should take Mustaphen."
"That engine of war?" Azat chuckled, "there has never been a warrior who could ride him since his owner passed some half a decade ago."
Hazan nodded, "True. That is why I want you to take him. A noble mount like Mustaphen was never meant to be punished with isolation. He deserves another master who will ride him across distant lands and bring him glory on many battlefields. If you are riding into open war and battle, you'd be a fool not to even see if he'd take to you. No other horse in all the Autumn Realms would serve you better."
Azat considered her offer, sighing out of resignation. "Fine, Your Grace, have the stable hands bring him out. We will see if Mustaphen thinks I'm worthy. If so, then the Black Wolves will ride for Reaper's Lantern with the sun's zenith."