Chapter 4: The Mad Conqueror’s Game
The Temple of Shinkitu was even grander on the inside than out: row upon row of candles were set upon fixtures and within chandeliers made of bronze, illuminating a vacuous, rectangular chamber crowned by a domed ceiling; the highest arches and tallest pillars bore an endless array of carvings and statues, ranging from terrifying gargoyles to quaint faeries; what’s more, there were expertly woven tapestries decorating the massive walls, each depicting the mighty Sun-God himself in his many forms. Of these, none were more prominent than the great firedrake with golden scales spewing fire into the stars, or the gargantuan crimson serpent which dwarfed the very Sun it swallowed whole in the evening and vomited out in the morning. All this was spread throughout an interior so large it was absolutely absurd. And that was just as well, for this day found the entirety of Tannym attempting to cram itself into the gilded stone walls.
Lady Mirabeth, however, was less than awestruck. To her, this was nothing more than the aged structure to which her pious father dragged her at every possible opportunity. She let out a dispassionate sigh; her heart lost all wonder regarding the Temple long ago. These days, such precocious “visits” were nothing more than empty formality at best—an excuse for the vainest of nobles to gawk at the peasants, at worst. Not that Mirabeth particularly cared for the Lowborn; in that regard she was no different than any other Highborn. However, she, unlike the vast majority of her peers, had many, many better things to do. Yet here she was, at the edge of the Royals’ far too lofty balcony, staring down upon a massive body of filthy, rag-covered nobodies who were much too eager for Mirabeth’s soured mood.
“Noisy, is it not?”
Mirabeth turned to see the gentle face of Lady Ayleth.
“Very true indeed,” she responded. Noisy was an understatement; the very Temple shook with roars of excitement. Worse still was the smell, rising even to the Royals’ Box. Mirabeth gestured for Ayleth to join her, which she did in a reserved manner.
“I am glad to see you in good health,” Ayleth said.
“I should say the same of you.”
“You bless me! Who am I that Lotheldin’s eldest would concern herself with me?”
“Why, you are my sister, cleaved to my youngest brother in life—”
“But not so in death.”
A strained silence prevailed between the two Ladies, neither knowing what to say with the mood so darkened.
“Pardon me for my lateness, but I am truly sorry for your great loss.”
“Oh, think nothing of it. My time of mourning has passed.” Despite her words, Lady Ayleth’s voice still harbored an air of deep sadness. Mirabeth’s heart was moved, so that she put her arms around Ayleth warmly.
“I cannot share your pain,” she began. “But know that I am here.”
“S-Surely you jest! I am—” Lady Ayleth could not stifle the shakiness of her voice, which immediately fell to quiet sobs.
“Whatever happens, I will ensure your House continues.” That was all the poor widow could take. She turned, with tears still dripping down her face, and embraced Mirabeth tightly. It was as if she’d waited for these words the entire fortnight since her Lord’s passing.
“You mustn’t wander off like this, mother,” boomed a deep voice. Both Ladies started like they’d been caught in a lie, quickly separating and regaining their elegant postures.
“Oh, Tybalt! I seem to have done just that,” Ayleth gasped, quickly rising and making a hurried curtsy to Mirabeth. Tybalt, a young man of great height, short hair, and imposing physique narrowed his eyes as his aunt rose from her seat to curtsy as well.
“It is most pleasurable to see you well, Lord Tybalt,” Mirabeth said.
“Humph. Come, mother, you’ll worry poor Maerrowen to an early grave.” The youth stalked off without so much as a bow, leaving the Ladies both ruffled and rather flustered. Nevertheless, Ayleth bowed solemnly before she, too, was off without another word.
A timid woman might have returned to her seat quietly, grateful that such a man as Tybalt—powerful and perhaps rightfully angry—had let her off with a mere scoff. Mirabeth was many things; timid was not one of them.
‘What nerve, that boy!’ Mirabeth swore to herself. She had half a mind to retaliate, thinking of all the ways she could make Tybalt’s rise to prominence all the more difficult. She’d more than enough sway to throw a number of snares in his path… But alas, she really did wish for Lady Ayleth’s House to prosper. Thus, severely against the nature affording her the title “Lion-Hearted Lady”, Mirabeth tempered her rage to mild irritation.
The sound of many trumpets drowned out the bustle below, turning all heads towards the massive balcony overlooking even the Royals’ Box. Two empty thrones stood alone in glistening glory, one golden and studded with many rubies, the other silver and embedded with sapphires. The Fangs surrounding the thrones raised their elongated trumpets of brass to belt out another deafening tune, before standing at stiff attention. From behind them came two servants, themselves adorned in elegant attire, both carrying distinct flags: one bearing the crest of the Fangs, the other of Shinkitu’s Faithful—a winged serpent coiled around the Pillar of Eternity, which culminated in a fiery star that was, most undoubtedly, the Sun. The flag-bearers stepped aside, revealing the cause of all this fanfare: King Letharian himself, who now sat upon his golden throne as though conjured by some strange magic when no one was looking.
Not even the trumpets could match the cacophony of cheers that now thundered through the Temple. Those few Lowborn with hats threw them in the air with glee, while many more kissed their trinkets and bent their knees in an unlearned attempt at bowing. Meanwhile, the King waved with all the regality left in his Royal bones. Lady Mirabeth simply rolled her eyes.
‘Oh Lethie,’ she thought. ‘So predictable. Oh, to be as simple as those boorish fools.’ Indeed, the entire spectacle proved most amusing. That is, until Mirabeth recalled that dreadful dinner, and cringed. It was so easy to forget that, beneath his vacant stare and slow movements, Letharian had never stopped nurturing his harsh, terrifying heart as the Conqueror. “Lethie” was long-dead.
Following the King’s entrance was a collection of tiresome addresses to, and exaggerated announcements of the Royal and Highborn patrons of the Temple, chief of whom was Mirabeth herself. For, though the pomp and posturing greatly dulled it, the Lady still wielded a sharp religious fervor—but most certainly not for this religion, all puffed up yet hollow within. No, she longed for the days of old; those years long before he took the reins, and ruined everything she’d once loved about the Way of Shinkitu. And about him.
At long last, the addresses came to an end; the entire Temple bristled with anticipation for the ceremony to begin. All eyes fixed upon the altar, elevated on a stone stage at the head of the chamber.
To everyone’s surprise, nothing happened. No priests emerged from the doors behind the altar to recite the Holy Writ, no stocky servants wrestled beasts to the altar for the sacrifice. The altar’s massive torch wasn’t even lit—a fact ignored throughout the preliminary exercises, but now focused upon with great confusion. What was going on?
Sounds of metal clanging on stone echoed through the Temple, glancing off the walls so that even the King could hear it. The sound grew louder, before the doors lit up with flashes of bronze and steel.
‘The High Priest’s personal guard?’ Mirabeth pondered. The Lady bit her bottom lip to avoid scowling. She knew all too well what that meant.
The bronze-clad guards formed a large perimeter in front of the altar, such that only the tallest Lowborn was afforded unobstructed view. A group of five Fangs followed soon after, trialed by ten servants who laid white flower petals in their wake. The mass of peasants raised a collective gasp as Bishop Arthgal, arrayed in his glorious white robes, stepped out of the leftmost door and tread upon the petals with paramount care.
’He’s here, that scoundrel!’ She tried to maintain some measure of composure, but the very sight of the Bishop’s wide grin sickened Mirabeth greatly. Hundreds of questions raced through her mind; all of them would have to wait.
To Mirabeth’s great astonishment, the High Priest was not the only unexpected guest. From the rightmost door emerged an even larger mass of guards, trailed by fifteen elegantly arrayed maidens who frolicked into the temple whilst spreading purple petals wherever they tread.
Another set of guards marched onto the platform, bordering a young man veiled in attire completely outshining the Bishop’s: flowing robes the color of amber, trimmed with silver, scarlet, and gold; a grand golden diadem studded with diamonds along its entire length, the center carved of ivory in the shape of a serpent’s mouth clutching a composite orb of emerald, sapphire, and ruby; snow-white hair flowed long and unimpeded, save two golden pins, which bound up the sides to reveal two long horns. This was none other than Prince Ephraim, who strode from the doorway and took his place next to Bishop Arthgal.
Before anyone had a chance to react, a large, dust-covered tapestry unfurled from above the altar with a loud thud. When the dust cleared, a series of candles arranged in two rows on either side lit up spontaneously, illuminating the tapestry’s glorious artwork: the first of many pictures depicted a lone man standing on the precipice of a mountain, reaching out towards the Sun. Upon his head were two horns, and his eyes blazed with bright flames. Below this came another, more extravagant depiction of the man sprouting wings, then a tail until his entire body was that of a firedrake, which proceeded to fly off into sky to seize the very stars for his own.
The implications were lost upon no one, least of all Mirabeth. She ground her teeth as the Lowborn completely lost their minds, while many of the Highborn shouted what seemed to her the most foolish things she’d ever heard.
“The Sun-God, cloaked in flesh!”
“Shinkitu walks among us!”
“Blessed are we, above all men!”
“Behold the Shining One, Son of the Sun!”
The Lady very nearly lost her supper. This was madness; surely they didn’t really believe this crippled boy was Shinkitu, or even his so-called son? Yet the madness continued. The High Priest stretched out his hand in an authoritative gesture, and nearly all the boisterous cacophony ceased. He then raised his other hand; immediately, a group of five servants emerged from the rightmost door, tugging what must have been the fattest jugal-boar in all of Elinwynn. Its tusks curved excellently, while its porcine grunts and screams instilled utmost terror in all but the heartiest men.
Bishop Arthgal reached into his robes with all the fanfare of a herald retrieving a scroll, pulling out a curved dagger whose hilt was a perfect recreation of the Faithful’s crest. This he offered to Ephraim, kneeling as he did so.
‘No!’ Mirabeth screamed in her mind. ‘He wouldn’t!’ But he did. Ephraim’s sole hand emerged from his flowing robes and grasped the ceremonial dagger without a second thought. The prince then glanced at the fattened jugal, which prompted the group of servants to drag the uncooperative beast forwards. Once at the altar they tied the beast’s ankles, and proceeded to haul its oversized body unto the stone slab.
Ephraim eyed the jugal closely. A glimmer of remorse, too small for any but the Bishop to notice, dotted his eyes—but only for a moment. With one, powerful slash the prince slit the jugal’s jowled throat, spilling its blood upon the cold stone. The beast howled for the last time, while the prince handed the blood-soaked blade to an attendant.
Ephraim turned his back to the crowd whilst lifting his now free hand with his palm turned upwards. He closed his eyes briefly. To the surprise of all, his hair began to glow; seconds later, sparks shot from out of his fingertips; a moment more, and the prince held a swirling ball of fire in his hand. The orb danced around in Ephraim’s palm as if gaining its bearings, then he flicked his wrist sharply—sending the orb directly unto the steadily-bleeding jugal. In an instant the beast’s carcass was set ablaze, followed by the massive pyre suspended directly above the altar.
Mirabeth was furious, her rage lost in the cacophony of shouts and cheers from below. How dare this prince, a mere boy, claim that which was the sole right of the Faithful? She gripped the edge of the balcony, her knuckles going white. Mirabeth was about to curse Ephraim with every profane word she’d sworn never to utter, when she caught a glimpse of the King, wearing such a ghastly grin it could fright a lion.
It was then that the Lady regained the composure which set her above her peers, and taxed her mind in an effort to grasp the true situation at hand. Her eyes darkened with comprehension; it was all connected! The dinner party, the heralds’ lack of announcement, and now this absurd ceremony—no, earlier than that! The King’s hiding of his son in the first place. They were all carefully orchestrated moves, planned and prepared well in advance in anticipation for this very moment: the moment a prince became a God. And who better to stand above it all, plotting and puppeteering, than the God’s own father, King Letharian? Lady Mirabeth, though now trembling with the weight of her realization, could not stop a single, fearful giggle from escaping her lips.
“Well-played, Lethie,” she mumbled. “Well-played indeed.”