“My great-grandmother,” the woman said, tossing her wild mane of flame-coloured hair over her shoulder. “My namesake. She watched her entire family murdered in front of her when she was only a girl.” The woman paced, like an angry lion and the hot desert wind thrust her hair back into her face. She pushed it away again. “She’d seen, maybe, seven, eight winters. She watched the legions of Ur come through the mud and the rain. She watched her family, her legions, die to the last man. And then she sat in a room with the hawks around her and listened to them plotting her death and she stood silent.”
“Elenarka,” the man before her rasped. He was on his knees, his dark skin broken from the lashing she had ministered, sweat mingling with blood on ribs that pressed against his flesh. His head down, hands out before him in supplication.
“Silent,” she repeated, her voice low, dangerous. She stopped her pacing a moment to stare at the man. It was pitiful, really. He had been so beautiful once, so regal, so....proud. He had thought he was being clever, he had thought he could deceive her. But one cannot deceive the wind or the rain or the sand that blows across the desert.
“She was taken across the rolling green hills, she was taken to her death, taken by a man loyal to Ur. That man betrayed his liege. He did not kill the little manticore, though he had killed children before. Instead he rode off with her into the untamed wilderness. And they gathered together all the unwanted folk from the land, the madmen, orphans, murderers, Tunji who had failed their passage into manhood. And they found this place,” she raised her arms up and glanced around the hall. It had been a crumbling ruin when the first Elenarka had arrived, a necropolis, the largest city on the continent, abandoned by its people for gods only knew what reason. Perhaps they had merely given up their fight against the desert winds and sands. But what they had built here was incredible, was beyond understanding, the mere scope of the place, the grandeur. The palace was a glowing conglomerate of massive white stones, moved by the gods themselves. Long halls, twisting passages, open terraces, wide promenades, all filled with sand, pitted and scored by a constant battle with the wind. And from the palace buildings of tawny stone stretched out like a legion of soldiers at the ready, hundreds, no, thousands of dwellings, they had been; and every year the sand and the wind took off the outer layer, until a graveyard of broken stone surrounded them, growing wider all the time.
“And then, do you know what happened, Marcairo?” she asked. She stepped toward the cowering man, bent down to try to see his face. He only whimpered, curling up into a tighter ball, the muscles of his back flinching.
“And then we found the mine,” she said, turning and walking away. “You know this, you were educated once, and...?”
“Elena, please,” he whimpered. “I-I didn’t mean it to come to this.”
“No one ever does,” she sighed. She ran her hands through her tangled mane and stretched. It was still early in the day, though the sun already bore down upon them like an angry slave master. She sat upon the smooth stone throne that seemed to grow out of the wall and she looked at him.
“Marcairo,” she said. “When a young girl and knight gather together all the unwanted folk and bring them to a necropolis on the edge of the desert, what do you think happens? Do you think the murderers stop murdering? The rapists stop raping? The orphans stop being orphans? No. People do not change. Though their skin and hair and even their eyes might darken to better withstand the sun and the wind and the sand, even those great elements cannot reach into the hearts of men and make them something they are not. You did a bad thing, Marcairo. You tried to raise a rebellion. You tried to deceive me. You tried to kill me.”
“No, Elena, it’s all a misunderstanding, please,” he lifted his head, blue eyes blazing with tears. “I love you.”
Her face changed with those words. Whether it was a shadow that came over it or just a hardening, the man on the floor could not tell. But he knew those words were his end and he shuddered and lay his head back upon the gritty floor and tried not to sob.
“My great-grandmother used to hang traitors upon the palace walls. Left them to burn in the sun and the wind, pitted by the sand. The murderers went to the mines for a while, with a heavy collar upon their neck, but that hasn’t worked out so well, now has it? What should I do to you, Marcairo?
“What should I do?”