Being a prince of the realm had many perks. But it also had its pains. This was a moment of the latter.
Mantos Tiboli, Imperial Prince of the Masvam Empire, was heir to the throne by a hairline crack. He emerged from his egg first, all razor claws and a stubby tail. Then, after the briefest of moments, his brother Bandim escaped from his own shell. It was only by virtue of that second that Mantos found himself standing at the edge of his father’s bed, on the cusp of becoming emperor.
Lingering further away, cloaked by shadow, was Bandim. He stared at their dying father, unblinking.
‘Is he awake?’ he asked.
Slowly, Mantos shook his head.
‘I don’t think so,’ he said.
‘Will he wake again?’
Mantos paused before he answered.
‘I don’t know.’
For the longest time, the brothers stood in the lavish bedchamber, watching the erratic rise and fall of their father’s chest, listening to the rattle of his breath and the spluttering of the candles. This was the same bedchamber they had been hatched in, some twenty-one cycles before. It was the bedchamber that would become Mantos’s upon his father’s death.
And what then? Mantos thought as he fingered the fine embroidery of the bedspread. The crown would fall upon his head, as would leadership of the largest empire in the land—an empire that swallowed everything in its path.
Until losing his speech three days before, Emperor Braslen had still commanded his advisers, poring over the crinkled maps servants brought to his bedside. He was still talking strategy, showing Mantos the next steps in his grand plan.
‘We can break the Metakalans once and for all,’ Braslen said. Despite the wheeze in his voice and the tremble in his hand, fire still blazed in his eyes. ‘Too long have they held out against us. Now that the Selamans have been crushed, we can focus our attention on Metakala. We will roll our borders into their lands, and then, we will strike against the Althemerians. Their queen disrespected me twice: once when she denied my marriage offer, and again when she would not marry her daughter to my son.’ Mantos had stepped back at the fury in his eyes. ’We will crush them…’
Dutiful, the prince listened and nodded at the right times. He knew the Selamans had been crushed. He had been there. He planted the Masvam flag in their capital. He torched the banner that once hung in their ornate long hall. He slit the throat of the queen beneath its flaming remains. Crushed wasn’t even the right word. Decimated was closer to the mark. And for what? Mantos thought. Land? Power? He suppressed a snort. More like rebellion. More like death.
As always, he dared not share those thoughts. Once, he had a confidant, but… Mantos shuddered. Fonbir and I dare not communicate about these matters any longer, he thought. Princes on opposing sides of an impending war... It is not prudent, as much as my heart aches for him.
An obedient son, Mantos always played his part. He was a scholar, a diplomat and, most importantly, a warrior. It was expected. The heir to the Masvam throne, he could be nothing else. No matter what the Metakalans or the Althemerians or the Linvarrans believe, he thought, we see our males as soldiers, protectors, while they denigrate theirs. That’s why they resist us with blood and steel. They see our ideals as dangerous, against the natural way… But how can that be?
Mantos sighed and dropped the hem of his father’s bedspread. Bandim came a little closer, his face lit by the fine white candles their father favoured.
Like Mantos, Bandim had a fine figure. They were tall and wiry, strength without bulk, and favoured their mother’s colouring. Their skin was a deep brown, their armour burnished gold, with fronds straight and black as night. In the light, Bandim’s eyes were an opalescent yellow— just like Mantos’s. Both princes were adorned with jewellery: rings, bracelets, and a fine gold chain that wound around their horn crests, dripping with coloured stones. But their robes were black, a sign of respect for their dying father.
Soon, they would wear white. White to help Braslen’s spirit find its way to the temple, then to the Light.
But not yet.
Bandim fell in beside Mantos and clasped his claws against his flat stomach. His tail swished.
‘He doesn’t have much time left,’ he said. There was a pause. His tone shifted. ‘You will continue with Father’s plans, won’t you?’
It was phrased as a question, but said as a command. At that, Mantos drew himself to his full height, the scales of his neck unfurling. He stared at his brother. Hard.
‘I have given my word,’ he said.
Bandim twitched his tail and raised himself to meet Mantos’s eyes. His own neck pulsed.
‘Words are words,’ he said. ’You can speak them and still not believe them. I know you’ve given him your word.’ He raised a claw and pressed on Mantos’s chest plate. ’But the question is, have you given him your heart?’
Mantos’s nose slits widened. He narrowed his eyes.
’Do not presume to touch me, brother,’ he said.
Bandim chuckled, though it was a mirthless sound.
‘Do not presume to act as if you are already the emperor,’ he replied.
With deliberate slowness, he withdrew his claw. When he smiled, his sharp teeth glinted.
Mantos’s neck scales did not retract until his brother stepped away.
‘Leave,’ he said. ‘I want to be alone with him.’
Bandim lingered for a moment, then gave a shallow bow. He turned, robes whirling, and was gone.
Alone, Mantos listened to his father’s shuddering breaths. He brushed a translucent frond from Braslen’s forehead.
‘I fear my brother will not obey me when you are gone,’ Mantos whispered. ‘What shall I do then? How can I command an empire if I cannot keep my own house in order?’
His father did not reply.
Exhaling, long and hard, Mantos remained at the bedside, waiting.
The Vigil was a long-held Masvam tradition. Offspring stayed with their waning parent, waiting for the flesh to die. Mantos’s first duty as emperor would be to share word of his father’s demise. There would be no herald. There would be no grand ceremony. Clad in white, he would walk to the ornate rail and wait to be seen. After the first pointing claw, a wail would go up.
‘The emperor is dead!’
A wave of white would spread across the empire. Mantos would stand on the balcony as the bells tolled, staring across the stone city to the temple. He would remain in place until the beacon blazed in the cloak of night, starting his father’s journey to the Light.
I never truly thought I would be here, he thought. I imagined Father would live forever. Braslen of House Tiboli had reigned for thirty-five cycles. More advanced in age than their mother, he was on the cusp of old age when he took the crown.
Mantos clenched his teeth. Mother. Someone should tell her.
Phen of House Yru was a beauty in her youth, so Mantos was told. For as long as he remembered, she was a sickly female, whose wits had long deserted her. Not long after his hatching, Mantos toppled from his nest, his tiny body broken. The details changed depending on who told the tale, but each telling ended the same way. On seeing the youngling, broken and dead, Mantos’s mother had screamed her grief. From the depths of the palace, a temple novice appeared—and Mantos had lived.
His mother, blaming herself for the folly, was never the same again.
Mantos placed a claw on top of his father’s papery palm. Braslen did not stir.
‘Would things have been different if the accident had not happened?’ he asked. ‘If mother hadn’t lost her wits?’ Flashes of Bandim’s fury flickered in his mind. ‘Would my brother hate me less? Might he even love me?’
No response. Mantos lifted his father’s claw. He rubbed circles on the leathery armour of the back of his hand.
Prince Mantos was good at many things. He was skilled with a sword and bow, and his mind was as deadly as any weapon. Not one book in the ornate palace library had escaped his greedy eyes. Yet, there was one thing he could not master: deciphering his brother. How can we look so alike, and yet be so different? It was a puzzle he couldn’t solve, no matter how many books and scrolls he read.
The solution eluded their father, too.
‘Your brother is a strange sort,’ was his standard response. ’He concerns himself too much with lore and with...unsavoury beliefs.’
Unsavoury beliefs, Mantos thought. That’s a meek turn of phrase for the worship of a demon. Rumours lurked in every corner of the palace and down every dank alleyway of the city. Prince Bandim was in league with a Darkwitch, the false god Dorai—what a joy it was that Mantos was to be emperor, and not such spawn of the Dark.
Since he was not heir, their father let Bandim’s curious habits be. As always, Braslen concentrated on Mantos.
‘You must lead the empire to new glories.’
Those were the last words Emperor Braslen of House Tiboli spoke to his son, just before he slipped into unconsciousness.
As it turned out, they were the last words he spoke at all.
Bandim didn’t draw his hood over his horned head. His face was clear for all to see. Why bother? It’s no great mystery where I’m going. And who could move against me?
Bandim’s cloak swept behind him in a sable wave as he approached the Temple of Dorai. Nestled in an ancient stone dwelling in the heart of the city, its location was an open secret. An unsuspecting building in a narrow street of broken cobbles, only those invited were welcome to cross the threshold.
Few city folk craved such an invitation. Bandim snorted and rounded the final corner on his journey. As the sun set, the stonework of the old buildings sparkled. The Light is dying, he thought, and so is my father. Well, if this sunset is his last, I need to be ready to act.
Outside, the temple was unimpressive. Inside was…different. Since finding the love of the Goddess Dorai many cycles before, Bandim funnelled gold into the hands of her priestesses. Instead of the derelict monstrosity it had once been, the inner chambers were lined with black stone. The floor sloped into the depths of the city catacombs—into the embrace of darkness, what the followers of the Light called evil.
Fools, Bandim thought as he thrust open the doors, startling a young attendant. They look to the sky. They trust in Nunako and think the Light will consume the Dark.
Accepting an offered mask and taper, he descended into the temple proper. Little do they know, it is the Dark that swallows their brightness. The Dark will always prevail...
The meagre light flickered, sending shadows dancing across the smooth walls. One day, he would not need light to see. Just like Johrann, he thought. Just like my priestess.
That was precisely who he was going to meet.
Masked figures drew back as he approached, bowing in deference. Face covered or not, they knew who he was. They did not question him as he swept through the underground caverns and into the altar room.
He fell to his knees before the five-armed effigy of the Goddess. As soon as his knees hit the stone, a voice bade him rise again.
‘An emperor does not fall on his knees,’ the voice said. Out of the shadows stepped Johrann Maa, high priestess of the Dark. ‘You are part of her. You are the Goddess’s Hand.’
She was a strange creature, with armour of purple and skin of blue. Her eyes, grey and flecked, burned red as she wove her strange magic. Bandim’s mouth went dry every time he saw her.
He rose again and climbed the few steps to the altar. This time, Johrann went to her knees. The tips of her horn crest tapped the floor. Her fronds were tightly bound, not a single one out of place.
‘Rise, dear Heart,’ Bandim said, reaching for her. ‘I am not emperor yet.’
Johrann rose, silent as a shadow, keeping her hand in his. Even in the darkness of the altar room, her grey eyes glimmered.
‘You are at the foot of your throne, my prince,’ she said. ‘It won’t take long to ascend the last few steps.’
Bandim kissed the backs of her armoured knuckles.
‘Not until my father dies.’
Johrann inclined her head.
‘As you wish,’ she said. ‘Your brother’s life has been in my grasp since he was a hatchling and your mother asked me to save him.’ Her arms grew rigid. She lifted her chin and stared, her eyes hard as stone. ‘Once I cut your brother’s thread, your mother will regain her senses. With life returned to her body and gone from his, she will live anew.’
Bandim held her look, his yellow gaze steadfast.
‘I understand,’ he said. ’If she does not go mad with grief upon learning that her beloved son is dead, I will make her go mad.’
Johrann brushed her claws against Bandim’s masked cheek.
‘I know you will,’ she said. ‘I needed to hear it from your lips.’
A set of feet clattered along the hall outside. The steps grew closer and louder until they skidded to a halt outside the chamber. After a moment, there was a steady knock.
Returning to her Masvam colours, Johrann permitted entrance. A temple novice stumbled in, clad in dark robes. Her head, covered in deference to the Goddess, was bowed.
‘My prince, my priestess,’ she said, breathless. ‘News from the palace. The emperor… He’s dead.’
At once, Bandim and Johrann’s eyes met. She said nothing. He nodded.
‘Do it,’ he said. Then he turned to the novice. ‘Get out.’
As the female scurried away, Johrann turned to the effigy of Dorai and closed her eyes. In a swirl of warm air, her blue and purple returned. Remaining silent, she lifted her hands.
There was no great fanfare. There were no swirling lights. No, Bandim thought. The Dark is silent. The Dark is pure.
Johrann turned to him again. Her lips stretched with a leer.
‘It is done.’
On the balcony, Mantos stood in abject silence. Clad in white, he waited as the sun slipped below the horizon. His heart ached, not just for his father’s absence, but for everything that was to come. I do not want to walk this path…but I have no choice.
As the sun set and the moons shone bright, the folk looked up. The first shout rose.
‘The emperor is dead!’
Despite the grief that threatened to topple him, Mantos remained steady, silent. The first wail was joined by another, then another. Below, the courtyard brightened with candles, lanterns blossoming like vines. Through it all, Mantos stood. The dark cloak of night fell upon the city. Sounds of mourning drifted from below. After a time, when the sky was black, the temple flared orange and red. Our colours, Mantos thought. The colours of duty. Of a power that is now mine. Flaming tongues sang the emperor’s demise. The rose to the sky. To the Light.
Then, without fanfare or swirling lights, Mantos crumpled.
And he saw no more.