I left Antu in command until my return, all the shifts have been appointed and the assignations discussed. Everything was ready. I could leave without a problem. However, as I approached my destination nervousness, and uncertainty filled me.
Crossing the third wall gate was easy, the guards knew me, as a fellow gatekeeper. Once inside the guards weren’t so understanding, but the insignia Shahzadi had given me was opening the doors for me, until I reached the hearth of the Palace, there the insignia proven insufficient to grant me automatically access.
“Where are you going?” asked one of the guards as he blocked the way.
“I’m going to the imperial residence.” I tried my best to sound confident, as if I was a regular and the imperial residence was familiar ground for me, but at the same time I was scared that they would tell me it was a mistake, that I wasn’t allowed there, and I had to go back.
“Easy boys,” interrupted a woman behind the guard, “I know where she’s going, I’ll take her.”
I followed the woman through the labyrinth of hallways without questions. She was moving with confidence, and something about her was familiar to me. It still took me some time to piece together the memories and remember where I had seen her before.
“You are one of the escorts that was with the Empress two years ago.” I remembered her as one of the impressive warriors that were watching over Sultana.
“You have a good memory heiress.” It was all she said to me, she didn’t even look at me when she spoke.
We finally arrived to a familiar area, when we stopped it was in front of the room I had used when I had gotten out of the Burrow.
“You will sleep in here tonight,” she told me as she opened the door and turned the lights on, “tomorrow morning, someone will come for you and take you to the dining room.”
“Thanks,” was all I could say before she disappeared, leaving me alone.
I entered my room and took a look around. The bed where Trajan had slept was gone, the other bed had been moved to the center. I was going to be alone this time. I opened the closet and found some clothes prepared for me. Next I looked in the mirror. Not only the room was different. I was different. In two years, I had become a new person, the one looking at me in the mirror wasn’t a little girl anymore. As Cervo had told me, I had become a woman.
I took my clothes off and climbed on the bed. I felt like I have been asleep for just a few minutes when I heard someone knocking on my door. I wasn’t fully awake when Sultana opened the door and walked into my room.
“How are you?” She smiled at me, using that smile that she seldom worn and that always made me feel both content and confuse.
“I’m good.” I tried to bow to her, but I was in an awkward position and couldn’t figure out how to do it.
“There’s no need for that.” Sultana approached me, “when you are on duty you are just another member of this Clan, but when you’re off duty, then you are just my daughter, my heiress. There’s no need for formalities right now, all I need is for you to address me with respect.
“Ok,” I wasn’t sure what to do or what to say, just her presence was so overwhelming that left me speechless.
“You must be hungry, change your clothes. I’ll wait for you outside, and we can go together for breakfast.”
Sultana waited for me to get ready. As I walked out of my room and saw Sultana waiting for me, I thought again of the few times I had interacted with her. I didn’t understand that woman and her changes of mood. I couldn’t understand her or figure out who the real Sultana was.
We walked in silence. It took almost no time to reach our destination. When we entered the room, I was surprised to find it full with people, most of them, I didn’t know. By Sultana’s reaction, I could tell that she didn’t know that they were going to be there.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Silence followed Sultana’s words, the people present just looked at each other.
“I thought that this was a good opportunity for a family reunion,” Shahzadi was the first to break the silence, “I invited them for breakfast.”
“Without telling me about this,” Sultana’s voice was getting cold, threatening, “without asking for permission to do this.”
“Are you crazy Shahzadi?” asked a man seated next to her. “You should know better than anyone else how much Sultana hates surprises.”
“I know, but if I had asked she would have said no,” explained Shahzadi without a trace of worry, “she knows as much as I do that sometimes is good to be surrounded by your family.”
I looked at Sultana. Her eyes were cold as she scanned the faces in the room, but then they softened and finally, she smiled.
“Sometimes you are right,” finally ceded Sultana, “but I would have preferred a more intimate reunion, not with so many people.”
“Why? Don’t you love us anymore sister?” asked a woman on the other side of the room. I was surprised by her words. She was definitely an Amon and was calling Sultana a sister.
“Well, most of you are nothing more than a pain in the ass,” Sultana said, “having all of you here is going to provoke me a massive headache.”
“Well then, be thankful that you are a Maxima, if someone can handle a headache is you,” said a woman that looked like a Vlad.
“It seems the party already started,” said someone. I recognized Nawab standing outside the door, “everybody is here.”
I turned to look at him and saw that Vikomt was with him. He waved hello as he looked at the group already seated in the dining room.
“Whatever,” Sultana sounded resigned, “go ahead, find a seat.”
“Aren’t you going to introduce the little one?” asked the woman who looked like an Amon.
“You should first introduce the young man beside you,” answered Sultana as she pointed to the boy hiding behind the woman.
“Well, he’s not mine. He is Osiris’s” she said pointing to the man next to her, he was like a male version of her. “Net is mine, but you already know her, don’t you?”
“Of course we do,” interrupted Dux as he entered the room, “little Net, I heard you just got promoted to Lieutenant.”
“Dux!” exclaimed Shahzadi. “I’m glad you made it. You were the only one missing. I think we can proceed now. Everyone must be hungry.”
Sultana took a seat at the head of the table, at the other side an older man who had been standing in a corner did the same. I wasn’t sure where to sit, but Sultana pointed the seat to her left, and I took it as Dux took the seat to her right. One by one everyone found their place until all seats were occupied, the only ones still standing were five warriors whom, I guessed, were Sultana’s personal guard. The room was full of energy. I knew that the people present were all powerful warriors.
“Nothing to share Sultana?” asked the old man seated opposite to her.
“I think that Isis was right, we should start with the introductions,” Sultana turned to Shahzadi. “Since you were the one responsible for this reunion, I think you should handle the introductions.”
“Touché little sis, touché.” Shahzadi just smiled and after clearing her throat, and adopting a businesslike attitude, she started. “As you can see we have three new additions to the family, but let’s do this in an orderly manner. Should we start by age?” some of the people laughed at this. Others just looked annoyed.
“The sooner you start, the sooner you finish,” said the old man, “so just start already.”
“The old man who just spoke is Boyar,” explained Shahzadi, “He is our father’s brother and a retired general and war advisor. You all know Sultana. She’s the Empress after all, and I’m Shahzadi, general Shahzadi. To my right is general Khreb, next to him is general Vezir and the young lady next to him is his daughter Rani,” the girl waved at us when she heard her name. “In front of me, we have general Vajira and next to her is colonel Nawab, with his son Vikomt, who just got out of the Burrow.” Vikomt was nervous and maybe a little scared by the people around us. “We have the twins Isis and Osiris,” the fact that they were twins explained why they looked alike. I haven’t thought about it because twins were so uncommon in the Empire, “both twins are generals, and they are accompanied by Isis’s daughter Net and Osiris’s son Hor. Net has been with us for a while, but Hor has just recently joined the Clan’s army” unlike Vikomt Hor seemed unaffected by the attention on him, he didn’t show any emotion at all. “From the Vlads we have general Adze,” she was a beautiful woman, the one that had spoken before, “next to her is colonel Baital. From the Regals we have general Jomei.”
“Aren’t you forgetting someone,” asked Dux.
“I always let the best for last Dux. As most of you already know the young man next to me is Sultana’s heir Dux, son of our brother Rajakunvara, and the beautiful girl in front of him is Sultana’s daughter Kaiserin.
There were a lot of mutterings following Shahzadi’s last words, for most of them the fact that Shahzadi had named me Sultana’s daughter was important, but for me, Dux’s presentation was more important. I wasn’t sure what she had meant by introducing him as Sultana’s heir, but also as Rajakunvara’s son.
“How can you be Sultana’s brother if you’re not a Maxima? We came from a different family,” those words were spoken by Hor to his father, but it coincided with the muttering dying and everyone there could hear him.
Silence followed Hor’s words, and I felt sorry for him. The reaction to his question let him blushing in embarrassment, at least then I knew that he wasn’t as emotionless as I originally thought.
“The term family is often misused,” answered his father. “We are Tzar children,” he said, indicating him and his twin, “our mother was a general from the Amon family. We have Amon characteristics, so we call ourselves part of the Amon family, but that is more about our abilities and physical traits that about blood relations.”
“Usually you are tossed into one family or another, depending on the color of your eyes or the most prominent ability you show,” added Isis, “but that doesn’t change your origins. Our blood ties don’t cease to exist just because our abilities don’t match.”
“My brother was a great warrior and leader,” said Boyar, “but he always had a soft spot regarding his children. It is our custom that the strongest parent or the one with the strongest bond, like a shared ability or family belonging, is the one who claims the child. That’s why my brother claimed all of his Maxima children, but custom stopped him from claiming the rest of his offspring, his women claimed those belonging to other families.”
“Not all of them, I’m pretty sure that we have a few siblings whom we never knew about,” interjected Shahzadi, “he only recognized the children he considered strong.”
“Of course, he was a fool, but he wouldn’t recognize mistakes from his youth or one-night adventures,” said Boyar, “you should know that. However, even recognizing those who are not part of your family is a silly notion.”
“For some is not only a silly notion, is close to a sin,” said Jomei the Regal, “some people think that a child that doesn’t share your own family abilities shouldn’t even be considered yours.”
“That’s a common mantra, especially for Regals,” said Adze, “but nevertheless, you are here.”
“My mother was just a captain in the Emperor guard,” was his answer, “the custom dictated that it had to be her who claimed and named me, but my father recognized me, and I prefer to call myself Tzar’s son. Besides, even if I don’t have the name…
“Not that again!” Adze interrupted him. “Don’t start with that delusion again.”
“Not a delusion sister, I’m as much Maxima as any of them,” he said pointing to his red-eyed siblings. “In more than one occasion I have been able to use the Maxima ability. If it wasn’t for that I would have died many times already.”
“The double mind from the Regal’s and the Maxima’s resistance,” said Isis in a mocking tone, “if that was true, then it would be you and not Sultana seated on the throne.”
“How can a Maxima as strong as Tzar had a Regal son?” The question Vikomt asked was just for Nawab, but just like what happened to Hor, he spoke in the wrong moment, and everyone heard him.
“Genetics are cruel and don’t depend on the strength of the parents,” Shahzadi chose to answer the question. “For example, I’m a strong Maxima, daughter of Tzar and Dronning, the two of them Maximas from a pure lineage, but my son was born a Vlad. Then we have Sultana, and I’m not saying she’s not strong. She’s the Empress after all, but she comes from a tainted lineage. She’s the daughter of a Vlad, and she slept with a Regal, but in spite of this, she managed to get a Maxima daughter.”
“This is all too complicated,” complained Rani, “with so many heirs, how do you know who is from whom?”
“Usually when in doubt, ask a Vlad,” answered Adze. “Most of us have a way of feeling lineages and finding out who is the parent of whom.”
“This generation is complicated because of the number of living heirs,” said Boyar. “Usually we don’t get so many survivors.”
“What do you mean by so many survivors?” I dared to ask.
“Do you know how a new Emperor is chosen?” he asked me. I denied shaking my head. “When an Emperor dies, there is a ceremony in his honor, after that and for two weeks all the heirs come to the Palace: the Emperor heirs, the clan’s generals, colonels, and their children, all of them come. After that, anyone who thinks that is strong enough to rule go into the arena where a battle is held. It’s a fight to death. The last one standing becomes the next Emperor.”
“So from everyone present the only one to fight was Sultana?” asked a surprise Vikomt.
“Of course not,” Isis was quick to answer. “Most of us present here were part of the Succession Battle.”
“But you are still alive,” Hor sounded skeptical.
“That’s right,” confirmed Isis, “honor, gratitude and loyalty allowed us to stay alive.”
“I don’t understand,” I admitted.
“Usually strong warriors try to minimize the number of children they have, or at least the number they recognize” tried to explain Boyar, “for example, most of the leaders from the Allied Clans limit themselves to one or two children, this is to minimize the problems with succession. It’s not unheard of for one sibling to kill the other in order to take control of one Clan. Here we have a different method to choose our leader, but it leads to the same. My brother recognized more than 20 heirs, most of them from different mothers.”
“Right, with some exceptions like Isis and Osiris that are twins or Raja and me,” added Shahzadi.
“Right.” Boyar didn’t sound happy by the interruption, “my brother’s women all wanted their own son or daughter to be the next one to take the throne, so that led to a generation of warriors thinking that each of them was the rightful heir.”
“Part of the problem is that most of us were raised in different parts of the Empire” explained Isis, “the few occasions that we were able to get together weren’t enough to compare our powers.”
“I grew up beside my sister, I know her and I know that I’m not strong enough to beat her in a fight,” said Osiris, “that’s why I choose not to participate in the battle, I was sure she was going to win. But I didn’t expect the strength of all of the warriors that participated in that battle.”
“My generation knew that Tzar was far stronger than us, out of four siblings only one was fool enough to challenge him and was killed for that. When I saw that most of my brother’s children were going to participate in the battle I was sure that they were going to die.”
“What does honor, gratitude and loyalty have to do with all this?” I was curious about that and the talk was drifting away from it.
“You have to know this in order to understand” Shahzadi told me.
“It wasn’t just us in the arena” said Khreb, “there were other heirs beside Tzar’s, also some generals and colonels. It was close to 50 warriors in that battle.”
“Half of them were out of the fight in the first minute” Vajira recalled. “It was to kill or to die, and after the initial blow everything was chaos, it was difficult to understand what was going on. I don’t even know who knock me out, I just know that one moment I was fighting and the next I was bleeding out in the floor.”
“I was feeling like I was at the top of the world” Isis wistfully said, “I had successfully fended several attacks and have neutralized some of my opponents, Vajira doesn’t believe me, but it was me who knock her out. I was about to kill her when I felt scared,” Isis looked at Dux, Vikomt, Net, Hor, Rani and me in a way that scared me, “it was more than fear what I felt, it was terror, the kind the freeze your blood and locks you in place. I felt like my heart was about to explode, I couldn’t breathe, I wanted to run, but my legs didn’t move. And then I saw Shahzadi” Isis looked at Shahzadi and we did the same, she has a sweet smile on her lips, but her eyes… “Don’t let her fool you kids, that was our error, the sweet and happy little Shahzadi, the worthless empath always running behind her brother, no one thought she was dangerous.”
“No one really understood how powerful an empath can be until then” added someone I couldn’t identify.
“Shahzadi used fear to freeze her opponents and then she just delivered the killing blow to them, one by one,” continued Isis with her story, “I was going to be the next one, but as Shahzadi prepared to land the blow Sultana appeared behind her. I could see in Sultana’s eyes the same terror I was feeling, but I was paralyzed and she was still moving” I turned my attention to Sultana and saw that she was concentrating on the cup in her hands, her eyes cast down. “Sultana raised a shaking hand and then Shahzadi flew away, thrown by a strong wind. She then closed the distance between us with a sword in her hand, she put the sword’s tip on my chest and asked me if I was willing to swear loyalty to her. In that moment I didn’t fully grasp the implications, but between the still present fear and the situation I couldn’t but drop to my knees and swear loyalty to my sister. I felt something hit my head and then lost consciousness, by the time I woke up the battle had ended.
“I don’t think that any of us ever considered Sultana as a strong opponent” said Adze. “For me she was just a little insecure girl, always hiding behind her brothers, and in the spirit of sincerity I didn’t have them in high esteem either. I always thought that Sultana’s position was obtained through her mother’s intervention, not by her own merit. But in that battle no one was able to defeat her, she didn’t succumb to Shahzadi’s terror nor the mental games of Kamose, she fought back Lobishomen’s strength and brushed away Tepes illusions. By the time Sultana reached me, I wasn’t sure what to do, I think I was still fighting Shahzadi’s fear, but she asked me the same question, she asked if I was willing to swear loyalty to her. I had seen her ask the same to others just before hitting them, I thought that she was killing them and that it was just a twisted game, but I complied, I did what she asked and when I woke up I discovered that I just had a few superficial injuries.
“Why did you let them live?” asked Net to Sultana.
Sultana hadn’t said a single word during the story, she was staring at her hands, but when Net spoke, she lifted her head and stared at Net who started squirming in her seat.
“My mother, general Mara, always said that I was the strongest among her children. Me, a Maxima, not her Vlad sons. She said that my destiny was to rise as Empress, even if it meant to murder my own brothers. She hid me under my brother Tepes’s shadow waiting for the right moment to shine. But I didn’t want to end the life of any of my siblings, it would be a waste to kill such strong warriors” she looked at her siblings as she said that. “When the time came and I was fighting I couldn’t do what my mother wanted, so after making sure that I was the stronger one there I picked out those I thought were useful for the Clan and after making them swore their loyalty to me I spared their lives.”
“How did you know that they weren’t going to betray you?” asked Hor.
“I didn’t, but I trust that they were going to honor their word, because it was one of the things our father always insisted on, honoring your promises, behaving in an honorable way.”
“Honoring your word,” said Hor, “being grateful for their lives and loyal to their Empress, that’s what kept you alive?”
“That’s right,” Isis smiled, “a promise is a promise, even if it was forced by sword.”
“So your honor is all that keeps you from attacking Sultana and becoming an Emperor?” Vikomt surprised me with his question.
“It is a little bit more complicated than that,” answered his father. “You don’t understand Sultana’s strength, it would take most of us working together to defeat her. That if Shahzadi is with us, not at Sultana’s side. But even if we could kill her, how would we choose the successor? Betraying her would unleash an internal fight that would kill most of us. Is too much of a risk.
“That’s good to know,” said Sultana.
The more I knew about Sultana the more my admiration grew.
“There’s still something I don’t get, where did you get that child?” asked Boyard while pointing at me. “You say she’s your daughter, but I don’t remember seeing her getting out of the Burrow, not this year nor the previous ones.”
“I’ve been wondering the same, is she yours or is she borrowed as well?” inquired Khreb.
“Come on Khreb, that girl looks just like Sultana, don’t you think?” asked Nawab.
I looked at Sultana, waiting for an answer, to my surprise, she took my hand into hers before answering.
“First to praise me and then you hit where you know is going to hurt?” there was bitterness in her voice, not what I was expecting of her. “Kaiserin is my daughter, is an heiress from my own flesh, the one I carried on my own womb.”
“And Dux isn’t?” asked Net.
“He is my heir, but is not my son,” said Sultana, “I have never called him my son, he is Rajakunvara’s.”
“You know what happens to orphans?” asked Dux to Net, those two knew each other. “The family head claims them and names them, but after that they are forgotten. If it wasn’t for Sultana I wouldn’t be seated at this table, no matter that my father was one of Tzar’s sons. My father was one of the fallen in the Succession Battle, my mother died before I left the Burrow. But Sultana recognized me, she knew I was his nephew and she also knew that I wasn’t going to let her down. I can be a great heir for her, that’s why she adopted me.
“But why would she adopt if she can have her own heirs?” Hor was asking his father, but Sultana answered.
“My two first heirs weren’t strong enough to survive. The weakness of my children has been talked about a great deal. Impire had just died when I found Dux. He was the best of his generations, and I knew that he was going to be a good heir, someone that wouldn’t be accused of weakness.”
“I had two brothers?” two brothers that I had lost before being able to know them. “What happened to the other one?”
Sultana took a deep breath before turning to me. “Duodelta was my first born, he never even got out of the Burrow, his body was lost in the lava river during the test.”
“That’s bad luck,” whispered Rani, “it’s almost impossible to survive that route.”
“I survived it,” I said out loud, most for myself than for the others.
“You were lucky then, but how many people from your group can say the same?”
“I was alone,” I told her.
“See? Exactly my point, you were a lone survivor.”
“You don’t understand,” I told Rani, “I entered the caverns by myself, I got to the other side alone.”
My words were followed by silence. I could feel everyone staring at me. Everyone but Sultana that was scanning the faces of everyone present.
“That’s impossible” Vezir was the first to break the silence, “there’s no way she crossed the lava river by herself. It’s a difficult task even for an adult.”
“I know that most of you have heard the rumors about what happened to Hoshi,” said Sultana, not paying attention to Vezir, “most of the rumors are true. Kaiserin was attacked by Hoshi and killed him in self-defense. Thanks to the witch Cerridwen, Kaiserin entered the caverns and reached the other side. To avoid problems and to protect Kaiserin I have tried, without success, to keep the incident with Hoshi a secret. However, I have succeeded in keeping her identity hidden. I don’t want people knowing she is my daughter until the right moment.
“And this year heirs reunion is the right moment?” asked Boyar.
“Maybe.” Sultana was still holding my hand, but by then the strength of her hold was starting to hurt. “I have taken the first step by telling you this. When the time is right, I will share this with the rest of the Clan.”
“Well, if all the rumors are true” interjected Dux, “at least this time you will have an heir that can be accused of many things, but not of weakness.”
Copyright © 2013 | Kaiserin Novel