Once everything was settled each group left. Some groups were taking the prisoners to their destinations, most were going to become slaves in different parts of the Empire. The generals were going to the Palace, they were escorting Kamose’s body and then assist to his funeral. Most were going to participate in the Succession Battle, others were going to be witnesses of it.
I couldn’t go with them. I was still confused, too much had happened in a very short time, I needed time and distance to make sense of my ideas. So I went to the only person that could give me peace and clarity: Melchizedek.
I wasn’t surprised when I was received by a group of people when I arrived to the Shadow’s territory, I wasn’t surprised when Soturi came running from the group to hug me or that she offered me condolences and a shoulder to cry. Melchizedek took me in his arms and gave me his warmth, he knew that even if I wanted to I couldn’t cry, and told me it was ok to be sad and that tears were not the only way to mourn a loss.
“I’ve been waiting for you for a long time,” he scolded me, once I was calm enough to talk to him. “I know your powers have been active for a while now, I told you to come to me, you need to be trained in the use of your powers.”
“I didn’t think I needed it,” I admitted. “I thought it would be easy, just see the vision, know what was going to happen and then decide what to do, if letting it happen or try to stop it. I didn’t think I would make a mess out of it, but I should’ve known, I made a mistake with Rex and Felinae, I thought I was doing the right thing when I gave her to Rex, but I just ruined her life.”
“You did the right thing, Felinae had a rough start, that’s true, but things between them are getting better, Felinae will be fine there. She would be dead right now if she wasn’t with Rex.” Melchizedek tried to cheer me up.
“Are you sure she will be fine?” I couldn’t shake the guilt away, she had been an heiress, and thanks to me, she became a sex toy for Rex. I knew she was my enemy, and that she tried to kill me, but knowing that I had done to her what Caracalla had done to me was enough to fill me with guilt.
“She was born to rule, and one day she will rule her new Clan, that’s something she wouldn’t be able to do if it wasn’t for you. But she will always be your enemy, and that would be true no matter the decisions you made.”
“One more enemy is something I can live with, but knowing that Vasuman and Kamose are dead because of me, that’s different.” What I did to Felinae was nothing compared to the guilt of killing them. “I should have been able to save Kamose, but I didn’t.”
“You cannot always change your visions,” Melchizedek said, “sometimes the future can’t be changed.”
“Then what’s the point of being able to see it?” I screamed. “Why see the future if you won’t be able to change it? That’s just a joke, a cruel one.”
“I understand your frustration, it’s just that you tried to change the future without knowing the consequences.” I knew he was a strong and experienced seer, he knew more than me about the future and the past. But that only added to my frustration.
“I just made everything worse!” I wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. “If I hadn’t tried to help Kamose, Vasuman would still be alive and I wouldn’t be alone.”
“First of all, you’re not alone, there’s a lot of people that care about you. Second, Vasuman took his own decisions, you had nothing to do with that.”
“Of course I did, I ruined everything! Things were getting better between us… he loved me.”
“I’m sure he did, you don’t give your life for someone you don’t love. But you can’t stay in the past, you need to move forward, meet your future, you still have a lot to live for.”
“I never wanted this, my clairvoyance is nothing but a curse, and I don’t want it, take it away!”
“Clairvoyance is a gift, one the goddess gave you,” Melchizedek explained. “The gods don’t give something we can’t handle. They may test us, but is just to show us what we are capable of. You lost someone important to you, but I know that someone better is waiting for you.”
“If the gods really exist, I’m sure they hate me, just when I think things are getting better they have to ruin it for me. Is so unfair!”
“The gods have to have something wonderful reserved for you, all of this will be worth it, just wait and see.”
“Have you seen it?” I felt hopeful. “Have you seen my future? Are you sure it will be better?”
“I’ve seen a lot of things, many possibilities, but leaving my visions aside, I know you are a good person and you deserve all the blessings that the gods can give.”
Just having Melchizedek with me was enough to calm me down most of the time, as if he was absorbing my pain and insecurities, and maybe he was, with the help of his power, but it didn’t matter how he was doing it, being with him eased my pain and gave me the peace I needed to think. It wasn’t his words, but his company, that helped me through the first days, but even with Melchizedek by my side, the guilt was too much sometimes.
There wasn’t much time and I had a lot to learn. Melchizedek warned me that it would be impossible to learn everything I needed to know how to interpret my visions. My problem was that I didn’t know how to dissect a vision. It wasn’t enough to see a vision, you had to learn how to use the knowledge to modify the future. Melchizedek told me that the future could always be changed, but sometimes by changing it you just delayed it, and sometimes you made it worse, that’s what had happened with Kamose and Vasuman. When dealing with someone’s future, direct intervention was a bad idea, a seer needed to suggest, without interfering.
His words and teaching reminded me of Cerridwen. I saw Cerridwen’s teachings under a new light and I started to suspect that she knew this was going to happen and that she was trying to prepare me for it, but she never told me anything directly, as always, she let the riddles for me to solve. Hearing Melchizedek talk about visions and how to interpret them, I started to understand Cerridwen better. I understood why she was the way she was, but I wished she had been more direct with me, Melchizedek was and it seemed to work for him.
“After experiencing a vision you can go back and see the alternatives,” Melchizedek explained, “you just have to focus on what you could do to change it, and see the consequences of your actions.”
“Cerridwen was always talking about costs and probabilities. She said that some futures had better probabilities than others. She also said that you can reach the same future from different paths, but paying different costs. Like when my mother died, Cerridwen said that the victory was ours, the only difference was how many lives would be sacrificed for it.”
“You need a lot of talent and experience to be able to do something like that, to be able to see the future as clear as an open book. Still, when it’s about your own future, there are a lot of variables to consider, it’s too difficult to see how others are going to respond to every change you introduce.”
“When will I be able to do it?” Melchizedek insisted that with time it would get easier, but time was something I didn’t have. “I don’t want to misinterpret my next vision, I don’t want to ruin things again.”
“It can be a long time before you have another vision. It can be weeks or months between visions. That’s the time you have to revisit and analyze your visions.”
“I didn’t have time to analyze my vision, I just have a couple of days to react.”
“And sometimes you will have just minutes, but you need to understand that you won’t always be able to do something, sometimes a vision comes just to help us prepare to the inevitable.”
“What’s the point of having a vision if you can’t do anything about it?” Sometimes it felt as if we were just repeating ourselves. “Wouldn’t it be better not to have a vision at all?”
“You will understand one day.” Melchizede kept repeating, but that didn’t help.
A week flew by, between Melchizedek’s teachings and training with Soturi, who, despite her peaceful upbringing, was one of the best warriors I had known, thanks to her unique power. But what I enjoyed the most of my time there was the time I spent with little Mistral, my goddaughter, one of the most beautiful experiences I have had. Being with Mistral was a bittersweet experience, I loved her, so young and innocent and full of life, but a constant reminder that I would never experience anything like that.
I traveled with a small group, it was easier to go unnoticed that way, I knew Caracalla had spies everywhere, and even though he had announced that we would settle our score in the Succession Battle, I couldn’t trust him not to send more people to kill me. Zounkla and his illusions helped us to travel without raising suspicion, keeping our enemies from finding us. The only problems we found on our way to the Palace were because of thieves trying to take advantage of a small group, nothing I and my men couldn’t handle.
My arrival to the Palace was the end to my anonymity, as soon as I arrived at the gates I could see how my presence was causing a reaction, they had been expecting my arrival for days, and my delay had caused rumors of my death to spread. We arrived at night, but that didn’t stop my allies to find me just a few minutes after my arrival. First was Kozlak, followed by Trajan, and not long after that Inionri and Lamia, soon my room was full of people. They showed me their concern, some by telling me how happy they were to see me, some by scolding me for my disappearance. I was happy for their concern, but after a while I was tired of their constant complaints.
Some of the people I had under my command during my time as captain in the Palace, held now important positions, they were able to give me information that I needed, letting me know that Caracalla hadn’t been idle during my absence. Caracalla was sure he was going to be the next Emperor, and he wasted no time letting everyone know that. Even Benefer, who, after the battle with the Beasts had become Caracalla’s enemy, wasn’t able to stop his rants. As second in command Bunefer was supposed to handle all the Empire’s business, but she wasn’t able to handle it all and Caracalla had taken advantage of that fact, taking control of the Palace. Without my contacts in the Palace: Maddan, Agis and Echrad, I would have been at Caracalla’s mercy.
The morning after my arrival, I joined the other generals at breakfast, most of them already knew I was there.
“Where have you been”? Isis asked at the first opportunity.
“I needed some time to think,” was all I said. I didn’t want to have problems with Isis, but I wasn’t going to let her interrogate me.
“You missed the Emperor’s funeral.” Her tone made me angry.
“I don’t need to assist to his funeral to mourn him.”
“You didn’t have to be alone.” I couldn’t interpret her tone. “That’s what your family is for.” I was ready to snap at her, but I noticed her sincerity and decided to say nothing.
During breakfast, I heard the generals stay their intentions, some were trying to gather support in their quest for the throne, others were trying to decide who to support. The point was to try to reduce the number of candidates, keep as much people as possible out of the Succession Battle. I just sat there and heard them, no matter what I knew I was going to be there, I didn’t care for the rest.
I finished eating and went looking for my men, I needed to be sure that they were ok, but before I reached them, Net and Hor found me.
“My mother wants you to come with us,” Net said. I considered refusing them, but I was curious and decided to follow them.
We arrived at Isis’s room, her siblings and their children were gathered in her chamber. I went to sit next to Inionri and other of my allies.
“Welcome,” Isis greeted me, “thank you for joining us.”
“What’s this about?” I asked.
“You are going to participate in the battle,” it wasn’t a question, she already knew, “I want to ask you to consider staying out of it, I wouldn’t want you to die there, it would be better for you to stay out of it.”
“I have a score to settle, I won’t let Caracalla say I was afraid of him, I will fight, and even if I don’t win, I will at least take care of him. I’m not saying I am expecting to lose, I know I have what it takes to be the Empress.”
“Are you willing to risk your life?” Isis asked.
“I won’t die.” I said with conviction, thanks to my visions I could be sure of it. “Maybe you haven’t noticed, but I’m not easy to kill.”
“I told you, she won’t change her mind,” Adze said.
“Maybe you should change your mind mother,” Net said, “you already had your chance, now is our turn to fight, you are too old for this.”
“You are too young to even think about ruling an Empire.”
“History shows that the younger fighter usually wins,” Inionri said. “Our grandfather Tzar was closer to our age than yours when he became Emperor.”
“The younger ones tend to be underestimated, that’s why they usually survive,” Inionri’s father said, “but that doesn’t mean that they’re the best choice.”
“I really doubt someone is going to underestimate me,” I thought out loud. “It’s a pity that just one person is supposed to survive, it’s a waste of capable warriors.”
“I know,” Isis agreed, “that’s why I’m thinking of following your mother’s example and spare those willing to swear allegiance to me during the battle.”
“Maybe it will be you who will have to bend her knee and swore allegiance to the next Emperor, sister.” Adze said.
The reunion was the same as breakfast, but more open. I thought they wouldn’t wait until the battle to fight, but time flew by and before I knew it, it was time to eat.
After lunch I went with some of my allies to one of the training grounds, we needed to train, even though we hid our best tricks, the need to be prepared forced us to be prepared. It was then that I realized that I was going to be fighting some of them, the thought made me feel uncomfortable, not just because I didn’t want to fight them, but because some of them could die and I couldn’t do anything to avoid it. I was going to be unable to protect them, even worse, I would have to be the one to harm them.
Trajan had decided to participate in the battle despite Caracalla’s threats, Agis and Hor haven’t said anything, but I knew they wanted to participate, both were willing to risk death in exchange for the opportunity to gain the throne. Inionri and Net were very vocal about their willingness to participate, and their confidence made me fear that they would be strong opponents, what would I have to do to stop them? Geb’s and Vikomt parents were the ones urging them to participate. Many of my allies were going to be in the battle, once there our alliances were null, we would be enemies. I would be alone against them.
The rest of the week passed in a blur, the battle was announced to the following day, at the main arena, the one at the end of the Burrows. Enoch, the seers’ leader was in charge of the battle, some people said that he already knew who the victor was, but no one could make him confirm it.
The night before the battle I couldn’t sleep, but my restlessness was understandable. The battle was scheduled to noon. Isis was sure she was going to win, but as Khreb has pointed out, the younger ones had the advantage, if only because they were underestimated most of the time. But no one would make that mistake with me, I was sure Caracalla wasn’t going to, he was prepared for me. I was sure he had found a way to take the advantage in the battle. I knew he didn’t trust to be able to win by himself, he would find a way to cheat.
Everything we have to say to each other had already been said, there was no time for visits or talks, so I spent my morning in my room, pacing and thinking, preparing myself for the battle, convincing myself that had what I needed to win. I told myself that it was just another fight, that I could do it. Finally, it was time, I left my room and walked to the arena. There was no reason I couldn’t be there early. I felt the weight lifting from my shoulders, it would be over soon, I was walking to my future, everything was going to end in a few hours.
Halfway to the arena I heard steps behind me, I was preparing to attack the person behind me, but a familiar voice greeted me.
“Are you ready?” Lamia asked. I was surprised to find her there, it wasn’t her usual route.
“As ready as I could be,” I told my cousin. “I can’t help but feeling nervous, this is not like other battles.”
“No, this is the most important battle, and not just for you, but for the whole Clan.” Lamia smiled at me. “What are you going to do once you become Empress?” she asked.
“We don’t know if I’m going to win.”
“Don’t be modest cousin, we all know who has the best chance at winning this, Caracalla won’t be able to stop you, not even with help from his allies, by the way, what are you going to do with them once you defeat Caracalla?”
“I don’t know, some of them are just too loyal to him, they could be a problem for me if I let them, I would need to send them away or kill them.” Not something I was looking forward to, I didn’t want to be forced to kill strong Regals, it wouldn’t be a good precedent. “And I have to consider his allies in other Clans too.”
“Kaiserin, I don’t want anything to happen to you today.” Lamia approached me and hugged me. “Why don’t you stay out of this? Isis could win, she could take care of Caracalla.”
“I can’t, I have to be there, not just because of Caracalla, it’s something I have to do.”
“Are you sure that you are the right one to be the Empress?” I was surprised by her question, and I took my time to answer, but before I did she continued. “You are too strong, too dangerous, I guess it can be a good or bad thing. I have no doubt you will win, but, is that the best for the Clan?” before I could answer Lamia left, leaving me behind.
I stood there for a while, trying to understand what Lamia had said, until I noticed that it was getting late and I needed to go to the Arena. I had left my room early, but after my talk with Lamia and my wondering, I was late, by the time I arrived the place was full. Caracalla and his people, about half the generals and roughly the same number of heirs were already at the arena. I saw some familiar faces and some new ones. In the balconies the observers were already gathered, the rest of the generals and a few important people were there. Even though it was an internal affair and only Clan’s people was allowed, I saw Curare and at least another two Clan leaders there, people important enough to be granted the honor of being there.
I saw a young group on the other side of the Arena, most of my allies were there, including Lamia, she was standing next to Kozlak. I went to them.
“Greetings.” I say to them.
“Hello,” Net said, “ready?”
“Of course, are you going to participate?” I was surprised Isis hadn’t convinced her to desist, they had been talking about it nonstop the last days.
“Of course, my mother may think she’s invincible, but she is going to be surprised,” she said, “you too.”
At that moment Enoch, the seers’ leader walked to the center of the arena.
“We are gathered here today to be part of history,” his voice echoed through the place. “Two weeks ago, our powerful leader, Emperor Kamose from the Regal Family, died in battle. Now we are here to find his successor. Those of you who think themselves worthy of being the Emperor, those who believe themselves to be stronger, more intelligent, and better than the rest, will fight to prove your worth to your Clan.”
“You forgot to mention that this is a fight to the death.” I recognized Bunefer’s voice, but I couldn’t see her.
“I didn’t forget, but it would be pointless to say it,” Enoch said, his voice changing a little bit. “Years ago Sultana decided to spare the lives of those willing to swear allegiance to her. Kamose did the same on a smaller scale. The key players in this battle have already decided to do the same. Many will die this day, but this won’t be a battle to the death.”
I remembered Isis telling her siblings that she would spare them if they swear allegiance to her, convinced that she would be the winner. I had made a similar promise to my own allies, I wasn’t ready to kill any of them. I knew some like Inionri and Agis would be loyal to me even if they didn’t make any public statement, but other like Net, Hor or Vikomt would need a little convincing, but I wouldn’t kill them unless I was forced to it. From Caracalla I had no idea what he intended.
“Those of you willing to fight for the throne, chose your weapons, the rest, you can go to the balconies to witness the fight.”
From where I was standing I saw the sword that I wanted, one I had used to practice when I was a captain, one I remembered. Using my mind, I grabbed it before someone else did. A few decided to go unarmed, most took a weapon.
A few warriors left the arena, most stayed for the battle. The place was big, but it was difficult to move with so many people there. Around 30 warriors were standing around Caracalla, working as a human shield. Including me there were 23 generals and a similar number of colonels. I wondered how the Clan was able to survive a Succession Battle in older times if so many of the leaders of the Clan died in their search for the throne. Replacing them had to be difficult, especially if most candidates for the position were also killed during battle. I could see many heirs willing to fight.
“Good luck cousin.” Inionri wished me before walking to the other side of the arena, putting some distance between us so we wouldn’t have to fight each other from the start.
“If everyone is ready,” Enoch said, “I declare the Succession Battle officially started.”
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