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Previously... "The queen!” scoffed Ásgeir, “She is a myth...” "Touching the queen’s gladiator is Tabu.” "...tomorrow the god mother has called you.” “The queen mother?” the child gasped. He had touched the queen's gladiator! Ásgeir could barely remember the last time he had seen the queen mother, so many years ago, after his own mother had died. She had seemed tall and great to him then, even though Amalia had been with him; but now all was different, and he felt a hint of fear creep over him as he was led by his father down a long, long winding staircase, far below the city once more, to where a stranger he didn’t know, the ruler of the great city, had summoned him. What would she say about the Tabu? He had broken hallowed law. What could she do to him? He was distracted by the great place he was walking through, and for a moment in his wonder he forgot his fright and everything else he had been thinking about. Ásgeir had never seen this place since he was very little, and he had almost forgotten what it was like, so tall and long, the enchanting cavern many kilometers wide and a hundred feet high, and buried inside it the beautiful palace standing in the center of the greatest chamber of all. But he remembered the queen mother, Ani Morazza, who had cast off his whole family that day his mother died upon the soft couches of this very palace; his god mother had struck his father across the face, and her guards had beaten him out of the palace, and he had never returned. Ásgeir remembered the words she had used. “You are a weakling and a coward, Navarré: you shame the name of Cioto!” “And I am ashamed of it,” he had replied, and the boy remembered turning his face away sickly as the queen turned white with wrath. Ásgeir blinked sadly and shook his head. He looked up at the elegant roof and at the corbels and pillars holding it up. He had never seen as rich a place in all his life. Then, as they entered, the great palace’s intricate interior met his eyes. He stared at the beautiful carvings of the ceiling which half disappeared into the nebulous haze. Who had made all this? He barely knew it existed. Suddenly he noticed his father was not by his side and the boy looked back. “I go no further,” said Navarré wistfully, standing outside the arches through which Ásgeir had already passed, “To cross that line means to be a Cioto.” Ásgeir looked at him strangely, but his father merely turned away his eyes to look to the huge rock walls of the cave, and their vacant gaze disturbed the boy. The child gulped. He was far from eager to see the queen his grandmother, and he went across the hall very slowly. At last he reached a wide gate of ivory and cedar, beside which stood a severe guard whose face looked dark and gloomy in the dim candlelight. The doors opened and as he entered Ásgeir looked up at the guard, who he saw bowing just as the door closed again behind him. The boy felt his knees grow weak now. He looked around and he saw he was alone. This room was old, and in spite of the ancient luxuriousness of the tapestried walls and beautiful windows, it appeared half destroyed. He tired of the anxious survey of the walls and tried instead to remember what the queen looked like: tall, thin, and pale, with eyes like blue coals. “Venerio,” a voice said, and the boy started and nervously sought the speaker. “Bow.” Music sweetly charmed the air from some other quarter, but Ásgeir barely heard it. She was there, right beside him, and she looked far shorter than he had remembered: but he saw her eyes bearing down upon him and he inclined his head for an instant, watching her. Her face was dark and youthful. He thought she looked very young, but people called her an old witch. For the first time, he wondered if it might be true: was this girl really his grandmother? His wandering thoughts were cut short by her voice again, as she stepped away from him, into the center of the old room. “Oh, I forgot,” Ani added with a lisp, interchanging an order in Itsü with the guard from another hall, “What is thy name? Ásgeir.” She wet one of her fingers with her lips. “It should have been Venerio.” “I is. Venerio is my middle name,” the boy replied, staring at her boldly. He noticed the music stopped as she ignored him and spoke on. “Come, Ásgeir, I something to show thee.” She stepped out of the room, her quiet steps almost inaudible on the rugs and carpets of the floor. Ásgeir followed, his eyebrows anxiously bent over his eyes, while he surveyed the queen’s figure as best he could in the fluttering light of the chandeliers. She stopped at last and he found himself standing on a tall balcony facing the immense expanse of the cave, and far below he saw a multitude all bowing, and before them a large pool of clear water. Suddenly he felt very small, and shrunk against the wall. What was that before the pool, on a small raised platform of stone? “It is the priest,” Ani said, as though reading his mind. “The priest of the Étiere Kolgari, the last of his ancient order: and that is the altar of sacrifice.” Ásgeir felt his heart palpitate. “What do they sacrifice?” he breathed. The drums suddenly beat out a wild call, and a small group of chanters began to moan a mournful lullaby. “Look,” Ani said simply, watching the boy as he bent over the parapet. Then the child pushed himself back and tried to close his eyes in horror, but he could not, for they were fixed upon the sight: a little child, a little smaller than himself, dressed in a ragged white cloth, was walked out through a narrow stone archway, silent and terrified. Ásgeir saw him turning his pitiful eyes upon the crowd, and he dared to bend over and look again, trying to catch the child’s eyes. They were taking him to the center, there where the ropes suspended the altar stone from the roof high above, hanging it over the cool and lovely water of the pool. Ásgeir screamed, but his voice was lost amongst the cries of the chanters, and he turned on the queen instead. A horrible question was written on his face, and for the first time he truly regretted having done what had brought his attention to the queen his grandmother. “It is but an ancient Kolgari rite,” she answered him, staring out again at the dark, torch lit scene. “Thou shouldst learn it.” Anger filled the boy, and yet terror also. “They are raiding the west, Asgeir; already men have infiltrated into the very palace, and into the prisons of the queen’s gladiators.” She turned and paced up and down the balcony, keeping her face always turned toward the altar stone. Asgeir closed his eyes, trembled, and grew pale as she mentioned the gladiators. He leant back sickly against the wall, striving to burn out the melancholy sound of the lullaby and the horrible drums. “Yes, they have reached even here,” Ani said, as though she did not notice. “Men from the East: knights, raiders… they come on crusades, and sometimes… they are looking for something: Asgeir di Cioto, thou art that something: in the–” “Arcassan!” Ásgeir suddenly interrupted her, his uneasy eyes having spotted a handsome Kolgari in the multitude below and his mind remembering the beckoning face of the gladiator the day before. “Arcassan?” asked Ani, scanning the crowd quickly. “Who is that?” The boy did not answer: his awestruck face had suddenly turned instead to the altar of stone, where the poor child of sacrifice stood mutely as they lifted him and tied him down upon it. “Aen thilivern hén,” muttered the priest, and suddenly Ásgeir saw him wave a glowing knife in the air, a knife that had appeared from nowhere. “That is the knife that formed the realm,” remarked the queen mother, smiling at the child at last, a charming and enchanting smile. “The knife the boy took with him, a knife made of the very first, the strongest Aurumium ever mined by the druids from the ancient city of Zamorah: hard as steel and beautiful as gold, is it not?” Her face was like a mask. Why was she saying all this? He had almost forgotten why she had brought him there: what was she waiting for to tell him? He banished the fear from his face, trying to be brave, yet the sight he saw held him tranced with horror. “I had a dream, Venerio,” Ani Morazza said as she watched, and Ásgeir suddenly doubted if he knew at all why she had called him; he looked at her out of the corner of his eyes and was silent. “I dreamed with Di Cioto and his ring, and I saw it on a hand: I felt that it was yours.” Then Ásgeir’s distracted eyes flew back to the child above whom the knife had been raised, and he wished instantly that they had not: the boy lying there was suddenly cut to the heart and one last scream rent the air. The knife that formed the realm came down upon the boy’s little heart, and the whole stone altar block slowly shattered and crumbled beneath the dead boy, dyed blood red. It slipped slowly into the great sluggish pool and was swallowed, but in but a second the waters above turned red also, and as though it were blown by the wind, the color seeped swiftly across the pool just as the shaking water grew calm again. Ásgeir panted and closed his eyes, stumbling backwards, as far as he could from the horrible scene. Then he opened them for an instant and he saw that Ani was watching the scene with fevered eyes, and took one more step back. Then another, and another, till at last he turned to run. As he ran down the long hall he heard the drums cease and the chanters grow silent in their lullaby while the waters of the cave slowly cooled, and then in their place an eerie silence filled the air, almost ringing, it seemed, against the walls of the immense cavern and down the narrow sides of the gallery. It was over. The boy paused on the point of crying and glanced about gasping. He was in the old room again, and he leapt at the windows, and at the tall, closed doors, beating them frantically with all his might, trying to break through, to escape the terrible place. Then he stopped dead in his tracks. Ani Morazza was beside him again, and he thought for a moment that it was magic. What was she thinking now? She took her cloak off and called in a guard. “There is a new queen of all of Historica now, Ásgeir; she is giving bread to the needy. Give the starving child a piece of bread,” she said to the guard. Ásgeir saw he carried a basket with food and he felt hunger gnaw at his stomach. But he looked away from it knocked it from the man’s hand. “I am starving, but I will take no queen’s bread: it would mean she owns me, and she never will!” The Ilesole queen looked at him keenly. “Charity should come from friends, not monarchs: thou art right. But I am thy friend, Ásgeir Di Cioto: eat it.” He bent down and retrieved the bread with eagerness, and yet he kept his eyes always warily fixed upon the queen mother. “It’s not so bad,” he said, but the sweetness in his voice was mixed with bitterness as he remembered what he had just seen. He could not eat all the bread. “Why are you giving me bread?” he asked. “Why does anyone give anyone bread?” answered the queen, “Because they care for them.” “Then the queen of wherever you said cares for us?” asked Ásgeir, his voice a blend of melancholy and disdain. “The queen cares for her people,” answered Ani, “but not… for people. She gives charity because she thinks it is her duty: but she did not give me this bread.” “I did not come to talk about bread,” he broke in. “Or to eat it.” “Thou dost not know why thou camest,” said the queen languidly. The boy felt at last that he did not, but it could not make his mind easier. “Dost thou remember the dream I told you of?” Ani sat down upon a couch for the first time, and fingered a paper. “I dreamed of the end, Ásgeir, and now I know, that as I was here at the beginning, I will be here at the end.” She snatched up a candle and stood suddenly, holding it to the paper. “Dost thou see this, child? It will be like that… it shall to burn, and because of that I have called thee here.” She dropped the paper as the flames licked at her fingers and crushed it beneath her feet. “I am going to tell thee something I never told thy foolish father, Ásgeir. There was a scroll. “It is there, beneath the darkest tile in the room,” she nodded towards a corner, “and no one has touched it, no one has seen it save I since it left the hands of Di Cioto, thy grandfather. Its words, Ásgeir, can change the world, and they can change thy life forever.” The boy made a motion, but Ani’s jaw grew firm and she made a harsh gesture. “And no one will touch it, no one will see it, until I say. I have told thee so that another knows; fire destroys… fire burns… fire hurts.” She looked up with wide eyes at the roof, and Ásgeir thought they even looked scared. But he stepped forward defiantly and called her gaze back down. “How do I know that Ilesole will burn to the ground? It cannot!” “Thou shalt know,” answered the queen mother scornfully, “Because thy house will rise in flames.” “Then how do you know?” “How do I know?” She smiled. “Well, the god knows many things: I am his queen: the god queen.” “God queen?” Ásgeir looked at her in disdain. “Careful what thou thinkest, child,” she said coldly, staring harshly at the boy. “Thy father… well, he may be dead soon.” She called the guard in once more. “That is all, boy. Remember what you have seen, remember what you have heard: always. And remember, the desert plant always flourishes best… in the desert.” Ani Morazza bowed slightly to the boy, and he bowed in return, but he did not turn his eyes down. Ani’s eyes narrowed and she nodded, and the guard by his side painfully bent down his head. “Careful with those in power,” murmured the queen, turning away, “Ásgeir Venerio Di Cioto.” Then she looked back for one moment with her sharp impenetrable gaze into the boy’s small face. “They often use it.”
Previously... "Entering the queen’s arena is Tabu..." the boy threw himself over the low parapet into the arena below. "Come, if you want to know something," stood there written in the sand. “Remember... you are a De Cioto!” Water splashed and lapped against the sides of a small gondola as it drew up to a wooden bridge which spanned the dark canal and cast an evening shadow upon the glittering waterway. A boy leapt out of it and dropped a rekshi in the hand of the gondolier, sighing as he stepped onto the hard wood stairs. It was Ásgeir, and a moment later, a ways deeper in the oldest ghettos of the city, his footsteps sounded on the planks and beams of the streets as he ran up more steps and across more bridges, drawing nearer and nearer to a tall wooden tower, leaning with age and standing only set a few feet above the piles of houses and old buildings around it. As he approached his step grew slower and more wary, until at last the child paused before the low door and looked up at a few lit windows above him. The light spread gently out upon the scene and mingled with the moon’s beams, but the child did not heed the pretty scene around him, nor did he knock upon the door. Instead he waited, and waited on. Then a shadow crossed the window above him, and he dashed a look about him, placing himself farther into the recess of the door still panting slightly, though whether from his recent exertions or from fright he could not tell. Was he too late? Or was he too early? He couldn’t tell. He would wait. Then the door opened a small crack, and a sweet, girlish face looked out. “Come in, Ásgeir,” said the boy’s sister, opening the door and looking down at his ragged shirt. Then she glanced anxiously back and forth as she closed the door, and he felt a scare run through him as he thought of why she was looking back. Then she turned back to him and brushed the dirt off his shirt, remarking in a low voice, “Look how you left your shirt, child! And where were you after the fights? Did you get in your own? He will…” she did not finish and gave Ásgeir a meaningful look. Ásgeir pursed his lips and said tersely, “I know, Amalia.” “But stop shaking; I will help you again. Wait here.” His sister lifted a bundle of rags. “Horus was coughing blood, and I could not watch for you.” She left him, and Ásgeir bit his finger. He could not wait, he hated that! Then he heard the wood floors creak, and shrinking back into a corner of the room, he closed his eyes in silent fright. “You’re late, child,” a hard voice spoke as the creaking stopped. “You swore you would not do it again.” “Father, I was trapped,” Ásgeir said in a barely audible voice. “And I went to call a doctor for Horus, and…” “You know we can’t call the doctor, Ásgeir,” answered a tall, strong man of about fifty years. “And you know you are forbidden to leave without being told. A De Karelo must learn to obey, child.” “A De Karelo?” Ásgeir’s voice rung with scorn even as it trembled: he would not have dared to say what he was saying, but he had already spoken—he would finish; “We are not De Kerelo, we are–” “We are not!” his father breathed hard and his words shook. He struck the ground with his rod. “I let you have, whatever you want, child, except if it is to destroy yourself upon those streets at night, but that name, must not pass your lips! I swear if you breathe it in your sleep I will tear you apart, I will destroy you!” A scream rent the air, and Amalia heard it from the other room and paled. She dropped the hand of her sick patient and fled into the room from whence came the scream. “Stop, father!” she hissed bitterly, throwing herself between the child lying thrown against the wooden wall and her powerful father, whose eyes were cold and whose face nearly matched his grey hair. “You are not to touch this child: remember tomorrow; you dare not!” How did she dare? thought Ásgeir. He turned his face away as his father replied, “He must obey, Amalia, or he will ruin us, he will destroy himself.” “Would you destroy him instead?” answered Amalia coldly. She took the boy by the hand, and pulling him with her hurried away. Then she stopped before the stairs and the boy fell down crying. “I’m sorry, Ásgeir!” she said, as though with something in her throat. Then she turned his face toward her, and her eyes looked into his with pain. “Don’t cry, Ásgeir,” she said bravely. “You can’t: crying doesn’t help.” “I won’t,” he answered and his voice dropped. “I never cry, Amalia.” “Ásgeir!” the child’s father called from the other room and he turned his wide eyes back towards it, scrambling backwards up the step. “You must not dare leave tonight; tomorrow the god mother has called you.” “The queen mother?” the child gasped. Had they found out about the arena? It was punishable to trespass there! And he had touched the gladiator! “Quick, go upstairs!” His sister lifted him onto his feet. “Is there any bread?” Ásgeir looked wistfully at her for a moment without moving. “I’m hungry,” he added, turning down his eyes. “I’ll bring you up some later,” Amalia sighed. “Now go.” “But what about Horus?” the boy asked, scrabbling up. “Horus? Horus isn’t that bad, he’s safe for today.” Too bad, thought Ásgeir: and then he bit his lip, just tripping into his room. He bent down and looked through the cracks at the sick boy lying on the couch beneath. He was wrong, he knew; he would try to be better: but it wouldn’t be easy. Next...
Previously... “…if the skies above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, if the sea into which he was cast is washed away with time, if the sun dries up that sea so that the water no longer parts us, if he can walk from there to here! oh, then will the child be forgiven for what he hath done…" "My name is Ásgeir Venerio De Cioto..." Long ago, far to the southwest of all of Historica, resting just a little above the calm blue seas, the beautiful isles of Varlyrio stood silent and motionless, unstirred by winds, unmoved by all the wars and quakes of so far away, peaceful and lovely in the deep waters which rolled so oft upon their shores: and it seemed then as though they would last forever, as though they were set in eternity’s very brow, as though those two isles were to live and last forever: their elixir of life the waters which surrounded them, their defense the mists, their pride the Ancient Cities, and the Great City of Riziniya. And yet buried in that haze which veiled Varlyrio’s face, whose center was the three legendary Pillars of The Allunare, oh who can tell how oft black hands tore that land apart, how many times a dagger found its way to a heart, how many lonely souls disappeared into nothing, into nowhere, lost to the depths of cruel pride and avarice; and who can tell what judgement it was that fell upon them? The judgment, men say, of Aureo, of Venerio, and of the sea which lay between them, when, in the midst of the reign of a great Rego, the moon’s shadow met in the middle of the island where stood those pillars, and the lands trembled, the isles shook to their core and the stormy sea, once calm and peaceful, now rose in rage and cast the islands against each other, plunging them together and crushing their lovely coasts to powder and dust. Then, suddenly, black ravines split the lands, destroying the ancient city of our fathers, mountains forced their way up in the center of what was now but one bruised isle, and the country was thrown into chaos, and fear and terror reigned in all but one hopeful heart… But now, that heart’s beat has faded and gone into the past, now the Island of Varlyrio has once more grown proud and satisfied, the ruins, the terror, and the destruction has been forgotten, the Great City of Riziniya has been forgotten, and also that heart which ceased to beat because of their own cruelty, a score of years ago, has been forgotten, and we fly across the high ridge mountains, out upon the sands of the western interior of the island, away from the rich cities with their winding canals, their assassins and tradesmen, and their Rego, Supano Amancio. We take you out across those wastes and tablelands, across the hilly sands, nearer every moment to the scorching evening sun, here, to the sparkling black waters in the middle of the forbidding stone desert. Wooden houses and huts, murky canals, old palaces and suspicious alleys, lie here in the midst of the nothingness, built up upon this lake’s precious waters: and this is the tall and lonely city which is called, Ilesole. Swords clashed and the noise resounded along narrow, torch lit walls. Shadowy figures struck and parried in the center of an arena, and then struck again, sending forth the hollow clangs of battle, which blended with the tranquil music of the royal Kama. “Arcassan is his name,” whispered a man high in the walls, watching attentively. “Watch how he leaps and bounds: he is a Kolgari.” The man he had called Arcassan leaped forward at that very moment, striking and weaving a path for his sword before the Retiario’s face, while his opponent lifted his heavy trident and struck forward in a counter attack. But then the Kolgari lifted his other arm and with a quick blow he struck the helmet of his foe, splintering it and making the fierce fighter stumble back. The Kolgari’s praise was murmured through the arena’s ring of spectators, and a little child lifted his head and stared keenly at the fighter named Arcassan. The boy smiled and rose upon the walls, his narrow eyes never leaving the two gladiators in the arena. “Ásgeir, do you think the Kolgari will win?” asked a low voice behind him, as another boy grabbed his arm. “No, he will die,” the child grinned, turned around, and jumped down, pushing his friend Montez aside. Montez rolled his eyes and pursed his lips. “You’re lying.” “No I’m not, see how he staggers back as his rival strikes again and again? There, he is cut,” said the boy, more thoughtfully. Suddenly the bleeding Kolgari’s back touched the wall, and the people gasped as his foe pulled back his trident for a final blow: and then the Kolgari leapt, pushed off the pillar behind him and, spinning through the air, cut his adversary’s back, pushing him against the wall and ripping through his flowing cape. A rustle ran through the crowd, and Ásgeir turned round again and looked at the man with his head tilted. Montez smirked at him with a face. “You owe me 20 rekshi.” “No,” answered Ásgeir, with a fierce but pleasant look in his pale face. “I will make him die: watch.” “No!” said the other boy soberly, staying Ásgeir’s hand as it reached for the low battlements they stood behind. “Anything but that! Touching the queen’s gladiator is Tabu.” “The queen!” scoffed his companion. “She is a myth.” “You’re lying again,” murmured his friend, but the boy threw himself over the low parapet and landed on a beam below, drawing a knife from his bosom. “Besides, I will not touch him,” he said. “Only my knife will.” Crouching low, Ásgeir bent to spring, but suddenly the great drums ceased to beat their rhythm out upon the air, and when he looked the fight was over: a sweating and bloody Kolgari alone stood reeling in the center of the ring, and the great wooden doors of the arena opened, from them issuing a group of tall and fierce guards. The arena applauded and cried in triumph, and the child hovering upon the beam above the sandy floor of the arena frowned. He looked down and barely saw the Kolgari lift his eyes and scan the crowds behind the parapets above as the guards seized him and led him stumbling across the stained red sand. But then Ásgier lifted his eyes in tired ennui, and Arcassan saw his handsome face and soft blond hair, waving in a sudden breath of hot wind, and for a moment their eyes locked. Something twitched in the Kolgari’s dashing features, his sword dropped from his hand, and he paused, stumbling as a guard pushed him on. “Move!” cried the captain of the guard, striking the wounded Kolgari across his torn shoulder. The dust of the arena floor stirred up around them and mingled with the air. Arcassan’s fingers clenched and his blood ran fast, but he staggered on with only a word. “Come,” he mouthed, and then he slowly turned his head away from the boy from whom his gaze had never left, lifted his sword wearily, and disappeared into the black mouth of the dungeons of Ilesole’s arena. But when Ásgier looked curiously after he had gone, he saw scratched upon the sand with the sword, “If you want to know… Ciot…” and the child started. He knew what the letter that was missing was. A tremor ran through him, and without a thought he dropped down upon the sandy arena floor, glancing on either side. Suddenly he saw the doors begin to close, and unnoticed in the spacious arena by the busy spectators above his head, he ran towards those gates and threw himself in, just as they sealed out the light and left him in blackness, trapped and lost beneath the city’s Eastern streets. “Ásgeir!” cried Montez; but the boy could not hear him now. For a moment Ásgeir tried to pierce the blackness with his eyes, looking for a sign to help him find the Kolgari. His heart beat fast as he tremblingly leaned against the walls. Why had he done that? he thought, angry with himself. It was dangerous to come down into these forbidden parts of the city. And besides, where was the man? What was it he knew? He stepped forward into the darkness running one hand along the wall and clutching his knife with the other. How did the Kolgari know that name? Ásgeir wondered in fright. It was the darkest word he had ever known. A drip of water fell from the ceiling, cooling his brow as he went on, and then he felt a hand seize his arm, and the touch sent a thrill down his spine. “Child, meet me on the canals of Di Verini two nights hence,” whispered a constrained voice, and he knew it was Arcassan’s. Then he felt the hand drop his wrist after placing something in his palm, and he heard a cry mingle with his own hushed one, as though the Kolgari was being dragged away behind those hard steel bars, where he could not reach him; but the man’s last words reached him still. “Remember you are a Cioto!” cried the fading voice, and the child sunk back shaking and wondering. For a moment he could not move in the eerie stillness of the dark corridor. Then the boy started as he heard feet echo through the passage, and he rushed to an inset door where a little gap let some light slip in. He opened his wet hand and took out the small paper resting there, looking around as his eyes adjusted at last to the darkness and seeing no one near. Then he peered back at the paper, squinting his eyes, and by the dim light he could barely read, “Remember the eve of Iles Infantes.” But though the boy closed his eyes and sought to remember, he could not remember. He did not know what the words meant, but he had heard them before, and the ominous saying echoed over and over in his mind. Very faintly he heard the music strike up again far outside in the city above him, and something in it, or in the eerie stillness about him, chilled his heart. He would remember now. Next