The trouble starts over on the Theobroma page. I've decided to continue it out here with a few chapters for your perusal. Enjoy a taste of Tarakk prior to indulging in the whole novel. Feedback or questions on the world, its people, their gods or whatever are equally welcome.
CHILD OF FIRE AND BLOOD
CHILD OF FIRE AND BLOOD
Through hours of frigid night, the unnatural storm surrounding Crown City had grown stronger, expanding with the support of Lar Kwa’s faithful. Normally a rarity in Alban, lightning flashes continued to disrupt the calm of the blanketing dark chased by rolling thunder that threatened to drown out the sounds of the city. With thickening cloud layers, both luminous and dark, obscuring any hint of the sun’s radiance, an eerie twilight veiled the populace. Beneath a swirling cloudy dome, a relatively calm storm’s eye remained firmly in place over the city, providing haven from forces that grew strangely stronger as they reached farther. Even without any view of it to guide them, following the time of sunrise, people swarmed the palace walls.
Word had spread of Lar Kwa’s vow to abate the plague and even those who had not heard the word directly had felt the touch of his influence in their dreams. By the word of their golden prince turned emperor, coming to him with their fears, opening themselves to him, was sufficient to allow his power to save them from the King’s Pale Pox. Rumors spread to the masses through whispers and dreams of Lar Kwa spending the stormy night in devoted meditation before the Crimson Throne accompanied by the Golden Shadows, his enigmatic elite guard, and the Circle of Nine who dwelled in the Celestial Temple in endless service.
In one home after another, illness that had threatened death faded as quickly as it had come. With restored health and renewed vigor, people came from within Crown City and beyond it to converge on the royal palace. Many of those who remained afflicted braved the daunting weather with the assistance of the healthy that they might plead personally for their salvation. Their faith had not been sufficient to earn their lord’s favor, but encouraged by the restoration of so many others, they were determined to offer themselves with redoubled passion.
By sunrise, though the sun remained unseen anywhere below the expanding storm, a sea of nearly a hundred thousand people had surged to the edge of the Plaza of Fathers and the city streets leading to it. While many spoke of the elimination of the plague as a miracle, those aware of the multitude gathered outside the palace could tell that the military being able to maintain order would require something more. Anticipating their arrival, Lar Kwa had ordered that rations of bread and dried meat be distributed to all who came.
With all his preparations, he fully expected their fervent response when he walked out onto the great balcony overlooking the plaza. Powerful spotlights shone upon him, resplendent in his golden robes. As he held Tshan’casai overhead, a trio of large white dragons descended from the thick clouds. The winged creatures circled the palace before each found a perch on its roof and towers. In spite of the strange weather and physical privations, Crown City’s denizens met their ruler with cheers of unbridled adulation.
“Our society, once noble and glorious,” Lar Kwa called out, his magically amplified voice echoing from loudspeakers around the plaza’s perimeter, “has become fragmented and rife with conflict. Through these cracks in the armor of our spirits, our people became easy targets of starvation and disease, but no more! Many of us have died and they will be remembered, but they were the weakest of us! Those who have survived this dread time are the strongest of Alban! You are Alban’s strength! While I have become known as an advocate of peace, foreign powers have taken advantage of our nation’s peaceful ways to interfere with the free exercise of our sovereign powers, but they shall be reminded of Alban’s ferocity. Their shackles of oppression must be thrown off! The Charis’colia have eagerly volunteered their support, pledging their wealth and power to help us rise together in a unification of souls against which our oppressors can not stand! We will be a force beyond resistance! We will remind them that we are warriors!”
Impassioned cries rose up from the populace as Lar Kwa continued. The flames of fervor had been fanned and he knew the people were nearly ready. Then he heard it. At first, it was scattered and disorganized, sounding off randomly among the many different intonations. Quickly, it grew, becoming more clearly audible as the chant became repeated by more people with increasing frequency. The more it repeated, the more it drew others to join in the chant. As more people joined in, the chant gained organization until all he could hear was “LAR KWA! LAR KWA!” rising up to embrace him with a force to match the unrelenting wind beyond the city’s edge. He allowed himself a rapturous smile as the voices washed over him. They were finally ready.
“Gather with your families,” Lar Kwa ordered. “Draw together, warm yourselves and eat! Then pray for Alban! Pray for us all! Soon we shall begin our quest to glory!”
The people began to cheer their approval once more.
“As surely as I have brought you salvation this day, follow me and I shall lead you forth to change the world! Follow me as your glorious Golden Emperor and the unrighteous will fall before us!”
Tshan’casai glowed brightly, its golden light once more a beacon as he thrust it skyward. The people began to chant his name again as the summoned dragons roared to the swirling storm.
Lar Kwa felt light with rapturous energy, the chorus of voices he had inspired flooding him, buoying his spirit. His heart pounded hammer blows, fed by his matchless ambitions as he looked out over the frenzied masses below. Darkness and desperation had been rampant across frozen Alban for weeks, but the new emperor’s zeal had swept across the citizenry and reshaped their fear. Backed by the power of ancient magical forces, Lar Kwa’s impassioned words were as eagerly received as he ever could have wished.
Within the centuries-old palace walls, heart of the transformative fervor, the rising chaos was music to the one who had orchestrated it all. The golden robes that had graced his father’s shoulders hung from Lar Kwa’s own as though he wore a new skin, reforming him into a new man. Hearing the whisper of a familiar voice that assured him all obstacles would soon be swept from his envisioned path, Emperor Lar Kwa felt a confidence rise within him as he turned from the cacophony below his grand balcony perch and walked back into the palace with a flourish of flowing gold.
With practiced invisibility, a dedicated team of videographers under the direction of Mischa, Lar Kwa’s chief promotionalist, dutifully recorded the actions of the emperor and every event that occurred around him for the sake of whatever historic record their master sought to present to the world. Gliding about the polished marble floor with silent grace, the camera operators deftly avoided interaction with any of the emperor’s guard or guests. Even more importantly, as they spread around the great hall, they stayed out of the emperor’s way and managed to record him from multiple angles as he moved to his newly occupied throne.
“Bring them in,” Lar Kwa commanded, barely restraining a chuckle as he triggered a rush of frenzied activity.
Heavy, ornately crafted doors that had been hand-carved from imported wood stood at the main entrance to the opulent chamber. The dark wood was born of trees in the forests of Tahzir in the distant north. The archaic symbols carved in the wood told of the birth of a long-broken empire, the unification of people from distant lands. The doors were flung open with the suddenness of lightning and a deep booming barely distinguishable from thunder. Through the open doorway marched the striking figure of General Karra, still dressed in his familiar black and gray armor. Held in his strong right hand, the general walked with Torrent, a powerful stormlance. The bladed upper end of the magical, eight-foot greatstaff was aglow with a scintillating light that sparkled on the surface of the polished dragon skull he wore as a helmet. A cloak of coal black cloth and fur flowed in the general’s wake and just behind its edge followed two of Lar Kwa’s Golden Shadows, silent figures bound in service as the emperor’s elite guard. The dutiful knights were clad in full plate armor of shining gold, as reflective as any mirror. Despite their bulk, they moved with inhuman grace and their armor never made a sound.
The seasoned general with his glowering eyes and traditional warrior’s garb of leather and cloth approached the Crimson Throne. Lar Kwa, his gaze straining to pierce the thick beard, scrutinized the aged face that came toward him. The general was a unique sculpture, scarred like an ancient stone displaying the record of years of practiced violence and even at its most serene projecting nothing less than menace straight from the depths of his hardened heart. The emperor studied him as all nine of the Golden Shadows took position at the bottom of the steps that led to the Crimson Throne.
“General Karra, I revel in the midst of a day where my long-mapped plans become manifest after years of struggle,” Lar Kwa announced to the general, “and yet I am faced with you.”
“I respond only to your summons, sire.”
“But you’re grim, Karra,” the emperor told him. “Look in a mirror sometime. You’re a grim fellow. If I wanted to frighten children to death in their beds, I couldn’t imagine anything better than to include you in their nightly stories.”
“We prepare for war, my lord,” General Karra reminded him. “It’s grim business on its best day. I am your warrior and intend to deliver you only the best results.”
“The restoration of your reputation and honor is of great concern to you,” Lar Kwa said. “I can see how it weighs upon your troubled soul.”
“Your perceptions are accurate, my liege,” the general told his master. “My burden drives me, motivates me in your name.”
“Of course, I treasure your loyalty, Karra,” Lar Kwa told him. “Remember, though, it is not war for which you prepare, but peace. Unlike our many pirate battles, this will be a divine mission of reunification. The change we bring may not be welcomed by all, but those who would resist us will be unable to stand and will be swept aside.”
“I understand, majesty,” General Karra told him, “but no one ever invites being swept away with any eagerness. The gods favor the prepared.”
“You already have five thousand troops preparing for deployment over land. Several thousand zealous peasants outside are hungry to serve and more are on their way. They’re going to bridge the efforts of those already in Bentrci and your infantry as it follows. We are going to rebuild a broken empire and restore the faith of its people.”
“With all due respect,” General Karra said cautiously, “that’s a half-starved mass of civilians. They need to be trained bef--”
“That’s a fevered mob, souls intoxicated by the glorious touch of divinity through my power,” Lar Kwa said, leaning forward in his exalted throne. “They’re being fed enough to sustain their bodies while my magic drives their souls. Have them dressed in the right colors, take them to the border and point them north!”
“My apologies,” General Karra said. “I’ll have weapons and field packs distributed right away.”
“Save those resources for the real soldiers,” Lar Kwa told him. “A fanatic mob travels best when it travels light and carrying weapons certainly won’t convey the message of peace. They will be the first ambassadors, spreading the divine message on their pilgrimage. Their needs will be provided for as they go.”
“Brilliant, sire,” General Karra said with a half-bow.
“Divinely inspired,” Lar Kwa said, his gaze shifting to the people being escorted into the throne room flanked by palace guards. “You must have faith, Karra. I extended a hand to you in your exile and you took it. Do not falter and you will yet know redemption for your past. Obedient steps will maintain your soul on a healing path.”
“Thank you, majesty.”
“Put the civilians under the Weasel Clan’s charge and let Tais deal with them,” Lar Kwa ordered. “He’s accustomed to handling unwashed masses. Now, on to other matters. The foreigners? Where are they?”
“Kent Haleen,” Jarkadin informed them, stepping forward nervously, “ranking trade envoy and his delegation from Zadiasam.”
“All dead,” General Karra said, “attempting to escape the country with your parents.”
“Oh, how tragic. There was so much more for them to see and to learn. Zadiasam has made another poor choice,” Lar Kwa said, “attempting to support the old rulership’s collaborations against the true might of Alban. Fearfully clinging to old ways has driven them to flee from grace, to deny the promise of the future. Zadiasam’s predatory oppression here shall be put to an end. The monstrous, organized evil it has become shall be revealed to all Tarakk. Leaders of the Charis’colia, step forward.”
Lar Kwa smiled at the faces and movements of those breaking from the crowd to approach him. As they aligned themselves before him, the colors of each faction were displayed proudly. He looked down upon them, reminding himself of the magical disciplines that each was reputed to have at their disposal. Before returning to Crown City, Lar Kwa had contacted select heads of the Colia, strengthening the foundation of his imperial plans by offering deals to those of the most powerful tribes and clans in exchange for support of his cause. Those he could not initially sway to see the virtue of his grand vision, he remained confident that ways to bypass their resistance would present themselves to him.
“Tilo Isharien,” Lar Kwa called out with a knowing smile, “you have stepped forward to speak for Clan Isharien this grand morning. Could your father not be with us?”
“High Lord Aolo is unwell, majesty,” Tilo replied humbly. “Following your most generous party last night, we retired to the luxurious suites you provided here in the palace. This morning we found him deep in a cold sleep from which none have been able to rouse him.”
“Indeed a tragedy which must weigh upon you greatly,” Lar Kwa said. “He must not have focused upon his prayers.”
“All Clan Isharien prays for his speedy recovery,” Tilo told the emperor.
“It is noble of you to have joined us in this time of crisis. It stirs my heart to know that there are still those among us who recognize their duties. In Aolo’s absence, I am certain you will serve well as Isharien’s High Lord in his stead. I will need you to begin familiarizing yourself with available intelligence about those who might resist us.”
“Isharien’s resources are at your disposal, of course, majesty,” Tilo assured him.
“Of course,” the emperor replied, gesturing to a tall, hooded man to step forward from the shadows, “I have already put them to good use. You will need to be brought up to speed.”
The unknown man caused a chill to run through Tilo, the daunting figure knotting the young lord’s stomach as he stepped forward silently. Ornate gold bracers adorned the stranger’s lean arms and a white hood kept his face in shadow. Tilo’s eyes scanned him quickly, but thoroughly, making note of the two swords on the man’s back and one on each hip, each weapon a unique treasure.
“He is draped in the colors of Isharien,” Tilo commented, “but I don’t think we’ve been introduced. Idon, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Reputations do speak volumes, do they not?” Lar Kwa chuckled. “He is an agent of your father’s. One of his better known secrets, I must say. Certainly, a credit to your clan.”
“Yes, the Eight Blades of Idon have cast long shadows,” Tilo said, “feared by many. They’ve been doing advance work for your plans, majesty?”
“Superbly so,“ Lar Kwa confirmed. “Go. He will explain the network that has been put in place. I expect preliminary recommendations quickly.”
“Yes, your majesty,” Tilo said, thumping his fist to his chest before withdrawing from the throne with the silent lesser noble.
“And do not concern yourself about your father,” Lar Kwa continued. “He and the rest of your family present will be welcome to stay on in the guest suites where they will receive the finest possible care.”
“Thank you, majesty,” Tilo said.
“As we are in a time of crisis, I insist that all of your family members present, in fact, should remain guests of the palace,” Lar Kwa announced to the rest of the gathered nobles.
“Your…majesty,” Duchess Cella managed to force the words from her mouth, refraining from displaying her outrage at the situation, “we are the Colia. As the nobility of Charis, we must return to our domains. There is much to be done…if we are to aid you.”
“Certainly,” the emperor said, “and such sense of duty is admirable. I would be remiss, however, if I failed to honor your service. I can think of no better reward than to continue hosting your loved ones. Secure in these mighty walls, the Charis’colia will be protected as nowhere else in all of Alban.”
“But, majesty,” Duchess Cella contended cautiously, “I--”
“I insist,” Lar Kwa reminded her. “My military’s officers must know that their loved ones are safe in order to perform at their best. All manner of ill might befall them outside the palace, more than merely the pox.”
“We understand and thank you, sire,” High Lord Tallis Vey of the Ice-wolf Clan broke in, bowing deeply and flaring his cape before Lady Cella to draw attention away from her. “We are all grateful beyond measure.”
“Of course you are,” Lar Kwa said. “I am being magnanimous. Confer with General Karra. He has your assignments and will begin briefing you on my campaign plans. I will join you soon. Palace guards will escort my honored guests back to their suites. When there is time, those staying here can join in a discussion of the reborn empire. Perhaps at dinner.”
The guards began to encircle them with swift efficiency to escort their charges out of the throne room once more. As people were ushered from his presence, the number of soldiers and guards quickly outnumbered civilians before the emperor.
“No,” Lar Kwa said, gesturing at one strangely dressed woman with the tip of his sword, “not that one. She stays.”
He gestured with the ancient sword, first up and then toward the thrones, the surprised Treutelaar rising helplessly over the heads of the guards and then flying to the jeweled throne that she had always known as her mother’s. The distaff noble, clad in her gray coveralls, was dropped unceremoniously into the padded throne and struggled to catch her breath.
“Once upon a time,” Lar Kwa said, “there was a prince who was sent into the wilds. Though he was far from his home, he did not die--”
“Raging storm…raging maniac,” Treutelaar grumbled.
“--for he was favored by ancient gods,” Lar Kwa continued. “When they saw that his struggles had made him strong and worthy, they gave him a magic sword that shone with a light to guide him home.”
“So I’m to be plagued with stories to keep me up at night?” Treutelaar asked. “Is that why--?”
“An emperor needs an empress,” Lar Kwa explained. “Best to keep it in the family.”
“I want no part of this madness,” she protested. “Please, either release me or just kill me.”
“Moving from princess to empress is a promotion,” Lar Kwa told her. “Serving your people is a sacred duty. You are their light, after all. They adore you nearly as much as I.”
“You have the throne,” Treutelaar said, tears beginning to stream down her cheeks, “and a cult of followers. You don’t need me to legitimize…”
“No, do not speak nonsense, dear one,” Lar Kwa laughed as he approached her in her seat. “You are the pure Light of the People, glory of this palace.”
“We, best of all, know I am neither,” she said. “Be done with me.”
“Never,” he told her. “I want you here more than any other. I have always loved you, dear sister.”
“Then, let me go.”
“We have too much time lost between us already,” he said softly. “You did love me once.”
“Yes,” she admitted, “when you were my darling little brother. Before you were a monster.”
“Oh, sweet, sweet sister,” Lar Kwa said, taking her by the hand, “I caused you such pain when we were younger. I will lavish you with my most heartfelt apologies until you accept them and accept that I do love you.”
“Then we’re going to be waiting a long, long time,” she told him.
“However long it takes, I will know the truth of it when you warm to me,” he insisted.
“Speaking of truths,” she said, “you used to be younger than I. What happened to you? You look almost old enough to be my--”
Startled by her brother’s sudden shout, slender Treutelaar nearly leapt from her seat.
“Well, I wasn’t going to guess that old,” she mumbled as the aged servant shuffled forward from the rear of the throne room. “Still, y-you may have everyone else fooled, but not me. You’ll never convince me that you’re anything other than the monster you’ve been for years!”
“In time,” he assured her, looking into her pale eyes. “In time. Time is subject to strange flows. My experiences beyond the horizon have forced me to endure much in order to return home…to you, but such trials have been my forge, casting me into a form far more worthy than that which last dwelled in these great halls.”
“Trials may have aged you, beast,” she said bluntly, denying him the caress of her cheek as her gloved hand swatted his away, “but the monster before me consumed my brother long before you departed these lands.”
“Majesty?” Jarkadin spoke as he stepped up, his withered form moving far faster than it looked capable of doing.
“Jarkadin, you old goat, every time I see you I’m surprised you haven’t crumbled to dust yet,” Lar Kwa told him. “Take her, please,” he said, leading Treutelaar from her throne by her delicate wrist and handing her over to Jarkadin as though passing off a leashed dog. “See that she is cleaned, dressed properly and moved into the new master suite.”
“Then you’ll not be having her exiled or imprisoned, sire?” the old man asked.
“No, only the very best for her,” Lar Kwa responded. “She is the Light of the People.”
“Brighter attire then, sire?”
“I see that revolution has not dulled your droll wit any more than the passing centuries, old man,” Lar Kwa said.
“Shall I smite him, my lord?” General Karra asked, walking up behind Jarkadin as he returned to the throne room.
“Not yet,” Lar Kwa said, tousling the old man’s snowy white, once-blonde hair. “He still makes me laugh. Go, Jarkadin.”
“Wait,” Treutelaar said, easily pulling free of Jarkadin’s weak grip. “I-I have projects active. Could I be allowed--?”
“Your precious hobby room, of course,” Lar Kwa said, reaching out to caress her cheek. “Very well, but do not forget this favor. Let her tend to her obsessions, but keep her guarded. I do not want her hurting herself.”
With a practiced bow, the stooped manservant departed, escorting the despondent empress from the throne room. Lar Kwa felt a surge of strength.
“Why are you here, Karra?” Lar Kwa asked, turning his attention back to the center of the great room where his general stood waiting.
“If I might speak freely, my great lord…”
“Certainly,” Lar Kwa said, his eyes darting about the room. “Mischa, depart. Golden Shadows, clear them from my presence and guard the doors. This audience is ended.”
Emperor Lar Kwa seemed to drift away in thought. General Karra could not tell whether his lord was listening to the sounds filtering in through the palace walls or if all he heard any longer was the golden blade he grasped so tightly.
Karra waited for the emperor’s elite guard to close the heavy doors behind the last people to leave the room before saying, “My lord?”
“The Circle is…occupied,” Lar Kwa said, chuckling as he glanced overhead. “We are alone enough. Have your say.”
“I have concerns…military concerns,” Karra told his liege.
“That is your arena,” Lar Kwa said, starting down the blood-red steps of his Crimson Throne. “Do not let trifling details stand in the way of my vision.”
“The original plan called for naval transport of a military force north for a peace conference regarding division of territorial management of Bentrci,” Karra reminded him. “Your majesty’s latest variation calls for additional forces to advance over land to secure territory in Joba and Bentrci on the way to Zadiasam. The length of such a supply line concerns me as does the lack of a definable battle front.”
“You must stop thinking in such terms,” Lar Kwa said. “We play a different game, one of influence and domains, not fronts. Bentrci is populated with many tribes, villages and towns under no centralized government.”
“True,” Karra said, “but Zadiasam holds the greater influence in the area. Bentrci is closer to them, they patrol the area with significant military assets and they have established alliances.”
“Which is why they must be pressed to retreat from Bentrci, leaving it open to Alban.”
“Instead of one war, we could quickly find ourselves fighting dozens and leaving enemies at our back,” the general advised.
“You let doubt plague you still,” Lar Kwa said. “Zadiasam is a unified nation. They have avoided draining their energies on petty internal squabbles. I have put an end to that problem here. We will go to the peace conference and Zadiasam will also be dealt with.”
“Sire,” Karra said, his surprise poorly hidden by his face, “the terms imposed by the Treaty of Orray--”
“A treaty and practices to which I never agreed,” Lar Kwa interrupted, slicing Tshan’casai at the air, “and cost you your illustrious career. The empire will be restored. The Sea of Orray will be within our borders and I will announce to the warlords that I am dissolving their intrusive treaty.”
“Very bold, my lord.”
“I want to weaken Zadiasam’s position as much as possible before then, so move quickly,” Lar Kwa insisted. “Far easier to keep control of that which you already possess. Our additional forces positioned on Zadiasam’s border will only strengthen our position. No matter their arrogance, they won’t be so quick to scrawl lines on a map if they know they have to fight for the territory. Zadiasam has many things, but they are softened by their luxuries and haven’t the courage for that. Now go. Make sure your officers are prepared. My Army of Light has auspicious works ahead.”