Short Fiction: “The Midwife” (Part 4)

Xaryasha could see the hesitation on the midwife’s face. He had hoped that it would not be necessary to intervene directly. He knew, none better, that there were things that no man should meddle with, and childbirth was one of them.

As the woman still did not move, he knew that the time had come to act. It was desperate, and it was terrible, but he his visions had come to him and told him this child’s future, the dark reign of terror that he would inflict upon the world. He must be destroyed.

He made to gesture toward the guards who were waiting, but suddenly the blast of trumpets shattered the night, and the very palace seemed to reverberate to their terrible notes.

“What in the name of?” he managed to ask before something enormous seemed to strike the palace, sending another shockwave that threw him to his knees. Cursing even more loudly, he got to his feet and his worst fears were instantly confirmed.

The midwife was gone.

***

            Whatever had struck the palace had thrown everything into chaos. Siska did not know what it was, but she had not waited around to see if any illumination was forthcoming. As soon as she saw the shadow of the guards making to come into the sacred birthing chamber, she had known that she had no choice but to run. If she did not, her own life and the life of the child she had pledged to save would be forfeit.

She had not been paying careful attention when she had been led to this chamber, but she thougth she had a vague idea of how to escape.

She would find out soon enough if she was wrong.

A few turns, and she was hopelessly lost.

And then she ran face-first into the last person she would have expected.

The King of Kings stood there before her in all his terrifying majesty, a figure of awe and terror. She had only ever seen him from afar as he rode through the city, and even from a distant he had seemed to shine with a blistering light, a creature so far above the likes of a midwife as to be something another type of being. Seeing him here was altogether different.

The greatest ruler in the known world was stunningly handsome, with his high forehead and sharply curved nose. His eyes were a piercing brown, but they seemed to hold a world of sadness in their depths. But what struck her most was that he seemed so utterly human. That humanity, though, did not lessen the fact that he was still a man who held t

He looked her up and down, and then his eyes came to rest on the bundle that she had clutched in her arms, a child that was so small as to almost disappear. His eyes narrowed, and she felt her heart constrict in her chest. Was this to be the end of her?

“What has happened to my wife?” he demanded, his voice cracking like a whip. “What have you done to her?”

Something seemed to have stolen her voice, and it felt as if her tongue had cleaved to the roof of her mouth. Siska desperately worked to get spit into her mouth, but to no avail. What could she tell this man? How could she tell the most powerful man in the world that his wife was dead and that she had promised that woman to take her child—and his—into the night?

She knew then that she was going to die, and she prepared herself, and with that peace her voice finally came back.

“Your wife has died,” she said. She knew that she was supposed to perform the obeisance, but for some reason she could not make her knees.

Flames seemed to leap into his eyes, but they died just as quickly, and he put his hand against the wall in order to hold himself up. She could see that something fundamental had left him, and she felt her heart break. This was a man, after all, for all that he was also a god, and she knew in that moment that he had indeed loved the woman who she had left dead in a pool of fouled blood.

“What do you wish of me?” she had the temerity to ask. “Your Shariza has asked me to take the child to safety with her father, but yours is the final word. Will you have me do this thing, or do you wish to take him under your own wing?”

When he looked at her again, it was as if he had never seen her, as if his mind was racing to figure out who she was. At last, she shook his head.

“No, I know that my reign is over.”

As if to echo his words, the palace shook again, and he sighed.

“The princes will not rest until the palace has been destroyed, and all that I have built is brought to ruin.”

He seemed lost for a moment, as if he did not know where he was or what he was doing. At last, however, he turned those eyes upon her.

“You must go,” he cried, his voice cracking.

She found that she could not move her feet.

“You must go!” he cried louder, lunging toward.

Clutching the child to her breast, Siska fled.

 

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Short Fiction: “The Midwife”–Part 3

The Dashturi Xaryasha was a patient man, but as he gazed through the pleated screen at the queen giving birth, he saw the delicate strands of his plans, laid with as much care as the finest spider silk, threatening to unravel about him. He ground his teeth in fury.

Already the gathered princes, particularly Khambujya, were growing impatient for the news to reach them that the queen had miscarried. As indeed she should have done long since. He had paid the midwife a handsome sum to make sure that the child born in the queen’s womb never saw the light of day, but she had clearly not yet found the right opportunity.

He had tried to impress upon her how very important it was that she do as instructed. More than just the life of one baby hung in the balance. The fate of the empire was tied to what happened this night, and the Dashturi was not about to sit by while all his delicately-laid plans came to ruin because some fool midwife decided to have a pang of conscience.

Or, more sinisterly, she had decided that there were other paths to pursue, and for the first time it occurred to him that there might have been others who were willing to pay for her services, others whose interests were not aligned with his own or the empire. Perhaps one of the princes had intervened?

He narrowed his eyes and waited.

***

            Siska knelt before the Queen, her mind roiling with conflicting thoughts. She knew what she had been told to do, what she had been paid to do, yet she could not quite bring herself to do it. If she did, she knew that it would be the end of the family line of the Shah that she had sworn to serve. Was she really willing to do this thing, when it meant that the holy land of Haranshar would continue to be destroyed by civil war?

Yet how could she do otherwise, when she had been told that if she did not, the king’s line would eventually result in the downfall of all that the Haransharin had worked for? Who was she, an uneducated peasant woman, to challenge the word of the empire’s highest priest?

She could sense the presence of the fire priest waiting, looming beyond the pleated curtain. He had paid her enough to make sure that she would never go hungry for the rest of her life, but still she could not quite bring herself to slay this child that was about to come out of the womb, this hope for all the dynastic claims that the King of Kings had worked so long to cultivate.

At last the birthing was finished, and she could see that at least the beginnings of the priest’s prophecy had been accurate. The child was indeed a boy, and as healthy as one could ask for. She could feel her heart fluttering in her chest like a trapped starling.

It was clear almost immediately that the Queen would not live past the night. Try as she might, Siska could not get the bleeding to stop. Something, perhaps some foul spirit, had poisoned her blood. Siska could smell something amiss.

“Promise me,” the Queen whispered, her voice choked with tears. “Promise me that you will let the baby live.”

When Siska did not respond at once, the Queen persisted.

“I know what the priest promised you. I know that he has said that you will be able to live out your life in peace, but you must know that is a monstrous lie. You must know that he will do nothing to help you and will indeed strike you down as a threat to him.”

She paused, coughing, and foul black blood speckled her lips. “I know he has done this to me, but I will not go into the great darkness without your promise.”

Siška hesitated. If she promised the Queen this, she would be sacrificing her life. She knew that Xaryasha was a danger to any who crossed him and an implacable enemy. She had heard of the sufferings of those who had gone against his wishes, of the disappearances in the night and the mysterious screams that came from his home.

She made up her mind.

Short Fiction: “The Midwife”: Part 2

The palace was imposing, and not for the first time Siska marveled at what humanity could achieve. The sheer scale of it dwarfed anything that anyone had been able to accomplish since the time of the Old Ones, and everyone knew that they had been a mix of gods and men. Confronted with the vastness of its bulk, she was aware of her own limitations, and she shuddered.

The Immortals led her through one of the many smaller gates into the palace precinct, and though she felt mildly annoyed that she was not to be given a grand entrance in the main gate—she was about to help deliver the empress of a child—she pushed down those feelings. After all, hers was a higher calling, and it was unworthy of her to think of attaining glory.

She wasn’t entirely successful.

As Siska was led through the halls of the great palace, she felt the familiar rush of awe at the wealth that she saw on display. An entire hallway was paneled in the ebony that was one of the most lucrative exports of the fiercely independent of Ashkûm. She could not imagine how much it had cost the Shah to have it brought so many miles away from the forests. Every niche in another hall was filled with the finest sculptures from the distant peninsula of Helleneia. Though they were undoubtedly uncouth barbarians, their ability to capture the vitality of the human form in the frigid lineaments of marble was unmatched.

Yet Siska knew that if the princes outside the city were to have their way, all of this would be put to the torch. All this beauty that the Shah had taken such pains to collect, the soaring heights that the human spirit could achieve, would be destroyed in the fires of civil war. The Shah’s inability to produce an heir was his greatness weakness, and it threatened to undo them all.

The only thing standing between them and that fate was one midwife and the decision that she would make.

 

She could see at once that the queen was not going to live through the night. Her face already had the pale, waxy look of death, and Siska thought it would be all she could do to save the child. She shook her head in anger and frustration. Why was it that men always thought that the life of the mother was the least important part of child-bearing? Why did they care so little for the woman who bore it?

Now that she was here, she knew that she would do everything in her power to make sure that this child was born alive, that he would survive even when the mother would not.

But, of course, that was exactly what she had been told, in no uncertain terms, not to do.

Still, in times like this, she could do nothing but what she had been trained since childhood to do. She would bring the baby into the world, and she would face the consequences of defying the wishes of one of the most powerful men in the empire.

Bracing herself, she set to work.

 

World Building (12): The Legend of Xharyush

In all the annals of Haranshar’s long history, one figure towers above all the others: Xharyush the Great. From the moment that he founded the dynasty that would rule, in one form or another, over the vast domains of Haranshar, he became the idol toward which every Shah has aspired.

The birth of Xharyush is shrouded in mystery and legend. The most commonly believed myth states that he was born to a great king but that his birth was tainted by a prophecy that foretold that he would see his world brought to ruin. Fire and death would consume the entire continent, so the prophecy went, and so the king’s adviser had hired a midwife to smother the boy when he was born. However, she disobeyed these orders and not only saved the boy, but also determined to help him escape the city and the net that was set to ensnare him.

The midwife fled with her young charge into the wilds, desperate to escape the wrath of the vizier. Somehow, we are still not certain how, she managed to make her way through the encircling princes that had besieged the king, but she did, and she managed to make her way to the highlands of Pishapur, the homeland of the King’s queen. Her father took in the infant and and named him after his own father, and there he remained, while the civil war erupted and spread across the whole continent. Though his grandfather was of the nobility, he was not a powerful figure, but for all that he gave the boy all that he could wish for in his upbringing, training him in the arts of war and diplomacy.

From those beginnings, Xharyush was able to carve out an empire the likes of which his world had never seen. He began by solidifying his grandfather’s domains, becoming an able steward and a noteworthy soldier. Bit by bit he brought the surrounding tribes under his sway as well, until he had a formidable base from which to launch an all-out attack on the fertile plains to the east. Sweeping down from the highlands of Pishapur, he soon brought those lands under his control, forcing their rebellious princes to bend the knee. He also seized control of the several cities that had served his father as capitals, forging a chain of powerful bases from which he could, if he so chose, launch attacks against any who might wish to rebel against him. He also married several of his daughters to the most prominent of his former enemies, binding them to him with ties of marriage and blood (he also took many of their own daughters as his wives, contributing to a surfeit of sons and heirs).

The empire of Haranshar under his leadership became ever more powerful, rising to heights undreamed of. The rulers of all the lands of east and west came to pay tribute to the great Xharyush, and there were none who could deny that his was the power that now bestrode the world like a colossus. His rule extended from one ocean to the other, from north to south and east to west. It was a golden age, and to this day there can still be found statues erected to the majesty of Xharyush as far north as Svardö.

And at the Shah’s side was the man who would come to be known to future generations as Zarakh, the founder of the faith devoted to the god Ormazdh. Between the two of them, they forged an empire that was founded not just on the principle that all people were created equal (in the broadest sense), but also that all should be allowed to worship the supreme god, the one under whom all other gods were subservient.

Although the Haransharin would become known as benevolent overlords who were content to let their subject peoples continue with their own faiths unmolested, there were even in these early years signs of the discontent that would eventually sunder the continent into its eastern and western halves. Those in the west preferred to think of higher things, to devote themselves to the contemplation of things beyond this world, while the faith of the Haransharin stressed the beauties of the material. Xharyush proved this in word and deed, for her stressed that the only way to have a stable kingdom was to have effective rulers in all of its districts. Though he did not call for a radical redistribution of wealth–as some thought that he would–but he did do everything in his considerable power to make life easier for the commonfolk, and they loved him for it.

In that sense, Xharyush was indeed the one who brought about the end of the world, though not in the way that the vizier had thought. When he was at last brought before the Great King for judgment, he was spared death, but he was sent into exile. No one knows what became of him, though there are still stories told in Haranshar that he made his way to the lands across the ocean that even the Anukathi know nothing of. These, however, have never been proven.

Xharyush lived until the ripe old age of 92. When he died, the throne passed peacefully to his son. It was not long before his many other sons (and not a few of his daughters) began to plot and scheme with the disaffected nobles and priests, many of whom had grown resentful of their Shah’s continuing reforms and were even less friendly toward his son (who did attempt to impose a form of wealth redistribution). Indeed, his dynasty was to prove tragically short lived, for it came to an end under the reign of his granddaughter Veptish, who was deposed after only 5 years.

Still, his influence was vast and continues to be felt. His dynasty, though brief, is still remembered. It is enshrined even in the dating system used among the Haransharin, which measures all years from the date that Xharyush had himself declared Shahanshah (which is why everything is dated from 1 F.D., after the First Dynasty).

And, of course, there are always those who believe that Xharyush will one day return to return Haranshar to its previous greatness. And the tides may just be turning in their favour…

World Building (11): The Old Ones

The following is a synopsis of a segment of The Chronicles, a book of history compiled by Varassed, the Chronicler to Shah Yamin IV (compiled around F.D. 2500).* 

In all the legends and lore that surround the origins of Haranshar, none occupy as privileged a place as the Old Ones, according to legends the first humans who were able to build a civilization on the vast continent of Aridikh. Though their origins are in truth unknown, the priests of Ormazdh and the other tenders of knowledge have taken to calling them the Old Ones. The oldest records state that they came from across the Eastern Sea, from the fabled Middle Kingdom.

Regardless of from whence they came, the Old Ones soon conquered the various tribes that had been living on Aridikh, bringing them under the rule of what would become known as the Hegemony. From Hamarkhan in the furthest west of the continent to what would become Aspaña in the west, the Old Ones ruled supreme, their many powerful lords, kings, and princes existing in peace and harmony with one another.

Under the Old Ones, the world was reportedly full of technological achievements the like of which had never been seen before and which have not been matched since. They were able to make the arid lands of the western parts of Haranshar blood, reputedly even forming the great rivers that would nestle the most fertile lands in the world between them. They planted seeds and cities alike, and there were rumours that the greatest among them, the Shahs (of which there were reportedly 30) could communicate with one another across vast distances. Their courts and cities were full of singers and craftsmen, priests and sorcerers, beautiful women and men and others who were neither or both, and all lived in harmony.

Their faith was one based on a celebration of the material world and all of the pleasures that it offered. The world was divinely ordered, so their priest said, and there was nothing to be gained and everything to be lost by looking beyond it. There was in this theology no concept of an afterlife or a spiritual realm, which may in part explain the events that would soon bring this halcyon world crumbling into ruin.

For, as with all pinnacles, it was only a matter of time before the Old Ones fell prey to the desires of each other to conquer the others. They started the Great War, in which each mighty house was turned against its neighbour, and each and every one thought that it had been given the sole right to rule unchallenged all over the continent. The Shahs declared war one upon the other, even as their own lords and vassals declared war on them in turn. Rebellions and revolutions erupted in every province and kingdom, and even the common folk rose up, led by a series of wandering priests who declared the ways of the Old Ones to be hopelessly corrupt. The world, they said, needed to be purged by flame, and in this rebellion was sown the seeds of the faith that would eventually become known as Ormazdhism, though at this early stage it was merely part of the fires of chaos.

The conflagration soon spread out of all control, and the great civilization that the Old Ones had built collapsed into utter oblivion. Their wars raged across the entire continent. Civilization began to collapse into barbarism and cruelty, as neighbour was turned against neighbour and even families were torn asunder as their loyalties switched between various sides of the conflict.

There are no accurate records of what happened after the great culture of the Old Ones collapsed into anarchy and barbarism, for the great libraries that they had built to preserve their knowledge for the future were one of the first casualties. There is much that even now, with all that we have managed to achieve, that we do not understand about how they build their world and how they were able to stay in power for so long. All that is known is that there are still great towers and ruins scattered across Haranshar and the Imperium, testaments to their achievements. And we have a few tattered parchments and the legends of the singers that emerged after the Fall, when the world at last began to knit itself back together.

There was no recapturing the past glories of the Old Ones, however, and there were none of the great Shahs left after the collapse of their hegemony. It would be many centuries before the people of Aridikh began to pull themselves back together, and it would take one who claimed to be of the proud blood of the Old Ones (though the veracity of that claim was disputed then and is still questioned) to finally reunite them all. He would be the one who was known as Kharyush, the first of the Shahs whose reign over Haranshar (including the domains that would later become the Imperium) was complete.

Most provocatively for the present, however, there is a belief among the Korrayin, handed down from these dark days, that it was at the Pillar of Creation, the great mountain that stands at the center of Korray, that the Old Ones first came to be enlightened. The Pillar is said to be riddled with caverns and secret parts that no man has fully explored,

Furthermore, it is believed by some among the Alchemists that it was the Old Ones who first perfected the Art of Binding, and that it was through their use of the Bound spirits that they were able to bring about the great culture that was their accomplishment, and there are some among the priests of Ormazdh that believe that through recapturing that technology those who live in the present can regain their past glories. That, however, remains to be seen.

*The Haransharin follow a different dating system from their counterparts in the West. They date everything from F.D., which is short for First Dynasty, after the original dynasty to rise after the fall of the Old Ones.

World Building (10): The Tragedy of the Zervan Dynasty

In the annals of the Imperators, there is one dynasty whose fortunes have never recovered from their time upon the throne. While the Zervan Dynasty was, in origin, from the lands of Haranshar (the province of Eshurya, to be precise), they had moved to the West in the hopes that they could establish their fortunes by hitching themselves to the wagon of the first Imperators.

As a result, they were able to marry themselves into the powerful first dynasty, with the favoured daughter Dominysa marrying Kavaros, the fifth son of the first two Imperators. They would go on to have two sons, Karaktus and Gratian. Meanwhile, Dominysa’s sister Martinya was consolidating the family’s wealth, building a powerful base of support that, she thought, would ensure that her family remained enthroned for a thousand years.

Kavaros, at his wife’s insistence, managed to displace the children of his elder four brothers. Their Houses would come to have a significant part to play in the downfall of Kavaros’ descendants and successors, but at the time of his accession they were far too busy squabbling amongst themselves to really do much to prevent his seizure of power, and still less so when it became obvious that this stern man and his equally indomitable wife (to say nothing of her ruthless sister) was in fact a very capable ruler in his own right.

Under Kavaros, the Imperium was able to exert its sphere of influence over larger portions of Korray, and there were even a few successful incursions into the territory of Haranshar. Unfortunately, Kavaros was stricken down while he was still in his prime, a man whose reign would for several generations come to be seen as the height of imperial accomplishment. While it might have seemed to many that the throne should pass to either the children of his elder brothers or to one of his sisters who were still living, that would not be the case. Such was his popularity among both the other Great Houses and among the commons that the throne was passed peacefully to his twin sons.

They, unfortunately, were not cut from the same mold. Karaktus and Gratian were notorious for their mutual loathing, and they went at each other with a vengeance as soon as the diadems were placed upon their heads. Though their mother Dominysa tried to broker a peace, she was unsuccessful, and Karaktus, always the more ruthless brother, had his brother assassinated in his mother’s arms. Dominysa threatened to go into seclusion and take the veil of a nun, but her son threatened her with further reprisals if she dared to do so, and so she was forced to become an unwilling partner in her son’s reign. In fact, it was largely as a result of her still-sterling reputation that he was able to hold onto the reigns of power at all.

Karaktus was not a well-loved ruler, however, and despite the fact that he offered full citizenship in the Imperium to the conquered territories, he was roundly repudiated and the Korrayin declared their renewed independence. As a result, the commons and the nobles began to turn against him, and it was only a matter of time before he was assassinated, reputedly while he was relieving himself at the side of the road.

There was a brief interregnum, when a brutal commoner known as Sokophanes seized the throne for both himself and his son. He had failed to reckon with the remaining dynasts, however, and both Dominysa and her sister Martinya rallied the troops to their cause. Though Dominysa would die in the midst of this, Martinya would continue on her younger sister’s mission, and with the aid of the legions and the Church she was able to elevate her eldest grandson to the throne. Though he had, technically, no connection to the blood of Kavaros, she was able to convince enough people of the lie that the youth, Varyus was in fact the product of a liaison between Karaktus and her daughter Vassiana.

Things at last seemed to be going well for thedynasty. The family matriarch, Martinya, was a canny strategist, and she had averted catastrophe by elevating her grandson Varyus to the throne. Her daughter, Vassiana, was now the most powerful woman in the Imperium. She even had another daughter and grandson lined up, should some unforeseen illness strike the first two.

Then, things began to go horribly wrong.

Varyus, seduced by a sun-priest from the lands of Korray, decided that it was time for the old Church to be thrown down from its lofty perch. He declared that the faith of El-Garvel be the law of the land and, to demonstrate his scorn for the Church, he forcibly took a Prefect as his wife. He then embarked on an orgy of unrivaled scope, taking both men and women to bed and caring nothing for the strictures and cycles of celibacy that were a key part of the Church.

His mother Vassiana was a willful and often spiteful child, and she had spoiled her son to an extraordinary degree. She did nothing to rein him in, and in many cases she was even seen to encourage him. She wanted to be the one wielding all of the power in the Imperium, and she did everything in her power to sideline her mother and to delegitimize her younger sister and her son Exkandros, who she rightly saw as a threat to her own hegemony.

Ultimately, Varyus’ own grandmother turned against her grandson and her daughter, neither of whom were capable of ruling and who would clearly destroy the dynasty if they were not stopped. She bribed the Imperial Guard to betray their charges and, in the orgy of bloodshed that followed her daughter and grandson were brutally killed, their bodies thrown into the river and never recovered. Though this may not have been what Martinya intended, it was the unfortunate fruit of her own sowing.

All was seemingly not lost, for she ensured that her other grandson Exkandros came to the throne, though once again it was mother, Yvita, who wielded most of the power. Though he restored the Church and was, seemingly, a corrective to his cousin, he was still seen as less than brave on the field of battle, and the death of his grandmother early in his reign removed a potential source of strength and stability.

Matters came to a head when he offered humiliating peace terms to a rebellious tribe of Korrayin, who had made incursions into the western borders of the Imperium. It was no secret that they had been funded and encouraged by Haranshar, and the Imperator’s caving to their demands was seen as the worst sort of weakness. The soldiers with whom he had surrounded himself rebelled, and he was assassinated, along with his mother.

With the death of Eskandros, the dynasty came to an ignominious end. His body and that of his mother were thrown in the River Tiver, as had been the case with his aunt and cousin. His successor, the usurper Maxhimos, had all vestiges of his predecessors utterly obliterated, before he too was overthrown and one of the legitimate heirs of Kavaros’ elder brothers claimed the throne as Claudianus I, the first of the Claudian Dynasty.

The Chronicler Arodius, one of the chief sources for this troubled period of Imperial history, had this to say of the Zervan Dynasty: “Never has a dynasty so quickly risen to power, and never has a dynasty flared so brightly. Yet with such glory comes great despair, and so it proved to be for the Zervani. Let them be a warning to all who would let greed and avarice cloud their judgment.”

Bitter words, indeed.

World Building (9): The Great Houses of the Imperium–House Terrasi

The lords and ladies of House Terrasi are the hereditary rulers of the city-state of Sperezo. As such, they have many financial dealings that have given them the ability to buy influence where they could not otherwise attain it. They are all descended from the third son of Yishandra, Johannes, who changed his name to Joachuim in order to better fit in with the local nobility of the city to which he moved. He would take to wife the daughter of the local Caracci House, one Giovana. All current members of House Terrasi are descended from them.

Like all of the Great Houses, the Terrasi have been able to seize the position of Imperator at several points in the history of the country. In all, there have been 8 members of the dynasty, none of whom have been particularly well-regarded by subsequent historians, who largely view them as a grasping, avaricious dynasty that cared more about its own aggrandizement than about the well-being of the Imperium.

The 5 Imperators of the first instantiation House Terrasi were as follows: Frederico I, Frederico II, Joaquim, Iago, and Frederico III, followed by a period of 15 years in which several usurpers held the city of Aïonis and the entire province and thus could be said to control the Imperium as a whole. The last of them, Gratian, was eventually defeated on the field of battle and the last 3 Imperators from Terrasi ruled. They were: Frederico IV, Giovana I, and her daughter Giovana II. The last of their House, Giovana, was overthrown by her distant cousin Daniel I of House Vananov of Rhoshk.

Frederico was one of the most infamous of plotters and schemers, and he managed to make himself the Chamberlain to the last Imperator of House Zigurd. There were rumours at the time that he was responsible for the death of his predecessor, though when the diadem was placed upon his brow there were very few who would have been willing to challenge him. After his death the throne passed two two of his sons, Frederico II and Joaquim, only the latter of whom produced an heir, Iago, who was the father of Frederico III, who was deposed and died in prison, leaving it to his young son Frederico (later the IV) to scheme to regain the throne.

House Terrasi has proven to be a remarkably fecund house, and they have managed to plant their own members in most of the great cities of the Imperium. As a result, the former head of the House, Sofia, was known as the Grandmother of the Imperium (there are even connections between House Terrasi and House Rendakis). Sofia was known for playing a very long and complex game, the contours of which are as of yet not fully known.

Their sign is a golden hawk in flight, a symbol (they claim) of their prominence in the succession. There are still members of the House to scheme and plot to regain the throne that they feel was rightfully theirs. The fact that their dynasty was so short-lived and so unsuccessful has left a substantial chip on their collective shoulder, and they yearn for a chance to regain their family’s lost prestige.

They have been known for their extremely contentious relationship with the Archbishop of Sperezo, one of the foremost primates of the realm. As with so many other powerful figures in the Imperium, there is an eternal conflict between the powers spiritual and temporal. The current Archbishop Sergio, however, has begun to scheme with the current leaders of House Terrasi, seeing in them the opportunity to attain the position that he yearns for the most: that of Prefect. It remains to be seen whether their scheming will bear fruit or whether it will meet the ignominious fate that has so often greeted their efforts.

The current head of their House is one Irisa who, upon the death of her husband Cesare, has come into an even larger amount of money, with which she continues to amass an army of mercenaries and others that she thinks will be useful for her in the conflict that she sees seething on the horizon. With her two sons, Juan and Alexander, she seeks to gain advantage in whatever way she can. She is known by her enemies as the Eternal Widow, given her penchant for marrying rich men who die under mysterious circumstances and leave her a great deal of money (her last husband was her fourth).

Juan and Alexander are both the best and the worst of the house, for while they are both handsome, charming, and artistic, they are also infamous for their malice and their cruelty, and there are dark rumours of the evils that they perpetrate on the younger members of their own House, to say nothing of the common folk of the city.

World Building (8): The Faith of the Blessed Ascendant (Known by Some as the Arkadian Heresy)

It probably seemed to many that the man who would become known to his followers as the Blessed Ascendant was the most unlikely sort imaginable. He did not come from the great or noble Houses, and he did not have any particularly great skills as a leader or even an orator. He merely wandered the streets of various cities of the duchy of D’Erange, asking questions of those he encountered and forcing them to examine their own biases and blind spots when it came to the faith.

Hailing from the poorer regions of that province, history has forgotten what his actual name and most of his biography has been similarly erased by the passage of time and the efforts of the authorities to expunge him from the record. To those who subscribed to his beliefs, though, he was to become the most important person to walk the mortal world.

Ultimately, as he wandered and questioned those he encountered, he began to postulate a theology. Unlike those who had already established the Faith, he did not believe that the world was fundamentally and irrevocably corrupted, only that it was contaminated because of its increased distance from the Name. Human beings, enfleshed as they were, were not totally lost, for they were surrounded by

Note, however, that the Blessed Ascendant still believed that it was the attainment of union with the Name that was the ultimate goal of the devout. Where he differed from his colleagues in the upper echelons of power was in his belief that one could enjoy the world, that it was indeed through the perfection of it and in the creation of future generations that humanity could itself could achieve the closeness to the divine that was the purpose of all life. In his schema, the fiery spirits that inhabited humankind would be reunited with the Name at death, but it was possible to bring humanity itself closer and closer to the transcendent fire nature that was its fundamental nature.

This, of course, went against everything that the Faith had proposed, as it seemed to suggest that the material world could be perfected and, even worse, that it was through the awful act of sexual reproduction that humanity could be saved. The authorities were horrified, not least because they recognized that it was possible that this theology, with its encouragement of sex, would certainly prove to be more palatable to both the common people as well as the nobility and even, in the worst-cast scenario, the clergy themselves.

While the Ascendant preached a message of peace and prosperity for all and disavowed arms of any kind, the authorities in the Imperium, both secular and spiritual, saw him as the gravest sort of threat, and they immediately planned to remove him. However, they were somewhat stymied in their efforts, for they realized all too well that his popularity among the masses would make it exceedingly dangerous to try to take immediate armed action against him.

Eventually, however, they were able to infiltrate the close set of men and women who surrounded him–they called themselves the Acolytes–and had one of them betray him. He was then taken to Aïonis, put on trial before both the first two Imperators and the newly-seated Council of Prefects, and sentenced to death. At this time, it was still customary for the people of the Imperium to gather to witness these executions in a public arena, where the condemned would be torn asunder by wild beasts. So it proved with the Blessed Ascendant, who was subjected to flaying before being thrown, alive and screaming, to the embrace of the beasts.

What happened next would be a source of conflict and confusion for centuries to come. While the Imperial authorities would claim that the Ascendant died an ignominious death, the followers of the Ascendant claimed that he was instead purified and returned to the bosom of his eternal parents, the Name. From this claim would also come the key part of their theology, which claims that the Name were the actual parents of the Ascendant.

After the Ascendant was killed, the Imperium swept through all of the Imperium and even into Korray (many of whom had converted to the Ascendants way of thinking) and stamped out the heresy with a cruelty and ruthlessness that would echo down the centuries. They consigned many people and books to the flames, determined that they would be forgotten. They saved their particular ire for one called Arkadios, who was the Ascendant’s chief Acolyte and, at the end, the one who survived the longest. His death was similar to that of his master’s, as he was thrown to the beasts for the delectation of the masses.

Since his death at the hands of the Imperators and the ruthless persecution of the Arkadian Heresy, the only pocket of those who espouse that faith is in the lands of the Haransharin, particularly in the capital Tafshin. There, they continue to produce their own theological tracts, working from the bits and pieces of the past that they have been able to cobble together. They still believe that the Ascendant was the trueborn son of the Name, and that it is through an embrace of the material world that one can attain closeness to transcendence.

As a result of the steadfast mission of the Imperium to eradicate all traces of the heresy, there are very few documents left from the earliest days of the faith. All copies of the Gospel of Arkadios were destroyed, with the only bits left being those scraps that were mentioned by orthodox theologians in their resolute effort to refute the (admittedly quite popular) teachings. While some of Arkadios’ disciples and their work managed to escape, the Imperium is prone to sending agents into Haranshar to sabotage the libraries known to contain these heretical tracts and even to conduct assassinations of the leaders of the Church in the East.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the men and women of the Church of the East see themselves as the One True Faith rather than their companions in the west. They have their own hierarchy, headed by the Episkopos, the titular leader of their faith. She is advised by her own council, comprised of Prelates.

The Shahs have long understood that they can use the splinter of heretics that live in their nation to stir trouble for the West. While they are forbidden to proselytize, and while they have been at times persecuted by both the Ormazdhian priesthood and the Shahs, as a rule they are too valuable to be swept away.

At the time when this story takes place, the Church in the East has begun to shrink, as the upheavals of the last three decades in both Haranshar and the Imperium. However, there is still great potential for them to seize power, and so it may well prove with the discovery of a palimpsest in the very heart of the Imperium…

World Building (7): The Great Houses of the Imperium–House Rendakis

House Rendakis is the current reigning House of the Imperium, and their sigil is a rearing stallion. Despite this, however, it is also a remarkably unfruitful House, as its only current prominent member is the Imperator herself. Her brother, as has been noted elsewhere, was slain in the midst of his unsuccessful rebellion against her, and her father, and his father before him, were the only heirs of their line.

Like the other prominent Houses, House Rendakis can trace its ancestry back to the founders of the Imperium, though it must be said that their heritage is somewhat diluted. Their progenitor Eugenios, the youngest of the nine children born to the founding monarchs, produced a line that seemed chronically unable to produce either a significant number of heirs to continue the viability of the line or to attain the power that it clearly so desperately crave.

Despite that, the descendants of Eugenios have, through careful manipulation and cunning, managed to ingratiate themselves with the other members of their family. They have become particularly well-known for occupying the position of the Chamberlain, the central administrative figure in the Imperium and the Imperator’s closest advisers. This accorded them the dignity of the purple-lined cloak, an acknowledgment of both their shared imperial lineage and their closeness to the throne. So famous were the Rendakisi for this service that the purple-lined cloak became almost a hereditary emblem of their House.

However, it is has only been in the last 500 years that they have been able to carve out a true space as one of the great power players in the Imperium. This came about because of the wily political machinations of one Sakares Rendakis, who managed to ally himself with several other noble clans to take down the reigning Imperator, Timotheos of House Diogenes. Sakares’ acumen earned him the grudging respect of his colleagues–as well as a considerable amount of money–and when the other clans could not agree to a claimant from among themselves, they elevated him, draping the purple around his shoulders and placing the heavy imperial crown on his forehead.

That was roughly 150 years before the start of that story, and at first it no doubt seemed to many in the Imperium that here at last was a dynasty that might just last for a thousand years. Sakares had 5 sons and 4 daughters, a truly fruitful branch of a tree that had already shown some very troubling signs of withering in the decades prior. There was every indication that this might at last be the royal House that would at last return dynastic stability to the seemingly chronically unstable Imperium.

It wasn’t long, however, before tragedy began to strike. It was the misfortune of Sakares to rule over the period of disease that came to be known as the Plague of Sakares. The virulence of the disease was such that it threatened to completely decimate the population of the Imperium. The Alchemists, with all of their training and lore in the arts of healing, were only able to save one out of every five victims, and there was no telling who might be struck down. The disease showed no consistency, striking down the young and the old, the healthy and the weak, the rich and the poor. Indeed, there were many among the Church, the Alchemists, and the nobility who were struck down, and there were many who felt that this might indeed be the end of the Imperium, and some even floated the possibility of appealing to the Shah of Haranshar for political and economic production.

Not even the royal family was spared, as the plague swept through the palace and consumed all but the youngest daughter of Sakares, a youth named Dominika, who would become the apple of her father’s eye and the sole hope of her entire House and all of its fortunes. As a result, she became known as “Dominkia the Deathless.” When her father was also carried away–though by grief rather than disease–she became Imperator.

However, she was deeply scarred by the loss of her family, and she inherited an Imperium that was riven from top to bottom. The common folk frequently rose in rebellion, protesting the class system that they had been forced to labour under their entire lives and demanding better wages. The Church was almost fatally weakened, as fully half of the Council of Prefects had perished and many of those who occupied the upper echelons of the hierarchy were also dead. As a result, Dominika oversaw some remarkable changes the structure of the Imperium, changes that would have far-reaching consequences, particularly as they gave the lower classes a greater presence in the lower house of the Senate (though she was careful to safeguard the interests of the nobility, for she was no fool. She knew where the real power in the Imperium lay).

Even after her death, Dominika would be remembered fondly by the common folk who, for the first time in many generations, had been ruled over by a powerful woman who seemed to have their best interests at heart. It is to her that the current Imperator, Talinissia, looks for a model (though it has to be said that there is a profound sense that she lacks the common touch that has been a key part of her family’s ability to hold on to the throne through all of the trials of the last century and a half).

Though the House’s current seat is located in the city of Aïonis (due to the fact that any House that occupies the throne claims that seat), they still maintain a traditional power-base in the peninsula, as they have for long served as Counts of Melita. This fact will come to have significant consequences for Talinissia as she faces the new political realities that slowly emerge as the Heretic’s War starts to heat up, and the world that the Imperator, as well as everyone who surrounds her, have so far taken for granted.

Time will tell whether the House itself can be saved.

World Building (6): The History and Ceremony of the Imperators

As has been noted elsewhere, the Imperium is ruled over by an autocrat known as the Imperator, whose power is virtually limitless. They are considered the living representative of the Name, and as such they exist in complementarity (in theory) with the Council of Prefects that rules over the Church.

Though the Imperator’s power is, in theory, without bounds, there are a number of factors that frequently influence how much they are able to wield. Foremost of these is the Senate, which is comprised of the various heads of the Houses, both Great and Lesser, that are the leaders of the many noble families, as well as some of the more wealthy and powerful merchants that inhabit the Imperium. There are, however, two “chambers” of the Senate. One, the senior chamber, is comprised of the nobles, including the Counts, Dukes, and Kings of the various administrative units, as well as the aforementioned Heads of House that are not rulers of these large units in their own right. This chamber wields all of the power and serves as the primary advisory body to the Imperator. The other, lower, chamber is comprised of the merchants and guild-masters. The Imperator is in charge of convening the Senate and having her or his decrees acclaimed by both groups. Except in extenuating circumstances in the history of the Imperium, the Senate has largely done as the Imperator wished. They also have the responsibility of acclaiming the Imperator upon his or her accession.

The position of Imperator has, by long practice, been assumed to be hereditary, even though this is not a strict rule. Instead, every Imperator that has established a steady rule has nominated their successor to reign with them as co-ruler, preferably when they are in middle age (as this supposedly cuts down on the possibility that an impatient heir may attempt to do away with a doddering senior partner). This has, for the most part, worked to the advantage of the Imperium as a whole, as it ensures a smooth transition from one ruler to the next. On occasion, however, it has resulted in conflict between parents and children, as the latter grow impatient for their turn to occupy the throne. This was the case with the Bastard’s War, in which a bastard son of Imperator Tiberian V slowly ingratiated himself with his father, thus spurring the ruler’s legitimate son to ignite a rebellion.

Through the years, the Senate has come to occupy a more pronounced and active role in the governance of the realm. Most of the various nobles who reign in their own right have historically treated their territories as their own private kingdoms, with little to no regard for the wishes of the increasingly-marginalized Imperators. Up until roughly 50 years before the time of the novel, this has been the case, and most people think of themselves as following their local lord before they think of themselves as subjects of the Imperator.

However, several recent Imperators have moved back to the model earlier established by their predecessors, taking on an increased role in direct governance. Part of this has stemmed from the increasingly restive and invasive Korrayyin and their allies the Haransharin, both of which have required strong forces. The current Imperator’s father became known as the Hammer for his ability to strike swiftly and without mercy, bringing fear to his enemies, both inside and outside of the Imperium. Indeed, he was well-known for his ability to bring the rebellious and fractious lords of the realm to heel and, unlike several of his predecessors, he took to attending meetings of the Senate, allegedly to make sure that he was aware of the goings-on in his realm but, far more likely, to strike fear into those who might be fomenting rebellion.

They have also returned to a model of court ceremony that had not been seen in several centuries. Now, it is required that all of those who wish to gain an audience with the Imperator, no matter their estate or class, must perform several rounds of obeisance, in order to show the proper humility to the one who is considered the earthly representative of the Name. This has served to ensure that the nobility understands their place in the divine ordering of the universe.

As a result of this semi-divine status, all Imperators are required to be crowned and anointed by the eldest member of the Council of Prefects. This is to ensure that the Imperator is blessed with the power of the Name as well as the acclamation of the Senate. This typically takes place in the Magisteria, the great church that sits at the direct center of the capital of Aïonis. The ceremony, as with all things connected to the Imperium, is intended to remind all of those gathered that the Imperator reigns with the utmost secular and temporal authority, and it is also a day in which the common people are treated to the greatest festival that any of them are likely to know. Recent Imperators have known that it is the common people who wield the true power–though they don’t realize it–and have acted accordingly.

Though coups are relatively rare, they have occurred for various reasons. The Imperator’s person is considered inviolate in theory, but as with so many things this does not always translate into consistency in practice (as the incident of the Bastard’s War makes abundantly clear). There are always those for whom the way that things have always been done are no impediment to their own ambition. It also doesn’t help when Imperators die before ensuring that their successor is secure on the throne, which happened with Talinissia’s father Philophanes, who died while she was still in her 20s, setting the stage for the armed uprising of her brother and the bitter Siblings’ War that nearly toppled the Imperium into utter chaos.

As the events of the novel begin, it remains unclear how much the position of Imperator has been damaged, and whether Talinissia is the one to bring stability. History, after all, has a nasty habit of repeating itself.