Written by Addie Barnett
Art by Tuomas Korpi
Excerpt from Lord Ulric’s letters to his sister, Empress Iara.
The Zeppelin has arrived in your golden city and I, for one, can barely contain my excitement. Many winters have passed since we last laid eyes on one another; I come bearing most fortuitous news. We shall discuss them privately at dinner–will His Light be present? Now that the war with the d’aka is done, the realm can finally sleep peacefully.
Alas, I bring some sordid news as well. I cannot say much in this letter, for my ink is running dry. My health is declining rapidly–the physician’s prognosis is dire.
Always yours, in death and life,
Aharon did not remember when he had last left the Master’s room. They had arrived in the golden city nearly a fortnight ago, anxious to meet the Empress. He did not know what had riled up his Master, but he weighed it was no small thing. Lord Ulric was a man of long discussion and little decision; for him to commission a Zeppelin and leave in such a hurry was unthinkable.
Aharon was still in a daze from their rushed journey, which he had mostly spent retching in the air and wondering if his intestines would land on some poor sod’s head. In their haste, however, Lord Ulric had not taken care of himself, nor had let Aharon do his job.
The boy stared at the sleeping lord, noticing his eyes were twitching underneath his eyelids. Even in slumber, Ulric kept moving. Something was perturbing him so much; Aharon couldn’t for the life of him understand what it could be. Why hadn’t the Empress sent for them yet? Something was wrong. And it wasn’t just his Master’s mysterious illness, eating away at him from inside-out. No matter how much the physicians had racked their brains, they could not find a diagnosis for the sharp joint pains, high fevers, and bouts of dizziness the lord had been cursed with. Soon after they had arrived, the Master had started hallucinating—speaking to his long-dead wife and children, and staring at the ceiling for hours on end.
Aharon placed a wet rag on his Master’s forehead, blinking away the tears in his eyes. What was to happen to him if Ulric died? He was no longer a boy–he would be able to take care of himself. Somehow, he would find a way. Yet the thought did not comfort him. It only brought more tears, which he struggled to gulp down when the Master’s eyelids fluttered open.
“My boy.” Ulric extended a trembling hand, which Aharon took hurriedly without responding, certain the Master was hallucinating again. “Aharon.”
“Yes, Master, it’s me.” Aharon forced a smile on his lips and nearly broke down when Ulric mirrored it.
Why did the gods take the good early, leaving only the wretched and those with ice in their veins?
The same question – Aharon did not know what to answer. Every time he shook his head, Ulric’s condition worsened. He would fall into a state of apathy for hours and Aharon would be left alone to glance outside the window, trying in vain to revel in the city.
“No.” Aharon drew Ulric’s hand to his lips, kissing it. “But the innkeeper says the Empress sent a flower.”
Aharon had snatched it from a basket, knowing it was Ulric’s favorite. He lifted it from his pocket and placed it in his Master’s trembling hand, smiling when his bony fingers closed around it and took it to his chest.
“My sister has never ignored my presence like so. Something is wrong – we have to go see.”
Ulric pushed himself up, heaving, and Aharon rushed to help. “No buts, my child. If my time comes, it shall come no matter what you do.” Ulric rested a hand on Aharon’s dark mop of hair and looked him in the eyes. “For the life of me, I cannot understand how no girl sighs after these brown irises.”
Aharon blushed and supported his Master so he could stand. Ulric’s legs buckled underneath him and he would have fallen if not for Aharon. He helped his Master into clean clothes and then down the staircase, wincing every time he noticed Ulric’s livid face. By the time they got out into the street, both their faces were covered in a thin film of sweat and Ulric could barely stand.
Aharon flagged down a rickshaw and offered the driver three silver coins, whispering in his ear that once they reach their destination, he would receive more should he make sure the journey would be slow and silent. Aharon was pleased when he noticed how the man chose the less populated streets and paid attention not to jolt his customers.
Ulric fell asleep almost instantly, his head drifting on Aharon’s shoulder, who did his best to sit still during the journey. Aharon smiled at the petite buildings and children running around in colorful clothes, playing their games with bright smiles on their faces. Women waved at the driver and kissed blessings at Ulric and Aharon; one went as far as to stop the rickshaw and draw the symbol of the gods on the lord’s chest, tears brimming in her eyes. If they would have known Ulric’s position, would they have acted differently, Aharon wondered. He wanted to believe in their charity – after all, his Master had been extremely kind to him, almost treating him like his own child.
They soon reached the towering emerald gates of the palace; Aharon woke Ulric up, rewarded the driver and—with his Master leaning heavily on his right side—approached the guards stationed at the gates. They made no sign of recognition, nor answered when Ulric showed them the emblem of House Revana.
“Do you know who I am?” the lord puffed his chest, and almost immediately broke into a fit of coughing.
Aharon patted him on the back, smirking when the guards averted their gazes. They were taking them for peasants.
“My Master is Lord Ulric, brother to the Empress. He wishes to speak to her immediately.”
Only then one of the iron-clad guards spoke, contempt lining his every word. “Her brother? Ha. He should be aware of his sister’s situation then.”
“Situation? What in the gods’ names are you talking about?” Ulric forced himself to stand straight and leaned into the guard’s face. “Let us in immediately or you shall know my reach.”
“The Empress was found breaking bread with a well-known traitor. She has been sentenced to die next morning,” the guard leered. “If you do not wish me to tell His Light we have discovered another traitor, I suggest you turn around and leave right now. Iara is not allowed to see anyone.”
“Iara?” Ulric’s voice broke. “You show respect to my sister.”
Aharon tugged gently on Ulric’s sleeve, trying to understand what was going on. The Empress, a traitor? It was impossible. No one in the whole realm loved her people more than she did. She would never betray them. And if something had been going on, his Master would have known about it.
A conspiracy was more likely, but The Empress was virtually untouchable. In order for something like this to happen, His Light herself would have to have seen her commit betrayal.
“I will not repeat myself twice. Step aside.” Ulric retreated a step, his voice as firm as it had been back when he had first taken Aharon in.
But beneath the façade, Aharon knew his Master would crumple to the ground as soon as they would be out of sight. His whole body was shaking. He glued himself to his lord, supporting him from behind. When Ulric let out a sigh, Aharon knew he had done the right thing.
“Very well, then, don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.”
Aharon stared in horror as the guard whistled and a squadron of masked men encircled them.
“By order of His Light, Emperor Johann the First, ruler of Henra and descendant of gods, I hereby arrest Lord Ulric of House Revana and his…servant, for conspiring against the realm. They shall be executed at first light tomorrow alongside Iara the traitor who broke the laws of our beloved Emperor and betrayed the trust of our nation. So be it.”