Zaran was the only female born and before the final son, as foretold by Treese, the Truth Speaker. So when the girl came into the world her parents, the Royal Clan rulers of Mabat, were apprised of her potential. But the truth was, the Speaker didn’t speak of all things known. Nor the entire truth of a thing if he felt it unwise. Her parents, then, were left to wonder over her–why she often stood apart, how she listened, what she saw when studying sky’s changes or forest grove shadows or water’s magic surfaces. They only knew she was theirs to raise, though she seemed often elsewhere and that was a problem they could not well solve. She also gave answers that belied her mortal age. Or as if she had anticipated their thoughts. That was a condition they sought to demolish. With little success. Still, Zaran was their only daughter, and she was theirs, and she would do their bidding eventually. It was designated as being so.
One doesn’t note crucial details unless one is willing to take risks, perhaps make errors and then perhaps lose one’s life, Treese reminded his own daughter, Ilyat. But she was absorbed that moment by scooping water from the pool for the leather bladder. There were miles to go. She knew what he said came as a warning from his love for her. And she believed him.
And she knew much about Zaran; who could ignore her? These seventeen years passing, they both knew what they were meant to be. As did all others. Royal Clan news was unchanged, as well: Zaran would soon sit at her mother’s side; her younger brother, Raze, would be soon at his father’s. It was Double Protection, tradition that never deviated. Their two older sons were off claiming more land and goods, peacefully or not, to add to family fortunes. This was their designation, and their calling and they did it well. They had been gone ten years except when their grandfather was dying, then dead. It was a brief, unsentimental visit though well intended, of course.
Ilyat was the apprentice to her father’s tenets of Truth Speaking. She was the fifth generation to become so and did not question it. It was in her marrow. She liked the travelling, liked her father’s company mostly, and the taste of subtle powers she had begun to experience was not unpleasant. She might one day take his place if Dominion Seats found her favorable. If not, she would be a Vagabond Speaker, a poorer and harder life– in some ways, yet still worthy. There was time to worry about that. Now, it was water they needed for the last twenty miles to the Mabat Dominion Compound and Fortress.
She saw her father resting with eyes closed while standing by the water. She didn’t bother him; he could sleep deeply like that for a good hour if needed. Ilyat had yet to master that skill, called wake-rest, and many others. He was careful with his training but lately he was teaching her faster and more, so that at times her thinking and being were spun about. She learned to right herself.
Ilyat knew more about Zaran, even if the knowing was not yet made clear. She understood things were not always as they seemed–and certainly not with that one. Zaran almost seemed more like Treese and herself than the Royal Clan. But there was no evidence, no certainty of such a blasphemous thing. Unless her father hid it, which was possible–another remarkable skill called scrimming. He’d intimated he had something to add to Zaran’s life story, but Ilyat had to be patient to discover it. Truth telling and receiving required that more than anything except courage. That was the primary thing. You did not shirk Truth Speaking, no matter what.
Ilyat’s visions pulsed at edges of her mind; she wondered about the end of their trip this time. She knew it was the Initiation Ceremony they were to attend, but nothing more–yet. Tension snarled her chest and throat. She drank of the sparkling green water until anxiety receded. And then she sat still, surrounded by forest music, at ease. Waiting for Treese, beloved father, to fully awaken. For this journey to come to a close.
In the far distance of his sleep, Treese felt the Root Middens watching them, and he greeted them.
They always watched, from the uppermost boughs, from lichen-laden stumps, from damp caves behind waterfalls and vast meadows strewn with innocent flowers and slinking beasts. In forests they waited more quietly. So many passed this way, under cover of the strong giant trees. They understood it. They came from the roots, underground; they lived off root blood. Under the earth they especially were able to hear life moving in ways others did not. This was their first home, but they tolerated the passing ones if they did not do harm to any being, or take nothing unneeded. They were First Guardians, every one knew it but many feared them. They had ways and means to make a passage arduous, chancy.
Treese and Ilyat were another matter. They were watched because they pointed the way into time and energy beyond their scope–as long as the Royal Ones were in power, the Highnesses Nine and Eight. As long as their own clan of Root Middens was bound to shadow living, half visible, they could not expand their works. Treese held a major key to change.
It was best to be unseen, though they knew for certain Treese could make out their quicksilver forms in any degree of light. Treese was their ally. He knew Root Middens waited to be set free of Nine and Eight, also. He labored to bring the Truths forward to all. There was no harm in that, but help.
But who did not want liberation? The Royals cared little for life’s collective value or its unique expressions. Its innate spiritual power. They practiced blind ignorance and self-aggrandizement as if they were fierce competitions they must and would always win. And it seemed as if they were right, so far. They accumulated authority as the powerless accumulated stones for soup and aching exhaustion for nightfall.
The Root Middens waved Treese and Ilyat on and they slipped away long before the travelers did, before Ilyat used even her wisening eyes to find them. There was time for that meeting. There was more to be done.
In the beginning, in the beginning...was the Royal Clan Supreme.
Must it always start and end like that? The Tutor never tired of it, the mind-numbing retelling of the story that had kept her family’s history intact for all the ages. Wasn’t it enough that she had had to put it down on parchment from memory?
Zaran sat on the edge of her chair by the wide open window. A kestrel hovered not far off, wings flapping, tail undulating, then glided and dipped but changed course for more favorable fields. She would like to follow the bird. She already knew the requisites– “Principles: Cardinal and Lesser Rights” and “Highest Doctrines of Critical Figures”– she needed to be expert in so she might sit by Eight’s place. Her mother. And Tutor knew it, too; he had been astonished by her prodigious memory from an early age. Raze also had finished his studies but by tedious rote work, and late. He was a year ahead of her but only now prepared for their Initiation Ceremony. And his place by Nine. Their father. Finally official. He’d had to wait for her, he complained, but they all knew it was more the other way– Zaran was found close to ready. She also had another month to complete the last part her Tutor determined necessary so she’d be offered proper Ceremony, too.
But she– unlike Raze who hung on every bit of approval from their parents–much to her annoyance and distress–was not excited to make the Two Royals an official Four. She dreaded it. It was not the path she desired, and was lucky no one had found her out.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like leading. She could do that with some pleasure. But Zaran from the start of her youth didn’t agree with their ways, the proscribed life and duties set for her and Raze. Tutor had spent years drumming into her the importance of her position and the strict disciplining of intellect, the suppression of emotion. Calculation and strategy, endurance in body and mind, and the lack of sympathy were key. But when he left her to herself, she dreamed of another life, even though she knew it wouldn’t be given to her. Not even Raze knew who she wished to be, despite their childhood closeness…then he began to separate from her for Royal doctrine. He’d once teased her that she was a wild runabout, not easily tamed. True, she’d admitted. Soon she could not find a way back to him, nor forgive his blind obedience, his lack of openness with her. His heart, once vibrant as her own, was tucked away from sight, thrummed to the signs of power. He was slowly becoming who he was born to become: a future overseer of the Royal Clan. A kingly dictator. With her or not, though he hoped she’d change her attitude. They were, after all, blood.
Could she follow her named designation? It seemed harder as each day passed by.
“Dismissed for today. You’re staring out the window again.”
Tutor was less annoyed than disconcerted by this habit. He picked up his boar skin gloves, slapped them against a thigh. Moved to the corner of the room out of dutiful respect, his lame foot catching on the rug. When she left, he would depart staying a distance behind her.
All he wanted for her was success–which sealed his own. Perhaps he could take time to himself then. Years and years of this tedious but vitally necessary teaching. Yet Zaran had always wanted to learn and was better at it than Raze–but she also yearned for knowledge far beyond her ken. He’d had to rein her in every time. It got exhausting, though she was not arrogant or disrespectful as Raze often was. It was her way to gently, persistently push him for broader and more profound learning. Sometimes he didn’t know the answers, to his shame, and he cut her off. Lately he had half a notion to toss out his orders and start anew with her–she’d learned crucial material long ago. What might he prefer to teach? But even that passing thought could get him executed, so he kept to his decreed path, as she must keep to hers.
Zaran was no fool; she sat with face turned away toward trees and sky. He wouldn’t catch her sadness and longing. She saw him out of the corner of her eye, shifting in place due to his old war wounded foot; she knew he worried. And she couldn’t have that. Not now. He had to announce her final and excellent grades. Then she would go on without him, do what she must–one way or another.
She stood and smoothed her pale silk pants and tunic, placed her fingers on her forehead with a tiny bend at her waist in friendly gesture to him, then stepped toward the arched opening to the terrace. Tutor followed reluctantly. She swiveled around then and his eyes looked to ground as required.
He startled at the sound of his name. It was impolite, it was even outrageous.
“Now that we’re almost done, I may use this name, may I not? I’m finally grown and you’re soon to leave us. Just once I would like to say I called you by name, and you, mine. Face to face. You have taught me well, have been good to me more often than not despite my parents’ harsh demands. I have respect for your work. I wish to use your name, in great thanks.”
He kept eyes to floor. This was a setup, or it was genuine–which? “Mistress, if you can suffer my refusal I would rather not…it is not safe.”
“But wait, Tutor Mesor, will you not also use my given name of Zaran one time? An exchange of respect.”
But he stood mute and far off, blinking as panic rose. If anyone heard them, if he dared say her name–
“Then you may leave me now, I regret causing discomfort for both of us,” she said, and turned away. Too much for him, she thought; she must never ask such a reckless thing again.
Tutor Mesor hesitated. Would he not be in real trouble either way? Had she required so much of him in all her life? She had, but he cared about her; she had surely been a challenging but considerate student. Nine and Eight would, though, have his neck.
Zaran always sought a different choice, another option. It would do her in one day. He feared for her. But he would not be led astray at this time in his career, with a wife ailing and a daughter soon to wed. He backed away, bowed, was gone. He didn’t know how many more times he would see his scholastic charge. The sound of her voice speaking his name stayed with him a long while.
Zaran sat on wide stone steps leading to the gardens and fields, The small acrobatic kestrel had returned. It spotted its prey and dove into the grasses. Zaran turned to the west as the sun lowered. She heard something. Not a palomino’s hooves, not a red bear foraging berries, not a scurrying blue skink. It was lighter, faster, sounds of language dancing in air, words whistling about in a symphony.
She closed her eyes, held both palms up to the fragrant season’s billowing wind and smiled widely. Her palms tingled, her mind vibrated. Ilyat and Treese were coming. She ran indoors to wash her tawny face and tidy her platinum silver braid. They were there to help her with her life once more. They were coming for the Ceremony, yes, but they’d meet up, find favor with one another. Angels of mercy, she called them, though she had been told time and again there was no such thing as that, and thank the mountain god Gatomasha no one believed in that rubbish, anymore.
She believed, anyway.
“Welcome to Dominion Compound and Fortress once more, please take the seats, eat, and give us the latest news.”
King Nine pointed to the usual spots in middle of the long teak dining table and put his bulk into his mammoth chair with a thud. Queen Eight, presiding at the other end from her husband, nodded her coiffed head around to all. She arranged the voluminous scarlet gown about her; her ruby encrusted tiara was laid upon a small pillow on the crown side table so she might eat. No one wore anything on their heads when eating, it was vulgar.
Treese and Ilyat knew the routine and waited for the Royals to begin their servings. They were ravenous since they’d arrived after three days travel with only wild berries, roots and mushrooms and water. Their mouths watered. The piled dishes were steaming hot. They emitted rich scents of meat and creamy vegetables, warm breads and sweet fruits; they fairly swirled about the high-ceilinged hall. No one spoke while they ate, despite the King’s earlier inclusion of news in his greeting. They all ate first, talked later. Heavy tableware clanked and rang out, their mouths chewing enthusiastically.
Zaran and Raze sat at either ends, brother by father and daughter by mother. Across from Treese and Illyat were two empty places, to be used by the grandmother and her third husband if they felt sociable and well– or by other guests, if not. Tonight, no one else was there or they ate in their rooms, or later, presumably.
Treese never quite got the procedures for everyone’s mealtimes, who had the right and who did not to sit there. Visitors varied widely form what he had seen, as did the Royals preferences in private life. He had been sharing evening meals with Royals for thirty years and it was often the quietest room unless ripened wine flowed. But it was a show of confidence that he and Ilyat were offered seats every time. It was the major part of his designation– to be of service to them. He never forgot. But things could change for his life, he reminded himself.
Ilyat looked at him then. She’d heard his thought; she brushed his hand when reaching for a roll.
Table talk when it came was heavy on trade and a few continued wars to the far north. The other princes were not seen lately but it was known that they were having success finding new sources for replenishing silk worms and purveyors of fine weaponry. No major storms yet, but very soon would begin in Fourth Season. The news, then, was brief.
“So you are here for the duration,” Queen Eight inquired, meaning until the Initiation Ceremony was completed. “Your rooms are prepared and we’re glad you honor your duty to gather the story and make greater Royal History come alive for the generations. This is what I’ve been waiting for, over eighteen years.” She lifted her blue and gold goblet to the King and smiled that winning smile that was easy for her despite ill or good will.
King Nine banged the table once with his fists and roared as was his way, “Yes, a great moment in history, a perfect moment for the Royal Clan–our Double Protection in place so our Kingdom of Mabat shall hold firm! Praise Gatomasha!” Raze banged in hearty accord.
“And so be praised!” the group answered in unison, though it was hard for some to say.
Ilyat listened and watched. She wasn’t expected to speak in public yet, nor even encouraged, but her wandering eyes found Raze’s, then Zaran’s. Raze nodded at her, lips curved in a way that imitated friendliness yet not quite. He felt her far beneath him, yet found her lovely, perhaps a bit sly, and lively in a restrained manner. The last few times they’d met he’d gotten ideas. She always looked down immediately as expected. She hoped he never got close to her. She might just shove him aside and say things she shouldn’t say. He was of no interest.
But she held Zaran with her eyes. They spoke to one another without speaking, and had done so for years, if only briefly. They knew they should not pass between them any knowledge of import, but did so because they could. And because they understood one another–simply as people. It rarely happened that Ilyat found another who knew her instinctively. But Zaran had even when they were children full of carefree play. They were kept from being friends–one girl a subject and servant, as well as her father, to King and Queen–and another girl an inheritor of Royal wealth and power one day. They had always wanted more time. Now things were about to alter all of them.
And that day was coming soon.
Zaran reached out first: I’m glad you have arrived. Meet me on my third floor balcony after midnight.
Just after midnight, Ilyat agreed. I thank you, Princess.
And you for coming with your father.
Treese was talking to Queen Eight but their words slipped by his mind and he turned ever so slightly to his daughter–she knew he heard. Ilyat studiously speared more venison and prairie greens with her fork. Zaran kept her attention on Treese and he, startled by her warm energy as he spoke of sheep and boar prices, almost paused mid-sentence.
Zaran patted her lips with a silk napkin, then excused herself and walked softly from the hall.
Nine thought her impetuous to leave during such a dinner but Eight understood women; they soon tired of the dreary table talk. However, very soon Zaran would follow all rules and stay in place as she was required to be present. There would be no more excuses tolerated, not for her royal right hand. And perhaps one day, more–if Raze did not prove himself better at all that Zaran managed extraordinarily well.
They stood against the outer wall of the balcony, cloaks pulled close against a sharp chill. The moon was a pale half circle; low clouds bunched and scudded past its soft illumination.
Ilyat leaned toward her, still a foot away. “My father is going to be unhappy we’re meeting in secret- and yours would explode– but I had to speak in person. Something has changed. I know you have the Initiation Ceremony in two weeks, but…”
“Yes?” Zaran moved closer to place a cool hand on Ilyat’s arm with urgent pressure. “Speak truth now.”
“I will wait for my father’s direction, but I can say you must be ready for unexpected things. I know you sense it, but I’m telling you now that the future is not what was decreed. That much I do know; Father stated so.”
Zaran let out a short breath and she studied the distance as the trees hid in the dark, when the Root Middens rested. That reassured her somehow. She released Ilyat. “I have been waiting.”
“We’ve all been waiting for history to no longer stagnate–to fail us again.”
“I’m more than ready,” Zaran said, thinking of Raze, thinking of her parents who saw her as one thing and he, another. But they had it reversed. “It is to my advantage, then?”
“To have seen you as different by the family? In one way or another. Now they are blinded. But later another viewpoint will come full circle. But I don’t know quite what that all entails yet…”
“I wait for more understanding.”
“Think less, intuit and sense more.” Ilyat sent a clearing energy to Zaran’s forehead; the young princess trembled then relaxed. “We are present. Time will reveal us to each other.”
Ilyat left so quickly and quietly that as Zara turned to gesture her a kind farewell–right hand to center chest–she saw only the gauzy blue curtain lift and flutter over the arched doorway. She shivered, pulled her cloak hood over her head, watched the stars shining, listened for their humming. Satisfied that all was safe–they were not likely found out– she started for bed, only to find her cheeks dampening and heart beating like frantic wings against her ribs.
She must keep faith. She must be prepared for whatever came.
The time passed rapidly, as it did when much needed to be done in the Dominion Compound and Fortress. Servants rushed about doing chores times ten. Clothiers, jewel keepers, chefs and design masters, carriage restorers and farmers, art restorers and horse herders and Dominion guards were kept busy for long hours at their taxing labors. The Fortress was abuzz with a high excitement not felt in decades.
The Initiation Ceremony was a once in a generation event. King Nine and Queen Eight were driven by all matters pertaining to it and its greater outcome. They expected their children to be thus melded with the Royal Clan, and succeed them even when married off. They would spend their declining years entirely secure.
Raze was taking a last time to enjoy his relative freedom, drinking too much and looking for female companionship (soon women would be carefully screened; there’d be formal engagements only). He’d lost track of his sister and she said little to him. They had taken different mental routes to the same place, and he still wondered what she was up to though she betrayed so little. Yet she knew what he thought; he was taking his blood-earned and studies-gained spot and little else mattered. He loved the surge of power that was his as he became an adult, felt at home as Royal. He hoped to be married with a smart and hearty wife within two years, a child or two and a throne sooner or later. That covered his greatest desires.
For Zaran, who knew? She was as mysterious as firelight in deep forest, as moonlight in mountains.
Their parents were full of pride and plans. They were further cementing clear control with formal addition of two scholarly, well trained children. Their other sons were providing greater wealth and reach of rule. And if too many raised their voices in complaint of all their methods–often brutal, frequently illegal, nearly always unchecked–no matter, that was how it was done. No mercy given. They had each carried out their jobs as Royal forbearers had. The Royal Nine and Eight had fulfilled ancient foretellings, and thus far met their goals well.
And yet. There were gaps in their lives though they could not identify them. There was the unease that unknowing provides. They retired the night before the Ceremony with an ache under their skins, a jumble in their minds, a congestion in their blood that would not stay cleared. It was a question unanswered that they hadn’t once said aloud to one another.
What–truly–would become of Zaran with her unorthodox thinking and secretive ways? What did that mean ultimately for the Kingdom of Mabat? They should have been harder on her, they thought with regret, but they would be harder on her now. She had no idea.
“All shall fare well, a goodly rest,” they intoned as they always did to one another, and turned down the hallway lights and closed their doors behind them.
It was this way:
Treese and Ilyat did not sleep. They barely dozed and when the moon was hidden beneath clouds heavy with rainfall they got up and went into Zaran’s room.
She was not sleeping either, and stood with clothes and boots on, cloak and bag tied around her waist. She’d long a go decided she was not going through with the Initiation. It was not going to be her life, obedient to darkness and dirty plans, servile to conniving behaviors or at the least so many empty, boring duties. It was not her right designation no matter what they said. Her calling was still not clear but it could not be the Royal Dominion life. She felt things and knew things she could not even describe. She wanted a different path, though she knew not what–yet.
The only way to avoid it and retrieve her life was to leave. She’d rehearsed that leave-taking for months, and tried to keep up enough courage. She’d lower herself over her balcony three stories up, then down the side of the Fortress with the rope from the stables when all were asleep. She was strong, she was fit, she excelled in self defense. She was resolved when it came to action needed. Zaran was not backing away from any chance at freedom, even if short lived.. even if Royal soldiers hunted her down…But she had long believed she’d have help.
And it came.
They said nothing aloud; they knew each other’s thoughts well enough. She showed them the rope and they followed her down it, clumsily at first with greater effort for Treese, and each trying to void the massive stone wall with its bruising glances, then they were more steady, careful, their energy high and concentrated. The guards did not keep to this area, being stationed at the front watchtower and gateway–especially now, when the Ceremony would bring many invited attendees and perhaps many rabble rousers. The even would be at seven in the evening followed by a feast of celebration long into the night.
They heard a horse whinnying, someone riding off –perhaps a servant who forgot a last task that was critical, or a soldier gone home–and that was all. Laughter bold coming from the tower gates. They waited a moment and heard then the plaintive hoots of a barn owl, a sleek flight of bats, a few crickets that fell silent. The night thickened with clouds and the heavy stillness that spread itself high and low before a storm.
When landing on the ground, they fast sought the private path that led to the family garden for private relaxation. Zara had easy access to keys for all doors, so capably unlocked the heavy wooden gate and in they went, through and about bushes, trees, flower beds, threading their way around small hillocks and thorny bushes with radiant moon flowers and on and on– until they reached the far gate that let them onto the wooded acreage, Middens’ Forest.
They ran. They could not help it. It had long been a lifelong, beautiful dream for Zaran, a prayer for Treese, a vague hope grown strong for Ilyat, each having their reasons. They ran until they could not manage to jump another branch, to skip over another rock, to avoid the tangles of vines and biting prickers and the sting of savvy insects. They were parched; intense adrenalin was leaving them finally exhausted.
An hour later they had to stop and so rested awhile in the ebony interior of the woods. Treese reached for Zaran’s smooth hands and she gave them to his rough, warm ones in relief. He held them as if in a prayerful mode, enclosed within his. She felt familiarity, as if she knew these ways of being.
“We have waited a long while for you to join us.”
She adjusted to the lack of light but saw him as if a candle was lit. His face seemed to gleam in the dark woods, and his body average and wiry, face holding no age. Her own countenance was calm though silvery hair was askew about her cheeks, her deep eyes weary but bright. “And I, you. Since childhood.”
“Since we met,” Ilyat agreed. “I knew you then.” She pushed her own platinum hair from brow and chin to tie it back and Zaran saw similarity, in the shape of her face and eyes, as well. She wondered who this one was. No matter, she had an overwhelming gratitude.
Zaran carefully touched each of their foreheads in care and respect, then her own. “My Truth Speaker sister, father.”
Treese bowed his head and they clasped each other’s hands. He spoke a prayer of sturdy life, of deep learning, of truthfulness, of strong compassion.
Not to Gatomasha of the mountains. To a Creator of Love for all.
Zaran stood under treetops and sky as rain began to fall. “Let’s begin forging a new reign, good Speakers.”
And they jumped up–she was yet a princess–and left behind the past, Zaran looking over her shoulder, a pain inside squeezing her mind and soul. Then she moved on, as she was meant to do. She was eager to work on a future they could all bear to inhabit, to find greater wisdom that could salvage Mabat. Her kingdom by tradition, but the peoples’ home. One day…when she was prepared to claim Truth and its every guiding Speaker. Embracing whatever her destiny was to become.
The Root Middens watched them pass as they always did. But this time they rejoiced in depths of Under/Earth while freshening rain nurtured the forbearing trees.
Zaran comes, they intoned. And it was so.