Ashes of the Ylan [A Rama Empire novel]

"I thought you'd kill me," she croaked. "Not much honour if you cannot keep your promises."

Within the world of Convergera, lies the lands of Rama. Though the Rama Empire has long since been disbanded, the Capital still stands as a symbol of prosperity. The Antirian wars are over, but peace is soon disturbed as disaster strikes.

Sarashi is raised on the Wild Plains, but in a culture where freedom is everything, she is tied down by fear and expectations. Her people wants her to embrace her mother's legacy, her own fury screams for vengeance and her heart aches to belong. But when the war between the Sapphire Empire and the people of Rama flares up again, she'll have to make a choice between what she wants, and what is expected of her.

"Both standing on two legs, eyes level, the lion tried to push her into the ground. Her heart beat like never before as it stretched its neck over the spear to reach her face with its teeth. Pain made her dizzy as she growled back, a fiery rage star

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3. Ch 1: Rites of Passage (Part 1 of 5)

1

Rites of Passage

Capital of Enshal – Enshir

(1239 p. CP)

 

The little girl ran down the castle corridors with a shrill squeal of joy. Her black curls danced like a war banner behind her, her obsidian skin shining in the light of the torches, as expensive jewellery glittered on her arms and neck. A black panther cub chased her: The gift of a visiting ambassador, and her new best friend. Used to spending time in her father's kennels, she was no stranger to handling animals, and the young feline had taken to her like she was a beast herself. The girl had named him Cour.

“Sarashi!” an old woman yelled, making her own way down the corridor. “You come back here, right now!

The royal nanny glared at the amused guards positioned along the walls, as the little princess simply let out another joyful scream of laughter, instead of obeying. It was abruptly interrupted as one of the guards swept her off of the floor and into his arms.

“You little troublemaker,” the man said, and laughed at the Princess smile. “Don't you want to go to the banquet?” he asked her. Sarashi grinned and shook her head.

“Boring,” she said. “Now let me down. Mirca will catch me.”

He shook his head.

“I'm sorry Princess, I can't. She saw me pick you up, and I'm much more afraid of her, than of you little one.” He winked at her.

Sarashi giggled and leaned forward to whisper in his ear, as her nursemaid came ever closer. Soon Sarashi would be able to count the tattooed dots on the crone's shoulder, if she cared to.

“I put a frog in her bed,” the little girl confided, and got a laugh in return. “But she hasn't found it yet.”

“Better not tell her then. Make it a surprise,” the guard whispered back, before he handed her over to her nanny.

“Thank you, sir,” Mirca gasped, breathing heavily as she gathered the child in her arms. Sarashi, who knew the battle was lost and who was not particular fond of being dropped, did not kick or try to escape. She had never actually believed that fleeing would get her out of the banquet, but the temptation to make Mirca chase her had been too much. Besides, what kind of princess would miss her own birthday? Having been born in the spring of 1233 post Craft Plague, she was turning six this year.

The panther jumped around Mirca's legs on the walk back to the Princess' chambers, growling and tugging at her skirt with his tiny white teeth. He wanted to continue playing, but when Mirca responded by forcefully pushing him away with a foot, he gave up and retreated to his velvet pillow. With an insulted look at them both, he started washing his fur and paws.

“Urgans'll take you, girl, if you don't stop making such trouble,” Mirca scolded her. “I cannot go running through the halls like this. I'm too old.”

Her words were of little concern to Sarashi. Mirca always said stuff like that when the Princess was too unruly for her taste or had one of her infamous tantrums, but Urgans was nothing but an old myth. Sarashi had not been afraid of the horned monsters since she was four.

Mirca put down Sarashi on a chair in front of a large vanity, where she began to braid the girl's hair with expert fingers. Soon all of her hair was held tightly against the scalp without the use of a single needle of net, and Mirca proceeded to tie in pearls of gold and ivory, and tiny silver bells. In the end she dressed the girl in her best sari of peach coloured silk, making her look like a doll with her large black eyes and tiny dimples. Sometimes Sarashi felt like one too, but her Mama had told her that it was the burden of royalty; that she had to dress like this to make a good impression with the ambassadors and nobles. Sarashi adored her Mama, so she resolved herself to accept being treated like a doll – At least for as long as she had the patience to.

As Mirca tied the sari's sash, the door to the Princess' dressing room opened, and the Queen entered.

“Mama!” Sarashi called, and ran from Mirca to her mother. She put her tiny chubby arms around the Queen's knees, and hugged them to her with all her might.

“Rashi,” her mother greeted her lovingly, and picked her up off the floor with a gentle smile. “How's my little birthday girl?”

“I'm well, Mama,” the Princess giggled, as Queen Ashael kissed her on the nose.

“Ready to dazzle them all tonight?” Ashael asked her teasingly, and made her daughter chuckle again. Sarashi could never imagine anyone being dazzled by her if her mother was anywhere near. Nobody was as pretty as her Mama, especially as she was now, dressed in a light blue sari with silver embroideries in the pattern of white water lilies. She wore masterfully crafted earrings in white gold, and her hair fell in neatly arranged soft curls around her oval face. A silver diadem with tiny golden stones marked her as Queen of Enshal.

“No, that's silly,” the little girl pointed out, and puffed out her cheeks.

“True,” Ashael sighed and shook her head. She put Sarashi down on the floor and took her hand instead, and the girl felt slightly disappointed. Her mother carried her less and less, it seemed to her, the bigger she grew.

“Can Cour come to the banquet?” Sarashi asked.

Ashael shook her head.

“He wouldn't like it,” she said. “Too many people for a cub, don't you think?”

Sarashi pouted for a bit, mulling it over, before she nodded seriously.

“Will Papa be there?” she then asked, not for the first time, but because she wanted the answer to have changed.

“No, Love,” Ashael said calmly, despite how much she herself wanted him to come back home and worried for him. She missed his smile, and she missed teasing him about the amount of time he spent with the dogs in his kennels. The man was obsessed with canines.

Karnal, the father of her child and King of Enshal by marriage to her, was off to the south. There he fought the Sapphire Empire's advances, and had been doing so for the last six months. He had been about to return for their only child's birthday, when the Empire's High General, Tiburon Namur, had arrived at the front with reinforcements, and forced Karnal to stay. Karnal Atrora might be one of the only tacticians able to meet Namur on equal ground and counter his attacks.

The Queen thanked Mirca for getting Sarashi ready, and asked the old nurse to stay in the servants' wing of the hall during the banquet, so that she could be called upon to take the young princess to bed when she got tired. Daughter in hand, Ashael led the way down the corridors with her guards by her side. Though they normally felt safe to walk the castle without escort, since guards were usually positioned in key places and with little interval, the royal family had found early on in the war that the Sapphire Emperor did not shy away from using assassins to do his dirty work. The blades of Ket Savat had more than once been cut down in the Castle of Enshir.

They waited in the chamber behind the throne hall for a few seconds, before they elegantly made their way through the special entrance leading directly onto the royal podium with the thrones. A herald announced their arrival in a booming voice that made the guests quiet, and pay attention. The hall was decorated beyond its usual state, but as always there hung red banners from ceiling to floor along the walls, embroidered with the prancing black panther that was the crest of the Enshiras. It held its tail high, and its fangs bared.

“Her royal Majesty, Ashael Enshira, Empress Queen of Enshal, Lady of Rama, and Countess of Felten and Tamen, and her daughter, Sarashi Enshira, Crown Princess of Enshal,” the herald said, the guests and bowing and curtsying at the arrival of royalty.

Sarashi's mother walked to the front of the podium, addressed the guests and welcomed them to the banquet. Then with an elegant motion of her hand that Sarashi envied, she signalled for the entertainment to begin.

First came dancers in long wide skirts, with silk ribbons and bells around their ankles. Musicians on gitterns and drums played intricate melodies as the dancers began swaying. One by one in succession they turned and twirled, painting patterns in the air with colourful ribbons. One of the men winked at Sarashi's mother, making her chuckle, as he danced. Their bells and step always in time with the rhythm of the tambourine.

They were followed by sword dancers from Remer, large, bulging with muscle, and strangely graceful, and a guy who juggled scarves which were lit on fire. His white skin marked him as a Sea Farer – somebody from the far off north.

The applause that followed the end of his performance, almost obscured the next group of people who stepped forth to perform. The Mahayas from the Wild Plains had stayed outside the throne hall, unseen, to avoid startling their companions. By their side came now their bonded animals, close by their masters, and with ears and claws that flicked and moved in response to the amount of humans in the hall. The leader of the group stepped forth and bowed for Sarashi's mother as the rest of them knelt.

“Lady of Rama, the sun shines on our meeting,” the Mahaya said in soft tones. Sarashi was enraptured by his beard. It was rare for her to see such a full one, as most Enshalians and visiting ambassadors shaved. “We have a gift for your daughter, if you would allow it?”

Ashael bowed her head for them.

“Please do,” she told them, and the Mahayas got to their feet.

Like most Ramas they were dressed in sarongs, but instead of wearing them as a full gown, they had simply wrapped them around their waists. The women's breasts were wrapped in separate cloths to keep their breasts in place while they moved, leaving their mid rifts bare.

The leader held up his arm for a blue falcon to fly down from the ceiling and land on the extended limb. A woman moved to his side, a gyrfalcon on her shoulder, and another to his right, a blue jay on hers. By their sides stood two young men, one with a wolf by his side and the other bonded to a wild hound. The dog licked his owners hand and its tail swung softly.

Sarashi stared in absolute amazement at the way the animals' complete focus on their humans, and she wondered if some day she and Cour would be the same.

It soon became clear that this was another dance performance, only completely different. Humans and beasts moved in unison as the music started back up again with a steady drum echoing through the halls. The birds stretched their wings as the canines walked forth, the humans spreading out into a fan behind them. Grace and effortlessness made it clear just how used they were to the agile games that ensued: When the owners of the birds lifted their arms, the birds circled them, both in arcs and interwoven with the movements, creating a centre of calm. The men and the canines became the storm around them, as they moved faster and wilder, wider and broader. Human muscles tightened and stretched as one man threw himself backwards over his wolf, and canine muscles did the same as the hound leapt off the other man's back and into the air. The acrobatics had no limits, as they flipped, made handstands and leapt in circles. It all finished in one last surge of motion, as the falcon landed right in front of Sarashi, with its wings outstretched as if to embrace her.

Though startled, the girl quickly found herself laughing and clapping happily. She reached out and let one hand slide over the bird's head, and it crooned at her, despite her youthful clumsiness. The gyrfalcon and jay joined the falcon, as the overgrown pups came over to greet her as well. People all around the hall were applauding the display at its end, but Sarashi did not hear it. She was too occupied by her new friends.

Her mother watched and smiled, thinking that this was the best gift her daughter could have gotten. The Mahaya cared for kin and warmth, not material goods. This manner of gift was to be expected.

“Thank you,” the Queen told them with a wry smile.

The tribal people called their animals to them, and bowed once more for Ashael.

“It was our joy,” the leader said, his falcon settling on his shoulder. “May the sun continue to rise.”

“And let it be kind,” Ashael finished the saying, allowing the group to draw back and away. The tribes of the Wild Plains had little preference for court, and that they had showed up at all was an honour. Having done their part, they now left the hall.

In their wake, Ashael and her daughter invited the guests into the banquet hall, where several large tables had been readied. They were covered in all the delicacies of Enshal, and all the food anyone could ever desire. There were spiced apples, grilled lamb, and imported soft cheeses to spare, firmly proving that the country was back on its feet after the Antirian wars, ten years past.

When Sarashi began to tire and long for bed, gifts were presented to her one by one, as if all the nobles were trying to outdo one another. Jewellery, toys, beautiful clothes, paintings, and all that they thought the young Princess might want. The Count of Malier gave her a music box with black pearls encased in its lid, and the Baroness of Rua brought her a bracelet of moonstones. All did they hope to win the favour of royalty.

What could a six year old possibly want with all these riches?

In the end a man stepped forward with a box of heavy oak beneath his arm, no doubt another present to be given. He was dressed in blue robes and breathing heavily, as if he had just run a mile. Sarashi frowned. She did not believe that she had ever seen this man before, and a look at her mother confirmed that she too, was worried about this man.

“Ambassador Yoren of Cahl, under the rule of the Sapphire Empire,” the herald called, after a servant whispered him in the ear.

The Ambassador bowed deeply, deeper than was necessary even. Sweat ran down his face and made him look ill. Confusion spread among the courtiers and the nobles, as everybody wondered what an ambassador of the enemy wanted at this banquet and how he had been allowed at all.

“The Sapphire Emperor sends his congratulations upon the Crown Princess Sarashi's sixth birthday,” Ambassador Yoren said, and his voice shook. “And asks that you hear the message I bring.”

Ashael's eyes were cold.

“And what message, pray tell, is that?” she asked, her normally kind voice turned to stone.

The Ambassador swallowed. His eyes flickered to the guards along the walls, and to the guests before he answered.

“Your armies have lost the battle at Alva to the south,” he said. “Karnal Atrora, the Phoenix King of Enshal, has been defeated and Tiburon Namur's forces have made their way here to surround the capital.”

“Lies!” Ashael shouted, and stood in the sudden uproar of the collected nobles. “You lie! My husband-” Tears appeared in her eyes, but she did not shed them.

Sarashi felt, more than saw, Mirca make her way from the servants' wing to grasp the little Princess' hand. She shivered, scared for her father, and confused.

“It is no lie!” the Ambassador called above the others. “The Sapphire Emperor asks that you graciously surrender and promises that your lives will be spared should you do so, as a gift to your daughter on her birthday.”

“We will do no such thing!” Ashael woved. “No Rama will surrender to your cursed Emperor. Our people will fight you to the last.” She motioned for the guards to take him.

But before they could, he put down the wooden box he was carrying.

“In that case,” he said, if possible sweating more profusely than before. “The Emperor asks that you receive this present instead of the one you refused.” He opened the lid, and for a second there was nothing but confusion.

Sarashi, curious despite her fear, craned her neck to see. But the walls of the box were too tall for her to get a look inside.

“Guards!” Ashael called, and they stepped forward to take Ambassador Yoren away. When they grabbed his arms, he kicked the gift box in front of him, which caused it to tip over and its contents to roll out onto the floor.

The dead eyes of Sarashi's father stared at her from his decapitated head.

Her mother screamed.

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