The word tolled from a thousand throats like a bell. It resonated through Aya’s tender frame, her silky soft skin turning to myriad bumps of fear as the energy of those voices passed over and through her.
She wrapped her arms around herself, trembling fingers clasping at the fine silk of her gown. Those who denounced her wore scraps of cloth and threadbare cloaks of wool, but their voices were clear and they rang with truth.
The word was intoned with a collective gravity that chilled the princess to her core. They did not shriek the words. They barely shouted them. She would rather have faced a screaming mob than this civilian intensity that sank into her bones and made her wish she could curl up on herself and simply disappear.
“I didn’t know!” She tried to argue, her soft voice carried away by the wind. “I couldn’t have known…”
Three times the pronouncement rang out from the mouths of the people. Her fate was sealed. The word shot into her heart and made it pound with abject fear. She could not be guilty. A princess could never be guilty, not ever. A princess was above the law.
The gaze of the peasants was shameful enough, but it was the least of her concerns. She felt a much more powerful stare on her. Celestial green eyes swept over her and it was as if she was entirely naked though she remained clothed. The people were common, but he was not. He was more than royal. He was the one creature in all the world who could be said to rule over a princess. More than a king.
She looked into the eyes of Kazriel and met a gaze that was not meant to be incarnate. He did not merely see the surface of her. He saw everything. Every thought. Every hope. Every desire. Her mind rebelled at finding itself prematurely laid bare. Perhaps after death she might have found herself judged, but there had never been any indication that a wayward princess like pretty Aya might find herself called to answer before the guardian of justice.
“I didn’t know…”
Her voice was as soft as her excuse was weak.
His voice was deep, and not unkind. He spoke with the voice of the world, with the grinding of stones and the growing of trees. His voice was not merely sound, it was a resonance that touched every part of her and made her tremble with the guilt she had long denied and now could not.
“I had no choice…”
Again she tried to argue her way out of what was to come. She could not have known what the guardian had in store for her, but she sensed that it would be enough to make amends—and there were so very many amends to be made. She cowered in fear of the consequences as much as at the great beast of a god who stood before her, taller, broader, stronger, perfectly masculine in the carved planes of his body, human ideal made flesh.
He reached out. She flinched away. His touch would not bring comfort. She knew what she deserved. She knew what he would do to her. She knew that the fine garments protecting her from the eyes surrounding her would not remain intact much longer. She knew shame awaited, a shame she might never recover from.
But this was not her fault. She had only been trying to do what everyone else was trying to do: survive.
Perhaps she had been doing it differently from those who now stood in collective judgement of her, but that was an accident of birth. She had no more chosen to be a princess than any of the commoners around her had decided to be peasants. Why didn’t this creature who held her prisoner understand that?
She had begged for this chance to plead her case to the people, so certain that they would pardon her. But there was no pardon on their lips, and there was no mercy in their gazes. She would take the punishment. All of it. And they would be witness to it, from the scribes who would write this into the history books, to the common men who would tell the story to their sons so it may be told to all sons thereafter.
Princess Aya swallowed the lump in her throat and faced her destiny.
“Very well,” she murmured, a touch more rebellion than was wise entering her tone. “Do your worst.”
A soft chuckle escaped Kazriel. “My worst? Princess, you would not survive a fraction of my worst.”
She clamped her lips together and did not reply, but her look said everything. She had survived more than he could imagine, and she could take more than the guardian could inflict. It was a curse even he could not lift.
It was beginning.
Harsh ropes wrapped around her wrists and drew them high above her head, making her body stretch before the crowds. They would see through the sheer of her robe. They would make out the curve of her body, the lines of her most intimate places.
She heard the sound of hundreds of people looking at her, an intense, focused silence that made her every hair prickle at attention.
He stepped closer, his shadow falling over her. He was so tall, powerful beyond compare. She reacted to him on a visceral level. He called to more than her flesh. He called to her soul.
“Guilty,” he said, his hand running up the inside of her thighs, his fingers moments away from making contact with the virginal core of her.
“Do you repent, Princess?”
Aya turned her eyes on him. She was so small in comparison. So weak. Her brown gaze was of earth, unlike his eyes, which were iridescent with power. She could have said so many things in that moment. She could have apologized. She could have begged for forgiveness. She could have declared herself reformed. Instead, she took refuge in the haughtiness of her station and stared down the deity she had been worshipping since she was forced into the world by birth.
“I repent nothing.”
One day earlier…
“We beseech you, Kazriel! Help us! We suffer so greatly we cannot bear it. There is no justice left in this world.”
Deep in the mountains, six peasant women prostrated themselves before an ancient statue carved into the wall of a cave. Their clothes were ragged, their skin marked with the sores of the plague. They were pale and thin, their hair limp and in some cases, missing. They were the sorriest of sights, not a single one of them more than five and twenty years old. They were made old prematurely by a harsh life made relentlessly worse by a vicious king.
“Please, Kazriel, guardian of all! My father is in the palace prison. He is old and his heart is weak. I fear I will never see him again. He has been sentenced to serve a thousand years in prison for speaking ill of the king! We will not have even his bones.”
“My son was put to death not one week ago,” another woman cried. “He wished to serve in the palace guard, but he failed at the proving and was executed for his failure. Guardian! These are not your ways, Kazriel! Help us! We beg you!”
Though their cries were heart-wrenching, they received no reply. How could they? They were crying their hearts out to a statue incapable of speech or movement, let alone providing the justice they craved.
This was the cave of Kazriel, the last true shrine of the old religion. Over thousands of years, hundreds of hands had sculpted the rock until it looked like a living thing, a man not like the bowing, scraping fellows the peasants were used to, but a warrior in frame.
Flowers covered the statue’s feet. It stood twelve feet high, its head nearly the full height of the cave. There was solemn, mournful beauty in the place, where slivers of light found their way through miniature crevices in the roof of the cave.
The wailing of the women, each having lost a loved one, reached a fever pitch. The sound of crying emanating from the portal of the cave sent a mournful sound flowing across the verdant valley.
A shepherd following his sheep approached the mouth of the cave, where the young priest dedicated to manning it and collecting donations from those who came to plead for justice sat reading a tome, unaffected by the sound.
“They cry so pitifully,” the shepherd said without word of introduction.
“Yes, but nothing will come of it,” the young man at the entrance said. “They say this was once a place of power. Now it is nothing but somewhere for the weak to vent their woes.”
“What do they cry for?”
“Justice,” the priest boy said. “But justice is a rare thing these days. Better to have safety than justice. It’s safer to cry here, three hundred miles from the capital than to march against the tyrant king.”
The shepherd used his crop to scratch an itch on his leg. “That is why they come? To complain against the king?”
“More and more every day, but talking to the mountain changes nothing. King Vengar the Innocent must die for justice to return.”
“Is such a thing likely to come to pass?”
The priest boy smirked as if feeling very superior to the shepherd, who must surely be from the far rural reaches to ask such questions.
“He will not die. He killed all three of his sons to avoid the succession battles. It is no lie that our kings are immortal. He will draw power from the source of Kazriel long after we are gone, staying young and in his prime even as we wither and die. Vengar is immortal, as much as it is possible for a man born of woman to be.”
The shepherd stroked his beard thoughtfully as the cries washed over the pair of them, dissipating into the sun of the verdant valley. This place was truly blessed soil, green waves of grass and trees flourishing beneath bright blue sky. This was a place where people should be happy, where no grief should ever take hold—and yet the wailing continued.
In the distance, the shepherd saw more women coming. Not one or two, but many dozens more, a pilgrimage of mourning extending from the far off city to this spot in the mountains, a pale, thin trail of grief worn by thousands of feet, extending deep into the caves themselves, where the sounds were amplified by the cavernous spaces and impenetrably hard walls.
In pain, anguish, utter despair, they all cried out to the cold stone of the statue of Kazriel. Once, the old tales told of a guardian who walked the earth, but now there was nothing to plead to than an impotent, unfeeling, unyielding piece of rock. His great physical form, real as it might seem, could never walk the green lands. His eyes, once two emeralds, had long been stolen by thieves and were now merely two hollows where precious stones used to be, so he could not see the atrocities for which the women wailed. His feet were wet with tears from the women who cried on their knees before him, their bent bodies prostrated in desperation and supplication.
But though their grief was great, it could not be endless. Outside the day was waning, and none stayed in the cave overnight. There were many tales of what happened to those who tried, none of them pleasant.
When the light began to wane, the women comforted one another, for the statue could give them none, gathered their bundles and moved out of the cave, the shuffling sound of their bare feet against hard rock worn smooth by the passage of thousands over many years diminishing until there was perfect hallowed silence in that sacred space.
The statue was alone when a beam of setting light broke through a crevice in the wall as the sun went down. The play of the light refracting through the cave created a curious illusion. If there had been anyone there to see it, it would have looked as though a single tear had rolled from the statue’s eye.
“Time to punish the bad girls, the wicked girls, the girls who don’t respect their king!” A little man wearing skintight clothing of red and green with silver bells danced about the shrouded throne, shaking a stick with more bells upon it. His eyes were wide with madness, his mouth stretched with glee.
His was the only face visible in the room, the rest of them were hidden behind the ceremonial mask of Kazriel, the guardian of all Norvangir, the great world continent upon which every soul lived.
“Judgement day is here!” He danced the words, shaking his bells, his wiry body moving in a parody of pain. “Will you be beaten? Branded? Beheaded? Only the king knows! Beg for your lives, little wretches!”
The jester was shooed away by the regent of justice, a man of greater stature, one who wore the mask of Kazriel and the robes of noble office. It was he who addressed the shrouded throne where the king sat, hidden from the eyes of all, the sheer force of his malevolence making his presence known.
“High King Vengar, we bring these sinning wretches to you for your mercy. May they be punished according to your will.”
Two naked women groveled before the cloaked throne. None were permitted to look upon the king, and certainly no peasant could stand the sight of such a grand being. It was known that the common people were simple in mind and in spirit, and indeed, to be in the presence of divine royalty would be to face death itself.
They sobbed near silently, knowing that pain and then surely death was imminent.
“Caught touching the shadow from the king’s carriage as he passed by,” the regent of justice intoned. “Both these women’s toes were cast in the royal shade, yet they were not worthy even to experience the breeze of his chariot.”
The crowd of lords murmured their complete agreement. All around the room, not a single noble face was shown. All stood with masks covering their features, each wearing the face of the great guardian of Kazriel. The women’s faces were bared, for they were wretched creatures fit only to be shamed.
“From honor to shame,” the regent chanted. “From shame to redemption, you shall bear pain and wear the mark of your transgressions.”
At his command, an iron was taken from the fires that burned at the base of the king’s dais. It was in the shape of a great S marked in wrought iron, a letter standing three inches tall, which would be impressed on the right cheek of their faces. From this moment forward, every person who encountered them would know their sins and take the path of avoidance, for to be seen so much as talking to them was punishable by branding also.
They would live, but only as examples to others. No longer would they be permitted in the cities, or allowed to labor in return for funds. They would be reduced to beggars, surviving on what scraps they might be given in secret charity.
As the executioner approached the girls, the regent intoned the words of branding. “Wear these marks unto death and perhaps upon your passing you shall be forgiven by Zerakai, he who sees all, watches over all, knows all.”
The regent took the iron from the hooded executioner and crooked a finger toward the nearest woman, calling her forth for brutal punishment.
There was a hush of anticipation, broken only by the pathetic whimpers of the girls. Hidden until that moment, the king himself pushed back the veil surrounding his throne. He wished to see this, to feast his eyes on the searing of flesh and to hear every note of the cries of agony yet to come. This was the most delicious time of the month, when the sinners were paraded and made to suffer for their crimes. At the beginning of his reign, the ceremony had only taken place once a year, but he had increased the frequency to seasonally, and now monthly. He was musing about the possibility of making it a weekly occurrence, though new crimes would have to be added to the laws.
Vengar the Innocent had added no fewer than one hundred crimes to the legislation during his reign. He relished the notion of adding more. It pleased him to see that every step, every breath had to be taken with care in the presence of his guards. Citizens were encouraged to report one another. There were great rewards for turning someone in for a high crime—though more often than not, those who received such rewards would later find themselves also subject to punishment.
The regent paused for a moment and looked toward the king. He had been instructed in the manner of branding to ensure that it would last as long as possible. It was not sufficient to merely press the searing metal into the skin. It was to be done slowly. The criminal was to experience the agony of anticipation, the heat from the brand before it reached the skin. It was a moment the king savored every time, and today there would be two instances to enjoy.
The first woman to be branded was the smaller one. She was just barely eighteen, as far as the regent declared. Many of the peasants did not know their own ages. It was forbidden for them to maintain personal records of any kind. A peasant’s lot was to live, die, and return to the earth from which they came. They were dumb animals made of meat, producers of dirt. They were owned by the crown, not true people, but physical manifestations of the king’s own territory. This was written into the statutes of Vengar’s laws, and it meant he could do with the common folk as he pleased. Branding, maiming, beating, it was all the same as kicking a rock. Peasants might look like people, but the illusion was only skin deep as far as the king was concerned.
The young woman—girl, really—had perfect clear skin with a creamy complexion. It was pale from fear, but soon it would sear beneath the brand’s iron heat, be destroyed and then scarred.
The nobles watching the ceremony leaned in closer, a great circle of masked faces surrounding the unfortunate girls who cowered together, clutching at one another, begging for mercy that nobody in the chamber of judgement ever received.
Princess Aya sat alone in the tower, eating her luncheon. She kept her hand guarding her mouth, even though she was entirely alone. It was disgustingly unseemly for anyone to see anything entering any of her orifices. Eating was an unfortunate necessity, much like the other functions her body required to sustain itself.
It was a day of justice. On such days, the king was satisfied with torturing peasants and did not feel the need to needle Aya as he so often would, and for that she was glad.
She was princess, heiress to the throne, but everybody knew she would never sit upon the hallowed seat. It was her duty to look privately pretty, to be the feminine face of the royal seal, and to carry out the duties associated with the royal line.
She undertook the first of the tasks with little trouble. Princess Aya was an incredible beauty. She had the softest caramel skin, the widest almond brown eyes, and long hair that cascaded with all the colors of a forest wood. Her features were expressive and elegant, the fullness of her lips leant themselves easily to smiles, which were unfortunately rare, and her eyes could hold either joy or sorrow, though they more often held sorrow.
Even the princess of the realm was not immune to the terrors of the throne. Vengar was as cruel to her as he was to anyone else, but her station ensured that she had some respite from the more brutal aspects. Living under his cruel regime did not mean she didn’t take advantage where she could. Her chambers were full of the finest treasures, and she herself wore a gown of spun gold silk thread. She was, at that moment, eating the roe-eggs of the vanishing royal sturgeon that once used to throng the moats and rivers of the castle, but no longer.
The rolling music player, a rare contraption, warbled a tune from the finest singers in the land, and she hummed along with it.
I wish I were a princess…
A princess doesn’t have to work…
Oh, I wish I were a princess…
“It is good to be a princess,” Aya confirmed to nobody in particular as she reached for a strawberry to dip into the ever-flowing chocolate fountain that had been installed in her eating chamber. Every day, the servants would clear away the old fruit and replace it with fresh, along with new sweet treats, sherbets and candies and whatever else she might desire.
I wish I were a princess, she hummed, twirling her skirts this way and that. She liked to listen to her music more loudly on judgement days. Sometimes the screams from the chamber of justice were too much to bear, so she liked to shield herself from them.
A princess doesn’t have to work…
Aya bent forward and let the tip of her tongue touch the stream of chocolate, drank from the fountain, and threw her head back with a delighted laugh of glee.
In the hall of justice another girl Aya’s age cried out, her voice a clear, thin expression of pain. There was something pure in it, something that resonated with the cries emanating from so far away only Kazriel himself could hear them. None of those present in the chamber could sense the resonance, but they soon felt the effects as the earth beneath their feet began to shake.
The brand had not touched her skin—and it would not, for the first time in Vengar’s rule, somebody in the chamber of justice was about to receive true mercy.
It was a slow rumble at first, but the intensity quickly increased and soon the great stone columns supporting the ceiling were vibrating with unseen fury.
The phenomenon was rare, but notably devastating. The city of Lokheim had been rebuilt in its entirety after the last earthshake over a hundred years ago. The tales of that day, the crushing rock, the buildings turning to rubble, the royal family buried in the tomb of rock that now made the foundations of the current castle, were passed on across all social strata.
The nobles pushed back their masks and took deep panicked breaths, rushing for the doors to attempt to escape what seemed like great impending disaster, the prospect of being crushed beneath the walls and roof like so many mindless bugs. But the doors were sealed and would not open. It took twenty slaves to open each of the doors, and the slaves must have fled once the earth began to shake, and so there was no way to escape.
Their screams took on a new pitch of panic as they battered their fists against the heavy doors, which were designed to be strong enough to resist the ramming power of an entire army. Suddenly, it was they who knew helplessness. Their shrieks were much more desperate and even more fearful than those of the girls who had been at their mercy.
The chaos grew until the doors flew open, seemingly of their own accord, great stone and wood construction flapping like laundry in the breeze. It was as if they had lost their weight and strength in an instant, diminished by a far greater force.
Before the nobles could rush to safety, the ground settled and became firm once more. No more rolling tremors made the pillars dance, and the roof sat above their heads showing little inclination to dash itself down upon them.
In the midst of their relief a figure stepped through the breach of the open doors. The doors were twelve feet high and so they made for an aperture that typically made even the largest warriors seem diminutive, but this figure was not dwarfed by the doors. Instead it was he who made all around him seem small.
He was far larger than any man, any warrior, indeed, any king. He must have stood at least ten feet high, his long dark hair lit with tinges of pure fire, his face a more handsome version of the masks that now seemed shallow, sick parodies of the great creature who stalked among them. His musculature was broad and strong, his body entirely naked. Unlike mortals, the guardian felt no shame. His cock swung heavy between muscled thighs, his skin perhaps tinged with a hint of gray, but otherwise very much like any other man, but for the sheer size and power of him.
The whisper escaped one noble throat and was taken up by the rest. It could be none other than Kazriel himself, the guardian of the realm, a piece of mythology come to burning life. What they were seeing was utterly impossible, and yet there could be no denying that the ancient guardian himself stood before them. There could be no doubt of that, for each of them still wore a cheap facsimile of his face around their necks. Was it blasphemy to be caught with such trinkets? Or would removing them constitute a greater insult? The nobility were paralyzed with indecision, but it did not matter, for the creature’s gaze did not fall on them.
Kazriel did not have eyes for the nobles. He did not even have eyes for the king. The guardian of Norvangir reached the cowering women and went down on one knee beside them. When he spoke, his voice was infinitely gentle and entirely kind.
“Go, little sisters,” he intoned, his voice rich and resonant. “Go be free, and spread the word. Kazriel has returned.”
They rose from their fearful place, shaking in fright, their expressions warped with relief. The nobles parted to allow them to leave, the very same wolves who had been poised to drink their blood now quiet as lambs as the girls passed by.
Kazriel rose to his feet. His expression had changed. The carved face of the statue of Kazriel had always been known for compassion and wisdom, but in that moment there was something else written on those erstwhile stone features: rage and revenge.
His eyes were dark and large, specked with green. In the beginning, the statue of Kazriel had worn eyes of jade, but those eyes had been taken by none other than King Vengar. Now they made up part of the ornate black crown that adorned his head.
The nobles looked to the king for his response, but the veil had been dropped back around the throne, and the king was obscured from their gazes. Usually the shrouded throne seemed ominous and frightening. One never knew what the king was thinking. Now, he seemed like a frightened boy hiding behind the covers of his bed.
“Face me! Man who calls himself king!” The guardian’s voice boomed throughout the hall, natural dominance and growled rage.
Vengar the Innocent did not emerge. In this unexpected moment of final judgement he hid like a coward, but no amount of heavy black fabric could save him now. Kazriel made a gesture with one hand and it was ripped away in a powerful gust of wind, leaving the king cringing and exposed on his throne.
“So you are the terror who has infected my land for these past hundred years,” the guardian said. “You are smaller than I expected.”
“Great Kazriel! You honor us with your presence!” the king stammered and shouted at the same time. “We were carrying out your will as the scribes…”
“You have never carried out my will,” Kazriel declared. “You are not capable of understanding it. You are a cruel little beast, and you are not fit for that seat!”
With that declaration, the throne shattered underneath the king, the great obsidian crumbling into black dust. The king slid down, his frame ridiculous as he flailed in the sand of what had been his symbol of ultimate power.
Vengar the Innocent had been the most feared man on the planet for what felt like centuries. In seconds, he was revealed as weak flesh, pathetic humanity. When the veil slipped away, his face was revealed to be withered and cracked, marked with cruelty. He was… old.
A gasp of horror went up around the room. Kings were not supposed to grow old. It was not considered possible, and yet there could be no denying the gray hair, the withered skin, the stooped stance.
“Son killer, mother murderer, oppressor of the free,” the guardian intoned. “The punishment for these sins is…”
“Death?” someone piped up in the back hopefully.
Kazriel looked over his shoulder, and for a second, a smirk passed over his lips. “Not death,” he rumbled. “Death is easy, inevitable, and to be met with grace. No. The sentence is life among those you terrorized.”
“They will kill me! I was doing your will, please… show mercy!” The king groveled on bony knees, a man instantly broken by the mere appearance of Kazriel.
The guardian lifted his head, ignoring the wretch who now crawled desperately among the nobles, begging them for help, shunned at every request. There was no chance of any of them giving him the slightest bit of help. In the end the king shuffled out of the doors of his own chamber of judgement, still untouched. If anyone questioned the wisdom of Kazriel in letting him go, they did not voice it.
The guardian stepped onto the dais where the throne had once been. “Royal blood is not a gift. It is a burden. Those who bear it are intended to be used for one purpose, to safeguard those they rule over. With so much corruption on the throne, I should have been woken long ago by one of the royal line. Where are the others?”
One brave noble gathered the ability to speak. “Guardian, there is but one left. Princess Aya.”
Kazriel nodded, his expression still wrought with that pure righteous rage. “Bring her to me.”