The Three Kings
by Slawomir Rapala
part 2 of 4
Still, it was said, they themselves generally remained within the swamp-guarded borders of the mysterious Yitian Kingdom, so named by the post-Azmattic Realms after the man who eons ago had traveled to the Far South and glimpsed their misty dwellings with his own eyes.
Shin-Gan’s claims of vast cities half-submerged in the marshes and sheltered by endless fogs where the reptilian descendants slithered in grim silence, were never believed. His stories of misshapen, formless sky-scraping towers that made no geometrical sense, designed by Serpent architects for the needs of a race of reptiles, were not trusted.
His tales of an entire city that defied logic by rising from the treacherous murky swamps and floating in the heavy air, held by the Wizard-King’s dark magic, were never verified and dismissed as tales of a madman, because no one would ever again be able to find his way through the marshes and into the Far South.
There was a realm there, however, of that the world was sure, because strangers sometimes arrived in the North, long-faced and pale whose speech was slow and slurred, and whose walk was awkward. They carried no weapons and spoke little, gazing quietly from beneath the hoods of the dark cloaks they draped their bodies in.
Although thought to be spies, they were allowed to wander under watchful eyes because they did no harm and because the Southerners were just as curious of them as they were of the post-Azmattic Realms. Those in the best-informed circles believed that in addition to spying these strangers also sought new recruits for their Order.
These recruits they found in all Kingdoms of the South and North, because everywhere one could find those who opposed order and advocated an uprising and a return to simpler years, marked with violence and the survival of the strongest.
For primitive brutes and criminals, as for independent warlords and princes as well as unorthodox intellectuals and politicians, the Serpent Order offered a means of overturning power relations and plunging the world back into chaos from which each hoped to claim something for himself. Many flocked to its ranks.
The true members of the Order, however, the true Serpent children, hardly ventured beyond the borders of Yitia. But their spies lurked everywhere and furthered their cause. The Serpent Order spread the idea of a nearing end of the civilized world and promulgated the belief that one day they, the Serpents, would regain control of the world and, as their ancient reptilian forefathers had in the past, they would rule the earth.
Iskald knew now that the lone assassin must have been only a piece of the puzzle and that he had not acted out of his own will. The man must have been following instructions given by the Elders of the Order: the Chi’s and the Hsu’s.
The young Northerner looked at the letter again and noted that it was addressed to Diovinius. He hesitated, but then broke the seal decisively and opened the parchment:
“If you, whom people call the Nekryan Lion, are reading these words, it must mean that Sonya, the Reptilian Queen, did not allow me to fulfill my vow. Listen to me, Lion, listen carefully to my parting words. When still alive, I was one called G’nuraq of the Serpent Order, a descendent of great and powerful beings, destined to rule the world. Lion, listen to the words of a Serpent!
“I am a man of honor and wish to acquaint you with the reasons behind my actions. Don’t judge me too harshly because what I attempted I did not out of ambition or greed or lust for power. Being one of the Serpents I must obey the Elders who will lead our Order to greatness once again.
Know that my Order voted secretly on your death and the Elders had scribbled your name in crimson blood on the skin of the Sacred Snake at the dawn of the new year, the year of the Serpent.
That I was unsuccessful in accomplishing the task, does not mean it will not happen. The Order will find others, ones who are better equipped than I to fulfill their duty. There will be others, I say, ones who will be able to outsmart that Northern devil you keep by your side. I know I have failed because of him, and if I am dead indeed, I am dead by his hand.
“What I write next betrays the secrets of my Order and, if I were not dead already, I would surely pay for it with my life. Listen to me, Nekryan Lion! My Order decided your death. Why I do not know, I cannot know, because this is a secret the Elders keep.
I can speculate that my Order intends to take your throne. Beware! My Order does not easily retreat from a task it undertakes, so sooner or later you will die.
Only one thing can save you: find the traitor who lurks around you. He intends to assume the throne after your death. Find him and kill him. Without him there is no purpose to your death. Find him and kill him, for he is a much greater villain than myself. He seeks your death to further his own ambitions and he will not stop.
My warning is equal to treason; I hope therefore, that you will keep this information to yourself and protect my name from being dishonored. I wished to be absolved in your eyes. I was not an evil man.
Farewell, Lion! And beware!
G’nuraq Ali-Ghan, Serpent Order”
Iskald finished reading the letter and for a moment mused over its contents. After the initial surprise, he quickly collected himself and put his mind to work: who could be the traitor that G’nuraq wrote of? It all made sense, he thought, considering everything he knew about the Serpent Order.
He quickly dismissed the idea that the letter was just the ranting of a lunatic, a lone murderer. The seal spoke for itself, Iskald thought, and moreover, men do not lie from beyond the grave. He had every reason to believe each word written down on the parchment.
Who could be the traitor? He knew most of the Nekryans in the King’s court, because many lived in Arrosah and participated in the Court’s proceedings, arguing and gossiping about each other while trying to win over Diovinius’ favors.
Sometimes they left the Capital for longer periods of time to visit in their country estates and tend to their sugar and tobacco plantations, but returned frequently to participate in the social gatherings, the parties, and the balls that the King quite often organized. Most of them held tremendous power in the Kingdom in terms of wealth and prestige, but which one would actually aspire to murder the King and to take the throne for himself?
Which one of them had that much power, was that influential? Which one of them was that wealthy, that ambitious, that treacherous, that ruthless and cold-blooded? Which one of them had the strength of the Serpent Order behind him? Which one of them could call upon hundreds of thousands of their warriors?
There were few men in the King’s Court, Iskald thought, that met all of these criteria, men who could benefit from Diovinius’ death, and men who were ruthless enough to follow through with this devilish plan. But not one of them had ever given Iskald a reason to suspect him of such treacherous thoughts — not ever. They seemed to be loyal to the aging Monarch and, although always bickering with one another, they always wholly supported him. Which one of them, then, was secretly plotting against him? Which one of them was a Serpent?
Iskald stopped pacing his apartments and turned towards the door. He needed to see the King straightaway and to alert him of the dangerous clouds gathering over his head. He needed to tell him that what happened today on the main square was not an isolated incident and that there was an entire scheme against him.
First, though, he thought, he needed to speak with Laela; if the King was in danger, so was she. If the Serpents did not hesitate before raising their hands against Diovinius, why would they stop there? Who was to say that they would not try to strike him where he was most vulnerable? The young Northerner shuddered at the very thought as he quickly made his way through the maze of corridors, stopping before the door leading to Laela’s chambers. He knocked and a page opened.
“The Princess does not wish to speak to you, Captain,” the boy said calmly before Iskald even had a chance to open his mouth. “She will summon you later.”
“Right,” Iskald scoffed and pushed the door open, forcing his way inside. In light of everything he had just learned, Laela’s whims were the least of his concerns.
Iskald stormed inside but stopped abruptly, marveling at the vision before his eyes. Laela rested in a chair before a mirror with her back turned to the door, slowly brushing her long, golden locks A satin dress covered her long shapely legs; it was held on her hips by a snakeskin belt.
A short, sleeveless blouse tightly wrapped her firm breasts, but failed to cover a strip of beautiful tanned body just above the belt. A plain gold tiara resting on her head and a pair of leather sandals covering her small feet, completed her outfit.
She was breathtaking, Iskald thought, unable to take his eyes off the beautiful image in the mirror.
The Princess turned to face him.
“I thought I made myself clear when I said I didn’t wish to see you,” she said coolly. “Why then, Captain, are you raiding my chambers?”
“Should I call the guards, Milady?” the page asked, racing in after Iskald.
“Your Highness!” Iskald stumbled forward. “Allow me to explain myself!”
His voice was pleading, and when Laela looked carefully into his eyes, she saw a shadow of plea in them as well.
“No, Keilah,” she turned to her page. “Leave us.”
When the boy disappeared closing the door behind him, Laela rose from her chair, approached Iskald, folded her arms and stood directly before him.
“Speak your mind, Captain!”
The cold and indifferent tone of her voice had stung Iskald. Even though at first he simply wanted to alert Laela of the danger he had just learned of himself, and ask for her help in identifying the possible traitor, now he had abandoned the thought. The Princess was plainly unhappy with something he had done, and though he sensed it had something to do with the way he had handled the assassin today, Iskald was nevertheless confused. It pained him to see his beloved Princess staring at him coolly as she was right now and being so distant, though only a few paces away.
“What have I done?” he asked quietly.
Laela looked at him. “You know what you did,” she said.
“I don’t recall doing anything that would justify the indifferent, almost hostile, manner in which your receive me today, Milady.”
“Of course you don’t,” Laela sneered. “How convenient it must be to choose what you wish and wish not to remember!”
Iskald sighed. “If you’re referring to what happened out in the main square today, I’m confused as to how my actions could have so suddenly changed your view of me. After all, I have only fulfilled my duty.”
“Your duty!” Laela frowned and uncrossed her arms. “Your duty is to protect the King, my father!”
“That you did!”
“I saw you today,” Laela lowered her voice and fixed her beautiful dark eyes on Iskald’s. “I saw you when you killed that man. You spilled blood for pleasure.”
The young Northerner looked right back into her burning eyes. “I saved your father’s life, Highness!” he raised his voice.
“And for that I thank you! The manner in which you accomplished it was highly questionable, however!”
“I don’t quite follow.”
“Did you have to kill him?” she asked. “No. He was in your power, and you could have had your guards simply take him away. But you didn’t, and instead, you killed him. Why? Explain it to me!”
She stood before him, stunning in her anger, commanding, threatening almost. Iskald tried to find words for his defense, but could not. Instead, he felt himself slowly succumbing to a wave of anger as well.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2008 by Slawomir Rapala